Georgia Tech’s 3 draftees overcame disappointment, failing, injury

A year ago, Georgia Tech shortstop Luke Waddell was stinging from major disappointment after expecting to be drafted and then not getting the call. Justyn-Henry Malloy was a .128 college hitter in search of a second chance. Pitcher Brant Hurter was recovering from Tommy John surgery, hoping to regain the promising form he showed as a sophomore in 2019. For good measure, COVID-19 added a layer of uncertainty over when baseball could resume for each.

“Very disappointing last year, but you just kind of have to get over that stuff,” Waddell said Wednesday. “I couldn’t control any of it.”

The three Tech stars were brought together on a media call for a purpose that demonstrates the difference that a year can make, and also how all three met the challenge of their own circumstances. All were selected Monday in the first seven rounds of the MLB draft, Waddell and Malloy by the Braves in the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively, and Hurter by the Detroit Tigers in the seventh.

“You’re just proud of them,” Tech coach Danny Hall said. “These guys put a lot of hard work in here at Tech to get into that position.”

After the shortened 2020 season, Waddell was a solid pro prospect, having started since his freshman season and having shown versatility in the field and a discerning eye at the plate. Entering the draft, Waddell said that he had been told by teams that he probably was going to be selected, even as the draft was shortened from the standard 40 rounds to five as a cost-saving measure for major-league clubs. Waddell was with his family in Loveland, Ohio, and all 160 picks came and went without him, an upsetting and emotional defeat.

In trying to sort out the setback with those closest to him, Waddell resolved just to keep working and trust that things would work themselves out. In returning to Tech, Waddell experienced a number of gains from the unexpected year. He led the Yellow Jackets to a second consecutive ACC Coastal Division title and a second NCAA Tournament berth in a row. He was named first-team All-ACC. He earned his business-administration degree in May with a 3.9 GPA. He led the Jackets to a season-series win over Georgia, nailing it down by scoring on a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 14th inning at Russ Chandler Stadium. And he was drafted by the team that he had come to adopt (after his hometown Cincinnati Reds).

“It really worked out,” Waddell said. “Obviously, last year was a little disappointing and stuff with the whole draft, but I really can’t complain about it. This last year was awesome, and now I can get started with a great organization with the Braves and see where it takes me. I’m just really excited to get going. It’s so cool that the Braves ended up picking me.”

Malloy entered the transfer portal after the COVID-shortened 2020 season, his second season at Vanderbilt. He was not a full-time starter and hit .167 that season with one extra-base hit in 24 at-bats, although with his knack for drawing walks, his on-base percentage was .487. He thrived upon his arrival at Tech.

“Coach Hall has had tons of experience with guys who move on (to professional baseball), and he knows exactly what to do and what not to do and how to get guys better, and he’s done that,” Malloy said.

A starter in all but one game for the Jackets, Malloy hit .308 with an on-base percentage of .436. He had 29 extra-base hits in 208 at-bats. His 43 RBIs led the team. Memorably, he delivered two walk-off wins for the Jackets with a ninth-inning home run to beat Clemson and the sacrifice fly that brought Waddell home against Georgia. When Malloy was drafted, he immediately called Hall, and later assistant coach James Ramsey.

“I just wanted to thank them so much for the opportunity and the opportunities they gave me and just giving me a second chance,” Malloy said.

While neither had an idea of what lay ahead of them as far as minor-league assignments, Malloy and Waddell were thrilled at the idea of remaining teammates and getting drafted by the Braves. Both were scouted by Braves scout Chris Lionetti, now with USA Baseball as its director of player identification.

“I think it’s going to be really beneficial that I’m going to be seeing a familiar face,” Malloy said. “I really enjoy playing with ‘Wad’ and I’m happy that hopefully we can play again together.”

Hurter’s elbow injury interrupted a brilliant sophomore season in April 2019. In 10 appearances, including nine starts, Hurter had a 2.42 ERA with a 58/14 strikeout/walk ratio. Opponents were hitting .199 off him.

With the 2020 season shortened, Hurter did not pitch again in a live game until the season opener of the 2021 season. The Woodstock High grad was at times dominant, including seven shutout innings of Virginia in which he struck out eight, walked none and held the Cavaliers to six hits. He finished the season with a 3.90 ERA over 85-1/3 innings, with 83 strikeouts against 19 walks. Opponents hit .253 against him.

His size (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) and command made him an appealing selection for the Tigers. He heads into the professional ranks with a far better gauge than many of his fellow draftees of his capacity to persevere through setbacks, and the same could be said for Waddell and Malloy.

“I think going through Tommy John is a big mental and physical challenge, so taking in that mental strength I got from that is going to be big in taking it into the minor leagues and hopefully getting to the majors,” he said.

The three leave gaping holes for Hall -- along with second baseman Austin Wilhite, a four-year starter, who is hoping for a chance to sign as an undrafted free agent. Weekend starter Andy Archer also left as a grad transfer to Hawaii. Further, Seattle took the jewel of Hall’s incoming freshman class, North Cobb High catcher Harry Ford, with the 12th overall pick.

But, as the cycle begins again, Hall is hoping for a solid season from, among others, pitcher Luke Bartnicki, who was hoping to get drafted but was not. Hall expressed his belief that the flame-throwing lefty has “a major upside” that he and pitching coach Danny Borrell have to uncover. Hall hoped that Bartnicki might respond to the draft snub similarly to Waddell.

“Kind of use it as motivation to put yourself in a way better position next year than you were this year,” he said.