Four Toppers selected in first 10 rounds of MLB Draft

Brad Stephens

After the first two days of the 2011 MLB First Year Draft Player Draft, four Toppers have seen their life-long dreams fulfilled.

Junior outfielder Kes Carter, junior reliever Phil Wetherell, senior catcher Matt Rice, and junior shortstop Logan Robbins were all drafted in the first 10 rounds.

“It’s great. I’m so happy for all our guys that got drafted,” WKU Head Coach Chris Finwood said Tuesday. “Kes, Phil and Rice are ready to go. And Logan will sign if he gets the right deal.”

The group was highlighted by Carter, who became the highest draft pick in WKU history when the Tampa Bay Rays selected him Monday in the compensatory first round at No. 56 overall.

He passed the mark set by former Topper third baseman Wade Gaynor, who was taken No. 89 overall in 2009 by the Detroit Tigers.

On Tuesday, Wetherell became the second WKU player to go off the board when he was selected by the New York Yankees in the eighth round at No. 269 overall.

Rice was then picked by the Tampa Bay Rays in the ninth round at No. 300 overall, and Robbins was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 10th round at No. 326 overall.

Carter, who watched the draft with family, said he was “ecstatic” when he saw his name come up.

The Brentwood, Tenn., native was praised in his time as a Topper for a being a “five-tool” outfielder, and was an All-Sun Belt Conference selection in 2010 and 2011.

Carter said he was especially excited at the prospect of playing just down the road from WKU in Bowling Green Ballpark for the Bowling Green Hot Rods, the Rays’ Single-A Midwest League affiliate.

“It’s amazing,” Carter said. “I was thinking I was going to be leaving after this year, but instead I’ll get a chance to play at a place I played at in college. It will be a great honor to play in front of people that supported me at WKU.”

The Toppers have played three games at the Hot Rods’ downtown stadium over the past two years, winning all three.

Carter played 153 games in his three seasons at WKU, hitting .350 with 35 doubles, 15 home runs, 113 RBIs, and 26 stolen bases.

He also said he was excited to play for an organization which has developed a reputation of turning draft picks into Major League contributors.

Players that have risen through the minors with Tampa Bay include Major League stars David Price, Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton.

“The Rays farm system is up there as far as developing prospects as Major League players,” Carter said. “Starting out early in new surroundings and a new environment, I’m lucky to be in good system like that.”

He also said he was lucky to be joined in the Tampa Bay organization by Rice, his Topper teammate for the last three years.

Rice leaves WKU with the WKU career records for hits and RBIs and was a two-time All-Sun Belt Conference team member. He was also recently named the 2011 Capital One Academic All-American of the Year.

The Johnson City, Tenn., native was a two-time semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award and was a key starter on the Toppers’ 2009 Sun Belt Championship team.

Rice also achieved a 4.0 GPA at WKU while majoring in mechanical engineering.

He said Tuesday he was excited about the opportunity to play alongside Carter, as well as the chance to play for the Hot Rods.

“Kes called me immediately after and he was as excited as I was,” Rice said. “Hopefully we’ll get to room together at spring training and play together for a long time.”

Getting picked in the ninth round was a big improvement for Rice from last year’s draft where he was selected by the New York Yankees in the 50th round with the last pick in the entire draft.

He said the jump was due in large part to scouts taking a bigger look at him than they did a year earlier.

“In 2010 there were signing issues because it was important for me to graduate and finish the mechanical engineering program I’d worked so hard on,” Rice said. “This year I was a senior so scouts knew I was ready to come out and play pro ball.”

Wetherell pitched primarily out of the bullpen in two years at WKU after transferring from Kaskaskia College in Illinois. In 2011 he owned a 1-3 record with a 4.25 ERA while making a team-high 30 appearances.

His fastball was clocked consistently throughout the season in the 94-96 mph range.

“Phil has a good fastball, and the Yankees obviously liked his arm,” Finwood said. “He just needs to work on throwing strikes consistently as a pro.”

Wetherell said he had garnered a lot of attention from the Yankees, and had thrown for their scouts in Tampa the weekend before.

He said that getting drafted “seemed like a dream.”

“When you’re playing Little League and high school ball, you think about what it would be liked to get your name called in the pros,” Wetherell said. “It fulfilled a lifetime dream to get the call that said ‘Congratulations, you’re a Yankee.'”

Meanwhile, Robbins said he was thrilled to be drafted by the Braves, as he said he grew up watching their games on TBS national broadcasts and even went to Turner Field to watch them in person.

The Owensboro (Ky.) Apollo High School alum had the best year of his career in 2011, batting .286 with four home runs and 33 RBIs.

Robbins made his biggest impact on the base paths, stealing 38 bases in 44 attempts over the past two seasons.

“I just want to thank God for blessing me with talent and opportunity,” Robbins said. “Teams told me they’d take within Top 10 rounds, and it was a dream come true to be drafted that high. And I couldn’t think of a better pro organization to be picked by the Atlanta Braves.”

Finwood said having four of his players taken so high in the Draft will help future recruiting efforts.

“It shows young men and families that if you send your kid to WKU, whether or not he’s been drafted out of high school, he’ll get better and improve his draft status,” Finwood said.

Rice said the draft success shows that Finwood and his coaching staff are “bringing in a lot of good players to bring championships.”

“It says a lot about the work that (Assistant Coach Blake) Allen and (Pitching Coach Matt) Myers are doing on recruiting trail – spending countless hours on the road searching for guys to be future Hilltoppers,” Rice said. “And it also shows how well Coach Finwood can develop players.”