Florida made history in this year’s MLB Draft, but history once again stands in the way of departing Gators at the next level.
There’s no question this was the most successful draft for UF’s baseball program in nearly a century of existence. Junior catcher Mike Zunino became the highest-drafted Gator ever while an unprecedented eight Florida players were selected in the first nine rounds of the draft.
But hearing your name called in the MLB Draft doesn’t mean your name will ever be called in a single MLB game. Many of those taken in the NFL, NBA and NHL drafts won’t just reach their respective leagues. They’ll do it immediately and some will make an instant impact. In contrast, even the majority of first-rounders in the MLB Draft will do none of the above.
The minor leagues still serves as a black hole for future stars. Even today, the most heralded college baseball players gravitate to it with unhoned skills that take years to develop. For example, the entire 2007 first round, which included 64 players, totaled one inning of big-league playing time by the end of the 2008 season. The majority of first-rounders in 2008 were still assigned to minor league organizations at the conclusion of the 2009 season.
In contrast, every first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft had played in the league by the end of that very same season.
Making an early impression is clearly rare for the MLB Draft’s best prospects, but so is leaving any sort of footprint. Only 31 of the first 53 picks in the 1997 draft eventually made a showing in the majors. Furthermore, only 13 of those 30 made an appearance in more than 100 games by the end of 2009 — 12 years after being drafted.
That same 1997 draft, and a Gator alum who was drafted that year, provide proof of how tough an MLB scout’s job is. The 19th round would eventually produce an All-Star and World Series MVP (2006) in the form of Florida’s David Eckstein. By contrast, none of the 30 players drafted in the 18th round ever played in an MLB game.
Even more surprising, more players were drafted out of high school this year than out of college. A total of 17 players were chosen from the high school ranks while the other 14 players selected in the first round came from college. (It’s worth noting that 7 of those 14 came from the state of Florida).
But although pro baseball’s draft is different from the others, the same can be said about this crop of Gators. If not by the number of them selected (9 current and 6 signees), then the sheer talent they possess as they make their third straight trip to the College World Series.
Zunino, drafted by Seattle third overall, is the first Gator to be named a Louisville Slugger All-American in consecutive seasons since Brad Wilkerson earned the honor three straight times from 1996-98. He’s one of three finalists for the Johnny Bench Award, given to the nation’s top catcher. He’s also a semifinalist for the Dick Howser Trophy and the Golden Spikes Award. Zunino leads the Gators in total bases (162), RBIs (64), doubles (28), homers (19), sacrifice flies (10) and slugging percentage (.678). He’s also a two-time member of the league’s All-Defensive Team.
Junior pitcher/DH Brian Johnson, a fellow first-round pick taken by the Red Sox 31st overall, is one of 10 finalists for the John Olerud Award, given to the best two-way player in the nation.
Junior shortstop Nolan Fontana, chosen by Houston with the first pick of the second round, was the first Gator shortstop to earn All-SEC honors three seasons in a row and joins outfielder Matt den Dekker (2008, 2009, 2010) as the only Florida players to be named to the SEC All-Defensive Team three times.
Senior Preston Tucker is one of the all-time Gator greats. He holds school records for games played (263), games started (257), total bases (592), at bats (1,027), hits (338), RBIs (256), doubles (69) and is second in homers (57).
That’s only a sample of this stellar UF class.
The MLB Draft has proven itself to be anything but a sign of what’s ahead for incoming players. But out of all the Gator classes over the years that have gotten the green light, you have to figure this one has a few that will make it in safely.