By Rob Rains
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – Steve Turco has spent 15 years of his baseball life managing in the low levels of the Cardinals’ farm system and over that time has watched countless players begin the transition from high school to the professional ranks.
He has seen very few like Nolan Gorman.
“When Gorman comes to the plate he just appears to be way beyond his years as a hitter,” Turco said. “His composure, his poise, the way he stands at the plate, the way he takes a pitch, the way he reacts to failure and adversity – you are seeing a kid who is mature beyond his years.
“All these things, with the intangible qualities that he has and the physical tools he possesses, I’m excited to see what his future is going to be.”
Turco, now a roving instructor with the Cardinals, has been to Johnson City for two stints already this summer as Gorman, the team’s first-round pick in last month’s draft, begins his professional career.
Placing Gorman in Johnson City represented an aggressive assignment by the Cardinals. Only two months past his 18th birthday, Gorman has proven more than equal to the task.
In his first 23 games, Gorman has hit seven homers to go along with a .302 average, a combination of power and contact that forced Turco to think about how many hitters at this level, or even in the years he managed in the Gulf Coast League, he could include in a conversation about Gorman.
He came up with two.
“When I looked at the high school kids who previously played for me, one who came to mind who really had success at this level was Brent Butler,” Turco said. “He was the only high schooler I recall who had success in his first year in pro ball.”
Butler, the Cardinals’ third round pick in 1996, hit .343 that season with eight homers in 62 games. In 1999, he was part of the package the Cardinals traded to Colorado for Darryl Kile and went on to spend three years in the majors.
Turco also remembered Chris Duncan’s first season in Johnson City, in 1999. He showed power, hitting six homers, but struggled to make contact, finishing with a .214 average.
“The first time I saw Gorman I wanted to throw batting practice to him and I thought his power was comparable to Duncan,” Turco said, remembering how Duncan showed off his “light tower” power more in batting practice than in games that summer.
“I’m more impressed with the .300 than the home runs because it tells me he (Gorman) is able to make some adjustments at the plate,” Turco said. “It’s not all or nothing with him.
“Gorman shows you the raw power, he shows you the solid approach and a feel for the strike zone and doesn’t chase balls the way you might expect a young hitter to do. When you put all of those things together and facto them all in, this is a special player we have at the plate, in my opinion. He’s got all the ingredients you want to see in a young player.”
Gorman, a third baseman, is the first high school position player the Cardinals assigned to Johnson City to begin his career since catchers Steve Bean and Carson Kelly in 2012. Kelly hit nine homers, but had a .225 average. Bean hit just .125 before he was transferred to the GCL.
It’s the first time in Gorman’s life, he said, when he is competing against players who are usually two or three years older than him. He is currently the fifth youngest player in the Appalachian League.
“It’s a whole different level than high school but I think it’s what I expected it to be like,” Gorman said. “It’s pretty close to the summer I had a year ago, pitching wise, it’s similar to those guys (on the showcase circuit) who were all throwing in the mid 90s with good off-speed pitches. That’s kind of what you see here.
“I think they (the Cardinals) trusted in me as their first-round draft pick. They kind of had the feeling I could compete at this level and that’s what I try to do every day – compete and show them they were right.”
Becoming a Cardinal
Gorman was surrounded by family and friends at home in Phoenix the night of June 4 as the baseball draft got underway. Most mock drafts projected him going somewhere between the eighth and 12th overall picks. Those selections all came and went without Gorman coming off the board.
“It’s a day we will never forget,” said Gorman’s father, Brian. “It’s a very unpredictable experience. We didn’t really know what to expect going into it.”
Gorman’s attitude was to try to keep calm as the draft progressed. “I kind of said, ‘Let whatever happens happen,’” he said.
As the draft unfolded, the man in charge of the Cardinals’ selections, Randy Flores, keep looking up at the board in the team’s war room at Busch Stadium. Name after name was coming off. Flores was concentrating on the magnets still on the board.
Gorman was a player Flores had watched a lot – on the summer showcase circuit, in fall practices and scrimmages, then during his high school season. He was a player Flores liked – a lot.
With only a few picks remaining before the Cardinals could make their pick, the 19th overall, Flores tried to keep himself from getting too excited that Gorman might still be available.
“What stands out is that physically and mentally he seemed to be in a good place,” Flores said. “He was prepped for this.”
He was ranked in the top 10 on the Cardinals’ board – and they got him at 19.
“He’s certainly been a high profile guy for a long time,” Flores said. “More importantly he has the ability to handle adversity. What you always look for is If someone struggles, is he going to be OK? The feeling was if he should struggle, he has the confidence and the mental fortitude to get through it.”
Those struggles are yet to come. Gorman did not get a hit in his second and third games in Johnson City, but since then has at least one hit in 18 of 20 games. He has reached base by either a hit or walk in all 20. For the season he has drawn 16 walks and struck out only 25 times.
Gorman’s seven homers are one behind the league-leader, who is 22. The player he is tied with for the second spot is 21.
About a month after the draft, Flores made the trip to Johnson City to watch Gorman and several other picks, all college selections, that the Cardinals placed at that level, many of whom he did not see in person before the draft. He likes to visit with the coaches and get their feedback, knowing they often can learn more about a player in a week than the scouts saw during their pre-draft assignments.
“What strikes me is that he just looks comfortable in his skin,” Flores said after Gorman again, from a new perspective. “He looks comfortable if he misses, he looks comfortable if he hits the ball in the gap, he looks comfortable if he hits it 100 feet over the fence. Intrinsically he just looks comfortable in himself and comfortable with success. That’s hard to find in someone that young.
“You want to see how guys carry themselves, how they handle the ups and downs of the game and the grind of the game. His body language seems to reflect those who handle it well.”
Probably the two people who know Gorman the best, and have watched his progression more closely than anybody, are his parents, Brian and Jennifer.
A few weeks into the season, they made the trip from Arizona to Johnson City to watch their son for the first time in person as a pro, settling into seats between home and third at TVA Credit Union Ballpark.
“This has been a family baseball experience for many, many years,” Brian Gorman said. “This is what he worked for. He’s always had a passion for the game. He’s had an excellent work ethic his whole life. He wants to be the best guy on the field every time he takes the field.”
Gorman said his son, a left-handed hitter, really began to develop his power a couple of years ago, when he was a sophomore in high school. That was when he committed to play at the University of Arizona, assuming he didn’t decide to go pro out of high school.
“That’s when everything started clicking for him,” Gorman said. “He took advantage of the opportunities he’s had.”
Along the way the dad watched as his son kept improving, even when he had some struggle, including in a tournament with Team USA last summer in Canada.
“He was raised to understand that baseball is a game of failure,” Gorman said. “Mentally he is mature enough to handle it.”
As proud as Gorman’s parents are of his accomplishments on the field, it is how he conducts himself off the field which they view as being even more important.
“Being a ballplayer is great, being a good ballplayer is even better, but it starts with being a good person,” Gorman said. “That’s first and foremost. That translates into being a good teammate. He’s a student of the game and helps everybody get better. On his high school team this past year, we weren’t even sure they were going to make the playoffs and they ended up winning the state championship.
“I’m most proud of the type of person he is. He really cares about people; that’s something that stands out. At home he participated in the Challenger League for kids with special needs. He really had a passion for that. His high school coaches were great mentors for that and helped get the kids involved.”
Those experiences have helped mold Gorman into who he is today, on and off the field.
“I wouldn’t change this for anything in the whole world,” Nolan Gorman said. “I’m playing baseball every day. To have this as my job is awesome.”
Gorman still gets excited when youngsters in the stands line up to get his autograph.
“They are always cheering you on, no matter how you do,” he said. “They want your autograph and look up to you whether you are having success or failure.”
Young kids are not Gorman’s only fans
Between them, Turco and Mark DeJohn, the Cardinals’ minor league field coordinator, have spent 84 years in professional baseball as players, coaches, managers or instructors.
Neither needed much prompting to offer gushing reviews of what they have seen so far from Gorman.
“He’s gotten off to a good start,” DeJohn said. “Hopefully he continues that. I’m very impressed by him. The ball jumps off his bat, and you don’t always see that with high school kids. He’s far from the finished product, and I think there is so much more to him hitting-wise.
“They were facing a guy the other night, a big reliever, throwing 97 and he (Gorman) wasn’t overmatched. I think he’s going to be a quality player and he seems like a quality kid. I’m glad we have him.”
So is Turco.
“When you watch Gorman take a strike even he doesn’t react the way other young hitters will,” Turco said. “He handles it with a certain amount of poise and it’s reflective of the kind of intangible qualities, the character, that he has. This is probably what I like about him just as much as his physical talent. That’s why I think he’s going to be a heck of a player.
“He’s got a high baseball IQ. He has an awareness of things a lot of players his age don’t have. He doesn’t seem out of place here at all. This is an unusual occurrence for a high school kid (not struggling). I’m not saying there aren’t other players like him out there, but it’s nice we have one of those players.”
The two names which DeJohn offered in comparisons to Gorman, at a similar point in their careers, were the late Oscar Taveras and Paul DeJong. DeJong was a college player, 21, when he began his pro career at Johnson City in 2015. It took just 10 games, during which he hit .486, for the Cardinals to move him up to Peoria.
Taveras played in the Gulf Coast League at the age of 17 in 2009 and moved to Johnson City when he was 18 the following year and hit .322 with eight homers in 53 games.
“As a hitter I would put him (Gorman) in the Oscar Taveras, Paul DeJong class,” DeJohn said. “When I first saw Oscar he didn’t perform well in the GCL but when I saw him here he was a special hitter. With DeJong, it took two or three days to see he was a big leaguer and I think this guy (Gorman) is right in that category. He’s going to have a bat that will impact a major league lineup.”
Some of the ways Gorman has impressed both Turco and DeJohn has been his work ethic, his attention to detail and is willingness to learn and listen to advice.
“He’s a tremendous kid.” DeJohn said. “We did a drill the other day and when he went through it, you could see his desire to be good at something. It just came out, even in a simple rundown drill. He took instruction really well, and when he went through it, he didn’t half step anything. He went through it with a 100 percent effort. Not everybody does that.
“He’s 18. He hasn’t learned some of the things about hitting that he will put to use. … It’s really nice to see. I think he is a special kid. You get excited to see that. That’s what the organization needs.”
Trying to get better is Gorman’s goal every day when he comes to the ballpark.
“The early success has been good,” he said. “I need to continue it and stay consistent, hit the ball hard, hit the ball on the barrel. I’m picking up different things in the infield, and I’m learning from the other players who have had experience. It’s been small things, mostly on the mental side of the game.
“I try to have as many tools as possible, whether it’s getting faster, hitting the ball harder, getting on base – whatever it takes to help the team win.”
Said Turco, “You just love his makeup. You love everything about him right now. He’s grounded. His parents did a tremendous job with him. I’m so anxious to see what this kid is going to be like at 22. You don’t even get your man strength until you’re 25. And he’s doing this at 18?
“I think he’s a sponge guy. George Kissell used to talk about rocks and sponges. Rocks sink and absorb nothing. This kid is soaking it all in. You like to have a guy, when you tell him something, he has a chance to retain it. When you have a player you don’t have to worry about because he is so focused, you don’t have to worry about the off-field stuff. Guys like him are a dream.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains