(Photo via UW-Whitewater Athletics, seen here)
Less than one-hundredth of the players selected in this year’s MLB draft were taken from Division III schools. The lowest level of NCAA baseball includes 384 programs and several thousand players who aspire to see their name appear as one of more than 1,200 on the draft tracker each year.
Daytona Bryden never saw his. The former University of Wisconsin-Whitewater outfielder slashed .488/.554/.866 in his senior season for the Warhawks. He hit nine homers, nine triples, stole 28 bases and committed zero errors in the field. Bryden’s historic season received acclaim from the press and suggestions that he would be drafted.
“Every person was trying to tell me I’m getting drafted,” Bryden said. “After you hear it so many times, you start to believe it.” Bryden worked out for at least one MLB organization, but wasn’t one of just twelve D3 players selected this year.
His teammate Heath Renz was.
Renz was driving in the car when he learned the Tampa Bay Rays had selected him in the 27th round. “I had to pull over and make sure it was actually happening,” he said. Also a senior for the Warhawks, Renz posted a 3.15 ERA and struck out 70 batters in 54.1 innings. He hoped to be drafted after his junior season, in which he posted a sub-2.00 ERA, but was told he was still a year away after being passed on. He pitched that summer for the Madison Mallards of the Northwoods League, as he did in 2016. He now pitches for the Princeton Rays in the Appalachian League.
A fellow WIAC pitcher, Mason McMahon racked up 107 strikeouts in 67 1/3 innings during his junior campaign for the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Like Renz, McMahon was told replicating his junior year numbers would improve his stock next season after his draft dreams went unrealized in 2018. He is spending his second consecutive summer in the Northwoods League, pitching for the LaCrosse Loggers.
McMahon says Renz’s story provides encouragement.
“I was really happy to see Heath go,” he said. “I’m always cheering for D3 guys to get drafted, especially guys I’ve played against.” The two 6-foot right-handers faced off on May 12, with McMahon’s Eagles prevailing over the top-ranked Warhawks.
MLB organizations prefer to take D3 players after their final collegiate season for financial reasons.
To begin his senior season, Ryan Zimmerman faced McMahon in their 2018 season opener. Zimmerman took the tough-luck loss, striking out 11 while allowing one earned run through seven frames.
Already pitching for the St. Paul Saints, an independent pro club, Zimmerman said he wasn’t too disappointed when no affiliated team drafted him in June.
“I already have my opportunity for now,” he said. Zimmerman’s illustrious college career gleaned some interest from MLB organizations. He still has his sights on signing with an affiliate and plans to focus on adding velocity next offseason. Playing in the American Association, Zimmerman believes maintained success at this level would warrant a shot with an MLB club.
He expects such an opportunity will arise for his former Northwoods League teammate, Daytona Bryden.
“I was super surprised that Daytona didn’t get picked up,” Zimmerman said of his Eau Claire Express teammate. “I’m sure he’ll get a shot at some point.” Renz echoed Zimmerman’s shock. McMahon said “[Daytona] was the best hitter I faced last year, and frankly, it wasn’t really close.” He added that he expects and hopes Bryden will have a chance to earn an MLB contract.
As of June 21, Bryden was taking a vacation in Florida. He has heard from indy ball clubs in multiple leagues, including the American Association. Bryden said the draft took a bigger toll on him than he expected. But like his D3 brethren, he still believes in his potential. “Hopefully I can play well and get signed by an MLB organization,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m dreaming too big or not, but I think I can get it done.”
Bryden speculates that recurrent hamstring issues may have hindered his draft stock. He missed numerous games during his career but played a complete, healthy senior season after strengthening specific muscle groups and learning when to avoid playing too hard. “This year, playing a full season you could see what could have been if [Bryden] played four years of full baseball,” Renz said.
An associate scout for CBBSN, Collin Kannenberg supported Renz’s words. “In general, [Bryden] has a great work ethic,” Kannenberg said. “He came back strong from injury.” Having scouted Bryden, Kannenberg added that the outfielder has a quick first step and never takes a play off.
Having competed directly on the diamond, Bryden and McMahon each expressed mutual confoundment over the other going undrafted. “I thought [McMahon] would go for sure,” Bryden said.
McMahon cited inexperience and lack of exposure as potential roadblocks on his quest to be picked up by an affiliate. Even after seeing his name selected, Renz understands the difficulty of making it to baseball’s highest stage from Division III. “No one really pays attention to us down here,” he said.
But scouts did pay attention to McMahon last season. “I was told to keep my phone charged and stay by my phone all of day three [of the draft],” he said. “A couple teams told me I’m a year away from being their guy.”
With his senior season still on the horizon, McMahon has reasons to be optimistic. In addition to Renz, he hopes to follow in the footsteps of former UW-La Crosse teammate Caleb Boushley, a pitcher drafted in the 33rd round by the San Diego Padres after his senior season in 2017. He followed outfielder Taylor Kohlwey, also taken by the Padres in 2016.
McMahon says Boushley’s selection stabilized his own dream of being drafted. “If he can do it, I have a chance to do this too,” he said of his friend and mentor. All D3 players face long odds of being drafted, but playing alongside and against draftees is a rare perk for McMahon. So is playing for a program that has produced 11 draftees.
McMahon believes he has a realistic shot to be the 12th.