By Rob Rains
Zach Mortimer was having dinner at the Rooster and Till restaurant in Tampa, Fla., with another Cardinals’ scout on March 8 when he felt the buzz of the cell phone in his pocket, indicating he was receiving a text message.
The message was from Jim Negrych, the Cardinals’ area scout for the northeast part of the country. He wanted to let Mortimer know that Trejyn Fletcher, a high school outfielder from Portland, Maine, had reclassified and would be eligible for the June draft, then three months away.
“It’s exciting when a player like that becomes eligible for the year’s draft unexpectedly,” said Mortimer, the Northeast crosschecker for the Cardinals.
That unexpected development – Fletcher becoming eligible a year early – ignited a three-month blitz which ended up with the Cardinals using their second-round pick, the 58th overall choice in the draft, on Fletcher, a player that one independent scouting service already had ranked as the best prospect in the 2020 draft before he reclassified. It was a pick that Greg Sabers, the vice president of scouting and showcases for Perfect Game, said could be “the steal of the draft.”
How did the Cardinals pull it off? It’s an old-school scouting story, the kind that doesn’t happen all that often anymore in this Internet age. Scouting a high school player from a cold-weather state, one whose high school season only consisted of 16 games, is never easy. Add in the fact that it was a player nobody knew would be playing at a new school in Maine, or be eligible this year, until less than 12 weeks remained before the draft, and the challenge became even greater.
It was one the Cardinals thought was worth the investment, and the risk.
The pursuit begins
The Cardinals scouts first came into contact with Fletcher in early August 2018 when he was one of the few underclassmen invited to the East Coast Pro Showcase in Birmingham, Ala. Even though the focus was on players who would be drafted in June 2019, it was hard not to notice Fletcher’s skill set.
“I can recall personally in my little own shorthand notes drawing exclamation points or whatever it is I use to document the event,” said Cardinals’ scouting director Randy Flores. “I remember one of our scouts hitting me in the leg and telling me, ‘Look at that, he’s a 20-20 guy.’ I remember that happening several rimes.”
Sean Moran, one of the Cardinals’ national crosscheckers, also was watching Fletcher at that showcase.
“We went from there to Long Beach and watched him for five days at the Area Code Games, so we probably all saw him for eight to nine games in those two events,” Moran said. “He was a 2020 draft at that point, so he wasn’t really our focus, but when you see a player with tools like Tre has you can’t help but pay attention.
“When you start scouting they tell you, ‘Just watch the game. The players will tell you who they are.’ Well, that’s easier said than done when there are two teams full of prospects on the field at events like East Coast Pro and Area Codes, but even surrounded by the best players in the country, Tre was one of those guys that jumped out at you. The thing that really caught my attention was the way the ball jumped off his bat in BP the first day. Then you kind of look back at your notes and you see that you wrote down plus arm, plus runner and you’re thinking, ‘Wow this guy is going to be a high pick in 2020.’ So, even though the focus is the 2019 eligible guys, a player like Tre makes you sit up in your seat a little bit when he comes to the plate.”
As much as Moran, Flores and the team’s other scouts who watched Fletcher last summer really liked him, they also were realistic in considering the slim chances that he could one day become a Cardinals’ draft pick. First, he already had committed to Vanderbilt, annually one of the best college teams in the country, so it might be hard to convince him to sign and give up that scholarship. Secondly, if he was as good as they and the independent scouting services thought, he could very well come off the board in the first half of the 2020 draft, when all the Cardinals could do would be to sit and watch, not able to do anything to prevent him from going to another team before it came their turn to make a selection.
That all changed in early March. After spending his freshman year at a private high school in Portland, where his family had moved from Delaware when he was 11, Fletcher had spent the next two years at a prep boarding school outside of New York City. He repeated his freshman year at the new school.
When he decided to move back to Portland early this year, it came with one realization. He would have to reclassify again, becoming a senior instead of a junior, or else give up playing baseball in the spring of 2020. The state of Maine only allows students to have four years of high school eligibility and he already had used three of them. Another factor was the coaches at Vanderbilt were encouraging Fletcher to graduate early so he could get to campus in the fall of 2019.
Fletcher had to make sure he could complete all of the graduation requirements, and when he found out that was indeed possible, he enrolled at Deering High School, where his best friend already was a student, on Feb. 26.
“Contacts in the area made me aware that it was a possibility about a week or so before it happened,” Negrych said. “I was really excited when I heard about it, followed by some nervousness because it was late in the process and a lot of information needed to be gathered in a short time. It went from a normal day in my office to a bunch of phone calls to start gathering as much information about Tre and if this was really happening.”
One of the phone calls Negrych made when Fletcher’s new status was confirmed was to Moran.
“He called and told me and it was really cold where I was and I thought, ‘It’s this cold in Maine until like May,’” Moran said. “I think we all realized right away that it was going to be a unique situation and maybe an opportunity for us to get some big tools that usually we aren’t in play for picking where we pick.”
The situation also was unique to Josh Stowell, Deering’s baseball coach, even though he had known Fletcher and had worked with him for years at a private training academy in Portland. He also had traveled with Fletcher to some of the showcase events and coached one of his travel teams in the summer in previous years.
Having a player of Fletcher’s ability on his high school team, however, and the attention that it was going to bring, was unlike anything Stowell had been through before.
“He was a different athlete from the time he moved up here from Delaware,” Stowell said. “When I first met him at 12 years old you could tell he was far and above his peers. As he got older, whether it be on the basketball court or the football field or the diamond, you could just tell he was getting better and his abilities were improving far beyond everyone else that was around him. … We don’t have guys like him around here.”
That presented Stowell with a dilemma. Even considering the difficulties and challenges, he knew scouts would be descending on his games. He wanted to put Fletcher in the best position he could to be successful on a team that was destined to go 4-12 during the season. The school had only 22 players, split between two teams.
“The one thing I thought I could do was hit him leadoff so he would at least get pitched to once a game,” Stowell said. “That was my theory going into it, to try to give him as many opportunities to get as many at-bats as possible. I was worried about teams pitching around him or intentionally walking him or throwing him a bunch of off-speed stuff outside trying to get him to chase.
“They did that, but I was happy with how the coaches in our league handled it. They didn’t go above and beyond. They challenged their own players a little bit to pitch to him and see if they could get him out.”
Fletcher knew there would be a lot of eyes on him, evaluating not only his performance in games but scrutinizing his actions on and off the field. It was a reality he tried not to dwell on.
“I didn’t really feel any pressure,” he said. “I thought the scouts would see how I handled different situations and how I conducted myself and how I tried to be the best teammate I could be.”
A team effort
On April 17, Negrych made the trip from his home outside of Philadelphia to Portland for Deering’s first game of the season, against Marshwood. Deering lost 20-4.
It was the first of four times that Negrych would personally watch Fletcher in his six-week season.
“Watching him take BP in a cage, his bat speed and strength really stood out,” Negrych said. “Personally, I rarely get excited about cage BP but his was different.”
So too was his performance on the field, in ways that Negrych observed even if those results would never appear in a box score.
“He was far more talented than everyone he played with but he never acted that way,” said Negrych, a former minor-league player with the Pirates. “He was always helping his teammates out with positioning and where the ball needed to go.”
In addition to Negrych, the Cardinals made certain that all their key scouting supervisors got to Portland to see Fletcher, including Flores, Moran and fellow national crosschecker Aaron Looper. Mortimer and Matt Slater, a special assistant to the general manager for player procurement, also made that trip.
The Cardinals had at least one scout at more than half of his games in April and May.
“There were a bunch of teams around but the Cardinals had a presence from the start,” Stowell said.
The day Mortimer was there, Fletcher hit an inside the park homer. Watching him, it was hard for Mortimer not to think back to three years ago, when he was an area scout in northern California and watched another high school outfielder, Dylan Carlson, who is now universally regarded as the second best prospect in the Cardinals organization and was the youngest All-Star in the Texas League this season.
“As a scout it’s exciting to go see players like Fletcher and Carlson,” Mortimer said. “They give you a feeling in your stomach, because you know you may see something special watching them. Most importantly they allow you to dream and predict what the future has in store.”
As the scouting reports flowed into his office, Flores dispatched more scouts to Portland and also made the trip himself. It was the first time he had been there since he pitched against Portland in the Double A Eastern League in 2000 and 2001.
“I heard from other scouts who live up there (the northeast) and they said it was the first time they had actually scouted in Maine,” Flores said. “This was the furthest north I had been for a scouting event for sure.
“The hard part about scouting is that you can only evaluate what the player has a chance to showcase for you that day. The competition level is not equal to the East Coast Pro Showcase but you did see an athlete who moved well, who was aggressive, who was doing things with his swing naturally that you would hope someone would do with coaching. I saw someone with the aptitude and knowledge of the game that was more advanced than I expected.
“When I went in there, there wasn’t a lot of scouts there, probably less than 10. … When you are seeing someone that you haven’t seen a lot, your job is to go in and know the context of the player but to kind of go into it blank, without expectations. When he took batting practice, there was certain things you see – strength, ease of movement, that really remind you of the way high level big-leaguers play. He had some of those actions.”
Flores left town not only impressed by Fletcher but by the dinner he had after watching Fletcher’s game.
“I am probably the only one who went to Portand, Maine and ate Mexican food,” he said. “The guys give me a hard time about it. No matter what city we are in I want Mexican food. It was no different in Portland. Guys said, ‘Did you see him (Fletcher)? I said yeah. Did you have lobster or crab or whatever. I said, no I had really good Mexican food.”
What the Cardinals were enjoying even more than Flores enjoyed his dinner as it got closer to June, however, was the increasing possibility that they could draft Fletcher.
The final push
On May 16, Deering lost 11-0 to Sanford, but the most important development of the day was a private meeting between Fletcher and scouts Negrych and Moran.
“I was really impressed with how much baseball meant to him,” Negrych said. “He’s such a good athlete and could have picked other spots to pursue, but he’s always loved baseball.”
Added Moran, “I had pretty much seen all of the other high school guys by then. That made it really easy for Tre’s tools and athleticism to jump out at me. He did things that all the big-name guys in this draft did. He took BP indoors, which is usually not ideal, but the way he moved in the batter’s box, the bat speed and the way the ball jumped off his bat was exciting, even in the cage.
“It’s pretty rare to find a kid that has the power, speed and athleticism that Tre does, and on top of that he wants to win.”
Fletcher remembers that the main topic of his conversation with Negrych and Moran was about his swing.
“I gave them some pretty good answers I guess,” he said. “I knew a lot about my swing and my game.”
By this point in the season, Fletcher could have grown tired of the attention or sidetracked because of his team’s performance. Stowell was impressed that neither happened, even considering the poor weather this spring in Portland which left the team playing more games than times they were able to get outside the school’s gym for practice.
“He likes to kind of play things cool,” Stowell said about Fletcher. “He’s not going to show any nerves. After a while he was struggling a little bit and we sat down to talk. It had to be stressful. You are taking BP in the cage and you have 12 teams watching you. He handled it pretty well.”
On the morning of May 18, Slater woke up at 3 a.m. in Wilmington, N.C., to catch a 5 a.m. flight that would allow him to change planes in Charlotte and get to Portland in time for a noon game. The night before he had watched Greg Jones, a college shortstop who would become a first-round pick by Tampa Bay.
In 29 years of scouting, it was Slater’s first ever trip to Maine, leaving only Vermont, New Hampshire and Alaska as the three states he has missed. Negrych told him, “I can find a guy in New Hampshire.” Slater politely declined, citing a tight travel schedule.
Slater had also watched Fletcher at the East Coast Pro Showcase and looked forward to seeing him again.
It so happened that on that day Fletcher was pitching, and displayed a fastball that hit 92 mph, and Deering also was facing a junior lefthander, Hunter Owen, who already had committed to Vanderbilt, providing Fletcher one of his tougher challenges of the season – almost as tough as a scout getting to Portland.
“There were only three other scouts when I was there, and none were at the director level,” Slater said. “I was wondering if I was at the right game.”
Slater was able to offer a different perspective on Fletcher’s talents because of his varied scouting duties within the Cardinals organization.
“I see 14-year-old’s in Latin America and 30-year-old major leaguers that we might trade for,” Slater said. “He’s got a skill set that at that age not many people have. The question is whether he will be able to put it all together and adjust to the level of the competition. That’s the riskiness that goes into it.”
All of the Cardinals scouts assembled in their war room at Busch Stadium on June 3, a nervous night under the best of circumstances. Much of the focus was on who they would pick in the first round of the draft with the 19th overall selection, and the choice turned out to be Zack Thompson, a left-handed pitcher from Kentucky.
As soon as that pick was made, after a couple of moments of satisfactory congratulations, the attention turned to their second-round pick. Fingers were crossed. The work had been done, but now the only part of the process the Cardinals could not control took over – waiting to see if another team would take Fletcher before the Cardinals could make the pick.
“The draft is always a time of high anxiety,” Mortimer said. “It was fun watching our process play out first-hand.”
Negrych was trying to remain calm as the other teams made their picks, and Fletcher remained available.
“I don’t really concern myself with things I can’t control and I can’t control what other teams do with their picks,” Negrych said. “I was just hoping that when I spoke about Tre to our organization that I presented a player that could be in consideration for one of our day one picks. After that it’s out of my control again.”
That responsibility falls on the shoulders of Flores, who was in his fourth year in charge of the Cardinals’ draft.
“There was good dialogue about what each of us saw in our looks,” Flores said. “The goal when you have a high school pick is those looks, the pieces of the pie, you bring them together in a room to discuss them and ultimately come to some sort of attempt of where they might fit in the draft. That fit might widely vary within our own staff but without having that honest dialogue you don’t get the most complete picture of the player.
“You don’t know how the draft is going to work out. You rank the evaluation of his talent with everyone else at the top of the draft and see if the opportunity presents itself for there to be a fit.”
Late that night, the Cardinals pulled the magnet bearing Fletcher’s name off the wall and moved it to their list of drafted players.
“When guys found out we were moving on it there was a lot of excitement,” Flores said.
Fletcher was as excited as everybody in the room when he got the phone call that the Cardinals were going to draft him. He watched as his name was announced on television. Later that night, he exchanged texts with Flores.
“He said, ‘We’re extremely happy to have you on board,’” Fletcher said. “I said I was extremely happy the Cardinals selected me and ‘I can’t wait to get to work.’”
The first game of Fletcher’s career
Fletcher, who received a $1.5 million signing bonus, was in the lineup for his first game as a professional on Monday as a member of the rookie level Gulf Coast League Cardinals. He hit second and was in center field for the season-opening game against the Nationals in Jupiter.
Fletcher had three hits, all singles, in five at-bats in a 3-2 loss.
“My first at-bat, you could tell I was pretty much anxious to get a hit and I struck out,” Fletcher said. “After that I kind of settled in and started getting used to the pitching and starting putting the bat on the ball.
“When you cross the lines, it was business, strictly business. .. I’m one step closer to getting where I want to go.”
It was the start of a career that one day could find Fletcher playing in St. Louis.
“To get him where they did, he could definitely end up being a real steal of the draft,” said Sabers. “He’s got an incredibly high ceiling. To one day see him hitting 30 home runs and playing right field for the Cardinals is not out of the question by any means. He’s a very talented player who has the power, has the arm strength. He’s fast, an incredible athlete. He’s kind of got five-tool potential. It’s up to him to work and meet that.”
Stowell expects nothing less out of Fletcher.
“He’s got a chance to be a great player,” Stowell said. “His athleticism is unbelievable. He’s got speed, power and explosiveness. … He’s a smart kid and has a great personality. He’s always smiling, joking, laughing, having a good time. And he genuinely loves playing baseball.”
Flores, Slater and the rest of the Cardinals officials know Fletcher’s journey is just beginning. He’s not going to get to St. Louis next month or next year, but they hope that day does come, in the not too distant future.
“We’re talking about an 18-year-old kid,” Flores said. “He’s a long way away from St. Louis in geography and in reps. … There are some exciting possibilities, but patience is required.”
Added Slater, “He’s a very talented athletic kid who has all the tools. Hopefully Gary LaRocque (the Cardinals’ director of player development) and his people can put them all together. There’s a lot of raw clay to work with.”
Fletcher thought it might have been fitting he was drafted by the Cardinals. The first team that he played for above Tee ball, when he was six years old and living in Delaware, was the Cardinals. In the team photo, which he still has, Fletcher is on the front row, the next to last kid on the right.
“I’m really excited to go out and play every day,” he said. “To hear my name called in the draft was something you dream about. It’s something all baseball players wish to happen. I’m living the dream.”
That dream won’t be fully realized until Fletcher makes it to the major leagues and nobody knows more than he does how hard he is going to have to work to make that happen. He is ready to do that, eager to thank and reward the Cardinals for all the effort they put into scouting him.
“From a young age I knew baseball was what I wanted to pursue. I played other sports, and had (college) offers for other sports, but through everything baseball was my dream.
“Another game tomorrow. I’ll be back at it.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Gulf Coast Cardinals photos by Antonio Mujica/other photos courtesy of Trejyn Fletcher and Perfect Game