Of all college sports, baseball is the most unique when it comes to recruiting. Not only are schools competing against each other to land the best available talent, in many cases they also must contend with the allure of pro ball.
All high school baseball graduates are eligible for the annual MLB Draft, and quite a few get selected during what is currently a 20-round draft. Based on where they get picked, the signing bonus offered to pass on college can reach seven figures.
That’s the predicament Arizona finds itself in with incoming freshman Blake Wolters, a right-hander who in the past year has gone from relatively unknown to one of the fastest-rising prep prospects in the country entering next month’s draft.
Baseball America ranks Wolters, a native of Mahomet, Ill., as the No. 49 prospect in the 2023 MLB Draft, and MLB.com has him 35th. The bonus “slot” for the 35th pick, part of the supplemental portion of the first round, is more than $2.4 million, though teams can go above or below that amount as long as they don’t overspend their allotted bonus pool.
Wolters committed to the Wildcats last July, flipping from Purdue after the UA coaching staff saw him competing in an event in Georgia. At that time he was topping out in the low 90s with his fastball, but in February his 97.7 mph throw broke the Prep Baseball Report Super 60 Pro Showcase record in Chicago, and since then his draft stock has soared.
No high school pitcher taken in the first 10 rounds the last two MLB drafts (and all five rounds of the COVID-shortened 2020 draft) has ended up playing for the college they signed with, which puts the odds of Wolters making it to Tucson for the fall semester and a 2024 debut are slim at best.
But there’s not a zero chance. The combination of family connections to the UA—his sister Ella is a student manager with the baseball team—and he is represented by the Boras Corporation, led by super agent Scott Boras, which means he’ll come with a lofty price tag to whatever team drafts him.
“I love Arizona and I’m committed to Arizona,” Wolters said in a phone interview. “So that’s the plan as of now. I mean, it depends on what kind of offer. And it would have to take a lot.”
Here’s what else Wolters had to say about his draft prospects, what drew him to Arizona and how he managed to make such a huge leap in velocity:
How did you get recruited by Arizona? What made them the best fit?
“The biggest thing, I saw that I would have a really good scholarship with just the academic money. I had a coach reach out to Arizona. I was pitching in Georgia, so they reached out that I was pitching in Georgia and also kind of my situation and how I would already have a lot of money (to go) there. So they saw me pitch in Georgia and then liked what they saw and then I committed after that.”
Is it normal for a kid from Illinois to be pitching in Georgia in the summer?
“The people on the travel teams that go everywhere, it’s a little bit more common, but for me, it was a haul. It was a long drive. I didn’t play on the circuit a whole lot, so it was a little bit more unusual for me, but it was a good experience.”
Have you been to Tucson? What are your impressions?
“My older sister actually goes there. She’s a manager on the baseball team, a student manager there. So we’ve visited her and we’ve also had the official visit. I’ve been a couple times. I love it there. One of the biggest things is just kind of the history of the program. I mean, Arizona is a great program. And also, from the Midwest, I wanted to go somewhere warm, where it was warm year round. You can play baseball, and not worry about the snow and rain all the time. So definitely the weather, just the history of the program, and then also having Chip Hale and the coaching staff. So all that combined.”
What led to your improvement in velocity the past year?
“I played basketball every year except my senior year. I gave it up, so I used that time to hit the weight room really hard and stick to my throwing program and stuff like that. I just sacrificed basketball, sacrificed that time to lift, to get a lot stronger. Especially lower half, and also working on my mechanics day in and day out. I’ve been up to 99 in-game. Last year? In the spring I was like 92 or 93 and then was up to 94 in the summer.”
When you committed to Arizona the pitching coach was Dave Lawn, but since then the Wildcats have hired Kevin Vance. How does this affect your view of Arizona? Have you talked with Vance?
“I wouldn’t say a whole lot has changed. I actually met Coach Vance. I was actually just in Boston, Massachusetts, to visit my sister. She’s doing her internship with the Cape Cod League. I went out to visit her and actually got the chance to meet Coach Vance and I really liked him. He knows a lot about the nerd pitching stuff, so to say, and I think he’s gonna be a great fit, and gonna be a big asset to the program.”
Define ‘nerd stuff.’
“Just kind of like the analytics and data part of it. Spin rates, stuff like that with the technology. He got into that a little bit and he is definitely passionate about it.”
As high as you are on draft boards, you aren’t attending the MLB Draft Combine next week in Phonenix. Were you invited?
“I was invited to it, but decided not to go. I had a good senior year and senior spring. I felt like I showed what I needed to show, so I didn’t need to go.”
With the Boras Corporation representing you, do you have a signing amount in mind?
“I mean, I’ve been talking about it with the family, but still kind of undecided. It’ll take a lot of discussion. There’s a lot of factors that go into it.”
Did you ever discuss opting out of the draft?
“Not in depth, but I know that it’s something you can do.”
What do your draft plans entail?
“Probably just watch it with my family. Nothing crazy, nothing special. I haven’t really planned all of it yet.”
Do you have a favorite baseball team?
“Where I live, Central Illinois, is kind of split between Cubs and Cardinals, and a few White Sox here and there, but more Cubs and Cardinals, but I never had a favorite. But in 2016 when the Cubs made the run at the World Series I was cheering for them.”
If you come to Arizona you’ll be one of several players from Illinois on the roster. Does that surprise you, and do you know any of the current Wildcats from the Land of Lincoln?
“I think a lot of them have the same idea as me, that they want to go to a great program where it’s warm. The Midwest has a lot of gritty kids. So I think that that’s also something that the coaches look for. I know all their names. (Brendan) Summerhill, (Casey) Hintz and (Tony) Pluta, they were all-state last year, so I saw their names and stuff like that. And (2024 commit) Ryan Anderson, he’s a year below me. I don’t really know them personally, but I know them.”