The West Gets Richer

Rick Vanderhook was driving through the desert near Palm Springs, on his way back from vacation, when the clock struck 2:00 p.m. PT on July 12. The last couple of days of his family vacation might not have been so restful, as Vanderhook tried to keep tabs on his prized recruit, No. 10 overall pick Phil Bickford.

But the draft signing deadline came and went, and Bickford did not agree to a deal with the Blue Jays. Instead the hard-throwing righthander will pitch for Cal State Fullerton next year. The news made for a more relaxing drive home for the Vanderhooks.

“Now the anxiousness is gone—set it on 75 and just cruise,” Vanderhook said 15 minutes after the deadline.

A moment later, Vanderhook cut the call short to field a phone call from Bickford himself.

Phil Bickford

Phil Bickford (Photo by Larry Goren)

“He’s excited,” Vanderhook reported a few minutes later. “I told him, ‘This is the start of a journey.’ Some guys go one way, and some guys go the other. Gerrit Cole it worked out for, it’s going to work out for Tyler Beede. Hopefully it works out for Phil. As long as I don’t screw it up.”

Vanderhook said he has already spoken with Cole’s former coach at UCLA, John Savage, about how to handle an unsigned first-round pick. Vanderhook served as an assistant on Savage’s staff during Cole’s entire three-year collegiate career, so he has been down this road before.

He said he also planned to consult other coaches who have inherited unsigned first-rounders, like Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin (who had success with Jeremy Sowers as well as Beede), Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan (Karsten Whitson) and Texas Christian’s Jim Schlossnagle (Matt Purke). Vanderhook acknowledged that when a player turns down seven figures to attend college, there is pressure on the coaching staff to take good care of him and help him reap a nice payday three years later. But the positives far outweigh the stress.

“It is what we do—we’re coaches,” Vanderhook said. “Our job is to develop guys. That’s why we do it. There are things that he has to learn. He’s going to have to learn how to hold runners and do some of those things that he didn’t have to do this year at all because really nobody got on base against him. That is part of the game, that does distract guys. Let’s put it this way: It’s going to be real fun working with him. And it’s no different than everybody else. He’s just a normal guy. It’s all good.”

LUCKY 13
Here’s a list of the 13 players who ranked in the top 100 of the predraft BA 500 who elected not to sign pro contracts before the deadline.
20. Phil Bickford, rhp, Cal State Fullerton (Blue Jays, 1)
34. Connor Jones, rhp, Virginia (Padres, 21)
35. Kyle Serrano, rhp, Tennessee (Rockies, 29)
42. Matt Krook, lhp, Oregon (Marlins, 1s)
58. Ryan Boldt, of, Nebraska (Red Sox, 22)
66. Garrett Williams, lhp Oklahoma State (Padres, 33)
67. Cavan Biggio, 2b, Notre Dame (Phillies, 29)
70. Chandler Eden, rhp, Oregon State (Marlins, 36)
72. Chris Okey, c, Clemson (Padres, 31)
85. A.J. Puk, lhp/1b, Florida (Tigers, 35)
84. Garrett Hampson, ss, Long Beach State (Nationals, 26)
88. Jordan Sheffield, rhp, Vanderbilt (Red Sox, 13)
90. Cal Quantrill, rhp, Stanford (Yankees, 26)

A normal guy, but with a fastball that reaches 96 mph with uncommon life, and the ability to command it very well to both sides pf the plate. Bickford’s secondary stuff lags behind his fastball, and Vanderhook said the first order of business this fall will be to work on his changeup. The Titans don’t turn their attention to breaking balls until the spring. Bickford’s slider is inconsistent, but it flashes promise. And his fastball is so special that he can dominate even without a wipeout breaking ball.

“He just takes the ball, goes out and gets the guy out at the plate,” Vanderhook said. “To have the kind of command of the fastball with the life it has on it, it’s crazy. That’s something he developed as a kid, and it’s just kind of carried on. The delivery’s clean, he repeats. And it’s his. He doesn’t have the pitching coach saying, ‘OK, you need to do this, you need to do that.’ There’s no changes being made. With (Fullerton pitching coach Jason Dietrich) having the ability to teach him a couple pitches, and his feel for throwing the baseball, I think he’ll take to it pretty easily.”

Bickford will join a staff that features two returning All-Americans in Justin Garza and Thomas Eshelman, plus an accomplished No. 3 starter in Grahamm Wiest. Whoever winds up as the No. 4 starter, the Titans will have superb starting options every time they take the field.

They must replace Michael Lorenzen at the back of the bullpen, but rising junior infielder Matt Chapman could be the Titans’ next two-way star. Team USA coach Schlossnagle told Vanderhook that Chapman has reached 99 mph off the mound this summer. J.D. Davis and Koby Gauna also return, and both have quality stuff.

So Fullerton would have been just fine even without Bickford. With him, the Titans are absurdly rich on the mound.

Vanderhook said Bickford did not say how much money he turned down or why negotiations broke down—”and I didn’t ask.” His asking price reportedly was $4.25 million before the draft, and the assigned value for the No. 10 pick was $2,921,400. The Blue Jays could have paid him $3,664,830 without forfeiting a future first-round pick.

Instead, he elevates Fullerton’s recruiting class from solid to excellent. The Titans lost catcher Tyler Alamo and righty Adrian De Horta to the draft, but they landed a trio of useful infielders (Timmy Richards, Taylor Bryant and Christian Rossi), two athletic outfielders (Marcus Vidales and Tyler Stieb) and two other quality righthanders (Chad Hockin and Ryan Kayoda).

“Kayoda fits us perfectly,” Vanderhook said. “He’s a three-pitch mix guy, been up to 92, going to pitch 88-90. He has good command of the curveball, real good command of the change, very good awareness of holding runners and fielding his position. He’s really advanced for a high school kid, which is a big deal in our program.

“Bickford and Kayoda I can see in two years being Eshelman and Garza, with somebody coming in behind them. The infielders this year will help. So we filled our needs very well.”

Other Winners

A few schools, like Tulane and South Carolina, had several BA 500 recruits go undrafted, so we’re not counting them among signing day winners—those schools were already winners on draft day, and it was no surprise that their undrafted key recruits did not sign. We also won’t include premium recruits who had already made it clear that they were heading to school, like Virginia’s Connor Jones, Tennessee’s Kyle Serrano and Oregon’s Matt Krook.

Here’s a look at some teams who fared well on signing day, either by getting drafted sophomores or juniors to return for another year, or by landing drafted recruits.

Oregon State

Ben Wetzler

Ben Wetzler (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

Like Fullerton, the Beavers would have been just fine if lefthander Ben Wetzler had signed, as one would expect an accomplished junior who was drafted in the fifth round to do. The fact that Wetzler (No. 243 on the BA 500) instead elected to return for his senior year makes a loaded Oregon State pitching staff even better. He’ll join  All-American Andrew Moore and talented lefty Jace Fry (who should be ready to resume a starting role with his 2012 Tommy John surgery farther in the rear-view mirror) in a weekend rotation that rivals Fullerton’s and Oregon’s in the ranks of the nation’s elite. And Oregon State also got back its saves leader from this year’s Omaha team in junior righty Scott Schultz, who didn’t sign with the Marlins as a 17th-round pick.

The Beavers also landed one of the nation’s very best recruiting classes, led by righthander Chandler Eden (No. 70 on the BA 500) and shortstop Trever Morrison (No. 139). Both were drafted in the late rounds, and both elected to join OSU. Eden is raw but can run his fastball up to 96, while Morrison is a true shortstop who draws comparisons to Brandon Crawford. Eden and Morrison were part of a group of seven OSU recruits who played in the Area Code Games last summer, and all of them are headed to Corvallis this fall. Righthander Jake Thompson, a 34th-round pick by the Cubs, was another drafted OSU recruit who chose school over pro ball.

That superb group of newcomers combined with returnees like Michael Conforto, Dylan Davis, Moore, Wetzler, Schultz and Max Engelbrekt, could make Oregon State one of the leading contenders for the 2014 national title.

Cal Poly

Fullerton and Oregon State were the two highest-profile winners in the West on signing deadline day, but they weren’t the only ones. Cal Poly did very well by getting two drafted mainstays back to school for another year. Righthander Reed Reilly, who ate up big innings out of the bullpen last year, might have been the Mustangs’ most valuable pitcher. He ranked No. 191 on the BA 500 but elected not to sign as an eligible sophomore after the Orioles drafted him in the 18th round. And the Red Sox could not sign junior third baseman Jimmy Allen (No. 300) as a 23rd-rounder. A third Cal Poly player to rank in the BA 500, outfielder David Armendariz (No. 345), went undrafted and will be back for his senior year. The Mustangs already were loaded with talent in their freshman and sophomore classes, but getting these three upperclassmen back could help them finally win their first regional.

Washington State

The Cougars also got two talented players back for another year, as outfielder Jason Monda (No. 395 on the BA 500) and shortstop Trace Tam Sing (No. 458) declined to sign. Monda was a sixth-round pick by the Phillies and has been regarded as a potential top-three-rounds talent in the past, but he had a modest junior year and was regarded as a tough sign because he’s an excellent student with family ties to Washington State. Tam Sing was a 22nd-round pick out of high school and a 26th-rounder by the Royals as a redshirt sophomore this spring. He could have a breakout 2014 season as he gets farther removed from the Tommy John surgery that cost him most of 2012. Washington State also landed one BA 500 recruit in lefthander Layne Bruner, a 26th-round pick by the Orioles. Bruner lacks big velocity currently but has excellent projection and makeup.

Indiana

The Hoosiers, like the Mustangs and Cougars, did well by getting a pair of drafted veterans to return to school. Third baseman Dustin DeMuth (No. 230 on the BA 500) earned All-America honors as a junior this spring and was drafted in the eighth-round by the Twins, who also drafted his roommates, Aaron Slegers and Ryan Halstead. While Slegers signed as a fifth-round pick, DeMuth and Halstead (a 26th-rounder) both spurned the Twins. Getting back an All-America third baseman and the most accomplished closer in school history for another season was a major boon for Indiana, which will return the bulk of this year’s Omaha team. The Hoosiers should be a preseason top 10 club next year, and they have a legitimate shot to win a national championship.

Florida

The Gators got five BA 500 recruits who were drafted to turn down pro ball, led by two-way talent A.J. Puk (No. 85), a 35th-round pick by the Tigers who could be a Brian Johnson-type star for Florida thanks to his lefthanded power and his power arm. Righties Brett Morales (No. 118) and Logan Shore (No. 202) also have fastballs that can touch 93 or a tick better, and both were drafted in the 20s. John Sternagel (No. 297) could be an offensive corner bat, and righty Dane Dunning (No. 490) has intriguing projection. This should rate as one of the nation’s best recruiting classes in our rankings this fall.

Texas

While the Longhorns did lose junior third baseman Erich Weiss, who signed with the Pirates for $305,000 as an 11th-round pick a couple of days before the deadline, they got leading hitter Mark Payton to return to Texas for his senior year rather than sign with the Indians as a 16th-round pick. Righty Nathan Thornhill (a 24th-rounder by the Astros) had already announced his intention to return to school. Texas also will welcome a stellar recruiting class that features five BA 500 players—all of them inside the top 300. Two of them, Tres Barrera (No. 200) and Bret Boswell (No. 221), went undrafted. Three others were drafted by chose not to sign: righties Lukas Schiraldi (No. 162) and Blake Goins (No. 256) plus infielder Andy McGuire (No. 198). Goins, as a 12th-round pick by the Angels, was a threat to sign, but having him turn down fourth-round money was a nice signing-day victory.

Nebraska

The Cornhuskers landed the highest-ranked unsigned position player in outfielder Ryan Boldt (No. 58 on the BA 500), who slipped to the Red Sox in the 22nd round after missing almost the entire spring with a knee injury. He’s a multitalented, high-energy center fielder who draws comparisons to the coach he’ll play for at Nebraska, Darin Erstad. He’ll also play alongside his cousin, Huskers second baseman Pat Kelly. The Red Sox had some money to play with on deadline day, but his decision to head to school isn’t a big surprise considering his reported $2.5 million price tag and the fact that he lost almost his entire spring. The Red Sox also had interest in signing 20th-round pick Derek Burkamper (No. 302), but he turned down third-round money to attend Nebraska. His quality three-pitch mix includes a fastball that reaches 92, and he has ace potential. A third Nebraska BA 500 recruit, lefthander Max Knutson (No. 206), went undrafted. A raw three-sport standout, Knutson has flashed 96 mph heat and a power slider at his best.

Oklahoma

New Sooners coach Pete Hughes will inherit a strong talent base. Four OU recruits ranked in the BA 500, were drafted and declined to sign. Six-foot-7 righty Alec Hansen (No. 136) ran his fastball up to 96 mph this spring but slipped to the Rockies in the 25th round because of his strong commitment to OU. Likewise, outfielder/quarterback Cody Thomas (No. 165) fell to the 30th round because of his two-sport commitment. OU football coach Bob Stoops compared Thomas to former Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford, and he plans to play both sports for the Sooners. Lefty Tavo Rodriguez (No. 277) has a projectable 6-foot-4 frame and a fastball that has reached 93. And Rangers 38th-rounder Sheldon Neuse (No. 303) has the ability to make a major impact as a shortstop and on the mound.

Albany

The Great Danes will welcome one of the highest-profile recruits in program history this fall when righthander Stephen Woods arrives on campus. Woods was a sixth-round pick by the Rays, and he was the only one of Tampa Bay’s top 17 picks to elect not to sign. A Long Island native, Woods didn’t rank in the BA 500, but he has intriguing projection, with an 88-93 mph fastball and good feel for a curve.