College baseball: East grad Peeler hopes to capitalize on fresh start

Published 1:00 am Monday, February 5, 2018

By Mike London

MOUNT OLIVE, N.C. — When East Rowan High senior Joe Peeler was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in June of 2015, he had a decision to make.

Take his best shot at pro baseball or head to UNC Wilmington as a scholarship pitcher.

Peeler was 18 when he was drafted. He was towering, but he was rail-thin. He was a 25th-round draft pick, a long shot under the best of circumstances. And the Mariners’ rookie camp may as well have been on Mars. It was 2,100 miles away in Arizona. There wasn’t going to be much of a support system for the teenager in the desert.

Coaches cared about Peeler. He was a down-to-earth, conscientious teen and no one wanted to see him have his dreams smashed. Some advised him to go to Wilmington, throw innings for the Seahawks against Division I competition, let that skinny body mature and grow into that nice frame and see where he stood when he was eligible for the draft again in 2018.

But ultimately the decision was Peeler’s to make. He went with his gut. The chance might only come once. He opted for the plane ticket and the pros.

The knocks that came Peeler’s way in the summers of 2015 and 2016 were hard. He pitched in 24 games for the Mariners’ rookie league teams in Arizona. He won one game and he saved two. He allowed 25 hits in 23 innings. He struck out 15, but he walked 33. His ERA was 10.41, which sounds more like a tax form than an ERA. Peeler actually regressed a bit in his second year, and the Mariners had 30 fresh arms they needed to look at. Pro baseball is a business, so they moved on. On Dec. 14, 2016, 18 months after he’d signed and two weeks after his 20th birthday, Peeler was out of baseball. He was released.

Peeler’s view of that failed attempt at pro ball might surprise you. He isn’t wallowing in regrets.

“Looking back on it all, if I could do it over again, I would choose the same course,” Peeler said. “I grew up with the dream of playing pro baseball, and when I had the chance to follow that dream,  I took it. I’ll never regret that. Besides, I learned a lot.”

Peeler had the talent to succeed, but he wasn’t physically ready when opportunity knocked the first time.

That doesn’t mean he won’t be ready next time.

Peeler is 6-foot-6 now, his weight is up to 205 firm pounds, and he’s on the roster of Division II powerhouse Mount Olive. There’s a little-known rule in  Division II baseball that allows players to enroll in college and compete even after pro careers don’t pan out. As long as those players are under 21, haven’t played more than three years of pro ball and haven’t played above Class A, they are still eligible. Peeler fit the criteria.

There are penalties for those former pros. They lose years of college eligibility based on their time in pro ball. They also have to sit out their first year back in school. They must re-establish their academic credentials before they can suit up. Peeler already has done that.

He isn’t certain if he’s a sophomore or a junior now in terms of eligibility — he’s heard both — but he’s listed on the Mount Olive roster as a sophomore.

“When I was drafted out of high school, I wasn’t aware of any rule that would allow me to go to a D-II school and pitch if  pro ball didn’t work out,” Peeler said. “The coaches at UNC Wilmington found out about my situation after I was released. They called the head coach at Mount Olive (Carl Lancaster) and told him he should check on me. It worked out. I  like the school, and Mount Olive is in the top tier of Division II baseball programs.”

Mount Olive is in the rural middle of nowhere, about halfway between Raleigh and Wilmington, with Goldsboro as the closest town of any size. But the school is the undisputed king of D-II  baseball in eastern North Carolina. Usually nationally ranked, Mount Olive enters this season pegged as the team to beat in Conference Carolinas as well as the team to beat in the Southeast Region.

Once a week  someone asks Peeler why he didn’t enroll at Catawba, the Division II power in his own hometown.

“Because I wanted a new start,” Peeler said. “I didn’t want to go somewhere where everyone knew who I was and knew all about me.”

Peeler spent last school year like every other Mount Olive redshirt —studying, eating, running, lifting, adding muscle.

He’s had the advantage of pro coaching, and his changeup is vastly improved from his high school days. His long right arm is fresh and healthy. Most days his fastballs are clocked at 86-88 mph, but he’s had exceptional days when he touched 92. In the bitter chill of February, he’s not going to be worried about throwing 90. He’s just going to try to locate at 86.

Peeler has made a smooth transition to the college classroom. After two years devoted to baseball, he’s a bit behind, but he’s a bright guy and is majoring in mathematics.

“I’ve been catching up in school and now I have a 3.5 GPA,” Peeler said. “I really hope baseball works out, but even if it doesn’t, I can see myself getting a masters degree. I’m just very thankful for what I have. Being a college student and getting a second chance to play baseball?  I’m fortunate.”

Peeler has been a welcome boost to a squad that had  five players drafted last June by MLB, including four pitchers. Peeler is confident he’ll get mound opportunities early this season, either working out of the bullpen or starting mid-week games.

Mount Olive has an intriguing mid-week visitor scheduled for Feb. 20 at Scarborough Field — the Catawba Indians.