MLB Draft

Former QB Brandon McIlwain looks to lead Cal baseball team this season

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Rob Edwards/KLC Fotos

Former QB Brandon McIlwain looks to lead Cal baseball team this season

BERKELEY -- Brandon McIlwain received his first college football scholarship three days before his 15th birthday. He was named the Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior and was seen as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. 

McIlwain was unlike most top prep athletes, though. He didn't shine in just one sport: He shined in two. And when we say shine, we mean it. McIlwain also was an All-American outfielder in high school and was invited to the Under Armour All-American baseball game. 

While most young star athletes turn their focus to one sport by the time they reach college recruitment, McIlwain made it known he wasn't like everyone else. 

"I really didn't have a first love," McIlwain told NBC Sports Bay Area before a recent practice at Evans Diamond. "Scholarships in football came first, but I always knew I wanted to play baseball too. It was kind of always a part of my decision making so I could come to college and let both of those sports play themselves out and see where I would want to continue on and have a career."

But McIlwain's journey took a detour from his preternatural stardom. It has brought him to two colleges and now, one fewer sport.

He began his college career in 2016 at South Carolina as a dual-sport athlete before transferring to Cal in May 2017. 

Upon joining the Cal football team, it became clear that McIlwain's future is on the diamond, not the gridiron. He played 10 games on the football field as a sophomore in 2018, where he totaled 1,166 yards of total offense, six touchdowns (two passing, four rushing) and eight interceptions. Despite missing the fall, McIlwain was named Cal's starting center fielder for the 2019 season, where he hit .258 in 62 at bats before a broken foot in April sidelined him for the rest of the season.

Though he played only 20 games last season, the Miami Marlins selected McIlwain in the 26th round of the 2019 MLB Draft. Soon after, he made two crucial life decisions: He was returning for his redshirt junior season on the baseball team, and he wouldn't be returning to the football program. 

From gridiron to baseball diamond


(Brandon McIlwain passed for 763 yards and rushed for another 403 in 2018. Photo via Casey Sapio/USATSI)

For the first time in his life, McIlwain was able to spend an entire fall with his baseball team before the season begins in the spring. He couldn't be happier with his decision ahead of Friday's season opener at Long Beach State.

"It's amazing that now I'm out here and playing baseball," McIlwain said. "The experience that I had with this team last year ... being back with a group that really likes to compete and have a good time, honestly, that was huge for me. This is a place I felt I was gonna get better, I was going to compete for the postseason and it's just a place I love playing."

Just because his playing days on the football field are behind him, McIlwain still is a quarterback at heart and will continue to have a QB's mindset on the baseball field. In center field, he serves as the eyes of the defense and will make his voice be heard, just like a quarterback calling the offense. 

"I like to be loud, be encouraging," McIlwain said. "Football's a little different than baseball, and you can hear a lot more in baseball. The pitcher can hear you and in football, sometimes guys all the way on the sidelines can't quite hear you. In baseball, the pitcher can hear you, the batter can hear you a little bit. 

"It's really fun to be able to hype up your guys and to bring that kind of energy in another way." 

McIlwain only has 30 games under his belt as a college baseball player, dating back to 2016. That's a big difference compared to Golden Bears teammate Darren Baker's 95 games the last two years. But coach Mike Neu sees similarities in the two players. 

"I think it’s similar to Baker in a different way," Neu said. "He’s a leader with his experience. He’s been the quarterback for the football team at Cal. He’s gotten the opportunity to play on a big stage and be in that environment, and that translates to baseball. He can come out here, he can be a leader, he’s gotten more comfortable being out here full time.

"He just brings those natural leadership skills with him from football and it’s been great to have him for a full season."

McIlwain's football skills translate to the baseball field in other ways, too. When watching Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes, you can see how his baseball background helps him make throws from unique angles. 

For McIlwain, it's all about anticipation. He believes his experience reading opposing defenses helps with guessing pitch sequences, and has taken his experiences in the QB room to studying film on his swing and pitchers as well. 

Untapped baseball potential


(The Miami Marlins selected Brandon McIlwain in the 26th round of the 2019 MLB Draft. Photo via Rob Edwards/KLC Fotos)

At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, McIlwain has a rare combination of size and speed. With more experience, those raw skills could have him racing up prospect rankings ahead of this June's draft. 

"He just really has the tools to excel here," Neu said. "I just expect him to continue to do that this year and probably the biggest upside will come at the next level when he has a chance to play every day for the first time, and that’s why he got drafted last year, even with only playing a handful of games.

"Everyone sees that, it’s exciting."

As dual-threat quarterbacks look to prove they're more than just athletes on the football field, McIlwain is out to show he can be a star on the baseball field now that he's focused on one single sport. If he puts all of his tools together, evaluators are sure to agree this spring. 

And the Golden Bears are sure to benefit from those skills before he hears his name called again in the draft. 

"My goal is just to be consistent and really to just grow as a baseball player," McIlwain said. "I want to show that I'm not just an athlete playing baseball, that's it's something that I can really focus on and put my time in and dedicate myself to so that I can perfect my craft."

How Darren Baker went from Giants bat boy to MLB draft prospect at Cal

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Rob Edwards/KLC Fotos

How Darren Baker went from Giants bat boy to MLB draft prospect at Cal

BERKELEY -- Not too many people find themselves in the spotlight at just three years old. On baseball's brightest stage, that's exactly what happened to Darren Baker in Game 5 of the 2002 World Series. 

The image forever will be ingrained into Giants fans' minds. J.T. Snow, with David Bell running behind him, swooped up Darren at home plate after scoring on a Kenny Lofton triple to give San Francisco a 10-4 lead over the Anaheim Angels.

Darren, of course, was the team's bat boy and the toddler son of then-Giants manager Dusty Baker.

Soon after the '02 World Series, MLB changed its rules to make a 14-year-old age requirement for bat boys. While the world knew Darren after that famous moment, it was then that he started becoming "Dusty Baker's son." It's a title that he's proud of, while also trying to make a name for himself altogether. 

Darren is incredibly close with his father. When news broke that Dusty would take over as the Houston Astros' manager this season to restore respect to the franchise, Darren tweeted the perfect GIF to show his admiration. 

As he enters his junior year as Cal Berkeley's starting second baseman, Darren is juggling the act of being more than the son of a famous baseball player and manager while also never letting the outside noise put a crack in his unbreakable bond with his dad. Darren credits both his father and mother, Melissa, for making him the man he is today at 21 years old. 

"They never speak about me having to be my dad," Darren recently said to NBC Sports Bay Area before a practice at Evans Diamond. "If I didn’t want to play baseball, I wouldn’t have to. They let me become my own person. My dad focuses on saying my name when questions are asked.

"I just got the best parents in the world." 

From bat boy to MLB draft prospect 


(Darren Baker hit .306 and stole 21 bases as a sophomore for Cal. Photo via Tyler Tate/AP)

While Dusty is back in baseball, a huge summer for Darren has his name climbing up boards for this June's MLB Draft. Baker hit .347 with 12 stolen bases for the Wareham Gateman in the Cape Cod Baseball League -- the most prestigious summer league for college baseball players -- and was named an All-Star.

When asked about his improvements over the summer, Baker didn't hesitate at all.

"I give the credit to Coach (Jerry) Weinstein," Baker said, praising his summer league coach. "He kind of beat it in my head until I didn’t want to hear it anymore about never taking at-bats off, never taking plays off. If you kind of give away one at-bat a game, it really adds up at the end of the year. That’s something that I’ll really keep with me forever."

Mike Neu, Baker's coach at Cal, has noticed plenty of improvements as well. Darren was named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team as a sophomore, and Neu calls Baker one of the best defenders in the country. But it's on offense that Neu really has seen his second baseman continue to make strides. 

Baker started 42 games as a freshman and hit .273 with five stolen bases. Last season, he took a major leap by batting .306 and was a perfect 21-for-21 on stolen base attempts. With Baker figuring to bat at the top of Cal's lineup, Neu says the junior is focused on laying off balls outside of the strike zone and seeing more pitches this year.

Growing with the Golden Bears


(Darren Baker was named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team as a sophomore. Photo via Rob Edwards/KLC Fotos)

With each challenge so far, Baker has responded with glowing reviews.

"I think he’s just continued to gain confidence each year and then just learn -- just learn how to compete at this level," Neu said. "He’s really competitive, so when he figures out what he needs to do to be successful, he works on it and he’s done that every year."

With growth and two college seasons under his belt, Baker has matured on and off the field. That includes in the weight room, too. Now listed at 175 pounds, Baker says he has gained 30 to 35 pounds since he stepped foot on Cal's campus. 

It took plenty of hard work for the skinny second baseman to add weight, and it's clear he has gone from scrawny to strong while working on his body all year round. 

"I feel like finally all the years of staying extra time and eating meals until I’m not even hungry anymore is starting to pay off," Baker said. 

"I think he’s just gotten stronger," Neu added. "He’s matured. He’s always had a good swing, but now he’s a little bit more physical. I think he’s just a more well-rounded offensive guy where he drives the ball to the gaps a little more."

Despite his added strength, Baker doesn't feel he needs to change his game when Cal's season starts Friday at Long Beach State. He'll continue to be a contact-first hitter, spray the gaps and even use his speed on drag bunts. The power eventually will come, just like it did for his father. Dusty was built very similar to Darren growing up and wound up hitting 242 homers over his 19-year MLB career. 

Unlimited baseball knowledge


(Darren Baker uses lessons on and off the field from his father and baseball mentors. Photo via Jeff Chiu/AP)

One aspect of Baker's game that continues to evolve at Cal is his leadership. He doesn't need to be the loudest voice in the room, but Neu knows exactly what he's getting from Darren every single day. The Golden Bears follow his lead. 

"He’s a big-time leader," Neu said. "Obviously his playing experience here, his background with who he’s learned from -- not just his dad but the big leaguers he’s been around, I mean it just automatically gives him so much of a foundation for him and for our whole team. He’s a leader and he’s been great in that role. He comes to work every day, he knows what he needs to work on.

"His understanding of the game is way ahead of most guys at this level, just because of what he’s seen and what he’s been around. When he gets on the bases or when he plays defense, he’s just thinking steps ahead that most guys wouldn’t at this level."

That natural baseball knowledge comes from years of being a fly on the wall, or better put, a fly on dugout walls. Baker still frequently talks with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, who Dusty coached on the Cincinnati Reds, and even flew out to Atlanta to work out with former Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips for two weeks. Darren calls these relationships "bigger than baseball," as he talks about way more than the game with his mentors. 

The man who has played the biggest role in his baseball career, however, will be watching from afar. This isn't anything new for Darren and Dusty, though. These past two seasons at Cal were the first in 16 years where Dusty was able to consistently watch Darren’s games. While they nearly are 50 years apart, father and son often find themselves on the same page after games. 

“A lot of the times, honestly, we find that we call each other at the same time,” Darren said. “The phone will be ringing as I call and I’ll see a notification pop up. … It won’t be anything new, but I’m definitely going to miss him for sure.” 

Before he dials Dusty’s number, though Darren feels he’s going into his junior season on the “most prepared team” he has played on. Led by Andrew Vaughn, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, Cal made its first Regional since 2015 last year. But Baker has even bigger goals on what likely will be his last ride with the Golden Bears before he hears his own name is called early in this year’s draft. 

At Dusty’s introductory press conference for the Astros, he referenced a Too Short lyric and said, “This is my last album.” For Darren, his album is just beginning.

Why Buster Posey easily is Giants' top MLB prospect from the 2010s

Why Buster Posey easily is Giants' top MLB prospect from the 2010s

The Giants have their eyes on the future. After three straight losing seasons, and Gabe Kapler now at the helm under Farhan Zaidi, the focus in San Francisco has shifted towards the farm system. 

There's no questioning the Giants are headed in the right direction, too. With top prospects like catcher Joey Bart, center fielder Heliot Ramos and shortstop Marco Luciano, the Giants have one of the most improved farm systems in baseball. 

While additions like Cody Ross, Marco Scutaro, Travis Ishikawa, Hunter Pence and many other brilliant moves by the front office helped the Giants win three World Series in five years this decade, the core of this dynasty was built homegrown. Players like Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brandon Crawford and more were all drafted by the Giants. 

As the 2010s come to a close, though, which Giants prospect was the best from this decade? It's really quite simple. MLB.com gave the nod to Buster Posey, and there's no arguing with that pick.

Let's take a look at Baseball America's top Giants prospects for the past decade: 

2010: Buster Posey
2011: Brandon Belt
2012: Gary Brown
2013: Kyle Crick
2014: Kyle Crick
2015: Andrew Susac
2016: Christian Arroyo
2017: Tyler Beede
2018: Heliot Ramos
2019: Joey Bart

Posey's only competition here is Belt. Bumgarner last was ranked as a prospect at the start of the 2009 season, but then the talent ran dry among top prospects. 

Crawford shouldn't be forgotten here, though. He was selected in the fourth round of the 2008 MLB draft and made his debut in May 2011. The UCLA product never was expected to do much with his bat. Instead, he won a Silver Slugger in 2015 to go along with his three Gold Glove awards and two World Series rings. 

Posey, however, is the cream of the crop. 

The Giants took him No. 5 overall in the 2008 draft and he made a quick stint in the bigs at the end of the 2009 season. The next season, the Giants had seen enough. Posey was too talented to waste away in the minors. 

San Francisco traded veteran catcher Bengie Molina on July 1, 2010, and handed the keys to Posey for the next decade. It was clear right away that Posey was ready for the spotlight and already was a star. He hit .417 with seven homers and a 1.165 OPS in 27 games that month, putting the entire league on notice. 

Posey wound up batting .305 with 18 long balls and an .862 OPS in 108 games in 2010 to win NL Rookie of the Year. He even finished 11th in MVP voting. That was just the beginning to an historic decade. 

Here's a brief look at Posey's list of accolades from the 2010s: Six-time All-Star, three-time champion, four-time Silver Slugger, 2016 Gold Glove, 2010 NL Rookie of the Year, 2012 NL MVP. That's a run that hasn't been matched by many in baseball history. 

Posey was pretty much pro-ready when the Giants drafted him in 2008. There was just one problem: He only had caught two years in college after coming to Florida State as a shortstop who even served as the Seminoles' closer. 

From his framing to his rocket of an arm, Posey has been one of the best defensive catchers in baseball over the last decade. If it wasn't for St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina being in the NL, Posey surely would have earned more Gold Glove awards. Posey has been worth 10.5 dWAR (42.4 total bWAR) this decade, while Molina has him beat defensively at 15.0 dWAR but has been worth just 31.9 total bWAR, according to Baseball-Reference.

[RELATED: Giants Mailbag: What to expect from top prospects in 2020]

The Giants knew Posey would be able to hit right away in the big leagues. His rise as a top catcher has been just as impressive as his .302/.371/.458 slash line and .828 OPS throughout the 2010s. 

Forget his seven homers last season and only five the year before. Get the images of his decline out of your head. Posey easily was the Giants' best prospect this decade, and the best catcher in baseball.