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Texas A&M's Mitchell Kilkenny Sits Atop Northwoods League's Prospects

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Griffin Conine (Photo by Bill Setliff) Griffin Conine (Photo by Bill Setliff)[/caption]
Northwoods League Top Prospects
Mitchell Kilkenny, rhp, Madison (So., Texas A&M)
T.J. Friedl, of, St. Cloud (SIGNED: Reds)
Daulton Varsho, c, Eau Claire (Jr., Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
Troy Bacon, rhp, Madison (So., Santa Fe JC, Fla.)
Jake Shepski, of, Mankato (Jr., Notre Dame)
Griffin Conine, of, La Crosse (So., Duke)
Luke Shilling, rhp, Madison (So., Illinois)
Drew Ellis, 3b/of, Rochester (R-So., Louisville)
Nick Raquet, lhp, La Crosse (R-So., William & Mary)
Steele Walker, of, Wisconsin (So., Oklahoma)
Postseason Recap: The Wisconsin Rapids Rafters captured the first Northwoods League title in team history, sweeping their way through the playoffs with a perfect 4-0 record. The Rafters pulled out a nail-biting 5-4 win against Eau Claire in Game One of the NWL finals, winning it on Rob Calabrese’s (Illinois-Chicago) walk-off home run. The second game didn’t have quite the same drama, as the Rafters pulled out a big lead by scoring six runs in the top of the sixth and went on to win 11-4. Calabrese had three more hits in the clincher while Joe Wainhouse (Washington) had four RBIs.
1. Mitchell Kilkenny, rhp, Madison (So., Texas A&M) Kilkenny worked out of the bullpen for Texas A&M this spring but impressed when he did get opportunities, posting a 1.67 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 27 innings. He started five games for Madison and showed the best combination of stuff and projectability of any pitcher in the league. Listed at 6-foot-4, 202 pounds, Kilkenny has a lean, athletic frame and his motion is loose and easy. He stays upright throughout, throws from a high three-quarters arm slot and works quickly. Kilkenny works with a four-pitch arsenal and throws them all for strikes—he had just three walks in 32 innings this summer. He works 90-94 mph with his fastball, throws a changeup and curveball in the 77-80 mph range and a cutter from 87-91 mph. The latter pitch might be his best—it has excellent depth and deception, especially when it’s thrown down in the zone, and hitters were often helpless against it during the summer.
2. T.J. Friedl, of, St. Cloud (SIGNED: Reds) Friedl had one of the more interesting summers for a college baseball player in recent memory. He started with St. Cloud and played 16 games with the Rox, hitting .373 and stealing 12 bases before joining USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, where he hit .290 in 18 games. Somewhere around then, teams found out that Friedl, who had played two seasons for Nevada, had actually been draft eligible and gone unpicked. The Reds signed him in early August for $735,000, the highest-ever bonus for a non-drafted free agent. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Friedl’s best tool is his speed, as he can easily put down sub-4.0 second times to first base from the lefthanded batter’s box and has the range and instincts to play center field at a high level. He is also a very good bunter and a capable base stealer. Friedl’s bat is less of a sure thing—he isn’t going to be an impact power hitter, and while he has put up some excellent numbers recently, including a .401/.494/.563 slash line this past spring with the Wolf Pack, he doesn’t have an extensive track record at the plate and didn’t play full-time until 2016.
3. Daulton Varsho, c, Eau Claire (Jr., Wisconsin-Milwaukee) Varsho presented the best combination of power and plate discipline in the league, hitting .321 with 15 home runs and walking 45 times with 36 strikeouts. He didn’t stand out as a freshman at Wisconsin-Milwaukee but broke out in his sophomore year, hitting .381/.447/.610 for the Panthers. His father, Gary, played eight seasons in the majors and served as a coach for a number years before moving into scouting. Varsho might not stick behind the plate in the future—while he has good footwork and is a strong receiver, his arm strength needs to improve—but his bat is clearly there. He has a short, compact swing, with good lift and extension. Varsho can be vulnerable to elevated pitches, but he’s showed more of an ability to get on top of balls as he’s matured. He’s listed at 5-foot-9 and might be shorter, but he’s exceptionally fast and athletic for the position, with a 60-yard dash time around seven seconds. That speed can play even further up due to Varsho’s above-average baseball instincts.
4. Troy Bacon, rhp, Madison (So., Santa Fe JC, Fla.) Bacon signed with Florida out of high school and spent the fall with the Gators, but he transferred down the road to Santa Fe JC when it became evident that he would get more innings there. That decision has worked out so far, as he struck out 59 batters in 44 innings with a 1.23 ERA during the spring. Bacon dominated the Northwoods League as well, striking out 53 batters with just eight walks in 34.2 innings. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Bacon has a frame that suggests a continued role in the bullpen, but he his delivery doesn’t have much extra effort and he’s a good athlete, getting some action as a position player at Santa Fe. He touched the 95-96 mph range in the spring but more commonly sits 90-93. The fastball has decent life through the zone and Bacon can spot it to both sides of the plate. His changeup and slider are both strong secondary offerings, with the latter showing good depth and deception and benefitting from Bacon’s arm speed. Bacon’s longest outing this spring was four innings and he topped out at three this summer, so he would also need to prove his stuff can hold up over longer stints.
5. Jake Shepski, of, Mankato (Jr., Notre Dame) Shepski took a while to get into the Fighting Irish’s lineup on a full-time basis this spring, but he was one of their strongest bats once he did. He hit .270 with seven home runs, including three in one game against Virginia Tech. Shepski continued that strong offense with the Moondogs, batting .333/.469/.572 during the regular season. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Shepski is a switch-hitter, and while his swing isn’t significantly different from the left and right side, he hit much better as a lefty for Mankato. He showed an excellent plate approach, walking significantly more than he struck out, and he made adjustments when league pitchers wised up to him and started approaching him more cautiously. Shepski has a line drive-oriented swing and could probably hit more home runs if he opened up, but he has ample gap power and was among the league leaders in doubles with 21. Shepski is likely suited to a corner outfield spot—he’s not a burner, but he gets decent jumps and is a good athlete. He also pitched 11.2 innings for Notre Dame this spring and hit the low 90s with his fastball, but his arm isn’t a clear plus in the outfield.
6. Griffin Conine, of, La Crosse (So., Duke) Former big leaguer Jeff Conine was primarily a pitcher in college who got his shot in the field as a 58th-round pick. While his son has an arm that could probably play on the mound, Griffin Conine’s power and athleticism make him stand out as an outfielder. Conine struggled mightily this spring, hitting just .205 and losing his starting spot midway through the year, but enjoyed a big summer in the Northwoods as he hit .286 and led the league in homers with 16. He’s still vulnerable to pitchers working him on the corners and attacking him with breaking balls, but he has good bat speed and does well against velocity, even when it’s elevated. He has ample strength in his 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame and gets excellent extension and lift in his swing, which he starts from an open stance. Conine can record sub-seven times in the 60-yard dash and stole 16 bases during the summer. He takes good routes in the outfield and Duke assistant coach Josh Jordan said Conine has been clocked at triple-digits throwing from the outfield, so right field is a logical landing spot for him.
7. Luke Shilling, rhp, Madison (So., Illinois) Shilling was the No. 292 prospect in the 2015 BA 500—he was a 20th-round pick but didn’t sign—having switched from catcher to pitcher his junior year of high school and gaining helium thanks to his big body and mid-90s fastball. While he’s struggled with inconsistent command at the college level—Shilling walked 31 batters in 39 innings this summer—his stuff and delivery give him an attractive profile for the next level. When he was in the zone this summer, hitters rarely squared him up, as he gave up just 24 hits for the Mallards during the regular season. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Shilling gets good drive in his lower half and has a clean arm action that gives him plane on his fastball. He hit 95 mph in the Major League Dreams Showcase, has a hard slider with depth and changeup as a third pitch. He still needs to develop feel for those pitches, though.
8. Drew Ellis, 3b/of, Rochester (R-So., Louisville) Little League World Series history buffs might remember Ellis from the Jeffersonville, Ind., team that represented the Great Lakes region in 2008. Ellis hit just .221 this summer for the Honkers but 15 of his 34 hits went for extra bases and he hit 11 home runs, which tied for fifth in the league despite his playing just 43 games. He has a developed plate approach, a short, simple swing from a slightly closed set and good bat speed. Ellis also gains value from his defensive versatility, with strong footwork and hand-eye coordination and an arm that can fit at third base. He can play on both the outfield and infield, though he likely doesn’t have the raw foot speed to stick at center field or shortstop—third base could be the best fit for him. Ellis had to fight for playing time in 2016 just because Louisville so talented at every spot. With players such as Nick Solak, Blake Tiberi, and Danny Rosenbaum moving on, Ellis’ time to impress could come soon.
9. Nick Raquet, lhp, La Crosse (R-So., William & Mary) Raquet began his college career at North Carolina, where he threw 6.1 innings and struck out five batters in 2015, before transferring to William & Mary and sitting out this past spring. Raquet starts his motion out of a deep squat in high school—a la Virginia pitchers—and though he’s gotten more upright in college, he still has a slight knee bend reminiscent of arms like Brandon Waddell and Danny Hultzen. Raquet certainly has ACC-level stuff—he throws his fastball from a high-three-quarters arm slot at 90-94 mph, and the pitch has solid life and heaviness that tormented hitters at times this summer. One coach said Raquet threw “bowling balls.” Raquet also throws a quality changeup that he maintains his arm speed on and an 11-to-5 curveball with depth. He mixes all three of those pitches well and recorded a 2.22 ERA for the Loggers this summer, although his command flagged at times—he walked 13 batters in one 15.1-inning stretch. He has a strong frame at a listed 6-foot-1 and 213 pounds. Raquet doesn’t have an extensive college track record, and whether he starts or comes out of the bullpen in 2017 will likely depend on William & Mary’s needs.
10. Steele Walker, of, Wisconsin (So., Oklahoma)
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Walker was a mainstay in Oklahoma’s lineup as a freshman, playing in 57 of the Sooners’ 58 games, often hitting out of the cleanup spot and putting up a .290/.352/.414 line. He then showed one of the better hit tools in the NWL in his time with the Woodchucks, leading the league by a wide stretch by batting .406 and boosting his power from the spring with a .557 slugging percentage. Walker’s best tool is his bat—he has a smooth, easy lefthanded swing and sprays the ball to all fields. His plate approach is in good shape, as he had 26 walks to 17 strikeouts during the summer, and while he doesn’t have a ton of lift in his swing and likely won’t show plus power, he makes enough solid contact to put a fair amount of balls in the gaps and over the fence. He had 11 doubles and seven home runs for the Woodchucks. Apart from his bat, though, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Walker’s secondary tools don’t stick out. He’s a decent runner who can play a corner outfield spot well enough, but his arm is nothing special. His bat will have to carry him, and growing into more power would greatly help his stock. He has good instincts for the game, is a hard worker and has a undeniable confidence.

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