Major League Baseball’s annual First-Year Player Draft returns Thursday with 30 teams deciding over three days and 40 rounds which talented players among the high school, community college and four-year college ranks they wish to select.
It’s a great feeling for players to be drafted because it is an official recognition of their talent and a significant step toward their goal of playing in the major leagues. It’s a reward for a player’s many years of practices, games, execution, dedication and perseverance and, indeed, a happy moment for families who’ve been a valuable support system.
Coaches, too, like to see their players chosen.
“You feel like a proud Papa. Whether they’re picked first or 10th, you’re extremely proud,” said University of San Diego Baseball Coach Rich Hill (pictured, top right), who had two of USD’s three first-round selections, infielder Kris Bryant (2013, second overall, Chicago Cubs) and left-handed pitcher Brian Matusz (2008, fourth overall, Baltimore Orioles) play for him. John Wathan, a catcher under former USD Coach John Cunningham, was the Kansas City Royals’ fourth overall pick in 1971.
Nonetheless, the draft is also bittersweet: “It’s tumultuous, win or lose,” Hill said, “Everything is decided in these three days.”
Hill and his staff understand. They know about the draft fallout and what it means for their program and college baseball teams nationwide. USD is already losing experienced seniors left-handed pitcher/outfielder Louie Lechich, left-hander Max McNabb and infielder/outfielder/pitcher Josh Goossen-Brown, but there’s the added possibility of a strong corps of Torero juniors being drafted and not returning for their senior year. The draft also has a major impact on an incoming recruiting class. Hill said several bright high school and community college players who’ve already been recruited by USD are top draft candidates. They could choose to bypass USD altogether.
“Not a lot of people understand this, but baseball is, by far, the No. 1 toughest NCAA sport in terms of recruiting,” Hill said. “There are so many moving parts. It’s crazy. The recruiting process never stops. You first have to get a player to fall in love with your program and then [after the draft] go back into their homes and re-recruit against professional baseball. You have to recruit them twice.”
Current USD juniors eligible for the June 5-7 draft — including West Coast Conference Player of the Year Connor Joe (pictured, left), fellow infielders Andrew Daniel (pictured, bottom right) and Austin Bailey, catcher Jesse Jenner and pitcher Lucas Long — could opt to sign with the team that drafts them and forego their last year of college eligibility.
Some players, coaches know, have their mind made up. For many, though, when a player is drafted can make all the difference. It was known that Bryant and Matusz would go quickly. It was time. Matusz is already in his sixth MLB season. Cubs fans and media are already making noise that Bryant, who is 364 days removed from when he was selected, should be on the big league team’s roster now instead of the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate, the Tennessee Smokies.
“There’s an extreme sense of pride there,” said Hill about successful draft experiences for Bryant and Matusz, both of whom were juniors and were drafted out of high school but opted to go to USD. “They both had the courage to come to college instead of taking the path of least resistance. They had the courage to delay the gratification to get closer to their goal 36 months later.”
“While those guys were here, they developed as men along with their baseball skills and social skills,” Hill continued. “They’re good people. The support they got from their families is an A-plus. There’s tremendous pride when you see guys like Kris, Brian, Dylan (Covey, a 2013 fourth-round pick by the Oakland A’s) and AJ (Griffin, an A’s starting pitcher) come out of USD and flourish. They are head and shoulders above the competition and they’ll go do great things.”
Preparing players to be ready for the next level goes beyond baseball. Hill and his staff do their best to explain to potential recruits and to remind current players what’s important.
“We work our fingers to the bone to educate players that college is their best path to the major leagues,” said Hill, who just completed his 16th season at USD. “We believe strongly in our product for a young person.”
Hill knows what he’s up against this week. He knows, too, that once the draft is complete, the real work begins to put together the 2015 Torero baseball team. Rest assured, Hill and company will be ready.
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photos courtesy of USD Athletics