UPDATED: Aug. 26
Baseball America has confirmed that Phil Bickford, the unsigned No. 10 overall pick in the 2013 draft, is leaving Cal State Fullerton. The hard-throwing righthander was slated to begin his sophomore year of classes at Fullerton today, but sources tell BA that he opted to leave the program in order to make himself eligible for the 2015 draft.
That means his possible destinations include a junior college or independent ball. Speculation on the West Coast suggests that he is leaning toward the juco route. One obvious possibility is Cypress (Calif.) JC, where Bickford could re-unite with head coach Scott Pickler. Bickford played for Pickler's Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the Cape Cod League this summer.
Assuming Bickford winds up in the 2015 draft pool, he has a chance to become the No. 1 overall pick. No other obvious front-runner has established himself, and Bickford already has a top-10 pedigree. But he still must refine his secondary stuff and prove that he can handle a starting role, because his stuff was considerably more electric in a relief role this summer than it was when he started in the spring. He sat in the 93-95 mph range when working out of the Y-D bullpen this summer, and his slider showed more power than it had in the past. And some organizations might still harbor questions related to the breakdown of negotiations between Bickford and the Blue Jays in 2013. So for a variety of reasons, Bickford is not the instant clear-cut favorite for the No. 1 pick either, but he figures to be on the short list.
Obviously, Bickford's departure is a huge hit to Cal State Fullerton, which looked like a strong College World Series contender behind a rotation of Justin Garza, Thomas Eshelman and Bickford. The Titans will rely heavily upon their pitching once again, because their offense looks suspect heading into the fall. Garza and Eshelman remain a formidable one-two punch atop the rotation, so the Titans are better positioned to withstand the loss of a first-round pick from their pitching staff than most teams would be.
“Am I sad that he left? Yes,” Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook told BA on Tuesday. “Am I upset? Not really. Does it hurt us? It hurts us, but it might work out pretty good, as we go. I have two guys better than him—and two guys that want to play for the team. Our program is not for individuals. If he wanted to be an individual, it's probably best that he went somewhere else.”
Vanderhook said Bickford did not inform him of his decision to leave the program until this weekend, leaving the Titans no time to find another player to replace him.
“He has a big scholarship, and three days before school, you can't replace Phil,” Vanderhook said. “I don’t know anybody who can get somebody into school in two days. I can’t. I just wish he would have given us the ability to go get some other guys. That's selfishness.”
Bickford's defection is another body blow for a program that has had a rocky year, following the distracting and poorly handled investigation and suspension of Vanderhook in the spring. And the Titans also lost assistant coach Mike Kirby on Monday. Kirby accepted a job on Darin Erstad’s staff at Nebraska, giving Vanderhook one more thing to deal with in this important fall. Vanderhook said pitching coach Jason Dietrich had already assumed the recruiting coordinator role earlier this summer, which eases the sting of Kirby’s departure. And volunteer assistant Chad Baum is very experienced—he figures to be a strong candidate for the full-time job vacated by Kirby.
Vanderhook knows the year ahead will be challenging, in part because the Titans play a very difficult schedule, which includes trips to Nebraska, Indiana, Maryland and Tampa (to face Louisville, South Florida and Alabama State), plus home games against Stanford, Baylor and Texas Tech. The pitching staff remains deep and experienced enough to handle that schedule. Vanderhook said righthander Willie Kuhl and lefty Tyler Peitzmeier are two seniors poised for big seasons, complementing the Garza-Eshelman duo. The lineup is very inexperienced, but Vanderhook said he feels good about his newcomers, highlighted by future star outfielder Scott Hurst.
“Every job is open. Every one,” Vanderhook said of his position players. “We don’t have (Michael) Lorenzen and (Matt) Chapman and (J.D.) Davis. Every day you've got to beat the guy you're playing against—period. And that's a good thing, because we'll have some competition.
“But we've got to be ready to play baseball because nobody will feel sorry for us.”
The Titans are still the Titans, and they have a history of responding to adversity by rising up when outsiders are ready to write them off. They did it in 2004, rebounding from a 15-16 start to win the national championship. They did it in 2007, when they entered the season unranked and got off to a sluggish 14-10 start, but wound up reaching the College World Series. And they did it last year, rising from the dead in the final month of the season to make a regional and improbably preserve their long postseason streak.
Still, the natives are getting restless in Fullerton, and they’re surely feeling more anxious after Bickford’s departure. The Titans haven’t made it to Omaha since 2009, and five years without a CWS trip is an eternity for a program that hadn’t gone more than three years without making an Omaha appearance since its first trip in 1975. But don’t discount the chances for Garza and Eshelman to lead the 2015 Titans back to Omaha. They are two of the most accomplished pitchers in college baseball, and they are true Titans, wired to compete and win for their teammates.
Bickford, for all his talent, was clearly not wired the same way.