Beavers get pitching help as top prospects test bargaining strategy
Oregon State's 2003 baseball season was nothing to write home about. The next few seasons could be something different altogether.
Coach Pat Casey closed out his ninth season at the OSU helm with an uncustomary 25-28 record, including 7-17 and a tie for last place in the Pacific-10 Conference.
But help Ñ big-time help Ñ is on the way. Casey has signed four standout high school pitchers, including the top three arms in Oregon, and it appears that at least the in-state kids will be performing for the Beavers next spring.
Newberg's Dallas Buck, Central Catholic's Kevin Gunderson and Oregon City's Jonah Nickerson Ñ and perhaps Eric O'Flaherty out of Walla Walla, Wash. Ñ represent the future of Oregon State baseball.
Every year, Casey signs prospects but loses them when they turn pro after the major league draft. He was concerned it would happen this season with Buck, the 6-3, 190-pound three-sport star who pitched and hit the Tigers to the state championship Saturday against Jesuit.
Representatives of plenty of teams called Buck on draft day, including the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees, and were willing to select him in about the fourth round. The bonus money Ñ about $350,000 Ñ wasn't enough to entice Buck, though, and he told them he wasn't interested. He wound up going to Pittsburgh in the 19th round but says he will play at OSU.
Buck says he told the major league officials he would 'wait a few years,' meaning until after his junior year, when he will again be eligible for the draft. 'I was looking for a lot more money,' he says.
Several factors led him to Oregon State. His mother, Gina, went to high school with Casey in Newberg. He has spoken with Gunderson and Nickerson and likes the idea that they have an opportunity to lead the Beavers to their first NCAA Regionals appearance since 1986.
'We are going to be pretty tough in a couple of years,' Buck says.
And Buck, a standout quarterback at Newberg, has been given clearance by Casey to play football at OSU. Coach Mike Riley envisions Buck becoming a safety along the lines of Mitch Meeuwsen, also a three-sport standout during his prep days at Forest Grove.
Buck almost surely will redshirt during his freshman football season, allowing him to concentrate on baseball the first year.
College path is solid choice
Casey says a trend is growing toward high school players eschewing midlevel bonus money for college opportunities. Ashland native Jeremy Guthrie rejected a $700,000 bonus offer out of high school to attend Stanford. Three years later, he had earned a $4 million contract.
Southern Cal's Mark Prior 'turned down $1.6 million out of high school,' Casey says. 'He wound up with $14 million from the Chicago Cubs. The kids are seeing if they go to college, there's a huge difference in the money and how quickly they get to the major leagues. The college guys aren't spending two or three seasons in rookie ball.
'It takes courage to turn down the kind of money Dallas did, but I believe it will pay off for him. He has a chance to be a No. 1 pick three years from now.'
Buck has until the first day of school at OSU to change his mind and sign with the Pirates. Might that happen?
'They would have to offer me quite a bit of money to get me to go that direction,' he says.
If the Buck stops at OSU, it will mean the greatest in-state recruiting group in the Casey era.
Recruits up the optimism
Buck and the 6-1, 195-pound Nickerson are right-handers. The 5-10, 160-pound Gunderson and the 6-2, 185-pound O'Flaherty are left-handers. O'Flaherty, the No. 1-rated prospect in the state of Washington, was Seattle's sixth-round selection in last week's draft. It wouldn't be a surprise if he were to sign with the Mariners.
Casey, 264-203 in his nine seasons at OSU, is getting help where he needs it most. The Beavers hit well most of the season, but a young pitching staff had a collective ERA of 6.34 Ñ 6.94 in Pac-10 play. Two of the recruits probably will be in the three-man rotation with senior-to-be Jake Postewait, all-Pac-10 this spring.
Casey's optimism is fueled not only by his recruits but by his returning position players, notably a couple of outfielders with roots in rural Oregon.
Aaron Mathews, a sophomore from John Day, hit .307 this season but missed two months because of a broken arm. Jacoby Ellsbury, a Madras native, was named to the freshman All-American team after hitting .330 with seven home runs, a team-high 14 stolen bases, 56 runs scored.
The 6-foot, 170-pound Ellsbury, who ended the season with a 13-game hitting streak, turned down a $200,000 offer to sign with Tampa Bay after the Devil Rays selected him in the 23rd round last year. He has been selected for U.S. national team tryouts later this summer and could become the first OSU player named to such an all-star squad by USA Baseball.
'He was the best freshman in the conference this year,' Casey says. 'He could become the best position player I have ever coached.'