ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays saw Jeff Hakanson when he pitched for Tampa’s Jesuit High. But they really noticed him the last couple years when he was a dominant reliever at UCF.
And that’s what led them to draft him with their fifth and final-round pick Thursday.
“He steadily made progress to this spring, where his stuff was really impressive," amateur scouting director Rob Metzler said on a Zoom media call. “I think he punched out 20 batters in eight innings, which is a pretty good start. We would have loved to have the opportunity to keep scouting him all year, but thrilled to take him here in the fifth round."
Hakanson, who grew up a Rays fan and still attends games regularly at the Trop, could not have been more excited.
“It’s just incredible," he said. “There’s no way really to put it into words. Going to Rays games as a kid and just hoping one day to be out there. It’s just incredible to be drafted by my hometown team."
The Rays made four picks overall, taking Virginia Tech lefty Ian Seymour in the second round with the No. 57 pick; then Hunter Barnhart, a right-hander from St. Joseph High in Santa Maria, Calif., in the third round with the 96th pick; shortstop Tanner Murray from Cal-Davis in the fourth with the 125th pick; then Hakanson in a draft shortened from 40 rounds to five in a cost-cutting move as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I thought it was a great, great outcome," Metzler said. “These are players that across the board we think are talented prospects who have the physical ability, the mental ability, the makeup, aptitude to compete their way through our system and have impactful roles."
When Hakanson was at Jesuit, the Rays knew he had some potential but were not overly interested. "We saw Jeff on the team and said this is a good prospect and he’s going to UCF and we’re aware,'' Metzler said, "but it wasn’t something like he was a targeted prospect in high school that we were re-routing the troops in to see.''
But area scout Brett Foley and supervisor Kevin Elfering become impressed with that they saw last year when Hakanson — listed at 6 feet 2, 185 pounds — used his mid to upper-90s fastball to strike out 52 batters over 26 2/3 innings in 22 games.
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And they became even more intrigued with what he did this spring, striking out 20 of the 28 batters he faced over 8 1/3 innings, allowing one hit and one walk. And, Metzler said, “that his stuff had made a further jump from last year.''
Seymour made a big improvement this season that could be traced to a small change.
He was playing catch during last summer’s Cape Cod League season with Christian Wonders, the pitching coach for his Yarmouth-Dennis team.
Wonders casually suggested Seymour switch from the two-seam grip he’d been using that made his fastball sink to a four-seam grip that would provide more carry.
“It just felt easier to command, easier to control, and it jumped out of my hand better than two-seam fastball," Seymour said. “So we kind of stuck with that one."
When Seymour got back to school at Virginia Tech, high-tech data analysis confirmed that the four-seamer was indeed a better and more dynamic pitch. Then Seymour, a decent starter his first two seasons with the Hokies, went out and made a dazzling show of it, striking out 40 over 20 1/3 innings in his first, and only, four starts of the pandemic-shortened season.
The Rays also were impressed with his aggressiveness and intensity.
“I was never the biggest kid, never the highest-ranked guy, so just carrying that chip on your shoulder and attacking whoever you’re facing no matter who they are, I think that just plays into my persona out there," Seymour said.
Seymour said he is ready and excited to start his pro career, so negotiations shouldn’t be an issue, with a $1,243,600 bonus slot value.
Plus, he noted a bond with Rays general manager Erik Neander, also a Virginia Tech product. “He’s come to our school a few times and he reached out to me and I was very, very excited," Seymour said. “I couldn’t be happier to be a Ray."
Barnhart also played quarterback, starring in both sports at St. Joseph and before that at Paso Robles High. He decided before playing his senior football season that he would focus on baseball going forward.
And though he has a scholarship offer from Arizona State, he sounded on a Zoom media call committed to signing with the Rays. “College was going to be fun but it was not going to be as much as it’s going to be in the MLB," he said.
His fastball is clocked in the 90- to 94-mph range and as high as 96 mph, and he has an advanced curveball, which he didn’t start throwing until he was 13, under his dad’s orders. In two starts this year, he struck out 18 in 11 innings, allowing one earned run.
Baseball America said the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder is one of the more polished high-school right-handers in the draft without much physical projection left. Barnhart said focusing solely on baseball should lead to improvement. “I think I’m going to get a lot more into the game and start learning more things about the game," he said.
Murray is known for his bat, hitting .310 in 71 at-bats this season, .364 in 195 at-bats the year before. Overall, he has a career .343 average and .863 OPS but without much power. Baseball America, which had him ranked No. 202, suggests he may move off shortstop into a utility role.
“We see a player who has a skill set who can impact the game on both sides,” Metzler said. “Somebody who obviously has really good contact skills, just has a good frame, we think more strength is going to come in his swing and then we think he’s a really steady, what we call a two-out defender, somebody who’s really good at converting routine balls. And I think he has range as well.”
The Rays seemed quite pleased with their work Wednesday, using the No. 24 overall pick on Nick Bitsko, a 17-year-old hard-throwing high school pitcher from the Philadelphia area who is graduating in three years, and No. 37 — which was in the competitive balance round — to take Alika Williams, a defense-first shortstop from Arizona State.
Bitsko has the option to attend Virginia, and a slot bonus of $2,831,300 the Rays may have to exceed to get him signed. They are hopeful of getting a deal done, and sooner than pushing the Aug. 1 signing deadline.
Once the draft ends, the Rays and the 29 other teams will compete to sign players from the hundreds of disappointed prospects in an unprecedented open market with a $20,000 limit on bonuses, starting at 9 a.m. Sunday.
Times staff writer Kyle Wood contributed to this report.