SAN DIEGO -- Three winters ago, the Padres set their sights on a high school left-hander from a remote county in southern North Carolina. MacKenzie Gore’s stock was rising, and sure enough, Gore broke out that spring, winning National Player of the Year honors with a 0.19 ERA and 158 strikeouts. The Padres later selected him No. 3 overall in the 2017 MLB Draft.
Earlier this year, San Diego targeted another high school lefty from Columbus County (suddenly a Padres hotbed). But Jagger Haynes never got a chance for his senior breakout. When Haynes' name was called in the fifth round of the 2020 MLB Draft, it drew mostly blank stares.
Who, exactly, was this wiry 6-foot-3 left-hander? No one seemed to know. Haynes went unranked by nearly every major publication, and online scouting reports on him were practically nonexistent. At 17 years, 8 months old, Haynes was the youngest pitcher selected in the entire Draft.
One Padres evaluator called Haynes a “secret weapon."
Said righty Seth Frankoff: "They might have the steal of the Draft."
If anyone would know, it's Frankoff. The 31-year-old right-hander signed a Minor League deal with an invite to Padres camp this offseason. But when Spring Training was halted due to the pandemic, Frankoff returned to his home in Cerro Gordo, N.C., where Haynes also lives.
“In a small town, the options for places to work out are fairly limited, so I got to know him,” Frankoff said. “He’d work out with us during the offseason. Then, when I came back in April, he basically worked out with me every single day for 2 1/2 months.”
Frankoff's depiction of “a small town" is an understatement. A coastal plain an hour west of Wilmington, Cerro Gordo’s population was 207 at the time of the 2010 census. (From 2,200 miles away, the Padres now employ roughly 1% of the town's population.)
It's no coincidence that an outsized portion of people living in the area have succeeded on the diamond. A handful of professionals have come out of Cerro Gordo, including Haynes' neighbor, Trey Benton, and Frankoff's father-in-law, Shayne Hammond.
"Baseball is pretty much all we have to do around here," said Haynes. "All my neighbors, we all played baseball together. Baseball runs thick around here."
This spring, Haynes honed his changeup and slider into pro-caliber pitches, and his fastball ticked up to 93-94 mph. For a 6-foot-3, 170-pound 17-year-old, that type of arsenal made Frankoff take notice.
"It's certainly easy to dream on him," Frankoff said. "Just from a maturity standpoint, he's going to get older, going to get stronger. If you get him on the right program, there's a lot of untapped potential."
Padres area scout Jake Koenig first recognized that potential last September at a game between North Carolina and South Carolina’s top high school prospects.
"I got the roster," Koenig said. "I see ‘left-handed pitcher.’ Circle that. I see the birthday, and he's young. Circle that. And it's Jagger Haynes -- you've gotta be good if your name's Jagger, right? Turns out, he was."
Koenig watched a handful of Haynes' winter bullpen sessions. But with the spring season about to get underway, the pandemic struck, and Haynes was limited to working out locally.
"It was a tough process, because the scouts couldn't come out at all," Haynes said. "They really could only follow me on Twitter to see what I was doing."
Koenig thinks the limited access might’ve been a blessing in disguise for the Padres.
"If the season went on, you would've seen all 30 teams running in there," he said. "People would've been flying cross-checkers in to see him. He could've shot up the board. It's a testament to the scouting department that Mark Conner and [Padres general manager A.J. Preller] have set up, with us getting around these kids as early as possible. ... There were a lot of teams I know that had not laid eyes on him."
Comparisons between the two are overly simple. Sure, both were raw, projectable lefties from Columbus County. But Haynes comes without the accolades and a very different mix of offspeed weapons.
"It's really not fair to compare, because MacKenzie's the No. 1 pitching prospect in all of baseball," said Frankoff -- whose brother-in-law is married to Gore's sister. "But they both are left-handed, both are very athletic, both have free and easy deliveries. Their stuff is different. I certainly think there are some comps. Jagger's just not quite as developed at that age."
Frankoff's assessment is a fair one. Gore was a can't-miss prospect. Haynes was one of the Draft's biggest enigmas. If they’re going to share a rotation in San Diego one day, Haynes has a long way to go. But he has a strong pipeline to help get him there.
“It’s really cool for the Padres to run in [Columbus] County like this,” Haynes said. “… I know I’m in good hands with the Padres. They’re going to help me get to where I need to be.”