One after another, scouts funneled to Boston College this year for a glimpse of Sal Frelick — the most highly regarded baseball prospect out of New England in at least a decade.
On Friday, Orioles GM Mike Elias — whose team has the No. 5 pick in this year’s Major League Baseball draft — visited Harrington Athletics Village, positioned along the third-base line to evaluate the lefthanded swing of one of the best college position players in this year’s draft. Elias was joined by dozens of talent evaluators who were getting a last look at Frelick (as well as power-hitting teammate Cody Morissette, also projected as an early round selection) before the conclusion of the Eagles’ season.
The attention ran counter to what Frelick experienced at Lexington High School, where he received more acclaim for his quarterbacking exploits (he was named Massachusetts Gatorade Football Player of the Year as a senior in 2017) than baseball. He never talked to scouts in high school and went undrafted.
Did Frelick perceive a slight? Did he imagine himself as an overlooked player who would eventually vault to the first round?
“Absolutely not,” Frelick laughed. “The furthest I looked in high school was college. It was just, ‘Let’s have fun in high school, win some games in whatever season it is, and when I get to college, work for a starting spot.’ I would have never guessed that I’d be where I am right now.”
Frelick, who hit .359/.443/.559 as a junior this year, offers a tantalizing combination in July’s draft. He’s a gifted athlete with a quick, clean, level swing with the ability to get to fastballs all over the strike zone. His current line-drive approach should translate to solid averages and OBPs with gap power — and perhaps more, if he sharpens his recognition of pitches he can drive.
He also shows plus speed (two scouts timed him going from home to first around 4.15 to 4.2 seconds on Friday) and a strong arm that will allow him to stay in center field, a package of skills that points to a reasonably safe bet to emerge as an everyday center fielder, perhaps in the mold of Brett Gardner or Adam Eaton.
“It’s a hard combination to find,” said BC coach Mike Gambino. “He has elite bat-to-ball skills — look at his strikeouts (28) to walks (27) — you’ve got hit ability, you’ve got power, you’ve got elite speed, and you’ve got an elite defender. Put those on paper and look around the country and find out where those guys are. They’re not there.”
It would have been hard to anticipate Frelick’s ascent to a player universally projected for the first round — and widely placed in the top-10 picks — in high school, in part because of his own predilection. Frelick passed on the high school showcase circuit of baseball workouts and events in favor of year-round, multi-sport competition.
He lettered in baseball, football, and hockey in all four years at Lexington. Eventually, as Division 1 football programs paid growing attention to the 5-foot-9-inch quarterback, he toyed with the idea of continuing his multi-sport path in college.
He’d committed to the BC baseball program as an underclassman. But in his junior year of high school, the Eagles expressed interest in having him play football. Frelick arrived at something of a crossroads.
“[Gambino] said, ‘Listen, you’re a baseball player. If you want to venture into football, that’s the wrong decision,’ ” recalled Frelick. “Being stubborn and young, I said I’m going to go look elsewhere. But I talked to my parents and coaches and looked at what I could play the longest. I think baseball is that path for me.”
“I love guys that spend time competing in other sports. But I just saw so much upside on the baseball field with a kid who had played such little baseball compared to everyone else,” said Gambino. “I just saw how good he was and what I believed he could be doing. I really believed that by dedicating all of his time to baseball, I thought he’d be really, really special.”
The wisdom of that choice became clear to both Frelick and the scouting community in the summer before he arrived at BC, when he played for the North Shore Navigators in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League — a New England-based summer wood-bat league consisting primarily of college players.
In 35 games against older and more experienced competition, Frelick — who spent most of the summer at short (his position in high school) but also started playing in the outfield — hit .361/.438/.594 with 7 homers, 22 steals, and more walks (19) than strikeouts (17). He was named the top pro prospect in the league, and was no longer unknown to the scouting community.
“From an athletic standpoint, I was like, ‘Wow, I can play with these guys. It will be interesting to see what happens when I get to campus,’ ” said Frelick.
The start of his college career was slowed by a knee injury he suffered at the end of his Futures League summer. Surgery to repair a torn meniscus prevented Frelick from taking part in BC’s fall baseball activities.
Yet perhaps because of a multi-sport upbringing that had him constantly bouncing between sports with little build-up in any of them, he was ready for college play when the season started in the spring. Though his 2018 season ended early because of another knee surgery, Frelick earned ACC all-freshman honors, hitting .367/.447/.513 and making some dazzling defensive plays in his new life as a full-time outfielder.
The pandemic cut short his sophomore year, but with most summer leagues canceled in 2020, Frelick re-established his prospect credentials by returning to the Futures League. He hit .398/.473/.592, and again was named the top pro prospect in the league. The performance set the stage for Frelick to explode out of the gates this year for BC.
“He has not disappointed,” said Red Sox Northeast regional scouting supervisor Ray Fagnant. “He took off running and hasn’t looked back.”
Remarkably, the backdrop of a pandemic provided Frelick with a playing opportunity unlike any he’s experienced — without interruption from either injury or another sport.
“I actually joke about that with my buddies all the time,” said the 21-year-old. “This is 100 percent the first time I’ve played baseball year-round.”
The fact that Frelick took a step forward with that experience — with better game awareness and an improved ability to drive the ball in the air — suggests potential future growth with a player who already has shown big league tools. That combination helps to explain why Frelick could go higher in the draft than any New Englander since George Springer (UConn, No. 11 overall in 2011).
“When you’re talking about the best college baseball players ever out of New England, Sal has got to be in that conversation,” said Gambino. “[And] he’s not a finished product yet. There’s still a touch of rawness to his game. You are going to see this guy get better and better.”
As if to underscore the point, Frelick offered a statement game in BC’s final contest of 2021. He reached base in all five plate appearances against Virginia on Saturday, going 2 for 2 with an opposite-field double and two walks, and stealing a base — flashing the ability to control the strike zone and hit for average with some power while making use of his speed, the sort of performance that is likely to result in his name being called early in the first round on July 11.