2022 MLB Draft: Potential College Returners to Watch

Image credit: Maryland RHP Nick Dean (Photo courtesy of Maryland)

The MLB Draft is a lot of things, most notably the start of a lifelong dream for most players whose names are called. 

It can also be a springboard for certain players to return to college campuses, ready to have breakout seasons and improve their draft stock, helping their team win a bunch of games along the way. 

Texas’ Ivan Melendez is the most prominent recent example. A 16th-round pick of the Marlins in 2021, he chose to return to Austin, where he developed into the best hitter in college baseball, set the BBCOR bat-era record with 32 home runs in a season, helped the Longhorns to the College World Series and improved his personal stock by leaps and bounds. 

While no player will be expected to make a Melendez-level jump in 2023, here are 10 players who could have a major impact on their respective teams next season after choosing to return to campus rather than beginning a pro career. 

Jonathan Brand, RHP, Auburn

Brand is set to arrive at Auburn this fall after transferring from Miami (Ohio), where he had a breakout season in 2022, going 8-2, 1.40 with 86 strikeouts and a .206 opponent batting average in 77.1 innings. The righthander isn’t ranked on the BA 500, so it’s entirely likely that his name isn’t called at all, but his gaudy numbers last season and a strong start in the Cape Cod League this summer—he had a 2.57 ERA and 21 strikeouts compared to two walks in his first 21 innings—could lead a team to take a flier on him. 

With a high-80s fastball that reaches the low 90s and both a curveball and changeup that had 35% or better whiff rates last season, Brand has the stuff to get outs in the SEC and could be a workhorse in the Auburn rotation if he does in fact arrive on The Plains in August. 

Nick Dean, RHP, Maryland

With just two runs allowed in his first 19.1 innings last season, Dean began the 2022 campaign pitching like one of the best pitchers in the country. He then missed what would have been his fourth start. Dean had his moments throughout the rest of the season, but he wasn’t the same pitcher after that and ended the season with a 5.15 ERA in Big Ten play. 

As the No. 499 prospect on the BA 500, Dean is by definition a fringy prospect, but his relatively long track record of success at Maryland and excellent feel for a four-pitch repertoire does make him an attractive option for teams looking for pitching late in the draft. If he returns to campus, however, and stays healthy and is more consistent from start to finish, it’s easy to see him developing into an elite pitcher in the Big Ten next season and hearing his name called much earlier in 2023. 

Sam Highfill, RHP, North Carolina State

Highfill was riding high as 2021 ended. He helped lead NC State to the College World Series, and he spent the ensuing summer pitching for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team ahead of a 2022 season when he was expected to be the ace of the Wolfpack’s pitching staff. Instead, he pitched in just six games and had a 5.53 ERA before being shut down for the season due to a back injury. 

There is enough there already for a team to take a chance on Highfill. He had a great 2021 season and pitched well in the biggest moments of NC State’s season. He also has good stuff, including a fastball with life that reaches 94-95 mph at its best, and his ranking No. 341 on the BA 500 reflects all of that. But a healthy return to Raleigh next season would likely put him back among the best pitchers in the ACC and could put him once again on a path to being a top-10 round pick or better. 

Mac Horvath, 3B, North Carolina

A draft-eligible sophomore, Horvath broke out in his second year in Chapel Hill, batting .268/.390/.557 with 15 doubles, 18 home runs, 53 RBIs and 19 stolen bases. That performance, plus his pedigree as a standout prep prospect, puts him No. 465 on the BA 500 and a candidate to be selected on the third day of the draft. 

But there’s plenty to be gained by him returning. If he were to do so, UNC would have one of the most dynamic one-two lineup punches in the country in Horvath and center fielder Vance Honeycutt. On an individual level, it would also give Horvath a chance to work on addressing the concerns some scouts have about the swing and miss in his game, particularly against offspeed stuff. With two years of eligibility remaining, he would still have some negotiating leverage for the 2023 draft. 

Ethan Long, 3B, Arizona State

There’s very little to quibble about when it comes to Long’s production at the plate. He was a freshman All-American in 2021 after hitting .340/.417/.704 with 16 home runs, which earned him a place on the Collegiate National Team. He was limited last season by a wrist injury but still managed to put up a .294/.377/.524 slash line with seven home runs in 36 starts. 

The issue for him is that his profile is not one that’s particularly en vogue among evaluators right now. There’s no doubting his raw power, which some scouts grade as a 70 tool, but he projects to play first base or a corner outfield spot at the next level, which means that a team really has to be sold on his bat. If he’s not satisfied with where he’s selected this week—he’s ranked No. 279 on the BA 500—Long could return healthy next season with two years of eligibility remaining and once again prove himself as one of the best power hitters in the country, forcing a team to grab him  early in 2023. 

Nick Maldonado, RHP, Vanderbilt

Maldonado didn’t have the follow-up to his breakout 2021 season that he would have liked. Injuries limited him to just 13 appearances, during which he put up a 3.96 ERA over 38.2 innings. He works with a fastball that sits in the low 90s and touches 95 mph. He complements the fastball with a mid-80s slider that often acts like a cutter, and he goes into the draft as the No. 346 player on the BA 500. 

His stuff, his 3.00 ERA over 96 career innings at Vanderbilt and his strike-throwing ability will likely entice a team to take him at some point this week, but he may also be tempted by the idea of returning to Vanderbilt and proving that he can start games, which could serve the dual purpose of giving the Commodores another reliable rotation option and increasing Maldonado’s value for the 2023 draft. 

Victor Mederos, RHP, Oklahoma State

Mederos has a 5.40 ERA across two seasons of college baseball. As one of the crown jewels of Miami’s top-ranked 2020 recruiting class, he had a 5.11 ERA in 44 innings in one season in Coral Gables. After transferring to Oklahoma State for his sophomore season, he put up a 5.59 ERA across 66 innings. He’s the No. 269 player on the BA 500 less for his production so far and more because of his pedigree coming out of high school and his excellent raw stuff. 

The flip side is that if his production ever matches his potential, he could be a pitcher who comes off the board in the first few rounds. He works with a fastball that touches as high as 98 mph and a mid-80s slider that some evaluators see as a future plus pitch. With two years of eligibility remaining, Mederos could elect to return to Stillwater to lead the Cowboys’ rotation as a bet that he can be the kind of pitcher he was projected to be as a recruit. 

Austin Peterson, RHP, Connecticut

Peterson was dominant at times for UConn throughout the 2022 season, and he finished with an 11-3, 3.83 record and 147 strikeouts in 110.1 innings to help lead the Huskies to super regionals. Those kinds of strikeout numbers will get the attention of evaluators and will give Peterson a chance to be drafted. 

Despite those numbers, however, he’s not a can’t-miss prospect, in part because his stuff is good but not excellent. As a pitcher who’s nearly 23 years old, Peterson may not have a ton to gain from a prospect standpoint by returning to UConn unless his stuff makes a jump, but his return would give the Huskies one of the best starting pitchers in college baseball and would give them a cornerstone piece of yet another team with the ability to get to Omaha. 

Jordan Sprinkle, SS, Arkansas

Sprinkle burst onto the scene at UC Santa Barbara by batting .353/.402/.536 with 26 stolen bases in 2021, which earned him a spot on the Collegiate National Team. His numbers weren’t quite at that level in 2022—he hit .285/.381/.416—but he still swiped 25 bases and showed off his trademark athleticism at shortstop. 

As the No. 156 prospect on the BA 500, there’s a high probability that Sprinkle’s name is called on day two of the draft, but there’s still upside for him if he chooses instead to follow through with his transfer to Arkansas. He still has two seasons of eligibility left and came into this season with a chance to be among the first shortstops selected. If he can return to something closer to his 2021 production, this time in the SEC, it would give the Razorbacks an incredible catalyst in the lineup and would put Sprinkle back on course to go off the board quickly in 2023. 

Colby Thomas, OF, Florida

Thomas showed in 2022 that he mastered the mid-major level by batting .325/.451/.734 with 17 home runs and more walks (34) than strikeouts (32) in 42 games at Mercer. Not only does he have an impressive track record at Mercer, which includes 32 homers in 111 games over three seasons, but he also possesses impressive raw tools like plus speed, plus raw power and above-average ability in center field. 

That combination has Thomas ranked No. 158 on the BA 500, which projects him as a day two selection. Like Sprinkle, there could be value for Thomas in proving himself in the SEC. If Thomas makes it to Florida, there’s no doubting that he has SEC-quality tools, and he would likely find himself hitting in a prominent place in the order and manning center field for the Gators. 

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