Nearly every NCAA Division I baseball program throughout the Southeast wanted Robert Wooten's signature on a letter-of-intent. While he politely listened to offers, only one color runs through his veins—powder blue.
However, the 23-year-old former University of North Carolina standout is rethinking those allegiances a tad, at least when it comes to the shade, as in Navy blue. That's because he was Milwaukee's 13th-round selection in this year's June first-year player draft and hopes to be taking the mound at Miller Park someday.
"I heard from just about every major league team starting last fall, and then about a month before the draft, my agent really starting getting calls," Wooten said of his second go-round with the recruiting process. "On draft day, man, I was extremely nervous. I thought I'd go a little higher, but I'm happy with where I got picked and I'm happy that it's worked out the way it has."
And his whirlwind tour—which included the NCAA tournament and College World Series--hasn't slowed down much since signing with the Brewers on June 27. His pro journey started in Rookie League ball Helena, but after only four appearances he had been moved up to Class A West Virginia.
The Power won the South Atlantic League's Northern Division second-half title with a 45-25 record, three games ahead of Lakewood. West Virginia opens the playoffs Wednesday against Lake County, a best-of-three series.
And one of the big reasons—literally and figuratively—has been the right-handed Wooten, one of eight West Virginia hurlers listed at 200 or more pounds. He has posted a 1-0 record and 2.38 ERA in 10 relief appearances since his promotion in late July. He recorded four saves while striking out 30 and walking only four in 22.2 innings, allowing a .173 batting average.
Wooten said he couldn't have asked for a better situation.
"Walking into (Helena) was different," Wooten said of his stop in Montana. "They've got a gorgeous ballpark, the coaches were great and I jelled with my teammates. But a lot of guys there are still working on developing a second or third pitch.
"I thought maybe that coming here to West Virginia, another level up, that maybe there'd be a little cockiness and they might not be as welcoming, but the chemistry here is unreal," Wooten added. "The city's great and everybody's been great and we've had a lot of fun."
They'll have a lot more fun if they can finish their summer on a high note. Either way, Wooten still has work to do because Milwaukee is turning him into being a starter after he spent his collegiate career coming out of the bullpen.
Wooten worked single innings during his first three outings with the Power, but he's gone at least two innings every time since, tossing as many as 3.2 innings. He'll continue along that track at instructional league in Arizona this fall with the idea that Wooten takes to the role full-time next season, whether back with West Virginia or at High A Brevard County of the Florida State League.
"I had been successful and most teams were looking at me as a reliever, so I never heard about becoming a starter until I was at the College World Series and somebody from MLB came up to me and said that Milwaukee was going to have me switch," Wooten said. "If that's what they want me to do, then I'll do it. I started in high school, so I've got experience doing it both ways. I'm ready for the challenge."
The Brewers' brass saw his potential—and three-pitch arsenal—during big-time competition in Omaha, where the Tar Heels lost back-to-back title games to Oregon State and then were eliminated by Cinderella team Fresno State during last year's tournament.
Wooten compiled a 6-2 mark and 1.87 earned-run average with five saves in 44 appearances, helping North Carolina to a 54-14 finish this past season. He struck out 73 and walked 33 in 62.2 innings, allowing only three homers and a .190 batting average.In 2007, Wooten established a Tar Heel record while leading the NCAA with 47 appearances. He was 6-1 while pitching 53 2/3 innings and posting a 2.35 ERA, striking out 58 and walking 23, including a 1.56 ERA and 3-0 mark in the NCAA tourney (12 games).
"My experience at UNC was unbelievable, and pitching in the College World Series was great," Wooten said. "Pitching in Omaha, in front of 30,000 fans, a national TV audience, that was as close to the major leagues as you can get. I wish every college player could participate in the Series, or at least get to go and watch. It's an experience I'll never forget."
The Fremont, N.C., native was a four-year star at Aycock High School, where he earned all-conference honors three times and all-state recognition as a senior
Wooten hopes he can make more memories in the coming days and years, and his quality pitching repertoire is what will make them possible.
He doesn't blow batters away with a fastball that tops out in the low 90s, but that two-seam pitch is much more effective because he also throws a slider and a split-fingered offering.
"I've lost a little off the fastball because I've pitched a lot this year," Wooten said. "I use the splitter a lot on 0-2 or 1-2 counts, but I believe the slider is my best pitch, especially coming out of the bullpen."
His command of all three is what could keep him on a fast climb through the system, and much of it was because of circumstance after he underwent shoulder surgery to repair his labrum in his freshman campaign at UNC.
"I started using the splitter in high school and threw over the top at that time," Wooten said. "But after the surgery, I decided I was going to learn the slider and my coach had the same idea, and I started throwing three-quarters style and that angle was a natural fit."
So, Wooten will continue to fine-tune his pitches and prepare for a future as a starter, but not in the way one might think.
"I've pitched a lot this year, so I'm going to take a couple of days off and then I'll catch a plane to Arizona for instructional league," Wooten said. "I'm getting married at the end of October and I'm not going to touch a ball for two months. Actually, we can start throwing again Dec. 15, so after that I've got a lot of work to do to get ready. I hope to be starting at Brevard County. At least that's what I'm shooting for. If it's back here (at West Virginia), I'll be ready to go."