An elite trio left Penn to chase their dream jobs last year. Now, they’re professional baseball players.
In last year’s MLB draft, four players — a team record — were drafted into the pros, with the selections of pitchers Billy Lescher, Jake Cousins, Adam Bleday, and Jake Nelson in rounds 17, 20, 27, and 33, respectively.
Cousins and Bleday were seniors, making their decision easy, but Lescher and Nelson still had eligibility remaining. Ultimately, Lescher chose to go pro instead of returning to University City for his senior year, while current junior Nelson chose to remain at Penn.
For the three newest professional ball players to come from the Penn ranks, draft day was only the beginning of the process. After being selected, each of them signed professional contracts with their new parent clubs and pitched at both the Rookie and Class A Short Season levels.
Of the three, Lescher has had the most statistical success. Over the summer, the righty posted an earned run average of just 2.45 and limited opponents to a .173 batting average in 17 appearances in the Gulf Coast League.
The timing of Rookie and Class A Short Season leagues is designed to accommodate newly drafted and signed players like Lescher, Bleday, and Cousins. The short 60-game season begins after the draft takes place in the summer, allowing players to continue their momentum from the end of the collegiate season. That ironed out some of the transitional wrinkles of moving to the professional ranks.
“I had kept throwing after the Penn season, so the arm was in pretty good shape the whole summer, so I didn’t have to worry about that,” Lescher said. “I got away — my junior year at Penn — with just throwing a lot of fastballs, just because I was able to put some heat behind it, but when I got own to pro ball, it's one of the things I noticed immediately: You got to be able to throw your off-speed [pitches] in any count, whenever they ask for it, to try to keep the hitters off guard and punch some guys out.”
While Lescher spent most of his summer in the Gulf Coast League for Rookie ball, Cousins and Bleday both played in the Class A Short Season New York-Penn League with the Auburn Doubledays and the Tri-City ValleyCats respectively.
According to MiLB.com, the minor leagues’ official website, Cousins has not been assigned to a full season team this spring and remains on the Doubledays' roster. He could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, both Lescher and Bleday have progressed to the Class A Midwest League. Lescher plays for the West Michigan Whitecaps, an affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, while Bleday throws for the Quad Cities River Bandits as a part of the Houston Astros farm system.
Unfortunately, baseball seasons across the country have started with a whimper, as winter weather has forced postponements, cancelations, and delays. For Lescher and Bleday, a combination of inclement weather and injuries have conspired to keep them off the bump.
“I’m playing in Iowa right now and its freezing, so playing in Philly kind of prepared me for that,” Bleday said with a laugh.
Lescher threw one shutout inning in relief for the Whitecaps this season before landing on the disabled list last week. Bleday, on the other hand, managed two appearances, allowing three runs in 2.1 innings of work. Bleday has been on the temporarily inactive list since April 14.
Despite the adversity they have faced so far, both players remain optimistic about their careers.
Both figure to be used as middle relievers on their respective teams. As a lefty, Bleday is likely to be put in more specialist situations to face one or two batters at a time. Both pitchers seem open to any position in the bullpen or even as spot starters as long as it progresses their careers toward the eventual goal of the majors.
The potential call-up to higher leagues is not in the players’ hands, but if there are benchmarks set for them, neither the players nor the coaches were willing to share. From a planning standpoint, this presents a difficulty for these players and their coaches: How do they measure progress in an environment where statistical benchmarks are just as important as developmental outcomes?
“[Goals are] not set in stone. We kind of let those guys have their own personal goals. The main thing we want to see is just the numbers that we look at, whether it’s from TrackMan [a pitch tracking system that measures statistics like velocity, spin, and movement], or just the overall shape of a pitch,” River Bandits pitching coach Graham Johnson said.
“We have some developmental goals that [Bleday] is aware of, and obviously [the Astros] organization feels like are very important to him in terms of how he’s developing and how he progresses through our organization.”
Lescher indicated that his focus was on the development of his off-speed pitches as opposed to the raw numbers that accumulate over the course of a season.
Their dream jobs might not have gotten off to a perfect start, but all three players will continue to train their eyes on the big leagues.
“At the end of the day, if you do your job well there’s always a chance to keep on moving up, which is the ultimate goal for everyone,” Lescher said.