Before Nick Ciuffo graduates from Lexington High next Saturday, he will be presented with an opportunity that not many 18 year-old face. He’s also going to be presented with, probably, the most difficult decision of his life.
Ciuffo — a powerful left-handed hitting catcher — is one of the most sought-after prospects for the upcoming Major League Baseball amateur draft and is expected to hear his name called in the first round that begins June 6 from the MLB Network Studio 42 in Secaucus, New Jersey.
He is one of eight prospects who have accepted an invitation to be in attendance for the draft, and he’s been projected to go from the mid-to-late first round. That could lead to a life-changing signing bonus and the chance to pursue the dream he’s had since he first picked up a bat and ball as a toddler.
But he and his family have a decision to make. Ciuffo has been committed to South Carolina since he was a 14-year old, and he signed in November 2012. He’s grown up a Gamecock fan and, there is the enticement to play for USC.
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“It’s always been a dream of mine to play professional baseball, whether is was before college or after college,” Ciuffo said during the Wildcats’ march to the Class 4A baseball title. “Worst-case scenario, I go play at South Carolina. I get to play for the two-time national champions and one of the best programs in the country.”
Several people believe it’s a forgone conclusion that Ciuffo will not play for USC.
He is ranked as the No. 20 prospect by Baseball America and No. 23 by MLB.com and is a 2012 Perfect Game and Under Armour All-American. He is the No. 1-ranked player in South Carolina by Diamond Prospects and Perfect Game as well as being named the 2013 South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year.
Ciuffo’s decision is far from made. His father, Tony Ciuffo, the former long-time assistant athletics director for media relations at the College of Charleston, said it’s a decision the family is mulling. He did offer one nugget of information.
“To be fair, the best number I can give you, to be honest with everyone, is it’s 50-50 right now between going to Carolina or going pro,” Tony Ciuffo said. “Over the next week, we’re going to try an iron out those details.”
Last season, the lowest signing bonus of any first-round draft pick was $1.2 million. This year, each selection is slotted and he could garner anywhere from $1.8 million to $1.6 million.
ESPN’s Keith Law has Ciuffo No. 18 on his MLB Draft prospects list, and SI.com has him going No. 17 to the Chicago White Sox. Baseball America and Mymlbdraft.com have Ciuffo being picked by Tampa Bay at No. 21.
Allan Simpson, baseball analyst for Perfect Game, believes Ciuffo will be selected between 15 and 25, and signablilty could be a factor.
“That’s one thing that might determine if he goes in the first round or not,” Simpson said. “They will not take him in the first round if they have some sense that he’s going to college, and he possibly could. He’ll have success if he goes pro now or if he goes pro in three years. It’s a valid point to discuss.”
Simpson likes all the intangibles Ciuffo brings to the table.
“He’s one of the most mature kids his age that you will ever find,” he said. “In terms of physical skills, there is a lot of left-handed power projections there. I think he’s a guy that can hit for power down the road. His arm strength and catching-and-receiving skills are well above average.”
In 2012, 30 of the 31 first-round draft picks signed with MLB teams. Four of the top 125 selections failed to sign a contract.
Ciuffo has been advised to limit interview requests but Brian Hucks, his coach at Lexington for the past two seasons, has been close to the situation.
“If he gets a first-round contract, I think it would be insane to turn down a life-changing opportunity,” Hucks said. “With that being said, he knows he has a great opportunity to play at South Carolina. He’s been a Gamecock fan his whole life. If these teams don’t give him what his number is, he will more than happy to go to South Carolina for at least three years and try to win another national championship. I think he would be content with that.”
Ciuffo grew up in Mount Pleasant while his father worked at the College of Charleston and attended Wando his first two years of high school. He received his scholarship offer before he played his first high school game.
But before any of that happened, it was known from an early age that Ciuffo’s hand-eye coordination was above average. He played baseball and tennis and Tony noticed early that Nick had a knack for hitting a baseball. He could always hit, and his growth into a 6-foot-1, 210-pound teenager with an above-average skill set caused 27 major league baseball teams to schedule in-home visits.
“I don’t think you ever get to the point where you think he’s going to be good enough to be a first-round draft pick,” Tony said. “What I knew was that when he was very young, 4 or 5 years old, he could hit a baseball. He always had a bat in his hands. Things came natural. With Nick, you put it close and he had the ability to put the bat on the ball and hit it very well.”
Because of Tony’s job at the College of Charleston, Nick had an advantage not many kids have. He was able to spend time around the Cougars baseball program and such players as future major leaguers Brett Gardner (New York Yankees) and Michael Kohn (Los Angeles Angels).
“I watched them and watched every little thing they did and kind of mimicked them,” Nick said. “Most kids learn from for their dads or rec league coaches but I had the opportunity to learn from college coaches and players. I learned as much about the physical part of the game as I did the mental part.”
Besides tennis, Nick dabbled in basketball and football. In middle school, he was a standout on the football field, playing quarterback, running back, linebacker and kicker. He had thoughts of continuing his football playing days into high school until he got the scholarship offer from USC in December of his freshman year.
So baseball it was. He left Wando after his sophomore season and moved to Lexington with his mother. That’s where Hucks got the opportunity to coach the talented player. What he saw was someone polished beyond his years.
“What separates Nick is his leadership ability, his drive, commitment and work habits,” Hucks said. “Those are things that have made him a first-round draft pick. There are a lot of talented baseball players across the country but the fact that he plays a premium position that is ultra-valuable and has the skill set to go along with the mental side of things, that’s what makes him such a special player.”
There were things to work on. Hucks wanted Ciuffo to hit to all fields and take what pitchers were giving him. In his first year with the Wildcats, Hucks made a rule that if Ciuffo hit a fly ball during batting practice, he had to come out of the cage.
“He had a tendency to not be patient and not let balls get deep in the zone,” Hucks said. “That would cause him to get out front and get underneath balls. We tried this year to get him on a more downward swing plane. He got a lot better at using the entire field better. If you look at his hit chart, he had just as many hits to left-center that he did to right-center.”
In 123 high school games, Ciuffo hit .401 with 11 home runs and 93 RBIs. But that is all behind him now. Ciuffo steps into a grown man world in less than a week and decisions that are going to be made could affect his future in the long-term a well as the short-term.
“It’s a lot for a young man to handle,” Hucks said. “He’s very humble and his biggest goal this year was for our team to win a state championship. If he was able to get drafted highly then that was a bonus. His understands things become a business and it could happen very soon. But he was committed to his 21 teammates this season and I think that speaks volumes.”