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The Major League scouts start pulling into the parking lot at Count Basie Park in Red Bank a good two hours before the first pitch on a pleasant Wednesday morning and there are there to see what is not just any game. In fact, it is not a game at all. It is an intra-squad scrimmage.

The Red Bank Catholic baseball team is splitting up to play a simulated game in preparation of the start of the 2021 season – one that is two years in the making after the entire 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The world has drastically changed in the last year and already, the RBC players are taking note at what a strange world it is. The question, more or less, is universal.

All of these scouts for an intra-squad? Huh?

If there is anything familiar about the scene at Count Basie on April, it’s that the approximately 25 scouts in attendance are crammed behind the backstop, most with masks on but social distancing be damned. Pandemic or not, it is time for them to get to work checking in on the top baseball players in the Northeast and Count Basie Park is going to be a common stop for this group this spring.

“I think the guys were stunned how many scouts showed up,” Red Bank Catholic coach Buddy Hausmann said. “They were kind of like, ‘We knew they were going to be at our games this year, but we didn’t know it was going to be like that.’ I just told them, ‘Yep, it’s going to be like that. Better get used to it.’”

The scene may be a shock to the majority of the Caseys players but to the 19-year-old high-school senior the scouts have made the trip to Red Bank to watch practice, it is all become fairly routine.

Red Bank Catholic senior Shane Panzini. (Photo by Matt Manley)

As one of the top high-school pitchers in the country, Shane Panzini is a legitimate Major League Baseball Draft prospect – ranked on Top-100 Draft prospect lists by FanGraphs (No. 46) and MLB.com (No. 92). Over the past year, he has grown accustomed to the hoard of baseball talent evaluators crammed behind backstops around the country to watch him showcase his arsenal: a fastball that reaches 97 miles-per-hour, a hard slider that he has evolved from its start as a sharp curveball and a changeup that is picking up steam as Panzini’s best potential secondary pitch.

According to Panzini, he is ready for the circus to come to Red Bank. One of his earliest high school memories was dueling current University of Alabama junior Tyler Ras when Ras was a senior at Middletown North and under close watch by scouts leading up to the draft that June. Panzini first caught the attention of many area scouts that night in Red Bank, matching Ras throughout the night and pitching the Caseys to a 1-0 win.

Throw in the experience pitching in national showcases and not only does the attention not bother Panzini, but it is feeding his hunger to keep getting better.

“I got used to it last year,” Panzini said. “I always say facing Tyler Ras here when I was a freshman was kind of the same thing and that was one of my favorite games of high school. I loved the atmosphere. I don’t really get too nervous pitching around (the scouts) but it’s exciting.”

At each step along his developmental curve, Panzini has made significant improvements. He followed up the flash of brilliance as a freshman with a dominant sophomore season: a 7-2 record with a 0.66 ERA, 73 strikeouts and 29 walks in 53 innings while earning a spot on the Shore Sports Network All-Shore First Team and committing to the University of Virginia right after the season.

Red Bank Catholic winning pitcher Shane Panzini is doused with water after his one-hit shutout in the 2019 Shore Conference Tournament final. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The last time Panzini pitched in a high-school game, he one-hit Manalapan in the 2019 Shore Conference Tournament championship game and that was with a fastball that topped out at 91. A year later, according to Hausmann, he was throwing and easy 93 before the season was shut down.

At the Perfect Game National Showcase in Alabama in June of 2020, Panzini threw in a game situation for the first time all year. He topped out at 96 miles-per-hour. By the end of the summer, he was recorded hitting 97 and with the improving slider and changeup, the buzz has continued to build.

“Every year, he has progressed,” Hausman said. “There hasn’t been a year where he has stayed the same. He’s made jumps in big ways every year. The slider has gotten very good, the change is getting there. He has the work ethic that it takes and he knows himself well enough to understand what he has to do to make those impressive jumps at each step.”

The online scouting reports consider Panzini an advanced high-school prospect with regard to his ability – both a compliment and critique depending on the eye of the beholder. Panzini has the talent to be a legitimate Major League prospect but at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds and already 19 years old, some scouts have reportedly expressed some doubt that he can get much better physically. In other words, what you see is what you will get.

Red Bank Catholic senior Shane Panzini. (Photo by Matt Manley)

FanGraphs ranks Panzini No. 46 on its list of players available in the 2021 MLB First-Year Player Draft in July and described him as follows: “He’s old for the class and not at all projectable, but Panzini has real stuff, including a mid-90s fastball that plays at the letters and the makings of two good breaking balls.”

That doesn’t, however, mean Panzini can’t get better and isn’t already getting better, for that matter, because that is what he has been doing for the last four years under the watch of Hausmann.

“I don’t know if I’d say a 19-year-old isn’t projectable,” Hausmann said. “I think he is still learning and he has continued making improvements with his spin rates, arm slot and delivery. I look at him and I think there is a lot more in the tank. The intriguing part is he projects as a starting pitcher, whereas other guys his age and who throw that hard sometimes end up relievers. The guy I have heard him compared to is Matt Cain. You look at his Baseball-Reference page, he had a losing record but Matt Cain made almost $150 million in his career and won (three) World Series rings. I’d sign up for that.”

Whatever is being said online about Panzini’s status as a prospect, he is not likely to read it. The video-game ban in the Panzini’s Spring Lake, N.J. house – which is home three other Panzini boys between ages 15 and 23 – was a popular topic of conversation during the Perfect Game online stream production and that abstinence from video games applies to social media as well, although that one is self-imposed.

“I don’t have Twitter and I kind of just look at what my friends do on Instagram,” Panzini said. “I don’t use social media that often and I don’t look up the draft stuff.”

“I don’t really care for (social media). I have a lot of people telling me to get on Twitter but I don’t really want that. Only bad things can come of it, really. I’d rather just pitch.”

Most of what Panzini has heard about what scouts think has come from his inner circle or from friends reading the reports to him. Either way, he has not put much stock in any of it.

“I like to say if those guys knew what they were talking about, they would be working for an MLB team,” Panzini said. “There are a lot of mock drafts and things like that but I don’t get into them much. I don’t care if I was projected the first pick overall, the last pick overall or anywhere else because it doesn’t mean anything until you perform on the field.”

In order to keep reaching new heights, Panzini took full advantage of Red Bank Catholic’s virtual learning option during the winter. While New Jersey was getting drilled by snowfall after heavy snowfall, Panzini spent time working out in Jupiter, Fla. at the same facility as a number of Major League pitchers. He found himself working out at the same time as three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and New York Mets flamethrower Noah Syndergaard. He even threw a bullpen at the same time as Cleveland Indians rookie Triston McKenzie.

“He took advantage of a situation that was different than any other year,” Hausmann said. “He could have been up here, doing what most of us do during our senior year of high school. Instead, he was down there and focused on a goal. He wanted to take advantage of it. He got to see some big-time people and be able to learn in a competitive environment and to kind of do it on his own.”

Red Bank Catholic senior Shane Panzini. (Photo by Matt Manley)

As is the case with most pitchers who could be looking at a seven-figure signing bonus offer from a Major League organization, Panzini’s 2021 season will come with some restrictions. His pitching schedule is essentially set, albeit with some wiggle room come tournament time. Panzini is slated to serve as a designated hitter throughout the season – he hit three home runs as a sophomore and hammered a double off Vanderbilt phenom and potential No. 1 pick Jack Leiter, then at Delbarton – but is not likely to play the field and will be urged to take it easy on the basepaths. Panzini is being advised by Dave Pepe – who has handled similar situations for local products and first-round picks Matt Thaiss (Jackson Memorial; currently in the Los Angeles Angels organization) and J.M. Gold (Toms River North). Panzini refers to Pepe and his team as “the higher-ups.”

“I understand it (the caution) but at the same time, I want to go out and have fun,” Panzini said. “The future is probably more important but to help my team win a few games wouldn’t be too bad either. It’s something we’ll sit around and talk about more with the ‘higher-ups,’ as we call them. I’ll do whatever the team needs me to do and whether or not that’s hitting or playing in the field, so be it. I’ll be on the bench rooting for them.

“If I didn’t have these people telling me what to do, I’d be out there hitting four times a game and playing the outfield. The more they tell me, the more information I’m gathering, the closer we get to the draft and getting to Virginia - I don’t want to go into any of that hurt. I just want to do what’s best for the team at this point.”

The flipside to “to-hit-or-play-or-not-to-play” debate is letting Panzini play some outfield and get his hacks at the plate could take some pressure off during what could be a stressful stretch.

“He is a high-school baseball player,” Hausmann said. “I’m not going to treat him any different than I have been treating him as long as he is telling me he feels good. Who knows if he’ll get to (hit) again after this year? If he wants to do it, I’m okay with it.”

There are big things over the horizon for Panzini in his baseball career but the lesson of 2020 was to never take any time on the diamond for granted. After losing his junior season of high school baseball to the COVID-19 pandemic, Panzini has every intention of enjoying his final year at Red Bank Catholic before making what he hopes will be a difficult decision with no bad answers: pitch at Virginia or accept a generous signing bonus to turn pro.

“It all seemed pretty far off last year,” Panzini said of his final season as a high-school pitcher – perhaps even as an amateur pitcher. “Even the first day of practice seemed far away but now we’re here. It’s all really exciting. I’m just trying to take it all in.”