Image credit: Walker Janek (Bill Mitchell)
Before diving into the list below, it is important to note that I am not a fan of using the term “mid-major” or “group of five” when describing a school. However, using “10 Top MLB Draft Prospects Outside of the ACC, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten” would have been way too long of a title. Additionally, the ranking below is more of a personal board and not a reflection of the Baseball America draft board.
1. Trey Yesavage, RHP, East Carolina
Yesavage is one of the premier collegiate pitchers in this year’s draft class. He pitched exclusively out of the bullpen as a true freshman in 2022 and turned in a 4.50 ERA with 45 strikeouts across 26 innings. In year two, Yesavage took a massive jump. He pitched in the weekend rotation full time and worked a 2.61 ERA with 105 strikeouts to 23 walks across 76 innings. He was a first-team All-AAC selection and second-team All-American. As the cherry on top of an excellent year, Yesavage also earned a roster spot on Team USA’s Collegiate National Team.
He has a physical, durable frame at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds. Yesavage attacks hitters from a near-over-the-top slot and has a fastball that sits in the 93-96 mph range, but it regularly touches 97 and 98. At times, it flashes heavy, sinking life and is almost like trying to hit a bowling ball. It has good shape with upwards of 22 inches of induced vertical break.
Yesavage has two distinct breaking balls in a low-80s curveball and a high-80s slider. The curveball in 2023 had a minuscule .098 opponent’s average and an impressive 58% miss rate. It has plenty of depth with sharp, downward break. Right now, it is a plus pitch. Yesavage throws his slider mainly to righthanded hitters. It is shorter in shape, but it is an effective third pitch that last spring generated a 46% miss rate. Finally, Yesavage features an average low-80s changeup. He kills spin on the pitch well and it plays nicely off his big-time heater.
Professionally, Yesavage profiles as a starter with a reasonably high floor. He has middle-of-the-rotation upside and this July has a chance to be selected within the first 35 to 40 overall picks.
2. Matt Ager, RHP, UC Santa Barbara
Ager this spring will be the headliner on an outstanding UCSB pitching staff. Like Yesavage, Ager pitched out of the bullpen full time during his true freshman season. He sported a 3.55 ERA and notched 42 strikeouts across 38 innings. In his freshman summer, Ager pitched for the Corvallis Knights of the West Coast League and compiled a 2.55 ERA across eight appearances, five of which were starts.
Last season, Ager made the jump into the rotation and was fantastic, pitching his way to a 3.12 ERA with 115 strikeouts to just 26 walks in 92.1 innings. His command and control took a big step forward, as during his freshman year he walked 23 in just 38 innings. He was an All-Big West first-team selection and earned a spot on Team USA.
Ager has a great frame at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds with some thickness in the lower half. He has an easy, low-effort operation on the mound and attacks from a high three-quarter slot. His fastball sits in the 92-95 mph range and frequently touches 96. It averages almost 2,400 RPMs of spin and shows riding life through the zone. It is at its best when located in the top half of the zone.
Ager’s best pitch is his low-80s slider that in 2023 held opposing hitters to a .156 average and generated a 41% miss rate. He has advanced feel for the pitch and it has tight sweeping action. He has also flashed a mid-70s curveball that has big shape and depth. With another strong season in the rotation, Ager will be well on his way to a selection in the first two rounds.
3. Will Turner, OF, South Alabama
Outfielder Will Turner is the top position player of this group. After a solid freshman year in 2022, Turner exploded as a sophomore and hit .349/.460/.591 with 17 doubles, nine home runs and 52 RBIs in 54 games. He was an All-Sun Belt second-team selection and proceeded to enjoy an all-star summer in the Cape League to the tune of a .295/.437/.379 slash line with 16 RBIs.
At 6-foot-1 and 196 pounds, Turner has a wiry, athletic frame. He has a low handset in the box with a loose swing and serious “buggy whip.” Turner has big-time hand speed with above-average power to the pull side and an advanced hit tool. His best quality as a hitter is his professional-like approach. Last year, he boasted an overall chase rate of just 18% and seldom makes bad swing decisions.
Turner is a plus defender in center field, where his plus athleticism really shines. He has great instincts and baseball sense with a quick first step and plenty of range to either gap. Turner also has a borderline plus arm and figures to stick at the position professionally. With another productive season, Turner could be South Alabama’s second top two–round pick in four years after Ethan Wilson was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies 49th overall in 2021.
4. Ryan Forcucci, RHP, UC San Diego
Having Forcucci at No. 4 is both a gut-feel ranking and a projection of what I think he will do this spring. As a freshman, Forcucci earned a spot in the rotation and had a 4.19 ERA with 53 strikeouts to just 15 walks in 53.2 innings. As a sophomore, Forcucci’s stuff ticked up and he pitched his way to a 3.86 ERA with 69 strikeouts to 21 walks across 53.2 innings.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound righthander has an easy, athletic operation on the mound. He attacks from a three-quarter slot with a low release height and present arm speed. Forcucci repeats his delivery well and maintains good direction towards the plate. His fastball sits 92-95, but it has been up to 96 and 97. In 2023, it averaged nearly 20” of induced vertical break and is at its best when elevated given its riding life through the zone.
Forcucci’s go-to out pitch is a mid-80s slider. He manipulates the shape of it well and is comfortable throwing it to both right and lefthanded hitters. It will flash late teeth with two-plane break. It is currently an above-average pitch and last year had a miss rate of 40%. He throws it sparingly, but I am excited about what Forcucci’s changeup will look like this spring should he up the usage. It flashes some tumble and fade to the arm side and could be a viable third offering.
An athletic mover who is a data darling, Forcucci could very will pitch his way into day one of the draft should he sell teams on his ability to start at the next level.
5. Ryan Johnson, RHP, Dallas Baptist
Johnson showed flashes of his big stuff during his freshman season, in which he had a 4.30 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 58.2 innings, but was the anchor of DBU’s rotation last spring. He worked a 4.43 ERA with an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio of 116-to-22 across 87.1 innings. For his performance on the mound, Johnson was a first-team All-Conference USA selection and was a member of Team USA’s Collegiate National Team.
Johnson has a workhorse frame at 6-foot-6 and 212-pounds. He has an interesting, up-tempo operation on the mound and moves well. He hardly lifts his front leg at all and it almost looks like a slide step. Johnson attacks from a low three-quarter slot. His fastball has premium velocity and sits in the 93-96 (T100) range. Improving its shape will help maximize its effectiveness.
The calling card of Johnson’s arsenal is his mid-80s slider that last season held opposing hitters to a .179 average and generated a 39% miss rate. He’s comfortable throwing the pitch to both right and lefthanded hitters and it flashes big-time sweeping action with tight spin. While he mainly throws just his fastball and slider, Johnson also features a mid-80s changeup that, at times, will show fading and tumbling action.
This spring, the two keys for Johnson will be showing a quality third pitch while showing a refined fastball shape. If he is able to do that, Johnson could be selected on day one of the draft even with the reliever risk he presents.
6. Kyle DeBarge, SS, Louisiana
DeBarge is one of my favorite position players of this bunch. After a strong freshman season, he enjoyed a sensational sophomore campaign, in which he hit .371/.448/.546 with 15 doubles, seven home runs and 18 stolen bases. For his performance, DeBarge was a second-team All-Sun Belt selection.
He plays bigger than his 5-foot-9, 175-pound frame might suggest. DeBarge has a twitchy, athletic operation in the box. His front side starts slightly open and he has minimal load and stride with minimal unnecessary movement. DeBarge has above-average bat speed and extends well through the baseball. He has an advanced feel for the barrel and does a nice job of creating leverage to the pull side. DeBarge has plus-plus bat-to-ball skills with an 88% overall contact rate (93% against fastballs) and an absurd 95% in-zone contact rate.
DeBarge is a strong defender up the middle with smooth actions. His natural athleticism is evident and he has quick feet with an advanced internal clock. DeBarge’s arm is above average, but he could end up at second base long term, where he profiles as an above-average defender. He is a 70-grade runner who this summer turned in sub-4.00 home-to-first times. DeBarge flies once he gets going. A winner and leader in the dugout, DeBarge has day one upside this July.
7. Walker Janek, C, Sam Houston State
Walker Janek was one player I became a fan of this summer. He has established a strong offensive track record, as across two collegiate seasons he has compiled a .304/.403/.507 slash line with 21 doubles, 20 home runs and 98 RBIs in 108 games. Janek enjoyed a standout summer on the Cape, in which he hit .281/.364/.474 with five doubles, five home runs and 17 RBIs across 30 games.
He has a prototypical catcher’s build at 6-foot and 190-pounds. Janek is strong-bodied with physicality throughout his frame. He has a minimal load and small stride, sits a little on his back side pre-swing and transfers his weight really well. It’s a rhythmic operation, and Janek takes a direct path to contact with present bat speed. He extends well through the baseball and does a nice job of creating leverage to the pull side.
Janek has above-average power that he gets to in-game as well as above-average bat-to-ball skills (87% in-zone contact rate, including 90% against fastballs). He is a great defender behind the dish, and while he does an excellent job of corralling balls in the dirt, his catch-and-throw skills are what set him apart from other catchers in the class. He has a quick transfer, moves his feet well and has a plus arm. This summer, he threw out an eye-popping 36% of potential base stealers.
With two tools of 60 or better, including one 55, it is hard to envision Janek lasting very long this July. There is a chance he is Sam Houston State’s first Day 1 draft choice since Colton Cowser was drafted fifth overall by the Baltimore Orioles in 2021.
8. Cole Mathis, 1B/RHP, College of Charleston
Mathis burst onto the scene following an outstanding spring and summer season. Mathis last spring hit .330/.439/.575 with 20 doubles, 9 home runs, 51 RBIs and more walks (41) than strikeouts (37). On the mound, he worked a 3.45 ERA with 52 strikeouts to 17 walks across 60 innings, en route to a second-team All-CAA selection. On the Cape with Cotuit, Mathis picked up right where he left off and posted an impressive .318/.381/.667 slash line with 10 doubles, 11 home runs and 42 RBIs in 38 games. He was also solid on the mound and pitched his way to a 5.31 ERA with 23 strikeouts to 5 walks in 20.1 innings. Mathis was both a Cape League All Star and an All-League selection.
He has a loose, relaxed setup in the box with a medium-high handset and a minimal load with a small stride. Mathis has thunderous bat speed with quick hands. His barrel explodes through the hitting zone and he is able to backspin the baseball with ease to all fields. Mathis has an advanced feel for the barrel and consistently generates high-quality contact. The impact he’s able to generate is no joke. He has 60-grade power to all fields that he has no issue getting to in games. Last spring, Mathis posted an impressive 90th percentile exit velocity of 108.4 and a maximum exit velocity of 114.1. To put that in perspective, potential top 20 pick Tommy White’s were 108.1 and 112.9, respectively.
Mathis’ bat-to-ball skills are also above average, as last spring he sported an in-zone contact rate of 89%. This fall, his in-zone contact rate was an absurd 97.5%. He also has a sound approach. Mathis absolutely has the arm strength to play third, though his defensive future is likely at first.
On the mound, Mathis has a short, quick arm stroke and attacks from a three-quarters slot. His fastball has been up to 96 and improving its shape will help to maximize its effectiveness. Mathis’ high-70s curveball is an above-average offering and has big-time depth with sharp 12-to-6 movement. This summer, it generated an impressive 43% miss rate. Mathis has advanced strike-throwing ability, and while he profiles as a reliever at the next level, he should get the chance to do both to start.
Mathis has outstanding makeup and exudes quiet confidence. He lets his play on the field do all the talking. With another strong spring season, Mathis could play himself into a late Day 1 draft pick.
9. Derek Bender, 1B/C, Coastal Carolina
Over the course of the last year, Bender has established himself as one of the premier college bats in this year’s draft. He played sparingly as a freshman and logged just 32 at-bats, but had a monster 2023 season, in which he hit .341/.399/.635 with 13 doubles, 19 home runs and 83 RBIs in 62 games. Bender was a first-team All-Sun Belt Conference selection for his performance. He proceeded to have an even more impressive summer season on the Cape and was the heartbeat and leader for the Bourne Braves. He hit .374/.446/.557 with 7 doubles, 4 home runs, 21 RBIs and perhaps most surprisingly he led the league with 18 stolen bases. Bender was named the All Star Game MVP and was an All-League selection.
Bender has a strong, physical build at 6-foot-1 and 210-pounds. He has a simple setup in his lower half, but a somewhat unique top half with a high handset and the head of his bat pointed towards center field. With less than two strikes, the bat tip is slightly more exaggerated and pointed a bit farther down with a slight barrel tip in his load. Bender will stand slightly more upright with less movement in his load in two strike counts. All in all, there’s really not much of a load and he’s a small strider. Nonetheless, it’s an operation that works for him.
Bender takes a pretty direct path to contact and consistently generates high-quality impact. He has above-average bat speed and drives the ball with authority to all fields. Bender has plus power that he has no problem getting to in games, and he showed that he could do so with wood this summer. He particularly hammers the baseball from the left-center field gap to the left field foul pole. During the spring at Coastal, he posted 90th percentile exit velocity of 105.6 and a maximum exit velocity of 109. During the summer, he posted numerous 100+ exit velocities with wood.
Bender steps into the box ready to hit. He has an aggressive approach with the tendency to expand the strike zone at times, but his bat-to-ball skills are solid (85% in-zone contact rate). He is particularly susceptible to elevated heaters, but between the spring and summer he cut down his overall chase rate by 5%. Continuing to shore up his approach will only help his offensive profile.
Defensively, Bender has above-average arm strength behind the dish, but likely ends up at first base long term. The defensive question marks really don’t hinder the profile a whole lot, as the bat is what makes him a potential top two–round draft pick. Bender’s makeup is off the charts.
10. Daniel Avitia, RHP, Grand Canyon
Avitia is one of the most polished arms in the entire 2024 draft. He burst onto the scene in 2022 as a freshman and sported a 4.06 ERA with an outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratio of 111-to-19 across 84.1 innings. On top of being named the WAC Pitcher of the Year, Avitia was also named the conference’s freshman of the year and a first-team All-WAC selection. In 2023, Avitia enjoyed similar success and worked a 3.92 ERA with 81 strikeouts to just 19 walks in 82.2 innings. He was again a first-team All-WAC selection. Avitia then proceeded to have an excellent summer on the Cape with the Orleans Firebirds to the tune of a 1.63 ERA with 24 strikeouts across 27.2 innings.
Avitia has a long, lanky frame at 6-foot-4 and 200-pounds. He has loose, whippy arm action and attacks from almost a sidearm slot. His release height is extremely low (averaged under five feet on his fastball) and he is a very difficult at-bat for opposing hitters, especially righthanded hitters. Avitia’s fastball sits in the 89-92 range (T94), but it has plenty of life through the zone with run and sink. It generated a 25% miss rate last season, and his control and command for the pitch is top notch.
He also has an advanced feel for his low-80s changeup that plays nicely off his heater. Avitia throws it to both right and lefthanded hitters and does a nice job of killing spin. The changeup will flash both big tumbling life and some fade to the arm side, and this past summer had a 38% miss rate.
Lastly, Avitia features a high-70s sweeping slider. Its shape is a bit inconsistent, but will flash some depth at times and is most effective against righthanded hitters. The slider looked especially good this summer and opposing hitters really struggled against it. Avitia’s pitchability is fantastic and his sequencing of pitches is advanced. Along with Josh Hartle, Avitia has the best control and command of any arm in the class and could be a top 100 overall pick this July.