Former Nationals Outfielder Regains College Eligibility
Derrick Phillips Readies For College Debut In Gastonia
Like a handful of players in the Coastal Plains League, Gastonia outfielder Derrick Phillips will head into the 2013 season without a collegiate at-bat. However, unlike his peers, Phillips has already taken a swing in the professional ranks.
Phillips spent three years in the minors after the Nationals selected him in the 23rd round of the 2008 draft out of Westminster Christian Academy (St. Louis, MO). Four years later, he finds himself preparing for his college baseball debut thanks to an NCAA rule that allows certain former professional athletes to regain amateur status below the Division-I level. That rule led Phillips to D-II powerhouse Southern Indiana, where after sitting out last season, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound outfielder will take the field again.
"I want to be able to contribute on the field," Phillips said. "Hopefully I can improve my game and get back to pro ball, but if that doesn't work out I will still be grateful that I was able to go to school get an education."
Pro ball didn't treat Phillips too kindly. He went 3-for-37 with 19 strikeouts in 37 at-bats during a brief professional debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2008. He returned to the GCL the following summer and again struggled to consistently put the barrel on the ball, hitting .242/.317/.319 with 37 strikeouts in 91 at-bats.
Hoping to rebound with a solid season in 2010, Phillips logged just 25 at-bats in the GCL before the Nationals released him.
"Getting released was tough. You never want something like that to happen, but at the same time it was a move that they felt like they had to make," Phillips said. "I was disappointed, but I understood why it happened. It just was not a great fit for either of us."
Phillips was picked up by the Twins and played in eight games for Rookie-level Elizabethton (Appalachian League), but was released in spring training in 2011. With his career at a crossroads, Phillips considered signing with an independent league team when several scouts suggested he return to college.
"I had no idea that it was an option," Phillips said, "but they said that I could play for a Division-II school or an NAIA school."
In 2001, NCAA's Division II schools made significant changes to their philosophy regarding amateurism. The policies that they adopted made it possible for individuals who entered a professional draft, signed a contract, and received payment for play to regain amateur status provided the individual complete certain requirements.
Luckily, Phillips ran into Southern Indiana coach Tracy Archuleta during a Phillies tryout at Wabash Valley College in Mt. Carmel, Ill.
"The junior college coach there at Wabash had recruited Derrick coming out of high school," Archuleta said. "He gave me the heads up after camp that he was trying to get back in it and he was probably going to go back to school. After the camp was done I talked to Derrick to see what his plans were and see what his thoughts were about going to school. He was very, very interested in it."
After Archuleta, Phillips, and the compliance department at Southern Indiana completed the paperwork and went through the necessary amateur deregulation process, the NCAA ruled that Phillips had two years of eligibility remaining. In order to fully regain his eligibility, Phillips had to sit out the 2011-2012 season and take a redshirt season, a process the NCAA refers to as establishing residency.
"I was able to work out with the team in the fall, but with the weather, I had to do a lot of the stuff inside," Phillips said. "Once the spring came around I was able to work out with them for a couple of weeks but that was it. I couldn't go to games or sit in the dugout, or be with them for anything competitive."
Even though Phillips could not face live pitching or play in any games, Archuleta was pleased with Phillips' development off of the field.
"His first year in school, as a student-athlete, I think it was like him being a freshman. He did really well in school, but I think the hardest adjustment for him was just getting back to the everyday grind of things," Archuleta said. "I saw him really grow up as person as the year went on. He developed an understanding of what we expected and what he expected of himself. I see a kid that is very, very excited to start his college baseball career."
Shaking Off The Rust
To prepare for the upcoming season Phillips has been patrolling right field for the Gastonia Grizzlies of the Coastal Plains League. Gastonia head coach Kyle Surprenant has been pleased with some of the adjustments that Phillips' has made during his summer spell with the Grizzlies.
"He's made great strides defensively because he hadn't seen a live read off a bat in a year as a well," Surprenant said. "A lot of people don't think about that—they just think about the live pitching part but taking reads live off the bat is a hell of a lot different than a fly ball hit during batting practice."
However, Phillips' performance at the plate has still left much to be desired. He was hitting .227/.320/.400 with 54 strikeouts and 19 walks in 150 at-bats.
"He's struggling with offspeed which is to be expected from a guy that hasn't seen live pitching in a while," Surprenant said. "He went through a stretch a couple of weeks ago where he was seeing offspeed well and taking everything that started down and stayed down and he got hot for a little bit."
Phillips still ranked among the Coastal Plains League leaders with five home runs, an impressive feat for a player so far removed from facing live pitching.
"If he cuts down on the strikeouts he will be a hell of lot better. He's got tremendous backside power and good bat speed," Surprenant said. "He's just got to shorten up his swing a little bit and fix some small mechanical things here and there."
For his part, Phillips recognizes that he has to refine his game and has expressed a willingness to work on ironing out his issues. Similarly, Archuleta is happy to see that his outfielder chose to challenge himself in such a well-respected college summer league.
"He's being tested," Archuleta said. "He was humbled a little bit but he jumped back on that horse and he's starting to get a feel for it and get back into that routine. I'm excited to see how he keeps progressing up until next spring."
Archuleta hopes that Phillips is able to build upon his experiences with Gastonia, as he is expecting big things from the outfielder this season.
"I'm looking for a guy that can be in the middle of our lineup, drive in runs and be a leader of this club," said Archuleta. "He is a little bit older and I think he has the capabilities to do all that."
Phillips has also set the bar high for himself. He not only wants to produce for Southern Indiana but hopes to play professionally again. And despite a discouraging first go-round, Phillips' coaches think that he could find his way onto another pro roster.
"He has the tools, now he just has to be able to put them together," Archuleta said. "If Derrick comes out and hits .380 with 10-to-15 bombs, then I think that somebody will give him a chance somewhere. If not, he is going back to school and getting his education and playing baseball at the same time."