After winning 43 games and reaching the first super regional in school history, Nick Mingione and his coaching staff capped off their first season with a top 10 recruiting class. PerfectGame.com ranks UK’s 2017 class as the 7th best in the nation and fifth best in the SEC.
“I think it’s a pretty deep class,” Perfectgame.com national supervisor Brian Sakowski told Catsillustrated.com. “They did a pretty good job of bringing in a lot of guys who are going to contribute in a lot of different ways. They have some star power at the top, even though it’s probably going to take a while to get there.”
The rankings don't factor in junior college players -- UK has 10 commitments from the JUCO ranks -- or those who were drafted and signed with an MLB team. 15 of UK’s commitments are from the high school ranks. Seven of the Wildcats’ commitments are ranked in the top 500, headlined by righthanded pitcher Ben Jordan. Jordan, a 6-foot-9 righthanded All-American as a junior, had Tommy John surgery his senior season.
Jordan, Sakowski said, has tremendous upside.
“He was a guy who was going to be raw to begin with coming in,” Sakowski said. “He might be a year or two years down the road before he really contributes, but when he does he probably has the best upside in the class.”
Jordan wasn’t drafted in June because of the injury. Three UK signees -- pitchers Aaron Perry, Brad Dobzanski and Joey Cantillo -- were drafted. Perry signed with the Boston Red Sox and Cantillo signed with the San Diego Padres, but Dobzanski will attend UK.
In addition to Dobzanski being a major prospect, junior college pitcher Zach Haake might be the prize of the group. Some scouts believed Haake would be selected in the fourth or fifth round of the draft, but sources told Catsillustrated.com that his asking price for a signing bonus was too high for most teams.
“(UK’s staff) is thrilled (Haake) is going to campus,” Sakowski said. “The staff there was relatively convinced he was going to sign, just because they figured he was going to be taken highly. We’re going to have to wait to the fall to really see it, but I’m going to imagine he slides into the weekend relatively early. That’s just the type of guy he is. He’s got the chance to be 92-95 MPH with a swing-and-miss slider, and he’ll throw a changeup for strikes.”
UK’s weekend rotation got a boost this week when Justin Lewis returned to school. The rotation is seemingly in place with returning SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle and freshman All-American Zack Thompson returning, but Haake could push for a weekend spot with a good showing in the fall.
But perhaps the most pressing question facing UK next season is replacing several starters in the lineup. UK has to replace three infielders and two outfielders from this season's historic team. The top infielder coming in is Kaden Polcovich, a 5-foot-10 lefthanded hitter from Oklahoma.
"Polcovich is one of my favorite guys in the class, specifically because he hits," Sakowski said. "There’s some questions there about where he’s going to play, if he can stay in the dirt or if he’s more of a corner OF type, but the dude can really hit. That’s going to help them a lot.”
Ryan Johnson, an athletic 6-foot-3 outfielder who started his career at TCU, is also expected to make an impact right away. Johnson played his sophomore season at San Jacinto hit .299 with seven home runs and 37 RBI.
"It was always a physical, toolsy type of guy who needed to put together his baseball skills," Sakowski said. "It sounded like, and what it looked like in talking to some people in south Texas and the San Jacinto coaching staff, that he’s really put it together down there. Kentucky is expecting him to come in and immediately be an athletic corner outfielder who’s going to hit for power."
With a talented recruiting class arriving on campus this fall and the success Mingione has already shown in one season as UK's head coach, Sakowski doesn't expect this to be the last time the Wildcats are ranked among the nation's best in recruiting.
"When you put a conjunction of the success UK had in that staff’s first season on campus and kind of the atmosphere it created in Lexington, everyone was excited to go to baseball games," Sakowski said. "Obviously you have a head guy like a Nick Mingione who’s a superstar. He’s just an absolute stud who can really, really recruit, and now he doesn’t necessarily have to because he also has a superstar recruiting coordinator in Roland Fanning. I see that guy everywhere.
"I see (pitching coach) Jimmy Belanger out on the road a good bit too. That’s a staff that, as a whole, really gets after it. They’re really, really good not only in recruiting, but in development. When you combine all that with the fact it’s damn fun to play for those guys, and it’s damn fun to be in Kentucky when they’re winning, I think it’s going to be a real draw for potential recruits from all over the country."