MLB Playoffs: College Retrospective
The matchups for the major league Divisional Series are set. For college baseball fans, it’s always fun to see how former college players turned out in pro ball. And for MLB fans, it might be interesting to know how your favorite big leaguers were viewed during their college days. With that in mind, Aaron Fitt, Frankie Piliere and Kendall Rogers combed through some old notes and broke down some former college players on the rosters of the eight remaining MLB playoff teams.
Diamond In The Rough: Evan Gattis
Getting selected high in the draft is nice and all, but it’s anything but a guarantee that success will be had at the next level. Sometimes those drafted well after end up having better careers. Insert Evan Gattis, who was a 23rd round pick by the Braves in 2010 … from Texas-Permian Basin out in West Texas. Gattis hit .403 with 12 homers and 62 RBIs in his one season at UTPB, and after hitting .243 and .263, respectively, in two seasons with the Braves (2013 and 2014), he’s had quite the season with the Astros. Gattis, a 6-foot-4, 260-pounder, is hitting just .246 for Houston, but has slammed 27 homers, knocked in 88 runs, and of course, has hit an astonishing 11 triples.
Destiny Realized: George Springer.
Springer has had some injury issues at times for the Astros this season, but he’s still a young hitter with an incredibly bright future, as evidenced by his .276 batting average, along with 16 homers and 41 RBIs. His production at the next level isn’t a surprise to us. The entire D1Baseball.com staff saw Springer on numerous occasions throughout his collegiate career, and I saw him specifically against Kris Bryant and San Diego on a sunny weekend in San Diego. Springer was a physical hitter who consistently hit the baseball like it was someone he was mad at. Springer still has that authoritative approach, and it’s why he’s a franchise player for Houston.
From Good Prospect To Great Big Leaguer: Dallas Keuchel.
Who saw this coming from Keuchel? Keuchel was a fierce competitor during his three seasons at Arkansas, but he was never this dominant against college competition. Keuchel tallied ERAs of 5.88, 4.58 and 3.92 during his three seasons with the Razorbacks, recording 69 strikeouts and walking 32 batters during his junior season before getting drafted in the seventh round. Keuchel was an upper-80s, touching 90-91 mph type of pitcher with his fastball in college, while his changeup was his go-to secondary offering, and his curveball was an average to above-average offering. Now, Keuchel’s curveball has gone to the next level and he’s developed into one of Major League Baseball’s elite arms with an incredible 20-8 overall record and a 2.48 ERA in 232 innings of work. Something interesting about Keuchel? He was ranked in the 700s nationally out of high school.
Still Waiting: Josh Fields.
The righthanded Astros reliever was one of the elite stoppers in college baseball the vast majority of his career at Georgia. Sure, he had the iffy junior season with the Bulldogs that ended with a 4.46 ERA, but otherwise tallied good numbers, including 63 strikeouts in 37.1 innings as a senior. However, while Fields, a former first-round pick, was expected to continue those dominant ways at the next level, he’s had trouble getting his footing at times. Fields had ERAs well over four the past two seasons, while this season, he’s gotten better with a 3.55 ERA in 50.2 innings, along with 67 strikeouts and 19 walks. Fields could be more dominant, but he clearly has improved in the command department as a professional. Still, he’s just a guy for the Astros.
Diamond In The Rough: Kris Medlen.
The Atlanta Braves are good at finding pitching from unexpected places, so the Royals should give some credit to that scouting department for finding Medlen at Santa Ana College and drafting him in the 10th round in 2006. The 5-foot-10 righty has overcome odds and has a 3.06 ERA in his first six big league seasons. He’s also ascended to a key swingman role for the Royals, proving he can pitch effectively both out of the bullpen and in the rotation. Medlen posted a 4.01 ERA in 2015 and could be a major key if a starter is knocked out of the game early. He can provide innings and has excellent command of a big, moving two-seam fastball. This is the feel that intrigued scouts all the way back in 2006.
Destiny Realized: Alex Gordon.
One of the signature superstars in college baseball over the last two decades, Alex Gordon was nothing short of magnificent in his college career at Nebraska. Although he’s already a three time All-Star in the big leagues, Gordon did take some time to reach his potential, but has been one of the most consistent players in the American league since 2011. A third baseman in his college days, Gordon has also emerged as an elite defender in left field for Kansas City, already racking up four Gold Gloves. To recap Gordon’s veritable mountain of collegiate awards, in 2005, he took home the Dick Howser Trophy, the Brooks Wallace Award, and the Golden Spikes Award after hitting .372 with 19 home runs and 66 RBI. He starred for Team USA as well, hitting .388 for the 2004 squad. The Royals took Gordon 2nd overall in 2005 and he’s become the definition of a franchise, homegrown type of player.
From Good Prospect To Great Big Leaguer: Ben Zobrist.
One of the darlings of the sabermetric era, Zobrist provides value to the teams he plays for in a wide variety of ways. He’s carved out a reputation as arguably the most versatile player in baseball, but he’ll anchor the second baseball spot for the Royals this October. The switch hitting Zobrist had another quality year, hitting .284 and posting a .364 OBP since coming over from the Oakland Athletics mid-season. A super college player at Dallas Baptist, Zobrist was taken in the sixth round by the Houston Astros back in 2004. Not lauded for having the loudest tools, Zobrist has always proven to be a performer. He hit .378 with eight home runs and posted a .448 OBP for the Patriots in his final season on campus.
Still Waiting: Luke Hochevar.
Make no mistake, Hochever is going to be a major key to the Royals’ bullpen if they make another deep run into postseason, but his current role is definitely short of what scouts once prognosticated for him. A year after taking Alex Gordon second overall, the Royals took Hochevar first overall in 2006. Projected to be a future big league ace, Hochevar turned out a multi-million dollar deal from the Dodgers in the previous draft, going on to pitch in an independent league before being drafted by the Royals. Hochevar was an ace of the highest order at Tennessee, posting a 15-3 record with a 2.26 ERA for the Vols in 2005, winning the SEC Pitcher of the Year award in the process. Now 32-years-old, Hochevar has found a home in the bullpen in the last two seasons, but still has a career ERA of 5.02. But, in his two seasons since moving to the bullpen, he’s posted 1.92 and 3.73 ERA respectively, and he made 49 appearances in 2015.
Diamond In The Rough: Shawn Tolleson.
Tolleson was one of the best pitchers in the State of Texas out of high school, but an injury early in his collegiate career derailed what was supposed to be a standout time at Baylor University. Tolleson never could get into a groove with the Bears, tallying ERAs of 5.06, 4.50 and 5.17 in his final season. Tolleson was a 30th round pick by the Dodgers. Everyone knew Tolleson had the potential out of college, but he needed to stay healthy and show it in reality. Tolleson has had a resurgence for the Rangers the past two seasons, tallying ERAs of 2.76 and 2.99, respectively, while also tallying 76 strikeouts and walking just 17 in 72.1 innings of work this season. Tolleson could’ve tapped out a long time ago, but he’s clearly a guy on a mission.
Destiny Realized: Mitch Moreland.
Moreland has had a rather interesting rise at the big league level. Moreland was a no-doubt terrific college baseball player, especially during his junior campaign. As a junior at Mississippi State, the Amory, Miss., native hit .343 with 10 homers and 62 RBIs, while also leading State to the College World Series and hitting one of the more memorable homers in Rosenblatt Stadium; a ball that cleared the entire stadium to dead center field. Moreland has always shown power at the big league level, but his banner 2015 campaign is a big reason why the Rangers are in the playoffs. Moreland is hitting .278 with 23 homers and 85 RBIs, and has realized just how good he can be. Not bad for someone selected in the 17th round by the Rangers in 2007.
From Good Prospect To Great Big Leaguer: Sam Dyson.
The Rangers acquired the former South Carolina righthander from the Marlins in a trade at the end of July. Dyson tallied ERAs of 4.09, 5.21 and 4.28, respectively, during his three seasons with the Gamecocks, but the former fourth-round pick has evolved into a high quality arm out of the bullpen for the Rangers. Dyson has appeared in 31 games since being traded and has tallied a 1.15 ERA in 31.1 innings of work. He also has struck out 30 and walked just four, with teams hitting him at just a .212 clip. Dyson has always had big-time potential, and he’s a key for this team going into the playoffs.
Still Waiting: Tanner Scheppers.
Scheppers has had some real setbacks in his professional career, so it’s a little difficult to criticize him too much, but he’s not having the year some expected. The hard-throwing righthander had a dominant final season at Fresno State in 2008 with 109 strikeouts in 70.2 innings of work. And after being a first-rounder, he made a strong impression for the Rangers a few years later in 2013 with a 1.88 ERA in 76.2 innings. Scheppers faced setbacks in 2014 before tallying a 5.63 ERA in 42 appearances and 38.1 innings this season. Scheppers also has struggled to rack up gaudy strike out totals, while also walking 23 hitters. Scheppers has an incredibly big arm, but has yet to consistently harness his stuff. To make matters worse, Scheppers needed stitches in his eye this week after injuring himself in the Rangers’ division championship celebration.
Diamond In The Rough: Kevin Pillar.
In his first full season as Toronto’s regular center fielder, Pillar hit .278 with 12 homers and 25 stolen bases — not bad for a guy who was drafted in the 32nd round out of Division II Cal State Dominguez Hills in 2011. Pillar was obviously not a blue-chip prospect during his college days, but he did get a moment in the spotlight in 2010, when he set the Division II record by compiling a 54-game hitting streak — just four games shy of Robin Ventura’s NCAA record.
Destiny Realized: David Price.
Perhaps no other college player this century was so obviously destined for big league greatness. Price was the top prospect for Team USA the summer after his sophomore year, when he flashed 97 mph heat and a plus slider. He was the consensus national player of the year and the No. 1 pick in the draft after his junior year at Vanderbilt in 2007. He was a can’t-miss, no-doubt superstar in the making. And unlike some can’t-miss, no-doubt future superstars, Price has lived up to that billing. His midseason arrival in Toronto was a huge reason for the Jays’ surge to the AL East title; he went 9-1, 2.30 with 87 strikeouts in 74.1 innings after the trade. Former Long Beach State star Troy Tulowitzki would be another fine choice for this category.
From Good Prospect To Great Big Leaguer: Josh Donaldson.
Donaldson was a well regarded prospect during his college days at Auburn, but no one envisioned him becoming a two-time big league all-star before the age of 30. He ranked as Baseball America’s No. 11 prospect in the Cape Cod League in 2006, behind current Toronto teammates Justin Smoak (No. 1) and Brett Cecil (No. 6). As a third baseman/catcher his junior year in 2007, Donaldson hit .349 with 11 homers and was drafted 48th overall by the Cubs. As a converted infielder, his defense behind the plate was a work in progress when he was drafted, but a good part of his value was that scouts thought he had a real chance to catch in the big leagues. He projected as a good hitter with solid power; no one expected him to become a slugging third baseman capable of hitting 41 home runs in a season, as he did this year.
Still Waiting: Justin Smoak.
Smoak was a three-year star for South Carolina and the No. 11 overall pick by the Rangers in 2008. As a powerful switch-hitter with a good feel around the bag at first, he drew comparisons to Mark Teixeira out of college — but he has just a .224 career batting average in six big league seasons, to go along with a 96 OPS+ that makes him a slightly below league-average hitter, as a position where offense is imperative. His 108 OPS+ this year is a bit better, but we’re still waiting for him to become the all-star we once thought he would become, and he’s now 28 years old.
Diamond In The Rough: Kyle Hendricks.
A 39th-round pick by the Angels out of high school in Southern California, Hendricks went across country to Dartmouth to pursue an Ivy League education, and he became a key part of back-to-back NCAA tournament teams as a freshman and sophomore. He threw 7 1/3 shutout innings against Cornell in the Ivy championship series as a freshman in 2009.
“He’s just gotten better and better,” Dartmouth coach Bob Whalen said after that game against Cornell. “He was a draft by the Angels very late last year; he comes from a great family, and he understood you don’t pass up a Dartmouth education unless the dollars are just over the top. He’s just gotten better and better literally every time out.”
Still, Hendricks did not exactly dominate Ivy League competition, posting a career 4.87 ERA in three seasons at Dartmouth. Scouts were intrigued by his good pitcher’s frame and a fastball that touched 95 his junior year, but he needed plenty of polish, and he lasted until the eighth round of the draft. So it was a surprise that he posted a 2.46 ERA in the majors as a 24-year-old in 2014, and remained a key part of the Chicago rotation this year, posting a 3.95 ERA in 180 innings.
Destiny Realized: Kris Bryant.
Few college players have been safer bets to become big league superstars than Bryant, who starred all three years at San Diego and smashed 31 home runs to sweep every national player of the year award as a junior in 2013. He was the best prospect in that draft class, but the Astros chose Mark Appel over him with the No. 1 overall pick, and the Cubs eagerly snatched him up at No. 2. The only question was whether he’d be a third baseman or a corner outfielder at the big league level; he has played both spots during his standout rookie year, but he certainly has proven that he is capable of sticking at the hot corner long term. And his bat is as special as everyone knew it was during his USD days.
“The last guy I saw hit like that was Mark McGwire at SC,” one West Coast scout said of Bryant in 2013. “And he hits some moonshots, too. You’re looking at a guy that doesn’t come down the road but once every 15 years. He’s really proved that he can really swing the bat.”
From Good Prospect To Great Big Leaguer: Jake Arrieta.
Arrieta was a fairly nondescript major league starter over his first four seasons before turning a corner last year. Now he’s the best pitcher in baseball — and nobody saw that coming. He was a very good college pitcher for two years at TCU, especially his sophomore year in 2006, when he went 14-4, 2.35. He pitched for Team USA that summer — and ranked as the No. 8 prospect on my USA list, behind such luminaries as J.P. Arencibia, Cole St.Clair and Daniel Moskos (as well as future stars David Price and Pedro Alvarez). He was tired that summer after a long spring, and his fastball sat just 90-92; even TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said then that his stuff was “solid across the board, but I don’t think plus in anything.” But the ingredients were there for him to become special.
“He has a very good arm, and he’s like (Roger) Clemens in his delivery,” Team USA coach Tim Corbin said in 2006. “He has a very heavy fastball, a very live slider which was tough to hit. He walked some people, but outside of that, they did not get good swings.”
Arrieta’s junior year wasn’t quite as good as his sophomore year, and he fell all the way to the fifth round of the draft, where the Orioles snatched him up. Nowadays, his fastball sits in the mid-90s with impeccable command, and his slider is devastating. He is better than even his most ardent advocates could have dreamed he would be.
Still Waiting: Matt Szczur.
Better known as a football star during his collegiate days at Villanova, where he led his team to an FCS national championship, Szczur garnered a $1.5 million signing bonus as a fifth-round pick in order to give up his football career and focus on baseball. He was raw as a baseball player during his Villanova days, but still he hit .443 in 174 at-bats his junior year in 2010.
“He grows on you the more you watch the kid,” one scout said that spring. “He has an unorthodox, slashy swing, but he barrels up more, keeps doing it week after week. He’s a true 80 runner, I don’t think there’s any question of that. It’s just whether that bat’s going to play. The more you question, the more he goes out and keeps hitting.”
He’s hit enough in the minor leagues to earn big league stints over the last two years, but he hasn’t figured out major league pitching yet. In 134 career at-bats, Szczur has a .224 average. But he did hit .292 in Triple-A this year.
Diamond In The Rough: Mike Bolsinger.
Notice a trend with successful players coming out of Arkansas? Bolsinger had a solid collegiate career with the Razorbacks, but we’re not real sure many saw the talented righthander becoming a starting pitcher for a playoff team. Bolsinger had a 4.81 ERA his final season with the Hogs and was a 15th round selection in the 2010 draft as a result. Bolsinger hasn’t been at his best the past month of the season, having an ERA over seven in the month of September, but he’s had success with the Dodgers, sitting pretty overall with a 3.62 ERA in 109.1 innings, along with 98 strikeouts and 45 walks. Bolsinger isn’t an overwhelming arm, but him being on this stage is somewhat of a surprise.
Destiny Realized: Andre Ethier.
Ethier had an outstanding college career at Arizona State and was a second-round pick. But with a lofty draft placement like that, expectations are going to be high. Ethier, a big league veteran, has handled expectations very well throughout his career. He’s tallied 20 or more homers in four of his 10 seasons with the Dodgers, while this season, he’s hitting an impressive .294 with seven triples (the most since 2006), 14 homers and 53 RBIs. The 33-year-old has a .286 career batting average, along with an .823 OBP.
From Good Prospect To Great Big Leaguer: Justin Turner.
Justin “Red” Turner was one of my favorite players to cover during his days with Cal State Fullerton. The former seventh-round pick (2007) has had a lengthy big league career. And though he finished years 2011-2013 with batting averages of .260, .269 and .280, respectively, he’s been outstanding for the Dodgers the past two seasons, especially this year on the way to the NL West title. Turner is hitting an impressive .294 with 26 doubles, 16 homers and 60 RBIs. Turner has always been the consummate grinder, but he’s turned into an elite hitter over the past few seasons, too. Turner has been dealing with a sore left forearm, but is expected to play against the Mets in the NL Divisional Series.
Still Waiting: Alex Wood.
The physical 6-foot-4, 216-pound lefthander isn’t having a bad year for the Dodgers, but he’s also not the dominant force he was during his final season at Georgia. Wood was one of the nation’s elite arms as a college junior, tallying a 2.73 ERA in 102.1 innings, while also striking out 100 and allowing just 21 walks. Wood had two quality full seasons with the Braves before being dealt to the Dodgers halfway through this season. The lefty has certainly had his moments this year, most recently striking out two and allowing just five hits in seven innings against San Diego earlier this month. But he’s got a 4.35 ERA with the Dodgers, which is respectable, but certainly far from overwhelming.
Diamond In The Rough: Lucas Duda.
Before the Mets’ lineup was supercharged with the addition of Yoenis Cespedes, a lot was placed on the broad shoulders of 6-foot-4, 256 pound slugger, Lucas Duda to provide thump in the middle of a then quiet New York lineup. But while the lefty swinging did come out of well known program at USC, he was not nearly one of the most talked about player in the region back in 2007, the year the Mets took Duda in the 7th round. In other words, a hat has to be tipped to the Mets for seeing the upside in a player who hit .280 with seven home runs in his final college season. Duda whacked 27 home runs and posted a .352 OBP in 2015 and has hit 101 home runs in his first six big league seasons.
Destiny Realized: Matt Harvey.
Harvey is exactly what teams dream that their first round draft picks go on to become. The former 7th overall pick in the 2010 draft was a star since his days and Fitch Senior High School in Groton, Connecticut, and continued to evolve into a collegiate superstar at North Carolina. After a pedestrian sophomore season in which he posted a 5.40 ERA, Harvey blossomed as a junior, striking out 102 batters and posting a 3.09 ERA as the ‘Heels ace. And despite all the controversy surrounding Harvey’s innings limit, he has been nothing short of a smashing success at the top of the Mets’ rotation. Coming off Tommy John surgery, Harvey posted a 2.71 ERA and struck out 188 batters in 189.1 innings in 2015.
From Good Prospect To Great Big Leaguer: Jacob deGrom.
Plenty of scouts would like to say they saw this type of eruption from deGrom, but his ascension to true ace status was something that few around the game fully saw coming. After beginning his college career at Stetson as a shortstop, deGrom was put on the pitcher’s mound during his junior year, going on to be a ninth round draft choice in 2010. The deGrom scouts knew back then had live stuff, but posted a very pedestrian 4.48 ERA in 17 starts, and allowed a whopping 103 hits in 82.1 innings. Flash forward to 2015, and the lanky 6-foot-4 righty posted a bonafide ace numbers (2.54 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 205 SO) and electrified the crowd at the All-Star game.
Still Waiting: Kirk Nieuwenhuis.
While he’s certainly carved himself out a role with the Mets, there was a time where it appeared that Nieuwenhuis could play an even larger, starting role in the big leagues. It’s worth noting that there is still time for this versatile 28-year-old to improve on the fly in the big leagues. He hit just .208 in 64 games in New York in 2015, but he has shown the ability to use his athleticism and versatility in the past. His combination of speed and power is what made him an absolute superstar at Azusa Pacific, where the former third round draft choice hit .400 with 15 home runs and eight stolen bases in 2008.
Diamond In The Rough: Matt Carpenter.
Carpenter went undrafted as a fourth-year junior after hitting .283 with 11 homers in 2008 for TCU. His OPS jumped from .903 to 1.132 from ’08 to ’09, and the Cardinals gave the fifth-year senior a shot as a 13th-round pick. Scouts weren’t overly excited about Carpenter, but college coaches who played against TCU knew how good of a player he was. “If you watch Carpenter and (Bryan) Holaday, they are the classic college athletes that you want on your team, they are great leaders on the field, they’re hustling, they’re into it,” one rival Mountain West coach said of Carpenter in 2009. “My favorite player in our league is Carpenter; I just love the way he goes about it.”
But he turned out to be much more than just a hustle-oriented college player; he’s a two-time big league all-star who hit a career-high 28 homers this year.
Destiny Realized: Michael Wacha.
Wacha had a brilliant three-year career at Texas A&M, going 27-7, 2.40 with 336 strikeouts and 72 walks in 348.2 career innings. After I watched Wacha carry a perfect game into the eighth inning against Pepperdine in March of his junior year, I wrote that he looked like a potential top-five overall pick. That day, he mixed his 90-93 fastball with a plus-plus 83-85 changeup and an improving mid-70s curveball. Everyone knew already that his changeup was special; the question was, did he have a good enough breaking ball to be a front-line major league starter? His strike-throwing ability really set him apart.
“He doesn’t even give you time to breathe,” one scout said during that Pepperdine game. “Every pitch is in the zone.”
The Cardinals got a steal on Wacha with the 19th overall pick in 2012, and he was a big part of their 2013 run to the World Series. This year, he went 17-7, 3.38 and made his first All-Star Game.
From Good Prospect To Great Big Leaguer: Lance Lynn.
Lynn was a high-profile recruit for Ole Miss, an unsigned sixth-round pick out of an Indiana high school. He was a workhorse for three years for the Rebels, but he lacked consistency. He posted a 4.96 ERA as a freshman, then went 8-5, 2.85 during his outstanding sophomore year, before regressing to 7-4, 4.52 as a junior in 2008. Even so, his ability to pitch off his heavy low-90s fastball made him a supplemental first-round pick, No. 38 overall.
“He throws a real hard and heavy fastball. He tried to come in tonight on me,” South Carolina slugger Justin Smoak said after facing Lynn in April of 2008. “He’s got a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup, and he’s tough to hit. He’s a big guy, he throws hard.”
Lynn has been a workhorse for the Cardinals too, pitching 175 or more inning in each of the last four years. He has a career ERA of 3.37 in 791 career innings.
Still Waiting: Kolten Wong.
The Cards have gotten solid return on their 2011 first-round pick from Wong, who reached the majors just two years later and has been an everyday second baseman for the last two years. But his hit tool was his calling card during his college days at Hawaii, and he still has not become the plus hitter he once projected as. He’s a .250 career hitter with a career OPS+ of 86.
“Offense is his key,” Hawaii coach Mike Trapasso said of Wong in 2011. “He’s able to drive the ball to all fields, and he’s just a tough out, because if you pitch him in, he’ll turn on it, and he’ll flash some power. If you pitch him away, he’ll have no problem shooting it to the 6-hole or the left-center gap.”