Quick, which part of the country is the most fertile hotbed for producing first-round picks in the MLB Draft?
Florida? Texas? California? All have their fair share of top-notch talent to be sure, but you can’t have the conversation without throwing Western Pennsylvania into the mix.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. Back when the Pirates selected Pine-Richland’s Neil Walker in the first round of the 2004 MLB Draft straight out of high school, it was viewed as more of an exception than the rule. But in recent years, the WPIAL-to-MLB first-round pick pipeline has picked up some serious steam, starting with Mt. Lebanon grad Ian Happ being taken by the Chicago Cubs in the first round in 2015.
Including Happ, six former WPIAL players have been drafted in the first round in the past nine years — three out of college and three straight out of high school. Plum’s Alex Kirilloff (2016), West Allegheny’s Austin Hendrick (2019) and North Allegheny’s Cole Young (2022) were each taken out of high school, while Blackhawk’s Brendan McKay (2017) and Mars’ Will Bednar (2021) followed Happ’s path to college baseball stardom before becoming MLB first-round picks.
Although the 2023 MLB Draft marked one of the rare drafts without a local first-round pick, it likely won’t be a prolonged drought before another former WPIAL star hears his name called in the first round.
Enter J.J. Wetherholt, a 2021 Mars grad and soon-to-be junior at West Virginia coming off a season for the ages while building a palpable buzz as a potential first-round pick in next year’s MLB Draft. A sweet-swinging left-handed second baseman who packs tremendous pop into his athletic 5-10 frame, Wetherholt led the nation with a .449 batting average in 2023 while hitting 24 doubles, two triples and 16 home runs with 60 RBIs, 67 runs scored and 36 stolen bases in 55 games. He won the Big 12 Player of the Year award and was named one of five finalists for the Dick Howser Trophy, considered college baseball’s version of the Heisman Trophy.
If you saw someone put up those numbers in a video game, you’d probably return the game to the store you bought it from for being too unrealistic. And on top of that, Wetherholt helped lead the Mountaineers to a school record-tying 40-win season along with a share of their first Big 12 championship — and he plays near-flawless defense, too.
“It seems like every year, we keep doing things better than the year before here,” West Virginia coach Randy Mazey said. “We had such a good year here [last year]. But with J.J. in the lineup and the incoming players we have and guys we’ve signed out of the portal, I think [next year’s] team has a chance to be a really good one.”
Following up on his sensational sophomore season, Wetherholt earned a spot as one of 31 players on the U.S. College National Team for a pair of five-game series against Chinese Taipei and Japan running from June 30-July 12. Despite battling a pulled hamstring that prevented him from playing the field, he still managed to shine as a designated hitter, belting a pair of home runs during the event — one on a majestic shot to right against Chinese Taipei, and another one well over the wall in left-center against Japan, showcasing his renowned opposite-field power.
For Wetherholt, the biggest highlight of the event came when he had the opportunity to don the stars and stripes and represent his country on the Fourth of July, helping the U.S. to a 7-6 win in the final game of the five-game series against Chinese Taipei. Overall, the U.S. finished 5-0 in the International Friendship Series against Chinese Taipei while going 2-3 in the Collegiate All-Star Championship Series against Japan.
“It was pretty surreal,” Wetherholt said. “Obviously, having that jersey on and what you’re playing for, playing against different countries, just getting to represent your country playing a game is pretty special.”
For those who have known Wetherholt since his younger days, it’s not necessarily a surprise to see him emerging as one of the top prospects in the nation. He didn’t exactly have the same hype as players like Kirilloff, Hendrick and Young coming out of high school, yet he might wind up getting drafted earlier in the first round than any of them. A recent “way-too-early 2024 MLB mock draft” by Baseball America has Wetherholt going No. 5 overall, which would make him the highest draft pick from the WPIAL since McKay was selected No. 4 overall by the Tampa Bay Rays out of Louisville in 2017.
“[He’s] just so special, man. What a special kid, and to do what he’s doing for USA Baseball now is incredible,” said Mars assistant coach Andy Bednar, Wetherholt’s head coach as a freshman and sophomore in high school. “He has the best opposite-field power I’ve ever seen by a college kid. It’s unbelievable for his size, the power he can generate. … Some of the stuff that I’ve heard, if he continues to do what he did this past season, there’s no doubt he’s going to be in the conversation for [a top five pick], for sure. How could he not be?”
Still, Wetherholt knows that mock-draft projections like those ultimately mean nothing at this point, and the only way he’ll hear his name called in next year’s draft is to continue honing his skills and fine-tuning his craft while keeping the level-headed approach that has gotten him this far. On top of his Collegiate Baseball first-team All-American selection, Wetherholt was also named a first-team Academic All-American by College Sports Communicators.
As well-rounded as they come both on the field and in the classroom, the hardest part of evaluating Wetherholt’s future MLB potential is finding an aspect of his game to critique.
“He’s so good at everything,” Mazey said. “Normally, I would say for a guy getting into professional baseball, you’ve got to learn how to handle that lifestyle and how to take care of your body and handle your business, but he’s really good at that, too. There’s really no area in his game that has any sort of weakness that you have to address.
“That’s probably an impossible question. That’s a first for me.”
Neither his high school nor college coach was able to single out one of his flaws, but Wetherholt himself believes the mental side of the game is something that always has room for improvement.
“The biggest side is just mentally, having full confidence no matter the results,” Wetherholt said. “I know this year, there weren’t a lot of games where I would go 0 for 4, so if I did, I would kind of overthink it. Just flushing stuff and having a short-term memory.”
As he attempts to follow in his former high school teammate Bednar’s footsteps from Mars to the first round of the MLB Draft, Wetherholt remains unconcerned with the round in which he gets selected — just as long as one team decides to give him a chance. After all, he’s well aware that perhaps the most successful active big leaguer from the WPIAL wasn’t taken until the 35th round of the 2016 MLB Draft — Bednar’s older brother and another Mars grad, Pirates closer David Bednar.
Wetherholt got an up-close look at the elder Bednar’s star power when he returned home recently to help out at Mars’ youth summer baseball camp. Andy Bednar said the kids there were eagerly anticipating the chance to meet and learn from Wetherholt, but Wetherholt insisted it was nothing compared to how awestruck they were in the presence of the Pirates’ two-time all-star.
“[Wetherholt] came home from a tournament, and he came to our camp and helped out. It was really cool to see,” Andy Bednar said. “A lot of the kids at the camp were talking about, ‘J.J. is going to be here.’ They all knew about him, and I just thought that was really, really special.
“The coolest thing for the little guys to see is, you can get there from here.”
While he hopes to soon become the next WPIAL-to-MLB star, Wetherholt is focusing first on putting together an even better junior season than the prolific sophomore campaign he just completed. If he can find a way to do that, there’s no doubt he’ll be a virtual lock for a first-round pick — and well within the conversation for the No. 1 overall slot.
And no matter how early he gets selected, he’ll still be the same kid from Mars with a passion for the game matched only by his desire to give back to the younger generation.
“I have a 16-year-old son who goes out and takes ground balls with J.J. and is around him every day,” Mazey said. “They have a great relationship. On a personal note, what a great role model he has been for my son. If my son can emulate anyone in the world, J.J. is the guy I would pick to make that happen.”