Terry Fuller, perhaps the most intriguing of the players drafted by the Cardinals earlier this month, will make his pro debut on Monday for the Gulf Coast League Cardinals. (John Sullivan/Griffin Daily News)

By Rob Rains

Around the small town of Griffin, Ga., there are a lot of people with stories to tell about Terry Fuller and his ability to hit baseballs very hard and very far.

It was Fuller’s ability to do that on the high school level which prompted the Cardinals to select him in the 15th round of the draft earlier this month, hoping that “plus plus” raw power that scouts observed can translate into him becoming a power hitter at the professional level.

The Cardinals will start to learn the answer on Monday when Fuller is set to make his professional debut as a member of the rookie level Gulf Coast League team in Jupiter, Fla.

“I’m excited to see what Terry can do when we get started,” said manager Steve Turco. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.”

The possibility the Cardinals might have found a young power hitter has made the 18-year-old Fuller – who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds - perhaps the most intriguing prospect among the 38 players selected by the Cardinals in this year’s draft.

Turco, who has been managing the Gulf Coast League Cardinals since 2009, includes himself among the people curious about Fuller’s potential. This will be Turco’s 17th year managing a short-season team in the organization and he has not been as excited about watching many players more than he is about watching Fuller.

In all those years, the player Turco believes had the most raw power on one of his teams was David Washington, also a 15th round draft pick out of high school in 2009. In 28 games in the rookie league that summer, Washington did not hit a home run. He repeated the league the following summer and homered twice in 95 at-bats.

“In these ballparks, the ball just doesn’t seem to carry unless the wind is blowing out,” Turco said. “When kids try to hit home runs it doesn’t happen. When they allow it to happen that’s when they are successful and show power numbers.”

Last season, at the age of 25, Washington was the only player in the Cardinals’ farm system to hit 30 homers, five for Double A Springfield and 25 for Triple A Memphis. A six-year minor-league free agent, Washington signed with Baltimore over the winter and a couple of weeks ago earned his first promotion to the major leagues.

“He was not physically as strongly built (as Fuller),” Turco said. “He was a leaner player, more of a basketball player than a football player like Terry. His (Fuller) physical size alone is imposing when you see a high school kid that size out there with young kids.”

In the years Turco has been running the Gulf Coast League team, no player has hit more than seven home runs in a season – which led the league. Stefan Trosclair, a college draft selection, led last year’s league championship team with five.

Turco has watched Fuller in practice the last few days in preparation for Monday’s season opener, when he likely will be starting in right field.

“What I see is the raw power everybody is talking about,” Turco said. “He is basically a pull hitter at this point. I don’t want to be encouraged or discouraged by anything until the games actually start. But the crazy thing is even when he doesn’t make good contact and he releases his top hand early … there were a couple of balls that sounded like he hit them off the end of the bat and they carried over the fence in right center.

“He’s got unique, raw power and you don’t see it like that too often.”

Seeing is believing

Two people who have seen that power develop over the last few years when Fuller was hitting home run after home run for Griffin High School believe he will make a smooth transition to the professional game.

Alexander Wyche was there when Fuller joined the team as a freshman, and coached him for three years before moving to a new school last year. Andrew Calhoun, an assistant coach when Fuller was a junior, took over as the head coach this season.

Both have been present for some of Fuller’s most notable homers, or on days when teams didn’t even take a chance on allowing Fuller to hit the ball over the fence.

In a game against Sandy Creek High School this year, after he had homered off the same team the night before, Fuller was intentionally walked while the bases were loaded – twice.

When Calhoun was a high school player in Georgia a few years ago, he played on a summer travel team with Jason Heyward.

“He was a year behind me in school but he was always a freak too, even at an early age,” Calhoun said. “I hate to make comparisons, but I’ve been coaching 10 years now and I haven’t seen a high school kid you can compare him (Fuller) to. He’s got hand-eye coordination and he gets the bat through the zone very quickly. When he runs into one that baseball is going somewhere in a hurry.”

Perhaps the most notable of all of Fuller’s long blasts wasn’t even a home run at all, because it came during batting practice at a showcase event at Marlins Park in Miami last summer.

Calhoun was supposed to be there, but because of some family reasons, did not make the trip. He was watching on television, however, as Fuller took his turn at the plate.

“When he hit it, I told my wife, ‘I think he just hit the ball out of the stadium,’” Calhoun said. “She thought he had hit it into the lights. I said, ‘That ball just disappeared. I think it went out of the park completely.’ If you watch the video you can see a kid point to where it went out.”

The blast was later measured at 527 feet.

Wyche first saw that power when Fuller was a freshman, at a time when he was more of a football prospect.

“When I first had him he didn’t know about swing mechanics,” said Wyche, who also coached a first-round draft pick, Cornelius Randolph, at Griffin. “He just knew ‘see ball, hit ball.’ As a freshman he hit .409 and hit the ball just as hard as the number 10 pick in the country at times, but just was not as consistent. Once he started taking it seriously I knew the sky was the limit.

“Terry’s power is second to none, but I don’t think a lot of guys understand the hit tool he has. He’s a better hitter than people understand. He’s not just a power guy.”

During his last two years in high school, Fuller spent a lot of time working on hitting with an assistant coach, Miles Head, who played six years in the Red Sox and Athletics organizations, reaching Double A.

“After the first time he saw Terry he came over to me and said, ‘He’s going to get drafted one day.’” Calhoun said. “Mark my words, he said, if he listens to me and has two good seasons he will get drafted. It was true.”

Losing too many baseballs

Calhoun had at least one concern this spring when Fuller was at the plate taking batting practice which Turco and the Cardinals won’t have to worry about.

Near the middle of the season, Calhoun was afraid the team was going to run out of baseballs so he tried to limit Fuller to no more than five home runs during batting practice. The area behind the right field fence at the school’s baseball field is covered by pine trees and a marshy area, making it impossible to retrieve balls which land there.

“I told him, ‘You can’t hit more than five out per session or I’m going to have to start charging you for some balls,’ Calhoun said he told Fuller. “He tried to hit some ground balls just to appease me a little bit but he went over a few times and just said, ‘Coach, What do you want me to do?’”

Turco already has seen some power displays during the practices leading up to Monday’s season opener, not just from Fuller but from fellow outfielder Brian Sanchez, a 21-year-old right-handed hitter who led the Dominican Summer League with 15 homers in 232 at-bats last year.

“We will find more baseballs,” Turco said. “They can hit as many as they want. We’ve done it in the past, but we’re going to station somebody on the right field and left field lines so they will be able to throw balls back in. It’s not that we’re going to run out, but we could run short if they are hitting five or six per round.”

In one practice, Sanchez hit two balls over the batter’s eye in center field, Turco said, while Fuller was hitting balls out to right center.

“It’s hard to measure one against the other,” Turco said, “but they have been putting on a show in batting practice. They are strong human beings, gifted by God that way. We’ve got two guys, if we had a home run hitting contest, who probably would compete with anybody certainly in the Gulf Coast League and maybe in all the minor leagues.”

So if Fuller has that kind of ability, the natural question is why he was not selected until the 15th round, after 453 other players had been picked?

There likely are multiple reasons, starting with the full-ride football scholarship to Auburn, where Fuller could have played defensive end of linebacker. Fuller also did not play competitive travel baseball in the summer and there were some scouts who saw holes in his game during the showcase events.

The Cardinals were far from the only team interested in Fuller, however. He worked out for nine teams in advance of the draft, making his final visit to work out for the White Sox at Comiskey Park a week before the draft.

Fuller did not travel to St. Louis, but area scout Charles Peterson had as much contact with Fuller and Calhoun this spring as any team’s representative.

Peterson, in his first season with Georgia as part of his assigned territory, first saw Fuller in person last year at a showcase he and some other area scouts arranged. He then kept following him at games this spring.

“I can’t remember how many times I saw him this spring,” Calhoun said. “I know he was there two or three times right before the end of the season. There also were probably some times he was there or had other people there with him when I didn’t see him.”

The Cardinals gave Fuller, who was raised by his mother and grandmother, a signing bonus of $200,000. If he had not signed, he was prepared to go to Chipola Junior College, a baseball powerhouse in Florida, and re-enter the draft next year.

“To me it shows his love and passion for baseball because football I think would have been a natural for him, with that size and strength and speed,” Turco said. “It’s a rare combination.

“I don’t know what kind of an outfielder he is at this point but he moves well in the drills and makes smooth transitions from his glove to his hand. I’ve seen him go back on balls and I kind of like his arm action. His work ethic seems to be what you want it to be.

“For somebody who has not played a whole lot of baseball he is a little farther along defensively than what I was led to believe.”

Turco has no doubt, however, it will be the power that will be the most talked-about aspect of Fuller’s game.

“He’s going to have to prove he can hit at this level,” he said. “It’s pro level pitching, not high school. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the games. Games have a way of neutralizing things we see in the skill set in practice. They’ve got to be applied in game situations. We’ll see how it goes.”

Fuller’s two high school coaches will be watching as well.

“I told Terry the Cardinals seem to have a knack for finding hidden gems,” Calhoun said. “They are hoping you’re going to be the next guy. I am too.

“I know the Cardinals are getting a good ballplayer but more importantly they are getting a better person. He has intangibles that you can’t really coach. That’s what the Cardinals are getting. I’m excited to see him go on.”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains