College Fall Ball Notebook

Fall baseball has wrapped up for most college programs, so it’s time to shake out the notebook. Here are some tidbits gleaned from conversations with college coaches and scouts over the course of the fall.

Brian Anderson

Brian Anderson (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Arkansas shortstop Brett McAfee has made a big jump from a year ago, when he was up and down in his first season after transferring in from the junior-college ranks. McAfee has looked very strong defensively and even improved his running speed, leading the Razorbacks to believe he can anchor an infield defense that was a major liability a year ago. The Hogs’ most talented player, junior Brian Anderson, struggled at third base last year before moving to left field, but he has taken ownership at second base this fall. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Anderson is a bigger than average second baseman—like Dominic Ficociello before him—but his plus arm is an asset on double-play turns, and he has shown solid range and instincts at the position. Scouts rave about his offensive upside and predict he could become a first-round pick if he has a strong junior year.

• Like the Hogs, Texas expects better infield play in 2014, with C.J. Hinojosa and Brooks Marlow anchoring the middle of the defense. Hinojosa, a blue-chip recruit a year ago, had a solid freshman year but has solidified himself as a star-caliber shortstop this fall, according to the coaches. Marlow’s bat came on strong down the stretch last year, and he carried his momentum over to the summer and fall. The 5-foot-9 grinder is a steady defender who should be a much tougher out as a junior this spring.

Louisiana State must replace four key position players in Raph Rhymes, Mason Katz, JaCoby Jones and Ty Ross, but several holdovers have taken steps forward this fall. Sophomore outfielder Andrew Stevenson stood out most for his defense and speed last year but came on strong with the bat down the stretch and then hit .363 in the Northwoods league. LSU coach Paul Mainieri said Stevenson “has become a real offensive force” this fall. Mark Laird, Christian Ibarra and Sean McMullen are also improved, and freshmen Danny Zardon and Kramer Robertson were locked in a tight battle to replace Jones at second base. The other big development for LSU has been the performance of righthander Brady Domangue, an ultra-competitive, poised sinkerballer who reminds Mainieri of Jared Bradford—“probably the most underrated pitcher I ever coached.”

Tulane landed three recruits this fall who ranked in the BA 500 for the 2013 draft, but the Green Wave also got righthander Randy LeBlanc (No. 402 on the list) back as a fourth-year junior. LeBlanc was a premium recruit whose stuff was inconsistent after he returned from his 2011 Tommy John surgery, but he has returned to peak form this fall, running his fastball up to 94 mph and showing a superb changeup and an improved breaking ball. Fifth-year senior righty Kyle McKenzie has also had a strong fall, reaching 93-94 and mixing in a filthy swing-and-miss breaking ball. Two more veterans—redshirt sophomore righty Alex Massey and fifth-year senior righty Tyler Mapes—have overcome their own injury woes and thrown well in the fall, making Tulane’s staff potentially very deep and experienced.

Cal State Fullerton’s most improved player this fall has been outfielder Austin Diemer, a live-bodied, athletic speedster who has made consistent, hard line-drive contact. Veteran utilityman Keegan Dale has also stood out and figures to get regular playing time at center field, second base or shortstop. The Titans are still trying to figure out how their infield will shake out. J.D. Davis has gotten his body in outstanding shape and has played well at third base, but he could also wind up at first. Matt Chapman, who has been sidelined with a torn ligament in his ring finger, could play third or shortstop; other candidates for the shortstop job include Dale and freshmen Timmy Richards and Taylor Bryant. The only secure infield spot is second base, where sophomore Jake Jefferies has really matured and taken hold of the job.

• The Titans were swept in a two-game fall exhibition series at Nevada-Las Vegas. Johnathan Torres hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth of the second game. John Richy, Bryan Bonnell and Brayden Torres held Fullerton’s bats at bay in a 5-3 win in the first game. Torres, an angular lefthander with good feel for a high-80s fastball and a decent curve, could be a breakout candidate next spring.

Charlotte righthander Ryan Butler was generating some draft buzz after reaching 96 mph on scout day. Butler, a Charlotte native who went to Marshall out of high school, did not pitch last year at Central Piedmont (N.C.) CC while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he worked out for the Yankees before the draft and was selected in the 16th round. Butler has worked consistently in the 93-94 range this fall and shows the makings of a plus changeup. His breaking ball remains underdeveloped but is making progress. Butler’s control is ahead of his command, but his 6-foot-6 frame and arm strength are tantalizing, and his feel for pitching should continue to improve under the tutelage of head coach Loren Hibbs and pitching coach Brandon Hall.

• Expect a huge sophomore season from Kentucky righthander Kyle Cody, a 6-foot-7 behemoth who can run his fastball up to 96 and holds 92-94 mph velocity. Cody left the Cape Cod League early due to elbow soreness, but the Wildcats say he’s ready for prime time and could slide into the Friday starter job. His breaking ball and changeup are average, and he throws strikes and competes with all his pitches. A.J. Reed and Chandler Shepherd figure to join him in the weekend rotation; Shepherd was a bullpen dynamo last spring, posting a 2.77 ERA in 26 appearances, then earning Cape Cod League all-star honors in the summer. His good command of an 88-92 fastball, quality downer curve and solid changeup should play well in a starting role.

Nathan Kirby

Nathan Kirby (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

• With seven returning everyday players in the fold, Virginia should have one of college baseball’s very best lineups in 2014, and exciting young arms are emerging this fall to provide answers on the mound. Sophomore lefthander Nathan Kirby, UVa.’s top recruit a year ago, “has made a real big jump from last year,” according to coach Brian O’Connor. Kirby’s always had electric stuff, but he has dramatically improved his mound presence and feel for pitching, slowing himself down on the mound and maintaining his poise in tight spots. And sophomore righty Josh Sborz looks ready to make the step from power reliever to weekend starter; he has held 90-94 mph velocity in a starting role and shown a very good slider.

Mississippi State made it to the CWS Finals last year even without sophomores Jacob Lindgren and Brandon Woodruff having their anticipated breakout years, but both of them look poised to do big things as juniors. MSU coach John Cohen said the Bulldogs are likely to move Lindgren into the bullpen, where they hope he can fill Chad Girodo’s role as a multiple-inning lefty. He has worked hard to get his body into better shape in the offseason and has worked at 92-94 mph with a hammer curveball. Woodruff is close to being fully healthy after having surgery in May to repair a cracked bone in his elbow. He has dropped to his natural (and more comfortable) lower arm slot and looked outstanding in the fall, sitting at 93-94 and showing an average big league breaking ball and feel for a changeup.

Duke has a chance to be very good on the mound in 2014, with ace lefthander Trent Swart back to lead the rotation as a junior and senior righty Drew Van Orden coming off an outstanding summer for the Santa Barbara Foresters. But the name generating the most buzz in Durham this fall is Michael Matuella, a 6-foot-6 sophomore righthander who has shown 93-96 mph heat at his best. In his final outing of the fall, Matuella worked at 91-94 and flashed a quality changeup and a useful cutter, though his breaking ball was inconsistent. He matched up against freshman righty Bailey Clark, a key recruit who showed the ability to command an 88-92 fastball and a quality 84-86 cutter. Like Matuella, Clark works downhill and should get plenty of groundballs. Duke coach Chris Pollard said his staff is uncommonly deep, with 11 pitchers who hit 91 mph or better on scout day. Reliever Sarkis Ohanian, a Cape Cod League all-star last summer, has touched 94 this fall.

Junior righties Benton Moss and Chris McCue look ready to assume leadership of North Carolina’s staff, which much replace ace Kent Emanuel and No. 2 starter Hobbs Johnson. Assuming Trent Thornton slides from his closing role into the rotation, McCue should become the new bullpen anchor, and he looked outstanding in a fall world series outing, attacking hitters with a 91-93 fastball and a nasty 72-76 curveball. Moss has been strong all fall, locating his 90-93 fastball well and eating hitters up with a short power slider at 82-85. One setback for the Tar Heels: hard-throwing righthander Mason McCullough was dismissed for violating team rules. McCullough could have been a useful bullpen piece, but so far in his career he has not been able to harness his 95-98 mph fastball, and scouts have questioned his makeup since his high school days.

Logan Jernigan

Logan Jernigan (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

North Carolina State’s rotation should be very strong, as righty Logan Jernigan has improved his control and should join lefties Carlos Rodon and Brad Stone in a stellar trio. Jernigan struck out 10 without issuing a walk in his final outing of the fall; he pitched primarily off his fastball, which had heavy glove-side life, and mixed in a solid 78-81 breaking ball. The key for the Wolfpack will be replacing a bevy of departed relievers. Righthander Andrew Woeck is the key veteran holdover, and he has developed a nice 77-78 changeup to give him another weapon against lefties. With good command of a high-80s fastball, an 83-84 cutter, a 76-78 curve and the changeup, Woeck has a starter’s repertoire, but the Wolfpack likely need him more in the bullpen, where he could team with lefthander D.J. Thomas to form a reliable one-two punch. Freshmen Joe O’Donnell, Ryan Williamson, Cody Beckman and Cory Wilder will be counted upon to assume key bullpen roles from the outset, and all have shown flashes of promise this fall.

• Looking for a mid-major sleeper? Georgia State returns nearly every key piece from an offense that ranked third in the nation in batting, fourth in scoring and sixth in doubles last year. “All these guys have really taken a step forward,” Panthers coach Greg Frady said. “We are really a balanced club, with a lot of speed, a lot of power, and a lot of ability to hit. I’m excited to watch us every day.” Georgia State’s top prospect is two-way talent Matt Rose, a 6-foot-4 third baseman who hit eight home runs this fall and also showed 91-93 mph heat off the mound, with a quality changeup and a decent breaking ball. Frady said he’s a “lockdown defender” at the hot corner, and he will likely play third on Friday and Saturday and then take the mound on Sunday, though he is the bst pitcher on the staff.

• Speaking of two-way players, Auburn freshman Keegan Thompson has a chance to make a huge impact on both sides of the ball, not just off the mound. Tigers coach Sunny Golloway said he expects Thompson to play first base and hit in the middle of the lineup, and he’s also expected to be a weekend starter, where his 91-94 fastball and power curve give him a chance to be dominant. Golloway is also excited about freshman outfielder Anfernee Grier, a dynamic speedster with wiry strength. “He reminds me of Tony Kemp offensively—he’s crazy offensive,” Golloway said, referencing the 2013 SEC Player of the Year.