PROVO — By most accounts, BYU baseball had a breakout season in 2019, winning 36 games and its first conference regular-season title in 30 years.
With that banner year comes interest from Major League scouts, and now Cougar star infielder Jackson Cluff is off to the pros.
Enter to learn. Go forth to serve, indeed.
Cluff was selected in the sixth round of the MLB amateur draft Tuesday, going No. 183 to the Washington Nationals. Barring a misunderstanding or failure to come to terms on his contract, the 6-foot shortstop will sign to play professional baseball in the coming days, he told KSL.com by phone Tuesday afternoon.
Cluff said that if the numbers were right and the pick was high enough on Major League Baseball's sliding scale of salaries and signing bonuses, he would be willing to sacrifice his final two years of Division I baseball eligibility.
"The Nationals came through and made the opportunity available," said Cluff, who is due a $266,000 signing bonus. "I plan on signing moving forward, but I can’t thank BYU enough. I know the opportunities given to me are special and they want all of their players to move on."
The Meridian, Idaho, native was the first Cougar selected in this year’s draft, which has been light on pitching and low on prospects from the state of Utah. He said he plans to fly to Washington sometime Friday and work out the details of his contract and other beginnings of his pro career.
Cluff is the second Cluff to be drafted to play pro baseball. His father Paul, a two-time All-American at BYU in 1988-89, was a fourth-round selection in the 1989 MLB draft.
"He was drafted exactly 30 years ago in the fourth round, so he's got that on me," the younger Cluff joked. "He just told me that there’s a lot of work left to do, and the opportunity is still ahead."
A fourth-year sophomore, who returned from a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Atlanta last June, Cluff was a breakout star in his first season back at BYU. He spent part of the year at second base and finished batting .315, with a .483 slugging percentage, 66 RBI and four home runs en route to all-West Coast Conference first-team honors.
As for the Cougars, head coach Mike Littlewood's squad returns a formidable lineup next year as defending WCC regular-season champions. They also hold unfinished business after being left out of the NCAA Tournament despite a 36-17 record and a top-50 RPI.
"It’s been a roller coaster," said Cluff, who was still in the mission field exactly one year ago. "My two years, the opportunity to serve a mission, it’s all something I wouldn’t pass up for anything. It prepared me for this opportunity.
"It's crazy the opportunity that’s been given me in the year I’ve been home."
Upon returning, Cluff briefly played second base during fall ball — not his preferred position. But even in what could have been a less-than-desirable situation, he mentored the other players and grew into the collegiate standout that put him on the mobile upward trajectory to start his pro career.
"I have to give credit to my parents, my dad, my BYU coaches, for being patient with me; and my teammates at BYU, as well," Cluff said. "They're just a bunch of unselfish guys who welcomed me back in and allowed me to be a contributor."
BYU’s roster includes several starters like Danny Gelalich, a 6-foot-4 outfielder who batted .328 with 16 RBI; as well as a capable pitching staff highlighted by closers Justin Stern and Reid McLaughlin; and Pleasant Grove product Easton Walker, who should assume the ace role after striking out 48 with a 2.20 ERA in 77 innings pitched in 2019.
The Cougars will lose ace Jordan Wood, a senior who boasted an ERA of 4.47, as well as top hitter Brock Hale, the WCC player of the year as a senior in 2019. Both are expected to earn opportunities to play pro ball in the coming days.
The MLB draft runs through Wednesday.