JUPITER, Fla. — In the most exclusive travel team tournament in the baseball world — one that features Perfect Game All-Americans, top Division-I commits and likely future first-round picks —a few pleasant surprises have emerged from the diamonds this weekend at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex, the Spring Training home of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins.
In front of dozens of scouts — college and pro — on the Marlins Quad Sunday afternoon at the WWBA World Championship, right-hander Gabriel Gonzalez (2014, Las Vegas, Nev.) made his debut on the national stage for the Ohio Warhawks, showcasing his hidden talent.
After firing his first 16 pitches in the 85-91 mph range, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Gonzalez popped his catcher’s glove with six consecutive pitches at 92-94 mph, grabbing the attention of everyone in attendance.
“Gonzalez is one of the faster arms in the class,” said Perfect Game Scouting Supervisor and Director of High School Coverage, Todd Gold, who watched among the countless number of golf carts behind the backstop. “He gets good extension to the plate, so even though his velocity generally sits in the low-90s, it plays up even more.”
Gonzalez touched 94 mph twice on Sunday, but that’s not his top velocity. He peaked at 96 mph two weeks ago, but eased up under the pressure of the big stage on Sunday.
“I felt good coming into the game,” Gonzalez told Perfect Game moments after the Warhawks’ 3-1 loss to Palm Beach PAL. “I felt really confident in my stuff. They weren’t going to touch me if I threw as hard as I could’ve, but I had to ease up to make sure I threw strikes.”
Gonzalez felt the heat in his first exposure to the pressure-packed atmosphere in Jupiter, and it wasn’t just from the mid-80 degree temperatures in late October. The high school senior is still adjusting to the attention that his right arm attracts, which is understandable given that he’s still very new to pitching.
“The last two years in high school, I didn’t play,” Gonzalez said. “My junior year on varsity (at Arbor View in Las Vegas, Nev.), I only pitched 11 innings. But I came out and worked my butt off over the summer, and now I’m here.”
Gonzalez credits his high school coach, Jay Guest, with many of the opportunities he’s been afforded, such as playing for Ron Slusher’s Ohio Warhawks in Jupiter. Coach Guest also introduced Gonzalez to the baseball staff at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where Gonzalez has since verbally committed to.
And even though pro scouts are salivating over Gonzalez’s potential after seeing him pitch on Sunday, he’s focused on getting his education.
“The draft is an after-thought,” he said. “I just want to focus on what I have now. And if I get the opportunity to go (pro) one day, I’ll be happy to play.”
Despite this, Gold believes pro teams will consider Gonzalez in June’s MLB draft.
“In terms of raw ingredients, and the things you’re looking for as a scout, there’s a lot of potential and upside with him,” Gold said. “Pitching in front of the crowd he did in Jupiter helped his stock, and he’s really established himself on the radar of a lot of (pro) teams.”
Although he threw only four-seam fastballs on Sunday, Gonzalez also throws a two-seam fastball, a changeup and a curveball. His best secondary offering is his curve, one Gonzalez calls his go-to pitch.
He’s nowhere near a finished product, but if drafted by the right team one day, Gonzalez could flourish.
“There are a lot of things he needs to work on mechanically,” Gold said. “But those are things that can be done in the player development system after he’s drafted. In terms of raw talent, he has everything you’re looking for.”
It also helps that he has former major league pitcher Eddie Guardado on his side. The former first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins in 1990 — who saved 187 games while playing with four different teams in his 17-year big league career — took Gonzalez under his wing at the Area Code Games in August. “Everyday Eddie” gave Gonzalez a place to stay during the tournament, and offered him a few valuable tips.
“Stay with your game,” Gonzalez said when asked what Guardado taught him. “If something is working, don’t change it.”
That advice worked well for Gonzalez in his 1.1 innings of relief on Sunday, an opportunity that leaves him better prepared for the next time he takes the mound in front of dozens of eager talent evaluators.
“I think now that I’ve seen all the scouts that are here to watch me, I won’t be as nervous next time,” he said. “I can go out and do my thing: Just focus on the glove.”
Gonzalez wasn’t the only pleasant surprise who emerged this weekend in Jupiter. Right-hander Brad Deppermann (2014, Palm Harbor, Fla.) fanned five batters in 3.1 innings Saturday afternoon for Chandler Baseball. The No. 22-ranked right-handed pitching prospect in Florida’s 2014 high school class pounded the strike zone at 90-92 mph while flashing a late-breaking slider in the low-80s with tight rotation.
Vanderbilt commit Brendan Spagnuolo (2014, Messapequa, N.Y.) also lit up the radar gun with his pitching performance Sunday morning. The right-hander fanned four batters in four scoreless innings, touching 94 mph while showcasing an impressive repertoire that also included a low-80s changeup with good sink and a low-80s breaking pitch.
To understand the opportunities playing in Jupiter can provide young players, one should look no further than right-hander Carlos Salazar. At the 2012 WWBA World Championship, Salazar, like Gonzalez, pitched for the Ohio Warhawks and went from relatively unknown to No. 34 overall in his class by dazzling opposing batters with his 96 mph heat. Eight months later, Salazar was drafted in the third round by the Atlanta Braves, signing with them in exchange for a $625,000 bonus.
Now that Gonzalez understands the significance of his performance in Jupiter, he’s better prepared for what lies ahead.
“This was a great opportunity,” he said. “Now I just have to keep working out, stay with my program and do everything I can to get to the big leagues.”