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Baseball's amateur draft takes two former Owls

By Jonathan Myers     8/20/09 7:00pm

As the Rice baseball team walked off the field at Alex Box Stadium on June 13, reeling from a 5-3 defeat at the hands of Louisiana State University in the NCAA Super Regionals, the players were already thinking to the arrival of the 2010 season and the new freshman class. However, because the Major League Baseball amateur draft had already taken place, the Owls knew that they stood a fair chance of losing several key components of the team who had fallen to the eventual national champions in two closely contested games.

Head Coach Wayne Graham and his staff knew they would be losing the services of seniors Jordan Rogers and Jess Buenger, with both players having exhausted their years of eligibility.

Additionally, sophomore catcher/ first baseman Nick DeBiasse elected to transfer to the Universiy of Central Missouri in hopes of finding better prospects of playing time. But uncertainty remained as to whether any of the five players who had been selected in the draft would sign professional contracts and forfeit their remaining years of eligibility.

The Owls selected in the draft included junior second baseman Brock Holt, junior pitcher Ryan Berry, junior catcher Diego Seastrunk, junior center fielder Steven Sultzbaugh and junior pitcher Mike Ojala.

Holt and Berry were selected with back-to-back picks in the ninth round, while Seastrunk was selected in the 31st round. Ojala and Sultzbaugh were each taken by the Milwaukee Brewers, in the 34th and 41st rounds, respectively.

The players had until midnight on August 17 to sign a contract, or else the team that had drafted them would lose the rights to them. Holt was the first to sign, inking a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 19, receiving a $125,000 signing bonus.

Berry, a fan favorite for his three years of both dominating performances and bespectacled mug, took much longer to reach his decision. The staff ace finally decided to sign with the Baltimore Orioles on August 10, with a signing bonus of $417,600. Seastrunk announced on July 2 that he would be returning to Rice for his senior year, keeping the position of catcher in familiar hands. Sultzbaugh also did not sign a contract, as he looks to start off the 2010 season by torching opposing pitchers the same way he did to end the 2009 season.

Ojala's situation was an interesting one, as he underwent Tommy John surgery on June 18, a normal surgery used to treat the elbow injury he sustained earlier in the season. Normally, the surgery requires a year to recover from, meaning that it would be almost pointless for Ojala to return to Rice for a senior season that may not be physically possible.

However, Ojala did not sign a contract with the Brewers and has been reported to be far ahead of schedule in his rehab, possibly being ready to pitch in the middle to latter part of the 2010 season.

Holt was the only position players the Owls lost, and junior Chad Mozingo is recovering nicely from his hand and ankle surgeries in the offseason. Thus, the loss of so few players, along with the addition of many highly-touted freshmen and transfers, primes Rice for another deep postseason run.

Freshman Michael Ratterree was named to the Louisville Slugger High School All-America team and is expected by many to fill the void at second base created by the departure of Holt.

The recruiting class is pitcher-heavy, as Graham hopes to eradicate many of the inconsistencies that plagued the Owls' bullpen last year. The incoming class includes such heralded freshmen pitchers as Tyler Spurlin, Chase McDowell, Kevin Hahn and transfers Tony Cingrani and Chris "Boogie" Anagnostou. Redshirt freshman Anthony Fazio is recovering from Tommy John surgery and will also be able to lend his arm to the rotation this spring.

The loss of only five players, combined with the return of eight of nine position players and several reserve outfielders and infielders with plentiful experience, plus the vaunted recruiting class, will certainly set the bar high for the Owls as they hope to return to Omaha for the final College World Series at storied Rosenblatt Stadium, which will be replaced in 2011 by the newly-constructed TD Ameritrade Park.

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