ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays used the 2020 MLB Draft to stockpile even more pitching talent to add to a farm system that doesn’t lack any quality arms.
After selecting prep pitcher Nick Bitsko with the No. 24 pick on Wednesday, the Rays stuck with pitching to start Day 2 of the Draft, choosing Virginia Tech’s Ian Seymour with the No. 57 pick and prep right-hander Hunter Barnhart at No. 96 on Thursday. The Rays finished the Draft the same way they started it, selecting right-hander Jeff Hakanson out of UCF.
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“I thought it was a great, great outcome,” said Rays senior director of amateur scouting Rob Metzler. “These are players that across the board are talented prospects that have the physical ability, the mental ability to make up aptitude, to complete their way through our system and then have impactful roles.”
Seymour is a very interesting left-handed pitcher, and one that scouts believe has the ability to stick as a starter if he continues to develop his pitches. The left-hander has a newly added four-seam fastball that topped out at 96 mph during a recent bullpen session, a very good changeup and a slider-cutter combination that helped him put up quality numbers before the coronavirus pandemic ended his junior season.
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“The slider, like right before we lost the season, it was really starting to get good,” said Virginia Tech pitching coach Ryan Fecteau. “I think guys will actually be pleasantly surprised when they see where the slider is at when he shows up, because that was the one pitch that was taking a little longer to get going during the season, but he’s actually a four-pitch guy.”
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With Seymour changing his slider grip and getting more confidence with the pitch, the strikeouts continued to rack up. After just four outings, the added velocity and the slider helped Seymour jump out to a fast start for the Hokies, going 3-0 with a 2.21 ERA and 40 strikeouts, including a 14-K performance against Georgia Tech. Had the season continued, Seymour could’ve had a chance to showcase that his added velocity is sustainable, which evaluators believe would’ve helped his Draft stock.
In two-plus seasons with the Hokies, Seymour struck out 191 batters in 159 2/3 innings and was on pace to challenge the Virginia Tech school record for strikeouts in a three-year career, which was set by former Major League pitcher Joe Saunders (255) from 2000-02.
If Seymour is ultimately moved to the bullpen, scouts believe his swing-and-miss ability would allow him to become a very good reliever.
“He throws strikes and he’s got swing-and-miss stuff with all of his pitches,” Fecteau said. “I don’t see why he can’t [be a starter], and if for some reason he can’t, he’s going to be a heck of a backend bullpen guy.”
MLB Pipeline had Seymour as the No. 115-ranked prospect in the Draft, and the fact that the Rays drafted him at No. 57 is by design. Seymour has the ability to return to school, but he and the Rays should come to an agreement soon, pending a physical.
Round 3, 96th overall: Hunter Barnhart, RHP, Saint Joseph High School (Calif.)
Barnhart was the quarterback at his high school, but the right-hander is ready to focus on baseball at the next level. Barnhart, who is committed to Arizona State, is one of the best high school pitchers in the Draft, mostly because of an advanced curveball and a fastball that reaches 96 mph.
The fact that Barnhart's curveball is his best pitch is interesting, considering his father didn’t allow him to throw it until he was about 12 years old. Barnhart picked up tips on how to throw the pitch by watching other big leaguers show their grips on MLB Network’s Hot Stove.
“We’d always mess around with the grips and stuff but never throw it,” Barnhart said. “Then when I started throwing it, I would just switch grips and try to find the exact grip for me, personally, and we finally came on one and now I’m just trying to make it better.”
In two starts before play was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Barnhart allowed just one run over 11 innings and struck out 18 batters. Now that the Rays have drafted him, it sounds like Barnhart is leaning toward signing with Tampa Bay, as opposed to attending Arizona State. The slot money available for Tampa Bay to sign Barnhart is $604,800.
“I was going to go to college just to get into the Draft,” Barnhart said. “College was going to be fun, but it was not going to be as much fun as it’s going to be in the MLB.”
Round 4, 125th overall: Tanner Murray, SS, University of California, Davis
Murray earned an All Big West conference first-team selection in 2019 after hitting .364 in 195 at-bats. But despite his productive sophomore season, Murray’s Draft stock took a hit after struggling at the plate during the Cape Cod League, striking out 27 times and only hitting .211. His ability at the plate is his strong tool, and the Rays believe his performance at the Cape Cod League was an outlier.
“We spent a good amount of time scouting him this fall at UC Davis,” Metzler said. “We’re happy with the progress. We really identified his defensive ability at shortstop and plus contact skills. Through the fall and into the spring, he was showing strength gains and somebody who’s offensive profile was coming on as well.”
Round 5, 155th overall: Jeffrey Hakanson, RHP, UCF
As the Draft was winding down, there was a chance that Hakanson was going to join the pool of nondrafted free agents. But then he got a call, and it was from the team that he grew up rooting for.
“It’s just incredible. There’s no way really to put it into words. Going to Rays games as a kid and just hoping one day to be out there,” Hakanson said. “It’s just incredible to be drafted by my hometown team.”
Hakanson, a Tampa Jesuit High School grad, spent the last few years at UCF and was named the Knights’ closer this season. In seven appearances with the Knights last season, he showed off his mid-90s fastball, striking out 20 batters over 8 1/3 innings. To go along with his fastball, Hakanson also has a slider and changeup that helps him generate swings and misses.
Hakanson is expected to sign with the Rays over the next couple of days.
“We saw power fastball with life, and we saw a breaking ball that we think can get real good hitters out,” Metzler said.