The Prospect Junkie: Q&A with Mike Rooney

In this week’s edition of The Prospect Junkie, I spent some time chatting with ESPN College Baseball Analyst Mike Rooney as he provided perspective on the strength of the Big Ten Conference, and thoughts on some of the prospects within. In addition to providing in-game commentary on ESPN throughout the season, Rooney provides insight as a writer for Perfect Game.

BG: Which Big Ten teams have you had a chance to see thus far this season?

I’ve seen Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State, and then I watched recently caught one of the Michigan State and South Carolina games last weekend on the Watch ESPN App. I also feel like I have a good feel for Maryland because I covered their Regional in 2015 when they upset UCLA, and I also sat on them for a series against Cal State Fullerton last year which was a very good series for them.  I feel like I know their roster pretty well.

BG: What are your general thoughts on the strength of those teams?

Michigan looked really good, they stack up with anyone, anywhere. I loved everything about Michigan. I loved their style of play. I loved that they had seniors in center field, at shortstop, and at catcher. I love that they’ve got a little mojo. They were in the Regional a couple years ago and then they faltered last year so I actually like that they have a little scar from last year. So Michigan I think is a threat anywhere or anytime, I love that club.

I had really high hopes for Nebraska, and I feel like I just didn’t see them well. I’m sure with any of the Big Ten teams, you need to temper yourself when you see them in February and early March. I think that league is notorious for clubs playing differently at the end of the year. I think for Nebraska in particular, their older guys weren’t going yet. The junior year is a tough year for a college player and I think a couple of their guys were pressing a little bit, but there was a lot to like. I saw Luensmann struggle, but I still wrote him up as a heck of a prospect. There’s still a lot to like, he just performed poorly. I love Jake Meyers as a college player, [Scott] Schreiber is a monster and I saw Angelo Altavilla was tremendous all weekend. Mojo Hagge is a really good college player; he disrupts the game.  I just saw them on what will ultimately end up being one of their worst weekends all year.

I think for Nebraska in particular, their older guys weren’t going yet. The junior year is a tough year for a college player and I think a couple of their guys were pressing a little bit, but there was a lot to like. I saw Luensmann struggle, but I still wrote him up as a heck of a prospect. There’s still a lot to like, he just performed poorly. I love Jake Meyers as a college player, [Scott] Schreiber is a monster and I saw Angelo Altavilla was tremendous all weekend. Mojo Hagge is a really good college player; he disrupts the game.  I just saw them on what will ultimately end up being one of their worst weekends all year.

BG: Ohio State’s Tre’ Gantt got off to a hot start, in particular in the Big Ten PAC-12 Challenge. Tell me what you saw out of him.

He was good in that weekend. He’s a left-hander who has a feel for his game and a very handsy swing, which I like.  He used the entire field and ran well. I understand he hasn’t played a ton of baseball, but he’s very intriguing. He moves well and has a good feel for how to play the game. He wasn’t really tested in CF in the games that I saw, but he’s definitely a name that you write down because’s he’s left-handed, and he can really run.

BG: Indiana has one of the better pro prospects in the conference in outfielder Logan Sowers. Did he make an impression on you?

Yeah, he was really interesting because while he didn’t play great, he so strong. He was stiffer than I anticipated, but he ran into two breaking balls. They play that tournament in Surprise (Ariz.) which is a Spring Training park that is massive in order to showcase outfield range. He hit a double in the gap and another ball to the base of the wall in centerfield. He was a little nicked up and limping around, but he was very intriguing to me. He’ll play every day and he’ll accumulate stats because he’s so physical. His physical presence is large. He was very competent in the outfield, but I felt like he was not 100%. I’m curious how he will handle real good velocity because he’s not rifling the bat through the zone. But boy, he’s super strong; crazy strong! Even when he’s hitting .167, he gets your attention because the two balls he hit were the loudest contact of the day so even his bad day is enticing.

He was a little nicked up and limping around, but he was very intriguing to me. He’ll play every day and he’ll accumulate stats because he’s so physical. His physical presence is large. He was very competent in the outfield, but I felt like he was not 100%. I’m curious how he will handle real good velocity because he’s not rifling the bat through the zone. But boy, he’s super strong; crazy strong! Even when he’s hitting .167, he gets your attention because the two balls he hit were the loudest contact of the day so even his bad day is enticing.

I’m curious how he will handle real good velocity because he’s not rifling the bat through the zone. But boy, he’s super strong; crazy strong! Even when he’s hitting .167, he gets your attention because the two balls he hit were the loudest contact of the day so even his bad day is enticing.

BG: The Big Ten may not have a top 10 overall talent like Tyler Jay or Kyle Schwarber this year, but Kevin Smith of Maryland might be the best bet at a first-rounder. What are your impressions of him?

I came out of that Regional in 2015 as the president of the Kevin Smith fan club. UCLA was the #1 overall seed, and this kid as a true freshman was so good. He handled every play, the game never sped up on him. And he had some really good at-bats, I think they hit him second in the order, so it was disappointing to see him have such a rough sophomore year.

When I saw him last year, you could tell he was trying to do too much. I was encouraged to hear about the summer. He’s off to a really rough start, and he’s not the first junior in the history of college baseball to have a rough time with the pressures of the draft year. Especially for a kid like him whose tools aren’t that loud but you start getting first round noise around you, I think that would be tough to reconcile mentally. I see he has 17 punch-outs in 14 games. Unless I’m whiffing on this, he’s a way better hitter than that. So to me, that screams that he’s trying to do too much. The things that I like about him is that he’s instinctual, he wore out

The things that I like about him is that he’s instinctual, he wore out right-center field, and he‘s a good baserunner. Also, really good pitching didn’t seem to phase him.

The Prospect Junkie: Early season review

With two weekends of the young season now in the books, we’re starting to starting to see some early returns on prospects for whom we’ve been patiently waiting through this long, if not mild, Midwest winter.

It’s important to note that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions based off a few games.  There’s a reason why we associate mid-season form with peak performance.  It takes time for players, much less teams, to round into form.

For those reasons, we’re not going to overreact when a player gets off to a hot or cold start.  However, February games count just as much as the games in May, so we’re not going to ignore them either.  Also, some of these early non-conference matchups provide the best opportunity to size-up prospects against some of the more highly regarded players in the nation.

Strong starts

Luke Miller, Indiana

A draft-eligible sophomore, the Hoosier third-basemen was an All-Big Ten Freshman Team selection in 2016 where he produced a slash line of .284/.352/.368 while finishing second on the team in hits (54).  While power was lacking for Miller last season, he’s already topped his 2016 home run production (one) by hitting two in just 14 at-bats to open the season.

Brian Shaffer, Maryland

The start has been less than ideal for the Terrapins.  Tabbed as a preseason top 25 team by several publications, Maryland stands at just 1-5 after being swept at LSU last weekend. Shaffer has been one of the few bright spots.  Matching up against potential first round pick Alex Lange last Friday, Shaffer held his own by allowing six hits and three runs over 6.2 innings.  He struck out six Tigers and walked three.  Shaffer gets great extension on a three-quarter delivery and pounds the strike-zone with sinking fastballs and has the confidence to throw his tight late-breaking slider in any count.  While Shaffer took the loss in the contest, I came away impressed.

Tre’ Gantt, Ohio State

Gantt teamed with Ronnie Dawson (Astros – 2nd Round) and Troy Montgomery (Angels – 8th Round) in the Buckeye outfield last season and could join them in pro ball next season.  Setting the table as the Ohio State leadoff hitter this season, Gantt is hitting .300/.382/.567 with a pair of stolen bases and three doubles thus far.

 

Looking to turn the corner

Logan Sowers, Indiana

Sowers’ star has dimmed some over the past two seasons but as noted last two weeks ago, I’m intrigued by his power potential.  He’s yet to show much of anything on the young season, hitting just .143/.200/.143 with 13 strikeouts compared to just 2 walks in 30 plate appearances.

Kevin Smith, Maryland

If there was a knock on Smith coming into the year, it was uncertainty about his ability to hit for average, having produced acceptable but unspectacular batting averages of .273 and .259 his freshman and sophomore years respectively.  Through six games this season, Smith is hitting just .130/.200/.174 with 11 strikeouts and just one walk.  The sample size is small, but not insignificant.  Smith had contact issues last year including 33 strikeouts in 143 at-bats in the Cape Cod League.  An encouraging sign is that he went 2-3 with a double against the aforementioned Lange.

Lucas Gilbreth, Minnesota

After a sophomore campaign where he dazzled with a team best 1.36 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 33 innings out of the bullpen, Gilbreth has allowed more earned runs through two starts (eight) than he did all of last season (five). Gilbreth was able to grind out a victory against UC Irvine on opening weekend despite allowing seven hits and five runs in just three innings.  He followed that up with six walks in another three-inning start against a prospect-laden Seattle University team.

The Prospect Junkie: Who I’m watching

There’s no denying that the Big Ten Conference is gaining respect in the collegiate baseball world. From 2010-2014, the conference earned no more than two bids into the NCAA Tournament each season before peaking with a whopping five bids in 2015 followed by three more in 2016.

The Big Ten has deeper program talent and more parity from top to bottom than it has for years, as the eight bids notched by the conference over the past two seasons were earned by eight different teams.

Whether that program depth within the conference translates into individual prospect talent is another question.  While there doesn’t appear to be a Kyle Schwarber or Tyler Jay in the Big Ten this season, both of whom were drafted in the top 10 overall picks in 2014 and 2015 respectively, there are still noteworthy players.

We’re taking the opportunity to highlight a few of the top prospects in the Big Ten that I’ll be watching closely this spring in preparation for June’s MLB Draft.

Kevin Smith, SS, Maryland

Not only did Smith go undrafted out of Columbia High School in East Greenbush, New York, he was barely recruited, with Maryland being his one and only DI scholarship offer.

If he was unknown prior to stepping onto campus, Smith made people take notice by starting 65 games in his freshman season for a Maryland team that would eventually make it’s second consecutive trip to the Super Regional round. A glove-first shortstop, Smith also produced a serviceable .259/.308/.407 slash line, with eight home runs as a sophomore before taking a step forward in the Cape Cod League.

Using wood bats last summer, Smith hit .301/.348/.427 with five home runs including the playoffs. Decorated with several preseason All-American accolades, Smith offers the best chance at a first round selection for the Big Ten due to his likelihood to stick at shortstop paired with an above-average power profile.

Brian Shaffer, RHP, Maryland

Shaffer has some pretty large shoes to fill as the ace of the Maryland staff. Mike Shawaryn started 48 games over three seasons for the Terrapins, winning 30 games and logging over 300 innings before the Red Sox him in the 5th round of the MLB Draft last summer.

Shaffer was no slouch last season, even stepping in for a struggling Shawaryn in the Friday night role for a brief period in route to an 8-3, 2.60 ERA 0.88 WHIP season. Shaffer has excellent control, walking just 1.13 batters per nine innings last season and 1.20 for his career.

Like Smith, Shaffer went undrafted out of high school but that will change in June. Standing 6’5” and 200 pounds, Shaffer worked at 92-94 mph last season at his best. The prototypical pitcher’s frame, velocity, and low walk rate make Shaffer an intriguing prospect to follow for this draft season.

Logan Sowers, OF, Indiana

Sowers has the most distinguished pedigree in this bunch. As a prep standout at McCutcheon HS in Lafayettte, Sowers earned Indiana Mr. Baseball honors in 2014 before being drafted by the Padres in the 31st round that summer.  Following through on his commitment to Indiana, Sowers started all 59 games for the Hoosiers as a freshman, finishing with a slash line of .257/.329/.427 and six

Following through on his commitment to Indiana, Sowers started all 59 games for the Hoosiers as a freshman, finishing with a slash line of .257/.329/.427 and six homeruns which earned him All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors. Sowers improved on his sophomore campaign, and he was named team MVP while hitting .273/.377/.466 and leading the team with eight home runs despite missing three weeks with a shoulder injury.

Perhaps what’s most encouraging sign is that Sowers was able to tap into his plus raw power while improving his strikeout to walk ratio from 3.19 to 1.64 year over year. The last live look I got of Sowers was early in his collegiate career as Cal State Fullerton’s Thomas Eshelman made him look like the raw teenager he was. Eshelman had a tendency to do that. I’m looking forward seeing the continued maturation this season to determine of my eyes corroborate what the numbers are indicating.

 

Five more to watch

Luke Miller, 3B, Indiana*

Scott Schreiber, OF, Nebraska

Drew Lugbauer, C/INF, Michigan

Alex Troop, LHP, Michigan State**

Lucas Gilbreth, LHP, Minnesota

 

*Draft-eligible sophomore

**Redshirt sophomore

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