Pictured above: Freshmen (left to right) Logan Allen, Jose Garcia and Christian Santana were drafted by MLB teams last year but opted to pursue degrees and help build a powerhouse baseball program at FIU.
The first day of the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft came and went. So did the second. By the third day, recent high school graduate Christian Santana had almost stopped paying attention altogether.
The hard-throwing right-handed pitcher and FIU recruit had expected to get an offer from one of 30 MLB teams in the early rounds of the draft. It became apparent that wasn’t going to be the case.
But then a friend called to congratulate him, and Santana ran to his computer to confirm the big news: the Milwaukee Brewers drafted him in the 15th round.
“I was extremely grateful and happy to have that opportunity,” Santana says. “But I was unsure what was going to happen – if I was going to end up in the pros or at FIU. It was just waiting to see what would happen.”
Santana was one of 14 recruits in FIU Head Coach Mervyl Melendez’s 2017 recruiting class – the No. 1 recruiting class in the country – who were drafted. Each recruit had to make the decision hundreds of ballplayers make each year right out of high school: go to college or go the professional route.
For Melendez, now in his second season at FIU, it was no surprise that many of the players he recruited in his first class were going to be swooped up before stepping onto a college campus.
One of those recruits was his son, MJ, who was picked by the Kansas City Royals in the second round during the first day of the draft, adding a new wrinkle to the process.
Choosing a path
For most players and their families, the decision comes down to how much the team offers them to sign.
Outfielder Heliot Ramos was the highest Panther recruit drafted, taken by the San Francisco Giants with the No. 19 overall pick and signing a $3.1 million deal. MJ Melendez, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound catcher, opted to sign with the Royals for $2.1 million days after he was drafted. In the end, 10 of the Panther recruits decided to sign with the teams that drafted them.
“Every player has a number the family comes up with. If they don’t get that number they go to school, if they get it they go pro. It comes down to making a decision they will be happy with not just now, but 10 years from now,” Melendez says. “In my son’s case, he had a number in mind that was met, he made a decision and as a family we helped him through that decision.”
For several of the Panther recruits drafted, the numbers did not add up. Four of the draftees elected to go the college route, including Santana, left-handed pitchers Logan Allen (16th round, Baltimore Orioles) and Joe Sanchez (39th round, Atlanta Braves) and catcher Jose Garcia (38th round, Boston Red Sox).
With guidance from their parents and coaches, they weighed the pros and cons of both options and decided that spending a few years at FIU under Melendez and growing as baseball players was the wisest choice.
“Getting drafted was really special and having the chance to play professional baseball is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Allen, who is studying criminal justice. “But I felt that getting an education first was important for me and my family.”
The chance not only to develop at the college level, but to pursue a degree as well played a role in their decision. Santana is studying sports management with the hope of one day becoming a physical therapist after he is done with baseball.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” says Santana. “I’ve only been here for one semester, but I already feel like I’ve matured a lot as a player and as a person. College really comes at you and helps push that process.”
While they put their professional dreams on hold, they will have a chance to continue building on what Melendez is doing at FIU. He was a key reason they signed on to become Panthers.
“I used to play for him before coming here and fell in love with the way he coaches,” says Allen, who played on youth summer teams and academies headed by Melendez growing up. “Playing under him makes you feel like part of the family.”
While fans coming out to FIU’s newly named Infinity Insurance Park early in the 2018 season likely didn’t recognize many of the names on this year’s roster – with 14 incoming freshmen and five transfers, half the team wasn’t here a year ago – the Panthers promise to be a young team loaded with talent from the pitching staff to the outfield.
Garcia has shared catching duties with sophomore Javier Valdes and is among the offensive leaders for the Panthers in home runs and RBIs.
Allen leads the team in wins and has become one of the top starting pitchers as the Friday starter. Allen has also played first base and hit near the top of the lineup.
Santana has started and relieved. The right-hander has a save and has one of the best strikeout rates per nine innings on the pitching staff.
All three have become a big part of an incoming wave of talent that Melendez hopes will make the Panthers perennial contenders in Conference USA for years to come while they boost their draft value. ♦