CARY, N.C. -- There's a picture in the Ciuffo family album that speaks volumes about where son Nick is today. It's a summer vacation shot at the beach. Dad Tony is pictured, as one would expect, in a bathing suit. Nick, age 3 or 4, is decked out in full catching gear.
It surprises no one, then, that Nick Ciuffo is one of the top catching prospects in the Draft class of 2013. The Lexington (S.C.) High School star, ranked No. 33 on MLB.com's Top 50 Draft Prospects list, is here at USA Baseball's National Training Complex competing in the second annual National High School Invitational. Ciuffo, of course, drove in a big run in Lexington's 4-0 win over Florida Christian in the opener on Wednesday and threw out a runner from behind the plate.
"I've always been a catcher," Ciuffo said. "I've played shortstop, but it wasn't fun for me. I like to be in every single pitch."
Ciuffo is no stranger to playing here at USA Baseball's facilities. He played for the 16 and Under National team in 2011, winning gold at the IBAF World Youth Championships. Ciuffo's experience last summer, however, wasn't as storybook. He was here for the Tournament of Stars and made the 18 and Under trial team. But when Ciuffo had to deal with arm soreness, he was cut and left off the final roster that went on to win the first 18U world championship for the U.S. since 1999.
"It's awesome to be back here," Ciuffo said. "Cary is a great place. The people in the community are great. The people at USA Baseball are great. It's a first-class program here. I told the guys, 'Let's try to make this one end better than it did for me this summer.'"
The scores of scouts in attendance for the NHSI watched Ciuffo intently on Wednesday afternoon and while the game was fairly uneventful, he did post a sub-2.00 second pop time (the time from the pitch hitting his mitt to getting down to second base) when throwing out that baserunner. The attention was nothing new for Ciuffo, who's been "a guy" for a while now. A natural leader -- Lexington coach Brian Hucks calls him the team's heartbeat -- the left-handed-hitting catcher has helped put his team at ease under a brighter spotlight.
"I tell them they're not here for me, they're not here for any of them, they're here for our guy who hits infield, to watch him hit popups," said Ciuffo, who first got used to the extra eyes when catching eventual sixth-round pick Drew Cisco as a freshman at Wando High School back in 2010. "We try not to pay attention to it too much."
It's not going to go away any time soon, as Ciuffo has the chance to be one of a group of elite high school catchers taken early on Draft day. Another one of them, Chris Okey (No. 45), is also at the NHSI with Eustis High School from Florida. So is Jeremy Martinez (No. 50) from Mater Dei. He played with Reese McGuire (No. 30) on that 18U national team over the summer. Jon Denney (No. 10) rounds out a very good crop of prep catchers in this year's class. Ciuffo loves the competition and the inevitable comparisons that have come.
"I've been compared to guys my whole life," Ciuffo said. "I try to compare myself to guys to see what I have to work on. If there's something Okey's doing better than me, or something McGuire can do better, then I want to work on those things."
That "get better every day" attitude is serving him well as the heat of the Draft starts to intensify. Ciuffo knows it's there, but the University of South Carolina commit figures that whatever happens comes June, he's going to be a happy young ballplayer.
"The Draft is the farthest thing from my mind," Ciuffo said. "If I get drafted and sign, that's great. If not, I go to South Carolina. It's a win-win for me. I play for the best team in the country or I get paid to play the game I love."
And that's not until June. It's not a scenario he wants to even consider now, not with a state title to win and, more short-term, a strong showing here at the NHSI on his agenda.
"If I can help the team win, that's all that matters," Ciuffo said. "If I go 0-for-4, but I do things to help us win behind the plate, I won't be thrilled, but I'm OK with that. I want to get four wins here and go home with a trophy."
Gonsalves vs. Meadows doesn't live up to hype
CARY, N.C. -- The best matchup of the day came in the final game of Day One of the National High School Invitational, with Cathedral Catholic from California playing Grayson from Georgia. Scouts poured into the main stadium here specifically to watch Cathedral's Stephen Gonsalves pitch to Grayson's Austin Meadows.
It was an opportunity to see Meadows, a left-handed hitter ranked No. 3 on MLB.com's Top 50 Draft Prospects list, take some swings against the southpaw Gonsalves, who comes in at No. 27. In the end, scouts may have been a bit disappointed by the outcome.
Gonsalves, who has struggled with his command for much of the spring, hit Meadows the first time he faced him in the bottom of the first inning. Meadows came up again in the bottom of the second, with two runners on and two outs. This time, Gonsalves walked him on five pitches. The collective groan from the scouts in attendance after the first two plate appearances was nearly palpable.
There was more to see in plate appearance No. 3. Meadows, swinging a wooden bat, went the other way and flared a double to left-center. The center fielder went 1-for-2 with a run scored on a day that didn't go very well for his team. Cathedral Catholic won in a rout, 14-2.
Gonsalves got the win, going four innings and allowing two runs (one earned) on five hits and two walks while striking out five. He battled his overall command, especially with his secondary stuff, all afternoon. He threw his fastball right around 90 mph, touching 91 and 92 a time or two. His slow curve was around 70 mph and he threw the splitter he uses for an offspeed pitch in the 72-74 mph range. It wasn't as strong an evaluation opportunity as anticipated, but that doesn't mean there weren't any takeaways from the day's finale.
"There shouldn't be any question about Meadows handling left-handers," said one scout who's seen the Georgia outfielder other times against lesser competition. "He stayed in there against an above-average fastball."
Top performers from Day 1 at NHSI
CARY, N.C. -- With temperatures hovering around 50 degrees, it was difficult for any of the prospects on hand at the National High School Invitational to heat up, but that doesn't mean there weren't some standout performances at the first day of the tournament hosted by USA Baseball.
The best individual performance of the day may have come from a Class of 2014 prospect. Harvard-Westlake's Jack Flaherty, who pitched very well here in last year's NHSI, was at it again. Facing Eustis High School and top prospect Chris Okey (No. 45 on MLB.com's Top 50 Draft Prospects list), the junior right-hander tossed a complete game (they play seven innings here) three-hit shutout. Flaherty walked none and struck out 13 as Harvard-Westlake, last year's runner-up, won, 3-0.
Despite the loss, scouts were impressed with Okey, who went 1-for-2 at the plate and did a nice job working with lefty Alex Hagner, a Class of 2013 arm committed to the University of Florida. One of the many scouts keying in on Okey said, "He catches and throws well and he's a good line drive hitter."
Okey may have gotten the highest overall marks of all the catching prospects in Cary on Wednesday. Nick Ciuffo also played well, driving in a run and throwing out a runner, for Lexington, but there might be some debate among scouts over who is the better all-around backstop.
"He's bigger and more physical than Okey, but Okey is the more advanced one as far as catching," the scout said.
Mater Dei's Jeremy Martinez, who can call the USA Baseball facility a second home of sorts -- given the amount of time he's spent playing for the national team and in last year's NHSI -- went 2-for-4 as Mater Dei beat 2014 prospect Justus Sheffield and Tullahoma High School, 11-4. Mater Dei won this tournament last year. Martinez has always played well here, but he has struggled this spring. Perhaps a visit to Cary is just what the doctor ordered.
Even though the big Austin Meadows vs. Stephen Gonsalves matchup didn't provide major fireworks or results, at least one scout remained impressed with Meadows' toolset. The Grayson (Ga.) center fielder went 1-for-2, doubling off Gonsalves after getting hit by a pitch and walking against the Cathedral Catholic left-hander.
"He's going to go way up there," the scout said of Meadows. "He has very good tools and they all have projection. He can be more aggressive at the plate, but he's the best prospect at this tournament and he looked like it because of his tools."
A couple of other noteworthy performers:
• Milton High School's Dylan Cease, a 2014 prospect, was 92-94 mph, touching 95 mph, with an average breaking ball, during his two innings of work.
• Bingham High School's top player might be Brennon Lund, and the leadoff hitter went 1-for-3 with three runs scored and a stolen base. But right-hander Chase Tavonatti may have stolen the show by pitching shutout ball against T.C. Roberson.
• Lexington's Josh Reagan, throwing to Ciuffo, tossed a shutout against Florida Christian. The South Carolina recruit gave up just four hits and a walk while striking out five.