Right Place, Right Time
Florida is a good place to be.
For the 2018 draft class, it’s likely the deepest state in the country—thanks in part to a down year in Southern California—with an high number of players at the top of the draft board. For perspective, in Baseball America’s most recent ranking of draft prospects, there were 17 Florida players among the top 100, 11 among the top 50 and eight among the top 30. In 2017, on the final BA500 predraft ranking, those numbers were 15, six and two, respectively.
It’s a strong year for the Sunshine State, and on top of the benefits of almost year-round baseball weather, Florida players have a lot more to gain—and in some case lose—at the start of the season, with many general managers, scouting directors and crosscheckers close by with major league spring training taking place in the state.
“(There is) basically a greater leverage index for guys going up or guys going down,” said one assistant scouting director. “And that is something to be mindful of.
“When we look at a certain level of stature within the organization (the people higher up) are more likely to see players of a certain quality, and if there are more of those players to see, then they are probably going to get out more. If it’s a worse year for the area, those guys are going to get out less, or on days that are dedicated to amateur looks, they will go to a different area (of the country).”
Essentially: a strong group of players in an area that already has major league decision-makers close by makes it possible for players to impact their draft stock in a bigger way than perhaps is possible in other situations. The Cactus League also makes this possible in Arizona.
“I would even throw Arizona into the mix as well,” the assistant scouting director said. “Not from a talent standpoint, but from an accessibility standpoint, because the proximity of spring training is a huge factor. It allows for more frequent looks from decision-makers inside amateur scouting and outside of that, up to front office executives.”
Here are five players—four of who are Florida or Arizona prospects—who have taken advantage of this greater “leverage index” and raised draft stock since the start of the high school season.
Matthew Liberatore, LHP | Mountain Ridge HS, Riverdale, Ariz.
Liberatore’s first start of the year was immensely well-attended by scouts, front office executives, crosscheckers and scouting directors, many of whom were in Arizona for major league spring training.
During that start, the 6-foot-5 lefthander touched 96 mph multiple times in the first inning, which is a notable jump from his velocity over the summer, which was regularly in the upper 80s to low 90s, with a high around 94 mph in short stints. Liberatore’s increased velo jumped him to the front of the line among prep pitching prospects in a deep class. The still-projectable southpaw has three potential plus pitches in his fastball, curveball and changeup.
Mason Denaburg, RHP | Merritt Island (Fla.) High
Denaburg’s performance in front of a large group of scouting directors during his first outing of the season pushed him near the top of a deep high school pitching class. He can ratchet his fastball up to 97 mph and has shown tremendous improvement with a breaking ball that was plus during his first start of the year.
Denaburg offers significant upside and room for improvement, because he is a former two-way player who is only now starting to focus exclusively on pitching. As one of the more athletic arms in the class, he should have the ability to continue making adjustments and refining his game as he progresses and logs more innings.
Carter Stewart, RHP | Eau Gallie HS, Melbourne, Fla.
Stewart was largely in Denaburg’s shadow at the Prep Baseball Report event that the two righthanders both threw at in early March. That’s because Stewart’s breaking ball wasn’t as consistent as it had been previously. Still, evaluators see the pitch as a plus-plus offering down the line (if it isn’t there already) and his velocity has taken a massive jump since the 88-92 mph range that he sat most of the summer.
Scouts say that Stewart has touched as high as 98 mph during his first few weeks of the season, which completely changes the grades penciled into his scouting reports. While last summer he had one of the best breaking balls in the class with a below-average fastball that could project as average or better down the line thanks to his frame and athleticism, it sounds like he now has two future 70 offerings on the 20-80 scouting scale.
That sort of stuff combined with his advanced ability to throw strikes has him shooting up draft boards.
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Connor Scott, OF/LHP | Plant HS, Tampa
This spring, Scott has been the talk of Florida, as a toolsy outfielder who is following in the path of current Astros prospect Kyle Tucker, who went to the same high school and has an eerily similar look in the batter’s box. After dealing with an injury last summer, this spring Scott has hit in front of evaluators and his added weight over the offseason has already shown up in his in-game power. A double-plus runner with a plus arm, Scott could stick in the outfield as a potential center fielder with hitting ability and power, but some teams also like him as a lefthanded pitcher who sits in the low 90s and bumps 94 mph with strike throwing ability.
Whichever position he winds up being drafted at—Scott himself prefers hitting—the Florida commit seems to have played his way into the first round.
Grayson Rodriguez, RHP | Central Heights HS, Nacogdoches, Texas
The biggest popup player of the 2018 draft class to this point, Rodriguez is a 6-foot-5, 230-pound righthander committed to Texas A&M—though the team’s coaching staff should start to worry that he won’t reach campus.
After pitching in the 90-92 mph range during the 2017 Area Code Games, Rodriguez has been up to 98 mph, according to multiple scouts early this spring. The big, imposing righthander has done a lot of work over the offseason to clean up his body and has been sitting in the 90-96 mph range throughout his starts, with impressive ease to his delivery. He’s touched as high as 97-98 mph at best. On top of that, multiple scouting directors and general managers have been in to see him, which makes him a potential first day pick when factoring in solid secondaries in a slider, curveball and changeup.