‘Cac on the Farm: NESCAC Baseball Players in the Minor Leagues

Mike Odenwaelder at Amherst.
Mike Odenwaelder at Amherst.

Editors Note: Filling the void of Trinity baseball writers for the blog left by graduated Carson Kenney ’15 and Sean Meekins ’15 is Nick Di Benedetto ’17.

This year the NESCAC had three baseball players drafted in the Major League Baseball Amateur Players Draft. Amherst’s Mike Odenwaelder ’16 was the first NESCAC player drafted in the 16th round. The other two draftees are Wesleyan’s Donnie Cimino ’15, the Cubs 37th round pick, and Amherst graduate Robert Lucido, the Blue Jays 40th round pick.The road to the show is nothing easy, and the lower you are drafted the tougher it is to show your true potential. Typically Major League farm systems chew up and spit out the low draft picks because they invest their big time money in the top picks.

Odenwaelder was drafted high enough to where he is going to get good opportunities to showcase his talent. He was the 493rd overall pick, and the Baltimore Orioles 16th round pick. Already he has played in 34 games for the Aberdeen Ironbirds, which is the Orioles Single A Short Season affiliate team. Odenwaelder is batting .220, and for a guy just drafted over a month ago, he is settling into the minors fine. When talking with Odenwaelder, he was thrilled to be playing with the Orioles and is very content playing in Aberdeen, which has top notch facilities. He is living large at the moment especially considering he did not plan on even playing college baseball.

During High School at Wamogo in Litchfield, Connecticut, Odenwaelder was pursuing his dream of being a college basketball player. He was greatly influenced by his high school basketball coach, Gregg Hunt, who passed away during his college basketball recruiting process. Odenwaelder, the 2nd best player in Wamogo basketball history, turned to baseball to cope with losing a coach so close to him. He ended up doing a post-graduate year at Canterbury School in Milford, Connecticut to follow his love for baseball. He became a three sport All-State athlete during his post-grad year which gave him an opportunity to be recruited for baseball. Odenwaelder was committed to play at UConn Avery-Point, but a roster spot opened up for him at Amherst a few months before his freshman fall.

Prior to the 2015 draft, the past ten years have produced six NESCAC draftees, five of whom came from Trinity College. Only one of those draftees is still playing: Kevin Heller from Amherst who was picked in 2012. On record there are only four NESCAC players who have made it to the show, all of whom were pitchers. The numbers are sparse so it is unfair to think Odenwaelder is incapable of making it to the big leagues due to the fact that he is a position player. He would be the first NESCAC position player to ever play in the Major Leagues, but he would certainly not be the first 16th rounder. There have been plenty of players picked that late who made it to the big leagues, such as James Shields and Mike Napoli.

Odenwaelder was the second of eleven Division III baseball players drafted this year. He was also drafted as a junior, which is rare in Division III baseball. Had he not hurt his shoulder during his sophomore season, Odenwaelder likely would have been drafted as a pitcher. When asked about his decision to leave college to play professionally, Odenwaelder said, “I just wanted to pursue my dream, and if I had a chance of making it to the bigs, I was going to have to leave this year.” Being a 16th round pick means he is getting some decent money to play, but it is not life-changing money. Had he stuck around another season it is possible he could have raised his draft stock, but it is also possible he could have hurt it as he would have been 23 years old by the time of the 2016 draft. By signing with the Orioles he is now absorbed in a complete baseball atmosphere. Odenwaelder gets the opportunity to play everyday for the rest of the 2015 season, facing great competition and improving more than he would have at Amherst. Instead of it just being a sport, it is now his job and most athletes’ fantasy. “I’m getting a paycheck to do what I love […] it’s a dream come true really”.

Odenwaelder is the highest NESCAC draft pick since Trinity College Pitcher Jonah Bayliss, the Royals 7th round draft pick in 2002, who made his Major League debut in 2005. He went on to pitch in the Majors for three consecutive seasons. Odenwaelder seems to have the tools to make a run for it at the next level. He has what it takes on defense as he was named to the NCAA Division III Gold Glove Team. Beyond multiple NESCAC honors, he was named to the D3Baseball.com All-American team and First Team All-New England.

In his three years at Amherst, he put up consistently great numbers. In a total of 118 games he had a career batting avg. of .372 with 16 homers, 86 RBI, and 39 stolen bases in what many are calling the “dead bat era” of college baseball. His most promising season was his sophomore year where he hit .400 with 6 HRs and 31 RBI, posting a whopping Slugging Percentage of .607. On the mound he had a career ERA of 2.55 in 24.2 innings pitched.

While Odenwaelder is busy working, he understands the importance an Amherst degree can have once baseball is over. He is dead-set on getting his degree from Amherst. He is either planning on going back for the next two Fall semesters, or just taking care of his senior year when his baseball career is over.

Donnie Cimino at Wesleyan.
Donnie Cimino at Wesleyan.

Wesleyan superstar Donnie Cimino was the Cubs 37th round pick. This spring he led the Cardinals to another NESCAC title, batting .399 with 3 homeruns. In his four years at Wesleyan in 645 at bats, he batted .373 with a .465 slugging percentage. He holds the record for Wesleyan’s most hits in a season with 69 and most career hits with 240. So far the minors have been a struggle for him as he is getting an opportunity to play only every few days or so. Cimino is batting  just .163 in the Arizona Rookie League. The Cubs have moved him from center to left field for most of his starts. His regimen in rookie ball consists of a lot of training, much like that of a spring training player, so he is learning a lot. Hopefully he is able to make some adjustments and excel in the Cubs farm system.

Before his days of flying around the diamond as a Wesleyan Cardinal, Cimino was a star on the gridiron at Westwood High School in New Jersey. His eyes were set on playing college football, which is how Wesleyan landed the stud baseball player. Cimino, who claims he was a “late bloomer”, didn’t gain much prowess on the baseball field until his senior year of high school when he really filled out, but by that time it was the spring and most of the recruiting was done. He considered doing a post-graduate year to push for a Division I opportunity, but decided to stick it out and get a good education and play two sports at Wesleyan. The Wesleyan baseball program was very fortunate to have him knocking on their door to be a walk-on his freshman year. The Don, as he is informally known, started every game in his four year tenure with the Cardinals.

The third NESCAC player drafted was Amherst’s Robert Lucido, who was cut by the Lord Jeffs during his sophomore season. Despite not playing for the Jeffs anymore, Lucido landed a spot in the Call Ripken League, a collegiate summer baseball league. He was able to earn a workout with the Blue Jays, where he did well enough to be drafted in the 40th and final round of this year’s draft. He is playing in the Gulf Coast Rookie League in Florida hitting .153 with a .313 on base percentage. He gets an opportunity to play just once every 7 or so games. In all likelihood his minor league career will last maybe a year or two, but it is possible he continues to overcome his long odds. Furthermore his ability to get into professional baseball opens up many avenues for him within the sport, and he could see a career in baseball off of the field. Teams sometimes use low draft picks on players who could potentially work in the front office, where multiple NESCAC alumni are scattered throughout. Three current MLB General Managers are graduates of Amherst. In the front office for the Boston Red Sox, former Trinity Bantam Psi U brother, baseball and football player Sam Kennedy will take over the job as President at the end of the season.

The NESCAC’s three MLB Draftees blew every other Division III conference out of the water. In addition, Wesleyan Pitcher Gavin Pittore (’16) signed on as a free agent last week with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Also, there have been two players that signed independent league contracts; Joe Jensen ’15,Hamilton’s star outfielder, signed with the Southern Illinois Miners in the Frontier League, and Nick Cooney ’15, one of Wesleyan’s aces, signed a contract with the Fargo-Moorehead Redhawks in North Dakota.

The odds are very much against minor leaguers making it to the majors. Even if they can’t make things work on the playing field, all NESCAC baseball players have a great education which allows them to venture off into different avenues of baseball. NESCAC graduates, and other Division 3 graduates are all over front offices, and coming from a small school is not a disadvantage at all.  Though most players don’t make it, there are the few fortunate ones that make it to the Show. For Odenwaelder, Cimino, and Lucido, even if they never make it to the major leagues, they won’t consider their professional baseball careers a failure, but rather a great experience and opportunity.

Making it Big: Gavin Pittore Signs with the Dodgers

Gavin Pittore has gone from Wesleyan to the pros in short succession. (Courtesy of Wesleyan University)

Hey kids, do you want to become a professional baseball player? Joining a NESCAC baseball team is the way to go given recent events. Wesleyan pitcher Gavin Pittore ’16 just signed as an undrafted free agent with the Los Angeles Dodgers, making him the fourth NESCAC player to be either drafted or signed by an MLB team this year. Next week we will have an in-depth feature on the progress of those NESCAC players who have already begun playing professional baseball, but for now let’s look at Pittore and how he ended up receiving a $105,500 signing bonus.

If we back up 18 months, the idea of Pittore signing with a major league team was laughable. Entering his sophomore year he was fighting to get a spot in the rotation, but he was blocked by more established starters. Given that he had a 3.21 ERA and had allowed 18 walks in 28 innings as a freshman, he didn’t scream breakout candidate. Through his first four outings in 2014 Pittore had a 8.73 ERA over 11.1 IP, but he still started the conference season in the weekend rotation. From that point on Pittore was an absolute horse for the Cardinals. Over his last 114 innings in a Wesleyan uniform, Pittore had a 1.45 ERA and struck out 119 batters vs. only 31 walks.

Even though he emerged as a stud for the Cardinals, his performance at Wesleyan didn’t necessarily signal a professional future. Pittore never made the All-NESCAC First Team, and he had only one appearance on the All-NESCAC Second Team this year. (Brief tangent. The All-NESCAC teams have a combined five pitchers on them vs. 19 position players. How does that make sense? Give pitchers more spots; they deserve them.)After all, it was fellow Cardinal Sam Elias ’15, and not Pittore, who took home Pitcher of the Year honors in the NESCAC this season. Given the success that Elias and Nick Cooney ’15 also had pitching at Wesleyan in the past two years, it is hard to extricate how much of Pittore’s low ERA came courtesy of the elite defense behind him.

Not until this summer did Pittore really break onto the radar of scouts. Last summer he spent the entire season with the Harwich Mariners but pitched only sparingly. He showed up at the open Cape League tryout this year hoping for the best and got a temporary contract with the Bourne Braves. The rest, as they say, is history. After pitching almost exclusively as a starter at Wesleyan, Pittore became a reliever for the Braves and immediately flourished in the role. In 17 innings, he did not allow a single earned run and had 17 strikeouts in those innings. At the All-Star game in front of a multitude of scouts, Pittore flashed a 92-94 MPH fastball, impressing all in attendance. Do not underestimate the role of that All-Star game in him signing either. As far back as mid-June Pittore started talking to teams about potentially signing and foregoing his final year at Wesleyan, but Pittore says that only in the past week did he begin to talk to the Dodgers specifically.

Gavin Pittore pitching this summer on the Cape League. (Courtesy of the Bourne Braves)

In order to get him to leave Wesleyan, the Dodgers offered him that big bonus. The bonus is important given the low salaries for minor league players, but Pittore has someone to lean on for advice: former teammate Donnie Cimino ’15 who was drafted in the June draft. The two have talked regularly about Cimino’s experiences in the minor leagues, and Cimino has been able to offer advice. Though he is hardly a veteran since he was drafted in June, seeing Cimino adapt to the minor leagues told Pittore he could also make the jump. Yet in the end Pittore says that Cimino didn’t influence his decision. Pittore is still trying to figure out how exactly he will get his Wesleyan degree, but he is hoping to do it over two fall semesters as soon as possible.

Even though last summer was not a great one for him statistically, Pittore attributes a lot of his success to his time on the Mariners. “Being around such advanced baseball guys like Cape guys is huge for development and I think that’s what did it for me.” He was able to learn a lot about how to be  a be a better pitcher from his teammates and coaches instead of just throwing the ball hard . Of course, spending all that time concentrating on baseball also helped his velocity. After sitting at 90 MPH for a long time, Pittore now throws consistently in the low to mid 90s. At 6’3″ and 200 pounds, he has the frame to throw in the mid 90s once he spends some more time on a professional level weight lifting program. He has also reworked his wind-up so that he now turns his body to the side more which hides the ball from the batter longer. That deception may be even more important than the few MPH he has added. While the fastball is his best pitch right now, Pittore will have to work on having one knockout secondary pitch also if he wants to be able to progress through the minors as a reliever.

Just quickly keep in mind also the role of geography in this story. Being from Massachusetts allowed Pittore to attend the league tryouts in 2014 and 2015. He could sign a 10 day contract knowing he would be able to land in another New England summer league if things didn’t work out. If Pittore is from say Oklahoma, it is unlikely he ever pitches in the Cape League. And without that exposure, there is no way that he signs with a major league team. That isn’t to denigrate his accomplishments, but rather is an acknowledgment of all the factors that came together to make it possible

While this obviously is not the central focus at the moment, Pittore leaving is devastating for the back-to-back NESCAC champions Wesleyan. All three of their weekend starters from 2015 (Pittore, Cooney, and Elias) are no longer on the roster, and the only remaining pitcher with significant experience is Peter Rantz ’16. Behind Rantz, no pitcher threw 25 innings last season so the Cardinals will need to rely on someone like Ethan Rode ’17 making a massive jump in 2016. The lineup loses top performers like Cimino and Andrew Yin ’15. A three-peat will require a lot to go right in Middletown.

For Pittore, NESCAC baseball is in the past as he makes the jump to the pros. He is done pitching on the Cape too and will leave Monday to go to Arizona for a physical with the Dodgers. He might try to meet up with Cimino who is playing for the Cubs affiliate in the Arizona Rookie League. Beyond that, Pittore is still unsure of where the Dodgers will place him in the minors. The road to the majors, or even the high minor leagues, is not an easy one. Most don’t make it, but given that Pittore is still improving, it is impossible to write him off. Nobody saw him being in this position a few months ago. Congrats to Gavin and we wish him the best.