ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays were already excited about the draft because of the unique opportunity it presented, as they boasted two first-round picks for the first time in club history, and three selections in the first 42.
Then they admittedly got a bit "lucky," landing three high school players they wanted (and are confident they can sign). Their top pick (at No. 17) was outfielder Josh Sale (from Seattle's Bishop Blanchet High), whom scouting director R.J. Harrison says "is a corner outfielder with tremendous power, a guy we think has a chance to be a middle of the lineup type bat."
Then, at pick No. 31, the Rays got the draft's top high school catching prospect, Justin O'Conner, and at No. 42, outfielder Drew Vettleson.
"You have to get a little bit lucky for things to really fall into place," Harrison said. "And we feel like we were well-prepared and got a little lucky and got three guys we really liked."
They took Sale (pronounced SAW-LAY) with their original No. 17 pick, and had two compensatory picks at No. 31 (for not signing 2009 first round pick LeVon Washington) and No. 42 (for losing free agent catcher Gregg Zaun). But executive Andrew Friedman said they already have an agreement in principle with O'Conner, and is hopeful they'll be able to sign the other two.
Baseball America tabbed Sale the draft's top corner outfielder, the best high school power hitter and 10th best overall prospect in the draft, projecting the left-handed slugger as a .280 hitter with 30 home run power. The Gonzaga commitment said he was "excited" and "extremely grateful" the Rays selected him, and it seems as though he's leaning toward starting his pro career.
"I don't have a definite answer, but I don't see myself going to school," said Sale, 18. "Right now, I'm just thankful for the Tampa Bay Rays investing in me. It's been a nonstop celebration."
The Rays love Sale's power, his plate discipline and work ethic, which he said he got from his parents. There's his father, Jesse, a former powerlifter who crafted his workouts, and his mother, Kelley Richardson, a juvenile corrections officer who still packs his lunch. Sale has gone to the RIPS Baseball Training Complex in nearby Burien five days a week at 6 a.m. to hone his hitting skills.
"I've done this for 27 years, and he's the most special one I've ever had," said Sale's personal hitting coach Aaron Horrocks, who has worked with him for about eight years. "His work ethic is impeccable. This guy just lives in the gym."
Jesse says his son also has a smooth golf swing. Sale, at age 11, hit a hole-in-one at a company golf tournament from 135 yards with a wedge that was about an inch short, and won the longest drive contest at 309 yards.
O'Conner is from Cowan High School in Muncie, Ind. Despite just beginning to catch last summer, and admitting he's "pretty raw," Baseball America rated his arm as the best among high school position players. O'Conner also played shortstop and third base, but the Rays plan to help him make the transition to catcher. O'Conner, an Arkansas commitment, appears pretty ready to sign and will play wherever he's needed. The Rays have been his brother Jacob's favorite team for several years.
"This is like a dream come true to me," he said.
Sale says he knows the Rays' third pick, Vettleson (Central Kitsap High in Silverdale, Wash.), pretty well, having played against him often. Vettleson, known as a switch-pitcher, is a better prospect as a hitter with power potential.
"We have some things in common," Sale said. "But I can't quite throw left-handed."