NEW MARKET – For Andrew Eyster, the 2018 college baseball season was an opportunity to make a statement.
Eyster, a native of Ocala, Florida, had enjoyed a stellar senior season at Forest High School in 2017 – during which he hit .530 with six homers and 35 RBIs – and yet had, to that point, received minimal interest from NCAA Division I schools. In fact, his offer sheet consisted primarily of junior colleges, the New Market outfielder recalled on Tuesday before the Rebels’ Valley Baseball League contest against Strasburg.
Eyster settled on Santa Fe College, a junior college with a strong baseball pedigree located about 30 miles away from home in Gainesville, Florida, where he promptly led the Saints in batting average (.412), home runs (13), RBIs (53), doubles (17), triples (6) and runs scored (53) as a freshman this past spring while playing with the sense that he had something to prove.
“I felt like I had the ability to play at a higher level,” Eyster said, “but I figured that was a good route because I could always go to a bigger school and I wasn’t required to go (to Santa Fe) for the whole two years, and I could stay eligible for the (MLB) draft and everything.
“It was a little disheartening,” he added of the lack of college interest out of high school, “because I knew what kind of player I was, but at the same time it was a good opportunity, and I’m happy that it went like that.”
Eyster’s short stint at Santa Fe cut a path to Division I for the outfielder, and he’ll transfer to the University of South Carolina for the upcoming school year. And though it took high-level college programs longer to realize Eyster’s potential, professional scouts had already been taking note of the slugger in high school.
Eyster landed on the watch lists of MLB organizations in the fall prior to his senior season at Forest High, when he essentially stumbled into a spot in a Florida Diamond Club showcase event in which some of the best talent in the state performed in front of professional scouts.
“I shouldn’t have even been invited,” Eyster said. “There was a coach from my hometown who had some connections and got me into it. … He got me there, there weren’t any scouts that knew my name at that point, and I did really well. My first at-bat I had a grand slam, and I ended up going like 5-for-8 that weekend.”
Eyster ended up getting drafted out of high school – by Arizona in the 27th round of the 2017 MLB draft – but it was an “easy decision” for him to choose the JUCO route with Santa Fe because he didn’t feel he was ready for pro ball at that point.
The Cleveland Indians came calling a year later, selecting Eyster in the 32nd round of last month’s draft. Though Eyster said he felt “pretty sure” he would sign a professional contract in the days leading up to the 2018 draft, he chose to instead move on to South Carolina, where he’ll play at least two seasons in the SEC while allowing his body (he’s listed at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds on New Market’s roster) to catch up to the rest of his abilities.
Eyster said the “best-case scenario” for him is that he signs a pro contract when he’s draft eligible again following his junior season.
“He’s so advanced in his hitting,” Rebels manager Zac Cole said, “that when the body catches up to that – because he’s gonna fill that frame out – when his body catches up to what his mental side and what his ability to hit is, that guy’s gonna be stupid good. He’s a pro. I mean he probably already should be a pro. But I expect a lot out of him going forward.”
New Market has already gotten plenty out of Eyster this summer. In 18 games played with the Rebels entering Wednesday’s game at Staunton, Eyster was leading the VBL in batting average (.441, 30-for-68) and OPS (1.296) to go along with five home runs, 20 RBIs, seven doubles and 16 runs scored.
Eyster didn’t arrive in New Market until two weeks into the Valley League season due to his uncertainty surrounding the MLB draft, and he’s been arguably the most impactful player in a group of midseason lineup additions that helped pull the Rebels’ offense out of an early season lull.
Cole – who noted that New Market’s offense, and whether the Rebels win or lose, ebbs and flows based on Eyster’s production – said Eyster is in an exclusive group of players – Covington slugger J.D. Mundy (Virginia Tech) and Waynesboro’s Chase Cheek (Duke) included – in the VBL who can make those around them better just by being present in the lineup.
“Those guys change the lineup where you have to kind of game plan (from a pitching standpoint where) you’re trying to not get them up with runners in scoring position, because if you do then you’re in trouble,” Cole said. “It kind of changes how you pitch other guys. It changes how you game plan your pitching staff. … It changes your bullpen, it changes how you do things, and Eyster’s had that impact for us, no doubt.”
Just how commanding a presence Eyster can have in a lineup was on display during a three-game stretch from June 30-July 3. The right-hander went 11-for-15 (.733) with two home runs, two doubles, 10 RBIs and five runs scored in that span.
Eyster then cooled off for a stretch that saw New Market lose four straight, but he smacked a solo homer and a double against Strasburg on Tuesday night in a 9-6 win. He hit safely in 15 of his first 18 games with the Rebels.
“He just understands hitting from the mental side, and that’s what makes him so good,” Cole said. “Obviously he’s very physically talented but the mental side, he’s one of the best ones I’ve ever had. He understands how pitchers are trying to attack him, he understands how to approach an at-bat, and he’s a pro from that side. He’s very, very far advanced for a guy that just finished his freshman year of college baseball.”
Eyster’s next chance to make an impression on pro scouts on a large scale should come at next week’s Southern Collegiate Showcase at Wingate University in North Carolina. Eyster was chosen as one of 26 players to represent the VBL in the event, which will feature some of the best talent from five summer leagues in the southeast.
“I’m sure it’ll be scouted pretty well. I’ve been in front of a lot of scouts back in Florida, but it’ll kind of be neat to get in front of some of these guys up in this area,” Eyster said.
“It’s a good opportunity for a whole lot of guys to get in front of a whole lot of people.”