ST. PETERSBURG —Picking at No. 16 overall, the Rays tried to account for all the possible outcomes in Monday's MLB draft, but still didn't expect to be able to take Matthew Liberatore, a 6-foot-6 left-handed high school pitcher from Arizona.
"We try to imagine all opportunities, but this was a surprise for sure," said Rob Metzler, the Rays' director of amateur scouting. "We're very pleased with the outcome tonight. Matthew Liberatore, we saw him as the top high school left-handed pitcher in the draft … He has the physical, mental ability and the character that we think has a really good chance to develop into a top-end starting pitching prospect in our organization."
Liberatore is the highest the Rays have ever drafted a high-school left-handed pitcher in 23 years of drafting, and the first since current Rays starter Blake Snell in 2011. The 18-year-old said he didn't worry about pre-draft projections that him as a likely top-10 pick.
"I didn't really go into it with any expectations, so it wasn't something that upset me or frustrated me," he said. "I just waited until I heard my name called, and when that happened, it was a lot of happy tears, a lot of laughs, all the different emotions."
With back-to-back compensatory picks after the first round, the Rays used the No. 31 pick on USF left-hander Shane McClanahan, and at No. 32, took Nick Schnell, a power-hitting high school outfielder from Indiana.
"What you'd call a thoroughbred body, where he can add strength and maintain the speed he has," said Chaim Bloom, the Rays' senior vice president for baseball operations. "Centerfielder, advanced hitting approach, has some power to all fields, can go the other way better than most high school kids. A lot to like about this guy, and a really good high school player with upside to add to our system."
At Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, Schnell had gaudy numbers, hitting .535 with 15 home runs, 36 RBIs and 50 runs scored in 30 games. Add in 37 walks and he had an on-base percentage of .674 as a high school senior. Schnell, 6 feet 2 and 180 pounds, is a Louisville commitment, but the Rays have a large draft pool and should be in position to sign him.
Liberatore dominated as a high school senior, going 8-1 with a 0.93 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 601/3 innings. He was projected to go much higher than the Rays — mock drafts at MLB.com had him as high as No. 7.
Tampa Bay's scouting department knew Liberatore well, as R.J. Harrison, the team's senior advisor, lives in Phoenix and has followed him for years.
"We don't speak in the room as (No.) 1 starter, 2 starter," Metzler said. "He's somebody who's a traditional starting pitching prospect with a chance to pitch a significant role in the rotation, somebody who has a chance to log significant innings and the stuff to get the best hitters in the league out."
Metzler said the Rays are "optimistic" they'll be able to sign Liberatore and convince him not to honor a commitment to the University of Arizona. Liberatore said he expects to be able to sign and begin his pro career quickly.
"I'm super excited to be a Ray and get started with the organization," he said.
Liberatore said he has full confidence in all his pitches, and while he wouldn't compare himself mechanically to any current major-leaguers, he likes to emulate the confidence and approach of some of today's aces.
"Mentally, I try to emulate Aroldis Chapman or Max Scherzer or even Marcus Stroman, just the passion and intensity they bring to the game," he said. "The kind of presence they have on the mound, the way they intimidate guys before they even step in the box. It makes it that much easier to get them out physically, and I want to try to bring that to my game."
Metzler said the Rays were drawn to Liberatore's physical stature, his arsenal of pitches and his mental approach to the game, dominating at the high school level and in showcase games and with Team USA as well.
"The physical ability: He's large," Metzler said. "He has a good delivery, good arm action. He has a diverse repertoire of pitches. Fastball, changeup, slider, curveball, can command them all. Those are all really good ingredients we think we can develop. … He's very advanced for a high school arm. It's a positive outcome for us. We're thrilled to have him."
The Rays had the No. 31 and 32 overall picks, gained as compensation for the loss of Alex Cobb in free agency and for not signing last year's first-round pick, Drew Rasmussen. They also had the No. 56 and 71 overall picks Monday night.