On a cold January day, both current and former members of Ohio State’s baseball team worked in the batting cages at Bill Davis Stadium.
Current professional baseball players Ronnie Dawson, Jalen Washington, Nick Sergakis and Brad Goldberg all practiced and swapped notes.
Standing among them, listening to the discussions and awaiting his turn to step into the net and throw a bullpen session, was junior starting pitcher Ryan Feltner, who will be Ohio State’s ace in 2018.
The right-hander has been drafted before. He knows what it’s like to have his name selected by a team. What he doesn’t know is what it is like to sign with the team and continue in professional baseball, which makes the former players having their winter workouts in Columbus a valuable chance for Feltner to learn about what could be ahead in the future.
“I talked to all of them. They all kind of say the same thing: it can be a grind at times,” Feltner said. “I mean I think it’s all worth it. Everybody’s dream is to get to the big leagues and it’s not really going to be too much fun until you get there, but I think I’m ready for it.”
Feltner hasn’t found much success in two years with the Buckeyes, but he has the repertoire of pitches needed to be drafted. He is viewed by Baseball America and D1Baseball.com as one of the top prospects in the Big Ten.
Because of that, Feltner expects to hear his name called by an MLB team in June, like he did after he graduated high school in 2015 when he was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays 752nd overall in the 25th round of the draft. Feltner will never forget the moment he was drafted as a high schooler.
“I was watching it on my computer and I actually stepped away for a second and then came back to the computer and saw it and then got the call,” Feltner said.
Feltner, who had already committed to Ohio State, began the contract negotiation process shortly thereafter with the Blue Jays, but realized about a week later he was not going to sign with them.
Having been drafted in the 25th round, Feltner was not likely to receive a large signing bonus. He also knew that since he was still somewhat of a raw talent, he could improve his draft stock after developing in the college ranks.
“It would’ve had to take a good amount more than what was available for me to skip out on Ohio State,” Feltner said. “I knew at the time I had a lot more in the tank. Obviously back then I thought I was really good and I thought I was ready, but looking back on it, I wasn’t ready at all.”
The decision initially looked good. Though not dominant, Feltner posted a respectable 4.06 ERA with 61 strikeouts over 68.2 innings as a freshman. He struggled last season, however, posting a 6.32 ERA over 62.2 innings while flipping between the rotation and bullpen. Feltner had issues with control and consistency of his secondary pitches.
Low on confidence and in search of a start to turn around his diminishing draft stock, Feltner traveled to Bourne, Massachusetts, to play for the Bourne Braves in the Cape Cod League, the most-scouted collegiate summer league that many of the best players join to compete against one another.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be a starter or reliever and it turned out I was going to be a reliever,” Feltner said. “I was just happy to be getting a little bit of a fresh start and getting on the right foot again on the mound.”
Pitching solely as a reliever, Feltner dominated batters, not allowing an unearned run in 15.1 innings with a 15-to-7 strikeouts-to-walk ratio. He was given the Cape Cod Outstanding Relief Pitcher Award. While there, he said he faced hitters like Wichita State junior outfielder Greyson Jenista and Duke outfielder Griffin Conine, both considered first-round caliber batters in the draft.
Rather than being spread out over several innings or being unsure whether he was a starting pitcher or a reliever, Feltner pitched strictly in relief, allowing him to use his dominant stuff in shorter appearances.
Baseball America national college baseball writer Teddy Cahill said Feltner’s stuff overwhelmed hitters and that the shorter stints allowed him to throw harder with better location.
“I heard he was up to 97 [mph] from scouts and was throwing his fastball 93 to 97. He has a really good split-changeup and I guess that was working pretty well for him too,” Cahill said. “They just weren’t hitting him up there and I think a lot of people that saw him there and then looked at his numbers from the spring were a little confused as to maybe what had changed.”
Cahill added that Feltner is projected to fall somewhere in the fourth or fifth round of the 2018 MLB draft, but that a lot of his draft stock will be determined by what happens this season.
Feltner will not be a closer this year. He is Ohio State’s most talented pitcher and head coach Greg Beals has already announced he will become the ace.
Beals said the big difference for Feltner this year — and the reason a pitcher with a career 5.14 ERA will open the season as the team’s Friday night starter — is the combination of Feltner’s improved secondary offerings and self-confidence that should give him what he needs to take the ball in the team’s toughest matchups.
“Ryan has always shown flashes of brilliance, but it just hasn’t been there as consistent as we’d like,” Beals said. “This is it. He’s now in the marquee in his college career and we’re trying to give him every opportunity for that to shine this year.”
Beals knows a move like this could build Feltner into a potential first-round talent. Success out of the bullpen is one thing. But if Feltner can translate the Cape Cod success to the rotation, he could go on the first day of the draft instead of the third, like he did in 2015.
Outside of a potential matchup against Oregon State second baseman Nick Madrigal in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge, Feltner will not face anyone near the caliber of Jenista or Conine, which presents an opportunity for an explosive 2018 campaign.
“Those guys are really, really good hitters and I know that if I execute what I’m supposed to do, I’ll get them out more times than not,” Feltner said. “Just always being in attack mode and that’s something that I’m going to carry over to the starting role. Have a strong first inning and not letting off the gas the innings after that.”
If he has his way, Feltner will be joining the ranks of those former Ohio State players to turn pro. He’s been drafted before. He’ll be drafted again.
“I think I’m really ready for the draft and everything and whatever happens, happens with that,” Feltner said. “I’m just going to go out there and pitch to the best of my ability and I’m going to get some wins for the Buckeyes and then hope that that comes after.”
He’s ready for the bus rides across the country for games and grueling dog days of summer. He’s ready to show that the improvements he made in the Cape Cod League will help guide him to the major leagues.
A season from now, he might be the returning professional player coming to the cages to lead the discussions and practices with other future draft hopefuls on Ohio State. Until then, he just continues to wait his turn to step into the net.