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.

Five primed for breakout seasons

The Big Ten has produced a first-round pick each of the last three seasons, with Kyle Schwarber, Tyler Jay and Cody Sedlock emerging as one of the country’s top talents. Again, the Big Ten is not short of standout individual talent with Maryland’s Kevin Smith and Nebraska’s Jake Meyers receiving preseason All-American honors.

But beyond those two, there are several players ready to step into greater roles, capable of putting together noteworthy seasons. Here’s a look at five players primed for breakout seasons.

Maryland Soph. OF Marty Costes

It might not be fair to list Maryland sophomore outfielder Marty Costes as a player primed for a breakout season, he did lead Maryland with nine home runs, the most by a Big Ten freshman, after all. But if even gradual improvements are seen across the board, Costes has a chance to be the Big Ten’s Player of the Year and an All-American. Costes batted .260 in his freshman year, collecting 10 doubles with a pair of doubles, to reach 21 extra-base hits. The power, a .216 isolated slugging percentage, wasn’t terribly compromised with outrageous strikeouts, 21% of at-bats ended in strikeouts, while 28 walks spurred Costes to a .363 on-base percentage. During the Big Ten Tournament, Costes said he didn’t have the best approach as a freshman, there were times he’d chase bad pitches. With a year under his belt and better knowledge of the game, a banner year may be on deck.

Ohio State Jr. OF Tre’ Gantt

Tre’ Gantt emerged as a dynamic player for Ohio State in the second-half of the 2015 season. Arriving on campus in time for the winter semester, Gantt wasted no time getting up to speed and making an impact for the Buckeyes, batting .311 as a freshman over 74 at-bats. But Gantt had labrum surgery following the 2015 season and a slow start to his sophomore campaign led to a step backward offensive. Gantt did show a little more pop in year two, after collecting just one double and one triple in 2015, the outfielder picked up eight doubles, but he was unable to consistently reach base, finishing the season with a .255 average and .311 on-base percentage. More than a year removed from the surgery, the Buckeyes expect Gantt to excel in 2017, as a switch from right field to his natural center field position to help. Slated to start on opening day for the first time, with the departures of Ronnie Dawson and Trom Montgomery, the opportunity is there for Gantt to assert himself as the leader of the Buckeye outfield.

Indiana Jr. RHP Brian Hobbie

Since he arrived in Bloomington, Indiana junior right-handed pitcher Brian Hobbie has looked the part of a big-time college pitcher. Standing six-foot-seven, weighing 227 pounds, Hobbie is a physical presence on the mound. Long-limbed, the ball seemingly crosses home plate in no time. Hobbie does possess a low-90s fastball, a heavy offering that can continually induce weak contact, so his pitches have enough giddy-up. Hobbie has shown flashes of brilliance but the Hoosiers are waiting for everything to come together. Sporting a 6.27 ERA over 18.2 innings as a freshman, Hobbie took a step in the right direction as a sophomore, lowering his ERA to 2.08 in 8.2 innings. But after striking out 19 batters against six walks in 2015, Hobbie walked five and struck out three in 2016, contributing to a decrease in usage. Hobbie’s best 2016 effort came in the summer, earning Prospect League Pitcher of the Year honors after holding an 0.82 ERA over 54.2 innings. As Indiana needs to replace its entire rotation, the innings will be there for Hobbie to make an impact.

Minnesota Soph. OF Ben Mezzenga

With Dan Motl batting .336, dialing up 19 doubles and playing superb defense, the opportunities for Ben Mezzenga to make an impact for Minnesota were limited. Making four starts, Mezzenga picked up three hits in 21 at-bats. But don’t think Mezzenga didn’t try his best to leave his mark. Mezzenga stole three bases in three opportunities, to help him score seven runs. In the summer, with a full season of reps, Mezzenga showed why the Gophers are high on him heading into the new season. In 34 games with the Eau Claire Express, Mezzenga batted .321, scored 39 runs, and continued his base stealing prowess, swiping 22 bags. Able to run 60 yards in 6.6 seconds, Mezzenga is viewed as one of the best Minnesota athletes since two-sport standout Eric Decker, with a chance to be an impact the game with the bat, his glove and on the bases.

Illinois Soph. 3B Bren Spillane

Those who cover Midwestern high school baseball saw Illinois’ Bren Spillane as one of the most college-ready players in the high school class of 2015. With an advanced feel for hitting and the ability to hit with power, Spillane was viewed as a player capable of stepping in and contributing from day one for an Illini tweet hit hard that June by the draft. But Spillane suffered a concussion towards the end of his final prep season, and the effects lingered throughout his freshman year. Limited to just two starts and five total games, Spillane went hitless in nine at-bats before Illinois opted to hold him out for the rest of the season. With no symptoms, Spillane looks to have a big second season, this past fall proof of what he’s capable of. In Illinois’ intra-squad Blue and Orange series, Spillane had a three-home run game, a second multi-hit contest and capped the week with two RBI. Dan Hartleb and staff expects Spillane to be a force in the heart of the Illini lineup as the team seeks a fourth regional appearance in seven seasons.

 

Five more to watch

Northwestern Jr. RHP Tommy Bordignon

Penn State Soph. INF Connor Klemann

Purdue Soph. C Nick Dalesandro

Michigan State Jr. FHP Andrew Gonzalez

Michigan Jr. RHP Jayce Vance

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