Showcase | Story | 6/19/2017

PG National fine fit for Gray Jr.

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – A year ago this month, elite Mississippi outfield prospect Joe Gray Jr. was doubting himself ever so slightly. He had been invited to take part in the Perfect Game Junior National Showcase – the country’s most exclusive underclass showcase event – but was dragging his heels. Simply put, he didn’t think he was ready to walk out onto such a prominent stage.

After much consideration, he decided to attend the showcase at jetBlue Park, the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox, and found out he was more than ready after all. One telling comment from a PG scout written when the event concluded noted his that he has the “highest level tools across the board”; he easily gained inclusion on the event’s Top Prospect List.

Fast-forward one year to the past couple of days and you would have found Gray Jr. back at jetBlue Park attending the even more prominent PG National Showcase, and this time there was no hesitation on Gray Jr.’s part when it came to whether he should attend the exclusive showcase.

“Anytime you get invited to with Perfect Game is a big deal because of prestigious (it) is in baseball and with scouting,” Gray Jr. this weekend. “Me and Perfect Game have a good relationship – they take care of their players well – and for me, just being here for the PG National and getting to play with all these phenomenal players and getting to meet new people, it’s an amazing thing.”

Gray Jr., a University of Mississippi recruit who hails from Hattiesburg, Miss., and will begin his senior year at Hattiesburg High School in the fall, arrived in Southwest Florida holding down the No. 4 position overall in PG’s class of 2018 national prospect rankings. He is ranked as the class’s No. 2 overall outfield prospect behind Wisconsin’s Jarred Kelenic, who is ranked No. 2 overall and was also at this year’s PG National.

In his mind, Gray Jr. believes a much better ballplayer is wearing a PG National jersey than the one that slipped on his PG Jr. National jersey a year ago. Back then, he feels like he was just a raw athlete and now he feels more like a legitimate baseball prospect. And he knows there’s a big difference between the two.

 “Now with all the things that have been happening with me, and you can also see it with the other players, how they’ve progressed,” Gray Jr. said. “With me being able to come here and being on the Top Prospect List last year, it pretty much set the bar pretty high. I know I’m decent but I also know there is always room to get better … and it never really stops.”

The 2016 PG Jr. National Showcase had been Gray Jr.’s only other showcase experience before coming to the National, but he has played in eight PG WWBA tournaments since July 2015. He was named to the all-tournament team at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship as a member of the EvoShield Canes 17 squad that dropped a memorable championship game to the SF Giants Scout Team out at the 5-Plex Player Development Complex here in Fort Myers.

Why was the game memorable? Originally scheduled for five innings because of a heavy slate of games on championship day, the Giants finally triumphed over the Canes 17, 14-13 in nine innings, in an affair that took a little more than 3 hours to play.

This summer he will be playing with the talented Canes 17u squad alongside other talented 2018s like right-hander Austin Becker (ranked No. 9 nationally), infielder Emilio Rosas (No. 42), shortstop Xavier Edwards (No. 49), left-hander/outfielder Carter Lohman (No. 53), catcher Anthony Siegler (No. 56), outfielder Jared Hart (No. 85), third baseman Nicholas Northcut (No. 108), right-hander Landon Marceaux (No. 121), left-hander Patrick Wicklander (No. 194), first baseman Chase Sanguinetti (No. 221), and outfielder Miko Rodriguez (No. 236). All those players joined Gray Jr. at the PG National.

“Those guys are amazing and they’re pretty much like my brothers already,” Gray Jr. said. “We’re looking to go up to the (17u PG WWBA National Championship in Emerson, Ga.), and that’s pretty much our motivation, to win the WWBA. I’m having a lot of fun and those guys are going to be pretty much like my brothers the rest of my life.”

Gray Jr. was also a member of the Braves Scout Team/Ohio Warhawks team that played at last year’s PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. He was the youngest member of the BST/Warhawks’ starting outfield, a unit that also included 2016 PG All-Americans Calvin Mitchell and Drew Waters.

The Jupiter experience was a real eye-opener for the then-16-year-old Gray Jr. After a long summer of play, he arrived at the Roger Dean Stadium spring training complex second-guessing his swing. He was going into the batting cage and experimenting with different stances and he felt like he got out of his rhythm.

“When I got down there, I just wasn’t on time (with my swing) and it really opened my eyes,” he said. “But I did get to see good Division-I pitching and now, with the MLB draft that just happened, it turns out it was pro-style pitching.

“It was a good experience and now that I have that under my belt, when I go back to Jupiter this year, I’m looking to perform,” he said.

Gray Jr. stood out in a couple of ways during Saturday’s workout session with his Purple team teammates, most obviously with his event-best 98 mph throw from the outfield (four more teams still need to complete their workouts). He ran a very respectable 6.75 60-yard dash, and following his BP session, a PG scout reported that the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Gray Jr. “has some of the easiest bat speed you will see and it’s just going to keep improving as he fills out his long and very athletic build.”

The Hattiesburg HS team that Gray Jr. plays for enjoyed a special spring, finishing 26-11 after losing a MHSAA Class 5A semifinal game to eventual state champion Carriere Pearl River Central HS. Pearl River was led by sophomore catcher Hayden Dunhurst, one of the top prospects to perform at last week’s PG Junior National Showcase.

Gray Jr.’s junior season with the Hattiesburg Tigers was nothing short of phenomenal. He slashed .477/.636/.875 with 10 doubles, two triples, seven home runs, 34 RBI and 43 runs scored; every one of those numbers was a team-high.

He was joined in the Tigers’ outfielder by fellow junior Dexter Jordan Jr., a top prospect ranked No. 76 overall nationally and the No. 2 outfielder in Mississippi behind only Gray Jr. Jordan Jr. was also in attendance at the PG National and a teammate of Gray Jr.’s on the Purple team.

“Honestly, with my high school team, I would say that we have the best junior class (2018s) in the state,” Gray Jr. said. “We have guys like Dexter Jordan and a few other kids that aren’t really all that well-known, but they’re producing and they’re all playing very well.”

With all those talented players returning for their senior seasons in the spring of 2018, there is a lot of reason for optimism, and the Tigers have not flown under the radar. They have already been invited to the prestigious National High School Invitational played in Cary, N.C., every April.

According to Gray Jr., Joseph Gray Sr., Joe Jr.’s dad, was a standout basketball player at Jackson State University and was projected to be an early round NBA draft pick. But, according to Gray Jr. he was involved in a car accident and broke his back, which derailed his career.

Gray Jr. said his dad coached him in basketball and football and one day his mom, Sheryl, came into the house and announced she wanted her son to play baseball and he was able to get connected with several coaches that guided him along the way.

He credits his high school coach, Joe Hartfield – Gray Jr. said he is “like a father to me” – and his coach with his former travel ball team TPL National, Matthew Paul with sending him the right direction.

“Now with that I’m under (the Canes’) Jeff Petty and Dan Gitzen, they’ve pretty much set me on the right foot,” Gray Jr. said. “They’re getting me ready for next year’s draft and also getting me ready to take on my college career. They’re getting me to realize that is going to be something different no matter where I end up at the next level.”

The jetBlue Park field on which Gray Jr. and the other PG National top prospects are performing hasn’t been around that long, but it still can stir some special emotions in a young prospect’s gut. It is not lost on Gray Jr. that this is the same field Red Sox legends like David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia played or still play their spring training games and hundreds of other big-time big-leaguers have walked out onto it during Grapefruit League play.

It also the field that top-10 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft picks Royce Lewis (No. 1), Hunter Greene (No. 2) and Jordan Adell (No. 10) were performing on at last year’s PG National Showcase.

“My hat’s off to those guys,” Gray Jr. said. “I can now say that I played on the same field with soon-to-be big-leaguers, and hopefully someone (younger than) me can say the same thing about most of the players that are here. It hits me hard sometimes that I get to share the same field and the same experiences as those great players.”

College baseball is really something Gray Jr. would like to try his hand at mostly because he’s experienced the electric atmosphere that surrounds an Ole Miss home game; he called it “amazing.” It’s something he’s given a lot of thought to, which means he might be faced with a monumental decision after the early rounds of the 2018 MLB Draft.

“Playing in center field at Swayze Field is something that I would love to do,” he said, referring to Ole Miss’s home stadium. But if it comes down to where (the draft) is a life-changing moment, there’s no doubt that I’m going to take it. If not, I will be sitting there in Oxford, Miss., playing ball under (head coach) Mike Bianco and (assistant coach) Mike Clement, so it is a win-win situation in my vision.”

The PG National Showcase experience is now in Gray Jr.’s rearview, and he can now look forward to a solid five months of thrills and spills playing elite-level travel ball. In the spring, he’ll play his final season with what should be a very good Hattiesburg High School team and then patiently – or maybe impatiently – await the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft. So, what will he and the others that have spent a few days in mid-June at the PG National take away from the experience?

“Some players get their motivation here, some players get their confidence here,” Gray Jr. said. “A lot of players can take away from this event everything they need to get them through the next couple of tournaments and all the way into the fall, and it really just depends on the player.

“For me, no matter what, I want to work hard and get better; I don’t want to be average,” he concluded. “That’s my biggest fear is being average, and at the end of the day what we’re really doing out here is having fun and doing what we do best.”

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