COLUMBIA, S.C.—On senior night at Spring Valley High, players just a few weeks away from graduating strolled across the field as their biographical information, inside jokes and post-high school plans were shared over the stadium’s loudspeakers.
As Taylor Guerrieri walked onto the field with his parents, the P.A. announcer spoke of Guerrieri’s father playing catch with balled-up socks while Taylor was still in a crib, and how he helped “coach” his older sister’s travel softball team when he was just 2 years old.
But there was no mention of Guerrieri going to South Carolina in the fall. It could have been an oversight. Some think there was a reason. The only sure thing is it provided good fodder for the scouts in attendance.
No prospect has seen a bigger rise in draft stock than Guerrieri, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound righthander. The odds of him ending up on campus are looking slimmer every day.
“It’s the best high school arm I’ve ever seen,” an American League scout said. “I walked into the ballpark and saw the first pitch he threw in the bullpen and I could have left. There is no chance I see this guy unless he’s pitching against us in the big leagues.
“Everything was above-average to plus-plus the day I saw him. It’s easy, effortless. I walked out of there with my jaw dropped. This guy is unbelievable.”
At his best, Guerrieri ranges from 93-96 mph with his fastball and can touch 97. He mixes in an 81-83 curveball with sharp break. His fastball has plenty of life to it, sinking and running when he throws to his arm side and showing heavy sink when he goes to his glove side. Guerrieri has a unique grip for his curveball, also a plus pitch.
“I tuck my middle finger under my index and that causes it to get more spin,” Guerrieri said. “I was messing around with it when I was younger. I picked that up and figured out it could be a good pitch for me.”
Like most high school arms, Guerrieri doesn’t have much need for more than a fastball-curveball combination, but he also works with a changeup and cutter.
“The cutter is opposite of my fastball,” Guerrieri said. “It’ll run away from righties, about the speed of 89-92. It looks like a fastball coming at you, then it darts the other way. The changeup I haven’t been able to use much this year. I’m looking to use that this coming year, wherever I am. Originally, I started with a circle grip and couldn’t get a feel for it. So I switched to a three-finger. That’s worked wonders for me.”
However, a new grip is the least of Guerrieri’s improvements. Until last summer, he was a typical righthanded prospect. He could sit in the high 80s and routinely touch the low 90s. Guerrieri is no overnight success story, and his jump in velocity is credit to a workout regimen he started as a freshman.
Guerrieri’s routine is pretty simple. On Mondays he does arm workouts. On Tuesday he works his legs and core. Wednesday is a rest day. He does his arms again on Thursday and then an overall combination on Friday before resting on weekends. The key is that he stays away from heavy lifting with his upper body.
“It’s all two-pound, three-pound dumbbells,” Guerrieri said. “It’s just rotation of the thumb and the wrist. There’s a bunch of different ways to do it. That’s what I really liked about it. There wasn’t a lot of heavy lifting. I didn’t have to worry about getting hurt.”
Guerrieri works out his legs with a series of squats, presses, extensions and curls. He uses a medicine ball to work out his core, doing sit ups and tossing it to his dad. He also long tosses two to three times each week during the offseason and follows an in-season routine to keep improving his arm strength.
Guerrieri is committed to his goal of pitching at a higher level, a trait that may run in the family—his sister just got out of the Air Force, is in law school and intends to give the Navy SEALS a try.
Spring Valley head coach Charlie Wentzky describes Guerrieri’s workouts as intense, and has seen marked improvement over the years.
“I’ve known about him since his sophomore year,” Wentzky said. “That’s when he really started to pop on the map of prep baseball in South Carolina as a pitcher. Then he was 84-86, 87 occasionally.”
That was when Guerrieri was still at North Augusta (S.C.) High. He spent three seasons playing for Vic Radcliff, working his way into the rotation as a sophomore in 2010 after not seeing much time as a freshman. The Yellow Jackets were looking forward to having a strong rotation in 2011 with Guerrieri coming off a solid junior campaign in which he struck out 80 in 51 innings. But in late October, those thoughts vanished, as the Guerrieri family decided to move to Columbia.
“He was here, then he was gone,” said Radcliff, who adds he holds no ill will toward the family. “It was like it was overnight.”
The Guerrieri family settled on sending Taylor to Spring Valley, where they knew assistant coach Collin Liggett from the Diamond Devils summer program. Liggett had concerns about Guerrieri’s eligibility, because a South Carolina rule prevents a player from joining a high school team if he played for the coach in an offseason league the previous summer. A coach also cannot join the team the same year as the player.
Guerrieri and Spring Valley were in the clear as Liggett was on Spring Valley’s staff for the 2009-2010 season and didn’t coach Guerrieri last summer. Everything was legitimized, but no one celebrated until it was finalized.
“The biggest thing with them was the move,” Wentzky said. “You have to have a bona fide change of address, which means you’re not living in your old house at all. They had to provide electrical bills that proved their bills had gone down compared to last year, the months they had lived there. It got down to the point where if they were living in that house they were freezing with no lights.”
Questions about the switch in schools and Guerrieri’s makeup persist among scouts, who declined to discuss it on the record. Guerrieri brushes all of it off as nonsense.
“I hear about some of it,” he said. “At some point you’ve gotta be like, ‘Come on. Let me live my life. Stay out of my business and move on with your life.’ Really, none of the rumors you’ve probably heard are true, unless they’re good rumors, hopefully.
“As far as baseball goes, I’ve always had a right mind on the field. I feel like I’ve always been a notch above everyone else, not talent-wise, but I know the game well. Maturity on the field, there’s no problem there.”
Guerrieri says the family move was made to get a change in scenery and be closer to South Carolina’s campus. Transitioning to a new school during the year can be difficult, especially as a senior, but Wentzky says it was seamless and Guerrieri handled it well.
“It went as smooth as you could possibly want it to go,” Wentzky said. “We had four or five players that already knew him and had a relationship with him. That was an easy transition for him. But the best part was after he enrolled here, we had a three-week window where we could practice. Everybody on the team got to see him on the field doing stuff.
“It’s been kind of neat to watch because you think a kid that comes in for a year with the talent he’s got, you think he’s going to be all about himself and what he has to do get himself marketed and better. He hasn’t been that way.”
Guerrieri’s high school career ended with Spring Valley’s elimination from the state tournament in early May. In his one season with the Vikings, he went 6-1, 1.10 with 72 strikeouts in 51 innings.
The last year has been a whirlwind for Guerrieri between seeing his stock rocket to the top of draft boards and changing schools. He is looking forward to the road ahead, even though his high school career is over.
“It’s definitely sad that I’m done with high school baseball because it’s probably the last time I’ll ever touch a baseball bat,” said Guerrieri, who hit .507/.598/.960 with nine home runs last year for Spring Valley.
Perhaps he will get another swing at hitting, after all 11 of the first 15 picks in the draft are National League teams.