To put it mildly, last weekend was a tumultuous one for Louisville Baseball- and that is putting it very mildly. The program experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows all within a span of just a few hours. It was a weekend that most Louisville Baseball fans would like to soon forget, but for Louisville Cardinals Baseball as a whole, it was still successful beyond anything ever seen before it in the history of the program.
When the season began back in February, the goal was clear: Omaha or bust. The Cards had a plethora of talent- even the bench alone could field an entire starting nine that could compete with just about anyone. The starting lineup was feared, the rotation dominant. The season was as great as we've ever seen from this team. Confidence was flowing through the team, media, fans and Vegas alike, with Louisville being the favorite with 4-1 odds to win the College World Series. This was the year that the Cards would go back to Omaha. This was the year the Cards would finally hoist the trophy. It was our year. And then this weekend, it all came crashing down.
With Louisville playing in a super regional series for the fourth straight season and hosting for the third straight, the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos came to town a surprise winner of the Nashville regional, eliminating host Vanderbilt in the process. Sitting with a 50-12 record, the Cardinals had the prowess to go back to the College World Series for the third time in four seasons. The Gauchos took game one behind a gem from ace (and Cleveland 4th round pick) Shane Bieber. It looked as if the Cards had weathered the storm, though. In game two, junior southpaw Drew Harrington, the ACC pitcher of the year, tossed the best game of his career. He recorded a career high 12 strikeouts and only surrendered six hits in seven innings of work. He handed the ball to closer Zack Burdi for the six out save, a 3-0 lead intact. Zack breezed through the 8th inning, recording a strikeout and a double play. In the 9th, a rocket back up the middle allowed a leadoff baserunner for UCSB. Following that, Zack gave up back-to-back walks before the Gauchos completed the most improbable comeback, and the biggest win in their program’s history- a walkoff grand slam to win 4-3, win the super regional and go to their first College World Series.
Coach Dan McDonnell was emotional following the defeat, and he wanted no part of anyone putting the blame on Zack Burdi. “That’s not fair,” he said. “It’s a team game. We could’ve coached better. We could’ve scored a few more runs and we could’ve done a little more to win.” He’s right, and although this season ending without another trip to the College World Series is widely a let down for fans and the team, the program as a whole still had a great weekend- the greatest weekend in it’s history.
Several players had their dreams recognized this past weekend, and even in a time of heartbreak for the team and its fans, we still should be excited for them and for the program’s growing reputation for churning out draft picks and major leaguers. Eight current Cardinals were drafted, including seven of the top 115 selections. Along with that, senior Anthony Kidston signed a free agent deal after going undrafted and two UofL signees were drafted as well- unprecedented territory for the program.
Corey Ray, Junior, Outfield Round 1, Pick 5 by the Milwaukee Brewers Corey Ray was touted as arguably the most pro ready and talented college bat in this draft, with Tennessee’s Nick Senzel and Mercer’s Kyle Lewis also in that conversation. With that being said, Milwaukee got a complete, five tool player that will be a star at the next level. His weakest point (in a skill set without a glaring one, so I'm nitpicking) is that his arm is relatively weak compared to some outfielders in today's game, such as Giancarlo Stanton and Yasiel Puig, but that won't stop him from being a star as his arm is more than serviceable when not playing right field, and he has more than enough speed to be considered a center fielder as a pro. If he can develop a bit more patience at the plate and stop chasing pitches up and out of the zone, he has the contact and power abilities to become the next incarnation of Jason Heyward. I think that he will be in the Brewers outfield by the summer of 2018. Status: Unsigned; Prediction: Will sign
Zack Burdi, Junior, Right Handed Pitcher Round 1, Pick 26 by the Chicago White sox What isn't to love about this scenario? The White Sox are desperate for arms in the Major League bullpen and Zack is already ready to play in the bigs. Oh, and did I mention that he's from a suburb 23 miles outside of Chicago? This was the absolute best case scenario for both player and organization at the 26th pick. Zack brings a 101+ MPH fastball that stuns even big league hitters. You can count the number of guys capable of throwing that fast in the majors on your fingers, and recently just on a single hand. He is an absolute fireballer on the mound, and with that comes a little recklessness. Control is at a premium when you throw that hard, but when he brings down the speed a notch he can control with much more precision. If he can learn to control his top velocity pitches, he can become one of the best closers in the game with relative ease. Good thing you can teach control- you can’t teach tossing 101. He's no Aroldis Chapman (who tops at 105 and once hit 106) but he's as close as you'll find. He's a pitcher of the same mold. He throws a decent breaking ball and a decent change, but when you throw 100+ consistently, you rely heavily on the pitch that takes blind luck to hit. Zack will be in the White Sox bullpen by August. Status: Signed
Will Smith, Junior, Catcher Round 1, Pick 32 by the Los Angeles Dodgers Not a single player in the country had their stock inflate so much this season as catcher Will Smith. He was the main benefactor of his teammates’ high profiles. Scouts came to see Corey and Zack but took notice of the kid behind the plate they'd never heard of. He put on a clinic at the plate and did well behind it too. An all around athlete, he can run on you if you're not careful, a rarity among catchers. My concern with that though is that his athleticism is his biggest asset. If he remains a catcher, that athleticism may start to dwindle, and that is a very large concern that I and the Dodgers both have. He's never put together a better season at the plate than he just did, but his swing isn't really geared to hit home runs. It's a little flat, and that needs work if he's going to be any sort of a consistent home run threat. He has the power in him to hit 20 or 30 in a good year, but his swing has to be altered a bit. With all of that criticism, though, I still think Will has a very bright future with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but I highly doubt it will be behind the plate. Remember, he didn't begin catching until he got to UofL. He was a pitcher and infielder in high school, and I believe that his strong arm will allow him to play in the outfield if he doesn't play as a utility infielder. I think Will has a good chance to play in the majors by 2020. Status: Signed
Nick Solak, Junior, Second Base Round 2, Pick 62 by the New York Yankees Drafted by the New York Yankees in the second round, Nick wasted little time in contract talks and signed this week. This is great for him to be drafted so highly, and although it isn't a complete reach, lets be realistic for a second. The Yankees drafted him to save money to throw at their first round pick, Blake Rutherford, who is currently unsigned and committed to UCLA. That isn't to say he didn't find a great destination, though. The Yankees situation played right into Nick’s hands. Consider this “reach” a win-win-win for he, the Yankees and Rutherford. His biggest flaw is that defensively, he has no true position. He's been decent wherever he's gone in the field, but the Yankees liked his bat potential, where he will hit for contact and a fairly solid average. He is patient at the plate, an invaluable asset in an ascent through the minor leagues. With New York, he will have plenty of time to develop a position to stay at or even have an opportunity to DH, which would be his best case scenario. If he does play defensively, he is a good enough athlete to play center field, although his arm might be questioned enough to slide him into left. Regardless, I don't think he will play second base professionally, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I hope to see Nick in pinstripes by 2020. Status: Signed
Drew Harrington, Junior, Left Handed Pitcher Round 3, Pick 80 by the Atlanta Braves After winning the ACC Pitcher of the Year award in his junior season, Harrington’s stock skyrocketed among major league front offices. As a first time starter after numerous relief appearances in his prior seasons, Drew was able to show that he had more stamina than he was able to before. His pitch repertoire is viewed as solid, but not nearly a finished product. His fastball has some downward break, but it isn’t quite where a professional sinker should be, yet. His changeup is almost there, but still needs some tuning as well. His curveball, however, is much farther along. It looked unhittable in his final collegiate appearance, and if he can improve it more within the Braves system, it can turn into a serious strikeout threat at the next level. I believe Drew can make it to the majors, but I think the Braves see him as more of a reliever than a starter. That is, though, if they hang onto him. Atlanta has been drafting with a heavy favor of arms over bats, and they are betting on being able to turn some of their prospect pitchers into big league ready hitters. Even if it isn’t with Atlanta, expect him to be a big leaguer by the end of 2019. Status: Signed
Blake Tiberi, Redshirt Sophomore, Third Base Round 3, Pick 100 by the New York Mets I'm not saying he's going to be the heir to the David Wright throne in Queens, but he has as good of shot as anyone. The Mets drafted him at 100 overall for his bat, but he is no slouch at the hot corner by any means. At the plate, he has a quick, compact swing and distributes his weight for power well. He is really selective of what pitches he swings at, and with that he hits for a solid average. However, he hit significantly less home runs in fall ball than he did at Louisville, and that could be attributed to the use of a wood bat in the fall and a metal bat in Louisville. However, the raw power is there, and if he refines his swing and squares up better, I think he can be a terrific hitter at the major league level. At third, he has a solid arm and a reliable glove, but his build limits his agility and quickness. That shouldn't be too much of an issue for an otherwise all around great player, and he will have time within the Mets organization to progress before David Wright leaves a void at the hot corner. I expect to see Blake in the majors by the end of 2019. Status: Signed
Kyle Funkhouser, Senior, Right Handed Pitcher Round 4, Pick 115 by the Detroit Tigers Until this past weekend, Funk was the highest draft pick in the history of the Cards. Declining to sign last year with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a first round pick (35), he came back to school to complete his degree and play his senior season. That didn't work out too well from the draft perspective, and he slid all the way to the 4th round at pick 115. However, I think that Detroit is a much better landing spot for the right hander than the Dodgers with their plethora of arms. Pitching depth is lacking in the Motor City, and that bodes very well for a guy who's much closer to major league ready than his draft slide shows. His pitches are already there when they are at their best. His fastball sits in the mid 90s and he has mid 80s breaking balls that bend hard close to the plate. Funk’s main drawback is overcoming his confidence issues. He is easily down on himself, and he needs to have a shorter memory to succeed at the next level. He is much better than he sometimes thinks he is. I hope to see him in the majors by 2019. Status: Unsigned; Prediction: Will sign
Lincoln Henzman, Junior, Right Handed Pitcher Round 31, Pick 927 by the Seattle Mariners Selected in the 31st round at pick 927 by the Seattle Mariners, Lincoln Henzman is very likely to return to Louisville next season. Having eligibility remaining helps him to develop his pitches and improve his draft position tremendously, and with all of the arms leaving Louisville for the pros this year, he will see a large spike in appearances and might even earn his way to becoming the new closer with the era of the brothers Burdi coming to a close (no pun intended, I swear). Seattle selected him as a cheap player that has a ton of upside. With that being said, being drafted in the 31st round, they had nothing to lose and everything to potentially gain. However, Henzman will be back in the Ville in an expanded role next season, and expect him to play his way into the first few rounds soon. Status: Unsigned; Prediction: Will return to school Anthony Kidston, Senior, Right Handed Pitcher Anthony went undrafted but signed a rookie free agent deal with Kansas City. He showed flashes of brilliance early in his Louisville career, but it all fell apart without any apparent reason in the past two. The Royals have a guy with a lot of proven talent that just has to get it together. It's a stretch to think he can realistically make it in the majors, but I think he will suit up on a major league roster at least once in his career, barring injury. The Royals are pretty good about giving guys with potential chances, too, and that is why I love this pairing.
Danny Rosenbaum, Senior, First Base Danny was not drafted and has yet to sign a rookie free agent deal. I think he can be a valuable asset to an organization, but as a jack of all trades and master of none, I think his upside is very limited- I will even go as far as to say his baseball growth is pretty much complete, and what you see is what you get. I hope for the best for Danny. He is a great college player, but without mastery of at least one of the tools, his chances to progress very far in the professional ranks are bleak. His best bet might be to go into coaching. As a master of fundamentals, I think he can become a terrific clubhouse leader.
Louisville Signees A pair of Louisville signees were drafted as well. Morehead, Kentucky’s own Cameron Planck, a right handed pitcher, was drafted in the 11th round by the New York Mets, and Tyler Fitzgerald, a shortstop from Illinois was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in round 30. Both will likely not receive signing bonus offers at their respective draft slots, and since that is the case, they will both most definitely suit up for the Cards next season.