SAN DIEGO -- Surprises piled up during a wild first hour of the MLB Draft on Wednesday, but the Padres remained unmoved. General manager A.J. Preller had made plans to select sweet-swinging outfielder Robert Hassell at No. 8 overall. And he stuck to his plan.
A left-handed hitter from Independence High School in Thompson’s Station, Tenn., Hassell was the first high schooler taken in the 2020 Draft. He batted .423 with 14 home runs as a junior and took home state player of the year honors in each of the past two seasons.
"We think," said Padres scouting director Mark Conner, "we added the best prep hitter in the class."
Hassell's selection marks the latest point at which the top high schooler has come off the board in Draft history. Later in the evening the Padres gambled on another high-upside high schooler, selecting right-hander Justin Lange at No. 34.
Hassell is expected to stick in center field, though he's likely capable of playing all three outfield spots with solid instincts and a strong arm. (In 2018, Hassell pitched a 17-strikeout no-hitter to clinch the district title.)
But his defining trait is -- without question -- his bat. Hassell's swing is easy and as smooth as they come. He used it to bat .385/.467/.654 at the MLB Prospect Development Pipeline Showcase last summer. He followed that by hitting .514 at the 18-U World Cup in South Korea, earning International Player of the Year for his performance in the tournament.
"He's had that swing since he started playing baseball," said Mike McLaury, Hassell's coach at Independence High. "It hasn't changed much. He's just gotten bigger, stronger and faster, but his swing has not changed much. He was just born with it."
Hassell's father was the first to see the swing in action -- albeit with some trial and error. It’s family legend that a 4-year-old Hassell looked flat-out dreadful when his dad tried to teach him to swing right-handed.
"He came back inside and told my mom, ‘I think that's the worst thing I've ever seen in my life; I think we should try something else,'" Hassell said. "But he brought me back out there and he turned me around to lefty, and it was just natural. I was hitting everything."
The same swing helped carry Hassell and South Nashville to consecutive Little League World Series berths in 2013 and '14. He famously squared off with Mo'ne Davis, the first girl to earn a win and to pitch a shutout in LLWS history. It was Hassell's first exposure to the bright lights, and he says the experience prepared him to play regularly in front of dozens of scouts.
Two years later, Hassell was a freshman playing varsity baseball at Independence High. And it didn't take McLaury long to realize he had something special.
"It was a cold day, definitely not a hitter's day,” McLaury recalled of Hassell’s high school debut. “First at-bat, he went deep, halfway up the light pole. Everybody there said, 'uh oh.' ... And he was a freshman just getting into high school. He has an ability to put the good part of the bat on the middle of the ball."
Ultimately, that's what the Padres loved most about Hassell.
"As good as any bat in the country," Preller said.
As with any 18-year-old ballplayer, there are question marks. For Hassell, the two biggest are whether he can stick as a center fielder and whether he'll grow into power at the plate.
Conner answered with a resounding "yes" to both of those questions, touting Hassell's projectable and athletic 6-foot-2 frame. He also touted Hassell's makeup and "ultra-competitive" demeanor.
To be fair, every draft pick receives platitudes about competitiveness. Then again, Hassell's family recently banned Yahtzee from the house because games got too heated.
On Wednesday night, that competitiveness came oozing out in Hassell's response to the two critiques of his game. Yes, he's heard them. No, he doesn't buy them.
"I believe I'm a center fielder forever," Hassell said. "And my power? That's been a question, and I don't understand why, honestly. Every time I see something on Twitter, I just go upstairs and look at the buckets of baseballs of home runs that I have."
The Draft continues on Thursday with Rounds 2-5. The MLB Network preview show begins at 1 p.m. PT, with live coverage on MLB Network and ESPN2 beginning at 2 p.m. PT.