Nelson Maldonado accepted that his baseball career was likely over as he drove home in his old Buick Century following his senior season at Florida in 2019.
Maldonado, whose team had just lost in the NCAA regional, had watched the start of the Major League Baseball Draft unfold and figured enough time had passed without his name getting called.
Then the outfielder got a surprising message in his group text chain with the rest of his college teammates. They were all congratulating him. Maldonado had no idea what they were talking about until he looked at a tweet they had sent him: The Chicago Cubs had selected him in the 21st round of the draft.
“I was more shocked that nobody called me and I had to find out through Twitter,” he said.
Maldonado, who recently was promoted to Triple-A with the Iowa Cubs for the first time in his career, has turned into one of the most successful hitters in the entire organization. It's not what many expected for the 25-year-old, who was a star for the Gators and was a part of their College World Series title team in 2017 but flew under the draft radar.
His best season came as a senior when he hit .343 with 14 doubles, two triples, 10 homers and had a .575 slugging percentage. But he dealt with ankle and shoulder injuries during his final season and thought teams would pass on him in the draft. He was even more sure of that as round after round passed without him being picked.
So, Maldonado packed up his car and left Gainesville. During the drive home, he reminisced about his college career and his time in baseball. He had no plans of playing Independent League ball. So, if a team didn't come calling, Maldonado planned to walk away from baseball and possibly return to school.
When his buzzing phone alerted him to his selection by the Cubs, he pulled over and called his family.
"They were all crying," he said.
Maldonado didn't care where he was picked or how much money the Cubs were going to offer him. He just wanted to play and prove himself. And that's what he's doing. Thinking he may not get drafted and going as late as he did is motivation for him to prove his doubters wrong.
During his first pro season, Maldonado hit .332/.378/.456 between Rookie ball, Short-Season and Full-Season. He was just as good in 2021 when he hit .303/.371./467 with 18 doubles in 67 games with Double-A Tennessee. Maldonado was off to another strong start this season, hitting .465 in 12 games with Tennessee before being promoted to Iowa.
"The kid has a knack for hitting," said I-Cubs hitting coach Desi Wilson.
Now, Maldonado finds himself just one step away from reaching the major leagues. He's viewed by outsiders as one of the organization's premier prospects.
A big reason for his success is where he went in the draft.
"I would say I play with a chip on my shoulder just for that reason," Maldonado said. "But, it also makes me not take anything for granted. I'm always going to work hard. I'm always going to show up and I'm always going to do things the right way."
Tommy Birch, the Register's sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He's the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Nelson Maldonado turns heads as one of Cubs' top minor league hitters