By Bob Behre
Three former Diamond Jacks out of Diamond Nation were selected in Major League Baseball’s draft and another signed as an undrafted free agent shortly after the draft.
Right-handed pitchers Nick Maldonado of Vanderbilt, Drew Conover of Rutgers and Adam Boucher of Duke were selected by Miami, Tampa Bay and Oakland, respectively. K.C. Hunt of Mississippi State, another right-handed pitcher, was signed by the Brewers shortly after the draft.
Hunt, in fact, was drafted a year ago in the 12th round by the Pirates, but chose to return to Mississippi State where he won a national championship in 2021. His team defeated Maldonado’s Vanderbilt team in that College World Series final.
Every organization is built on its success in developing young players into well-rounded ball players and human beings. To see four players in one season from one organization get the opportunity they’ve been working toward for so long is extremely gratifying, as any quality organization will attest.
“It’s a testament to everything we do in the development of players,” says Travis Anderson, Diamond Nation’s On-Field Coordinator. “This is what the Cust family has envisioned all along. We always put the kids first. I’m very proud to be a part of this success story.”
Maldonado, Conover, Boucher and Hunt will now try to replicate the ascendance to MLB of recent players to come through the Diamond Jacks and Super 17 programs, including Mike Trout, Rick Porcello, Joe Martinez, Nick Christiani, Anthony Ranaudo, Anthony DeSclafani, Anthony Volpe, Mike Ford and Matt Thaiss.
Nick Maldonado has been Vanderbilt’s steadiest reliever the past four years and capped his four-year stay with the Commodores with another impressive campaign. The Seton Hall Prep grad and Short Hills resident went 1-1 out of the pen with eight saves and a 1.45 ERA. He struck out 40 batters and walked just seven in 31 innings-pitched.
The Marlins had shown quite a bit of interest in the 6-1, 207 Maldonado the past two seasons, so it wasn’t shocking when they called Nick’s name in the eighth round.
“I wasn’t surprised since there had been a lot of prior communication,” said Maldonado from Jupiter, Florida. “I was a sophomore eligible so we’ve been talking the past two years. Once it got late on the second day of the draft, they reached out.
“Those rounds go very quickly on the second day, so you wonder if your name is going to be called. I’m just grateful to go anywhere in the draft, honestly. This opportunity is special.”
Maldonado, a terrific all-around player in high school and always viewed by scouts as a high level athlete, put forth impressive career numbers on the mound for Vanderbilt, the 2021 College World Series runner-up his sophomore season.
Nick Maldonado, right, played one year at Seton Hall Prep and Vanderbilt with brother, Chris, left.
He posted a career 2.62 ERA to go with 139 strikeouts and just 31 walks in 127 innings-pitched. He was 5-4 with 17 saves mostly out of the bullpen.
“Nick was just a rock at the back end of our bullpen for the last three years,” said Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown. “He has such a steady heartbeat and a high believability in his stuff.”
The 6-1, 207-pound Maldonado is in Jupiter getting the very first physical movements of his professional career underway.
“I threw my first bullpen this morning,” he said last Thursday. “We are building up right now, throwing and doing PFPs (pitchers’ fielding practice).”
Jupiter is home to the Marlins’ Single-A club, the Hammerheads, a spot where Maldonado could land.
“I’m looking forward to throwing some live innings during the next few weeks,” he said. “We’ll get a taste of it soon.“
Maldonado was thrilled to see a couple former Diamond Jacks – Boucher and Conover – drafted, as well, and Hunt getting scooped up shortly after. Maldonado played six years, starting when he was 13 years old, in the Diamond Jacks program.
“It’s cool to see people you know picked up and signed somewhere,” Maldonado said. “It brings it back to Diamond Nation for me. That’s where I started. I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in, getting drafted, without those coaches. I’m grateful to have played for great coaches at Diamond Nation and that it was close enough to home that I could be there every day.”
Maldonado’s experience with coaches has been terrific at every stop. Aside from the Diamond Jacks program, he played for Mike Sheppard, Jr. at Seton Hall Prep. Sheppard, Jr. is second on New Jersey’s all-time career victories list and has long been recognized as one of the state’s top mentors.
Nick then chose Vanderbilt for his undergraduate studies and to further his study of the sport of baseball under legendary coach Tim Corbin.
“It’s hard to put into words what the Vanderbilt program has done for me,” said Maldonado. “It’s tough to say goodbye to it. I learned things at Vanderbilt I could not have learned anywhere else. What I learned from coach Brown and coach Corbin about baseball and life has made me a better man.”
Corbin’s feelings for Maldonado are equally strong. “Nick is a program guy,” he said. “He’s mature, consistent, reliable, trustworthy, mentally tough and smart. He has the rare quality of being a very good baseball player that pitches. He has a good acumen for the game and has filled every role on the mound for us.”
Nick’s senior year was surely special for the team’s 42-20 record in the rugged Southeast Conference and its berth in the Nashville Regional, but more so for the opportunity to play his final season with his brother, freshman Chris Maldonado.
Chris, also a longtime Diamond Jack and a Seton Hall Prep grad, had an outstanding freshman season, leading the team with a .310 batting average. He also had 48 hits, scored 28 runs, had 12 doubles, 8 HRs, 32 RBI and a .953 OPS in 45 games-played. Chris’ future is as glaringly bright as Nick’s.
“That was the cherry on top for me,” said Nick about playing with his brother. “It was very cool to be able to watch that and a big reason I went back for one more year. I was able to spend time with Chris on and off the field.” The Maldonado brothers also played one year at Seton Hall Prep together.
Nick graduated with a degree in Human and Organizational Development and a minor in Business. “Baseball is my next step,” he said.
That’s the right step, according to his college pitching coach.
“The first thing on Nick’s mind with anything is TEAM,” said Brown. “He just wanted his team to win and competed every time he took the ball. I am really happy for him to get the opportunity to play professional baseball because he has the ability, mind, work ethic and stuff to play at the highest level. It wouldn’t shock me to see him in a big league bullpen in the near future.”
Maldonado, who started with the Diamond Jacks as a 13 year-old, played his first two years in the program as a teammate of the Yankees’ Anthony Volpe.
Maldonado received a $160,000 signing bonus from the Marlins.
Nine-year Diamond Jack Drew Conover of Rutgers was drafted in the 11th round by Oakland.
Drew Conover, a 6-5, 185 righty, was drafted in the 11th round by Oakland after the Voorhees High grad spent his college years at, first, Seton Hall University, then Rutgers. Conover was also drafted a year ago in the 20th round by Detroit, but chose to play one more year and promptly transferred to the Pirates’ in-state rival, 30 minutes to the south.
Conover, primarily a reliever his first three years of college, quickly became one of the Scarlet Knights’ frontline starters, registering a 5-4 record in 17 appearances, including 14 starts. He was 5-4 with a 4.50 ERA and permitted 47 hits and 34 earned runs in 68 innings. He struck out 83 and walked 45 while limiting opposing batters to a .197 batting average.
Rutgers had a second straight strong season in the Big Ten Conference, recording a 33-23 record.
“Conover is all about power and movement,” according to an assessment from MLB.com. “He can throw his fastball up to 97, with a ton of running life coming from a lower arm slot. He can miss a lot of bats with a big sweeping slider with high spin rates that he throws in the 85-88 range. He also has a hard mid-80s cutter that can be effective at times.”
Those are the types of attributes that made Conover a projected 8th-to-10th round pick. Despite coming through fairly well as a first-year starter at Rutgers, the big righty is still viewed as a reliever by pro scouts and, for that matter, his new team, the A’s.
“I’m glad I did start this year,” said Conover. “I threw 68 innings and that was by far the most I’ve thrown in a season. Stat wise I wasn’t great but I got the innings I wanted and that shows I can be durable as a reliever.”
Conover is in Mesa, Arizona with the rest of the A’s draftees but says, because of the innings he compiled during the college season, they are taking it slow with him.
“I know I have good stuff,” he says. “I need to put on strength. My ceiling is based on command. For me it’s not control, it’s command. I have a lot of work to do.”
MLB.com’s pre-draft analysis of Conover hit it pretty close.
“If Conover could find the strike zone more consistently, he would be more effective in whatever role he might fill in the future. His 6.0 BB/9 rate in 2023 actually represented a low mark in his college career, but he also struck out 11 per-nine. His ability to miss bats will intrigue teams at some point on Day 2, with a long-term gig as a reliever the most likely outcome.”
Drew will have to be patient, at least in the short term, as he is brought along at a conservative pace. “My first bullpen is not for another week or so and my first live isn’t until Aug. 18.”
In the meantime, there is plenty of “live” work going on concerning Conover’s development.
“We are at the facility five or six hours a day, working on preparation, arm care and, eventually, going inside for recovery work,” he said. Then the pitchers take in five innings of the A’s Rookie League game at the complex.
The A’s Instructional League begins on Aug. 28, where Conover will log some innings over the final month of the season.
“That first year you want to learn, that’s the biggest thing,” said Conover, who celebrates his 22nd birthday on Thursday, July 27. “You want success, but the biggest part of the game is learning and doing the right thing. These guys want you to get better. It’s all about development.”
Conover had begun his Diamond Jack career at nine years old on a 10U team that boasted current Yankees shortstop Anthony Volpe. Interestingly enough, Drew’s first few years saw him behind the plate as a catcher.
That is before Travis Anderson and the other Diamond Jack coaches convinced him to switch to the mound at the age of 14.
Yes, Drew Conover started as a catcher, not a pitcher.
“We had a big chat about it at that time and our coaches, Kevin (Cust) and Ditro (Steve DiTrolio) were all on the same page,” says Anderson. “We all felt that getting Drew on the mound was what was best for him. We had some long discussions with his parents at that time.”
Conover remembers that experience as being somewhat traumatic for a young ballplayer.
“It was a little humbling having Travis tell me I’m not going to be a catcher,” Conover recalls. “I was a pretty good hitter (on the small field) but at 13-14 years old I could see everyone developing (physically) faster than me.”
He remembers taking a 75 mile-per-hour fastball from the pitching machine off the facemask one winter workout as a 14 year-old.
“A couple days later Travis told me I’m not a catcher anymore,” Conover said. “I had long arm action as a catcher and I couldn’t hit too well.”
But Conover, who had rarely pitched to that point, saw some positive early signs on the mound. “I hit 85 in the fall of my freshman year,” he said.
Anderson was satisfied with his and his fellow coaches’ decision at the start but could not be more convinced today.
“The end result is worth the battle. Our goal is to advise you as a player, lead you and help you get to that best end result,” Anderson said.
Conover does have a pitching pedigree, by the way. His dad, Kevin, was drafted out of Rutgers in 1989 in the 25th round by the White Sox. That was after a high school career at Morristown playing for legendary coach Harry Shatel. Drew promptly took his dad’s uniform number, 31, upon arriving in Piscataway.
Unfortunately, injury cut short Kevin Conover’s pro career after one very successful season of Rookie Ball. The left-handed reliever went 1-0 with five saves and a 2.04 ERA, striking out 23 and walking seven in 17 appearances.
“That’s where we have to change the story,” said Drew of the family’s current professional ceiling being Rookie Ball. “I was drafted higher than my dad twice and now I have to play at a higher level. I love the family competition.” He also loves, he admits, all the tutelage provided over the years by the former pro ballplayer in his house.
When Conover was drafted in the 11th round he knew he’d have an immediate familiarity at his first professional landing spot because a Rutgers teammate, outfielder Ryan Lasko, had already been selected by Oakland in the second round. Lasko starred at Jackson Memorial in high school.
Then the A’s drafted Millburn High righthander Steven Echavarria in the third round, fortifying for Conover the New Jersey connection in the organization.
“Ryan and I are very social and obviously have no trouble making friends,” says Conover. “But it’s been great to have him here and as a roommate. It’s a comfort zone. Steven and his mom sat right behind me on the plane out here. I knew he was going to be a great kid because I was chatting with his mom and she is a great person.”
Drew’s next assignment is to get more comfortable with the strike zone and dominate.
Conover received a 150,000 signing bonus from Oakland.
Former Diamond Jack Adam Boucher of Duke was drafted in the 10th round by Tampa Bay.
Adam Boucher, a 6-5, 235 junior right-hander, was drafted in the 10th round by Tampa Bay.
The St. Joseph of Metuchen grad pitched plenty of meaningful innings for a Duke (39-24) squad that fell a single win shy of the College World Series, losing to Virginia in the best-of-three NCAA Super Regional in Charlottesville, VA.
Boucher enjoyed that exciting college season with two fellow former Diamond Jacks, junior catcher Alex Stone and switch-hitting junior corner infielder Luke Storm.
Boucher made 29 appearances for Duke, five of which were starts, going 1-0 with a 4.95 ERA. He permitted 33 hits and 22 earned runs in 40 innings, He struck out 59 and walked 25, holding opposing batters in the loaded ACC, and a powerhouse independent schedule, to a .224 batting average.
He went 4-2 with a 4.79 ERA in his three-year college career. He registered 110 strikeouts and walked 50 in 77 innings.
Boucher received a $148,500 signing bonus from Tampa Bay.
Former Diamond Jack K.C. Hunt was signed as an undrafted free agent by Milwaukee.
K.C. Hunt, a 6-3, 200 senior righty, was signed by Milwaukee as an undrafted free agent shortly after the end of the draft. It was a year after Hunt was drafted in the 12th round by Pittsburgh. K.C had opted to return to Mississippi State for his senior season.
Hunt, a terrific all-around athlete who scored more than 1,500 career points as a high school basketball player at Ramapo High in Wyckoff, may just be scratching the surface in his baseball career. He struggled a bit his senior season at Mississippi State, albeit against the rugged SEC competition, to the tune of an 8.54 ERA in 23 appearances but his overall tools continued to turn heads.
Hunt is regarded as having a big arm and that terrific athletic ability that can only help in his development. So, it’s fair to view him as quite a bargain as a free agent for the Brewers.
Hunt was a part of the juggernaut 2021 Mississippi State team that defeated Vanderbilt, and his Diamond Jack buddy, Maldonado, in the College World Series championship series.