USC’s Celek turning pro early

USC first baseman and former Bishop England star Brison Celek was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 31st round.

Wade Spees

— A Toronto Blue Jays scout approached Brison Celek last fall at South Carolina’s pro day workout. The scout told Celek that the team had watched him since the 2012 season, but he didn’t have enough at-bats to be properly evaluated, Celek said. If he got enough in 2013, the scout told him, maybe the Blue Jays would draft him.

Celek, a Bishop England graduate, was not a regular for the Gamecocks in 2013. He played in 30 of 63 games, with 24 starts, all at designated hitter. Nobody on the team started more often at designated hitter. Celek got 88 at-bats and hit .307, compared to 58 at-bats and .224 in 2012, when he played in 29 games, started 12 and was eligible for the draft as a third-year sophomore.

When this year’s three-day Major League Baseball draft began last Thursday, Celek tried to manage his expectations. Before the draft, a Blue Jays scout asked Celek about his plans if the team drafted him. Would he sign and skip a final year of eligibility? Celek told the scout there was a good possibility he’d do that.

“I knew they were interested in me,” Celek said. “I just didn’t know if it was going to happen. I didn’t know if I had enough at-bats. I had an open mind about it. I didn’t want to get my hopes up and be let down.”

The Blue Jays did draft him, in the 31st of 40 rounds, and on Friday, Celek said he decided to follow through and sign with the team.

Players drafted where Celek was typically don’t make a lot of money initially, but his draft stock didn’t figure to improve drastically next season, especially if he played sparingly again.

With first baseman LB Dantzler out of eligibility — Toronto picked him in the 14th round — and rising junior Kyle Martin ready to take over at first base, there was a chance for Celek to earn more playing time at DH in 2014. But Celek, who will turn 23 in January, decided to move on. (He was the only USC junior drafted this year. The other three draftees were seniors.)

“I accomplished everything that I wanted to accomplish in college, and it felt like the right time to move on,” he said. “I always wanted to hit a home run in college and I finally did that this year. I pretty much did all the key notes that you can do in college baseball.”

Celek hit one homer this season, after having zero in 66 previous at-bats at USC.

Celek shared his decision with coach Chad Holbrook this week, in an end-of-season meeting after the Gamecocks lost Tuesday at North Carolina in an NCAA tournament super regional.

“I just told him this might be my only opportunity to carry on with my aspirations of playing professional baseball,” Celek said. “I felt it was time to move on, and he understood. There was no hard feelings. We both thought it was maybe the right time to do what was necessary.

“I just felt like next year I would’ve hoped to DH every game. (But) I might not have had as good a year as I did this year, so I felt like it was the right time. Next year I might not get drafted, so I might as well take it when I’ve got it.”

Celek plans to complete his degree in business management and marketing. He has one semester left. But for now, his focus is on baseball. He will fly Sunday to the Blue Jays’ facility in Dunedin, Fla., where he will sign his contract. He said he isn’t aware of its specifics yet.

Nor is he sure where the Blue Jays will play him. Of his 68 career games played at USC (37 starts), he started just once in the field — last season at first base.

“I’m assuming I’m just going to be playing first base and DH, I guess,” he said.

He expects the Blue Jays to determine that starting Sunday. His most likely first stops in the minor leagues are rookie ball in Dunedin; advanced rookie ball in Bluefield, W.Va.; or short-season Class A in Vancouver, Canada.

He finishes his college career with just 154 at-bats during three seasons over four years, because he redshirted in 2011. That’s about 70 fewer than most starting players have in one season. Even though he leaves college with one national championship ring (from 2010) and one trip to the College World Series (last season), does he wish he had played more?

“I think I did the best with what I was given and there’s no hard feelings,” he said. “Everybody wishes they’d play more if they were in my shoes. Everybody disagrees with the coach, but you have to respect their decisions. I thought I did well enough to keep playing, and I did play for a while, for 24 games (that he started this year). I did what I was supposed to do when I got the opportunity, so that’s all I can really do.”