TORONTO -- Amid a Draft that was heavy on college picks for the Blue Jays, Toronto reached back into the high school ranks in the 14th round Tuesday to select catcher Sammy Hernandez out of Lakeland Senior High School.
Playing just 60 miles from Dunedin, Fla., the Blue Jays’ long-time Spring Training hub and home to their new player development complex, Hernandez has only been in the United States for four years, moving with his family from Puerto Rico when he was 14 years old.
"It's really amazing," Hernandez told the Lakeland Ledger after being selected. "I can't even speak right now. I’m out of words."
After moving to Florida, baseball was central to Hernandez’s experience as he adapted to a new home, immediately starring on the Lakeland baseball team.
"My family wanted to come over here for better opportunities in life and better schools," Hernandez told The Ledger. "It was a really tough adjustment. I didn't know any English, but now I'm learning."
Now 18, Hernandez has developed into an intriguing young catching prospect, recently being named the Polk County Player of the Year and committing to play NCAA baseball at the University of Houston.
This season, Hernandez hit .411 with five home runs for the Lakeland Dreadnaughts, and while he’s made strides defensively, his bat is what’s drawn the eyes of scouts.
"He has always been a great hitter, he's always had power, but he's gotten more powerful this year," Lakeland coach Lenny Brutcher told The Ledger. "He's got a very good eye for the strike zone, and he has adjusted to hitting breaking balls even better. That's what makes him a better hitter than he was."
After the Blue Jays drafted left-hander Brandon Barriera 23rd overall and shortstop Tucker Toman 77th, the organization pivoted away from high school picks and selected 10 consecutive college players. These picks represent both sides of Draft strategy, acquiring talent while also looking for opportunities to save money on underslot deals to use for more difficult signings.
In Hernandez, though, and 12th-rounder Nolan Perry, a right-hander out of Carlsbad High School in New Mexico, the Blue Jays have added some upside to the back end of their Draft class. Hernandez’s commitment to play at Houston will be a factor, but the Blue Jays have had some success recently in signing high school picks, and their growing reputation as a player development powerhouse will only strengthen those odds.
Toronto has also become a catching factory, which wasn’t the case five years ago.
Alejandro Kirk, who will start the All-Star Game for the American League Tuesday night, was signed out of Mexico in 2016 for just $30,000 and has already developed into one of the game’s most uniquely talented hitters at age 23. Gabriel Moreno, the Venezuelan catcher signed for $25,000, is the No. 6 prospect in baseball and may have some All-Star Games of his own in the future.
When it comes to identifying and developing catching talent, the Blue Jays are doing something right from the lowest levels of their system on up. If Hernandez begins his professional journey with the Blue Jays, his family’s move from Puerto Rico to Florida and his high school success will be the early chapters of another triumphant development story.