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DJ Uiagalelei? Baseball? Why the Dodgers drafted the former five-star St. John Bosco QB

Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei plays against North Carolina on Dec. 3, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C.
Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei looks to pass against North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game on Dec. 3, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C.
(Jacob Kupferman / Associated Press)
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Quarterback DJ Uiagalelei is hoping to find success at his second college this fall, after the former Clemson star and Bellflower St. John Bosco High product transferred to Oregon State for the 2023 season.

If football doesn’t work out, however, the Dodgers on Tuesday gave Uiagalelei the possibility of transitioning to a second sport instead.

With its final pick in this year’s MLB draft, the team selected Uiagalelei in the 20th round at No. 610 overall, taking a flier on the former right-handed pitcher who last played baseball competitively during his junior year of high school in 2019.

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“It’s obviously very unique, and our first time drafting a quarterback like this,” Dodgers vice president of amateur scouting Billy Gasparino said. “We got to do more due diligence on what this looks like, but we’re very serious about it. And I think DJ is too.”

Quarterback DJ Uiagalelei of St. John Bosco is taking his talents to Clemson.

May 5, 2019

For now, the likelihood of Uiagalelei ever pursuing a baseball career — let alone one day taking the mound for the Dodgers, who likely would develop the former two-way prospect as a pitcher — is unclear.

The Dodgers, however, had been in contact with Uiagalelei for more than a year, confident the 22-year-old Inland Empire native, who used to throw in the mid-90s in high school, still has a deep passion for baseball.

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“I know he’s putting football first, and I know this is a big season for him and his NFL draft status,” Gasparino said. “We just want to kind of keep him in play and keep the conversation going as a possibility, if that [football] path doesn’t work out.”

Uiagalelei rose to national prominence as a five-star prospect in the 2020 high school football recruiting class. He enrolled at Clemson that spring to much fanfare, arriving as the highly-anticipated heir apparent to Trevor Lawrence.

After three up-and-down seasons with the Tigers, however, Uiagalelei lost his starting spot and transferred to Oregon State this offseason.

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While he is a graduate student with two seasons of college eligibility remaining and is projected to be the Beavers’ starter this fall, his prospects of playing in the NFL have dimmed.

Against that backdrop, the Dodgers felt comfortable with their low-risk gamble, taking a wait-and-see approach with his future in hopes the quarterback might one day choose to return to the diamond and the sport he has described as his first love.

In high school, Uiagalelei’s fastball reportedly touched 95 mph, according to former Clemson baseball coach Monte Lee. Uiagalelei’s 6-foot-4 frame made him an imposing presence at the plate, as well, giving his swing some natural pop.

But with his football career taking off, Uiagalelei played only one season of varsity baseball at St. John Bosco as a junior in 2019, making just three pitching appearances (he struck out five and gave up three runs in 4⅔ innings) before a hand injury ended his season, according to ESPN.

“Had he played baseball in high school, who knows what he would have been,” Lee said. “Because he had tremendous power, tremendous arm strength. Just no baseball reps.”

Despite Uiagalelei’s lack of experience, Lee said Clemson still recruited him to play baseball as well as football. Months before enrolling at the school, Uiagalelei told a Clemson recruiting site he was planning to play both sports.

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But once he got on campus, Uiagalelei changed his mind, notifying the baseball team that he wanted to focus on football.

“That,” Lee said, “was kind of the end of his baseball career.”

At least, that’s how it seemed until the Dodgers drafted him, giving the club the exclusive rights to sign Uiagalelei as a baseball player until next year’s draft.

Gasparino said the idea came from one of their area scouts, Jonah Rosenthal, who reached out to the quarterback last year to gauge his interest in potentially returning to baseball.

Uiagalelei was interested, Rosenthal said. He had grown up as a Dodgers fan. He had never let go of his love for baseball. And with his future in football becoming murky, the appeal of having the Dodgers as a backup plan quickly grew.

“I still hope that he goes out and performs [at Oregon State] and does what he wants to do,” Rosenthal said. “But if football doesn’t pan out the way he wants it to, I think this guy will be in spring training next year, and he will be full-blown into what we want him to do.”

Uiagalelei’s baseball training could begin even sooner, with Gasparino saying that the team will look for “some creative ways to get him to throw on the side” during his football season this fall.

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Given new roster restrictions in MLB that limit how many minor league players a club can have, the Dodgers aren’t worried about the risk of potentially never getting him into their organization.

“Why not take a risk?” Rosenthal said. “Why not jump in and try something different, create a market inefficiency, [find] something creative and out of the box?”

Lee, who is now an associate head coach at South Carolina, said he was so surprised by the news that he texted one of his best friends, Dodgers triple-A manager Travis Barbary, excited by the idea of Uiagalelei playing baseball again.

“He was always super nice to me,” Lee said. “He’s the nicest kid in the world.”

Then, Lee remembered one more story from Uiagalelei’s time at Clemson, when the quarterback took part in a student-body home run derby at the baseball team’s stadium last year.

“DJ came and hit one way out of the stadium, like way out of there,” Lee said. “He had arm strength and he had power. That’s for sure.”

And now, if he wants to, he’ll have a second chance at putting those tools to use in a baseball career.

“We very rarely run into a skill set that DJ has,” Rosenthal said. “Superb athlete. Really big-time arm strength. Really great body and potential. And at the end of the day, if [football] doesn’t work out for him, I think this is really legitimate. I think this is a path he would really want to go down.”

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