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.
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.
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.
Kevin Merrell, SS/OF, University of South Florida (#38 college)
From the Little League World Series to a potential day-one selection. That is the potential path that has revealed itself for Merrell, now a star shortstop for the USF Bulls, and one of just a handful of players in the nation hitting above .400. A freakish athlete that also lettered in track (10.6 in 100m) and golf in high school, Merrell has quickly ascended up draft boards thanks to his consistent approach at the plate and his sterling defensive play.
As a freshman, Merrell turned heads by hitting .433 in conference play, racking up 21 stolen bases and laying down a conference-best 16 sac bunts. He missed 15 games due to injury as a sophomore, but kept up his sturdy play, posting a .320/.418/.401 line and swiping 16 bases. He appears to have saved his best for last, however, and he’s pulling out all the stops this year. He’s among the national leaders in average (.403) and on-base percentage (.494) and his 16 steals pace the USF squad.
As a prospect, Merrell has plenty to like besides his bat. His speed grades out as above-average, and serves him as well at shortstop as it does on the basepaths. His increased range does little to dampen concerns about his arm strength, so a move over to second base, or possibly to the outfield might be in his long-term future. He homered only twice during his first two seasons, but has slugged five this year, and is on pace to record a career-best number of extra-base hits, leading many to think there’s at least average power hiding in his bat.
Regardless of where he plays, Merrell should continue to hit and steal bases, making him a highly sought after prospect come draft day, and likely the highest drafted USF alum since Jason Dellaero was selected in the first round back in 1997.
Eli Morgan, RHP, Gonzaga University (#39 college)
Few pitchers have been as prolific in the strikeout department as diminutive right-hander Eli Morgan. He ranks among the best in the nation in strikeouts (107), K/9 (12.1), complete games (three) and shutouts (two). Not bad for a pitcher that generously measures 5-10 and 185 pounds.
But Morgan isn’t new to the scene. Just like Merrell, he’s been making waves since his freshman year. Brushing off the hard times that hit most highly-recruited pitchers as freshmen, Morgan posted a 2.36 ERA in 14 appearances and finished the season as a member of the rotation. His sophomore campaign saw him emerge as the staff ace, supplanting Brandon Bailey, who would go on to be drafted in the sixth-round of the 2016 draft. He led the squad with ten victories, 111 innings pitched and four complete games. In conference play he was nearly unhittable, posting an 8-0 record and 1.14 ERA over nine starts, earning him a spot on the All-WCC First-Team.
With Bailey departing, Morgan has assumed more of a leadership role in 2017, and he hasn’t disappointed. Through 11 starts, he’s 7-2 with a 2.95 ERA. He’s earned consecutive National Player of the Week honors from Collegiate Baseball and is a four-time honoree as WCC pitcher of the week. With less than a month left in the season, he has Gonzaga poised to make another NCAA tournament appearance.
When anyone mentions Morgan’s name, in relation to the draft, the first thing that comes up is his changeup. It’s been described as one of “the best in the country,” and putting a 75 or even 80 grade on it would barely be an overstatement. Morgan complements the plus offering with a low 90s fastball, and does himself a favor by getting ahead in nearly every count by throwing first pitch strikes. Obviously, the size factor will hurt him on draft day, but there’s absolutely no reason why he can’t find success at the pro level, even if it’s in the bullpen.