Games or not, June can be a cruel month for college baseball coaches. Finely tuned recruiting plans go haywire on the whims of one professional team and its checkbook.
Wichita State’s Todd Butler will endure his draft-days headache for the first time as a Shocker beginning Thursday. The first round should be joyous — first baseman Casey Gillaspie appears a lock. As the draft heads toward the teens, Butler’s stress level will grow. He recruited several junior-college players, critical to his rebuilding efforts, and the draft may take some away.
“I will sit by my computer and follow every pick,” he said.
Coffeyville Community College third baseman Chase Rader. Crowder (Mo.) College pitcher Sam Hilliard. Cowley College pitcher Storm Rynard. Butler will watch his screen on alert for those names, as well as several others. Those are three of at least nine junior-college players who signed with Wichita State. While some of WSU’s high school recruits will likely be drafted, the transfers are of the most immediate concern because the Shockers need their infusion of talent and experience to rebuild the roster.
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“We have to get through June 5th, 6th and 7th,” Butler said. “I know last year, in the top 10 rounds, only six players went to college out of 300-some players drafted. We have some guys that could possibly go there.”
Rader is an NJCAA All-American after setting school records with 14 home runs, six triples, 47 steals and a .760 slugging percentage. Hilliard, who also plays first base, is ranked No. 167 among draft prospects as a pitcher by MLB.com. Rynard graduated high school a year early to take his chances in the draft before landing at Cowley. He struggled with his command, but his arm strength may make him an attractive pick. College of Southern Idaho’s Isaac Anderson, a pitcher/first baseman, may drop in the draft because of surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder.
“You can’t go wrong in the situation I’m in,” Rader said. “Wichita State is a great program. It's either going to a storied program that I grew up following or following my dream (in pro baseball).”
Rader worked out for five teams — the Dodgers, Royals, Rangers, Blue Jays and Astros. His blend of speed and power are sure to entice. He hit five home runs with a .310 batting average as a freshman before hitting .434 as a sophomore. He credited boosting his leg strength in the weight room and a better mental approach with fueling his improvement.
“I’m more patient,” he said. “If I’m struggling, I’ll go back to the basics. Going to a juco, it definitely made me tougher and I think that showed at workouts.”
Hilliard went 5-2 with a 2.14 ERA, striking out 55 in 42 innings with 12 walks. He hit .290 with three home runs as a first baseman. Butler and pitching coach Brent Kemnitz recently visited Hilliard and his family at his home in Mansfield, Texas. For baseball coaches, the recruiting doesn’t stop after signing day. The competition for a player switches from other colleges to the minor leagues.
“I’ve talked to them a lot,” he said. “I feel like I’ve already got a pretty good relationship with the coaches.”
Hilliard is ready for the uncertainty of draft week to pass. While pro teams are telling him to expect a call as early as the fifth round, something strong tells him college is the right path.
“I’m definitely leaning toward going to school,” he said. “It’s everyone’s dream to play professional ball. For me, my parents, we’re education people. Wichita State is where my gut’s at.”
Drafted players must sign by July 18. Butler should have a good idea about his roster by Saturday, when the draft ends.
Then he can resume his plans for the fall. The Shockers went 31-28 and finished fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference with a 13-8 record. WSU stood 16-10 after taking two of three games from Cal State-Fullerton on March 30. An eight-game losing streak, all on the road, followed and pushed him to recruit several junior-college players in the spring.
“We never did really recover,” Butler said.
A rash of injuries and suspensions of eight players for as many as nine games, due to improper apparel benefits, contributed to the inconsistent season. Pitchers who throw hard are a priority and a focus of Butler’s recruiting. Arkansas, where he spent eight seasons as an assistant, compiled ERAs of 2.63 and 1.89 the past two seasons and it is in that direction Butler wants to head again. WSU competed on the weekends, but struggled in mid-week games due to a lack of pitching depth. The Shockers rarely surrounded Gillaspie with dangerous hitters, empowering pitchers to walk him 58 times.
Poor execution with runners on base plagued the Shockers. Butler hopes to start fixing those fundamental problems by moving fall practices into the middle of September to give coaches and players more time work on individual skills. Once team practices begin, the Shockers will scrimmage more often with more at stake. Butler, taking over an experienced group last fall, didn‘t push and punish as much as he will in the future.
“I’m going to be a different coach,” he said. “There will be much higher demands, expectations with this group coming in. There’s going to be a little more tough love.”