They follow his every movement, even the ones that take him to an isolated area beyond a row of bleachers at his high school. Major league scouts trail Nick Adenhart as though he's a suspect instead of a prospect. They stare at him, judge him, whisper to each other, scribble in their notepads.
But how many are willing to take him? Beyond winning games and striking out batters, Adenhart also is trying to buck a trend. Since the book Moneyball came out last year, touting the Oakland Athletics' draft philosophy of choosing college-aged players, some teams have become more cautious about investing a large signing bonus on a prep pitcher.This week, A's general manager Billy Beane toldThe Sports Business Daily that with college players "you get a quicker return. There's a return on your asset probably more immediate than there is with a younger player.
"The bottom line is, there's more data from which to make a decision. That's really what it comes down to."
Fortunately for Adenhart, who's 5-1 with a 0.73 ERA at Williamsport High in Washington County, baseball insiders say these organizations remain in the minority.
"There are more clubs looking exclusively at college players," Orioles scout Mickey White said, "but I don't think there's an appreciable percentage."
The San Diego Padres are leaning toward taking Long Beach State's Jered Weaver with the first pick. But representatives of the Detroit Tigers and New York Mets, who hold the next two selections, traveled to Brunswick on Tuesday and watched Adenhart strike out 11 in five innings and also hit a two-run homer. He left with a 4-0 lead.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays (fourth) and Milwaukee Brewers (fifth) aren't opposed to drafting a high school pitcher, and the Orioles (eighth) have shown the flexibility in past years to go with the best available player, whatever his age.
Such thinking is evident as Adenhart goes into his windup and radar guns are aimed at him behind the backstop. It looks like a shooting gallery, with their target wearing a No. 11 jersey and sideburns that don't age his youthful face.
This is what happens when you pitch a no-hitter against Allegany in the Class A regional playoffs, losing 1-0, and achieve perfection against the same team to begin your senior season. WhenBaseball America declares you the No. 1-rated high school player in the country and makes you a local celebrity, whether you like it or not.
"It's something you have to block out, but I appreciate the attention," he said after striking out nine Catoctin batters in five innings last week. "It's obviously a good thing, and my teammates have responded really well. They treat me just like the next guy in line."
Center of attention
The buzz surrounding Adenhart, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound right-hander, started three years ago during a fall tryout. It picked up after he went 6-1 with a 1.20 ERA as a junior. Now it roars like a jet engine.
"He's been dealing with it fine," said his stepfather, Duane Gigeous, "but I wouldn't wish this on any 17-year-old kid."
The catch, of course, is that Adenhart isn't like most 17-year-olds.
How many of them can throw three above-average pitches, including a fastball that touches 95 mph and overwhelms young hitters who choke up on the bat with little hope of making solid contact? How many are projected to go within the first 10 picks of next month's draft?
"I've seen it happen before, where a kid comes into the season and you think, 'This guy can't miss,' and the wheels fall off. But this kid's got a great arm," said a National League scout. "He'll have a bright future in professional baseball if he decides to go that route."
Adenhart, who has 85 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings, signed a letter of intent to play baseball at North Carolina, but maybe the folks at Chapel Hill shouldn't hold their breath.
"It's a great year for college pitchers, but I don't see why he won't go in the top 10," said Jim Callis, executive editor at Baseball America. "He should go off the board real quick. And I think he'll get drafted high enough that it would be real hard to turn down that bonus."
The industry is in agreement that Adenhart and La Grange (Texas) High pitcher Homer Bailey lead a weak prep class.
"They're neck-and-neck," Callis said. "They both have mid-90s fastballs. Nick probably has a better changeup, but both of them throw strikes and have real easy deliveries. The consensus might be that Nick is a little more polished and Bailey has a tad more stuff, but that's splitting hairs."
Adenhart calls the draft "a crapshoot," and he doesn't obsess over where he'll be chosen. "There's nothing you can really predict," he said. "If you do what you do and not put too much pressure on yourself, it's going to happen."
Plenty of visitors
Representatives from 13 teams, including the Orioles, visited Adenhart's home this winter, and it's not uncommon for 20 or more scouts to congregate at his school when he pitches.
"For a lot of coaches, it's a hassle," said Williamsport's Rod Steiner, "but it's worth it to get a talent like this and to bring the people out."
The answering machine at Adenhart's house includes the dates and times of his games, and the school sends out a mass e-mail to anyone interested in his itinerary. It's the only way to stay organized and not have the family's serenity shattered by persistent calls.
Gigeous, his stepfather, learned a few tricks from Rick Oliver, who works for agent Ron Shapiro's group and is serving as an adviser. More counseling came from the parents of pitcher Gavin Floyd, the Mount St. Joseph's graduate who was drafted fourth overall by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2001.
"We talked to people this winter who have been through it before," Gigeous said.
"It's hectic," said Adenhart, whose last regular-season start is Tuesday at South Hagerstown. "It puts a lot of pressure on you. It puts everything you do under a microscope. I like to get out and be with my friends and enjoy the high school experience as much as I can, get away from it a little. The easiest time is out on the field."
Narrowing his focus
Sacrifices have been made. Adenhart gave up playing basketball to avoid injury - he was a freshman guard on the St. Maria Goretti team that won the Baltimore Catholic League championship before he transferred to Williamsport as a junior - and he no longer is used at shortstop or in the outfield.
"He couldn't keep doing that, because he has to come out here and these guys [scouts] expect him to be in tiptop shape," Gigeous said. "They don't care that two days before, he played shortstop and fouled a ball off his leg."
They should have seen him at Camden Yards three years ago, making the Maryland Orioles fall team at 14 because he was better than the older high school-eligible pitchers who normally fill out the roster.
"We had some good ones there, too," said Dean Albany, an Orioles scout who coaches the fall team. "Usually, they're 11th-graders. He was in ninth, but he threw so nice and easy and fluid."
"Dean hadn't watched me throw before that," said Adenhart, who also became the youngest player to make Albany's summer team. "He said, `You can come down and throw off the mound. It'll be an experience, but I'm not sure you're going to make the team.' I happened to open some eyes. I was pretty oblivious to all the things going on around me."
Not anymore. The unrelenting hype could have swelled Adenhart's head, but only the crowds get bigger. He remains quiet and humble.
"I don't think anybody questions his makeup and intelligence," Callis said.
"His 10-year-old brother [Henry] keeps him in line," Gigeous said. "And he's been dealing with this since he was 14. He's a realist. He knows all these guys are standing here and watching, but the chapter isn't finished. It's like spending money you don't have. He's not that type of kid. We're not that type of people."