The St. Louis Cardinals signed Florida International University junior shortstop Garrett Wittels to a free agent contract on Saturday and assigned him to the Batavia Muckdogs of the New York-Penn League.
Wittels drew national attention as he put together a 56-game hitting streak as a sophomore in 2010 that ended in the first contest of 2011. It was just two games short of Oklahoma State’s Robin Ventura's 58-game Division I record set in 1987 and four behind the NCAA all-divisions mark held by Damian Costantino of Division III Salve Regina from 2001-03.
That season, Wittels was on top of the world. He hit .412, drove in 60 runs, won the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year Award and was named an All-American. Wittels led the Golden Panthers to an NCAA appearance and was nominated for the ESPY award for the Best Male College Athlete.
The Bay Harbor Islands, Florida native spent the summer of 2010 in the Alaskan Summer League with the Peninsula Oilers. There he hit .254 with 16 RBI and stole seven bases.
The right-handed hitter came into 2011 having been named to the National College Baseball Writers of America and Louisville Slugger Preseason All-America teams. College Baseball Daily named Wittels their 87th-best collegiate player in the nation.
On the field, he did not continue his stellar sophomore season. Wittels dropped to a .345 average with four home runs and 40 RBI, but there could be a good explanation.
In between, Wittels had serious off the field problems, but in a controversial decision, was still allowed by FIU officials to play this spring.
Wittels and two friends had been arrested in the Bahamas on rape charges last December. After an alleged extortion plot against the resort at which they were staying was uncovered, the charges were dropped and Wittels’ $10,000 bond was returned.
Wittels and his friends were not officially cleared until six months later, on June 20, however. With the charges still hanging over his head, each of the 30 MLB organizations passed on him during all 50 rounds of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft held two weeks prior.
On June 24, Wittels signed with the Morehead City (North Carolina) Marlins of the Coastal Plains League. He appeared in five games in the collegiate summer league, with his final outing on July 1.
Starting at second base and batting third for the Marlins, he went 4-for-19 (.211), all singles. Wittels fanned six times, drew two walks, drove in five and scored five times. He was 3-for-4 in stolen base attempts. In the field, Wittels committed two errors for an .882 fielding percentage.
With the Muckdogs, Wittels will be joining his former FIU teammate, third baseman Jeremy Patton. Patton was taken by the Cardinals in the 38th round of the 2011 draft, an event in which Wittels had undoubtedly hoped to participate himself.
Yet rather than return to FIU for his senior season, Wittels has decided to begin his professional baseball career now.
This article was updated on Monday, July 4.
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