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Aaron Fitt | | January 22, 2021

Louisville baseball's eight returning MLB-caliber players prime the Cardinals for a CWS run

All you need to know about the 2021 college baseball season

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This was supposed to be the year for Louisville. For the first time in program history, the Cardinals were ranked No. 1 in the country heading into 2020, making them the team to beat in college baseball after a run to Omaha’s semifinals in 2019. So naturally it was bitterly disappointing when Louisville’s promising season was cut short after just four weeks by the COVID-19 pandemic, abruptly ending the Louisville careers of a pair of first-round picks in the weekend rotation (Reid Detmers and Bobby Miller) plus fifth-round outfielder Zach Britton and veteran mainstays Justin Lavey and Danny Oriente, both of whom signed as undrafted free agents.

But the five-round draft taketh and the five-round draft giveth. The Cards were prepared to lose as many as nine other key players to pro ball after the season, and in a normal draft most of them would almost certainly have moved on. Instead, several are all back for another run, and just like that, Louisville has the look of a preseason top-five team, even without those two first-round weekend starters.

“How do you rebound when you lose two first-rounders? But because of a five-round draft, sometimes when you lose you really win,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “So we lose in not getting to play the rest of the season, and I hate it for those guys who lose because there’s only five rounds [causing them to go undrafted], but I think they’re gonna have a lot of fun this year. I think they’re gonna have the time of their life. So I think they’ll look back and say, ‘We thought we lost, but in actuality, maybe we actually won.’ I mean, we thought we could win a national championship last year, but for me as a coach, we talk about the chip on their shoulders, and we kind of feel like there’s unfinished business.”

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So let’s start with a look at those eight returning players who all could have been in pro ball if not for the pandemic:

1. Fourth-year junior left-hander Michael Kirian has been brilliant over the last two years at the back of the Louisville bullpen, posting a 1.69 ERA and five saves in 2019, then posting a 0.00 ERA and six saves along with an 11-1 K-BB mark in the abbreviated 2020 campaign. He was a shoo-in top-10-rounds talent who might have wound up in the top five rounds had the season played out, but instead he’s back in Louisville, and he’ll have a chance to step into one of those vacated weekend starter jobs. When discussing Kirian’s trajectory, McDonnell invoked the name of former Cardinal left-hander Adam Wolf, who dominated out of the bullpen before moving into the ace role and putting up All-America numbers as a junior in 2018.

Built like a thoroughbred at 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, Kirian certainly looked the part of a workhorse weekend starter in Thursday’s Pizza Bowl fall world series opener, striking out eight over five innings of one-hit ball, allowing just that one baserunner. Not only was his velocity considerably better than I’ve seen it in the past, peaking at 95 mph in the first inning, but he held 91-94 heat through four innings, then still dealt at 89-90 in the fifth. He had outstanding feel for his sharp 78-81 mph slurve, which is particularly tough against lefties but also effective against righties. He seldom used his mid-80s changeup on this look, and he’ll need to continue to refine that pitch to truly reach his potential as a starter, but McDonnell said he’s working hard on the offering with pitching coach Roger Williams, and he’s making progress.

Louisville Athletics Michael Kirian of Louisville baseball Michael Kirian of Louisville celebrates after a successful outing.

2. Fifth-year senior righty Luke Smith was a College World Series standout in 2019 and a rock-solid Sunday starter in 2020. The Cards had the luxury of taking it slow with Smith this fall because they know what they’ve got in him. He’s a polished, athletic four-pitch bulldog who can touch 93 and miss bats with his above-average-to-plus changeup as well as his two breaking balls. He’s a lock for the rotation and the favorite for the Friday job based on his experience, competitiveness and pitchability.

3. The highest-upside rotation candidate is fourth-year sophomore righty Glenn Albanese, who has been by far the buzziest player in Cards camp this fall. The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Albanese arrived at Louisville injured and redshirted in 2018 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, then logged just 9.2 innings in 2019 while working his way back. He carved out a role as a key bullpen arm in 2020, posting a 2.08 ERA in five appearances, but it’s worth noting that even on opening weekend at Ole Miss his fastball topped out at just 91 mph. He was getting stronger as the spring progressed, and McDonnell believes he would have continued climbing draft boards had the season played out. Instead, he went to the Northwoods League this summer and really started to come into his own.

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He’s a totally different animal now, sitting comfortably at 94-96 mph and touching 98 with an exceptional spin rate up into the 2600 rpm range. And he’s pounding the zone; in the fall scrimmage, he allowed just one hit and no walks while striking out six over five scoreless innings. He’s learned to land his power breaking ball for a strike or use it as a chase pitch, and that has made a major difference for him, in addition to the velocity gains. Suddenly, Albanese looks like Louisville’s next first-rounder, and another exciting weekend starter.

“What’s impressive was there’s 96s in the fourth and fifth. I don’t know if he dropped below like 94 on Friday,” McDonnell said. “He’s not throwing 91s and 92s, I mean, it’s a steady diet. There is a changeup too, it’s definitely gotten better, realizing it’s a change of speed. This fall he has been throwing strikes consistently, and we were seeing flashes last spring, there was that buzz about Albanese because so many people were in there to see those weekend starters, they got to see, he was one of the first guys out of the bullpen.”

4. Fifth-year senior left-hander Adam Elliott would have been a classic senior sign in a normal year, having posted sub-3.00 ERAs in each of his first four seasons out of the Louisville bullpen, and going 1-0, 0.87 with a 14-3 K-BB mark in 10.1 innings in 2020. The Cards have stretched him out as another starter this fall, and he has also pitched very well. An athletic former two-way player with loads of experience and pitchability, Elliott attacks the zone with his high-80s fastball and good high-70s slider, and he just has a very advanced feel for his craft.

Louisville Athletics Adam Elliott of Louisville baseball Adam Elliott of Louisville pitches to Auburn in 2019.

5. Fourth-year junior Lucas Dunn hit over .300 in each of his first two seasons at Louisville and earned a spot with Team USA in 2019, then was slowed by a broken hamate bone in 2020. His baseball instincts play on the infield and outfield, and that versatility combined with his mature offensive approach and feel for the barrel likely would have made him a top-10-rounds pick in 2020. Dunn has seen considerable action at both second base and center field in his career, and he’s getting a strong look this fall at shortstop, where he played very well on Thursday, attacking the baseball and showing good body control, footwork and arm accuracy. McDonnell said there are certain shortstop plays he will continue to work on with Dunn, but right now he’s the front-runner for the job, though he also could fit in at second base or left field on this roster, depending on Louisville’s needs.

“The internal clock, he plays fast, he’s always played hard, and he never acts like he’s owed anything or the game owes him anything. He respects the game, he puts a smile on his face, and he plays hard,” McDonnell said. “He isn’t looking at the lineup worried about where he’s hitting or what position he’s playing. He played third base last year the last game of the year, coming off the hamate injury, only start of the year, and I started him at third base. But it’s hard to not say he is our starting shortstop today, October 11. He’s done nothing to show me he can’t be our starting shortstop.”

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6. One reason Dunn isn’t likely to return to center field is the presence of fourth-year junior Luke Brown, who hit .328 and tied for the team lead with 11 steals as a junior college transfer in 2020. Brown is a plus-plus runner who can really go get the ball in center, and he’s also a skilled bat handler who can bunt and work counts and move the ball around the field, much like Dunn. The two of them should be superb table-setters for the Cards.

Louisville Athletics Luke Brown of Louisville baseball Luke Brown (8) of Louisville celebrates after crossing home plate in 2020.

7 & 8. Cameron Masterman and Ben Bianco had lower prospect profiles, but McDonnell thinks both of them had the ability to hit double-digit homers last spring, and either one of them could have easily performed well enough to get a shot in pro ball in a normal year. Bianco returns to offer veteran presence and right-handed pop in the first base/DH mix, while Masterman looks like the clear favorite for the left field job (where fourth-year junior Trey Leonard gives Louisville a faster, more defensive alternative) after splitting time at that spot with Britton last year. The physical 6-foot-2, 225-pound Masterman had a big fall last year and then struggled opening weekend before gradually turning the corner over the next three weeks, and McDonnell thinks his arrow was pointing up. He looked great on Thursday, delivering three hits, punctuated by a game-winning, towering three-run homer to center field that exited the bat at 108 mph and traveled 410 feet, according to TrackMan.

“If you watch our BP and don’t know anything about our team, I just think Cam’s gonna be in your top 3-5 hitters,” McDonnell said. “It’s a real quiet approach, there’s power, and then there’s plate discipline.”

9. Ben Metzinger was draft-eligible as a sophomore last year, and he was starting to gain some draft interest by hitting .349 in the 2-hole for one of the best teams in the country. A catcher by trade, Metzinger never worked out on the infield as a freshman, but McDonnell believes that his innate hand-eye coordination was nurtured further by catching Louisville’s power-armed staff, allowing him to make a seamless transition to the hot corner when a broken hamate bone sidelined slugging third baseman Alex Binelas early in 2020. His versatility is an incredible asset — he will continue to spell Henry Davis behind the plate next spring, but he’s also in the running for the job at second base, or he could return to the hot corner if the Cards elect to shift Binelas to first base.

“Now if we’re talking about the value of a Lucas Dunn, well Metzinger is the next Lucas Dunn in line, and he catches. So he is as valuable,” McDonnell said. “He may not run like Lucas, but he is just a ballplayer. And he hits; he might have the best swing on the team. If you would ask Coach [Eric] Snider who is your best hitter, I promise you Metzinger would come up in the first three names, if not the first name.”

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Binelas and Davis, of course, are cornerstone pieces in this lineup, proven hitters for both average and power. The rifle-armed Davis and Metzinger give Louisville perhaps the nation’s best catching duo, and McDonnell is excited about the way they can mentor freshman Jack Payton, who has a bright future in the program. The other obvious star is third-year sophomore outfielder Levi Usher, who hit .411/.484/.571 with 11 steals in 12 tries as a sophomore junior college transfer in the shortened spring. Usher is an easy 6.5 runner who profiles in center field, and the Cardinals are prepared to alternate him and Brown between center and right (like they did with Corey Ray and Logan Taylor), at least until it becomes clear which alignment works the best. But Usher also offers a whippy left-handed swing that generates real power, and he has a legitimate shot to play himself into the first round of next year’s draft. He could be one of the most exciting players in college baseball.

“That dude glides. He robbed the home run at Wake Forest last year, our first ACC weekend. As he was running toward the dugout, guys in my dugout were going, ‘We’ve got Mike Trout on our team!’ I heard the comment and I kinda thought, ‘I see why they’re playing that,’” McDonnell said. “After 15 games, you’ve seen this guy hit jacks, steal bases, throw people out, make great catches, and making it look easy. It looks so natural to him. When they said that, I kinda chuckled. I’ve had a couple scouts saying, ‘Man, this is a five-tool guy.’ When when I put him in center, I think they’ll appreciate how good he is defensively. He is moving. He and Luke are really special out there.”

Second-year freshman Dalton Rushing offers additional left-handed power as part of the first base/DH/catcher mix. Built like a tank at 5-foot-11, 235 pounds, Rushing tore up camp last fall and has performed well again this year. He got off to a solid start as a true freshman last spring but looks primed for even bigger things this year.

The second-base job might be the most wide-open competition on the roster. Dunn could slide to second if, for example, high-profile and athletic junior college transfer Cooper Bowman returns strong from surgery on his non-throwing shoulder and winds up winning the shortstop job. But if Dunn plays short, the Cardinals could go with two-way talent Jared Poland, veteran Tim Borden II, skilled freshman Christian Knapczyk or Metzinger at second base. All of them are capable defender, and Poland offers some pop as well, though it comes with some swing and miss. McDonnell can’t hide his enthusiasm over Knapczyk’s future in the program. An undersized scrapper at 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, Knapczyk reminds his coach of former Cardinal defensive whiz Devin Hairston — and that’s some of the highest praise McDonnell can offer.

“Devin looked like he grew up in Florida, and Christian looks like he grew up in Florida. I don’t typically get Midwest infielders like that. I love those Midwest guys, their toughness and athleticism and how hard they work, but usually I get a guy who’s a little bit raw defensively,” McDonnell said. “Christian is not raw defensively. It’s real feet, real hands, and it’s the Energizer bunny. Man, he just moves, and the feet are always moving. … And he’s gonna hit, because he’ll stay within himself, move the ball around, contact guy, gap-to-gap.”

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Poland, meanwhile, will be a major weapon at the back of the bullpen. He certainly looked the part of a shutdown closer on Thursday, striking out two in a 1-2-3 ninth. Poland attacked at 93-94 mph with a good spin rate in the 2300-2400 rpm range and also showed good feel for a wicked power breaking ball at 80 mph with a spin rate up to 2850. McDonnell said Poland’s “low heart rate” reminds him of Brendan McKay — “you wouldn’t want to play poker against Poland, and most guys don’t have that,” he said.

That’s a great quality for a closer.

Third-year sophomore right-hander Jack Perkins is back from Tommy John surgery to give Louisville another power-armed righty who could fit at the back end of the bullpen, though McDonnell views him as the ultimate swing guy, a potential moment-of-truth reliever out of the bullpen who can work multiple innings or maybe a starter. He’s been 94-96 this fall with a hard power curveball and a good firm cutter.

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With Ryan Hawks and Kerry Wright both out for the year due to injury, Poland and Perkins will be critical right-handed arms in a lefty-heavy bullpen, and so will junior college transfer Cameron Robinson, who worked 3.1 innings of one-run ball on Thursday, showing good sink on his high-80s fastball and a sharp mid-70s curve to go along with his quality changeup. McDonnell describes him as “a confident strike-thrower,” and guys like that have a way of finding their way into meaningful innings. Three talented freshmen provide some depth from the right side: Ben Wiegman is a high-upside 6-foot-4 power pitcher who sits in the low 90s and bumps 94 with a good slider, though he’s been sidelined this fall for precautionary reasons and likely won’t start throwing until December. Kaleb Corbett also can show low-90s heat and a hard slider, and 6-foot-6 Seamus Barrett is an intriguing sleeper arm from Massachusetts who has impressed the coaches with his surprising polish. His heavy fastball reminds McDonnell of former Cardinal Sam Bordner’s.

From the left side, second-year freshman Michael Prosecky seems like a strong bet to earn one of the four starting roles, and he worked four innings of one-run ball on Thursday, despite struggling more than usual to throw his breaking ball for a strike. With a clean high three-quarters arm action, Prosecky works at 89-93 and features a quality changeup and slider, giving him a classic starter’s profile.

Tate Kuehner also made a couple of midweek starts last spring, but he looks like a nice bullpen piece with a tough sidearm look that generates 88-90 heat, a good sweeping slider and a deceptive, fading changeup. Garrett Schmeltz offers yet another look, with a funky and deceptive high three-quarters delivery and a big downer curveball that keeps hitters off his 86-88 fastball. Evan Webster has a three-quarters slot and good life on his 85-88 sinker along with a nice 80 mph changeup. McDonnell said that third-year sophomore lefty Carter Lohman has taken a big step with his command and put himself in line to secure plenty of big innings out of the bullpen as well. Kellan Tulio has arm strength and could help this staff if he continues to develop his pitchability.

And then there’s junior college transfer Luke Seed, who was the No. 1 starter for powerhouse John A. Logan Junior College the last two years, on the same staff as Robinson. Seed racked up strikeouts at a startling rate in junior college ball thanks to his ability to spot up with the fastball and miss bats with his breaking ball and changeup. He’ll start throwing in November and figures to carve out a big role on this staff.

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So with all those arms, competition for innings will be fierce, and so will competition for playing time all around the diamond.

“We always feel like we have pretty good depth, but COVID put us in this bizarre position of having so many guys,” McDonnell said. “So I do love our depth, there’s a lot of internal competition, and nothing in the world is better for amateur players than this competition.”

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