Oct. 24, 2007
By Pete LaFleur
Several players on the current Notre Dame baseball team - including key members of the highly-rated freshman class - opted to pursue their college baseball careers with the Irish, rather than chasing the immediate gratification of a big signing bonus from a major-league franchise. Due to their strong commitments to being a Notre Dame student-athlete, these players were drafted much lower than their projected status - a factor known as "signability," meaning that Major League teams typically will not use a high draft pick on a player who is likely to honor his college commitment.
As the 2007 Major League postseason enters its final - and biggest - stage, young players from throughout the nation need look to further than the makeup of the top playoff teams in order to get affirmation that college baseball is a proven path to big-league dreams. In fact, a sampling of the 100 players who were competing in the 2007 Major League Baseball league championships series shows that nearly two-thirds (61) were college baseball alums while the 39 non-college players included 23 foreigners and only 16 who made the jump to pro ball directly out of high school. (Note that this statistical sampling was based on the 25-man rosters in the divisional series, with minor changes to some of the rosters in later rounds.)
For those scoring at home, that's nearly a 4-to-1 ratio of players who went the college baseball route versus those who opted for a professional career after their senior year of high school. The 61 college players on the four LCS teams are products of 50 different college programs, led by three from Florida State and two each from nine other schools (LSU, Long Beach State, Miami, Mississippi, Pierce JC, Tennessee, UCLA, Virginia and Wichita State). Most of the 61 attended four-year colleges (52), plus nine who started their pro careers after attending junior college.
Three Notre Dame baseball alums - infielder Craig Counsell (Marlins/Diamondbacks) and pitchers Brad Lidge (Astros) and Aaron Heilman (Mets) - have been active in the Major League playoffs during recent years. That trend nearly continued in 2007, but Counsell (with the Brewers) and Heilman (Mets) both saw their teams narrowly miss qualifying for this year's postseason field.
The statistical ratios comparing the 25-man rosters of the four LCS teams are similar to a similar sampling in 2004, when the Astros, Cardinals, Red Sox and Yankees had 60 combined college baseball alums on the league-championships rosters (plus 25 foreigners and only 15 who went pro directly from high school). One year later, Lidge's 2005 Astros squad was overflowing with former college baseball starts - accounting for 20 of the 25 players on the team's '05 World Series roster (the other five all were foreign players, with none who opted for pro ball straight out of high school).
The 23 foreigners from the 2007 LCS teams who did not play college baseball (in the U.S. or Canada) included nine from Venezuela and eight from the Dominican Republic, plus three Japanese players and one each from Cuba, Mexico and Panama. The Cleveland Indians had the most foreign players (8) among the LCS teams while the Arizona Diamondbacks had seven, the Colorado Rockies five and the Boston Red Sox only three.
The Rockies featured a 25-man roster in the 2007 LDS round that included 16 former college players and only four who entered pro ball right out of high school. Their upcoming opponent from Boston had a division series roster featuring 17 college baseball alums and five who made the jump directly from high school. The other LCS teams had similar roster ratios, as Cleveland's ALDS roster included 12 former college players and five who went pro straight from high school while Arizona boasted a roster of 16 former college baseball stars and only two American players who bypassed the college route. The ranges of the four team rosters were 12-17 college baseball alums, 3-8 foreign players (who did not attend college in the U.S. or Canada) and 2-5 players who entered pro ball out of high school.
Colorado heads to the World Series with three starting infielders who are college baseball products: first baseman Todd Helton (Tennessee), shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (Long Beach State) and third baseman Garrett Atkins (UCLA). Rockies rightfielder Brad Hawpe played his college ball at LSU while starting pitchers Jeff Francis (Univ. of British Columbia) and Josh Fogg (Florida) also are college baseball alums.
Boston similarly has former college stars all around its infield - with catcher Jason Varitek (Georgia Tech), first baseman Kevin Youkilis (Cincinnati), second baseman Dustin Pedroia (who was a shortstop at Arizona State), shortstop Julio Lugo (Connors, Okla., State JC) and third baseman Mike Lowell (Florida International). The Red Sox outfield includes college baseball alums such as rightfielder J.D. Drew (Florida State), centerfielder Coco Crisp (Pierce, Calif., JC) and Jacob Ellsbury, who just two summers earlier helped lead Oregon State to its first College World Series appearance (in '05). Boston pitching veteran Curt Schilling (Yavapai, Ariz., J.C.) also is a former college baseball player, as is Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon (Mississippi State).
The Indians came one win shy of sending several noteworthy former college stars to the World Series, most notably: first baseman Ryan Garko (Stanford), third baseman Casey Blake (Wichita State), leftfielder Kenny Lofton (Arizona), DH Travis Hafner (Cowley, Kan., County JC) and starting pitcher Paul Byrd (LSU) and closer Joe Borowski (Rutgers). The Diamondbacks were another team with plenty of college baseball alums in the infield - catcher Chris Snyder (Houston), the first base duo of Conor Jackson (California) and Tony Clark (San Diego State), second baseman Augie Ojeda (Tennessee), shortstop Stephen Drew (Florida State), third baseman Mary Reynolds (Virginia) and veteran utility infielder Jeff Cirillo (USC) - plus leftfielder Eric Byrnes (UCLA) and the starting pitcher trio of Brandon Webb (Kentucky), Doug Davis (San Francisco JC) and Micah Owings (Georgia Tech/Tulane).
In addition to the players mentioned above, Colorado's other college baseball products (on the 25-man NLDS roster) included: lefthanded setup man Brian Fuentes (Merced, Calif., JC), middle reliever Matt Herges (Illinois State), pitcher Mark Redman (Oklahoma), RHP Ryan Speier (Radford), catcher Chris Ianetta (North Carolina), utility infielder Jamey Carroll (Evansville), and outfielders Ryan Spilborgs (UC Santa Barbara), Cory Sullivan (Wake Forest), Seth Smith (Mississippi) and Jeff Baker (Clemson).
Boston's other college baseball alums on its ALDS roster included: RHP Mike Timlin (Southwestern, Texas), LHP Javier Lopez (Virginia), infielders Alex Cora (Miami) and Eric Hinske (Arkansas), outfielder Bobby Kielty (Mississippi), and catchers Doug Mirabelli (Wichita State) and Kevin Cash (Florida State).
Cleveland had six other college baseball products on its division series roster: catcher Kelly Shoppach (Baylor), infielder Chris Gomez (Long Beach State), outfielder Jason Michaels (Miami), LHP Aaron Fultz (North Florida JC), and RHP Jensen Lewis (Vanderbilt) and Tom Mastny (Furman).
Arizona's large collection of college baseball all-stars also featured: outfielder Jeff Salazar (Oklahoma State), catcher Robby Hammock (Georgia), LHP Doug Slaten (Pierce, Calif., JC), RHP Brandon Lyon (Dixie, Utah, JC) and RHP Dustin Nippert (West Virginia).
Many of the players listed above are familiar to some Notre Dame baseball fans, after playing against the Irish over the past few years (and, in some case, competing at ND's Eck Stadium) ... most notably, Garko (whose younger sister was an ND cheerleader) was the starting catcher for the Stanford team that posted a pair of narrow wins over Notre Dame at the 2002 College World Series ... one week earlier, Stephen Drew (then a freshman shortstop) saw his top-ranked Florida State team upset by the visiting Irish in the NCAA Super Regional round ... one year later (in '03), ND edged Vanderbilt in a 10-inning game played in Jacksonville, Fla. (3-2), with Lewis taking that loss after pitching the 10th inning (2 R, 3 H, K; game also featured a pitching duel between Vandy's Jeremy Sowers and ND's Chris Niesel) ... Pedroia and his ASU team lost a 2002 game vs. ND at Eck Stadium (he hit 0-for-4) but he led the Sun Devils to a pair of home wins over ND in '03, while playing shortstop and batting from the leadoff spot (6-for-11, 2 RBI, 3 R, 2B, BB, K in the two games) ... UC Santa Barbara was one of four teams at Eck Stadium in the 2003 NCAA regional round and Spilborgs faced the Irish in a 10-inning thriller (he played RF and was 0-for-3 with a walk, as ND won that 11-10 elimination game on a Brian Stavisky home run in the top of the 10th) ... Youkilis and his Cincinnati team dropped a 1998 game at Eck Stadium, 3-2 (he was 1-for-3 with a walk and K, as the cleanup batter and starting third baseman) ... Carroll's Evansville team was a Midwestern Collegiate Conference rival of ND in the 1994 season (he went 8-for-15 with a pair of RBI, a double and two runs scored in a four-game series at Eck Stadium that season, with the Irish winning three of the games) ... Cora's Miami squad won three games at Eck Stadium in that 1994 season (he was 7-for-14 with five runs scored, two RBI, a triple and a walk in the three games, while starting at third) ... one year later in '95, ND won 1-of-3 at Miami (Cora was 2-for-10 with a double in that series, as the team's shortstop).