SIU RHP Justin Yeager

SIU right-hander Justin Yeager makes a pitch in this file photo from the 2019 season. Yeager, a 33rd round pick by the Atlanta Braves, is leaving school a year early to pursue a pro career. 

Justin Yeager was considering coming back to SIU. Then the Atlanta Braves offered him the kind of money that goes to ninth and 10th-round picks in the Major League Baseball, not the 33rd round.

Yeager, 21, made 24 appearances out of the bullpen for the 26-29 Salukis. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound righty went 4-2 with a 2.88 ERA in 40 2/3 innings. Yeager struck out 47 batters, walked 21, and allowed five extra-base hits all year (one home run). Opponents hit .173 against the honorable mention all-conference pitcher.

He was drafted in the 33rd round by the Braves, a team Yeager never heard from before. Because they had some money from not paying the full slot in the previous draft, they were able to sweeten the offer to Yeager to skip his senior year. Yeager plans on signing with the Braves on Wednesday, when he reports to their spring training site.

"I definitely thought I was ready, but, obviously, I'm going to miss playing at SIU," Yeager said. "It was awesome, especially working with (pitching) coach (P.J.) Finigan. I'm going to definitely miss my teammates and working with them every day. It was definitely hard to get away from them, for sure."

About 15 teams were on Yeager's radar before the draft. The big righty from Plainfield features a pretty good fastball, slider and split-change to keep opponents off-balance. He was SIU's most reliable reliever late in the year, and had nine outings of two innings or more.

"This was the biggest developmental year in my career," Yeager said. "Just working with coach Finigan closer and closer every day. We really, especially in the weight room, and I think I made some strides there. We watched a ton of video every time I threw. We really turned it up a notch in my development."

Yeager was the 107th Saluki taken in the MLB draft, and the eighth pitcher in the last eight years. Righty Michael Baird was selected by the Cardinals in the 23rd round in 2018, and is now in St. Louis' Class A-Short Season affiliate. Lefty Joey Marciano, a 36th-round pick by the Giants in 2017, is currently in Class A-Advanced. Chad Whitmer, a righty who was picked in the 10th round of the 2017 draft by the Yankees, is with their Class A affiliate. 

Sam Coonrod, a righty that was drafted in the fifth round by the Giants in 2014, made his MLB debut earlier this year. He is currently on the Giants' 40-man roster. 

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TODD HEFFERMAN covers SIU athletics for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at todd.hefferman@thesouthern.com, 618-351-5087 or on Twitter at @THefferman. 


Sports reporter

Todd Hefferman has covered SIU athletics since 2008. A University of Iowa grad, he is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and a Heisman Trophy voter.

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