When you hear about the great prospects that could be upcoming stars in the Cubs organization, Albert Almora, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler are the names most often mentioned. Respectfully as top draft choices and a big international signing, these players are what fans are buzzing about. But what if one of the most intriguing players in the Cubs farm system is a 32 round draft pick, 974th overall from a NCAA Division III school?
It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally a team will find a diamond in the rough and draft a future superstar in one of the later rounds of the MLB draft. Although it comes at a rarity, teams do find one of those franchise changing players in a deep round. Some of the most notable steals in the history of the draft are John Smoltz(22nd round), Albert Pujols(13th round), Mike Piazza(62nd round, yes there really are that many rounds), and Nolan Ryan(12th round). And to the hope of the Cubs organization, they just may have one of these guys.
Meet Timothy Saunders. The Cubs drafted Saunders out of Divison III school, Marietta College in Ohio. The 6 foot, 180 pound shortstop is a native of Alliance, Ohio where his baseball career began. Coming out of high school, Saunders was not even recruited by a college to play baseball. Luckily for him, his grandfather got him on the baseball team. Little did Marietta know that Saunders would become an instrumental piece to their program for years to come.
In his junior year, Saunders became a big part of the team batting .385 and helping lead his team to a Division III National Championship. Going undrafted in 2011, Saunders returned to Marietta for his senior season. Saunders batted .441 and led the nation in hits (94) and runs scored (80), while tying for the most total bases (142). He stole 41 bases — tied for sixth nationally — in 47 tries. He added 19 doubles, seven triples, five home runs and 48 RBIs.
“We do not have captains in our program but Timmy was “our guy” last year and one of “our guys” as a junior. Timmy was a two-time 1st Team All-American, and in 2012 the National Collegiate Baseball Writer’s Assoc. named him the NCAA Division III National Position Player of the Year. He absolutely has the clutch gene, All-Tournament team for all of our post season tournaments and MVP of the conference and World Series.” said Marietta Head Coach Brian Brewer in an interview with ChiCitySports.com.
One of the reasons Saunders may have been overlooked by profession scouts was because he played in Division III. But actually playing at that level may have helped Saunders. “It is possible that Timmy was somewhat overlooked because he played at the Division III level but I also believe it is possible that Timmy developed as much as he did because he played at the Division III level. Also, these organizations do their homework and they realize Timmy was playing against the best those scholarship schools had to offer in the summers (New England Collegiate League as a sophomore and Coastal Plains as a junior) and not only playing against them but outplaying them” said Coach Brewer.
After being drafted by the Cubs last June, Saunders began his professional career with the Cubs in the Rookie League. In 17 games, he hit an impressive .493 with 23 runs score and an OBP(On Base Percentage) of .532. Saunders was quickly promoted to Single A Peoria, where he continued his hitting tear. In 20 games with the Chiefs, he hit .321 with an OBP of .380. Saunders then finished his season with 12 games High-A Daytona, batting .310.
It was a very quick move through the minor league system for Saunders in his first few months with the Cubs. First round draft pick, Albert Almora only reached Low-A Boise. One of the problems facing Saunders is the depth the organization has at shortstop. Starlin Castro has proven himself as an all-star shortstop at the major league level. Also, top prospect Javier Baez is a shortstop and the organization seems hesitant to switch his position. It’s possible that the only way Saunders can reach the majors as the member of the Cubs is by switching his position. But due to his great athleticism, the switch may not be a problem.
“Timmy is a 6.6 60yd. dash guy that has above average arm strength. He can play any position in the infield or outfield and play them well. Great instincts on the basepaths and has the ability to just figure stuff out offensively,” said Coach Brewer.
While Tim Saunders may not become the next Derek Jeter or hall of fame shortstop, crazier things have happened before. In my opinion, Saunders will become an everyday shortstop for a big league team someday. If he develops well and continues where he left off last year, Saunders could get a crack in the big leagues in 2014 or 2015.
After I wrote this article, I have been in contact with a writer who covered Marietta College and Saunders himself. Saunders got to play two games with the Cubs in spring training. During his pinch hit at bat in the second game, Saunders hit an impressive home run. I am currently in contact with him working on an interview.
When I talked to beat writer Ron Johnston, he had some very high praise for Saunders. Here are a few of the things Johnston had to say:
- “Marietta College will play anybody – and has. At one time, the Pioneers used to play Ohio University – and beat the Bobcats. DI schools don’t like to get beat by D3 schools. To be honest with you, MC could’ve beaten both OU and Ohio State and any other MAC or Big Ten school last season. Its pitching and its caliber of play was that good. And, of course, the Pios repeated as D3 champions. That’s not to say, MC would win all the time, but it would hold its own.
You have to realize, MC has a baseball tradition. They’ve had many, many players compete on the professional level. I’m sure you’ve heard of Terry Mulholland, Kent Tekulve, and Jim Tracy (former Rockies manager), also a former Cub. The last Pioneer to play in the majors was pitcher Matt DeSalvo (Yankees).”
- “Saunders is an athlete, and could play at any position. He’s very personable, a leader, and he’s gung ho. I see where he hit a home run for the Cubs the other day. He’s not known for his power but he can go yard on occasion. He’s a good contact hitter and superb fielder. Good arm.
He’s considered perhaps the best Pioneer shortstop to have ever played at MC.To be honest with you, Saunders is a winner. Doesn’t like to lose. Personally, I would put him ahead of the current Cubs shortstops.”
- “And, finally, Saunders’ overall game reminds me a little bit of Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedrioa. As for a shortstop, there’s a little bit of Derek Jeter in Saunders’ makeup. Like Jeter, Saunders is consistently good, and I think the Cubs have got themselves a real diamond in the rough.”