Two years ago Rick Porcello was a flame-throwing right-handed pitcher at Seton Hall Prep – the Gatorade National Player of the Year on the country's best high school team. But when the Major League Baseball Draft came, Porcello, because of "signability'' issues, slipped to 27th overall to the Detroit Tigers, 25 spots lower than where some experts had projected him.
Now, as a 20-year old, he is arguably the best rookie in the American League, a key reason why Detroit leads the AL Central and a cornerstone of the Tigers' franchise.
With all the plaudits that Porcello has already accrued, it's not a stretch to say that Detroit received great value in its selection. Yet, Porcello isn't the first New Jersey product to turn out to be a valuable selection in the draft. The Garden State has proven to be a consistent producer of major-league talent.
"The state has become the best baseball-producing state in the northeast," says Baseball America's Aaron Fitt. "Most years they've got some high end guys there and decent depth. This year is kind of the same. You've got a first-round pick in Mike Trout. And you've got some power arms in the college ranks with David Hale, and Ryan Buch and Sean Black."
Trout, a center fielder from Millville High School, is the definitive top player in the class. Scouts have described him as a solid all-around player and some mock drafts have projected him as high as 10th overall to the Washington Nationals.
"The comparison I've heard a couple times with him is that he's an Aaron Rowand-kind of player but with more speed," says Fitt, comparing him to the San Francisco Giants' center fielder. "He's a potential five-tool outfielder and he's that kind of a hard nosed player like Rowand. He's got power potential and that is the one thing that needs to come with him."
Trout's coach Roy Hallenbeck says it's not difficult to see why his star player is so attractive to teams.
"He's a total package because he is a big kid," says Hallenbeck. "He's 6-1, 205 with power and a strong arm but he's very fast, he runs very well. So I think that's what is most attractive about him is a combination of speed and power."
Trout has earned all of this praise after a year in which he spent setting records and raising his profile. He batted .531, hit 18 home runs, drove in 45 runs and scored 49 times. After a season like that, it was hard for teams not to take notice.
"Scouts just love this kid," says Fitt. "He's just such a good kid. Good family, good coaches that have done everything the right way. He's going to be certainly a first round pick, maybe a top-20 pick. He's helped his stock more this year than possibly any other player out there."
While Trout is the definite top position player from New Jersey, Hale is regarded as the best pitcher. The Marrieta, Ga. native has spent the past three years at Princeton and left scouts reminded of a classic power reliever. His 4.74 ERA this past season was not impressive, especially coming from the Ivy League, but his mid-late 90's fastball and slider explain why he may be a second-round pick.
"He has premium fastball velocity, a guy who can run it up to 95, 96, 97. A low-maintenance delivery ... there's a lot to like," says Fitt. "And he'll show you a good slider too, kind of a mid-80s power pitch but if you look at his numbers he didn't dominate the Ivy league which is not a dominant power conference. Based on pure potential he's got an electric arm."
Hale's battery mate, catcher Jack Murphy is also on the radar. In a weak class for hitters from Jersey, Murphy is the next one on the list after Trout. He could be drafted as early as the eighth round.
"Switch hitting catcher ... a big kid, 6-4," says Fitt. "He has raw power from both sides of the plate, he just has never really been able to translate his talent into results during games. He certainly is a guy with some question marks; this is not a sure thing kind of guy. A team could take a chance on him in the top 10 rounds just based on that he is an adequate catcher, has sure hands, he's got a strong enough arm. Not a lot mobility but a guy that could be behind the plate and he could hit for power for you if you could get him to tap into his ability."
The strength of the 2009 group is in its pitching depth and behind Hale are two more college arms.
Monmouth's Buch had a sub par 4.31 ERA but did strike out 92 in 77.1 innings pitched. Fitt says Buch has one of the best curveballs in the entire draft. He could go anywhere from the third to fifth round.
Seton Hall's Black is also getting a long look from teams. He finished this year with a 3.99 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 85.2 innings. A second round pick by the Nationals out of high school, he may be a fifth rounder this year.
Other New Jersey names to watch are Gloucester Catholic shortstop Stephen Bruno and Don Bosco stars Anthony Gomez and Brett Knief.