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Basketball School No More: Kentucky Wildcats

As the following run-on sentence shows, I’m really not much of a writer. Knowing this about myself, I’m always on the lookout for a clever hook that can help me find a way to share a little bit of what I know in a way that is a little bit more readable than yet another list. Since much of the past four days was spent keeping tabs on the NCAA basketball tournament, I figured going with the prohibitive favorite university on brackets across the country (mine included) would be a fine excuse to write about one of baseball’s biggest early season surprises. We’re almost certainly getting too far ahead of ourselves with the title, but let’s enjoy the Wildcats perfect start and talk some Kentucky baseball anyway.

I’m a gigantic fan of JR C Luke Maile. In fact, I’m a big enough fan that I think he’s the second best college catcher from any of the AQ conference schools I’ve looked at so far. He came into the year with everything checked off on my”potential big league starting catcher” checklist (power, arm, athleticism, works deep counts), but needed to do a better job defensively and improve his two strike approach. So far, so good. All the reports about his defense have been positive this spring (well, winter) and his impressive 11/3 BB/K ratio matches up nicely with his own stated goal of shortening his two strike swing. Maile is the second best catching prospect in the SEC, the second best catching prospect in any AQ conference, and, who knows, he might just be the second best catching prospect in all of college baseball. Alright, that last point might be stretching it a bit (a certain Horned Frog might have something to say about that, as might a major thumper who calls Western New York home), but he’ll be up there.

In addition to Maile, Kentucky has three other position players worth watching. SR C Michael Williams won’t hit enough to ever play everyday, but his defense is so damn good that he is a solid draft as a potential backup catcher down the line. JR OF Brian Adams is similar to Williams in that any team taking a chance on him on draft day is doing so based largely on tools beyond his bat. The former football star is an outstanding athlete with plus-plus speed, but is still super duper raw when it comes to the finer points of actually playing baseball. SR 3B Thomas McCarthy’s 2012 numbers are down, but his 2011 production (.376/.443/.590 – 20 BB/32 K – 210 AB) and average across the board tools are enough to at least get on the radar at one of the draft’s weaker positions. Kentucky also has a pair of hot hitting transfers lighting it up in JR OF Cameron Flynn (via Morehead State) and JR OF Zac Zellers (via Heartland CC).

Kentucky also has a trio of lefthanders who should all get looks throughout the spring. SR LHP Alex Phillips is far from a household name, but he has the funky lefty stuff down pat. Good deception, plus command, and a super change help him get consistent outs at the college level (7.05 K/9 in 2011, 9.60 K/9 so far in 2012) despite not having the fastest of fastballs (sits mid-80s, peaks up near 87-88). The total package sounds like it could play as a late round senior sign with LOOGY upside. The two bigger name lefties on the Wildcats staff both slot in quite comfortably in the draft’s first ten rounds. JR LHP Taylor Rogers sits in the upper-80s with room for more as his body fills out. He already throws two good offspeed pitches for strikes – his changeup is consistently above-average and flashes plus, while his upper-70s curve is nasty when on. JR LHP Jerad Grundy, finally settled in at Kentucky by way of Miami and Heatland CC, has found success with a fastball with a little more juice than Rogers’ and a much improved slider. Both lefties are off to excellent starts in 2012, but the exciting thought is that there are even better days ahead for each.

JR RHP Chris Garrison and JR RHP Walter Wijas both have good stuff, but haven’t done it at the college level with enough consistency to call either sure-fire drafts. Garrison profiles better as a pro — good fastball, two good breaking balls, especially his slider, and a usable splitter — but he’ll need to turn things around quickly and/or hope scouts catch him on his best days if he wants to get drafted where his talent should get him popped. Western Nevada transfer JR RHP Tim Peterson has also put himself in the draft mix with a big start to his season.

Looking ahead to the next two drafts, there’s some solid talent to be found in the Bluegrass State. SO LHP Corey Littrell (2013) has the three pitches (FB/CU/SL, all with above-average or better upside) to start as a pro while SO RHP Trevor Gott (2013) has that classic fastball/slider combo to excel in the back of a bullpen. SO 2B JT Riddle (2013) could be talked about as one of the better prospects at his position (or at third) with a big sophomore season. FR 2B Max Kuhn (2014) might wind up as an even better version of Riddle by his draft year. The Wildcats also have a few outfielders of note to watch out for in the next few years. SO OF Lucas Witt (2013) and FR OF Austin Cousino (2014) are both good athletes with enough range to hang in center who show off that patient approach at the plate that you like to see in young hitters. A trio of 2014 arms in RHP Chandler Shepherd, LHP AJ Reed (might be best off as a hitter at 1B), and RHP Taylor Martin all could emerge as early round picks in time.