SCOTTSDALE – When New York Mets prospect Brandon McIlwain chose to pursue baseball full-time over football, he wasn’t sure his decision would pay off.
McIlwain spent his freshman and redshirt freshman seasons at the University of South Carolina, where he was recruited as a four-star quarterback but also intended to play baseball.
In his true freshman season, he played eight games for the Gamecocks football team, starting three of them, and played in eight games off the bench for their baseball team.
McIlwain transferred to Cal in fall 2018 to further his career as a two-sport athlete but found that football is a whole different game compared to baseball.
“I was a dual-threat quarterback, so I could run and throw,” McIlwain, who is playing for the Peoria Javelinas in the Arizona Fall League, said before a recent game against Scottsdale. “Then also from working out with football players and 300-plus pound guys, I feel like I’ve gotten some good strength, too. So I’ve been able to work on my strength and just use all the tools that I have in baseball.”
In his first year with Cal, McIlwain saw no baseball action due to the NCAA transfer rules, but he played his sophomore football season. He last played football for Cal in 2018 after deciding to pursue baseball full time.
Now with the Javelinas in the Fall League, McIlwain, 24, hopes to gain skills that make him stand out as a baseball player rather than a football player.
McIlwain was drafted by the Miami Marlins in the 26th round of the 2019 draft after his standout redshirt sophomore baseball season.
“I got drafted in 2019, I ended up getting drafted by the Miami Marlins, and at that point I knew I was going to be able to have a professional career in baseball and I wanted to go after that as much as I could,” McIlwain said.
However, he opted to return to Berkeley to continue his college baseball career after a broken foot sidelined him in 2019.
“That was my first full season of college baseball and I didn’t get all the way through it,” McIlwain said. “So I wanted to be able to play out a full season and get some more experience before I got out there (professionally).”
However, when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, the Major League Baseball draft was reduced to five rounds. McIlwain went undrafted, but he didn’t let that deter him.
McIlwain knew he had the talent to make it as a baseball player, and began shopping his options shortly after the 2020 draft.
“I knew what that felt like (to be drafted) and then it didn’t end up happening in 2020,” McIlwain said. “But then I had a pretty cool opportunity to talk to a few different teams and actually pick which team I wanted to sign with as a free agent. So, there was some benefit to it and I ended up with the Mets and I’m really excited.”
Although McIlwain’s two-sport career ended, he has spent his time in the Mets minor league system to improve as an outfielder. Reid Brignac, manager of both the Javelinas and Double-A Binghamton Rumble Ponies, believes McIlwain is one of the strongest athletes he’s coached.
“He’s grown as a baseball player, he spent a lot of time in college playing football,” Brignac said. “He’s a very athletic player and just trying to get him some games played, and the more he plays, the better he gets.”
McIlwain played his first season with the Mets in Port Saint Lucie, the Single-A affiliate. In 239 at bats, he produced 11 doubles, seven home runs, 40 RBI and maintained a .255 batting average, proving he can play baseball professionally.
In 2022, McIlwain made the move to the Brooklyn Cyclones, the High-A affiliate of the Mets and spent only two months there before moving up to Double-A with the Rumble Ponies. In 353 plate appearances last season, Mcilwain hit 15 doubles, six triples, seven home runs and had 33 RBI between the two levels.
Brignac attributed McIlwain’s success to his athletic makeup.
“His mental toughness for sure,” Brignac said. “He continuously works on his craft. He doesn’t take days off. He’s a super strong young man. He’s a very professional guy. He goes about his business the right way. He comes in with a great attitude every day and really puts a great effort every time he gets on the field.”
Now, McIlwain hopes to use the opportunity to compete with fellow prospects at a high level while reuniting with some of his former Rumble Ponies teammates.
“He’s a little quiet and you get to know him a little bit. He opens up,” teammate Luke Ritter said. “He’s a really good athlete, he used to play football. He was a quarterback and now he is playing baseball, but a freak athlete, great guy, great teammate, simple.”
McIlwain says his goal is to get in more at-bats, get better at the game and earn more experience playing in different climates.
“(I look forward to) playing against some really good competition. So I wanna see where I shape up with them. I want to be able to compete with these guys and play on some great fields,” McIlwain said. “I mean, it’s awesome to be out here on the West Coast and experience the other side of the spring training fields.”