Behind Jason Groome's journey from phenom to Red Sox first-round pick
'To get drafted by the Red Sox, it's awesome,' says Groome, who grew up a fan of the team that made him the No. 12 overall pick
SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Baseball America projected him to go third overall, to the Atlanta Braves. ESPN's Keith Law ranked him as the second-best talent on the board. And MLB.com tapped him to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 amateur draft, going to a Phillies team that plays its home games one hour from his front door. A 6-foot-6, 220-pound, 17-year-old phenom left-hander from Barnegat, New Jersey, he looked like he would make history as the highest-ever draftee from the Garden State, and maybe even land with the closest MLB has to his hometown team.
Instead, the Phillies passed at No. 1. The Reds looked elsewhere at No. 2, as did the Braves at No. 3. He wasn't picked in the top five. By the time he dropped out of the top 10, draft experts at draft headquarters and beyond were asking the same question: When would a team finally jump in and draft Jason Groome?
At No. 12, the Boston Red Sox answered the bell. By falling that far, the 17-year-old Groome tumbled to a draft slot where the recommended signing bonus is nearly $6 million lower than at No. 1, and more than $3 million less than at No. 3. Beyond mere money, Groome could have fallen under the spell that comes with going lower in a draft than the masses expected, a spell that can drive athletes slightly mad, and make them vow revenge for years to come.
But talking to Groome (who goes by Jay) minutes after commissioner Rob Manfred called his name from the podium at MLB Network studios, a sense of bitterness or disappointment was nowhere to be found.
"I wasn't really thinking about it too much," Groome said by phone Thursday night, regarding his getting drafted later than expected. "These things can work in mysterious ways. I just wanted to be comfortable and protected, wherever I was going to end up."
Despite the geographic proximity to Philly, Groome grew up a Red Sox fan on the Jersey Shore. Getting picked by the Sox, he said, fit the criteria of an organization that could make him feel comfortable and protected. But it was also much more than that.
"Growing up I always used to watch Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez. Then Dustin Pedroia came along, and I loved the way he plays the game 100 percent all the time, that he does whatever he can to help his team win. I love Fenway Park, David Ortiz, now David Price. To get drafted by the Red Sox, it's awesome."
To trace Groome's path to draft day, you can start with his sophomore year at Barnegat High School. A 6-foot-1, 147-pounder as a freshman who played first base and outfield in addition to pitching, Groome grew to 6-3 and 195 as a soph, while also settling in as a full-time starter. In the state championship game, Groome and Barnegat fell 1-0 to Buena High School. After that year, he earned a scholarship to attend IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, for his junior season.
Groome's decision to leave for a year didn't sit well with many in his hometown of 21,000, especially people at his school, said a source close to Groome. The Barnegat High School baseball program had existed for less than a decade, and was starting to become a regional power. Armed with a fastball headed toward the mid-90s and a heartbreaking curveball, Groome figured to be the linchpin of the team. Instead, he was gone.
Parochial beefs aside, Groome saw IMG as an opportunity to improve dramatically as a pitcher.
"The baseball wasn't anything really different," Groome said. "It's the strength training that's top notch. I learned how to work out, and put on 18 pounds. Also pretty much the whole coaching staff played in the pros. Chris Sabo and Steve Frey were my coaches. They treated us like men. They just brought a major league feel to it."
On the mound, Groome thrived in Florida. He struck out 77 batters in 43 innings while walking just nine. He rung up 19 batters in one game, held opponents to a .154 batting average against him and finished with a 0.98 ERA.
What happened next depends on who you ask. Groome said he and his father Jason talked at length about young Jay's desire to come back home. The son wanted to compete for a state championship, something he couldn't do at IMG. He missed his family and friends a lot, he said, though not necessarily to the point of homesickness. "I felt like I need to come home and be myself," he said.
But according to multiple sources interviewed for this story, this was also around the point at which some concerns about Groome's makeup started to materialize. The rumors never involved any serious offenses, sources said -- more like standard youthful indiscretions.
Whatever the case, those close to Groome say he was a changed person when he came back to Barnegat. Much larger in stature but also different by personality.
"When he came home, you could see the maturity in him, that by living on his own he'd grown up a lot," said his mother Danielle Groome. "He was a totally different kid when he came back home."
At the start of his senior season at Barnegat, Groome was rated as the top prep pitching prospect by most publications that grade the draft. In his second start back, he fired a no-hitter, matching his career best by fanning 19. A week later, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association ruled him ineligible for 30 days. It was a surprising decision, given that Groome was returning to live with his parents and attend his former school. The suspension was soon lifted, clearing the way for Groome to pitch again.
That set the stage for a charity showcase game on May 16 at Campbell's Field in Camden, New Jersey. Baseball fans from all over the state flooded into the stadium, filling nearly every one of the park's 6,425 seats. Meanwhile, Groome dominated. Though he did allow a run, he also struck out 14 batters, including eight in a row at one point, despite playing in front of the biggest crowd he or any of the other players on the field that night had ever ever seen.
"It was huge, for Jason, but also for the whole community," said Barnegat High athletic director John Germano. "At their reunion in 10 years, these guys won't talk about wins and losses. They'll talk about playing at what was for them the equivalent of a major-league stadium, as 16- or 17-year-old kids."
With a phalanx of scouts and writers behind home plate, Groome's curveball reminded those in attendance of some of the best anyone had seen in years.
"I think it's a 70 curveball, and you can probably find some people who think it's an 80," said ESPN writer and prospects expert Keith Law, referring to the highest possible grade on the scouting scale. "I think he'll get stronger, which will cause his velocity to increase, to where I might have it as an 80 later too. In my experience doing this, going back 10 years, the only prep pitchers I've seen with a comparable curve were [Nationals top prospect Lucas] Giolito and [Orioles prospect Dylan] Bundy."
Law and other prospect graders cite Groome's changeup as a far less refined pitch, but one that could improve once he's encouraged to use it more, which will surely happen once the lefty moves from the sometimes uneven competition in New Jersey high school to the pro ranks. As for the question of skill level in northeast baseball, the picks of Groome and No. 3 overall selection Ian Anderson (from Clifton Park, New York) could offer a compelling litmus test, one that could help erase the ghost of Northeast busts like Billy Rowell and maybe prevent stars like Mike Trout from plummeting to late-first-round status.
The next step for Groome and his agent Jeff Randazzo of Dallas-based agency Ballengee Group: negotiating a deal with the Red Sox. A few days before the draft, Groome committed to Florida juco Chipola College, giving him the right to reapply for the draft next year if needed. The cost-benefit analysis could be tricky for both sides of the negotiation: Groome and his camp could think twice about missing out on a signing bonus millions higher had he gone in the top three or four picks, but must also weigh the inherent risk of injury that follows every young pitcher -- even one with a delivery frequently described as free and easy by scouts. On the flip side, Boston's entire pool of available signing bonus money is a hair less than $7 million, meaning they might not want to use much wiggle room beyond the recommended slot of $3.2 million for the 12th overall pick.
Writing for Baseball Prospectus, draft analyst Chris Crawford lauded the pick:
The rich get richer. Groome was the top player on my board all year, and he's an absolute steal with this pick on paper. Both his fastball and curveball flash double-plus, and when he throws his change, its flashes above-average. There are non-baseball concerns here that caused him to fall, but nothing that should keep this guy from becoming at least a mid-rotation starter, with the upside of a top-of-the-rotation guy. What a great pick by an organization that seems to have a habit of doing this.
Having received word of Boston's pick minutes earlier, Groome expressed optimism that a deal would be worked out. More than that, he expressed the reaction you might expect from a 17-year-old kid given this kind of opportunity: over-the-moon excitement.
"I really couldn't sleep at all last night," he said. "Thinking where I'd end up, not knowing where it would be, knowing that my dream would become a reality. And now ... it's just an amazing feeling."
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