In his first three years at South Carolina, Brison Celek lived with three teammates on the Gamecocks’ baseball team: first baseman Christian Walker, centerfielder Evan Marzilli and relief pitcher Tyler Webb.
They arrived together in the fall of 2009, hoping to pursue their dreams. They did just that. They were members of the 2010 and 2011 national championship squads, though Celek redshirted in 2011, and the 2012 group that finished second at the College World Series.
The foursome was split up after Walker and Marzilli left school early, following the 2012 season, when they were drafted in the fourth round by the Baltimore Orioles and the eighth round by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Webb finished his career in 2013, spending one season as the Gamecocks’ closer before the New York Yankees picked him in the 10th round earlier this month.
Only Celek had eligibility remaining (one year), because he was a fourth-year junior in 2013. But Celek, a designated hitter who was drafted in the 31st round by the Toronto Blue Jays, said he has decided to skip his senior season and turn pro.
Celek, a Bishop England High graduate, will fly from Charleston to the Blue Jays’ facility in Dunedin, Fla., on Sunday afternoon to finalize his contract. Celek and the Blue Jays have agreed in principle, but he said he wasn’t aware of the contract’s specifics. They will be ironed out once he arrives in Florida, he said.
Players drafted where Celek was typically don’t make a lot of money, but his draft stock didn’t figure to improve drastically next season, especially if he played sparingly, as he did in 2013. He appeared in 30 of 63 games, with 24 starts, all at designated hitter. He hit a career-best .307.
Nobody on the team started more at DH this season than Celek. 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 next January, ultimately decided to move on.
“I think he felt like he had done all he could do at the college level, and is ready to turn the page,” said his father, Brian. “They start out as youngsters and that’s what the dream is. That’s the goal, to get drafted, and I think that’s what he feels: He’s got his opportunity and he’s going to run with it.”
“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 had no homers in eight at-bats in 2010 and 58 at-bats in 2012, when he hit .224. He had one homer in 88 at-bats this season.
Celek didn’t get to travel to the College World Series until last season and didn’t get to travel to the Southeastern Conference tournament until this season, but he has an Omaha ring from the 2010 team. His roommates who shared in that success with him celebrated that all four are now professional baseball players.
“It’s pretty cool,” Celek said. “Christian and Evan, they both texted me. We’re still pretty tight.”
In the end, Celek thinks turning pro now is the right decision for him because he didn’t know if he’d get another opportunity next year. He shared his thought process with coach Chad Holbrook this week in an exit meeting, before returning home to Charleston.
“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.”
Moreover, being 23 years old as a first-year pro – as Celek would be after next season – is on the older end for that group of players. But Celek said that wasn’t a factor.
“I don’t know if it really had much to do with the age part of it,” he said. “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.”
Does Celek wish he had played more at USC, where his 154 career at-bats over three seasons (and four years) are about 70 fewer than most starting players have in one season?
“Looking back on it, everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I think I did the best with what I was given and there’s no hard feelings. Everybody wishes they’d play more if they were in my shoes. Everybody disagrees with the coach, but you have the 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.”
As for where the Blue Jays will play him as a pro, Celek said he isn’t sure yet. Of his 68 career games played (nine in 2010, 29 last year, 30 this year), he got just one start at first base, last season. All told, he started 37 career games. So he doesn’t have a huge college body of work for the Blue Jays to evaluate him on.
He said he will probably take ground balls at first base and hit batting practice on Sunday when he arrives in Florida, and the Blue Jays will let him know how they see him.
“I actually don’t really know what my role is going to be yet,” he said. “I’m assuming I’m just going to be playing first base and DH I guess.”
He isn’t sure about his minor league destination, either, though he knows he might have to get a passport. Not only because the Blue Jays are headquartered across the border, but because they have a short-season Class A team in Vancouver. Their rookie team is in Dunedin and their advanced rookie team is in Bluefield, W.Va. Those are Celek’s three most likely initial stops.
He said the Blue Jays were pretty much the only franchise that pursued him, and the relationship began last fall, at USC’s pro day workout.
“Apparently, they had been watching me since last year,” Celek said. “They didn’t have enough at-bats to really evaluate me (in order to draft him last year, when he was eligible as a third-year sophomore). This year the Blue Jays scout was talking to me for a while and said if I got enough at-bats, maybe they’d pick me up. I knew they were interested in me. I just didn’t know if it was going to happen (for this year’s draft). I didn’t know if I had enough at-bats. I had an open mind about it. I knew I didn’t even have 100 at-bats. I didn’t want to get my hopes up and be let down.”
Leading up to the draft, Celek spoke to the Blue Jays’ regional scout, who asked him about his plans if the team did draft him. The scout wanted to know if Celek would sign.
“I told him there was a good possibility, and I really wanted an opportunity to play professional baseball,” Celek said.
Celek is one semester away from getting his degree in business management and marketing. If baseball doesn’t work out, he said he isn’t sure what he’ll do yet, but he plans to get his degree. For now, he is just focusing on his pursuing his baseball dreams.
He is even more excited because his childhood friend Ryan Connolly, a Coastal Carolina pitcher who Celek first played with in a West Ashley 10-year-old league, is also heading to the next level. Connolly signed a free agent contract with the Houston Astros.
Celek’s departure leaves the Gamecocks needing to fill the DH spot, in addition to first and third base, since Chase Vergason is also gone. Martin is in line for the first base job. Third base is wide open, and perhaps shortstop Joey Pankake will slide over, since is a better hitter than fielder.
There’s a chance Celek could be reunited soon with Dantzler, since Toronto also drafted him. Celek knows how neat it is to play professionally with your college teammate. His old roommate, Walker, is in the Orioles organization with former USC closer Matt Price, who was drafted in the seventh round last year. They started this season together in Low-A ball (Salisbury, Md.) and both are now in High-A, in Frederick, Md.
“It would be pretty cool if we got to play together on the same team,” Celek said of himself and Dantzler.