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Altoona's Helsel has MLB draft status up in air

June 4, 2012
By Philip Cmor ( , The Altoona Mirror

After a life on the diamond, Christian Helsel says he would play baseball for minimum wage.

He's hoping he has a decision to make by the middle of this week.

Helsel, the Altoona Area High School senior shortstop/pitcher who has signed with the University of Mississippi and is a three-time Mirror first team all-star, could be selected in the Major League Baseball draft, which begins today and runs through Wednesday.

"I'm definitely really excited for this to happen. It's been my dream to play professional baseball,'' said Helsel, whose Mountain Lions will open PIAA Class AAAA baseball playoff action in Butler today against WPIAL champion Seneca Valley. "Me and the rest of my team have a state championship to go out and try to win. I'm trying to focus on that, but, at the same time, it's hard to block all that [draft speculation] out.

"I'm really anxious to see how everything turns out.''

However, baseball's new collective bargaining agreement has made changes with the draft structure that have created uncertainty for Helsel and a lot of other potential picks, especially those just coming out of high school. For one thing, the draft now is limited to 40 rounds. Also, a strict slot for bonuses have been initiated for each pick through the first 10 rounds and each team has been assigned what is essentially a salary cap for all of its signees.

Finally, the deadline to sign, which in recent years was the end of August, will be July 13 this year.

"The draft is going to be unpredictable,'' Helsel said. "I could get picked between the fourth and seventh round, but there's also a good chance I won't be picked at all. It all depends on the dollar amount they offer when they call me on draft day and if I say yes then they'll draft me and if I say no then I won't get drafted.''

Helsel put the odds of him getting drafted and signing at 40-45 percent. He said he would have to go in the first 10 rounds to consider it - after that, the maximum signing bonus a player can receive is $100,000, which would make it hard to deter a lot of top college signees from honoring their college commitments, and, with only 40 picks to stock the lower parts of their farm systems, would seem to make it less likely an MLB organization would roll the dice and possibly come up empty handed.

"It's not all about the money for me. I'd play baseball for minimum wage, because that's how much I love it. I see the money as the club's confidence in me and their commitment level to me,'' Helsel said. "If I go to college, I'll be just as happy, and I'll still have a chance to play professional baseball after that.''

"He's a very good player. I'm not sure about the draft,'' said Philipsburg's Keno Beezer, a scout for Major League Baseball's bureau. "He's signed with Mississippi, so a lot of people figure he's going to go there anyway.

"It [the draft] used to be 100 rounds when I started scouting. Mike Piazza was a 99th round pick.''

Helsel is hitting .370 this spring for the District 6 Class AAAA champion Mountain Lions with a pair of home runs. Other teams respect his bat so much that he's been walked 22 times.

"He's a very good hitter. That's probably his biggest asset,'' Beezer said of Helsel, who has been followed most closely this spring by the Pirates, Royals and Athletics; he was at a recent Pirates' tryout camp and thinks Pittsburgh is the team most likely to draft him if anyone does.

Helsel also has had a great year on the mound, going 3-1 with five saves and a 1.27 ERA. However, he's getting looked at solely as a position player - Ole Miss recruited him as a third baseman.

"I've talked about that to a lot of the pro guys. I don't think they see me projecting as a third baseman. Major League third basemen hit 30 home runs a year, and I don't have that kind of power right now,'' Helsel said. "It seems to me they are thinking second base, possibly even catcher, although I've never really caught too much.''

Even if Helsel ends up at Mississippi, the draft could have a direct effect on him. Fellow Rebels' infield recruit Gavin Cecchini is expected to be picked in today's first round, which might change the position Helsel has the opportunity to play in college.

Helsel isn't the only local high school baseball talent it seems has been impacted by the new draft and signing rules. Bedford right-handed pitcher Marcus Shippey's fastball was clocked throwing in the low-90s at the end of last summer, which usually would attract some interest, and the Bison ace struck out 73 while walking just 15 in 43 innings as a senior.

However, it now appears he'll be honoring his signing with Shippensburg University.

"We haven't had a scout out here all year,'' Bedford coach Scott Waugerman said.

Penn State has two players listed among Penn State's top 15 prospects: left-hand pitcher Joe Kurrasch and third baseman Jordan Steranka. also lists Nittany Lion outfielder Sean Deegan as a potential draft pick.

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