A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
IN 2012, NICK Gordon was a high school sophomore facing something of an identity crisis. The 16-year-old ballplayer with big league bloodlines—father Tom pitched for 21 years in the majors, and half brother Dee is the Dodgers' second baseman—handled the shortstop position with the grace of a dancer, but he could also unleash snarling 90-mph fastballs from the mound. Nick and his father were torn about his future position on the diamond, so Tom turned to someone he knew who could deliver a definitive verdict on the issue: Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin. The elder Gordon and Larkin live in the same Orlando neighborhood, and one afternoon Larkin began working with Nick at a Little League field. After watching Nick take grounders and sling baseballs across the infield, Larkin had an answer.
"The kid fields with the best angles of any young shortstop I've ever seen," the Reds great declared. "He is a shortstop."
Over the next two years Nick would blossom into the best high school shortstop in America, and last week he was the first high school position player taken in baseball's amateur draft when the Twins selected him No. 5 overall. In a draft headlined by pitching—a record-tying 20 hurlers were taken in the opening round—the 18-year-old Gordon stands out as one of the draft's most intriguing picks.
Baseball's draft, more than that of any other sport, is a low-yield proposition—according to a recent Baseball America study, only one in six players drafted makes it to the majors. This year, given the astonishing rate at which young pitchers in big league organizations have been shelved with elbow and shoulder injuries, the draft felt like more of a crapshoot than ever with so many pitchers taken early despite the clear risks of investing in young arms. High school hitters, meanwhile, are regarded as the hardest prospects to project. But while drafting teenage position players with low floors and high ceilings is a guessing game, it's one with a potentially big payoff.
That's what makes a player like Gordon (one of six high school position players taken in the draft's first round) a compelling pick. "We always look for the projectable player, and we think Nick can be a J.J. Hardy or a Stephen Drew type, and maybe more," says Twins scouting director Deron Johnson, whose organization already boasts two of the top prospects in the game in minor league outfielder Byron Buxton and infielder Miguel Sano.
While his father was a 5'9" pitcher who could overpower hitters despite his undersized frame, Nick is already physically impressive; he's a broad-shouldered 6'2", 175 sinewy pounds of fast-twitch muscles. Last off-season he bulked up by 15 pounds, and his draft stock rose as the added strength turned him into a more dangerous offensive weapon at Orlando's Olympia High. This past season he hit .494 with five home runs, 10 doubles, two triples, 13 stolen bases and a .576 on-base percentage in 99 plate appearances. "If he wanted to hit more homers, he would be hitting more homers," says Olympia coach Chuck Schall, "but that's not his approach. He takes what's given to him: The bat is his tool, not his weapon. And that's so rare for a high schooler." Says one NL scout, "His defense and speed are already plus tools. He's going to hit for average. If he can add power—and power always comes late—you're talking about a Chase Utley--type to build your franchise around."
Dee, who led the majors this season with 36 stolen bases through Sunday, and Nick grew up in different homes. (Tom has six children who were raised in four different households in the Orlando area.) As a kid Dee was focused on basketball and didn't play for his high school baseball team until his senior year. But Nick "was hooked on baseball from the beginning," he says. He and Dee spent many days together playing catch in the backyard and Wiffle ball in their father's garage, dreaming of the day their paths might cross in the big leagues.
"I've been watching my brother every day, through his struggles and his successes, hoping to prepare myself for that time," says Nick. "Well, that time's finally here."