How BYU shortstop Jackson Cluff went from a church mission to MLB draft prospect in less than a year

BYU shortstop Jackson Cluff (No. 4) could be selected in the Major League Baseball draft, which begins Monday and runs through Wednesday. A sophomore, Cluff celebrates with his teammates after defeating Utah on May 14. Photo courtesy of BYU photo.

Provo • Few professional baseball scouts were familiar with Jackson Cluff at this time last year because the Boise, Idaho, native was on a two-year church mission in Georgia.

They certainly know him now.

Having returned on June 28, 2018, Cluff put together a brilliant sophomore season as BYU’s primary shortstop and made himself a Major League Baseball draft prospect, Cougars coach Mike Littlewood said recently.

Cluff, 22, expects to be selected between rounds five and 15 of the MLB draft, which begins Monday and runs through Wednesday. Rounds 1-2 are Monday, while rounds 3-10 are Tuesday and rounds 11-40 are Wednesday.

“I am definitively hearing from quite a few different teams,” Cluff said last week. “I’m just hoping to get an opportunity to play somewhere. That has been the goal all along.”

Most draft observers figured it would take Cluff another season to get acclimated again after two years away from the sport, but he quickly picked up where he left off in 2016.

“He’s one of those guys who has been a major surprise, how quickly he’s gotten it back,” Littlewood said.

Cluff played third base his freshman season, and hit .279 with 10 RBIs, two doubles and a triple. In 2019, he started the season playing third and second before being moved to shortstop, where he flourished defensively and offensively. Cluff hit .327 with 56 RBIs and four homers this past season and earned all-WCC honors.

Twice he was named National Player of the Week, the first BYU player ever to earn the award twice in the same season.

Unlike most missionaries, Cluff was able to play a little baseball in Atlanta on his preparation day. He would talk his companions into playing catch with him, or going to a batting cage. One of those roommates was fellow Idahoan Connor Harding, now a starter on BYU’s basketball team. His dad sent him a pop-up net and tee so he could work on his swing.

He also helped out with some Little League teams and met with baseball players from Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State.

“I would say it definitely took me a while to get back to where I was,” he said. “It took me a while to get comfortable in games again and to handle the speed of the game at shortstop.The thing that helped me the most was the coaching staff was pretty patient with me and helped me get back to where I was. Also, my teammates were willing to let me step back into that role and be a contributor.”

Several of those teammates could also hear their names called this week, most notably sophomore pitcher Justin Sterner or junior pitcher Jarod Lessar. Pitcher Jordan Wood and outfielder Brock Hale also had outstanding seasons, but most likely won’t be drafted because they are seniors and returned missionaries and are considered too old by most clubs.

That’s why Cluff, who turns 23 in December, will likely leave BYU with two seasons of eligibility remaining if he does get drafted and is given a reasonable financial offer to sign with a pro club.

“I am pretty hopeful that I will have an opportunity to turn pro,” he said. “I can’t really say for sure, because a lot of it is out of my control. I really don’t know what the offers are going to be. But from what I am hearing, I am pretty sure that I am going to [turn pro] pretty soon.”

Cluff’s father, Paul, was a two-time All-American at BYU in 1988-89 and was drafted in the fourth round of the 1989 MLB draft. He’s been a good resource as Jackson Cluff goes through the pre-draft process.

“A lot has to do with the round and the offer a team brings to the table,” Jackson Cluff said. “If what people are saying is true, I will probably [sign]. If it turns out to be something else, then maybe I will go back to BYU. I just don’t know yet.”

But scouts definitely know about him — at least a lot more than they did last June.

BYU’s Major League Baseball draft possibilities

• Jackson Cluff, Soph., Infielder, Boise, Idaho

• Justin Sterner, Soph., Pitcher, Laguna Nigel, Calif.

• Jarod Lessar, Jr., Pitcher, Price, Utah

• Jordan Wood, Sr., Pitcher, Friendswood, Texas

• Brock Hale, Sr., Outfielder, Mesa, Ariz.