High School Sports

‘Under the radar’ Barbato earns chance with the New York Yankees

Varela’s Johnny Barbato pitches against his hometown Marlins during last Saturday’s exhibition at Marlins Park.
Varela’s Johnny Barbato pitches against his hometown Marlins during last Saturday’s exhibition at Marlins Park. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Manny Machado, Yasmani Grandal and Nick Castellanos were all superstars from South Florida selected in the first round of the 2010 Major League Baseball draft.

Another local player with far less notoriety was chosen that same year. But playing baseball away from the spotlight has never bothered Varela High graduate Johnny Barbato.

“I wasn’t even first-team All-County when I was in high school, but none of that stuff bothered me,” Barbato said. “You do what you need to do to get better, and I felt like I didn’t need to go to one of those big-time high schools. I think you just go out and perform and good things will happen.”

Barbato, a four-year starting pitcher at Varela, never experienced what it was like to win a state championship — or even a winning season. But on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, Barbato was pitching on a major-league mound for the first time.

Barbato, 23, pitches out of the bullpen these days as a middle reliever for the Yankees — a role he earned this spring after he posted a 1.64 ERA in 11 innings (11 appearances) and had 13 strikeouts.

“It’s just awesome. I mean, it’s a chance to pitch for the freakin’ Yankees,” Barbato said last week when the team played the Marlins in an exhibition game at Marlins Park. “It still hasn’t really hit me. It’s been a long road to get here, but I just kept working at it and finally got a chance. I came in very confident this spring.”

Barbato’s exploits and consistent plus-90-mph fastball didn’t go unnoticed by scouts as he progressed throughout his high school career. But on a Vipers team that won only 14 games combined during his sophomore and junior seasons, scouts more often saw him when he matched up against some of the other top pitchers in the county.

“I had scouts notice me, but it was really whenever my dad would take me to pitch at a showcase or got invited to one that I really got noticed,” Barbato said.

Barbato grew up playing for his father, John, who has coached for nearly two decades in Miami-Dade County and over the past 11 years at Varela.

Barbato said his father and numerous members of his family came to see him pitch against the Marlins last Saturday.

“I lost count of how many tickets I had to get,” Barbato said.

Barbato, who was offered a scholarship at the University of Florida, was originally drafted in the sixth round by the San Diego Padres, with whom he signed. He was then traded to the Yankees after the 2014 season.

Barbato finished his first season in the Yankees’ farm system last year with a 6-2 record and a 2.67 ERA in 40 relief appearances ( 67 1/3 innings), and he picked up three saves with 70 strikeouts and 25 walks.

Barbato was at his sharpest after making the jump to Scranton/Wilkes Barre, the Yankees’ Triple A affiliate, compiling an 0.36 ERA over 25 innings (14 relief appearances) and earning a spot on the club’s 40-man roster.

His mid-90s fastball has reached 96 and 97 at times this spring, and it impressed the Yankees.

New York made a big splash in the offseason, trading for All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman in the hopes of pairing him with last year’s closer, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances.

But with Chapman suspended until May 9, middle reliever Bryan Mitchell expected to miss at least the first three months of the season with Grade 3 turf toe and Miller pitching despite a chip fracture in the wrist of his non-throwing hand, Barbato’s value has increased.

He made his major-league debut Tuesday and struck out three in  1 1/3 innings of relief.

In Barbato’s second appearance Friday against the Tigers, he entered with runners on first and second and no outs. Barbato gave up a single that loaded the bases but struck out two and induced Ian Kinsler to ground into a fielder’s choice to end the threat without allowing a run.

“It’s awesome to pitch in this bullpen with three of the best relievers in baseball and learn from them and just be around them,” Barbato said. “It’s all still pretty surreal.”