ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays raved about everything they saw and heard from upstate New York high school centerfielder Garrett Whitley before making him their first pick and No. 13 overall in Monday's draft.
"The tools are top of the draft tools," scouting director R.J. Harrison said. "Size, strength, athleticism, explosiveness, bat speed, (fast) runner, very intelligent. What else you want to know?"
Well, actually, there is a question:
Whether those tools that made Whitley, 18, stand out playing for Niskayuna High near Albany, N.Y., where pitchers threw 75-80 mph, are enough for him to be a success in pro ball against a much higher level of competition and eventually be an impact player in the major leagues.
Harrison said the Rays are quite certain he can, having seen him compete quite well last summer at several showcase events, including the Area Code Games, that featured other top draft candidates.
"We watched him for about a 10-day stretch and he just got better and better and better," Harrison said, "which is what the elite athletes are capable of doing."
Whitley, the highest pick from New York since Manny Ramirez was No. 13 in 1991, said there should be no doubt.
"I absolutely believe that I can play with anybody on the field," Whitley said from the draft at the MLB Network New Jersey studio. "Just because I'm from the Northeast doesn't mean I'm any worse of a player, and I think that I showed that on the circuit last summer. I think Northeast guys get a bad rap sometimes just because we don't play year round. But I think more and more guys are coming out here and succeeding."
One who certainly has is Mike Trout, the New Jersey product who has been an American League MVP playing centerfield for the Angels. And that happens to be whom Whitley considers his game to be most like.
"My strongest attributes are my speed and power, raw power," Whitley said. "That power/speed combination is not something that you see very often, and I think that is something that makes me a special player."
Whitley was ranked the seventh-best prospect by Baseball America going into the draft and considered by other experts to have the best overall tools. He hit .351 with three homers, 13 RBIs, 15 steals (in 15 attempts), 24 runs and a .479 on-base percentage in 20 games for Niskayuna High.
Harrison, noting a comparison to drafting Rocco Baldelli out of Rhode Island in 2000, said they began to get excited then "a little uncomfortable," when Whitley was still on the board as their pick neared.
Whitley has a scholarship offer from Wake Forest (and interest from Columbia) but said signability should not be an issue: "I think I'm ready to move into my pro career."
As talented as Whitley is, the Rays will put him on their usual patient path, with plans to start him in the Gulf Coast League. South Carolina high school catcher Nick Ciuffo was their top pick in the 2013 draft, and he is playing at Class A Bowling Green this summer.
Baseball operations president Matt Silverman acknowledged the risk associated with every selection but said they feel with the combination of Whitley's skills and makeup that it was "a great pick for us at 13."
Whitley was born in Boston and grew up a Red Sox fan but became familiar with the Rays as he grew close to area scout Tim Alexander, who was a coach on those showcase teams. And Whitley showed those smarts when asked by MLB Network's Sam Ryan on live TV what he thought of the Rays: "They're the best team in baseball."
The Rays — or the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, as San Diego rep Steve Finley introduced them — appeared to get another break in the second round, when they used the No. 52 pick on Wilson High School (Long Beach, Calif.) catcher Chris Betts, who was ranked No. 28 overall by Baseball America.
Betts, a preseason first-team All-America selection who is committed to Tennessee, is known for his left-handed power, hitting .471 with eight homers and 28 RBIs in 68 at-bats. MLB analysts compared him to Yankees catcher Brian McCann.
The draft started with a run on shortstops, as Arizona took Vanderbilt's Dansby Swanson No. 1 overall, followed by the Astros taking Louisiana State's Alex Bregman and the Rockies Brendan Rodgers of Lake Mary High.
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.