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MLB Draft-Eligible Prospects: Sun Belt Conference

Getting you ready for the MLB draft conference-by-conference

Georgia State catcher Nick Gatewood has been a bright spot on offense in Sun Belt play.

Keeping up with college baseball can be overwhelming, but pays major dividends during the draft when you get to become Extremely Outraged when a guy you have decided is your favorite player in the entire draft gets picked after some other chump. A while ago, John, Kate, and I did a mock draft of our first-round favorites, which you can read here. That draft wound up being heavy on high school talent, which reflects how deep the talent pool is at the prep level this year, especially for arms. It’s good to know what’s available at the college level, however, especially since the Mariners have shown somewhat of a tendency to favor college-experienced players. Leading up to the draft, we’ll focus on covering some of the college talent available from each conference. Not all of these guys will be first-day selections, and several will have their fortunes ebb and flow over the grind of the college baseball season, but ideally this will give you some names to look out for in June as well as some players to get invested in during the long march to Omaha.

We’re starting with the top-ranked conferences and working our way down from there, with a little more time lavished on local conferences like the Pac-12 and WCC. So far we’ve covered the heavy-hitters of the ACC, the SEC, and the Big 12; now we’ll work through a few of the lower-RPI conferences. The Mariners were active in the Sun Belt conference last year, selecting defensive wizard Billy Cooke from Coastal Carolina (also the alma mater of Taylor Motter) as well as RHP Randy Bell from South Alabama.

Disclaimer: There is really no way to scout without actually being there in person to see how a player goes about an at-bat, how a pitcher reacts to adversity; to hear the sound of loud, solid contact or watch how quickly a player hustles back to the field. I’m relying on stat lines, grainy Twitter videos, and word of mouth from people who have seen these players in action, and casting a net that isn’t as fine as I’d like. If there’s someone interesting I’ve missed, please drop a line about them in the comments.

Coastal Carolina

Senior 3B Seth Lancaster has had a nice bounce back season following a down junior season for the Chanticleers, slashing .303/.456/.606 through 165 at-bats, over which he’s run a 46:41 BB:K ratio. The lefty-hitting, right-handed throwing third baseman is built nearly identical to M’s third baseman Kyle Seager, standing at 6’1”/ 210. Junior 1B Kevin Woodall Jr. checks in at 6’7”/245, and he’s put all of that mammoth frame to work over the last season-plus, swatting 34 homers while showing off passable plate discipline (64:101 BB:K) over that span. Scouts may be skeptical of his hit tool as he’s batted just .254 during his tenure at Coastal Carolina, but his bat-to-ball skills and career BABIP of just .270 indicate there’s some room for growth. Baseball America listed Woodall as the #6 draft prospect in the Sun Belt prior to the season. RHP Jason Bilous cracked that same list as the #2 prospect, and he’s lived up to the hype so far in 2018, emerging as the staff ace. Through 11 starts, he’s posted 11.3 K/9 and a .187 BAA, but has struggled mightily with walks, posting 8.6 BB/9. Now three years removed from a Tommy John surgery as a high school senior, the junior will improve drastically on his 29th round selection coming out of high school.

South Alabama

Jaguars OF Travis Swaggerty is considered not only the top prospect in the conference, but one of the top prospects overall for the upcoming draft. While his .361 average last season was propped up significantly by a .411 BABIP, the rest of his numbers are almost identical to last season, as he’s posted an OPS north of 1.000 for the second straight year. He’s also managed to club a team-leading 11 home runs while showing improvement in both his walk and strikeout rates this season. Fellow OF Dylan Hardy, who led the conference in hitting last season as a sophomore, is leading the way for South Alabama, slashing .335/.415/.457 and has demonstrated an ability to steal bases, going 15-16 on the season to date.

Troy

The Trojans have an interesting offensive profile in that they have no player with more than five homers on the season, but they have four hitters—their top four hitters in fact—that have stolen 13 or more bases. As a group, they’re 75-84 (.893) on stolen base attempts. Senior outfielder Joey Denison is leading the offensive charge here in his second full season since transferring from Southern Union State Community College, slashing .376/.454/.565 while posting an even 22:22 BB:K ratio. 5’8” Senior shortstop Matt Sanders is enjoying a breakout season and is right on Denison’s heels (and actually ahead of him in on-base percentage), slashing .370/.468/.530 and is 19-22 in stolen base attempts. He’s also got a 35:23 BB:K ratio.

Georgia Southern

Baseball America listed right-handed pitchers Brian Eichhorn and Chase Cohen as the Sun Belt’s seventh and eight best draft prospects, but they’ve both been out-pitched by fellow right-hander Cole Whitney. Eichhorn has posted a line of 3.41 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 3.03 BB/9 through 71.0 innings. Cohen, who has bounced between starting and the bullpen, has posted a 3.47 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 12.1 K/9, 5.0 BB/9 line. Whitney has taken on a multi-inning relief role with the Eagles after transferring from St. Johns to Catawba Valley Community College, and eventually now Georgia Southern. He’s been excellent out of the ‘pen after working as a starter last year for Catawba, running a line of 1.80 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 3.4 WHIP over 40.0 innings.

Georgia State

A man after my own heart, left-handed hitting catcher Nick Gatewood has broken out in a big way for the Panthers this year. He’s leading the team in hitting, as he’s slashing .359/.429/.623, and he’s swatted 12 long balls and racked up 43 RBI. He’s cut down 13 of 33 (.394 SB%) attempted base stealers,indicating he may be able to stick at the position despite his large 6’2” 200lb frame. The 20-year-old showed he can perform with a wood bat too, as he batted .303 with five homers and 41 RBI in 48 games with the Lakeshore Chinooks of the Northwoods League.

Appalachian State

My eyes popped wide open when I saw this, but the Mountaineers don’t have anybody batting higher than .232. I guess their most interesting prospect would be RHP Luke Watts, who has thrived upon transitioning to the bullpen this season. Through 29.2 innings, he’s run a 2.43 ERA and 9.4 K/9.

Little Rock

OF Marcus Ragan was listed as BA’s #5 prospect in the conference entering the season. Fresh off of a .395/.446/.661/25 stolen base campaign at East Mississippi Community College, the right-hander transferred to Little Rock, but the results haven’t quite made the jump. He’s slashing just .237/.305/.301, but on the bright side, he’s 16-21 on stolen base attempts. After being selected in the 15th round last June, he declined to sign and honored his commitment to Little Rock, but his draft stock may have fallen since then. RHP Justin Garcia has impressed in his first season with Little Rock after transferring from McLennan Community College, to which he transferred from Richmond. In 47.0 innings spanning 27 games, Garcia has overpowered hitters, posting a strikeout rate of 12.6 K/9 while posting a 3.26 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. The huge uptick in strikeouts is a recent development for the 22-year-old, and it may well get him drafted.

Louisiana

BA’s preseason pick to win conference Pitcher of the Year, LHP Hogan Harris has turned in a strong season for the Ragin’ Cajuns, and while the 11.6 K/9 he posted as a Sophomore last season has dipped to 8.7 K/9 this year and the H/9 has crept up as well, the walks and ability to suppress runs have stayed right in alignment with last season. Teams have seen the potential with the southpaw, and it should be enough for him to get his name called in June. Fellow left-hander Gunner Leger spent the last three seasons establishing himself as on the the college level’s top pitching prospects, but suffered a partial ligament tear last season that required Tommy John surgery and forced him to redshirt this season. Leger was drafted by the Marlins in the 26th round and was offered 6th round money, but he made the choice to return to Louisiana-Lafayette with the intent to contribute one more full season to the Ragin’ Cajuns in 2019.

University of Texas-Arlington

OF Omar Salinas—a junior college transfer from Hill College—returns to UTA after being named First Team All-Conference last season. Through now almost four full collegiate seasons, he owns a .376/.465/.597 slash line with 101 walks and 70 strikeouts. Here’s a super grainy video of him going deep a month ago:

Salinas teams with C Will Olson to form a formidable heart of the UTA lineup. Olson, who bats left-handed, has had his struggles defensively, but he’s been crushing Sun Belt pitching for the last two seasons. He’s slashed .289/.383/.470 this year, going deep seven times. He had major issues when subject to using a wood bat in the Texas Collegiate League over the offseason however, which could affect his draft stock.

Arkansas State

1B Kyle MacDonald arrived at A-State this season after two years at Crowder College, where he set the school record for single-season home runs with 15. He’s burst onto the Sun Belt scene this year, slashing .342/.451/.625 with nine home runs, 28 walks, and 36 strikeouts this season. If those numbers aren’t enough to catch the attention of major league scouts, his size should, as he checks in a 6’3”/240lb. He played both third and first during his time at Crowder, indicating he may have surprising athleticism given his size.