MLB’s brightest stars can be found in DII

Not everyone that heads to the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft in June is a household name. They come from all walks of life. Some are highly ranked on lists by Baseball America, others come straight out of high school.  Some eagerly await three or four years in DII.

That’s why I love working for NCAA.com and covering DII Sports. Over the past few weeks, I have met some coaches that have pumped out big leaguer after big leaguer, and have talked to a few players that you will hear called this June in the draft.

Two of the players that I have spoken to are amongst the 50 names on the Golden Spikes Preseason Watch List. For those that are not in the know, the Golden Spikes is awarded annually to the top amateur baseball player in the land. Only two players — Alex Fernandez (Community College) and Bryce Harper (high school) — have won the award that have not hailed from DI. Names like A.J. Reed, Kris Bryant, Stephen Strasburg, Buster Posey and David Price are some past winners who light up stat sheets in today’s MLB.

That being said, I felt like I should share with you some of these names to keep an eye on this spring.

The first team I caught up with this offseason was the reigning DII National Champion Tampa Spartans. Head coach Joe Urso and pitching coach Sam Militello both have pro ball experience and know how to prep their players. They have names like Florida transfer Bret Morales atop their list of MLB draft prospects.

Urso credits much of the success from the pitching staff to his associate head coach Sam Militello. Militello is a Tampa alum who made it to the big leagues with the New York Yankees. He knows how to groom his pitchers for long-term success.

“He does such a great job with these pitchers and taking care of their arms,” Urso said of Militello. “We take it very serious in making sure we are developing these guys and getting them ready for pro ball.”

UT has long been known for not only being a winning program, but for producing talent that gets noticed come June in the Major League Baseball draft. Last year alone, five of their players were drafted, while one signed as a free agent. This is something UT strives for and prides themselves upon.

“We talk a lot about the development process,” Urso said. “Winning is very important at the college level, and development can get pushed to the side at times. We try to really focus on the development side. We’re strict on pitch counts. Our practice plan is what separates us from some other programs because of the experience in the Minors and Majors from myself and our coaching staff” (read the full interview HERE).

I also caught up with Tyson Miller. Tyson is one of five DII Golden Spikes candidates. He hails from the pitching factory known as California Baptist. Head coach Gary Adcock has pumped out Major League ready talent pitching in each of the last six drafts. Some have even been on display in spring training already this season. Names like Trevor Oaks, Caleb Dirks and Adam Hofacket will be on MLB rosters sooner than later. After a strong summer in the Cape Cod League, Miller hopes he is next.

“Me and Adam both kind of got off to a slow start,” Miller said of the 2015 season. “It was the fourth or fifth series of the season, and we both said we needed to turn something around. We needed to change something and it needed to change with us so we can get the first two wins of the series each time. After that change of mindset, I told him not to worry about the draft. Now this year he’s telling me the same thing. It’s about enjoying the year, don’t over think everything.”

Coming off a successful season in which he finished 7-3 with a 3.32 ERA, Miller headed off to the Cape Cod League, a summer league notorious for having some of the best collegiate — and often future Major League — talent squaring off against each other. He would finish the summer ranked in the top 25 prospects in the league, the only player not out of Division I to gain such an honor.

“Being able to go out there, hanging out with those other guys, it was a confidence booster,” Miller said. “DI guys are really good and have a big name on their jersey, so it was reassuring. If I could get this guy out from Mercer or LSU, I can get anyone out. I got to pitch on my birthday against Orleans, it was probably one of my better games so that was really cool” (read the full interview and find out about his arsenal and skill set HERE). 

The next pitcher I met up with was Millersville’s ace, Brandon Miller. Miller rounded out Baseball America’s DII Top 10 MLB Draft Prospects heading into 2016, and coming off of a strong Cape Cod League performance himself, he has shown he is worthy of the honor.

Miller prepared himself this summer on the Cape as a member of the Chatham Anglers. Facing hitters and throwing against opposing pitchers primarily from the nation’s top DI programs, Miller put himself on the map. He went 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA and an amazing 27 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio over 24 innings. He would become a Cape Cod League East All Star, striking out two in his one inning pitched.

“It really helped boost my confidence coming into this season, being able to face the best hitters in the nation and ultimately get them out,” Miller said of his Cape Cod League experience. ”It was really beneficial to see how the other pitchers went about their business. Our program being a DII program, we do a lot of the stuff the big DI programs do. I think we stick to the process of playing the game correctly which is a true testament to Coach Shehan and Coach Forrest.”

Miller is now definitely on the national radar. Baseball America listed him as one of the Top 10 prospects for the MLB Draft in their Small College Preview. “There have been 35 radar guns in the stands twice already,” Shehan said of the attention Miller is garnering. That attention is well deserved. 

He already has two PSAC East Pitcher pf the Week Awards under his belt as well as an NCBWA Atlantic Region Pitcher of the Week Award to add to his trophy case. He seemingly doesn’t like to allow runs to cross the plate, having not allowed an earned run in his first 19.2 innings pitched of 2016. Going back to that Cape Cod All Star campaign, Miller has struck out 47 batters while walking just two over 43.1 innings (read the full interview and analysis HERE). 

Lastly, we had to get some pop into the equation right? All this pitching, what about the long ball? Enter Will Albertson.

Albertson plays for the 2015 National Runner-Up Catawba Indians. Baseball America projected him to be the DII Player of the Year and he too is on the Golden Spikes Preseason list. The future catcher was actually drafted last season — in the 40th round by the New York Yankees — but knew he still had some work to do in fine tuning his game.

Albertson is also humble. He values his opportunity in his senior year as an opportunity to improve his game and get drafted again. He knows his strength is in his bat, but the past few seasons have seen many of the nation’s brightest catching prospects change positions once drafted. Albertson however feels with the right work ethic, his path to the draft could be paved by improved catching skills.

“I think that another reason I was taken late last year was my defense,” Albertson admitted. “Not being as polished as I could have been. But I feel like I have gotten better behind the plate. I started throwing better, control the run game more and working real hard on my receiving skills. I’m working hard to prove that I can catch.

“I think I work with my pitching staff pretty well, and I think I do a pretty good job of blocking and receiving. One thing I need to develop more is my arm strength behind the plate” (read the full interview HERE).

I’m just scratching the surface. Be sure to stay tuned to meet more of MLB’s promising future stars as the season progresses.

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