By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For a college coach, the Major League Baseball draft can be “very, very stressful,” UVa’s Brian O’Connor said, because of the impact it can have on a program. A college team can lose experienced players with eligibility remaining, as well as promising recruits.
“But it’s also really rewarding when you see your own players get rewarded for their hard work and effort,” O’Connor said Wednesday.
For O’Connor, that was the case again this week, when four of his players were selected in the MLB draft: junior pitcher Branden Kline in the second round, junior shortstop Chris Taylor in the fifth, redshirt sophomore third baseman Stephen Bruno in the seventh, and senior pitcher Shane Halley in the 20th. (No UVa recruits were drafted.)
Neither Taylor nor Halley was drafted coming out of high school. The Yankees picked Bruno in the 26th round of the 2009 draft. Kline was a sixth-round choice of the Boston Red Sox — then his favorite team — as a senior at Thomas Johnson High in Frederick, Md.
But he assured his mother that he would get a college degree, and Kline, a kinesiology major, is well on the way to fulfilling that promise. On the field, he raised his stock as a pitching prospect, distinguishing himself as a starter and closer for the Cavaliers.
“I think the thing that I will always admire about Branden Kline is that he’s loyal, he’s a man of his word, and he’s your consummate team player,” O’Connor said. “No matter what individual role he had — and the makeup of our pitching staff was different [all] three years that he was here — he was always willing to do whatever we needed him to do on the pitching staff to help his team win.
“When a player has that kind of attitude and is loyal to his teammates and the program, it’s amazing how good things happen to somebody like that. He was a sixth-round draft choice and had an opportunity to go to professional baseball, and he comes to the University of Virginia and gets better and has a great college experience and is one year away from his degree and goes in the second round. I’m very proud of what he was able to accomplish here, both athletically and academically.
“He is a role model. He is somebody that the University as a whole should be very, very proud of, because he was a tremendous student, and he did things the right way.”
Kline, a first-team All-American as a closer in 2011, became UVa’s No. 1 starter this year and went 7-3, with a 3.56 earned-run average. For his college career, he’s 16-5, with a 3.22 ERA.
“I’ve loved every minute I’ve been in this institution,” Kline said on a conference call Tuesday. “It’s great academically, a prestigious school, of course the baseball program is one of the top in the country, and I’ve met some of my best friends that I’m going to know for the rest of my life here, both on the team and off the team. And the coaching staff is always going to be there for the players that stay or leave.”
His parents are die-hard fans of the Orioles, Kline said. When he was a boy and “would go to Camden Yards to watch some of the games,” Kline recalled, “I would think it would be really cool to play for a great organization like the Orioles and play in this great ball park.”
Kline credited hard work for his improvement on the mound.
“That’s what this program is built on, players being accountable and hard-working,” he said. “I’ve gotten to work with some of the best coaches in the country … and luckily with all the hard work and determination I was able to improve year by year.
“It also says a lot about this coaching staff and this team. It seems like everybody that comes here usually gets better, and that’s why the team has so many guys selected where they are.”
In the past three MLB drafts, the Wahoos have had 10 players picked in the top 10 rounds. Overall, UVa has had 21 players chosen in the past three drafts. And that’s good news for a program that in nine seasons under O’Connor has advanced to the NCAA tournament nine times and to the College World Series twice.
“Absolutely,” O’Connor said. “It shows players that you recruit that not only can you go to the University of Virginia and compete in the one of the top programs in the country and have great fan support and compete for championships, but also that you can develop your ability within the team environment in order to progress your career forward, if that’s in the cards for you. It certainly has a big impact on recruiting.”
O’Connor said UVa’s coaching staff doesn’t make promises to recruits who must choose between college and professional baseball coming out of high school.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen with regards to their development,” O’Connor said. “But you talk to the players about the advantages of college baseball and getting your college degree and the advantages of professional baseball.
“But in the end, you’ve got to completely leave it up to the player, because I don’t ever want a player to come to school that doesn’t really believe this is the best route for him in his life. And I think college baseball has proven over the years that it does a heck of a job of developing players for the next level of baseball.”
The Orioles’ farm teams include the Class A Frederick Keys. Tyler Wilson, with whom Kline played for two seasons at UVa, pitches for the Keys.
“He actually was the first person I think that left me a voicemail, when I was calling my parents to let them know the news,” Kline said. “He was ecstatic, just as I am. He’s been one of my best friends ever since I stepped foot on this campus. He’s doing really well this year right in Frederick, my hometown, and I’m just really excited to be part of an organization that has him in there.”
Taylor, a graduate of Virginia Beach’s Cox High, also was drafted by an organization that thinks highly of O’Connor’s players. Already in the Mariners’ system are former UVa stars Danny Hultzen, John Hicks, Steven Proscia and Andrew Carraway.
“It’s pretty cool to know that the team that drafted me already has a bunch of UVa players in their organization,” Taylor said Tuesday, “and there’s a possibility of me playing with them again some day.”
Like Bruno, Taylor must decide whether to begin his pro career this summer or return to UVa in 2012-13. Taylor, a two-year starter at shortstop, has “been a special player,” O’Connor said, and not only because of his contributions on the field.
“He just had a huge impact on our program the last two years,” O’Connor said. “I think so highly of him. He just played. You never heard a complaint out of that kid. He just lined up and played every day and did his job. He was a really good student. I’m happy for him.”
Taylor said he’s thankful for his experience at UVa. “The coaches and my teammates have pushed me and helped me grow as a player and person,” he said. “There’s no way I would have been given this opportunity [in pro baseball] if I hadn’t decided to come here.”
This has been an eventful week for UVa baseball. On Sunday night, the Cavaliers’ season ended with a 5-4 loss to Oklahoma in the NCAA regional at Davenport Field. Kline, Taylor and Bruno were drafted Tuesday, and that night marked the major-league debut of former UVa great Sean Doolittle, a first-round pick of the Athletics in 2007.
Against the Rangers on Tuesday night, the left-handed Doolittle struck out three of the four batters he faced in relief. The other batter lined out.
The A’s initially tried Doolittle, the ACC player of the year in 2006, at first base and in the outfield. Injuries slowed his progress, however, and in 2011 he moved to the mound. He began this year in Class A before rising through the A’s system at a stunning pace.
In his 16 games in Class A, AA and AAA ball, Doolittle struck out 48 in 25 innings and limited hitters to a .096 batting average. His ERA was 0.72.
“I’m really happy for him,” O’Connor said. “I can tell you that it doesn’t completely surprise me. He was a really talented pitcher when he was here, and he played both ways. Had he just focused on being a pitcher here, he probably would have even been better, but we needed him to be a two-way player. And then he goes in and has a chance to make the major leagues as a position player and it doesn’t work out, and the fact that he’s still talented enough to make a second career out of this thing and make the big leagues is pretty special.”
Doolittle is one of six former Cavaliers on MLB rosters. The others: Tampa Bay’s Brandon Guyer, San Francisco’s Javier Lopez, Baltimore’s Mark Reynolds, Philadelphia’s Michael Schwimer and Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman.