He took a gamble, and Nick Bitsko never wavered from his decision, even as the first round of Wednesday’s baseball draft was winding down and he had not yet heard his name.

Finally, at the 24th selection, the Tampa Bay Rays selected Bitsko, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Central Bucks East righthander who had been described the mystery man of the draft. Of all the players in the first round, Bitsko, whose fastball has topped 98 mph, provided the most intrigue.

In January he made the decision to reclassify, moving up the timetable and turning from a junior to a senior this year. Baseball America had made him the No. 1 prospect of the Class of 2021 before he decided to reclassify.

During his freshman and sophomore years at C.B. East, he pitched a total of just 33 innings, and of course he threw zero innings when this season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, Bitsko, who turns 18 on June 16, was seen enough over the last few years on the summer baseball circuit to earn a first-round selection. Last summer, he played for a high-profile travel team, the East Coast Sox out of Mississippi, and he participated in various national showcases.

“Obviously the whole reclassification thing, it was more of a developmental standpoint, it wasn’t just to get drafted or anything like that or go to school, it was more to further my career,” Bitsko said during a draft night Zoom interview with the media. “Obviously if I was ready, this last summer doing the whole summer circuit and everything ... I think I made the right decision overall to advance my career, get to the next level, and play against better competition wherever I go.”

The Rays admit that selecting a high school pitcher who didn’t have a spring season made things much different, but they didn’t waver in their opinion of Bitsko.

During his freshman and sophomore seasons at Central Bucks East, Nick Bitsko went 4-2 with a 1.27 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 33 innings.
courtesy Central Bucks East baseball
During his freshman and sophomore seasons at Central Bucks East, Nick Bitsko went 4-2 with a 1.27 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 33 innings.

“Nick is an exceptionally talented young man. We’re thrilled to have him, but it is certainly a unique situation with a high school arm who didn’t get on the mound this season,” Rob Metzler, the Rays’ senior director of amateur scouting, said on a Zoom conference call Wednesday night. “It was absolutely unique, but ultimately when we weighed that versus other options, it was the direction we were excited to go.”

Metzler said the Rays identified Bitsko last summer as someone who could be a starting pitching prospect. The Rays were impressed with his entire makeup.

“[His] aptitude, maturity, really good head on his shoulders, I think really everything you want to see, but for just more game exposure this spring,” said the Rays’ vice president of baseball operations and general manager, Erik Neander.

During his two seasons at East, Bitsko went 4-2 with a 1.27 ERA and 68 strikeouts. There were no injury concerns.

“We were not going to take a special kid like that and pitch him every week,” said C.B. East coach Kyle Dennis, who was among the estimated 15 family members and friends who gathered at the Bitskos’ house on draft night. “We weren’t going to put a special kid like that at risk.”

Is there had been a season this year, Bitsko would have been pitching regularly, Dennis said. Bitsko also played in the field as a freshman and sophomore. A right fielder, he hit .352 in his first season and .450 in his second.

“I have had a lot of hardworking guys, but he has been the hardest-working player I had,” said Dennis, who has been the head coach for 13 seasons.

Bitsko has committed to the University of Virginia, but the Rays wouldn’t have drafted him if they didn’t think they could sign him. The bonus slot for the 24th pick is $2.83 million. MLB teams must sign draft choices by Aug. 1.