Leading up to Day 1 of the MLB Draft on June 12, we will be conducting Q&A interviews with many prospects who are projected to be first-rounders. For a complete listing of these interviews, click here.
Next is UNC right-hander J.B. Bukauskas, a 20-year old who was the Friday night ace for the Tar Heels this season. Bukauskas was considered a first-round talent coming out of high school in Ashburn, Va. three years ago, but sent a letter to scouts asking clubs not to draft him and spent three years in Chapel Hill. This season, he posted a 9-1 record and 2.53 ERA while striking out 116 batters in 15 starts.
Bukauskas is widely expected to land in the top half of the first roundBukauskas is widely expected to land in the top half of the first round, with ESPN and MLB.com projecting him to the White Sox with the 11th overall pick and Baseball America sending him to the Astros at no. 15. all having him off the board in the early 20s. Be sure to check out Bukauskas’ full scouting report over at SB Nation’s Minor League Ball.
You’re in a unique position in this draft, being a guy who was projected to go in the top 15 or so picks three years ago. You sent a letter to scouts telling them not to draft you, as you had made up your mind about going to UNC. What went into that decision?
“I just thought there was a lot more for me to learn before I was ready to jump into pro ball. Being 17 and graduating a year early, I think that would’ve been a lot of pressure to go ahead and start my career. I thought I could mature a lot more in school and I think I did, both on and off the field. Those were the main reasons.”
Looking back, are you happy with that decision?
“Yeah, definitely. I’ve grown a lot as a person and as a baseball player. I think it’s helped me put myself in a good position for this year’s draft, so I’m excited about it.”
Carolina’s recruiting class was decimated when you came in as a freshman, as six of the school’s top recruits were taken in the top 64 picks of the 2014 draft. What was that like for you, seeing that great recruiting class never actually come to campus?
“We kind of had an idea that was gonna happen, just because of how good those guys were. I don’t think it deterred our class at all from thinking we were gonna be good. I think we showed that this year, as the leaders of the group. I think we kind of turned some things around and started to get Carolina baseball back on track. The fact that those guys weren’t here didn’t help or hurt, I don’t think. I think we were gonna be determined to do that regardless.”
You have a teammate projected to go in the first round in shortstop Logan Warmoth. If I’m a GM, why should I pick him in the first round?
“He’s a very good, very consistent player. You know what you’re going to get from him all the time. Solid in the field, solid hitter. He’s just very consistent, and that’s worth a ton.”
When did you first get into baseball as a kid and start realizing your passion for the game?
“I can’t remember a specific age, I think it was probably 5 or 6 years old when I started playing. I was messing around with it before then, but that’s when I remember starting to actually really like the game. Playing more real games, in a league.”
At what point did you realize you had the ability to turn pro and become a top draft pick?
“I’ve always really wanted to do that, playing professional baseball. I don’t think there was any specific moment, I just kind of kept the goal and kept trying to get better. Trying to put myself in the best position I can. I try not think about the big picture of it all the time because you get overwhelmed. Kind of more of that, no specific moment. Just a gradual thing of working hard and eventually I’ll get there.”
Growing up, did you have a favorite team? Favorite player?
“Can’t remember a specific favorite player. Growing up, I used to like the San Francisco Giants a lot. I didn’t realize until I moved away from the Washington, D.C. area how much I missed watching the Nationals play. Right now, I’d say you could consider me a Nationals fan but that’s just because I lived in the area for so long.”
What led to your decision to commit to Carolina in the first place?
“I’ve always liked Chapel Hill. Coming down here for tournaments when I was younger, my parents would always take me to the colleges to get a feel and see where I might want to go to school even if there’s no baseball involved. Chapel Hill was always my favorite, even though I probably wouldn’t have been down here without baseball just because of how prestigious the school is. Seeing how nice the campus is, and obviously, around that time, the program was unbelievably well-represented and was doing great things on and off the field. All the more reason to come here.”
Carolina baseball lost its way over the past two years, only to see a huge resurgence this year as the no. 2 national seed heading into the postseason. What did it mean to you to get Carolina baseball back on the map this season?
“That’s a tough question, just because we did but we stumbled there at the end [losing to Davidson in regional play]. We worked so hard all year to put ourselves in that position. It means a lot. People on the outside looking in might still see this season as, ‘well, they still didn’t do what they were expected to do,’ but we as a team know how much different this year was. We were a really, really close-knit group. We did some pretty cool things regardless of what others might think. We won all ten ACC series, which I don’t think has been done by a UNC team. We got into a good position there for the postseason and then just ran into a hot team and didn’t play our best. I don’t think that takes away from anything that we did, because we all feel proud about all the things we were able to accomplish while we were here. I think we do feel a little bit like we put the team back on track. We’re definitely really proud of that.”
I know the wound is still fresh, but what was this past weekend like, losing to Davidson in such surprising fashion?
“It’s obviously really tough to swallow. It’s hard to describe. We worked so hard and then just stumbled there at the end. That’s just baseball. It was definitely really tough, being that close with a bunch of guys and working for that all year long just to have it cut short a little bit. It’s really difficult. Like I said, I still think we’re really proud of what we did accomplish.”
You experienced a basketball national championship this year, putting Chapel Hill back in the spotlight on the national stage. What impact does that have on the baseball program and athletics as a whole?
“I think anytime a team wins a national championship at a school like this, it only motivates the rest of the teams to continue to strive to be really good and get to that same level. It was really special to be able to see Franklin St. and all that stuff. The environment that was around Chapel Hill there for a little while was really cool and I’m glad I got to experience it. As far as relating it to the other sports, it just motivates everybody else to do the same kind of things.”
What’s your biggest strength as a pitcher?
“I’m very competitive. I think that, with specific pitches, my fastball is a strength for sure. Looking at more of the whole body of the game, my competitiveness is one of my better attributes.”
What do you want to work on the most at the next level?
“I want to throw more changeups. I think working in a third pitch more consistently is gonna benefit me a lot. I’d say that’s probably the biggest thing.”
If you had to pick your major-league comp, who would it be?
That leads me to my next question, as you’re bit of a shorter guy than a ton of these first-round talents at 6-foot. Your delivery has a lot of effort in it, leading to some concern from scouts. Are you planning on any changes at the next level?
“I’m always open to coaching and I’m willing to be very coachable. If someone were to tell me that I need to change, I would definitely hear what they had to say if it was gonna benefit me. However, I have gotten this far, knock on wood, being pretty healthy. I think it’s been working pretty well, but like I said, I’m always open to coaching so if somebody sees something I should change, I’ll be willing to do that.”
Do you have any expectations heading into draft night? Any goals on where you’ll be selected?
“Nope, no expectations at all. Just going into it happy and trying to be content with the body of work I’ve put in. I’ll let everything fall where it may and see what happens.”