ST. PETERSBURG — A bunch of Rays scouts walked into a baseball stadium in Hoover, Ala., last August and got their first look at the next great hope.
They just didn’t know it at the time.
The kid taking the mound at the annual East Coast Pro showcase of top high school players was big, athletic and strong, with an oh-so-smooth delivery that caught their eyes as soon as he started warming up.
They found him on their rosters: Nick Bitsko, a junior-to-be from Pennsylvania, one of the few invited prospects who wouldn’t be drafted until 2021, and sat back to watch the show the just-turned 17-year-old put on.
“We all kind of looked at each other and it was a no-brainer," Rays regional scouting supervisor Brian Hickman recalled. “It was like, ‘Holy Toledo, this guy is what they look like.’ We were all very excited. He’s one of those type guys."
Scouts are always working ahead, so they took note of Bitsko as a player definitely worth following, as he’d be one of the top prospects next year, and figured for now they’d leave it at that.
But Bitsko never made it to the 2021 draft.
For a handful of reasons — impressive grades, physical development, enhanced training, increased competition, personal maturity — he and his parents put in motion a plan that accelerated his timetable.
Bitsko would take five extra courses to graduate after his junior year — this past Friday, actually — and thus become eligible to be drafted and go pro, or head to Virginia, where he committed to when he was in the eighth grade.
“The last couple years it became so apparent physically and mentally he was ready to move on," said his father, also named Nick. “It just seemed like the right thing to do for Nick. Even though he was a little young for this draft class, I think he’s ready for the next challenge."
Bitsko took his last test in December and announced the decision Jan. 7. Suddenly the Rays, and other teams that had similarly put him on their scouting to-do list, would have to scramble to closely watch Bitsko in what would now be his final season at Central Bucks East High in Doylestown, Pa., north of Philadelphia.
Then the coronavirus pandemic happened, and there were no games no watch.
The three innings the Rays saw that day in Hoover, plus a 50-pitch March bullpen session at a small indoor facility and an hour-long Zoom call last week somehow — in this age of extensive scouting and expansive analysis — were enough to convince the Rays to invest the 24th pick of the draft, and likely around $3 million, in him.
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And they’re thrilled to do so despite the risks that some, such as MLB Network analyst Dan O’Dowd, said are too great.
“We weren’t just expecting him to be there, quite honestly," Hickman said.
• • •
At least Bitsko was wearing spikes and playing in a game when Hickman’s group saw him.
The bullpen session was held at a private indoor facility in a warehouse better described as an expanded man cave not far from Bitsko’s home. Even under the accelerated plan, there was still supposed to be a full high school season to scout, but Rays area scout Zach Clark had gotten wind of the throwing session and was curious enough to find his way in, one of 15-20 teams to watch.
Even better, he shot video on his cellphone.
“If he threw 50 pitches, I probably got 40 of them," Clark said. “I’m trying to watch it, and get video. I’m trying to move all around, but you don’t want to miss anything. You’re not thinking about it being the only time you’re going to see him. It wasn’t the easiest place to get video. You’re trying to get all the angles you want, but he’s in a cage so there’s really no way to get behind him. They had some Trackman or Rapsodo (high-tech data recording) stuff so I was trying to get that and show the gun. There was a lot going on."
The video isn’t much in the way of cinematography, but it proved to be the second key piece of evidence Rays officials needed. Plus, Clark got five to 10 minutes afterward to talk with Bitsko and his parents, which is still the only in-person conversation anyone with the Rays has had with him.
“I introduced myself to him and his family," Clark said. “His dad went to the University of Delaware, I lived in Delaware. I just wanted them to have a face to me, and I wanted to meet Nick."
The Rays watched what other video they could find of Bitsko. There wasn’t much game action, as he pitched only 33 innings total over 11 outings as a freshman and sophomore in high school. There were a couple other showcase events last summer. And he posted some video and accompanying analytical data to social media from throwing sessions during the shutdown, a time he used to delve more into understanding the analytics and using the data to target specific improvements.
• • •
The Zoom call had become part of the Rays’ pandemic-changed pre-draft process, a chance for several team officials to get a better sense, at least remotely, of the person beyond the player. Or in this case, any sense.
Senior adviser R.J. Harrison, national cross-checker Chuck Ricci and Hickman were on, along with Clark. An hour flew by, Bitsko answering not only their questions with thoughtful, mature and conscientious responses, but allaying any concerns they may have had about someone they knew so little about.
“I think the Zoom call sent it over the top for our guys," Clark said. “Listen to Nick talk about pitching, preparation, what he’s done in the past, you’re like, ‘Man, it’s really hard to believe you’re talking to a 17-year-old.’
“I think he’s just a driven kid. His dad was a Division-I football player, his mom (Sue) is a teacher. They just seemed to install good values in him. He was saying from the time he was in eighth grade he was on a regimen doing things to get better at baseball. Not just going outside and playing, but lifting and doing specific stuff. He’s an impressive kid."
Or, as Hickman said, “You’re talking to a grown man when you’re talking to this guy."
• • •
The elder Bitsko, who played on the offensive line when Rich Gannon quarterbacked the Blue Hens, says his son’s athleticism was apparent at a young age, that he had a special combination of size and coordination.
He played basketball through ninth grade before making the commitment to stick to baseball, though he remains one of a likely small group who can throw 98 mph off a mound and dunk. “And," dad says, “he can hit a baseball around 475 feet."
Bitsko often played with and against older kids, and it became obvious to his father that he had an opportunity to do some special things. Uncertain about advanced training and coaching in their area, the Bitskos explored options, including a side trip when in Florida for a tournament to Randy Sullivan’s Florida Baseball Ranch in Plant City for an evaluation and input.
About three years ago, Nick teamed up with Matt Alvarez, a former Boston College and Royals minor-leaguer, at the Apex facility in Easton, Pa., and developed an extensive training program, one some say includes more preparation than some pros do. It has him, now at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and turning 18 on Tuesday, convinced he is ready to take this next step.
Negotiations are expected this week.
The Rays are optimistic of a deal.
And the chance to eventually say hello in person to the next great thing.