05/18/2004 1:15 PM ET
Bucking the trend
Adenhart hopes to be among top high schoolers drafted
By Pete Kerzel / Special to MLB.com
WILLIAMSPORT, Md. -- The Exxon sign that rises in the distance above right field -- beckoning motorists from Interstate 81 -- adds a Major League touch to the baseball diamond at Williamsport High School.
|Nick Adenhart will have Tommy John surgery in June, likely ending chances of him being drafted in the first round. (Pete Kerzel)
But the homemade "K" placards, though correctly positioned for swinging or called strikeouts, adorning the left-field chain-link fence every time Nick Adenhart fans someone for the hometown Wildcats have every bit of a high school feel.
The two extremes intersect when Adenhart, a lanky 17-year-old right-hander who, when healthy, is considered one of the top high school pitchers in this year's draft class, uncorks another mitt-rattling fastball.
His health has been called into question lately as the right-hander left his last start in the first inning with elbow discomfort and later had an MRI on the elbow.
"He had an MRI on the elbow; that's probably not a good sign," said a scout familiar with Adenhart.
Before that final regular-season start, Adenhart's coach Rod Steiner predicted that his starter could go anywhere between the third and 10th picks in the draft. But results of the MRI are pending, and with it, Adenhart's status as a potential first-round pick. Should he be deemed healthy, those teams which have follwed him closely will have to determine whether they want to spend a first-round selection on a high-school player.
If Adenhart's intriguing combination of pure power and guile belying his teenage years don't drive home the point that he was considered a can't-miss first-rounder, then the symphony of baseball scouts that accompany his every start will.
"I'm used to them by now," said Adenhart, Baseball America's second-ranked high school prospect.
Forty-five minutes before gametime on a recent afternoon, almost two dozen scouts watched Adenhart warm up. Bags and satchels containing radar guns held their places behind the backstop. Each scout scribbles the important numbers -- speed of the pitch, speed of delivery -- on a notepad.
Adenhart seems immune to the attention.
"He doesn't even really want to think that they're there, or that they're here to see him," Steiner explained. "All he's doing is thinking about pitching. He does a really good job of shutting out all the distractions."
In six appearances covering 38 innings, the righty is 5-1 with an 0.91 ERA. He's amassed 85 strikeouts, making opponents shake their heads in disbelief as the scouts smile at the thought of what could be.
Milwaukee has shown interest. So have Kansas City and Tampa Bay. If he lasts until Baltimore picks, Adenhart could wind up as part of the Orioles' burgeoning crop of young pitchers.
"He's got some zip on his fastball," said another scout familiar with Adenhart. "For someone his size, he's already refined his delivery. And he's very poised -- you don't always see that in a kid his age."
At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Adenhart's arms and legs aren't a tangled mess waiting to be straightened out by a pitching coach. Where some youngsters are a tangle of whippet-like arms and uncontrollable leg kicks, Adenhart already possesses a smooth motion.
"He never looks like he labors, even when he's getting squeezed a little bit," Steiner said. "With a hard thrower, sometimes you see them labor and that's when they start getting the ball up a bit. But he doesn't do that. He's really worked to refine his delivery."
Those ubiquitous radar guns consistently clock Adenhart's fastball in the low 90s -- and it's reached 94 mph. Adenhart shows an uncanny knack for being able to stair-step the heat up and down the strike zone to find hitters' weak spots, or move hard stuff from one side of the plate to another to make batters fish for pitches.
Adenhart is far from a one-pitch pitcher, though. His power curve keeps hitters off-balance and a change-up that appears to be even slower than it is when it follows a heater -- think a drop-off to 74 mph -- makes the scouts salivate.
"He's got a lot of confidence in his change-up, and a lot of kids at this stage don't really have that," Steiner said. "He really uses the fastball to set that pitch up, and it's become an out pitch for him. Just lately, he changed his grip and found out that he could take 7 or 8 mph off the change-up."
Steiner says Adenhart's mother, father and stepfather have created a necessary barrier between the pitcher and scouts and agents. Call up the family home and you'll be greeted by a voice mail that tells you when Adenhart is next scheduled to pitch.
Adenhart says growing up in a small town has helped him remain focused.
"I like the fact that I've played with all the kids I'm playing with for a long time. I know them and they know me," said Adenhart. "We've been together through Little League and all. So it's been nice being out there with my teammates."
The letter of intent he signed to attend North Carolina is a back-up plan and nothing else. Adenhart doesn't understand why some people scoff at the notion that a high school pitcher is a risky selection early in the first round.
"I think it's a case where (teams) are thinking they might take advantage of a good arm. But everybody understands just what's on the table. ...The workload I've put on my arm is a lot less than a lot of people might expect," he said.
Steiner almost hesitates to say what the scouts only whisper. "He's good," the coach admitted. "Nick can be better. He's still developing."
And while his teammates and classmates are making plans for the traditional post-graduation trip to Atlantic beach resorts to blow off steam, Adenhart is preparing to blow steam past hitters -- assuming he signs quickly enough to play minor league ball this summer.
"Where do I want to be drafted?" he asked, repeating a question. "It really doesn't matter to me. Just being drafted is good enough. ... It's exciting. When I think about it, when I think about sharing it with my family or my little brother, or my teammates, I get a little excited about it. I've worked hard, so getting drafted would be a great honor."
Pete Kerzel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.