The Cal Poly baseball team was sure to lose some juniors to the Major League Baseball Draft this week, but if a couple key draft-eligible players were to pass on professional contracts, it would give the Mustangs a jump start on following the recently ended record-setting season with another solid year.
Zack Zehner was one of those, and the Toronto Blue Jays just may have spoiled that plan.
In the surprise pick of the draft as far as Cal Poly is concerned, Zehner went to Toronto in the seventh round, 204th overall.
Zehner was certainly caught off guard. He was hitting in the batting cage at Baggett Stadium when his name was called. He walked into the clubhouse unaware of the selection and was mobbed by a few teammates and assistant coach Alex Hoover, who dogpiled on top of Zehner in head coach Larry Lee’s office.
“We’re all shocked,” said Zehner, who was consumed by phone calls from friends and family for six straight hours.
The other picks went largely as expected. Junior right fielder Nick Torres was taken by the San Diego Padres in the fourth round, 117th overall. Junior closer Reed Reilly went to the Boston Red Sox in the seventh, 224th overall. Mustangs signee Logan Webb, a pitcher from Rocklin High, was taken in the fourth round, 118th overall, by the San Francisco Giants.
Cal Poly expected to lose Torres, Reilly and junior left-hander Matt Imhof, who was taken Thursday by the Philadelphia Phillies in the second round, 47th overall. Webb was also being projected as a possible early round pick. He was rated 214th on Baseball America’s list of top draft prospects.
Zehner hit .316 with seven doubles, three triples, three home runs and 16 RBI, platooning in left field for the first two months of the season before earning the starting job full-time in mid April.
He was nowhere to be found on Baseball America’s top 500.
Now, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound junior left fielder from San Diego will have to decide between a lucrative bonus for signing this year or coming back to potentially bat third for a Mustangs team looking to defend its first Big West Conference title next season.
“Everyone wants to get drafted,” Zehner said. “You want to play pro ball. I think I’m just going to have to sit down with my parents and talk about the opportunities I have on both sides and make the best decision for my career and my family.”
MLB’s assigned bonus value for the pick is $192,400. The Blue Jays are not locked into offering Zehner that amount, which is negotiable, and the former Santa Barbara City College transfer could improve his draft stock by returning for another year and moving up in the draft.
Seniors, however, traditionally command significantly lower bonuses, and only two seniors were selected in the first three rounds this year.
Zehner was not picked coming out of Torrey Pines High in 2010 and went undrafted after redshirting in 2011 and playing for the Vaqueros in 2012 and 2013. Lee was hoping Zehner would return for a second season with the Mustangs and identified him and junior lefty reliever Taylor Chris, who has yet to be drafted, as players the Mustangs needed to return to help maintain the momentum the program built this season.
The draft wraps up with rounds 11 through 40 today with Chris, senior third baseman Jimmy Allen and senior catcher Chris Hoo looking to be selected.
Though Reilly was in a different situation than Zehner as a draft-eligible sophomore last season, the 6-4, 220-pound reliever knows what it’s like to face the decision of staying or going.
Reilly said the Red Sox were ready to draft him in the seventh round last season before he indicated to team representatives that he was returning to school and fell to the Baltimore Orioles in the 18th round.
Reilly ended up going in the same round he expects he would have last year and to the same team. He was unable to raise his stock, despite lowering his ERA to 1.71 with a 3-1 record, 12 saves and 53 strikeouts in 47 1⁄3 innings.
But the extra season of college baseball was worth the gamble to him.
“I just knew we would have a good team this year,” Reilly said. “Coach Lee put together a team to get us back to the regional, and I thought we could make a run to Omaha. It was just great coming back, just a great experience with so many more memories. So, I’m grateful for that.
“I just feel like mentally and physically, I improved,” Reilly said. “Just knowing the game and the extra experience at the Division I level, I really feel like every part of my game improved.”
Losing players to the draft is now a fact of life for Cal Poly. Lee has said he lures players by constructing a program designed to prepare them for the pros. By the numbers, he’s done a solid job of that.
Of the 33 Cal Poly players taken in the top 10 rounds of the draft since 1965, 24 of those have come in Lee’s 12 years as the head coach. And those figures do not including recruits like Webb or former recruits Danny Duffy and Robbie Erlin, who each made their Major League debuts four years after signing with the Mustangs.
Torres, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound three-year starter at right field, expected he would be taken early Friday morning. He hit third for Cal Poly this season, leading the Mustangs to the program’s first NCAA regional hosted in San Luis Obispo. He hit .322 with a 17 doubles, six home runs and 52 RBI, leading Cal Poly in each category in his second straight season as an all-Big West first-team pick.
“I’m excited about it,” said Torres, a Long Beach native who grew up in nearby Lakewood. “It’s pretty much about where I thought I was going to go.”
The assigned bonus value for Torres’ pick is $445,000.
Torres said he wasn’t expecting to hear his name called by the Padres, but the proximity of the Major League club was encouraging.
“That’s another reason I was real fired up to hear my name called by them because it’s somewhat of a hometown team,” Torres said. “I would be able to play in front of my family if I were to make it up.”
Torres joins another former Mustangs player in the San Diego organization. Cal Poly Division I single-season batting record-holder Adam Buschini, who hit .422 in 2009, is playing with the double-A San Antonio Missions of the Texas League and welcomed Torres to the Padres family on Twitter.