Gamecocks’ Celek considering forgoing final season of eligibility

South Carolina's Brison Celek (left) played at Bishop England High School. (Staff photo/File)

Wade Spees

Last season, as expected, South Carolina lost three juniors to the Major League Baseball draft. First baseman Christian Walker, pitcher Matt Price and center fielder Evan Marzilli turned pro after being drafted in the fourth, seventh and eighth rounds. They were major contributors who nobody expected to return for their final season.

This season, USC had one junior drafted, designated hitter Brison Celek, in the 31st round by the Toronto Blue Jays. Though he doesn’t seem the likeliest candidate to sign a professional contract and skip his final season of eligibility, that’s just what he is considering doing.

“He’s leaning toward leaving, but nothing is set at this point,” said Celek’s father, Brian.

The elder Celek said his son would decide on his future “no later” than today.

Brison Celek, a broad-shouldered power hitter from Bishop England High, has never been a regular starter. In 2010, he played in nine games and started one. In 2011, he redshirted. In 2012, he played in 29 games and started 12, including 11 at designated hitter.

This season, when Celek was a fourth-year junior, brought more opportunities to contribute. Entering the NCAA tournament, he had played in 29 games, with 24 starts, all at designated hitter — more starts at that spot than any other Gamecock.

But he was bumped out of that role, and played just once as a reserve in the NCAA tournament, because coach Chad Holbrook opted to put the sure-handed sophomore Kyle Martin at first base and slide his best hitter, Dantzler, to designated hitter.

Celek finished the season with a .307 batting average (27 of 88), one home run and 18 runs batted-in. In 2012, he hit .224 (13 of 58) with zero homers and eight RBIs.

Brian Celek said his son had been in contact with major league teams throughout the season, so being drafted didn’t surprise him. The three other USC players drafted were seniors: closer Tyler Webb (10th round by the New York Yankees), Dantzler (14th round by Toronto) and setup reliever Adam Westmoreland (26th round by the Miami Marlins).

If Celek does turn pro, it would be interesting to see where he fits at the next level. Of his 37 career starts, just one was not at designated hitter. In 2012, he got a late February start against Presbyterian at first base. Of course, Toronto is in the American League, which uses the designated hitter.

With Dantzler departing and Martin taking over first base next season, Celek would presumably be a leading contender for USC’s designated hitter job. But his father said he is not banking on that.

“There’s never any guarantees at Carolina,” Brian Celek said. “There’s guarantees for some, but not others. There wouldn’t be any guarantee. You would think he’d be slotted in there, but that would be speculation at best.”

Brison Celek turned 22 in January, which would put him on the older end of players in rookie ball. (His father said he is one semester away from earning his college degree.) Now that he has the opportunity to sign — albeit for the modest money given to 31st-round picks — will he consider that a better option than returning to school, perhaps being a reserve player again and turning pro as a 23-year-old?

Brian Celek said his son wouldn’t even be debating whether to turn pro if USC had defeated North Carolina on Tuesday and advanced to the College World Series. If that happened, Celek definitely would be turning pro.

“He was hoping to go back to Omaha,” Brian said. “It wouldn’t be a question if they went back to Omaha.”

A chance to get back there next year as a senior would “be the only factor that I think limits him from going” pro right now, Brian said.