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Louisville's Corey Ray a polished possibility for Phillies in draft

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - The Wake Forest pitcher threw Corey Ray an inside fastball, and the Louisville outfielder popped it to shortstop. Ray, one of the top collegiate players in the country, trotted back to the dugout. He opened a black notebook.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - The Wake Forest pitcher threw Corey Ray an inside fastball, and the Louisville outfielder popped it to shortstop. Ray, one of the top collegiate players in the country, trotted back to the dugout. He opened a black notebook.

Ray, 21, viewed his junior year as a time to refine the skills that made him a consensus top-10 pick in this week's Major League Baseball draft before the season even started. He wrote "F6" in his journal. Underneath the failed result, he logged the lesson with three words.

Will come in.

Two innings later, Ray faced the same pitcher. He attacked a first-pitch fastball. It was inside. "That's in my head," Ray said. The ball sailed more than 400 feet and disappeared into a tree line well beyond the right-field fence for a two-run homer.

Ray is considered one of the more polished players available at the top of the June 9 draft, when the Phillies pick first. The product of Chicago's South Side - an upbringing that defines Ray - could have signed in 2013 as a 33rd-round pick by Seattle. His father, who drives a street sweeper in Chicago, told him he was not ready. Everyone else knew he wanted to go to pro ball.

But a potential six-figure bonus could not mask Ray's raw game. Dad won the argument. "I know you're happy you went to college now," he tells his son. Ray laughs.

He will be the highest Louisville player ever selected in the draft. His signing bonus will be in the millions. He wants to use it, he said, to support his family and enrich youth baseball in Chicago because he will be the highest pick with Chicago roots since Jeff Jackson in 1989.

Yes, that Jeff Jackson. Ray attended Simeon Career Academy - the same school as Jackson, drafted fourth overall by the Phillies and forever known as the player the Phillies chose instead of Frank Thomas. A few years ago, Jackson met Ray and offered some advice.

"He let me know so I don't make those same mistakes," Ray said. "Just don't worry about all of the hype and all of the noise."

Ray, 6-foot and 190 pounds, had crushed 15 homers and stolen 39 bases while starting every game of his junior season, before an NCAA regional game Friday. He was batting .320. He cut his strikeouts almost in half from his sophomore year.

"I don't know if there is such a thing as a 'for-sure' thing," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said, "but I think he's pretty darn close to that."

Ray, a lefthanded hitter who projects as a top-of-the-order batter, has hit everywhere in Louisville's lineup. Danny Rosenbaum, a Louisville senior infielder who went to Plymouth Whitemarsh, has witnessed Ray's progression from a free swinger to a hitter who diligently logs his at-bats. Now, he envisions Ray playing for his favorite team.

"I look at the Phillies right now, and they don't have a whole lot of bats," Rosenbaum said. "They had Jimmy Rollins, who was a power leadoff hitter. He wasn't a prototype leadoff hitter. If Corey is going to be a leadoff hitter, he'll be a power leadoff hitter."

Ray could quickly rise through the minors. But scouts question how much higher Ray's upside is. Some evaluators have docked him because he does not profile as a centerfielder in the majors; he'll need greater power numbers in the majors to be a star corner outfielder.

This season, Ray played more in center to mixed results. He has the speed to outrun mistakes, but those mistakes are sometimes hard to overlook. Against Wake Forest, Ray misplayed a sinking liner to center into an inside-the-park home run.

"Corey Ray knows how to play," a National League talent evaluator said. "He knows how to move runners. His strikeouts mostly come from lefthanded pitchers. He strikes out more than most of the prospects. But for a little guy, he can put a charge into a ball.

"If he can play center field, that helps his ceiling big time."

Ray did not start until the end of his freshman season, and McDonnell forced him to adjust. He would not thrive on talent alone. When he pushed, the Louisville coach discovered a player who wanted to be great.

"He hasn't acted like it's his time," McDonnell said. "He just plays. I've told a lot of organizations, this kid is going to walk into a minor-league clubhouse and he's the unofficial captain of the team. Not because of arrogance or cockiness. It's because of confidence, because of joy, because of how he practices and plays.

"This guy is gold for an organization, man. Obviously, the talent speaks for itself. But it's the athleticism. The magnetism. The way he carries himself. The smile. That energy."

Ray, who relies on Mets outfielder and fellow Chicago native Curtis Granderson as a mentor, said his goal is to help as many young players on the South Side as possible. Players like him. For a 21-year-old college student, that is lofty thinking.

"Yeah, but when you're from where I'm from, you realize those kids need as much help as they can get," he said. "I've been blessed with the opportunity to help them. And that's what I'll do. I'll never forget the people who helped me.

"I wouldn't be where I am had someone not helped me."