You never know. That’s the crazy part about baseball. You never know how a kid will develop.
Six years ago, I was coaching a travel baseball team, and we were playing against the Macomb Mudhens, one of the best 12-year-old teams in the country. I wish I could tell you that I looked at Nick Plummer, who was playing first base for the Mudhens, and immediately came to realize: “One day that kid is going to be one of the best high school players in the country, that kid could be a first-round draft pick.”
But Plummer didn’t make much of an impression. At the time, he was thick and strong — almost chunky — but not incredibly athletic. He wasn’t fast enough to play in the outfield.
The Mudhens were coached by Scott Leonard and his brother Tony, two of the most successful travel baseball coaches in the state; and the roster was stocked with talent. One of the best players on that team, one that I remember distinctly, doesn’t play baseball anymore. His name is Alex Malzone, and he’s a freshman quarterback at Michigan.
“My brother Tony wanted to cut Nick because he had a terrible 12-year-old season,” Scott Leonard said. “He said, ‘Nick is done, Scott. He’s done.’ “
But Scott Leonard wanted to keep Plummer because he was so driven to succeed. He was tough and hated to lose. And besides that, he was just a good kid.
“What do you mean, he’s done?” Scott said. “No, he’s not.”
Scott Leonard didn’t cut Plummer, a decision that changed everything — all of their lives — considering Scott Leonard has coached Nick for eight years now, helping him create a swing scouts seem to love, and, well, there’s this other thing. Scott Leonard eventually started dating Plummer’s mother, Ann, and they have been married for four years.
Meanwhile, Plummer kept working out and growing, becoming far more athletic. Plummer, a 5-foot-11, 197-pound centerfielder, is a senior at Birmingham Brother Rice, and many scouts and baseball experts predict he will be taken in the amateur draft tonight, in the first round or the second round.
“You just don’t know,” Scott Leonard said. “Kids that may not be succeeding at an early age, don’t discourage them. Encourage them. Have them keep playing. Because you never know.”
Over the last quarter century, it has been rare for high school players from Michigan to get drafted in the first round. Ryan Anderson, a pitcher from Divine Child, was taken by the Seattle Mariners in 1997. Derek Jeter (Kalamazoo Central) was drafted in 1992 by the New York Yankees.
The reason is complicated: exposure, the cold and wet spring weather in Michigan, the short high school season and the perception the talent level is lower in Michigan. So Scott Leonard took last summer off from coaching and devoted it to Nick. They traveled around the country, attending several elite showcase tournaments, flying from New York to California, playing against the best of the best, in front of all kinds of scouts. In a matter of weeks, Plummer’s stock soared. He is expected to be picked anywhere from No. 20 to No. 45, which could bring him a signing bonus that ranges from $1.36 million to $2.2 million, according to Baseball America.
A left-handed hitter, Plummer shows power and patience at the plate. His biggest weakness is his arm strength, but scouts say it could improve with a long-toss program.
How did Plummer get to his stage? How did he go from the kid who was nearly cut to a potential draft pick? It was hard work and following a detailed plan. “It was nothing for him to go to school, come home, go workout for 11/2 hours, meet me at the hitting facility, and we’d hit for 11/2 hours,” Leonard said.
At the same time, Scott Leonard had to straddle a complicated role going from coach to father figure back to batting practice pitcher. “Scott has been a blessing,” Plummer said. “He has really helped me throughout everything. He’s been there for me 24/7.”
And tonight, Plummer will find out what is next. He committed to Kentucky, but all but a few of the MLB teams have spent time with Plummer privately, interviewing him and watching him train and hit in a cage. “I’m excited for my pro career start,” Plummer said. “I’m curious where I will end up.”
Maybe, it will be Toronto. The Blue Jays have sent a posse to scout him. Maybe, it will be somebody else.
As far as Scott Leonard, he is back coaching travel baseball, starting over with a new group of young kids. You just never know.
Building through the draft
Here are the Tigers’ past five first-round draft picks and how they’ve fared:
2014: Derek Hill
The outfielder out of Elk Grove (Calif.) High School was the 23rd overall selection. This season, he’s .hitting 227 (through Saturday) at Class A West Michigan.
2013: Jonathon Crawford
The right-hander from Florida was 8-3 last year at West Michigan, but was sent to
Cincinnati as a part of the Alfredo Simon deal. He has yet to pitch this year.
2010: Nick Castellanos
Picked out of high school in Florida, he’s in his second season as the Tigers’ third baseman. He’s hitting .229 with four home runs and 24 RBIs.
2010: Chance Ruffin
This right-hander out of Texas had a cup of coffee with Detroit before a trade to Seattle in 2011 in the Doug Fister deal. He retired last July.
2009: Jacob Turner
Made six starts for Tigers in 2011-12 before getting sent to Miami for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante. Now with the Cubs, the right-hander is on the disabled list with an elbow injury.
When: Tonight — Round 1,
compensation picks, Round 2, compensation picks, 7 (MLB Network); Tuesday — Rounds 3-10; Wednesday — Rounds 11-40.
Tigers: Pick No. 22 and No. 34 tonight.
Round 1 draft order
7. Red Sox
8. White Sox
29. Blue Jays