Third time’s the charm. At least, that’s what former Cal center fielder Brandon McIlwain is hoping.
McIlwain has been in draft considerations twice before, but this is the first time the Pennsylvania-born outfielder has been inked to a deal. McIlwain decided to forgo his extra year of NCAA-granted eligibility and signed a nondrafted free agent deal with the New York Mets on Monday.
He becomes the first Cal player to turn professional in 2020, just the second year since 1968 in which no Cal players were drafted. In 2019, seven players were drafted.
McIlwain quickly made a name for himself at Cal after transferring from the University of South Carolina. The highly touted dual-sport athlete, who was a top 100 draft prospect out of high school and could have gone in the top rounds of the 2016 draft, instantly inserted himself onto the top of the depth charts of both the Cal football and baseball teams.
On the gridiron in 2018, McIlwain played in 10 games at quarterback, throwing for 763 yards and rushing for 403 yards while tacking on six total touchdowns. In the spring, the speedy outfielder batted .258 with two homers and a couple stolen bases before being sidelined with a foot injury. Despite the ailment, McIlwain was drafted by the Miami Marlins in the 26th round, though he decided to return to Cal for his redshirt junior year.
McIlwain struggled in the shortened 2020 season, slashing only .200/.273/.333 in 16 games. However, his range in center and flashes of power and speed proved more than enough to remain a solid MLB prospect.
Despite being Cal’s strongest outfield prospect, McIlwain can only sign a deal up to $20,000 under the MLB’s special draft rules. The abnormally low signing ceiling comes in conjunction with an abnormally small five-round draft — the curtailed draft inevitably left out many lower-end draft prospects such as McIlwain and might result in a plethora of talent remaining in college and utilizing their extra year of eligibility.
Yet despite the disappointment of a shortened draft, McIlwain, in his third year under draft and professional scrutiny, finally has the opportunity to play professionally — an achievement a long time coming for the young athlete.