From the Last Frontier to Combine to Draft, meet the Marlins' 15th-round pick

Niclai, two-time Alaska Player of the Year, embraces pressure of big stage

July 16th, 2024

No state has produced fewer big leaguers than Alaska. Of the 20,652 players to have competed in the Majors, only 12 were born in the Last Frontier, or roughly 0.06%.

Coen Niclai, the two-time Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year, hopes to be next after the Marlins drafted him in the 15th round (454th overall) in the 2024 MLB Draft on Tuesday.

Niclai, a University of Oregon commit, has been feeling the weight of expectations and a do-or-die scenario every time he’s traveled to the lower 48 for a shot against advanced competition. Last month at the Draft Combine, he performed in front of talent evaluators that's an environment packed with pressure.

“I know when I'm traveling 5,000 miles or whatever it may be to get here, you have to do good because it's the only time you get to show it,” Niclai said at the time. “The next time? You don't know how long it will be. I just really think that being here and being able to get the opportunity whenever that comes, definitely, you have a pressure on yourself.

“It's a good pressure though.”

So how is it that an uber-athletic 6-foot-3, 210-pounder who grew up playing football, basketball, skiing and cross country from a city that often doesn’t average 70 degrees during the summer turned to a game in which cooperation with the outdoor elements is paramount?

A chance encounter.

Tony Wylie was a 26th-round Draft choice of the New York Mets in 1975 out of Salinas (Calif.) HS. He played in just 15 games over two years in Rookie ball, but his love for the game never wavered as he eventually made the move to Alaska to become an air traffic controller for the FAA in 1982. A former coach at Service HS in Anchorage, where Niclai has starred during his prep career, he saw a 10-or-so-year-old Niclai and convinced him to try out: if he didn’t like it, he could move on to something else.

“It just kind of took off,” Niclai said of that meeting with Wylie. “I really appreciate him for just being able to push me through that. That was kind of the turning point of my baseball career right there.”

Wylie passed away in November 2022, but his impact still reverberates. Niclai -- just the second player in state history to win back-to-back Gatorade Player of the Year honors -- came stateside in June to participate in the MLB Draft League, where he impressed across a seven-game stint for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers in which he slashed .360/.484/.440 with seven RBIs. More importantly for the catcher, he got to work with older, more experienced pitchers who boasted enhanced arsenals, an enormous leap forward in his development.

“It definitely tested my leadership skills and if I could manage a staff that's definitely way older than me, so I really enjoyed it,” Niclai said. “A lot of the guys really liked me and I think they really respected me."

During his batting-practice session at the Combine, Niclai ripped four pitches in excess of 100 mph off the bat (107 mph max), including a 412-foot homer to left-center field.

Scouts who had traversed to Anchorage to see him in action praised his bat speed and ability to impact the ball to all fields. In addition to Niclai’s sound defensive acumen -- which is especially impressive considering the arms he caught throughout high school -- his off-the-field makeup has earned him high praise.

No player drafted out of Alaska has ever appeared in a big league game. (All 12 Alaskan-born big leaguers either attended college elsewhere or moved before being selected out of high school.) The Combine is a long way off from The Show, but it takes place on a Major League field, in front of Major League talent evaluators and with fellow future Major League talent in attendance.

“A lot of the guys definitely, I would say, are motivated by it and understand that there is a possibility for them out there,” Niclai said of teammates and peers seeing his successes. “As long as they keep striving where they're at, they can definitely exceed outside of Alaska.

“And I think being able to be that for those people in Alaska is really great.”