Arizona talent ‘bursts back on the scene’ with strong MLB draft
PHOENIX – Basha High School baseball coach Jim Schilling was camping near Sedona recently when his star center fielder, Brennen Davis, was picked by the Chicago Cubs in the second round (62nd overall) of the MLB draft.
Without cell reception, Schilling had no idea that Davis – ranked as the 145th best prospect by MLB.com entering the draft – had been selected so high.
“Once I got reception, my phone (had) like 100 texts,” Schilling said, laughing, on Wednesday in a phone interview a day after the pick. “I totally missed (his selection). I felt pretty bad about that but I’m happy for Brennen.”
As it turned out, Davis was just one of the many Arizonans picked while Schilling was away in the wilderness.
The state had one of its best MLB drafts in years this week, dotting the selection board with a top-heavy class of high school talent and large pool of collegiate stars. Fifteen players from an Arizona high school or college went in the top 10 rounds this year, the most top 10 round picks from the state since 2012.
“It did feel like it was a pretty strong year,” Nathan Rode, a scout and national supervisor for Prep Baseball Report, told Cronkite News in a phone interview on Wednesday.
The state’s biggest storyline came during Monday night’s first round, when two Arizona high school players were taken in the top round for the first time in draft history, based on draft records retrieved from Baseball Reference, which date back to 1965.
Mountain Ridge pitcher Matthew Liberatore was selected 16th overall by the Tampa Bay Rays, becoming the first Arizona high schooler taken in the first round since Mountain Pointe’s Cole Tucker went 24th overall to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014. Rode thought the Rays got an “absolute steal” in Liberatore.
“His spring was a little inconsistent but I think he was still worthy of being a top 10 pick, top-five pick,” Rode added of the Mountain Ridge left-hander, who posted a 17-2 record and 1.29 ERA during a four-year varsity high school career, per MaxPreps.com, and was ranked as the fourth-best prospect in the draft by MLB.com.
Sandra Day O’Connor infielder Nolan Gorman – who was listed as the No. 12 prospect by MLB.com – was also a first rounder after getting plucked by the St. Louis Cardinals 19th overall. The slugger clubbed 32 home runs in his high school career.
“There’s some swing and miss to his game (but) obviously he’s got tremendous power, especially from the left side,” Rode said of Gorman. “That’s obviously a commodity.”
Both Liberatore and Gorman are projected to earn signing bonuses north of $3 million, according to MLB.com. They also helped return Arizona to draft day prominence after the state produced just four top 10 round picks and only one top 5 round selection last year.
“I guess (Arizona) maybe hit a wall for a little while” in terms of producing high-end big league talent, Rode said. “But it kinda burst back on the scene with two guys like Liberatore and Gorman being seen all over the place.”
Davis, on the other hand, was a “wild card” entering the draft, according to his high school coach, Schilling. The center fielder, who hit .444 while battling a hamstring injury in his senior year at Basha, was projected to go anywhere between the third and 15th rounds. He was off the board far sooner than that – a “great surprise,” Schilling said.
“Brennen is definitely a special kid,” Schilling said. “He’s (been) taking batting practice in front of bigwigs from MLB teams that are flying in from across the country to watch him play. I couldn’t believe how he performed with all that pressure.”
Three other Arizona high schoolers – Raymond S. Kellis shortstop Jonathan Ornelas (third round, Texas Rangers), Sandra Day O’Connor shortstop Jayce Easley (fifth round, Texas Rangers) and Queen Creek center fielder Kevon Jackson (ninth round, Kansas City Royals) – all went in the top 10 rounds as well. Not since 2009 had six Arizona high schoolers been selected that high.
At the college level, Arizona schools did well in the draft too. The Arizona Wildcats had six players taken in the top 10 rounds (a school record) and eight players drafted overall. Arizona State had five players picked, a big turnaround from last year when only one Sun Devil was drafted. Grand Canyon University had four players drafted and, for the first time since 1988, produced multiple top 10 round picks.
GCU junior pitcher Jake Wong was the first collegiate player from the state selected this week, going in the third round to the San Francisco Giants. The state’s impressive draft results weren’t lost on the Chandler native and Hamilton High School product.
“I think Arizona is loaded with high school talent, with college talent,” he said. “It’s a great place to play baseball.”
Rode ranked Arizona as one of the best baseball-talent producers in the country. Its rich talent pool this year helped reaffirm its place among the prestigious “second tier” of prospect-manufacturing states, behind California, Florida and Texas.
Schilling, a Wisconsin native, said the state benefits from good weather that allows year-round play makes Arizona fertile cultivating grounds for young players.
“I think for pitchers, seeing live hitting and hitters seeing live pitching. You can’t put a value on that. Where I was from, we only got 75 at-bats per year because of the weather. So you are taking at-bats in a cage or a gym. It’s just not the same thing.
“Out here these kids are getting 200, 300, 400 at-bats per season. That really helps. It gets them more comfortable. They can learn on their own. You can teach these kids to hit as much as you want but they know when they make mistakes against live pitchers and they can adjust accordingly.”
Even so, he was still blown away by the state’s draft results once he got back in the Valley from his camping trip on Wednesday.
“We always get a lot of guys drafted but this year was top-heavy,” Schilling said. “We had (five players drafted) in the first three rounds. It’s pretty amazing.”
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