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Legends On Deck

Las Vegas Natives Making Their Mark On The Field

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It may not have been a complete drought in the desert between the time Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux was drafted by the Chicago Cubs out of Valley High School in 1984, and Bryce Harper being drafted #1 by the Washington Nationals out of the College of Southern Nevada in 2010. But it seems as if an oasis of baseball talent has sprung up in Las Vegas over the last decade or so.

Several of Harper’s contemporaries, who are on a less anomalous timetable than he, are starting to emerge from the sun-baked fields of the vacation mecca.

Top Cubs prospect Kris Bryant and Texas Rangers fast-rising farm hand Joey Gallo, both third basemen, are just two of the new stars baseball fans can expect to see from Sin City. The pair are primed for their major league debuts: this season for Bryant, and this season or the next for Gallo.

But there’s another round of players from Las Vegas who are working their way up and making a name for themselves.

Taylor Cole

Taylor Cole (Photo: Jim Goins/Dunedin Blue Jays)

Case in point, Taylor Cole, right-handed starting pitcher in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. Cole led all the minor leagues in strike outs in 2014 with 177 in just 132 innings at A+ Dunedin in the Florida State League. I spoke to Taylor about his unusual journey and, though modest about his progress so far, what he hopes will be his path to the big leagues.

Cole was drafted out of Brigham Young University in 2011 by Toronto, but he had been drafted twice before, first out of Bishop Gorman High School in 2007 (the same school attended by Gallo) by the Dodgers, and in 2008 from the College of Southern Nevada by the Diamondbacks. He didn’t sign at those times and opted to take two years off to serve a mission for the LDS Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) before returning to play at BYU.

Despite the two year break, Cole’s talent allowed him to pick right back up almost where he left off. It took hard work and dedication to regain his strength and velocity after his mission. Coincidentally, Cole served in Toronto, the same city of the team that eventually drafted him.
After a slow start in Class A-short season Vancouver in 2011, Cole bounced back in 2012 to post a 6-0 record with a .081 ERA. He continued his steady progress through Class A Lansing and Class A-advanced Dunedin the next year, logging a full season’s worth of starts and innings. After racking up the big strikeout totals in Dunedin in 2014, Cole was selected to start the FSL All-Star Game before being promoted to AA New Hampshire at the end of the season. He looks primed to start the 2015 season in New Hampshire.

Cole’s approach on the mound has evolved over time, as early on he relied heavily on his breaking and off-speed stuff as he continued to work on his strength and velocity. Last season, he made the decision to go after hitters more with his fastball, using both the 2- and 4- seam variety, and mixing in his slider and changeup more effectively. He said he’s also working on a cutter, but that his primary goal is just to keep being consistent with his command of the pitches he has.

Having signed with Toronto after playing one year at BYU, Cole continues to work on finishing his degree while playing pro ball, mostly during the offseason. He’s scheduled to graduate this year. By that time, he’ll have another season under his belt, hopefully with ever more impressive numbers.

With his dedication to his faith and completing his education, Cole is a grounded player with the talent, focus and determination that he needs to climb the ladder in the minors. He may not yet be next on the Jay’s depth chart as they scramble to fill the rotation spot left vacant by the devastating injury to Marcus Stroman. Still it’s not too much of a leap to think he may be returning to Toronto sooner rather than later. But instead of wearing the suit of a missionary, he’ll be wearing the uniform of the Blue Jays.

Chasen Bradford

Chasen Bradford (Photo: Gabe Rodriguez/Legends On Deck)

Other high-profile Vegas prospects are easy to find. Chase Bradford, right-handed relief pitcher for the New York Mets, came out of Silverado High School, then played at the University of Central Florida before being drafted by the Mets in 2011 and steadily climbing through the organization. Bradford spent 2014 split between AA and AAA. Being in the Mets organization, Bradford has played his AAA ball in his hometown for the Las Vegas 51s. He’s in big league camp this spring, trying to earn a spot in the Mets bullpen. (For more on Bradford, see his Prospects on Deck profile here.)

Some more up-and-coming young arms, RHP Tyler Wagner, and RHP Paul Sewald, both also products of Bishop Gorman, were drafted in 2012 by the Milwaukee Brewers and the Mets respectively. Wagner was drafted out of the University of Utah, and Sewald from the University of California San Diego. Both should be in AA this year.

Though Las Vegas isn’t the small town population-wise it once was, the baseball community is a tight-knit one. Most of the high-profile players know each other, from little league, high school or college as teammates, or as rivals. Cole mentioned knowing, playing or working out with Bryant, Gallo, Bradford, the Harper brothers and Wagner.

Many of these players passed through CSN, a large junior college with several campuses around the Las Vegas Valley. The baseball program, residing at the Henderson campus, has won six conference championships, two Region XVIII championships and two Western District championships.

In 2010, Harper’s draft year, 8 of his teammates at CSN, including his older brother Bryan, were also drafted, unusual for a junior college. After such a large crop, the numbers from CSN slowed, but 3 players were drafted in each of the last two years. Some of these include Evan Van Hoosier an OF/2B drafted by the Rangers in 2013, Scott Tomassetti, a catcher drafted by the Phillies, and 2B Tyler Brown, drafted by the Pirates, both in 2014.

Feeder schools for CSN include Bishop Gorman, a private Catholic school well-known for its many state championship teams, as well as schools from around Clark County; Bonanza, Silverado, Valley, Las Vegas, Green Valley, and Arbor View to name a few. Clark County is one of the largest public school districts in the country.

Other recent local draftees include Jeff Malm, drafted out of Bishop Gorman by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2009 as a 1B and LF; he spent all of 2014 in AA where he converted into a pitcher before signing with the Angels during the offseason. Johnny Field, outfielder, and Bishop Gorman alumnus, was drafted by the Rays from University of Arizona in 2013. Buddy Borden, a RHP, and Arbor View alumnus, was drafted by the Pirates from the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 2013.

Who knows what is in store for this crop of players as they navigate the rough waters of the minor leagues. But it seems the talent pool runs deep. Las Vegas even boasts a Little League team, Mountain Ridge, that competed in the Little League World Series in 2014. They came in second in the U.S. Championship. The winning team, Jackie Robinson West of Chicago, was subsequently stripped of its title due to a cheating scandal. Whether Mountain Ridge would have beaten South Korea in the LLWS finals will never be known. But it looks like some more talented young players will be coming up in Las Vegas in the years to come.

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