AURORA, Colo. (BVM) — On July 14, 2020, Alec Willis was in a hospital to have surgery on his right elbow. The possibility of becoming a professional baseball player was far from his mind.
“I remember sitting in the hospital room being like, ‘I just want to get fixed. I just want to get back to throwing,’” Willis said. “I didn’t have a thought of Major League Baseball just because it didn’t seem like a reality at that point.”
Nearly a full year later, Willis is Colorado’s No. 1-ranked high school prospect heading into the 2021 MLB Draft, which begins Sunday night in Denver and concludes Tuesday. As MLB.com’s No. 130 prospect overall (among high school and college players), there’s a good chance that Willis will be picked before the end of rounds 2-10, which take place Monday — 363 days after Willis underwent ulnar nerve decompression surgery.
“It’s kind of surreal because all throughout those next six months [after surgery] it was kind of just like, ‘Let’s get healthy, let’s get healthy,’ and it worked, thank God,” Willis said. “Now it’s like, ‘OK this is really my dream to play professional baseball and now that dream is becoming a possible reality.’ As much as I can think about it every single day, it’s still pretty surreal for me. I can’t even believe it.”
It’s hard to believe when considering the fact that Willis wasn’t anywhere on the radar for most MLB scouts last year at this time. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound right-handed pitcher certainly had the build of a potential future big-leaguer, and he had already shown enough to earn a Division I college scholarship from the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who he committed to in the fall of his junior year. Willis threw around 92 mph as a sophomore in 2019 when he helped Regis Jesuit High School close out a state championship, but he hadn’t pitched many innings during the high school or the summer seasons due to arm discomfort which had been plaguing him since his freshman year.
“I knew he could be special,” Regis Jesuit head coach Matt Darr said, “but he just wasn’t ever healthy and he was just always pitching with pain.”
With every MRI coming back clean, it took some time for Willis to discover the nerve issue in his elbow which required surgery last summer. But it didn’t take long for Willis to return after the operation. And once he did, he quickly started turning heads.
“What turned it around for me is we were playing in preseason this season and each week he was throwing like 93 [mph], then he was 94, then he was 96, and it’s like, ‘OK this is not normal,’” Darr said. “And then he was 97. I think early March when he jumped from the low 90s to the mid-to-upper 90s, that’s not a normal jump, but also that puts you on the radar for every scout.”
“Once we get into March and April and May and the velo starts going up I’m like, ‘Yo, this is awesome,’” Willis said. “And then that’s when things started to pick up with MLB teams coming in to watch.”
At that point, Willis had to hire an advisor to prepare for his potential professional future which had quickly become a real possibility. Meanwhile, he was also able to enjoy his senior season with the Raiders after losing out on his entire junior season due to COVID-19 pandemic. Willis recorded a 0.77 ERA and struck out 54 batters in 29 innings pitched this past spring.
“I was just dying to get out there and play so once I got out there I just enjoyed every single moment of it and just was looking forward to the next week every single day,” Willis said. “It just made the game more entertaining for me and I just wanted to be out there as much as possible.”
Willis will soon know who he’ll pitch for next, whether it’s Minnesota or an MLB organization. If he’s picked next week, he’ll be the 11th former Regis Jesuit player to be drafted since 2009. Among the previous 10, Max George (Colorado Rockies) is the only player to sign out of high school and David Peterson of the New York Mets is the only one that has made it to the majors after attending college. Peterson was a first-round pick out of the University of Oregon in 2017 and was in the Mets’ starting rotation this season prior to landing on the injured list last week. Darr coached Peterson when the lefthander pitched for Regis Jesuit and believes that Willis’ long-term potential could be even greater.
“David pitched a lot more in high school so he was probably a little more polished and he’s left-handed so there was a lot of interest in him,” Darr said. “But from a power arm standpoint, I’ve never had a kid up to 97. Alec is kind of at another level, especially on the velocity side. I think Alec’s projectability is as high as anybody just because of the sheer velocity and because he hasn’t pitched a ton so I think there’s a lot of upside to him.”
That upside is what could lead to Willis getting the call from an MLB team early next week
“I’m certain I won’t get a lot of sleep the night before,” Willis said. “They don’t make those picks very fast. It’s a lot of waiting. But it’s going to be really exciting. If it does happen, it’ll probably be one of the best days of my life, but if it doesn’t happen, then you move on and you wait for it in three years.”
And even if Willis is drafted, there’s no guarantee he’ll pass up Minnesota. Much of that will come down to signability, as is the case for any high school draft pick.
“It’s a hard thing to grasp because, at the same time, I don’t want to make decisions based on money, I want to do it out of a passion for the game,” Willis said. “But in this particular instance, you kind of have to. I’m comfortable with both. I feel like if the opportunity presents itself, I’m comfortable going pro out of high school and if the opportunity doesn’t present itself, I’m comfortable going to the University of Minnesota.”
Regardless of what happens next week, it now seems to be not a matter of if, but when Willis will be making his pro debut — something that seemed far less likely not so long ago.
“A lot of this has happened a lot faster than most kids,” Darr said. “He came onto the scene in a hurry. Six months ago it was not a discussion; it was college or nothing. … As long as he stays healthy, he’ll pitch in the big leagues. I don’t think there’s any question.”