By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Once the Seattle Mariners selected Danny Hultzen with the No. 2 pick in June’s Major League Baseball draft, the All-American left-hander never seriously figured into UVa coach Brian O’Connor‘s plans for the 2012 season.
“I felt all along that Hultzen and the Mariners would get things worked out,” O’Connor said Tuesday morning, about 12 hours after the two sides, as expected, reached a deal.
Draft picks had through Aug. 15 to sign pro contracts, and as that deadline approached, O’Connor was less certain about the final makeup of his incoming recruiting class.
Would Derek Fisher sign with the Rangers, who had selected him in the sixth round? Would Mike Papi (30th round) sign with the Angels? Would Brandon Downes (43rd round) sign with the Red Sox?
The news in each case was good for reigning ACC champion Virginia, which has advanced to the College World Series in two of the past three seasons. Fisher, Papi and Downes passed on pro ball and will start classes at UVa next week.
“There were some crazy things that happened yesterday and last night with some signing bonuses for high school kids,” O’Connor said Tuesday morning, “and you just don’t know until the end what clubs are going to do with the guys you have coming to your school.”
The other members of UVa’s 13-player recruiting class are freshmen Nathaniel Abel, Branden Cogswell, Nick Howard, Nate Irving, Brett Lisle, Barrett O’Neill and Kenny Towns and junior-college transfers Chris Fern, Joel Effertz and Chace Mitchell.
“I think it’s a really outstanding class,” said O’Connor, whose record in eight seasons at UVa is 372-130-1. “Position player-wise, this potentially could be the most talented, athletic class that we’ve brought in here.
“Obviously the draft hurt us a little bit from the pitching end, but I feel like we still have some really good arms that can come in here and help us right away from a pitching standpoint.”
The Wahoos lost three recruits to pro ball: pitchers Kevin Matthews and Christian Binford and junior-college catcher Nolan Clark.
Fisher, Papi and Downes were among the incoming recruits who took summer-school classes at UVa in July and early August. During their time in Charlottesville, they familiarized themselves with the University, got to know O’Connor and his assistants better, and worked out with Ed Nordenschild, the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach.
“I don’t know if summer school helps with regards to the draft,” O’Connor said. “I think it still comes down to a financial decision for a kid, and whether they feel like the time is right [to turn pro]. But I don’t think it hurts, that’s for sure.”
Fisher is a 6-3, 215-pound outfielder from Cedar Crest High School in Lebanon, Pa. As a 12th-grader, he went 31 for 64 (.484) with 11 home runs and 28 RBI.
“Obviously the professional people think Derek is a very physically gifted player, and we feel the same way,” O’Connor said. “His strength and his speed are at a very, very high level. He’s got a lot of work to do. He knows that. But the ceiling is really, really high for this kid.”
Fisher isn’t the only jewel among the newcomers, O’Connor said. “I think that you’re going to see some guys in this recruiting class that are going to really, really emerge as fantastic players. There are some of them that aren’t talked about, because maybe they weren’t drafted higher, that are going to really, really excite some people.”
Hultzen, a two-time selection as ACC pitcher of the year, leaves UVa with the school records for career victories (32) and career strikeouts (395). His career earned-run average of 2.08 is the second-lowest in program history.
Virginia had five players picked in the first 10 rounds of this year’s MLB draft, and that can only help recruiting, O’Connor believes.
“When you show [prospects] a track record of players coming to school and increasing their draft status, that’s a real positive,” he said. “But most importantly, they get their education. They have a great college baseball experience, and some players really put a high value on that, and it’s going to take a lot for them to walk away from that kind of opportunity.”
Hultzen is a perfect example. After his senior year at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., the Arizona Diamondbacks selected Hultzen in the 10th round of the MLB draft, but he opted to attend UVa.
“He immersed himself in the University and this baseball program, and that’s what you want guys to do,” O’Connor said. “You want them to get everything out of this experience that they possibly can while they’re here, and he certainly did. He came here and he made himself better as a player and as a person. He’s more mature, he’s a better player, and he’s wiser, because of all the experiences he’s had.”