Major League Baseball scouts pointed their radar guns and stood two-deep behind the backstop to watch Joe Gatto of St. Augustine Prep pitch against Gloucester Catholic at Millville High School on April 27.
The senior struggled in the highly anticipated game. He was wild, perhaps too pumped up. He walked six and gave up three runs in three innings as the Hermits lost 11-1.
The Hammonton resident with a 95 mph fastball worried about the bad outing and how would it affect his chances of being selected in the First-Year Major League Player Draft, which begins at 7 p.m. Thursday. It will be televised on the MLB Network.
Gatto could become the first Cape-Atlantic League player taken in the first round since the Los Angeles Angels selected Mike Trout of Millville in 2009.
“It’s rough,” Gatto said. “It made me nervous. I felt like my stock was going to drop.”
Although it didn’t seem it at first glance, the outing made him even more attractive to Major League teams. Gatto demonstrated his mental toughness by dominating opponents after his lone defeat. He went 5-0 with a 0.41 ERA after the Gloucester Catholic outing. He finished the season with four straight complete-game wins and three consecutive shutouts.
“It gave me some momentum actually,” Gatto said. “The scouts want to see kids in their prime and kids at their lowest and see how they come out of it.”
MLB Network rates Gatto the No. 43 draft prospect in the country. Gatto flew to Chicago last Saturday to work out for the Cubs and from there flew to Kansas City to work out for the Royals last Sunday.
“I’m not nervous,” Gatto said. “It’s a good feeling. I’m a little unsure. I don’t know where I’m going to end up. Anything can happen in the draft. People fall or slip. Teams come out of nowhere. Whatever happens, happens. But I think I put myself in the best situation for whatever is to come.”
At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Gatto looks like a player who should be drafted. He was a good enough athlete to start at quarterback for the St. Augustine football team as a freshman and sophomore. He started for the Prep basketball team as a junior, wowing fans with his leaping ability.
Gatto caught the eyes of Major League scouts last August when he pitched in a pair of national all-star games.
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind for Gatto. He graduated on May 18 — the same day the Hermits won the prestigious Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic for the first time in school history.
St. Augustine finished 24-5, losing to Gloucester Catholic 9-0 in the South Jersey Non-Public A semifinals last Friday. Gatto did not pitch. He then worked out in Chicago and Kansas City and arrived back in New Jersey early Monday morning. To top things off, he will turn 19 on June 14.
“It’s been a thrill,” Gatto said. “It’s been awesome. It’s been hectic, but for the most part I think I’ve coped with it pretty well.”
It can be a heady experience being interviewed by scouts and reading on the Internet that a Major League team wants you. St. Augustine coach Mike Bylone said Gatto never became overwhelmed by the process.
“It would have been very easy for an 18-year-old or a 46-year-old like me to get all wrapped up in this thing,” Bylone said. “But he was focused and grounded. It was a nice thing to witness. He’s a high-character kid.”
These are also heady days for Gatto’s teammates and family.
“It’s good for Joe and it’s good for our program,” Bylone said. “We worked hard to build our program up the past couple of years and this adds to all the good things that we’re trying to do here. He pretty much embodies everything that we stand for at St. Augustine.”
Gatto is an only child. His father, Joe, works in construction. His mother, Patti, is a municipal clerk for Folsom and is president of the St. Augustine baseball booster club.
The elder Gatto said his son was always playing sports growing up.
“He’d be playing basketball at 10 o’clock at night in the hallway,” the father said. “We’d laugh and say ‘Don’t you ever get enough?’”
The family is not carried away by the draft hype, either.
“You really don’t know what’s going on?,” the elder Gatto said. “He’s in a good spot. He’s worked hard. The draft is a door that opens that will help him accomplish what he wants to. But it doesn’t mean you’ve made it. I’m working today, and I’ll be at work Friday morning.”
Like nearly all amateur draft prospects, Gatto has an agent as his adviser. Gatto is working with Jeff Randazzo of the MVP Sports Group, a firm that represents multiple Major League players, including Albert Pujols of the Angels, Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds and Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies.
The baseball draft is unpredictable. In addition to talent, teams select players based on whether they can be signed and how much money they want as a signing bonus. Gatto also has a offer to attend North Carolina on an NCAA Division I scholarship. He can use that as leverage in negotiations with the team that drafts him.
“It’s tough,” Gatto said. “Me, my family and my adviser have a number set — what money range we’d like to get. If it’s on that range, where it’s enough to (forgo) going to college, we’d be willing to do that. But as of now, it’s too tough to tell.”
The Chicago Cubs have the No. 4 and the No. 45 picks. The Royals have the No. 17 and No. 40 picks.
Gatto believes he’s going to be picked in the 20 to 45 range.
“But even then it’s impossible to tell,” he said. “Some people slip. I hope I can get picked as early as I can, but I’m prepared for anything.”
Gatto plans a quiet night tonight. He and his family will watch the draft at his aunt’s house in Hammonton.
“It’s just the first step,” Gatto said. “We’re going to keep it as simple as possible.”
Because after Thursday, it’s bound to get more complicated and most of all exciting.
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