Short MLB Draft threatens to ice out Jersey boys

By Bob Behre | June 10, 2020

MLB Draft hopeful and Diamond Jack Luke Storm batted .448 as a 2019 junior at Easton Area (Pa.) High.

The absolute starvation we are experiencing right now in regard to both playing and watching baseball will get a bit of a lift today and tomorrow when Major League Baseball holds its First Year Players Draft live on both MLB Network and ESPN.

It will be a very different MLB Draft, however, as the league has reduced its annual selection of high school and college players from 40 rounds down to five rounds. So, a draft that typically makes lifelong dreams come true for more than 1,200 players nationally will see that number drop to a paltry 160.

Coverage begins at 7 p.m. tonight on MLB Network and ESPN when a total of 37 first round and Competitive Balance Round A picks will be selected. The draft concludes tomorrow with Rounds 2-through-5 and the final 123 picks. Through it all, fans can also follow the draft on Twitter at either @MLBDraftTracker or @MLBDraft.

Major League Baseball has shaved the overall draft numbers in a cost-saving effort in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is estimated the draft round reduction will save each MLB organization about $30 million in signing bonuses. Worse news for the 2020 draftees, with minor leagues franchises still shut down due to the pandemic and the major league season in doubt, they really have nowhere to go to play ball.

Players not taken in the draft but signed as free agents this summer are limited to $20,000 signing bonuses. That will chase many would-be signees back to college.

In the Garden State, a pair of Jersey Shore players have drawn enough interest to believe they can be selected in the first five rounds.

Justin Fall, a 6-7, 240-pound lefthander and 2017 Toms River South grad, told he believes he could be drafted tomorrow. Fall, a junior at Arizona State, has a fastball that has touched 96. Baseball America ranked him the No. 122 prospect in the nation after his sophomore year at Brookdale Community College in 2019.

Patrick Reilly, a 6-3, 210-pound righthander from Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, is listed No. 181 in MLB Pipeline’s Top 200 Draft Prospects and also has a shot of landing in the top five rounds. Reilly is committed to Vanderbilt.

Diamond Jack Luke Storm has a shot at being selected in the MLB Draft held tonight and tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Diamond Jack Luke Storm, a senior shortstop at Easton Area High School in Pa., is ranked by Prep Baseball Report as his state’s top shortstop and No. 3 prospect overall.

The exceptional Storm is a 6-5, 235-pound switch-hitting specimen. He committed to Duke at the start of his sophomore season at Easton and has a shot at landing in the top five rounds as well. Storm is not listed among MLB Pipeline’s Top 200 but the uncertainty surrounding this draft makes prognosticating nothing more than interesting reading.

“My goal is to play professional baseball,” said Storm by phone on Tuesday. “The fastest route there is the route I’ll follow, whether that’s the draft or playing two or three years in college.”

Storm put forth a staggering offensive show as a junior at Easton in 2019, batting .448 with 10 doubles, four triples and two HRs while scoring 27 runs and knocking in 24 runs in 24 games. He boasted a .589 on-base percentage and an .821 slugging percentage to amass a 1.410 OPS. The huge season earned Storm the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Most Valuable Player award voted on by that conference’s coaches.

Whether or not the loss of his senior season costs him a draft spot is soon to be learned but that did not stop major league clubs from expressing their interest directly to Storm.

“I had an at home visit by the Pirates prior to everything being shut down,” Storm said. “They were saying then that I could go in the second or third round.”

With the change in draft priorities since the start of the pandemic, Storm has also had teams, “talk about me signing after the draft. But $20,000 isn’t worth it with Duke in my back pocket. I guess day two of the draft is possible.”

Storm also has had direct contact with the St. Louis, San Diego and Florida organizations, to name a few. On Thursday, he will join a Zoom meeting with Duke head coach Chris Pollard. “Coach says he has some important information to tell us, so I’m looking forward to that.”

Duke University has indicated it is planning to open its campus to classes in September.

Somerville’s Gavin Stellpflug had drawn the attention of pro scouts heading into spring.

Four other Diamond Jacks had garnered enough attention heading into their senior seasons that they had reason to dream that draft day could be special for them, too. A full high school season and a typical 40-round draft could have made a big difference to Adam Boucher, Drew Conover, Alex Stone and Gavin Stellpflug.

Boucher, a 6-5, 205 righthander and also committed to Duke, has been on a quick rise the past year and was a likely draft pick in a full draft. How high Boucher would have gone or how much a team was willing to spend to coax the St. Joseph (Met.) senior out of a Duke education was the question.

“I think Adam is the textbook example of a high school arm impacted by the reduction in draft rounds,” says Boucher’s high school coach Mike Murray. “He’s worked his tail off to transform himself from a raw talent into a very intriguing pro prospect. Had he had a chance at a full spring and the full complement of rounds, you may have seen a team pool some money together to go above slot for a high upside arm.”

Boucher has had his velocity inch up to 94-96 in recent bullpens. “He was poised to turn in a state player of the year type season,” said Murray. “With a strong academic background and the commitment to Duke, scouts may not be able to take a shot at Adam with the limited picks and tougher signability.”

Conover, a 6-5, 185 righty from Voorhees High School in Hunterdon County, has a commitment to Seton Hall University and a fastball that has hit 90. Stone, a bruising 6-5, 222-pound catcher from Newton High School, has also committed to Duke and turned plenty of heads along the way with both his bat and acumen behind the plate.

Another big righthander, the 6-5, 200-pound Gavin Stellpflug put himself on the radar of pro scouts for his vast improvements during the past 12 months and a well-documented highly motivated work ethic. Stellpflug, a senior at Somerville High School, has a commitment to Maryland with his high-80s heater.

A year ago, former Diamond Jack Anthony Volpe was drafted in the first round, 30th overall, by the Yankees. He had just helped lead his high school, Delbarton, to a state championship. In fact, the Diamond Jacks program has been on quite a draft roll.

One year earlier, another former Diamond Jack, Brandon Hylton, was selected in the 33rd round by the Milwaukee Brewers. Hylton was graduated from Ridge High School and opted to play for Stetson University. Immaculata High’s Nick Egnatuk was drafted by the Brewers in 2017. Derek Jenkins, a Seton Hall University and North Hunterdon grad was selected by the Angels in 2016, and Kevin Mahala of Seton Hall Prep and George Washington University was plucked by the Pirates the same year. In 2015, Tyler Phillips was drafted by the Rangers out of Bishop Eustace Prep.

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