Nick Torres was such an immediate contributor for the Cal Poly baseball team, it’s hard to believe nobody else was after him.
The junior right fielder, projected to go somewhere in the early rounds of the Major League Baseball Draft when it begins today, was resigned to attend junior college during the spring of a dominant high school senior season in 2011 when no Division I scholarship offers had come in.
Then, Mustangs head coach Larry Lee got his first look at Torres when Cal Poly made a late-April trip for a three-game series at Big West Conference rival Long Beach State, and the course of Torres’ career took a swift turn.
The Long Beach native was starring as a pitcher and third baseman at nearby Lakewood High, but as Lee watched Torres at an early morning practice, all he envisioned were attributes.
“I just saw a toughness,” Lee said, “and I saw some swing mechanics and defensive skills that I thought we could work with even though we saw him at third base, which wasn’t the position I thought he should be at. And sometimes you guess right.”
Torres was hampered by injuries as a sophomore and was used exclusively as a pitcher his junior year, appearing in only 12 games. By the time he hit .373 with five doubles, five triples and two home runs his senior year, he wasn’t even on the recruiting radar.
More and more, recruits are identified at younger ages, and most college baseball signing classes are solidified during the early period in November before prospects play out their senior seasons. But Cal Poly netted Torres and left-handed pitcher Matt Imhof, projected to go in the first two rounds, as late signees that season.
That’s when a mid-major program like the Mustangs can mine for gold.
“Some of our best players were passed up by everyone,” Lee said, “and we either see them at the right time or think that there’s more in there.”
Within days of Lee’s assessment, Torres was whisked away on a campus visit and committed to the Mustangs. He earned a starting job after hitting a triple and home run in the alumni game, and studying under then top outfield prospect Mitch Haniger, he learned the work ethic and principles that helped this season’s team earn a school record 47 victories and host the first ever NCAA Regional at Baggett Stadium.
“I would credit that to the older guys on the team at that point,” Torres said. “You work your tail off. That’s really what I did. I worked extremely hard all year up until season, through season as well to really better myself, get more mature to become a better baseball player and instill the work ethic we’ve got here.”
As a freshman, “I actually don’t think I would have been the opening day starter,” Torres said, “but I had a really good alumni game. I played well through the beginning of the season and was just fortunate to be there.
“It only took a couple months for me to really find myself and find my groove and confidence and trust the fact that I was here for a reason.”
After Torres hit .275 with 12 doubles, a triple and five home runs as a freshman, he truly blossomed as a sophomore when Cal Poly was looking for a replacement to hit in the No. 3 spot for Haniger, who was taken 38th overall in the 2011 draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.
Torres hit .333 with 19 doubles, a triple, seven home runs and a team-high 49 RBI. He badly misplayed an ominous fly ball after losing it in the setting sun in a regional loss to eventual College World Series champion UCLA, but that hardly stopped Torres’ momentum.
Coming into his junior year, Baseball America ranked the 6-foot-1, 210-pound outfielder as the fifth-best 2014 draft prospect in the Big West. The publication also ranked him 79th nationally among collegiate players, and Torres did not disappoint as a junior.
He hit .318, leading the team with 49 RBI and 17 doubles and tying for the team lead with six home runs, his final homer being the most memorable.
Torres belted a seventh-inning solo shot to help Cal Poly erase a five-run deficit in Sunday’s finale at the San Luis Obispo Regional. The Mustangs tied Pepperdine the next inning before the Waves struck for the game-winning runs of a 10-6 win in the ninth.
“He’ll learn to elevate the ball more as a hitter in pro ball,” Lee said. “He’s a little too much of a low line drive hitter right now, and that just comes with swing mechanics. He needs to continue to get better and better. He can be a good defensive outfielder with a quality arm.”
In updated rankings that include high school, junior college and four-year players, Baseball America slotted Torres 117th. Imhof was ranked 58th, Cal Poly closer Reed Reilly came in at 181st, and third baseman Jimmy Allen (414) was the only other Mustangs player in the top 500.
In a mock draft held by SB Nation site MinorLeagueBall.com this past weekend, Torres went in the fourth round, 132nd overall to the Oakland Athletics.
A video profile published on the official MLB.com website, also projects him to go somewhere in the first four rounds.
“Torres has the kind of offensive profile teams like to see from a corner outfielder,” says the video’s narrator. “Strong and durably built, Torres has the ability to make hard contact consistently from the right side of the plate. His strength plus ability to square up the ball gives him a good amount of raw power to tap into.”
The first two rounds will be televised by MLB Network and online at MLB.com today starting at 4 p.m. Rounds three through 10 will take place Friday beginning at 10 a.m. and results can be viewed online at MLB.com.
Technically, Torres could return for a senior season at Cal Poly, but realistically, he will go high enough for the signing bonus to lure him away and will likely have the opportunity to complete his business administration degree in the offseason.
“At this point, I’m just looking to sign a professional contract, something I’ve waited for since I was kid,” Torres said. “I’ve really got a good opportunity to do that. I think that would be the best move for me.
“Hopefully, we’ll get something done in the round that I like, and obviously, a lot more goes into it than just that. I’ll have to talk to my family a lot, and we’ll see what happens.”