Michigan's Minor Leaguers Making Up for Lost Season

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

June 28, 2021

Nick Plummer doesn’t necessarily view this summer as a make-or-break season, but he does realize the clock is ticking in his bid to make The Show.

Now in his fifth season in the St. Louis Cardinals chain, the former Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice star, like all minor league baseball players, suffered a setback when the 2020 minor league season was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic. While some were called into alternate-site camps during the abbreviated Major League Baseball season, the majority simply sat out a year. The loss means players this summer are scrambling to recapture lost momentum and get careers back on track.

Made in MichiganIn a sport where development is the key to climbing the competitive minor league ladder, Plummer, one of a number of former Michigan high school standouts striving this summer in professional baseball, admits he needs to make significant progress playing for the Cards' Double-A affiliate in Springfield, Mo.

“Not playing in 2020 was a big deal for everyone,” said Plummer, the state’s 2016 Mr. Baseball Award honoree. “But I feel good about this season. Each year you need to develop and learn leadership and maturity.

“I worked on the mental side of baseball as well as working out (in Rochester). I tried to make the best of things, but it was tough.”

The season could mark a significant turning point in Plummer’s career. The center fielder had never hit over .228 during his four seasons, but is off to a quick start at Springfield, batting a career-high .283 with four home runs and 18 RBI over 145 at bats with a .386 on-base percentage.

Plummer, now 24, was drafted by the Cardinals in the first round, 23rd overall, during the 2015 amateur draft. He's part of an intriguing group of former Michigan prep stars trying to progress this summer.

South Haven’s Ryan Dorow is playing at Triple-A Round Rock in the Texas Rangers chain, located about 180 miles south of the parent club’s home in Arlington. A former baseball, basketball and soccer star in high school who helped those teams to a combined eight District championships, Dorow went on to become one of the greatest players in Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association history at Adrian College where he hit .395 with 95 extra base hits while driving in 188 runs over 179 career games.

Nick PlummerDorow, a first-team all-MIAA pick all four seasons, said his goal is to simply improve each year as a pro. This season he’s hitting a combined .336 in 31 games across two levels, with six homers, 17 RBI and a .414 on-base percentage.

“You need to prove something to the organization and stay true to yourself,” said Dorow, who never hit less than .383 in any season at Adrian. “As a player you want to develop quickly, but everyone has their own timeline. You have to go out and have fun and improve.

“Coming out of high school and college, it was always in the back of my mind to play professional baseball, but you also have to understand that whatever happens, happens. I was just looking for another opportunity to play.”

Another former state prep star is making a radical switch in his opportunity in pro baseball. Grosse Pointe South’s Carmen Benedetti was the state’s 2013 Mr. Baseball, setting school records in average (.492), homers (22) and RBI (143). He became a 12th-round pick (367th overall) of the Houston Astros after batting .323 with 10 homers and 56 RBI in three years as a first baseman/outfielder at Michigan.

By his own admission, Benedetti, a three-time all-stater as a position player, was a less-than-stellar pitcher at South before throwing fewer than 30 innings for the Wolverines. But while an arm injury two years ago ended his hopes of playing in the field as a pro, the now 26-year-old Benedetti has turned to pitching this season with the High-A Ashville Tourists in North Carolina. He’s currently on the minor league injured list but was anticipating a mid-June return.

“Every year in baseball is a challenge, and I’ve just had to take (the switch) in stride,” said Benedetti, now in his fifth year in the Astros chain. “We all had 2020 off, and now we need to get the ball rolling. You still have to perform, and I’m going to do what I do. It’s a new road, but I feel like I’m lucky to get this far and now I’m just going to see another part of the game.”

Two more standouts who’ll be trying to make the most of their summers are brothers Chris and Mike Mokma of Holland Christian. Chris was taken in the 12th round of the 2019 draft by Miami while Mike – who threw a four-hitter with 14 strikeouts in an 8-5 win over Linden in the 2016 Division 2 championship game — signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Dodgers after serving as the staff ace at Michigan State.

Mike is playing with the High-Class A Great Lakes Loons of the Midwest League. Chris is pitching with the Low-A Jupiter Hammerheads, who play in Palm Beach County, Fla., about 80 miles north of Miami. Chris has made eight starts, striking out 32 over just more than 41 innings. Mike started this season strong and is striking out a batter per inning over his first 10, all in relief, but has navigated some tough outings after returning from the injured list at the start of this month for the Midland-based Loons. 

Ryan Dorow“The biggest goal is always development,” Chris Mokma said. “I’m still only 20, and it’ll be my first year of playing with older guys. I want to develop my pitching and my command and be able to throw any pitch in any count for a strike.

“Professional baseball has changed baseball for me a little, and now you’re just trying to evolve. If you pitch well, you move up. That’s still baseball. You can’t let the fun go away. At the end of the day you are playing a sport, but your goal is to get to the big leagues.”

There are several other former Michigan prep stars scattered throughout the minors this summer. Infielder Werner Blakely of Detroit Edison was taken in the fourth round (111th overall) of the 2020 draft by the Los Angeles Angels, the highest Detroit player taken since Northwestern’s Marc Washington was selected by the Tigers in the fourth round of the 1982 draft.

Blakely, who will play in the Arizona Rookie League in Tempe, was ranked as the country’s 260th best high school player by Perfect Game. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound shortstop batted .467 with five homers and 38 RBI in 96 at-bats his junior year before losing his senior year to COVID.

Also among notable Michigan players in the minors are five from the 2015 and 2016 Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Dream Teams, including four pitchers who helped the Wolverines to the 2019 College World Series finals. Tommy Henry (Portage Northern), Karl Kauffman (Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice), Jeff Criswell (Portage Central) and Jack Weisenburger (Rockford) are all in pro ball.

Oakland took Criswell in the second round (58th overall) of the 2020 draft after Weisenburger was taken by the A’s in the 20th round the year before. Criswell has made one scoreless two-inning appearance for High-A Lansing (Mich.) and is on the injured list, while Weisenburger is 1-1 with a 2.53 ERA and 35 strikeouts over 21 1/3 relief innings at Double-A Midland in Texas.

Henry was the 74th player taken in the 2019 draft and pitching for the Double-A Amarillo Sod Poodles (Texas) of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization; he’s 1-3 in 10 starts with a 4.93 ERA and 59 strikeouts over just under 46 innings pitched this season. Kauffman was the 77th overall pick in the same draft by the Colorado Rockies. He is pitching for the Hartford Yard Goats (Conn.) in Double-A, where he’s made nine starts.

Also on the Wolverines’ World Series club was outfielder Jordan Nwogu, previously a second-team all-stater from Ann Arbor Pioneer who was taken by the Chicago Cubs in the third round (88th overall) of the 2019 draft. He’s playing with the Low-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans (S.C.) and is off to a slow start at the plate but has stolen six bases.

Chris Mokma

Mike MokmaHamilton’s Grant Wolfram was nabbed by Texas in the 18th round of the 2018 draft. A pitcher, Wolfram will be spending his fourth year in pro ball with the High-A Hickory Crawdads (N.C.). He won 19 games with Davenport University and later pitched at Central Michigan. As a high school tennis player at Hamilton, Wolfram was 30-1 as a senior and named all-state. In all, he earned 10 varsity letters in tennis, basketball and baseball. He’s made eight starts with 43 strikeouts over just less than 31 innings pitched.

Pitcher Garrett Schilling had a remarkable prep career at Bishop Foley and also is playing this summer in Double-A with Hartford after being taken in the 18th round of the 2017 draft by Colorado. Schilling was an outstanding three-sport star in high school; he amassed a 36-0 record as a pitcher, was a two-year letter winner in hockey and made 7-of-11 field goal attempts as a kicker on the football team.

He helped Bishop Foley to three Division 3 baseball championships over his first three seasons from 2011-13 and a combined 146-12-1 record over four years until a line drive off his face at the end of his senior spring required season-ending surgery. Schilling went a combined 4-for-9 with five RBI in Finals wins over Bridgman, Lansing Catholic and Grandville Calvin Christian.

He wound up attending Xavier where he went from pitching seven innings as a freshman to earning 14 saves with a 1.91 ERA as a sophomore, to 15 starts and a 6-4 record and 3.57 ERA his junior year. He was a two-time all-Big East second-team selection. Schilling is carrying a 4.63 ERA with nearly a strikeout per inning in nine starts.

Sam Weatherly of Howell is pitching for the Low-Class A Fresno Grizzlies (Calif.). A first team all-stater in 2016, Weatherly was taken by Colorado in the third round (81st overall) of the 2020 draft after pitching collegiately at Clemson. He’s 2-3 with a 4.38 ERA  – with 61 strikeouts in 37 innings pitched – over nine starts this season.

Former Detroit U-D Jesuit and U-M catcher Harrison Wenson is playing for his third minor league team and second organization this season, having begun in the Angels system, receiving his release from High-A Tri-City (Wash.) and signing with the Cubs’ High-A in South Bend, Ind.

A rare three-time draftee, Wenson was selected by the Tigers in the 38th round in 2013, in the 39th round by Pittsburgh three years later and then by the Angels in the 24th round of the 2017 draft. He was a member of the MHSBCA’s Dream Team as a junior and senior.

PHOTOS: (Top) Former Brother Rice standout Nick Plummer hauls his gear at Hammons Field in Springfield, Mo., as a member of the Double-A Cardinals this season. (2) Plummer follows one of his drives. (3) South Haven’s Ryan Dorow awaits a pitch for his Triple-A team in the Texas Rangers chain. (4) Holland Christian’s Chris Mokma begins his delivery for the Jupiter Hammerheads. (5) Brother Mike Mokma fires a pitch for the Great Lakes Loons. (Photos courtesy of the Springfield Cardinals, Round Rock Express, Jupiter Hammerheads and the Mokma family.)

Monroe High Memories Remain Rich for Michigan's 1987 Mr. Baseball

By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com

July 22, 2024

WHITE LAKE – Dan Hilliard’s time came before Twitter, before computers were part of everyday life and almost before there was such a thing as Mr. Baseball.

Made In Michigan and Michigan Army National Guard logosBut he fit the bill perfectly.

As legendary Monroe Evening News sportswriter Bill Brenton once wrote about Hilliard’s Monroe High School baseball career, “a complete list of accomplishments would overload this word processor.”

Hilliard was an outstanding pitcher at Monroe High School during the late 1980s. He never lost a game his junior and senior seasons on the mound. He was an all-state choice and after his senior year was named Mr. Baseball, the second recipient of the award that has been handed out by the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association since 1986.

Scott Salow, the head coach at Homer High School when the Trojans won 75 straight games and his sport’s national coach of the year in 2005 by the National High School Coaches Association, was a high school teammate of Hilliard.

“He was absolutely dominant,” Salow recalls. “Our best overall player. He could hit and run as well.”

Hilliard was as surprised as anyone to learn he was Michigan’s Mr. Baseball after his senior season.

“I didn’t know there was any such thing as Mr. Baseball,” Hilliard said.

After going 9-0 with a 1.42 ERA and a .506 batting average in 1987, Hillard was invited to play in the MHSBCA All-Star Game at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. At a pregame dinner, one of the board members pulled him aside and told him they were going to call him up to the podium and introduce him as Mr. Baseball.

“I just thought, ‘Wow, OK,’” Hilliard said. “I didn’t really think baseball had that award. I didn’t really think of it.”

Hillard was a pitcher-outfielder for Monroe. For his career, he went 27-2 as a pitcher and had 57 stolen bases in 60 attempts.

“To me, I didn’t think I did anything super crazy,” he said. “I was part of a really good team. We put together a lot of wins. To me, I was just a part of the team. I didn’t think I stood out more than anyone else. It’s humbling to think back on those times.”

Longtime Blissfield coach Larry Tuttle – who has the most wins of any high school baseball coach in Michigan history – coached Hilliard in American Legion ball. Tuttle’s Blissfield team won the prestigious Monroe Auto Equipment Co. Baseball Tournament during Hilliard’s senior season, but Hilliard received the Most Valuable Player Award.

“He was very deserving of that honor,” Tuttle said. “He was a great pitcher, the best around. We recruited him to play summer ball with us.”

Tuttle was on the Mr. Baseball selection committee when the award began.

“We met and talked about it and decided we needed to do something to honor the best player in the state,” Tuttle said. “Dan was no doubt deserving after the season and career he had.”

Hilliard headlines in the Detroit Free Press on June 18, 1987. (Hilliard grew up in Monroe, near the shores of Lake Erie, playing recreation baseball during the week and on a travelling “all-star” team that a few parents would organize on the weekends. As a youngster he played in the famed Monroe County Fair All-Star Tournament, which dates back to the early 1960s and is still going strong.

At Monroe, he couldn’t play high school baseball until his sophomore season.

“Back then, the high school was only sophomores through seniors,” he said. “I wasn’t at the high school as a freshman.

“I was a little intimidated at first,” he added. “It didn’t take long for me to realize I did belong up there on the varsity. I was the youngest guy on the team, so a few guys took me under their wing. I had a great time.”

Hilliard went 4-2 as a sophomore hurler for Butch Foster’s Trojans. His junior year is when he shined the brightest, going 14-0 on the mound with a 0.69 ERA and 155 strikeouts. He easily was picked as the player of the year by the local newspaper. He followed that up with another undefeated senior season and then joined Tuttle’s Blissfield-based American Legion team for the summer.

“I put together three pretty good years,” he said. “That was that.”

He made the short drive to Blissfield one afternoon for a game.

“It was my night to be on the mound, so I was in the bullpen warming up and Coach Tuttle came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I need to talk to you.’ That’s when he told me I was picked for the East-West All-Star game. I thought, well, that’s pretty cool,” Hilliard recalled.

Once in Detroit, the all-star players got together for a workout, then went to a banquet where Hilliard was announced as the statewide player of the year.

“A lot of the guys there were guys I had never heard of or never played against,” he said. “They were from different parts of the state.”

Hilliard went to Central Michigan University to play baseball, but never donned the Chippewas uniform. When his sophomore season rolled around, he transferred to Spring Arbor University near Jackson, where his older brother and Salow were playing baseball.

“I thought it was a better fit for me,” Hilliard said. “It ended up being great. I loved playing college baseball.”

It was at Spring Arbor where a teammate introduced him to his future wife, Elizabeth. They moved to White Lake soon after where they still live and have raised three children, ranging in age from 20-28. Sports remained a big part of Hilliard’s life. His two daughters both played volleyball in college, and his oldest daughter is now a coach at a university in Illinois. His youngest daughter plays college beach volleyball in North Carolina. His son was a three-sport athlete in high school who studied turf management at Michigan State University.

Hilliard works for an electrical supply house in Waterford.

“Things are going good,” he said. “It is a very nice place to live. There are a lot of lakes around here.”

His Mr. Baseball plaque hangs on the wall in his basement, right next to a photo of him at Tiger Stadium with the rest of the East-West all-stars.

“It pops into my head every so often,” he said of his high school days. “I pay attention to the local high schools up here and see who’s playing well. I think about those times a lot. I don’t talk about them often, but I think about it.”

He doesn’t have video clips of games he pitched, but the memories are strong.

“In this day and age with internet and YouTube and all these videos, you see a lot of great players in the state,” he said. “I wonder what it would have been like if I would have been in this modern day.”

2024 Made In Michigan

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PHOTOS (Top) At left, Dan Hilliard pitches for Monroe High as a senior in 1987; at right, he holds up his Mr. Baseball Award that continues to hang on a basement wall. (Middle) Hilliard headlines in the Detroit Free Press on June 18, 1987. (Top photos courtesy of Dan Hilliard. Clipping courtesy of the Detroit Free Press.)