ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays did a very Rays thing with their first pick in Wednesday’s draft.
Like taking a 17-year-old, who pitched only his freshman and sophomore seasons at a Pennsylvania high school (and not an inning this year), had moved himself into this year’s draft by opting to graduate early, and just happens to be quickly embracing analytics.
Meet Nick Bitsko.
ESPN headlined a story calling him the “draft’s man of mystery." Baseball America said he “could be the most challenging player” for teams to evaluate. The Athletic described him as “a real enigma."
The Rays see him as something else, a “really talented young starting pitching prospect” they were quite happy to get with the No. 24 pick. With the No. 37 pick, they took Alika Williams, a defense-first shortstop from Arizona State.
“Nick is an exceptionally talented young man and we’re thrilled to have him," amateur scouting director Rob Metzler said. “Certainly a unique situation with a high school arm that didn’t get on the mound this season. Absolutely unique. But weighing that vs. other options, it was a direction we were excited to go."
The Rays raved about what Bitsko can do on the mound, using his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame to throw a fastball in the mid to upper 90s and spin a nasty curveball with a strong competitiveness.
And also the solid impression he made off the field.
“Aptitude, maturity, really good head on his shoulders," Rays general manager Erik Neander said on a Zoom media call. “Really, everything you’d want to see but for just more game exposure this spring."
The Rays said they did enough background work and scouting that they don’t see Bitsko as any more of a gamble than any other high school pitcher.
“Anytime you’re dealing with someone that’s that young and is a high school draft prospect you want to feel they have the right priorities and the right desires to make the climb through the minor leagues. It’s not easy and it’s not for everyone," Neander said.
“Have all the confidence in the world in the work that we’ve done. Everyone comes with different unknowns and different risks. Felt very, very comfortable with the talent and the person that we’re getting here."
Bitsko was impressive as a freshman and a sophomore, posting a combined 4-2, 1.27 record with 68 strikeouts in 33 innings over 11 games for Central Bucks East High in Doylestown, Pa., and won the Gatorade award as the state’s top player. That, and his showing in some showcase events last summer, had him considered the top high school pitcher for the 2021 draft, but he decided in January that he would take advantage of an opportunity to reclassify and graduate early, Friday actually, and move into this year’s draft, with the option to either go pro or to take a scholarship to the University of Virginia.
“The whole reclassification thing, it was more from a development standpoint, it wasn’t just to get drafted or anything like that or go to school, it was more to further my career," Bitsko said on a media call. “Obviously, I thought I was ready after this last summer, doing the whole summer circuit and everything. I think I made the right decision overall to advance my career, I guess, and get to the next level and get to play against better competition wherever I go. Best decision I’ve made."
As frustrating as it was to have his junior season wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, Bitsko said it allowed him the opportunity to work with some of the high-tech analytical devices, such as Rapsodo, and the Driveline program, which allowed him to improve his performance, and his standing as he posted videos of some sessions, and learn more about himself.
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“I think it was a combination of how good my stuff actually was, not to be overconfident, but I think I never really got to look at it from an analytical standpoint and actually break down my numbers and compare myself to big leaguers now or whatever," he said. “I think it was understanding I can make an adjustment with my curveball or helping the spin efficiency or creating more vertical break, I think it was a good learning curve to kind of figure out what I actually had to do and how I could go about things and going through, not failure, but the process of working on getting better as I go along."
Bitsko said there were not a lot of conversations with the Rays leading up to the draft and, with his draft slot having a bonus of $2,831,300, he will be interested to hear what they have to say. But the idea of joining a team with one of the game’s best farm systems and a strong record in developing pitchers is definitely appealing.
“From a developmental standpoint they’re one of the best in the big leagues," he said. “I think it’s a great organization to go to especially for me as a young pitcher, I think, to give me time to develop and stuff like that and having the right people around me to guide me and keep me on the right path and help me develop and get to be the best pitcher I can be, eventually."
Style-wise he said he compares to Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in terms of being a power pitcher.
Williams is a player the Rays have been watching since his high school days in San Diego, and one that impresses first with his defense. He doesn’t have much power but has a high contact rate, striking out just 49 times in 549 plate appearances while walking 55 times, hitting .300 with five homers and 81 RBIs in 129 games. He was ranked as the best college defensive infielder and the 31st draft prospect overall by Baseball America, 32nd by The Athletic and 43rd by ESPN.
“Our evaluation in high school was that Alika was going to be this kind of player, we just thought it was in his best interest to go to college, continue to gain strength, continue to show off his skills,” Metzler said. “And he did everything he needed to in college and we’re thrilled with how that turned out.”
So was Williams.
“I’ve had a pretty good relationship with the Rays organization and they’ve had eyes on me from the organization for a while now,” he said. “So I’m very familiar with the organization. I’m very happy, I’m unbelievably happy.”
The draft started with a record seven straight college players taken, as some teams went for “safer” college choices given the lack of scouting done on high school players this year due to the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, and the higher bonuses they can demand given the option to attend college.
The draft was changed extensively due to the pandemic, most significantly slashed from 40 rounds to five in a cost-cutting move. In-person scouting was limited due to the few college, and fewer high school, games played, forcing scouts and analysts to make assessments from previous observations and video.
The Rays had two picks Wednesday and six total, having been awarded a competitive balance round selection they swapped in a trade with St. Louis to move up to No. 37. On Thursday, the Rays pick at Nos. 57, 96, 125 and 155.
The Rays have an overall bonus pool of $7,474,600, which breaks down this way: No. 24 ($2,831,300), No. 37 ($1,999,300, from Cardinals via trade), No. 57 ($1,243,600), No. 96 ($604,800), No. 125 ($455,600), No. 155 ($340,000).
The draft may be the easy part this year.
With only 160 players being selected, there will be hundreds of disappointed players who in normal years would have been deemed worthy of being drafted and the chance to play pro ball. The Rays have a long list of draftees after the fifth round who became impact players in the majors, led by James Shields and Kevin Kiermaier.
This year, teams will compete in a college recruiting style competition to sign undrafted players offering a max bonus of $20,000. As a result, facilities, coaching staffs, track records and player testimonials will be key pitches, with league officials supposedly ensuring there are no improper inducements.
“We’ve never experienced anything quite like that, nor has any other club, and I think Major League Baseball is doing what they can to provide safeguards for the players that are in that situation,” Neander said last week.
“We don’t really know what to expect, but doing our best to prepare and if we can provide opportunity to players, that’s something that we’re going to lean on our scouts and our staff to identify the right players to do that with.”
Complicating the process even more, those opportunities will be limited.
The Rays and other teams have to balance the realities of not having a traditional minor-league season this year and the league’s plans to reorganize and reduce the number of farm teams next year.
Plus, those players have to decide if it’s worth signing for so little or going to/staying in college, where eligibility and roster size adjustments have been made.
“We want to see where we’re at after we get to five rounds,” Neander said. “We want to make sure that there’s the requisite type of opportunity in place for any player that we want to recruit after those five rounds, but we’ll see what that looks like."
Staff writer Kyle Wood contributed to this report.