Small-School Shakers: Top Prospects from Outside the Power Conferences (Pt 1)

College baseball is just like college football and basketball in that the majority of the high school talent that doesn’t turn pro gets funneled towards the power conference schools. The Floridas, Vanderbilts, Clemsons and Florida States of the world. Just take one look at our top 50 college prospect rankings and you get all the evidence you need to prove the point.

Six of our top 15 prospects hail from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Eight of the top 21 play ball from the SEC, and four of the top 27 reside in the Pac-12. In fact, just two of the top 20 prospects come from conferences outside the power realm. That number does exclude the two JUCO prospects in the top 20.

However, college baseball teaches us, more than any other sport, that pro talent can be found in smaller conferences, and at fields that host just a couple of hundred fans each game, as opposed to the thousands that attend games in the SEC or ACC.

Just take a look at the current MLB stat leaderboards. The current home run leader, Aaron Judge, attended Fresno State. The American League front-runner for the Cy Young, Chris Sale, hails from Florida Gulf Coast University. Major League saves leader, Greg Holland? Western Carolina University. Strikeout extraordinaire Corey Kluber who leads the league in shutouts, made his mark at Stetson University.

Recent drafts have seen players plucked from Mercer (Kyle Lewis), Kent State (Eric Lauer), Missouri State (Jon Harris), Evansville (Kyle Freeland) and the University of Hartford (Sean Newcomb).

This year should be more of the same, and while plenty of time will undoubtedly be spent analyzing the Jake Burgers (Missouri State) and Keston Hiuras (UC-Irvine), we thought it would be nice to take a deeper look at some of the even smaller school prospects, with just a few at a time.

Zac Lowther, LHP, Xavier University (#41 overall/#22 college/#7 left-handed pitcher)

Lowther is clearly a known quantity, checking in at No. 22 on our top 50 college prospects list. He burst onto the scene with a sterling summer that began with a dominating victory against Vanderbilt in last year’s NCAA tournament, and carried that momentum over into the prospect-packed Cape Cod League, where he led the circuit with 54 strikeouts in 35.2 innings.

This year has been just as easy-going for the left-hander. Through ten starts, he’s racked up 85 strikeouts in just 56 innings. He ranks fourth nationally with 13.7 K/9 and sixth with 4.98 hits allowed per nine innings. His surprising 3-2 record is more reflective of his run support, which outside of a 13-4 drubbing of Butler has amounted to a measly 3.6 runs/game. Lowther’s piece de resistance came during an early April start against Villanova. He tossed eight perfect innings before issuing a walk in the ninth. He was subsequently removed from the game, and the runner went on to score, costing Xavier a victory. Lowther did his part though, strikeout out 16 batters, including the side in the second and sixth.

Lowther won’t blow anyone away with his fastball, which sits 88-92 and has rarely topped 94 mph, but he spots the pitch well and complements it with three other offerings, including a curveball that projects as above-average. He hasn’t needed his changeup much, so that pitch will require some development to get it to an average big-league pitch, but if he can find a feel for it he could have a long future as a mid-rotation starter.

Luis Gonzalez, OF, University of New Mexico (#31 college)

UNM has had only three players drafted in the first round since the inaugural event in 1965, with the most recent coming in 2013, and while Gonzalez doesn’t figure to go quite that high, he’s likely to become the highest-drafted Lobo since D.J. Peterson was tabbed 12th overall four years ago.

Alternating between 1st and 3rd in the lineup, Gonzalez has paced the Lobos offensive-attack that has averaged 8.6 runs per game and has hung 29, 24 (twice), 22, 19, 17, and 16 (three) runs on teams this season. He leads the squad in doubles (18), walks (42) and steals (12), and has put together a robust .368/.479/.537 line. He has racked up three doubles in a game twice, walked four times once, and has multiple hits in 46% of his team’s games. During a three-game set against Air Force, Gonzalez went on a historic tear, batting .786 (11-for-14), with 10 runs scored, six RBI, four walks a stolen base.

Gonzalez offers two tools that grade out as nearly plus: arm strength and speed. He’s racked up 33 steals in less than three seasons at UNM, and he’s been able to show off his arm strength on the mound, where he’s made 33 appearances during his college career, including 19 starts. Despite boasting a career-average of .354, there are still some doubts about Gonzalez’s bat. Still, he seems to have the plate discipline (108-to-69 BB-to-K) to have a pretty high floor, but he doesn’t offer much power (14 HR in 567 AB).

Regardless of the concerns about his bat, Gonzalez has produced enough at the college level to warrant a selection in the second-to-fourth round range.

Matt Whatley, C, Oral Roberts University (#47 college)

Looking back it’s hard to believe that Whatley received only one Division I scholarship offer. That decision is looking like a big-time miss for all of the schools in the Oklahoma-Texas area that passed on him, and a hit for Oral Roberts, which has won more than 70% of their games since Whatley put on a uniform. Whatley’s historic rookie campaign saw him earn numerous freshman All-American accolades. He paced the team with a .355/.437/.528 line, stole 16 bases, put together a 15-game hitting streak, and had multiple hits in 21 of the team’s 57 contests. That doesn’t even take into account the impact he made behind the plate, where he threw out 49% of attempted basestealers. He was at his best when it mattered most too, going 6-for-10 in the team’s two NCAA regional games.

He was even better during his sophomore campaign, boosting all of his offensive numbers (.363/.469/.562), while showing better plate discipline (39/29 BB/K) and growing more comfortable behind the plate. Once again, though, his efforts (4-for-8) were not enough to advance ORU past the regional round, and he took advantage of the early exit and headed to the prestigious Cape Cod League where he backed up Deon Stafford for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, who went on to win the CCBL title, giving him a brief taste of postseason success.

This season Whatley hasn’t shown the same explosive ability at the plate (.291/.423/.481), although his eye appears as sharp as ever (32/28 BB/K) and he’s on pace to shatter career-highs in both home runs and RBI. More important, ORU (32-11) is winning games at a record clip, solidifying their case for another postseason bid with a 19-2 record in-conference. And it seems as though he’s catching fire at the right time. Since ending a five-game hitless stretch, Whatley has hit .365 with eight doubles, 23 RBI and 10 walks in 14 games. Over his past four contests, he’s been particularly dominant, hitting .615 (8-for-13) with six runs, five doubles, eight RBI and four walks.

Behind the plate, Whatley has taken his game to another level. He’s still throwing out runners at an unreal pace (46% this year), but his receiving skills have improved dramatically, as evidenced by the reduction of passed balls from 13 as a freshman to 6 as a sophomore to just one this season. He has also yet to commit an error this year. The Golden Eagles will likely go as far as Whatley and their pitching staff will carry them.

 

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