The dream of being a professional baseball player came one step closer to reality for Nick Ciuffo on Thursday night.
The Lexington High baseball standout was a first-round selection — the 21st overall pick — by the Tampa Bay Rays in the Major League Baseball amateur draft. He is the second South Carolina high school player to be selected by the Rays in the first round in the past three years. Former Spring Valley pitcher Taylor Guerrieri was the 24th pick in the 2011 draft. He is pitching for the Bowling Green Hot Rods, the Class A Midwest League affiliate of the Rays.
“I wasn’t expecting much in the earlier part of the round,” Ciuffo said in an interview on the MLB network. “I kind of had a feeling the Rays is where I was going to go. I have a buddy, Taylor Guerrieri, who is in the organization right now and he told me it was a great organization. I’m looking forward to getting in there and start playing.”
Many of the mock drafts had Ciuffo going to Tampa Bay.
“I’m good friends with my area scout, Brian Hickman, and he was a catcher, so we talked catching all the time,” Ciuffo said. “We talked a lot during the season.”
Ciuffo has been committed to South Carolina since he was a 14-year old. He’s a lifelong Gamecocks fan but the lure of nearly a two million dollar signing bonus could be more than enough for Ciuffo to make the leap into his professional career. The slot value for the 21st pick is $1,974,700 but it’s widely expected Tampa Bay would at least push that to a little more than two million dollars.
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 seemed eager to get his career started in his MLB Network interview. He was asked about the prospect of catching David Price, and he didn’t shy away from the subject.
“It’s a lot of fun to catch really good pitchers,” Ciuffo said. “I’ve watched David Price over and over again, even when he was in college and, in my opinion, he’s one of the best pitchers in the game. I just want to get up there as fast as possible to see if I can catch him.”
He even offered a couple of nuggets on Twitter.
First off was this message to Guerrieri – “IM COMING!”
Then he said this after Tampa Bay selected Arkansas pitcher Ryne Stanek with the 29th pick.
“Congratulations to @rstanek_55 can’t wait to catch you! Heard great things about you!.”
Ciuffo was ranked the No. 20 prospect by Baseball America and No. 23 by Perfect Game after a senior season in which he hit .468 with five home runs and 33 RBIs despite the fact he was pitched around most of the season. He had a 25-game hitting streak and hit safely in 30 of 33 games.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound 18-year old has been on the radar of scouts for nearly four years and he never failed to live up to the expectations. He was the second high school catcher taken off the board.
“This is a young man that scouts absolutely love,” analyst Jonathan Mayo said on the MLB TV telecast. “One of the best personalities in the country when it comes to all the draftees. He’s like an 80 on the personality scale.”
This is the third consecutive year Tampa Bay has drafted someone with South Carolina ties in the first round. Last year, Clemson’s Richie Schaffer was selected with the 25th pick.
South Carolina had another commitment selected in the first round when Travis Demeritte was picked by the Texas Rangers with the 30th pick. The 6-1, 185-pound shortstop from Winder Barrow (Ga.) High is a powerful right-handed hitter who has been described as athletic with a plus arm, plus raw power and excellent bat speed. He was the 56th prospect by Baseball America but he was a player the Rangers liked from the beginning and selected with their second pick in the first round.
He is expected to sign as well.