The headline on the Tampa Bay Rays web site reads: “Rays replenish system with slugging Gillaspie.” If Tampa Bay’s minor-league teams lack offensive punch, Casey Gillaspie appears prepared to fix that problem.
Tampa Bay selected Wichita State’s first baseman with the 20th pick of the amateur draft on Thursday night, tasking him with adding pop immediately.
Gillaspie becames the 14th player from Wichita State drafted in the first round and the highest pick since the New York Mets selected pitcher Mike Pelfrey No. 9 in 2005. Older brother Conor Gillaspie, who played third base at WSU from 2006-08, went No. 37 overall to San Francisco in 2008.
“What a great job by Casey,” WSU coach Todd Butler said. “It showed his diligence, his commitment and his daily preparing to become a better player.”
Gillaspie, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior, is a switch-hitter. Collegiate Baseball magazine named him an All-American, making him WSU’s first first-team selection by the publication since Pelfrey in 2005. Gillaspie, the Missouri Valley Conference’s Player of the Year, hit .389 with 15 home runs, 15 doubles, 58 walks and 50 RBI. He led the MVC with a .682 slugging percentage, a .520 on-base percentage and 58 walks.
“He really knows his swing," a scout told Jim Callis of MLB.com. "He has a great approach and great strike-zone discipline. He competes, never takes an at-bat off. He's a little better left-handed, but both sides are good. He's a good hitter with power. He's one of the better switch-hitters I've seen in a while. I saw Mark Teixeira and Lance Berkman in college, and he has a chance to be as good as they are.”
Gillaspie, in the mind of Butler, enters the pro ranks with an advanced understanding of hitting. Working with Gillaspie challenged him as much as it challenged the player. Butler coached 16 seasons in the SEC, at Arkansas and Alabama, and he ranks Gillaspie, a switch-hitter, on par with the best from that conference: Todd Helton, Justin Smoak, Matt LaPorta and others.
“When he talks hitting, it’s not like talking to a college hitter,” Butler said. “You have to stop and think before you answer with him. There’s so much thought process in what he thinks about the game of baseball.”
While a lack of speed may limit Gillaspie to first base, Butler believes he can play in the outfield.
“When you have that special of a bat, they'll find a spot for you,” Butler said.
WSU explored that possibility in the fall of 2012, as a way to get both Gillaspie and Johnny Coy in the lineup, under former coach Gene Stephenson. Gillaspie, however, played only one game in right field in 2013.
“He goes and gets the ball fine,” Stephenson said in 2012. “He’s got a really good arm.”
Butler credited assistant coach Brian Walker with working long hours to help Gillaspie jump from a good college hitter with potential and patience to a great one. Gillaspie hit .274 as a freshman and .299 with 11 home runs as a sophomore. Last summer, he led the Cape Cod League with eight home runs and started his rise to first-round status.
“Brian was there every day,” Butler said. “Whenever Casey wanted to hit, Brian was there. He really improved his swing and his mentality.”
Gillaspie, from Omaha, is a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award and the Dick Howser Trophy, both national player of the year honors.
Evansville lefty Kyle Freeland, a Denver native, went No. 8 to Colorado, making him the highest MVC player drafted since Missouri State pitcher Ross Detwiler went No. 6 to Washington in 2007.