If the SEC is the toughest conference in college baseball, that’s because its teams sign elite players in droves every year. The league is simply loaded with talent.
Look no further than the MLB Draft, where hordes of prominent alumni get taken early and often. Last June, 12 former SEC players came off the board before the end of Round 2, including No. 2 overall pick Nick Senzel (3B, Tennessee) and fellow top-10 selection A.J. Puk (LHP, Florida).
The 2017 season promises to feature another wave of top MLB prospects starring on SEC clubs. To size them up, SEC Country spoke with MLB.com draft expert Jim Callis, who offered his take on several players you’ll want to follow this spring.
We’ll start with 3 SEC players who have a shot to go No. 1 overall in the 2017 Draft. Unsurprisingly, they play for two of the conference’s most dominant programs.
Vanderbilt OF Jeren Kendall
Prospect rank: No. 2
2016 stats: 9 HRs, 59 RBIs, .332 average, .396 on-base percentage, .568 slugging percentage (62 games)
The skinny: Vanderbilt has produced 12 first-round picks since 2004, and Kendall should help that list grow soon. A junior, Kendall promises to be the centerpiece of the Commodores lineup this spring. His tremendous speed — whether on the base paths (28 steals last season) or in the outfield — will be among VU’s biggest assets, but he’s a very well-rounded player.
Callis says: “Kendall is clearly the best college position player in a down year for college position players. That’s probably the weakest part of the draft. A lot of times the really high-quality athletes sign out of high school. He could have, but he wanted to go to Vanderbilt, so he did. He can really run, he can play center field defense. Even though the speed really stands out, he’s got more power than people might realize. The question with him is, there’s some swing-and-miss in his game. He’s got to make more consistent contact. If he does that, he definitely has a chance to go No. 1 overall.”
Florida RHP Alex Faedo
Prospect rank: No. 4
2016 stats: 13-3, 3.18 ERA, 133 strikeouts, 21 walks (17 starts)
The skinny: Faedo, 21, will get his turn in the spotlight as a junior after spending last season as the Gators’ No. 3 starter. Granted, he was behind early draft picks A.J. Puk and Logan Shore. The righty’s strikeout potential already has his teammates excited for the spring.
Callis says: “He’s coming off arthroscopic surgery on his knees, which isn’t supposed to be a factor. But it’s a good fastball, good slider, control. Florida’s pitching staff was just loaded last year with 2 first-round picks and 5 guys taken in the top 4 rounds. A bunch of underclassmen who’ll be high picks, too. And Faedo was the best pitcher on that team. I think that says a lot.”
Vanderbilt RHP Kyle Wright
Prospect rank: No. 5
2016 stats: 8-4, 3.09 ERA, 107 strikeouts, 32 walks (16 starts)
The skinny: Wright went undrafted out of high school in 2014, but he grew into his tall frame at Vanderbilt and emerged as the team’s No. 2 starter last season. Now he’ll be the Commodores’ ace with Jordan Sheffield moving on to the pros. He and Kendall should form quite the duo on the diamond.
Callis says: “Talking to people who saw (Faedo and Wright) with Team USA last year, people think Wright probably has a little more projection remaining in him. He’s got a good fastball. I think his fastball control is comparable to Faedo’s. Faedo’s slider might be a little better than Wright’s curveball. They’ve both got good changeups. They’re comparable. But Wright has a little bit more athleticism, a little bit better delivery. It’s a coin-flip as to which of those guys is gonna be better in the long run. The industry’s kind of split on those guys so far.”
Missouri RHP Tanner Houck
Prospect rank: No. 8
2016 stats: 5-6, 2.99 ERA, 106 strikeouts, 27 walks (15 starts)
The skinny: Houck is not a lock to wind up a starter at the next level, but MLB teams should be willing to give him a shot if only for his nasty fastball. Opposing batters hit just .209 off him last year, and he had 3 complete games. Mizzou will obviously rely on his arm a whole lot this spring.
Callis says: “I still think he’s going to go in the top 10 or 15 picks. He’s got one of the best fastballs in the draft. Good velocity. He throws from a lower arm slot, so a lot of sinking and boring action. It’s hard to hit, and when you do hit it, it’s a lot of weak contact. People kind of compared him to (Max) Scherzer, Justin Masterson. It’s interesting because you really like the fastball. He throws a lot of strikes. But it’s a low three-quarters arm slot, the elbow’s high in the delivery. While he’s able to throw strikes, it’s not always easy to stay on top of his slider. It can be more sweepy than have bite to it. He doesn’t use his changeup a whole lot.”
LSU RHP Alex Lange
Prospect rank: No. 10
2016 stats: 8-4, 3.79 ERA, 125 strikeouts, 49 walks (17 starts)
The skinny: Lange’s sophomore season was disappointing only in the context of his amazing freshman year, when he went 12-0 with a 1.97 ERA for the Tigers. He’s an overpowering fireballer who can stack up the K’s quickly, and he has LSU poised to make another run at the College World Series in 2017.
Callis says: “Alex Lange from LSU, he’s probably right there with Houck. Depending on who you talk to, some guys might like Lange better than Houck. He’s got a better second pitch but less control. He was unbelievable as a freshman. Wasn’t as sharp last year, but still had a pretty good year. He’s got a 92-96 (mph) fastball, power curveball. He sometimes overthrows a little bit and loses some control. So that’s probably the key with him. There’s probably more effort in his delivery than Faedo, Wright and Houck, but right now he’s kind of in the mix to go in the top 10.”
Florida C/DH JJ Schwarz
Prospect rank: No. 19
2016 stats: 7 HRs, 60 RBIs, .290 average, .397 on-base percentage, .456 slugging percentage (68 games)
The skinny: Whether Schwarz stays at catcher in the pros or gets moved to another position, his bat is good enough that a team should take him in the first round. He’ll anchor the heart of a deep Gators lineup in 2017.
Callis says: “JJ Schwarz has a good chance to go in the first round. He’s one of the best power-hitters in the draft. The thing people are trying to figure out is how good of a catcher he can be. He hasn’t caught a lot at Florida. It’s not because he’s glaringly deficient behind the plate; Florida also has one of the best defensive catchers in the country in Mike Rivera. He just has not caught a whole lot. He’s been up and down. He looked better as a freshman than a sophomore, but it’s still a really good power bat.”
Texas A&M RHP Corbin Martin
Prospect rank: No. 22
2016 stats: 2-1, 5.47 ERA, 33 strikeouts, 21 walks (16 appearances)
The skinny: Martin spent last season as a middle reliever for the Aggies, but the incredible potential he flashed during summer league play had to have intrigued MLB teams. He didn’t allow a run through 16 Alaska League appearances in 2015, and he struck out 22 batters in 15 2/3 innings during Cape Cod League play last year. A good spring could have Martin quickly climbing draft boards.
Callis says: “He’s a hard one to figure out. I think the year before in Alaska, I don’t think he gave up a run. He’s been unbelievable 2 summers in a row. He’s been lights-out. But he didn’t throw a lot of strikes at A&M, and A&M always has deep staffs. He’s gonna get a chance to start this year. If he can show the stuff he showed as a reliever in the Cape as a starter — he’ll probably lose a little velocity. But it was a well-above-average fastball, a really nasty curveball. If he can throw that combination, show some feel for a changeup and throw more strikes, then he can go pretty good. He’s hard to figure out because it’s just been kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde. Right now I think he could go in the first round, but this spring will really determine how high he goes.”
South Carolina RHPs Clarke Schmidt and Wil Crowe
Prospect rank: No. 35 and No. 36, respectively
2016 stats: Schmidt: 9-5, 3.40 ERA, 129 strikeouts, 27 walks (18 appearances) | Crowe: did not pitch
The skinny: Crowe missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he was lights-out before that — a 3.52 ERA in 24 college starts. If he can prove to pro scouts that he’s still the guy he was pre-injury, MLB teams would love to take a chance on the hard-throwing righty. He and Schmidt, who enjoyed a strong sophomore season, will lead the Gamecocks’ pitching staff this fall.
Callis says: “You got the guys at South Carolina who I think right now we have as potential first-rounders. They’ve got Wil Crowe, who’s coming back from Tommy John surgery. But it’s 92 to 95-97 (on the fastball). Kind of a maxed-out body at 6-foot-2, 250 (pounds). Then you got Clarke Schmidt, who isn’t as physical but for the first two-thirds of last season was the best pitcher in the SEC. He faded down the stretch and lost a little bit of his stuff. If Crowe shows he’s healthy and keeps the stuff he had in the past, and Schmidt shows he’s a little bit stronger and he can maintain his stuff throughout the season, then those guys can go in the first round.”
Note: All draft rankings according to MLB.com.