It has been nearly a quarter-century since a Colorado high school pitcher was selected in the first two rounds of the Major League Baseball Draft.
That pitcher? The late, two-time Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, drafted 17th overall, who was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame in January.
That drought may end this June.
Pine Creek senior right-handed pitcher Riley Cornelio, according to MLB Pipeline — which ranks him 46th overall among all 2019 Draft prospects — “might have the stuff to be the first Colorado prep arm since Halladay to go in the first two rounds.”
The 18-year-old, standing 6-foot-3, throws a four- and two-seam fastball, curveball and changeup. It’s the fastball that has scouts drooling. His velocity has peaked at 95 mph, a mark in the 99.8 percentile nationally, according to Perfect Game USA.
Cornelio was mostly mum on his own draft potential, but he did say: “It’s a good option, but I think we’re just trying to take it one step at a time more so than anything, just because I’m not worried about that. It’s a long way down the road. I’m more worried about this season for us.”
While rankings don’t necessarily reflect how the draft will go, MLB.com’s No. 46 ranking would peg Cornelio for an early second-round pick with a signing-bonus slot at $1.62 million.
Cornelio’s ascension has happened rapidly in his high school career, but it did not come as a shock to those around him.
Parker Gregory won’t claim clairvoyance, but the first moment he knew Cornelio could be something special came four years ago.
The two Pine Creek senior captains were batterymates — Cornelio pitching, Gregory catching — that day in eighth grade for their club team, the Junior Eagles.
They won the game, 1-0. Cornelio scored the game’s only run and pitched a shutout.
“That game really showed, first off, how much of a leader (Cornelio) was, how focused he was throughout the whole game and how well he really could control a game from atop the mound,” Gregory said. “Then after that, he just kind of blew up. I think that was the first moment, because before that, everybody knew he was good, but that moment was when good went to great, for me at least.”
Blow up he did.
Less than a year later, during winter break of his freshman year, he received a call from Texas Christian University, an elite college program.
“I was freaking out a little bit,” Cornelio said. “That had always been a school for me that was in the back of my head — a really, just, blue-collar school that was known for baseball. That was special for me to have that call.”
The turnaround was quick. The following summer after his freshman year, he had visited TCU, received an offer and committed — all within a month. To that point, Cornelio had only thrown 3 2/3 varsity innings, though he was already a regular starter as a position player.
Pitching coach Norm Churchill joined the Pine Creek staff during Cornelio’s sophomore season. Churchill, who played in the minor leagues from 1977-81, said the right-hander’s preciousness was evident right away.
“Talent like that — just the mechanics, the fundamentals, the understanding of what he’s doing — that comes along once in a lifetime,” Churchill said. “When I was in high school, I played against (Hall-of-Famer) Wade Boggs. We all knew Wade Boggs was going to go and do something special. (Cornelio) is the kind of guy that the potential’s there to go be special, and it’s pretty obvious when you see it.”
Everything came together for Cornelio in 2018. It started even before his prolific junior season for the Eagles. In January, at a Future Frogs camp for TCU commits, his fastball was consistently around 92-93 mph.
“I was not aware that the radar gun was on, but I think my dad … was able to see it a little bit,” Cornelio said. “That was kind of when we both started noticing I was throwing it pretty well.”
He carried that over to the spring, when he posted a 0.91 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings.
The stellar spring preceded an unforgettable summer and fall. Following an intensive tryout process, he made USA Baseball’s 18-and-under National Team alongside the best players across the country, and won gold in the COPABE U-18 Pan-American Championships in Panama.
Adorned with accolades and attention, it would be easy for an 18-year-old prodigy to get a big head. But it’s clear that Cornelio is not going to be a cautionary tale.
“It’s been incredible how humble he’s stayed,” Gregory said.
“It’s a lot of pressure on him,” Churchill said. “He and I talk quite a bit. I talk about, ‘Let’s just try to keep the circus to a minimum. Let’s have you enjoy your senior season.’”
At a tournament in Phoenix last month, there were more than 75 scouts present for his outing against Lake Oswego (Ore.). They had radar guns and were leaning up against the fence just to watch him warm up in the bullpen.
“I asked him, ‘Hey, do you want me to back that up?’” Churchill said. “He said, ‘No, we’re good. Let’s just get through it.’ He’s got a strong inner strength. He’s very dedicated to his craft.”
Cornelio went out that day and struck out seven batters over six shutout innings.