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FGCU developing reputation for developing Major Leaguers

By Seth Soffian, The News-Press

FORT MYERS — Dave Tollett was awestruck at the notion: four former Florida Gulf Coast University baseball players not just reaching the Major Leagues but potentially being in The Show all at once.

With former FGCU pitchers Richard Bleier (New York Yankees) and Jacob Barnes (Milwaukee Brewers) being called up in the past 10 days and former Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals pitcher Casey Coleman throwing superbly in Triple-A with the Mariners, it’s a very real possibility.

Chris Sale, of course, already is proudly carrying the flag for FGCU as one of the game’s most dominant pitchers.

“That would be … I don’t even have a word for it,” said Tollett, founding coach of the 14-year-old program, which has been Division-I postseason eligible only half that time.

“Just to have four big-leaguers since 2010 is just amazing. We’re doing something right.”

According to Elias Sports Bureau, FGCU is tied for 30th of all colleges with three players on Major League active rosters or disabled lists as of June 3.

Active rosters have 25 players per team. With an average of a handful of players on the disabled list for each of 30 Major League teams, there’s roughly 900 players in that privileged group.

Other programs with three active big leaguers on June 3 include Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, Louisville, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Princeton and Cal, according to Elias.

If Coleman — 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA and 0.862 WHIP in 18 relief appearances for the Tacoma Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League — or another FGCU alum is called up while Bleier and Barnes remain in the Majors, FGCU would move up to a tie for 22nd with four active big leaguers.

The eight schools with four current big leaguers are South Carolina, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Connecticut, USC, Stanford and Chipola (Junior) College in Marianna in the Florida Panhandle.

Long Beach State leads all colleges with 11 players on active rosters as of June 3, according to Elias.

“It’s been an unbelievable week for Bleier and Barnes,” Tollett said. “It’s awesome because people know the grind that it takes to be a big leaguer. And to have two in one week is just amazing.”

Bleier, 29, drafted in the sixth round by the Rangers in 2008, was called up last Thursday after eight years in the minors and with his fourth Major League franchise. He retired seven of eight batters, with one hit and a double-play, in three relief appearances for the Yankees last week.

Barnes, 26, selected in the 14th round by Milwaukee in 2011, was called up Wednesday by the Brewers in his sixth pro season, the last two in Double-A and this year in Triple-A.

“The work ethic, and they’ve got to be a little bit different,” Tollett said of common threads among FGCU’s four major leaguers. “I haven’t seen anyone still today be able to sink a ball quiet like Casey. And Chris you knew he was really special (throwing) 93-97 from the left side.

“Bleier worked his way up and became (Atlantic Sun Conference) Pitcher of the Year and the changeup became unhittable. And Barnes you knew it was going to happen. You just didn’t know when.”

Barnes made his debut Friday, striking out two batters swinging on sharp sliders in a perfect 8th inning for the Brewers in Philadelphia.

“FGCU is huge as far as getting players to get the best of what they have and being able to show it,” Barnes said. “I know how hard they work. They push each player to be the best, on and off the field.”

FGCU’s success this week mirrors seeing its first two players called up only days apart in 2010 as well.

Coleman, drafted in the 15th round by the Cubs in 2008, and Sale, a four-time American League All-Star selected 13th overall by the Chicago White Sox in 2010, were called up the first week of August 2010. They made their big-league debuts just days apart that month.

Sale, 27, has become one of the most dominant arms in the game and a perennial Cy Young candidate.

Coleman, 28, a member of the first family to send three generations of pitchers to the big leagues following a father and grandfather both named Joe Coleman, was a starter and reliever for the Cubs from 2010-2012 before getting back to the big leagues briefly as a reliever with Kansas City in 2014.

After electing free agency following a season in Triple-A with the Royals last year, Coleman, a Fort Myers native and Cape Coral-Mariner High School graduate, easily has his career-best ERA and WHIP this season.

In his last outing Thursday night, the right-hander threw 11 of his 14 pitches for strikes to retire all six batters he faced in the seventh and eighth innings while holding a 3-1 lead.

“It’s not just Chris Sale anymore,” Tollett said of the name with whom most casual observers identify FGCU baseball. “It’s been really good. It’s been a great story for us.”

The timing couldn’t be better for FGCU. This weekend marks the start of a major open recruiting period, and FGCU will have more ammunition as it mines the back fields for hidden gems before the powerhouse programs show up with gargantuan budgets and shiny toys.

“Do you want to be a professional baseball player?” Tollett said of FGCU’s recruiting pitch when hearing of other schools offering laptops and such. “We don’t have the materialistic things. But what we do offer is a chance for you to achieve your dream. And we have evidence to back it.”

FGCU next week also faces the likelihood of losing, once again, promising prep signees, not to mention yet another star player eligible for the draft after three seasons in college.

Junior second baseman Jake Noll, just named a Louisville Slugger second-team All-American, is almost certain to be selected in the top 10 rounds and possibly the top five of the MLB draft. The draft runs Thursday through Saturday.

But FGCU also could see as many as five signees drafted from its best class ever. The success of FGCU alums the past 10 days certainly won’t hurt the program’s pitch as a top talent developer.

Despite the gnawing disappointment of having yet to reach an NCAA regional, FGCU’s penchant for producing potential major league talent in its short history is well-known in professional circles.

“A couple scouts have said about Jake: ‘We’re going to take Jake because we know he knows how to work. If he’s coming from your program he knows how to work, and he’s not scared to work,'” Tollett said.

“I think that’s a tribute to what we do. Have we not made a regional? Yeah. Have we been close? Yeah. But on the other hand, we’re developing a lot of damn good baseball players.”

Written By

Avi Adkins is a seasoned journalist with a passion for storytelling and a keen eye for detail. With years of experience in the field, Adkins has established himself as a respected figure in journalism.

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