While the Arkansas baseball team is already in the thick of SEC play, things are just getting started in the big leagues, with MLB Opening Day set for today.
Several former Razorbacks will be in action, but so will several other players — such as the Mets’ Brandon Nimmo and the Mariners’ Robbie Ray — who fall into a unique category of “Almost Razorbacks.”
Unlike their counterparts on the gridiron and hardwood, baseball still frequently sees players sign professional contracts out of high school. Many of those players also sign with college baseball programs, so when they opt to skip that level, those teams’ fanbases can be left with a feeling of ‘What if’ – especially if those players go on to enjoy success at the highest level.
Everyone knows about the likes of Kevin McReynolds, Cliff Lee, Andrew Benintendi and other former Arkansas baseball players who reached the big leagues, but here’s a quick look at some of the most notable “Almost Razorbacks” over the years…
(READ NEXT: 14 Pro Hogs invited to big league spring training)
Torii Hunter — Outfield
Pine Bluff High School (Pine Bluff, Ark.)
As a five-time All-Star, Torii Hunter is one of the most decorated baseball players to come out of the state of Arkansas.
The Pine Bluff native signed with the Razorbacks in 1993, when Norm DeBriyn was the head coach. However, he was selected in the first round by the Twins out of high school and made his MLB debut four years later.
That marked the start of an illustrious professional career that included nine Gold Glove Awards and two Silver Slugger Awards, in addition to his aforementioned five appearances in the All-Star Game. Hunter played for the Twins through 2007 before signing a five-year, $90 million deal with the Angels. He then spent two years with the Tigers before enjoying a swansong back in Minnesota for his final season.
Hunter ended his 18-year career with a .277 batting average, 353 home runs, 1,391 RBIs and 2,452 hits, making him a borderline Hall of Famer. During his playing days, he finished as high as seventh in the American League in home runs (2007) and batting average (2012 and 2013), not to mention eighth in stolen bases (2004).
Despite never playing for the Razorbacks, Hunter remains a booster for the program. In fact, Hunter donated $100,000 to the construction of the Fowler Center, which is shared by the Arkansas baseball and track programs.
Michael Fulmer — Right-Handed Pitcher
Deer Creek High School (Edmond, Okla.)
Fulmer instead accepted a professional contract from the New York Mets after they selected him in the first round of the MLB Draft.
Progressing through the minors, Fulmer earned his share of accolades with multiple All-Star appearances at all levels. In 2016, Fulmer broke into the big leagues with the Tigers and went 11-7 with a 3.06 ERA, helping him win AL Rookie of the Year.
In 2017, only his second year in the Major Leagues, Fulmer was selected as an AL All-Star. While struggling in a starters role from 2018-20, Fulmer moved to the bullpen and became a premier closer for the Tigers in 2021, posting a 2.97 ERA and 14 saves. He was traded to the Twins last August and has since signed with the Cubs as a free agent.
Brandon Nimmo — Outfield
East High School (Cheyenne, Wyo.)
In that same 2011 recruiting class, Brandon Nimmo signed with the Razorbacks as the No. 30 overall recruit in the country and seventh-best outfielder, according to Perfect Game. However, he chose to sign professionally when the Mets took him with the 11th overall pick.
Nimmo rose through the minor league ranks and made his debut in 2016. He has since been regarded as one of the best young faces in the majors. Becoming a staple for the Mets franchise, Nimmo was rewarded this past offseason with a eight-year, $162 million contract to continue to wear the Mets uniform.
During the latest free agent signing period, Nimmo was an exciting name for all teams because of the versatility in which he plays the game. Early in his career, Nimmo topped the leaderboard in triples (2022), and finished fourth twice (2018 and 2020). Nimmo has also shown a knack for getting on base by finishing top 10 in on-base percentage three times (2018, 2020, 2022).
Robbie Ray — Left-Handed Pitcher
Brentwood High School (Brentwood, Tenn.)
A top-100 prospect coming out of high school, ranked No. 96 overall by Perfect Game, Robbie Ray was part of the Razorbacks’ 2010 signing class after decommitting from Vanderbilt. He was set to join a freshman pitching class that also featured Ryne Stanek, Colby Suggs, and Barrett Astin. Instead, he never made it to campus because he signed with the Nationals, who took him in the 12th round of the draft.
In his seventh full season in the big leagues, Ray won the 2021 AL Cy Young Award with the Blue Jays, proving to be one of the best pitchers in the majors. Following his career year performance in 2021, he cashed in by signing a five-year, $115 million contract with the Seattle Mariners. It is his third team, as he debuted with the Diamondback in 2014 and was with them until being traded to Toronto in 2020.
Ray was also named an All-Star in 2017, when he was still at Arizona. He’s had five seasons in which he’s ranked top five in strikeouts for his respective league, highlighted by leading the American League in that category in 2021.
AJ Burnett — Right-Handed Pitcher
Central Arkansas Christian (Little Rock, Ark.)
In 1995, AJ Burnett became one of the most prized in-state recruits for Norm DeBriyn and the Razorbacks. Unfortunately for them, the Mets selected him in the eighth round of the draft and he signed professionally instead of playing for his in-state university.
Debuting with the Marlins in 1999, Burnett had a 17-year career in the big leagues and pitched for a variety of teams. One of his best moments came in 2001, when he threw a no-hitter against the Padres.
He missed the 2003 season, when the Marlins won the World Series, because of Tommy John surgery, but he was part of the Yankees’ rotation when they won it all in 2009. He was also selected to the All-Star Game in 2015, his final season, while playing for the Pirates.
Throughout his career, Burnett finished top 10 in strikeouts for his respective league six times, highlighted by leading the American League in 2008. He ended his career with 164 wins, a 3.99 ERA and 2,513 strikeouts.
Pat Mahomes — Right-Handed Pitcher
Lindale High School (Lindale, Texas)
Now known as the father of the Kansas City Chiefs star quarterback, Pat Mahomes was no slouch of an athlete himself. An all-state competitor in all three sports, he played quarterback in football, shortstop in baseball and averaged 30-plus points in basketball. However, injuries forced him to focus primarily on pitching as a senior.
According to the Minnesota Star Tribune, Mahomes signed with Arkansas to play baseball, but also strongly considered being a walk-on for Nolan Richardson with the basketball team. The thought process involved his love of playing multiple sports and the University of Arkansas gave him that opportunity in 1988. Ultimately, though, he signed a professional contract with the Twins after being selected in the sixth round of the MLB Draft.
Mahomes accumulated 11 years of Major League service time. Making his debut in 1992 with Minnesota, he went to play for the Red Sox, Mets, Rangers, Cubs and Pirates. As a full-time starter in 1994, Mahomes posted a 9-5 record with a 4.73 ERA and .269 batting average against. Arguably his best year came in 1999, when he threw in 63 2/3 innings of relief for the Mets with an 8-0 record, 3.68 ERA and .198 batting average against.
Greg Bird — First Base
Grandview High School (Aurora, Colo.)
Yet another member of Arkansas’ 2011 signing class that was decimated by the MLB Draft, Greg Bird was the No. 130 overall recruit in the country, according to Perfect Game. However, much like Fulmer and Nimmo, he signed professionally after the Yankees picked him in the fifth round out of high school.
Part of the Yankees’ young core nicknamed the “Baby Bombers” – which also included Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres, Migual Andjuar, and Luis Severino – Bird figured to be a replacement for Mark Teixeira at first base.
A Minor League All-Star in 2013 and 2015 with the Yankees and again in 2021 with the Rockies organization, Bird was invited to the Arizona Fall League (AFL) multiple times and was even named the MVP of the AFL in 2014.
Unfortunately, the aspiring young talent never came to fruition mainly because of a devastating string of injuries until the Yankees designated Bird for assignment. In parts of four seasons in the big leagues, he never played more than 82 games in a year and hit just .211/.301/.424.
Chris Davis — First Base
Longview High School (Longview, Texas) / Navarro C.C.
Beginning his collegiate career at the JUCO level, Chris Davis racked up numerous awards at Navarro C.C. in Corsicana, Texas. He signed with the Razorbacks, but ultimately signed with the Rangers, who took him in the fifth round of the 2006 MLB Draft.
Davis debuted with the Rangers in 2008, but it wasn’t until after he was traded to the Orioles in 2011 that he became a household name. A mainstay in Baltimore for a decade, he was one of the game’s top power hitters and personified today’s era of all-or-nothing hitting.
The 2013 season was his best in the big leagues, as he led the American League in home runs (53) and RBIs (138) to win a Silver Slugger Award and finish third in the MVP voting. However, he also ranked second in the AL in strikeouts. Two years later, he led the AL in both home runs (47) and strikeouts (208). Late in his career, Davis broke the MLB record with 47 consecutive hitless at bats.
Dave Collins — Outfield and First Base
Stevens High School (Rapid City, S.D.) / Mesa C.C.
Opting to take the junior college route out of high school, Dave Collins spent two years at Mesa C.C. in Arizona. He signed with Arkansas and its still new coach, Norm DeDriyn, but never made it to Fayetteville because he was taken in the first round of the 1972 MLB Draft.
He made his MLB debut in 1975 and played two seasons with the Angels before being selected by the Mariners in the expansion draft following the 1976 season. Marking his position in Mariners history, Collins scored the first run for the newly created franchise.
Most notably a part of the latter years of the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati during the late ‘70s, Collins arrived after the Reds’ World Series appearances and played in just one postseason series his entire 16-year career. He also played for the Yankees, Blue Jays, Athletics, Tigers and Cardinals, making him a journeyman.
A speed demon for the majority of his playing days, Collins ranked top five in stolen bases in the National League four times between 1980-85 and led the league in triples in 1984.
Vance Wilson — Catcher
Red Mountain High School (Mesa, Ariz.) / Mesa C.C.
Selected by the Mets in the 44th round of the 1993 MLB Draft as a draft-and-follow pick, Vance Wilson earned JUCO All-America honors in 1994 and chose to sign professionally instead of continuing his career at Arkansas.
Wilson spent the better part of the 1990s in the minor leagues before making his debut in 2000 with the same team that drafted him. Called up to the major leagues to assume the back up role to fan favorite and All-Star catcher Mike Piazza, Wilson did not get regular playing time until 2002, when he appeared in 74 games.
Playing for the Mets from 2000-05, Wilson was then traded to the Tigers to back up another Hall of Fame catcher, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. Following an injury riddled tenure in Detroit, Wilson began his career in coaching.
Since his playing days ended, Wilson has been a Single-A and Double-A manager within the Royals organization. He is now Kansas City’s third base coach.
Dustin Moseley — Right-Handed Pitcher
Arkansas High School (Texarkana, Ark.)
A prized prospect coming out of high school, Dustin Moseley was selected 34th overall in the 2000 MLB draft by the Reds, so he had little motivation to use the Arkansas baseball program as a springboard to increase his draft value.
Ranked as the fourth-best prospect within the Reds’ farm system in 2004, Moseley was a highly touted player as he made his way through the minor leagues. Traded to the Angels in 2006, he received his first starting opportunity because of major injuries to Bartolo Colon and Jared Weaver.
Injuries ultimately led to the end of his career, as well. He had short stints with the Yankees, Padres and Marlins, with his last MLB appearance coming in 2012.
Travis Wood — Left-Handed Pitcher
Bryant High School (Bryant, Ark.)
A heralded prospect and Arkansas High School Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005, Travis Wood signed with Arkansas in the Class of 2005. Sought after by a number of MLB teams, he was drafted in the second round by the Reds and immediately began his professional endeavors.
Making his debut in 2010, Wood came close to making history against the Phillies, taking a perfect game into the ninth inning of just his third career start before allowing a double in a showdown with Roy Halladay, who also took a shutout into the ninth inning of that game.
Traded to the Cubs prior to the 2012 season, Wood saw his career balloon into an All-Star game appearance in 2013 and a World Series ring in 2016, which ended the incredibly long drought for Chicago. During the 2013 season, he entered the Cubs record books for being the first Cub since the early 1900s to with nine consecutive quality starts to begin a season and provide his only year of 200-plus innings.
Following his time in Chicago, Wood played for the Royals and Padres during the 2017 season, but failed to capture the success he found in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.
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