LEXINGTON, Ky. — Nick Mingione’s first season as Kentucky baseball head coach brought more interest in the program than perhaps ever before. The Wildcats hosted an NCAA regional for just the second time in school history. UK won the regional and advanced to the super regional round for the first time ever.
Louisville swept UK in two games to advance to Omaha, but the season was better than anyone could have predicted. Mingione, who led the Wildcats to 43 wins, was named SEC Coach of the Year.
But several of the talented players who helped lead UK to new heights are gone. Much will be expected of the top 25 recruiting class that will arrive in the fall. Although the final roster still isn’t set — players selected in the 2017 MLB Draft have until July 15 to sign — Cats Illustrated takes an early look at the Wildcats in 2018.
REPLACING WHITE, MAHAN AND HEADY NO EASY TASK
UK will have to replace three of its four infielders in 2018. Evan White, the No. 17 pick overall in the MLB Draft by the Seattle Mariners, departs after completing one of the best careers in UK baseball history. He finished with 233 career hits, the fourth most in school history and more than any player has compiled in his first three seasons. White’s career .356 batting average was fifth on the all-time UK list and his 51 doubles are the fourth most for a UK player.
That’s just offensively. White was a three-time All-SEC Defensive Team member and won the Rawlings Gold Glove at first base this season. In 1,748 career chances, White made just two errors. He didn’t make a single error in 2017.
All of that is to say replacing White will be nearly impossible, but UK does have a few options. T.J. Collett practiced at first once he returned from an ACL injury. He has the best offensive potential of possible replacements. He only collected two hits in 23 at-bats this season, but he didn’t see his first action until the first weekend of SEC play. He’s likely the best power hitter on the team and his average will certainly go up when he plays everyday. Freshman Brayden Combs, who redshirted in 2017, will compete for a spot. He’s a 6-4, 230-pounder lefthanded hitter.
The middle of UK’s infield will also need to be replaced. Shortstop Connor Heady started 149 games over four seasons. He was a solid defender who enjoyed his best offensive season during his senior year.
At second base, Riley Mahan is gone after a terrific offensive campaign. He hit for a .336 average and finished the season with a team-leading 15 home runs and 67 RBI. The move to second base also helped his defense. Mahan committed just 11 errors on the season. The Miami Marlins selected him in the third round.
UK has several options for the middle infield next year. Luke Becker played third during this past season but could easily be moved back to second base, where he played during the 2016 season. Zeke Lewis and Joey Bellini will compete alongside several incoming freshmen and junior college recruits for the spot. Kaden Polcovich, the No. 446 best draft prospect by Baseball America, is a high school prospect who could fill one of the middle infield spots. JUCO signee Troy Black hit .450 while playing second base for Murray State.
Another JUCO signee, Trey Dawson, could lock down the shortstop spot. Dawson transferred to Chipola College after one season at LSU. Dawson hit .276 with nine home runs and 38 RBI in his one season with Chipola. He was named the Panhandle Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Shortstop Alex Rodriguez is another player to watch. He hit .335 with 12 home runs and 55 RBI at Northern Oklahoma Tonkawa.
At third base, Tyler Marshall and Luke Heyer could split action again. Marshall started 40 games on the season while Heyer started 18. Marshall started every game at third base during the NCAA tournament. He finished the year with a .293 average.
UK also returns its two top catchers. Troy Squires, an All-SEC Second Team member, and Kole Cottam both return next season. Squires is better defensively but Cottam is the better hitter. Cottam is likely to be used as the designated hitter when he's not catching.
POMPEY BACK, BUT UK MUST REPLACE TWO OUTFIELDERS
The good news for UK is elite outfielder Tristan Pompey is back for his junior season. Pompey led UK with 96 hits his sophomore year. He increased his batting average from .233 his freshman season to .361 his sophomore season. He clubbed 10 home runs and knocked in 45 runs.
The question with Pompey is whether he moves full-time to centerfield. He started 15 games in centerfield his freshman season and practiced in centerfield last fall. It’s likely he does make the move to center since Marcus Carson graduated.
Assuming Pompey does move to centerfield, the corner outfield spots are open. Zach Reks hit .352 as a senior, so his replacement will have big shoes to fill. Most of UK’s options next season are from the junior college ranks. Ben Aklinski, Ryan Johnson and Ryan Shinn are all names to remember.
Aklinski was the player of the year in his conference after hitting .361 with 12 home runs and 50 RBI in a wooden bat league. Johnson began his career at TCU before transferring to San Jacinto College. Hit hit .299 with seven home runs and 37 RBI. Shinn was an offensive force, hitting .374 with 20 home runs and 71 RBI.
A few high school signees could push for playing time. Cam Hill, a 5-10 outfielder from Georgetown (Ky.) Scott County has been committed to UK for several years. Luke Benoit chose UK over Vanderbilt and spent his senior season at IMG Academy in Florida. He's the No. 348 prospect nationally according to Perfect Game.
PITCHING LOOKS TO BE A STRENGTH
Starting pitching is an area to feel good about next season. SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle returns, as does lefthander Zack Thompson. Hjelle went 11-4 with a 3.89 ERA in 17 starts as a sophomore. Thompson, a Second-Team Freshman All-America by Baseball America, had the lowest ERA (3.45) of all starting pitchers. Thompson served as the midweek starter for most of the season but also made seven appearances out of the bullpen. He recorded wins against NCAA tournament teams Indiana, Louisville and Xavier on the season.
The third spot in the rotation could go several ways. Sophomore redshirt Justin Lewis hasn’t yet signed with the Tampa Bay Rays, but indications are that he’ll likely sign after being selected in the 11th round. Lewis would have a weekend spot if he were to return, but assuming he doesn’t, UK will have to find another starter.
Junior college prospect Zach Haake might be the front-runner. Haake went 8-1 with a 2.52 ERA at John A. Logan College. His fastball was up to 95 MPH in the spring. Another factor could be what the coaching staff plans to do with Chris Machamer. Machamer blossomed into one of the best freshman relievers in the country. The former Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year went 2-0 with a 3.18 ERA in 24 appearances. With top relievers Logan Salow and Zach Pop gone, the staff might decide to keep its best returning reliever in the bullpen.
Important decisions also remain with high school players who were drafted. Aaron Perry (14th round/Boston), Joey Cantillo (16th round/San Diego) and Brad Dobzanski (39th round/San Francisco) haven’t finalized a decision on if they’ll attend school. Dobzanski told Catsillustrated.com that he’ll likely attend school. Perry and Cantillo are undecided, but a source said Cantillo could have a final decision by Tuesday or Wednesday.
Grant Macciocchi, a former pitcher at Missouri, will also be a solid addition to the pitching staff. He went 7-0 with a 2.30 ERA at Murray State. Macciocchi could be a two-way player, as he hit .393 with four home runs and 50 RBI.
Ben Jordan, a high school All-American, went undrafted after having Tommy John surgery. He was considered a top prospect prior to his injury. While he likely won’t be able to pitch next season, his addition to campus could give UK an elite arm down the road.