Ever tempted by tall high-school pitchers with high-amp fastballs, the Blue Jays made17-year-old right-hander Phil Bickford a first-round draft choice on Thursday.
An under-the-radar choice whose stock rose this spring in tandem with increased velocity on his fastball, the 6-foot-4 Bickford struck out 18 hitters last Saturday, including 11 straight, to lead Westlake Village Oaks Christian to the a division-4 California high school championship, 4-0, over Pico Rivera El Rancho.
Oaks Christian is a prep school, west of Beverley Hills. Wayne Gretzky's son Trevor was drafted out of the school in the seventh round by the Chicago Cubs, in 2011.
"The championship game was a big thing for us," said the school's coach, Tim Penprase. "He has an ability to turn it on in a big game like few people do."
His fastball touches 97 mph and he's described as comfortable throwing the pitch in the 92-94 mph range routinely. Penprase said Bickford worked with trainers to increase his core strength, directly resulting in improvement on his fastball.
"He's a great young man," said Penprase. "Off the field, he's really laid back, loves to have a good time. On the mound he's a bulldog, a hard-worker who sets goals … an incredible athlete and a clubhouse favourite. The Blue Jays are going to be very happy with him."
The tall, athletic type is "something we focus on," scouting director Brian Parker said. "These are the types of frames and athletes we're looking to get into our rotation, and hopefully lead our rotation."
Bickford was listed as the No. 8 right-handed pitching prospect by Baseball America, however Baseball Prospectus described him as the fastest rising prospect among this year's class in the eyes of evaluators, projecting him to be chosen No. 8 overall.
"One of the things we like in his ability to get people out with the fastball," Parker said. "We think he's got one of the best fastballs in the draft, whether college or high school. I saw him at the Area Code games in Long Beach [Calif.] last summer. He's tall, athletic and young with a good arm and a high ceiling. He's just the type of guy we're looking for."
His off-speed stuff is described by various outlets as "under-developed" which is probably a good thing, meaning he's relied on his fastball and placed less stress on his arm by throwing curves, sliders and cutters.
Bickford has signed a letter of commitment with Cal State Fullerton, a highly reputed program being attended by Ryan Kellogg of Whitby, Ont, who went 11-1 as a freshman this season. Ricky Romero, now pitching at Triple-A Buffalo, is an alumnus. Parker said he's "confident" of being able to persuade Bickford to accept a signing bonus and go into professional baseball. The amount slotted by major league baseball to the Jays for the No. 10 pick is $2.9 million. Penprase said, "I can't imagine why he wouldn't sign."
Last year, 30 of the 31 first-round picks decided to turn pro, with only Stanford junior Mark Appel turning back an offer. Appel was made the No. 1 draft choice overall on Thursday by the Houston Astros. If a high school player elects to accept a scholarship, he cannot become eligible for the draft again, until after his third year of university.
Former Blue Jays first baseman Fred McGriff announced the club's second pick, No. 47 overall. Clinton Hollon, 18, is a relatively small-ish right-hander who led Woodford County high school to the Kentucky state championship. Ranked as the No. 91 prospect by Baseball America, Hollon, 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, reportedly throws up to 96 mph using extraordinary arm speed. He's committed to the University of Kentucky.
The Jays made high school position player D.J. Davis their first pick in 2012 at No. 17, out of Wiggins, Miss.
Deck McGuire, a 6-foot-6 right-hander taken with the No. 11 pick in 2011, is 3-5 with a 5.40 ERA at New Hampshire in 11 starts. Their second first-rounder in 2011, Tyler Beede, a 6-foot-4 right-hander from Auburn, Mass., accepted a scholarship from Vanderbilt University rather than sign with the Jays as their No. 21 pick.
Teams draft and develop players with the aim of making their own major league rosters or to be used as trade bait. The starting lineup fielded by the Blue Jays in San Francisco Wednesday had just one draft pick in the field, first baseman Adam Lind.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos is now on the clock, as the overseer of the draft. From his first draft in 2010, two players have been promoted to the majors, left-hander Sean Nolin, a sixth round selection, and right-hander Sam Dyson, a fouth-rounder. Both are playing in Double-A New Hampshire and together, they've appeared in three games, two for Dyson last season and one for Nolin this year.
Past successes from the draft's first round in the past have included closer Billy Koch (fourth, 1996), outfielder Vernon Wells (fifth, 1997), starter Ricky Romero (sixth, 2005), second baseman Aaron Hill (13, 2203), starting pitcher Chris Carpenter (15, 1993), outfielder Shawn Green (16, 1991) and starter Roy Halladay (17, 1995).