Baseball – 2016 MLB Draft Preview: Five Shore Natives Prepare to Hear Their Name
In June of 2009, Major League Baseball staged its First-Year Player Draft from the studio of the newly-launched MLB Network for the first time ever in hopes that its event would build toward becoming what the NFL and NBA had developed in their respective versions of the draft.
In order to create a similar spectacle, MLB invited a host of potential draft picks to attend. Only one showed up.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim had two consecutive selections in the 2009 draft, the first of which was the 24th pick overall. As that one, single, solitary potential draft pick waited with his family and friends for his name to be called, then-commissioner Bud Selig called out the name of the Angels’ pick at 24: Randal Grichuk.
The Angels are widely hailed as the team with enough sense to draft the best player in the game today that night, but even the Angels passed on the kid sitting in the studio. One pick later, however, Selig finally ended the wait and called the young man’s name.
“With the 25th selection of the first round in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft,” the Commissioner decreed that night, “The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim select Michael Trout.”
Before Selig could recite Trout’s position and origin, a large cheer erupted in the studio. His family, friends, coaches and teammates had made the two-hour trip from Millville, NJ in the southern-most part of the state to Secaucus for that moment and they all made the most of it by letting Trout – and everyone else in the studio – know they were there.
While not even the Angels could have predicted that night that they had just selected a player who would win an American League Most Valuable Player Award in his third Big League season and finish second in the other three of his first four full years – and done so with their second pick, no less – it doesn’t prevent all 30 Major League clubs spending vast scouting resources in the hopes of finding their Mike Trout.
Trout was not only proof that elite talent is available after the first 10 teams have made their selection, but it can also be available in “cold weather” states like New Jersey.
This season’s crop of New Jersey talent available in the draft is among the best in the state has ever produced in a single draft, according to several area scouts, and the Jersey Shore is a significant source of that. At least four current high school seniors from schools in the Shore Conference are expected to be taken in the first 15 rounds of the draft and another college player from the Shore is widely projected to hear his name called in the first round.
Conservatively speaking, all five Jersey Shore natives are likely to be selected in those first 15 rounds, but there are factors that could land each in the top five rounds as well as other factors that could land them later in what is a volatile process. Below is a look at five prospects from the Jersey Shore that are expected to go off the board either in the first 77 picks Thursday night on MLB Network or either of the next two days of selections.
Jason Groome, LHP, Barnegat
2016 Stats: 39 2/3 innings, 15 hits, 14 walks, 90 strikeouts, 0.88 ERA, 2-3 record (Includes starts made while ineligible)
Career Stats: 170 1/3 innings, 88 hits, 50 walks, 307 strikeouts, 0.99 ERA, 16-6 record
By the end of his junior season at IMG Academy in Florida, Groome ascended to the top of this year’s draft class according to multiple prospect-ranking publications and, for the most part, has done little on the field to diminish that standing. Although few scouts, sportswriters and draft experts are expecting the Philadelphia Phillies to make Groome the No. 1 pick on Thursday night, that is mainly due to conditions outside of Groome’s control. The list of high school pitchers selected with the No. 1 pick is short (there have been three) and the list of high school pitchers selected No. 1 who have had established, successful Big League careers is non-existent.
For that reason, both the Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds – who have the second pick – are rumored to be interested in either a college player or a high school position player. There are also financial factors that play into the top of the draft and those could be holding back a player like Groome, who is regarded as one of the three-to-five best players available by most publications and whose representation is reportedly seeking to get him paid to reflect that. In recent years, since the draft has implemented overall spending limits for the entire draft rather than slot recommendations, many clubs have sought to draft players at the top of the draft who will sign a contract at a lower value than the slot expectation in order to spend more money late in the draft on players who are expected to be more expensive.
The price tag might be making teams in the top 10 look elsewhere and Groome made more headlines when MLB Pipeline’s Jonathan Mayo reported that he switched his commitment from Vanderbilt to Chipola College – a junior college in Florida. The move suggests Groome’s representation is setting him up with an alternative to this year by sending him to a school that allows him to re-enter the draft in 2017. Players who play at four-year universities must wait three years after their final prep season to re-enter the draft, while junior college players are eligible regardless of how many years removed from high school they are.
While some have mentioned Groome’s ineligibility ruling in April as a possible red flag for teams, that hardly seems to be the case given that the decision stemmed from a failure to interpret the rules by the Barnegat athletic department. On the field, his stuff played up to expectation. His fastball did not reach the 97-mile-per-hour high point that he reached in the summer of 2015, but he hit 96 a handful of times and was consistently 92-to-94 throughout the year while continuing to flash a curveball that most scouts consider his best pitch. He also showcased a changeup that scouts find promising.
By the numbers, if there was one facet of Groome’s game that might have left evaluators wanting more, it was the walk totals. They were not especially disconcerting, but for a prospect considered to have advanced feel and command, 14 walks in 39 2/3 innings was more solid than spectacular. While the 90 strikeouts mitigates that to some degree, it also helped to drive up Groome’s pitch counts during his starts.
With the intense spotlight on him during his senior year, Groome has acquitted himself admirably, both in his demeanor and performance. Anyone carrying the expectations that Groome did into this season is bound to face scrutiny and after being picked apart for the last two months, he is still expected to be a high pick on Thursday, even if it is not No. 1. He could go as early as No. 3 to Atlanta, Oakland has reportedly been interested at No. 6, and he is unlikely to get past Cleveland at No. 14. If the reports of him falling out of the top 10 come to pass, the Padres or Mets would be strong candidates to step up and pay him since both have multiple first-round picks, including at least one in the top 20. With all that being said, don’t count the Phillies out if the price is right.
Matt Thaiss, Catcher, University of Virginia (Jackson Memorial)
2016 Stats: .375 avg., 13 doubles, 2 triples, 10 home runs, 55 runs, 59 RBI, .473 on-base pct., .578 slugging pct.
College Career: .344 avg., 26 doubles, two triples, 20 home runs, 115 runs, 130 RBI, .432 on-base pct., .509 slugging pct.
HS Career: .343 avg., 22 doubles, 17 home runs, 50 runs, 70 RBI, .483 on-base pct., .673 slugging pct.
Thaiss has already experienced the thrill of being drafted when he was selected by the Red Sox in the 32nd round of the 2013 draft out of the Jackson Memorial High School. The experience is sure to be completely different this time around because of the work Thaiss put in during his time in college – a career that includes a College World Series title in 2015 and 20 homers over the past two seasons.
Heading into the season, the buzz surrounding Thaiss as a potential draft pick was relatively mum, but his red-hot start sent him flying up draft boards. Heading into the week, Thaiss is considered a strong bet to be selected in the first round and at the very least, he should hear his name called on Thursday night in prime time.
At this stage, Thaiss’s best quality is his bat, which is no surprise to those who watched him play at Jackson Memorial. This past season, not only did Thaiss lead the Cavaliers in average, home runs and RBI, but he also struck out 16 times while drawing 39 walks. He was also a constant in the lineup, starting all 60 of the team’s games and doing so as a catcher, no less. He emerged as a leader at one of the nation’s top programs and although Virginia was eliminated from this year’s NCAA Tournament this past weekend, he still ends his college career with a ring.
The major question surrounding Thaiss, and perhaps the only question, is what defensive position he will play at the next level. With the exception of his freshman year at Virginia, during which he played sparingly as a designated hitter and first baseman, Thaiss has been a catcher since his junior year at Jackson Memorial. Over the summer, one scout said he thought Thaiss was good enough to catch as a pro, but that opinion put him in the minority based on the opinion of scouts this spring.
Thaiss has experience in the outfield in high school and at first base at Virginia, so he has a foundation for any position change if his new employer wants to move him from behind the plate right away. Then again, a number of teams are reportedly willing to give him a chance to catch. Mock drafts have him being selected as high as No. 18 overall by the Yankees and teams looking for an impact bat for their system will strongly consider the former Jaguar. The Mets have also been linked to Thaiss at No. 19 and with the Phillies picking again at No. 44 overall, there is at least a chance Thaiss ends up close to home.
Luca Dalatri, RHP, Christian Brothers Academy (Committed to North Carolina)
2016 Stats (Through Tuesday): 60 innings, 28 hits, 4 walks, 108 strikeouts, 0.46 ERA, 9-0 record
Career Stats: 242 2/3 innings, 135 hits, 36 walks, 360 strikeouts, 0.69 ERA, 34-2 record
Those who follow baseball at the Shore know all about Dalatri, who is on the cusp of breaking the Shore Conference career wins record if he can win Wednesday’s Shore Conference Tournament final. MLB scouting departments have become familiar with him as well and he presents an interesting case to the people making decisions. On performance and results, it’s hard to imagine a more effective player.
Dalatri is a two-time Gatorade N.J. Player of the Year and is in the midst of one of the most dominant seasons in Shore Conference history, even coming off of his least effective start of the season last Wednesday. He has struck out 108 batters in 60 innings while issuing only four walks. Before allowing three earned runs in his last outing, Dalatri had allowed only one in his previous 53 innings. He pitched 38 consecutive scoreless innings at one point and that sort of performance has become expected of him during his high school career.
So if Dalatri has been a dominant performer for three years and is committed to a program like North Carolina, why aren’t teams targeting him in the first round? As one scout said, “(Scouts) have been showing up every game thinking this will be the day he throws 94 (miles per hour) and it hasn’t happened.”
Dalatri has consistently pitched with a fastball in the 88-to-91 miles-per-hour range this season and in one start, he was up to 93. While that has not catapulted him into the first round, it has been enough to pique the interest of a number of teams as a potential top-five round selection. Scouts are impressed by his Dalatri’s size, control and command of four pitches, as well as the results he has produced.
While all of the physical attributes are the basis for any evaluation, his likelihood to sign a team-friendly signing bonus will be what determines his draft position. A source said he will be drafted within the top five rounds, but in year’s past, similar guarantees involving players like Dalatri have not always played out. If teams determine it will be difficult to convince a player to break his college commitment, they typically pass. With that in mind and considering he is ranked No. 174 on Baseball America’s Top 500 list, Dalatri could go anywhere between round three and the early teens.
Brandon Martorano, Catcher, Christian Brothers Academy (Committed to North Carolina)
2016 Stats: .402 avg., 8 doubles, 5 home runs, 24 runs, 25 RBI, 8 stolen bases, .467 on-base pct., .667 slugging pct.
Career Stats: .391 avg., 23 2B, 7 3B, 18 HR, 79 runs, 79 RBI, 16 SB, .449 on-base pct., .696 slugging pct.
The same rules that apply to Dalatri’s signability also apply to his CBA teammate and fellow UNC commit. Martorano is rated No. 208 on that same Baseball America Top 500 list and has held steady around No. 200 since the list was released. Without regard to Martorano signing, he has been considered by some as a potential second-or-third-round talent which could land him comfortably on day two of the draft, even if teams consider him to be a tough sign.
While some scouts have indicated that Martorano could move off of catcher as a professional, plenty of evaluators see him as a catcher. One scout said his arm does not stand out, but his receiving skills and understanding of the position more than make up for the arm.
Martorano’s bat turned heads at the end of his junior high school season and his hot streak continued into the summer, when he cracked Baseball America’s top 100 prep players list. He began his high school career as a lanky athlete with surprising power and as a junior, that power went to a different level as Martorano cracked 11 home runs in 108 at-bats. He came back as a senior with 20 added pounds of muscle and hitting the ball with even greater authority, although it did not show in the home run totals.
The window in which Martorano will be drafted seems to be more stable than that of Dalatri and that means he will likely be a day-two pick with a chance to hear his name called in top five rounds.
Joey Rose, Third Base, Toms River North
2016 Stats: .437 avg., 6 doubles, 1 triple, 11 home runs, 33 runs, 38 RBI, 2 SB, .615 on-base pct., 1.015 slugging pct.
Career Stats: .417 avg., 23 doubles, 3 triples, 18 home runs, 78 runs, 73 RBI, 12 stolen bases, .561 on-base pct., .798 slugging pct.
Rose was not as firmly on the draft radar entering the season as Martorano was and did not have the out-of-this-world performance that Dalatri had, but he had some mix of the two. His high school performance during his three varsity seasons is borderline eye-popping and his bat speed and arm are both tools that have caught the eye of scouts.
Of all the Shore Conference players likely to be drafted, Rose has the widest range of possibilities. He could be selected on the second day of the draft as a talented player who is motivated to sign with a team, but could also end up a middle-round pick if teams feel they can afford to wait on him.
Junior College Prospects
Andrew DiPiazza, RHP, Mercer County College (Central Regional)
Al Molina, Shortstop, Brookdale College (Red Bank Catholic)
DiPiazza and Molina both had standout seasons back in N.J. this season after beginning their college careers for bigger, out-of-state programs. DiPiazza was considered a potential top-10 round pick at one point heading into his senior season at Central, but a late-season elbow ailment took him off the board. He spent a season at the University of Alabama before transferring to Mercer for the 2016 season,
Molina was a 29th round pick of the Phillies in 2014 and opted to attend Coastal Carolina University. After a solid debut as a freshman, Molina opted to return to Monmouth County and suit up for the Jersey Blues. This past season, he was named Region XIX Player of the Year.
Both players could hear their names called at some point on either Friday or Saturday with the possibility of returning to the college ranks still on the table for each.