Six years after he was drafted by the Cardinals out of high school, Austin Wilson finally became part of the organization last week. (Clinton LumberKings)

By Rob Rains

As Austin Wilson saw all the text messages popping up on his cell phone, and his Twitter notifications going crazy, he knew something was going on. He just had no idea what.

“It was 7 o’clock in the morning,” Wilson said. “I was on my way to go hit and my phone was blowing up. I saw a lot of people saying ‘Congratulations, we’re going to miss you.’”

As he was trying to figure out what had happened, Wilson got a phone call from Tony Ferreira of the Cardinals’ front office, providing the answer. Wilson had been claimed by the Cardinals from the Seattle Mariners in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft at last week’s winter meetings.

“I was beyond shocked,” Wilson said. “I didn’t expect it, and honestly forgot it (the draft) was that day. I was pleasantly surprised. I knew I was available but since the last two years had been sub-par, I honestly thought that no one would take a chance. It was cool to have the Cardinals still believe in me.”

It was a belief that had first been shown six years ago, when the Cardinals drafted the 6-foot-4 Wilson, a power-hitting outfielder, out of a high school in Los Angeles. Despite the Cardinals’ best efforts Wilson did not sign, electing to follow through on his college commitment to Stanford. Wilson was projected as a top-round pick but fell to the 12th round of the 2010 draft because teams knew that he would be difficult to sign.

“I was pretty set on going to Stanford,” Wilson said. “I had the opportunity to go to St. Louis and my family and I met with John Mozeliak and Jeff Luhnow, who was there at the time, and they did a great job of wooing me. They almost changed my mind. They were always first class in how they treated me and my family and I have nothing but great things to say about the Cardinal organization.”

When he finally puts on a Cardinal uniform next March during spring training in Jupiter, Fla., Wilson hopes he will begin to reward the organization for giving him a new life after a couple of frustrating seasons with the Mariners.

“I was grateful when the Cardinals drafted me out of high school,” Wilson said “It didn’t work out then but now it’s kind of come full circle. I’m going to work hard and see what happens. I am excited for the opportunity. It was a long time coming.

“College was a huge thing for me. I went back for my senior year and finished my degree (in science, technology and society). I’m glad it worked out that way. Now my main focus is baseball.”

Wilson, now 24, was drafted in the second round by the Mariners in 2013 after his junior year at Stanford, the 49th overall selection. In his first full pro season in 2014, Wilson played for Clinton in the Midwest League and had 12 homers and 54 RBIs to go with a .291 average, but was limited to 72 games because of the recurrence of an injury to his right arm which also had bothered him during his junior year at Stanford.

Going into the 2015 season he was ranked by Baseball America as the fifth best prospect in the Mariners’ farm system.

That injury also affected Wilson in 2015, his first of two consecutive years at Bakersfield. He was assigned there again for this season, and got off to a slow start which caused him to struggle with the mental approach to the game.

“I had a phenomenal spring training (including going 2-for-3 in five major-league appearances) but I didn’t do well the first two months,” Wilson said. “I had the wrong goal set. I thought if I went in and had a couple of good weeks I would get moved up to Double A. I think that mentally got me down because I wasn’t producing the way I wanted to. The next thing you know it’s June and I’m hitting in the low .200s.

“I had a very strong August (hitting seven homers and driving in 19 runs in 25 games). The numbers didn’t really show it but I was driving the ball more and doing more damage.”

That performance helped Wilson keep a positive attitude, something he admitted was a struggle at times.

“It’s upsetting because you feel like you are letting your friends and family and even the Mariners down because they invested in me,” Wilson said. “I worked my butt off but when the lights went on I couldn’t produce. April and May were awful. I was down in the dumps, but it’s only going to make me stronger. Going through struggles is part of the process.

“I was in a bad place mentally but I kind of got out of that. I’m going to build off what I did in August as I go to spring training.

“Even when I was hitting .180 at one point I told myself to keep working hard and that it would get better. It eventually got better but already I had so many at-bats I really couldn’t raise my average. But I definitely think I did show some improvement.”
All of Wilson’s education from going through that experience can’t be measured by normal baseball statistics.

“The biggest thing I think I learned through this process is that if you put too much pressure on yourself it can kind of take away from your physical abilities,” he said. “Ultimately I learned from that and it made me stronger and a better man.”

The Cardinals could be the beneficiary of Wilson’s negative experience in Bakersfield, which including playing in front of an average of 899 fans a game this season. It was the 10th consecutive year the Blaze finished last in the California League in attendance and the Blaze were one of two teams in the league which disbanded after the season.

One person who still believes strongly in Wilson’s ability is Brock Ungricht, who was an assistant coach at Stanford during Wilson’s three seasons at the school and was hired this fall as the Cardinals’ new area scout in southern California.

“He was a student, and he always wanted to work and absorb all of the information he could,” Ungricht said. “He always wanted to put in the extra time and learn. He always wanted to get better.”

Ungricht can appreciate all of the struggles Wilson has gone through the last couple of seasons and how it ultimately affected his performance.

“I don’t think anyone can ever truly prepare for pro ball,” Ungricht said. “When you’re in college, playing in front of 5,000 or 6,000 fans a night, and taking flights to away games, as compared to being on the bus in the minors, it’s a huge difference.”

During his freshman and sophomore years at Stanford, Wilson was a teammate of Stephen Piscotty. The two often hit back-to-back in the batting order.

“Stephen was more of a contact type hitter while Austin had more swing and miss, but was a threat to hit the ball out of the ballpark,” Ungricht said. “You can’t teach that.”

Wilson and Piscotty already have exchanged text messages since Wilson was claimed in the Rule 5 draft and two are both guests at a wedding coming up this weekend, where Wilson intends to ask Piscotty more about the Cardinals. Wilson also is good friends with another former Stanford teammate, infielder Danny Diekroeger, who finished this season at Palm Beach. Another Cardinals prospect, pitcher Jack Flaherty, just missed Wilson when both attended Harvard-Westlake High School in Studio City, Calif.

Wilson, Diekroeger and Flaherty could all be teammates this season at Double A Springfield.

That familiarity has Wilson excited about his change of scenery and new opportunity.
“I still believe I can do this and eventually play in the big leagues,” he said. “I work hard and I’m excited … it didn’t work out with the Mariners but now I have a new life and hopefully I can go there and show what I can do with the Cardinals.”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains