Separating Talent, Hype In New York

NEW YORK–If there is a school of thought that says any publicity is good publicity, then New York’s duo of Danny Almonte and Dellin Betances are the 2006 draft’s poster boys for that statement.

Yes, this is the same Danny Almonte whose 70 mph fastball won him acclaim as the ace pitcher for the Rolando Paulino All-Stars in the 2001 Little League World Series. The same Danny Almonte whose father, Felipe de Jesús Almonte, fudged his birth certificate, showing that Danny was 12 when he was really 14.

You know the story by now: In three starts, Almonte allowed three hits. He tossed a perfect game in the national semifinals, striking out the first 16 batters he faced. His team finished in third place . . . until the truth was disclosed.

Almonte was disqualified, the team was stripped of its accomplishments and the no-hitter and the perfect game were also negated.

Now Almonte is 19, draft eligible and hoping to parlay his early fame–or infamy–into a spot in professional baseball.

“People knew he was a real good player, it was just a matter of playing against kids his own age,” said Mike Turo, Almonte’s coach at James Monroe High in the Bronx. “Now he’s leveled out and he’s back on top again, throwing against kids who are the right age. I think all the publicity, everything that happened . . . made him a stronger kid.”

After a sophomore season in 2004 that culminated in a one-hit shutout in the Public Schools Athletic League championship game, Almonte’s life took another twist. In February of his junior year, he moved to South Florida to be closer to his father, who had apparently moved there from the Dominican Republic.

According to Turo, Danny enrolled at American Heritage High in Hialeah, but had not registered for classes or established residency in time to be eligible for the 2005 high school baseball season. He was never cleared to play, and spent the spring contemplating yet another wrong turn on his quest to become a standout high school pitcher.

“He called me during our playoff games last June and said he was very unhappy down there and wanted to come home,” Turo said. “He came back in the first day of July.”

Almonte was off to a strong start as a senior, back at Monroe High. He was 9-0, 0.45 with 76 strikeouts in 47 innings, though again he had gained more notoreity for marrying a 30-year-old woman this spring than for anything he did on a baseball field.

So just how good is Danny Almonte? While the numbers are stellar, many scouts say he’s more hype than prospect. He’s 6 feet and lefthanded with a frame that has some projection, but scouts say his fastball sits between 83-85 mph, not the 90s rumors around New York suggest.

His curveball is an average pitch with good bite at times, and he has some feel for pitching, but he doesn’t offer anything spectacular. He should be drafted, but probably not until the draft’s second day.

“He has mound presence and experience well beyond years,” one American League area scout said. “He’s a good draft-and-follow, late guy. But we’ll see what he can do after a year of (junior college) under his belt.”

Almonte insists that if he’s drafted, he’s definitely going to sign, but the option of attending a junior college sounds more likely. “I’ve talked to some colleges and I’ll think about it,” Almonte said.

Betances’ case is less convoluted but similarly perplexing. The Grand Street High righthander entered the season ranked No. 7 in the high school class, but has tumbled down draft boards because of an irregular schedule and inconsistent velocity.

Most scouts believe his talent warrants being drafted somewhere in the first three rounds, but many scouting directors had a difficult time figuring out when he was pitching early in the season. Because New York’s high school season starts later than many other high school programs and because it was an unseasonably cool spring, Betances had become somewhat of an enigma.

The 6-foot-9 Betances showed a fastball in the low to mid-90s last summer, but was throwing mainly in the high-80s this spring. His coaches attribute the dropoff to him trying to rediscover his mechanics and release point, and point out he was dialing his fastball back into the low-90s as mid-May rolled around.

“I was throwing over the top at the start of the year,” said Betances, who at times showed a live, loose arm from a high-three-quarters arm slot. “I was too anxious and excited, and the weather wasn’t that good.”

Mel Zitter, Betances’ Youth Service League coach, said Betances had committed to Vanderbilt, though Vanderbilt’s coaching staff would not confirm that. Saint Petersburg (Fla.) Junior College could be another possible destination if his stock hasn’t recovered by the draft.
“This is about giving Dellin as many options as possible,” said Zitter, who also coached Shawon Dunston and Manny Ramirez. “A four-year school offers continuity and pressure of immediately performing, and education. A two-year gives opportunity to sign a year from now as a draft-and-follow.”
“Right now I’m not sure what’s going to happen at this point,” Betances said. “Playing pro ball is my dream, but I want to see what happens in the draft.”