Prep Baseball Report

Who Are the Top N.J. Seniors to Watch for This Year for the Draft?

TJ Hunt
Director, PBR New Jersey

It’s the New Year, and the 2019 high school baseball season will be here before we know it. Major League Scouts typically look for things they call “tools” in high school and college players. If you are labeled a 5-tool player, you are among the elite of elite baseball prospects. Those tools include:

  • Hit for power

  • Hit for average

  • Defensive ability

  • Running

  • Arm strength/accuracy

Think about Mike Trout - Trout is one of the top base-stealers in the game - consistently among the top players in batting average and home runs (and doubles), has a strong, accurate arm and is among the top players every year for Gold Glove considerations (although has yet to garner one).

In high school players, scouts and professional teams want players who have multiple high-level tools to invest their money. Occasionally, they will take a shot on a guy who they think will develop multiple elite ‘tools’  perhaps in the later rounds for less money.

Here are some names of 2019 grads that scouts will be keening in on before the MLB Draft this June:

The big splash came in the spring and summer of 2018, when No. 1 NJ ranked 2019 RHP and Vanderbilt recruit Jack Leiter (Delbarton HS, NJ) was lighting up the radar gun at 90-92, touching 93-95. Equipped with two above average breaking balls, Leiter has been able to dominate the best hitters in the country while racking up plenty of strikeouts. Leiter’s name has quickly risen into the discussion as the top prep pitcher after performances on the big stage at East Coast Pro and Area Code Games, as well as dominating the Pan-Am Games for Team USA, in which the red, white and blue captured the Gold Medal.

No. 2 RHP/SS KC Hunt (Ramapo HS, NJ), a Mississippi State recruit, has been soaring up some draft boards, too. Hunt’s elite command of four pitches and fastball that touches 92 mph certainly make him a candidate for the draft. Although the velocity isn’t on the same level as Leiter at the moment, scouts agree that Hunt’s upside as a lanky, athletic 6-foot-3 175-pounds with long, wiry limbs is highly intriguing. Scouts have also commented on Hunt’s elite athleticism more than a few times, as he also doubles as a shortstop. He recently scored his 1,000th career point in basketball, and is one of the top players for one of the top basketball teams in the state.

No. 3 SS Anthony Volpe (Delbarton HS, NJ), a Vanderbilt recruit, has been a “big ticket” name throughout his high school career, and has lived up to that billing time and time again. Routinely performing very well at the top national events, including the East Coast Pro, Area Code Games, and with Team USA at the Pan-Am Games, he has built a strong case in front of a multitude of scouts. At 5-foot-10 170-pounds, Volpe flashes gap to gap power with a strong ability to handle the barrel and use the entire field. As noted in our article on the Pan-Am Games, Volpe was one of the top offensive contributors and maintained his presence in the middle of the order for the entire tournament - a lineup that included future first rounder (and perhaps first overall pick) SS Bobby Witt, Jr.

Governor Livingston’s switch-hitting 3B Drew Compton, a Georgia Tech recruit, had an impressive, but almost under-the-radar summer and fall, and might be a sleeper-pick in June’s draft. The 6-foot-2 185-pounder has big gap to gap power from both sides of the plate with more likely on the way in the future. Relaxed and comfortable in the box, Compton’s size and strength and power from both sides could vault him into the higher rounds with a big spring.

Morristown’s C Tate Ballestero (Virginia recruit) is another switch-hitter with tons of upside, and is currently ranked as the top catcher in the 2019 class in NJ. Ballestero’s lanky-athletic build at 6-foot-3 190-pounds shows signs of filling out considerably in the future which will likely peak the interest of the scouting community throughout the spring. A quiet receiver with soft hands and a strong throwing arm, Ballestero’s athleticism allowed him to play much of last spring at shortstop, but his value as one of the top defensive catchers in the country along with the upside at the plate will likely give him a boost in the minds of many scouts throughout the spring.

Vanderbilt recruit RHP Nick Maldonado (Seton Hall Prep HS, NJ) and Kentucky recruit RHP Ron Cole (Neptune HS, NJ) are prime candidates for breakout springs -- and consequently will both be attending the prestigious Super 60 Professional Showcase in February in Chicago. Maldonado has elite command of three pitches along with a polished delivery and advanced pitchability. At 88-91, Maldonado is able to spot his fastball to both sides of the plate and attack the zone. He’s able to command all portions of the strike zone with a fastball that features some late life, an 11/5 breaking ball that he can pour over for a strike or use as an out pitch, and a changeup that he uses in any count. Cole is more of a sinker-slider type whose slingshot arm action provides for a unique look for hitters. PBR National Crosschecker, Shooter Hunt, labeled him as throwing “bowling ball” fastballs when he saw him this fall - as the fastball features impressive armside sink at speeds up to 93 MPH, and swing-and-miss slider, too.

Virginia Tech recruit RHP Stephen Restuccio (Hammonton HS, NJ) looks the part of a future professional pitcher with proportional strength throughout a physical, 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame. His fastball peaked at 95 mph this fall, and jumps out of his hand after a loose, easy arm stroke. His physical frame and strong right arm will have scouts following him this spring.

The best pitcher in the state, if we’re talking about his impact on high school baseball in 2018 was LHP Ryan Ramsey (Pascack Hills HS, NJ), a Maryland recruit. Easy, simple and effortless delivery, the southpaw sits at 86-89 with the fastball, and has 91 mph in there when needed. His breaking ball has swing-and-miss potential, and he also has a changeup that he wrinkles in for strikes at 79-81. It will be interesting to see where he’s at once the weather warms in New Jersey.

Virginia Tech recruit C Cade Hunter (Lenape HS, NJ) will be another participant at the Super 60 Showcase in a few weeks. Hunter has elite athleticism at the catcher position. He ran a 6.65 60-yard dash at the PBR Mid-Atlantic Showcase back in October, and possesses strength and an effortless approach from the left side. Given his gap to gap approach and profile as a left-handed hitting catcher, Hunter will get looks from professional scouts throughout the spring.

Notre Dame recruit RHP Liam Simon (Freehold Township HS, NJ) rose exponentially last summer as a draft prospect. The fastball revved up to 93 MPH with long, lanky limbs to fill out. He has a polished delivery and looks the part of a future starter with an athletic frame, and a chance to throw multiple pitches for strikes. However, it could be difficult to pry him away from the commitment to Notre Dame, and he may ultimately have to wait until after his junior year to hear his name called in the draft.

Georgia Tech recruit OF Stephen Reid (Governor Livingston HS, NJ) is a part of a stacked one-two punch in the middle of G.L.’s order along side the aforementioned Drew Compton. Reid’s stature at the plate is intimidating: broad-shouldered with a strong lower half, and his run of homering in 8+ regular season games last spring was certainly of note to scouts. His power-projection could help boost his draft stock this spring.

St. Augustine Prep teammates RHP Gerry Peacock (Notre Dame commit) and Jayson Hoopes (Virginia commit) will certainly see the radar guns behind the backstop this spring. Peacock’s velocity has seen an uptick since last spring -- he sat 90-92 at the PBR Mid-Atlantic ProCase in late October, 2018. Another long, lanky frame - Peacock is one of several frontline pitchers for a loaded St. Augustine squad.

Hoopes’ power fastball and live arm opened eyes all summer to put him on the map for the 2019 MLB draft. He whips fastballs up to the plate at speeds up to 94 mph with more potentially on the way. The big question(s) for Hoopes will be: can he maintain the velocity and command for over the course of 7 innings. I see Hoopes as a power-arm, back-end of the bullpen reliever at the next level. While those types of pitchers usually are forced to prove themselves at the college-level first, the potential to grab an upside, hard-throwing right-hander with a quick arm may allow for some teams to jump on him.

Dark Horse(s)
Red Bank Catholic’s RHP Vincent Bianchi (St. John’s recruit) possesses a prototypical pitcher’s build at 6-foot-3 175-pounds with room to fill out. There were whispers of a mid 90s fastball throughout the fall, and they are easily believable given the quickness of his arm, and he has comfortably sat 86-89 in the past. The breaker is landed for strikes with 11/5 shape, and has a chance to develop much more in the future. He is certainly a guy who will benefit from offseason training, another year of competitive baseball under his belt, and will be counted on as the horse of RBC’s staff as a senior. Look for Bianchi to make big jumps this year.

Another Maryland recruit, RHP Connor Staine (West Morris Central HS, NJ) has a loose, whippy arm action and consistently sits 86-89 and a breaking ball with sharp 11/5 action in the low 70s. Scouts love his profile and projection at 6-foot-3 182-pounds with lanky, wiry limbs.

Bishop Eustace’s OF John Piacentino (Penn State recruit) has the strength and athleticism to play pro ball right now. A 6.7 runner, Piacentino was one of B.E.’s top offensive threats in 2018. With his well-rounded game and ability to step on the mound too, Piacentino will garner some attention this spring. He was 87-90 on the bump at the MSI Invitational.

Gloucester Catholic’s Lillo Paxia (Florida State recruit) has had an impressive high school career so far, and reminds me of a right handed hitting Kyle Schwarber. Hitting in the middle of G.C.’s order since his freshman year, Paxia’s short, explosive swing has catapulted him to the top of the statistical charts year in and year out, and has made him one of the most intimidating hitters in South Jersey. The draft certainly is a possibility, but I think Paxia ultimately ends up at Florida State in the fall. His hit tool is impressive, but I think scouts would need to see him find a true position in the field first.

Rutherford's RHP/INF Breyln Jones remains uncommitted - but his draft stock continues to rise. Jones is the son of former long-time big league pitcher Bobby Jones, so he certainly has the bloodlines. The lanky right hander was hampered by nagging injuries in the summers the last couple of years, but has looks poised for a strong finish to his high school career.

C Steven Nitch (Passaic Valley HS, NJ) is currently committed to JUCO power Manatee in Florida - but is another guy that I would not be surprised if he is scooped up in June. He's the coveted left handed hitting catcher with a strong arm and quick release and has made massive strides over the course of the last 18 months.