Eric Musselman wasn’t the only Nevada head coach who had to sweat out one of his players testing the pro waters this summer.
So, too, did Wolf Pack baseball coach T.J. Bruce. And like Musselman, Bruce got good news in the end. But unlike Musselman, Bruce’s prospect isn’t a household name in Northern Nevada – at least not yet.
But given his potential and pedigree, Owen Sharts is indeed a name to know. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound two-way player was a top-100 prospect in June’s MLB draft. But, armed with a high asking price in addition to a 90-plus mile per hour fastball, Sharts fell to the 32nd round, where he was picked by the Texas Rangers. He turned down that pro opportunity to join Nevada for at least the next three years.
“I kept it on the fence the whole time, so the last seven or eight months I didn’t really know what was going to happen and I knew I had a great home here,” Sharts said before his first official practice at Nevada. “I looked at it as a win-win situation. I ended up here, which is a really good thing. I get to go to school and develop here.”
The Wolf Pack began fall practice Monday and Sharts is a big reason why Nevada believes it can reach an NCAA Regional for the first time in nearly two decades. You never can predict how a player will make the transition from high school to college, but Sharts seems destined for stardom. ESPN and FanGraphs both ranked him among their top-100 draft prospects of 2019. MLB.com, Perfect Game and Baseball America had him in their top 165. He's the highest-rated baseball player to ever sign with Nevada.
“He made me sweat a little bit,” Bruce said. “But he’s great. We recruit not just good kids and good athletes but great families and that’s what we got with Owen and his family. They really wanted to come to school and they had that set on their minds. It was great to get him here and he’s going to do a lot for us. He’s a two-way player. A lot of people know him as the pitcher, but he’s doing quite a bit for us on the offensive side as well. It will be fun to have him for the next three years.”
Since Sharts joined a Division I team, he won’t be draft eligible again until 2021, which gives Nevada three years to develop the Simi Valley, Calif., native. And while Sharts was a highly sought-after prospect because of his pitching ability, he’ll play two ways for the Wolf Pack – at least to begin his career.
Sharts was actually viewed largely as a position player – he was a solid catcher – before his fastball jumped from 85-88 miles per hour as a junior to 90-94 miles per hour as a senior. During his final high school season, Sharts went 7-1 with a 1.05 ERA, striking out 85 batters in 53 innings and limiting batters to a .173 average. He also hit .342 with a .453 on-base percentage and was the Coastal Canyon League’s MVP.
“If I get to do both and play on both ends of the ball, that’s awesome,” Sharts said.
Nevada has largely focused on preparing Sharts as a pitcher this season. He’s on a regular throwing regime while also taking batting practice. He’ll begin working at the corner infield positions, but his arm is what the Wolf Pack will lean on the most. In addition to his low-90s fastball, Sharts has a solid curve and flashes a big-league changeup, a pitch he’s been focused on this offseason.
Jake Jackson, a freshman All-American pitcher at Nevada last year, remembers facing Sharts when both were SoCal prep players. Jackson joked he has bragging right over Sharts because he got a hit off him when Sharts was a sophomore. But, as teammates now, he sees great potential in the youngster.
“He just has the drive that a lot of people don’t have to get to the Division I level,” Jackson said. “He was working out with pitchers, going back to the infielders and working two different (things) every day. He’s always one of the first guys in the weight room ready to get after it and has the drive and motivation to get better every day. Even though he was a draft guy, he wants to be higher than what’s expected.”
Sharts’ personal pitching coach is his uncle, Scott, who starred at Simi Valley High in the late 1980s and eventually became a 10th-round draft pick. In June, Owen became the first player drafted out of Simi Valley High since 2009 but said he can learn a lot at the college level before eventually becoming a professional.
“Time management, how to take care of my body. That’s No. 1,” Sharts said. “That’s big for me. And learning how to play at the next level. It’s a jump either way, pro or college, and I have to make that jump, and I feel like it’s a better opportunity here (at Nevada) to make that jump.”
Sharts said Nevada’s Tier I academic status was important in his decision to attend college and he’s been tracking the team’s success in recent years. The Wolf Pack won the Mountain West’s 2018 regular-season title but hasn’t made an NCAA Regional since 2000. Sharts was 6 months old the last time the Wolf Pack played in the national tournament. Before he leaves Northern Nevada, Sharts wants to get the Wolf Pack back there.
“I’m very aware of what this team has done the last three years,” Sharts said. “Coach Bruce kind of talked about that. I respect the guys who came before and the guys who are still here and what they did, and I just want to help and produce and get into June and play in a Regional.”
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.