CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Sunday’s loss in the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional begins a transition period for the University of Maine baseball team.
In addition to the graduation of senior co-captains Joey Martin of Portland and Joe Miller, and the possible departure of redshirt junior twins Justin Leisenheimer and Ian Leisenheimer, coach Steve Trimper’s program could lose two of its top players in the 2011 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft that begins Monday.
Junior center fielder Taylor Lewis and junior pitcher Keith Bilodeau are expected to be drafted, which could punch two big holes in the Black Bears’ 2011 roster.
Lewis is a versatile standout, providing speed in the field and on the basepaths and plenty of production with the bat.
While Trimper was hesitant to project what might happen, the 6-foot, 200-pound Lewis has reportedly been courted by the Pittsburgh Pirates and might even be taken in the first 10 rounds.
“We’ll see where they go, if they do have an opportunity to get drafted, when the negotiation process starts,” Trimper said.
Lewis, from Montville, Conn., finished the season batting .287 with three home runs, 28 runs batted in, a team-leading 44 runs scored and a team-high 20 stolen bases in 24 attempts.
Even though his numbers, especially the RBIs, were down significantly this season, he has the tools to play at the next level.
“I’ve been talking with people, but who knows,” said Lewis, who would not divulge which teams have contacted him. “I’ve heard the draft is kind of up and down. You hear one thing one minute, then you hear another thing the next. We’ll see.”
Bilodeau emerged as the Bears’ ace with a breakout season. The righthander from Bourne, Mass., tied a UMaine single-season record with 10 victories (10-3) and registered a 3.04 earned run average.
Bilodeau, a 6-4, 195-pounder, struck out 83 and walked 36 while allowing 80 hits in 91 2/3 innings. Opponents batted .238 against him.
He is maintaining a similar wait-and-see attitude toward the prospect of being drafted.
“Quite a few teams, I know, are interested, so we’ll just see Tuesday,” Bilodeau said, but would not elaborate.
Bilodeau stressed that with scholarship money still on the table at UMaine, he will have options, regardless of if or where he is drafted.
“I have my fourth year of school, I can get my degree, so I’m looking forward to (the draft),” Bilodeau said. “If the price is right, we’ll see what happens. It’s all a question mark.”
Trimper said it has become increasingly difficult for draft-eligible players to avoid being distracted by the draft hype. In the past, they often worked through coaches to get a feel for what players were thinking.
Now, with Facebook, email and cell phones, the scouts are more apt to contact players directly.
Bilodeau and Lewis have to weigh several options, including the money offered, opportunities for advancement in the organization that drafts them and the benefits of returning for their senior season at UMaine.
The money offered to seniors usually is much lower, because they don’t have the option of returning to school in an effort perhaps to improve their marketability and draft position.
Trimper said there is risk for players who sign, especially those who receive limited money. Those players can quickly become expendable, even if they have performed well, as was recently the case with former UMaine slugger Curt Smith.
Smith was released this spring by the St. Louis Cardinals despite having an outstanding season cut short by an injury during 2010. He’s now in independent ball in Nebraska.
“You want to have some insurance that the club is going to be vested in you and not just using you as another guy to fill a roster spot for a bonus baby they just gave a million dollars to,” said Trimper.
“Every (minor league) team has three or four key guys. The other 25 or 30 guys are just there so those (high draft pick) guys have someone to play against,” he added.
UMaine competitive at regional
The Black Bears proved a formidable opponent at the Chapel Hill Regional, playing three tight games against successful, nationally-recognized programs.
UMaine’s pitching set the tone as the staff combined to allow only 10 runs and 21 hits in three games.
The Bears pitched 22 scoreless innings among 26 in the tournament, but gave up a four-run inning in the losses to North Carolina and James Madison. Opponents batted .228 against them.
The Bears weren’t nearly as successful with the bats. The Tar Heels blanked them for nine innings and UMaine managed only six runs in the other 17 innings.
UMaine hitters batted .247 at Chapel Hill.
“It was nice to come out here and show the country that this team is good,” said freshman Troy Black. “We’re not just a ragtag group, we’re a talented group of players.”
The Bears played strong defense, committing only one error — which did not lead to a run. They turned two double plays, both against Florida International.