KSR's Kentucky 2024 Baseball Preview

On3 imageby:Derek Terry02/12/24

DerekSTerry

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The first pitch of the Kentucky baseball season is right around the corner. The Bat Cats open the 2024 campaign at USC Upstate on Feb. 16 at 3 p.m. Fans can watch on ESPN+. 

Here’s an extensive preview to get you set for the season.   

The Coaching Staff

  • Nick Mingione, head coach (8th season) 
  • Dan Roszel, pitching coach (5th season)
  • Austin Cousino, assistant coach/recruiting coordinator (1st season)
  • Nick Ammirati, assistant coach (3rd season)
  • Brock Doud, Director of Operations 
  • Trevor Fitts, Director of Player Development

Need to know: Kentucky’s coaching staff enjoyed continuity over the previous four seasons, but recruiting coordinator Will Coggin left for Georgia and Director of Player Development Jake Scott exited college baseball for outside opportunities. Head coach Nick Mingione hired former Kentucky All-American Austin Cousino to replace Coggin and turned to Trevor Fitts in an off-field role. Fitts spent the 2023 season as a pitching coach in the Detroit Tigers minor league organization. 

However, pitching coach Dan Roszel turned down head coaching opportunities to return for his fifth season, and Nick Ammirati moved into a full-time role because of the NCAA’s decision to allow a third paid assistant in college baseball. 

“Nick Ammirati has really stepped into this new role of running the offense and working with the infielders,” Mingione told KSR. “He’s done an exceptional job. Dan Roszel continues to impress with his overall ability to lead. It’s been great having Austin Cousino back, a guy who’s been there and done that in a Kentucky uniform.”

Mingione enters his eighth season at Kentucky with a 216-150 (.590) overall record. He signed a contract extension through the 2028 season worth $4,525,000 in October. 

Key players lost

  • RHP Austin Strickland
  • RHP Darren Williams
  • RHP Zack Lee
  • RHP Logan Martin 
  • LHP Tyler Bosma
  • CF Jackson Gray
  • 3B Jase Felker
  • 1B Hunter Gilliam 

Need to know: The list above accounted for much of Kentucky’s pitching and offensive production. Outfielder Jackson Gray had the Wildcats’ highest batting average (.373) and on-base percentage (.507) in SEC play, first baseman Hunter Gilliam led the team in home runs (12) and third baseman Jase Felker stole a team-high 21 bases. 

On the mound, the bulk of Kentucky’s SEC starts came from Zack Lee (9), Tyler Bosma (9), Logan Martin (4) and Darren Williams (3). Austin Strickland, the highest MLB draft pick on last year’s team, logged 32.2 SEC innings with many of those coming out of the bullpen. Strickland tossed six shutout innings and struck out six batters in an elimination game against West Virginia in the Lexington regional. In all, the top four pitchers in innings pitched in SEC play last season are gone this year. 

Key returnees

  • RHP Mason Moore
  • RHP Travis Smith 
  • RHP Ryan Hagenow 
  • 2B Emilien Pitre 
  • C Devin Burkes
  • OF Nolan McCarthy 
  • OF James McCoy
  • OF Ryan Waldschmidt 
  • SS Grant Smith
  • 3B Rebuen Church 

Need to know: Unlike last season, when Kentucky had to replace nearly its whole lineup from 2022, this year’s group has continuity and the potential to be one of the better offenses under Mingione. Burkes, Smith and Pitre started all 61 games a season ago, Waldschmidt logged 58 starts and McCoy, McCarthy and Church have been starters at various points in their careers. Competition is ongoing this season – and Waldschmidt and Grant Smith might be eased back into action as they recover from offseason surgeries – but all of these players will likely be counted on to lead the way this year. 

The continued development of Travis Smith and Mason Moore will be one of the keys to Kentucky’s ceiling this season. Smith, who projects as Kentucky’s best MLB draft prospect this year, served as the Wildcats’ midweek starter for the first nine weeks of the season. He moved into the weekend rotation in May and finished the season as Kentucky’s Friday night starter. The results were mixed, as he was impressive in his SEC debut against South Carolina (6 IP, 5 Ks, 1 earned run) but was roughed up the next week in Knoxville against Tennessee. The Vols chased Smith from the game in the third inning after three home runs and six earned runs allowed. He bounced back with five innings against Florida, though his performance was better than the final numbers indicated. Smith has workhorse potential for the staff, but maintaining focus deep into games will be part of his development process. 

Moore was a revelation for Kentucky’s bullpen in 2023. He was rather pedestrian as a freshman in 2022, appearing in 19 games with a 6.14 ERA in 22 innings pitched. But he was probably the best pitcher on the roster last year, holding opponents to a .164 batting average against him. Moore gave up just one home run the entire season and seven extra-base hits overall. The Morehead native finished the season with a 1.80 ERA. Kentucky has the potential to have an excellent 1-2 punch on the weekends with Smith and Moore, but Moore’s adjustment to being a starting pitcher will be something to watch. Moore was a multi-inning reliever for most of the season in 2023, but he was stretched out near the end of the season. He logged five innings in each outing of the Lexington Regional, and then threw 4.1 innings of shutout baseball on 84 pitches in an elimination game in Baton Rouge. 

The Newcomers

Transfers (11): IF Mitch Daly, OF Ben Higdon (junior college), RHP Robert Hogan, RHP Johnny Hummel, IF Nick Lopez, IF Ryan Nicholson, LHP Dominic Niman, RHP Cameron O’Brien, RHP Trey Pooser, RHP Cooper Robinson, OF Ty Crittenberger

Freshmen (14): C Eli Small, IF Ethan Hindle, IF Kyuss Gargett, IF Hudson Brown, IF Landon Franklin, IF Blake Bowen, IF Aydan Hamilton, UT Josh Skowronski, RHP Raymond Saatman, RHP Tommy Skelding, RHP Jake Titus, LHP Evan Hart, LHP Ben Cleaver 

Need to know: The Wildcats took a much larger freshman class this year, going from six signees in 2022 to 14 in 2023. Still, the impact from the youth is expected to be relatively small. The early returns have been strongest on infielder Ethan Hindle and catcher Eli Small, though Small could be moving away from the catcher position in the future. Lefty Ben Cleaver was one of the top recruits in the 2023 class and has positioned himself to potentially be the midweek starter this year with the hope of moving into the weekend rotation in 2025. 

The transfer class will be expected to fill some holes on this team, particularly on the pitching staff. The Wildcats added six new pitchers via the transfer portal, including Central Connecticut starter Dominic Niman. Niman was one of the top left-handed starters available in the portal following a 2023 season that saw him record a 12-2 record with a 2.77 ERA in 104 innings. As of now, he’s likely to be a starter on the weekend. Other pitchers like Trey Pooser, Cam O’Brien and Johnny Hummel had success at their previous stops and will fill some gaps in the bullpen. 

Positionally, Mitch Daly was a multi-year starter at the University of Texas and appeared in games in Omaha during the College World Series. An elite fielder, Daly could add to what is already one of the country’s best defensive teams. Grant Smith should be ready to start the season, but Daly could slot in at shortstop if needed. He’ll likely play third base otherwise. He’ll need to improve offensively as he regressed from a .316/.413/.416 hitter as a freshman in 2021 to .230/.323/.401 as a junior in 2023. Centerfielder Ty Crittenberger and first baseman Ryan Nicholson are other likely starters from this portal haul. 

Future recruiting

Kentucky’s 2024 class has 13 commitments and is ranked No. 36 nationally by Perfect Game. The class is headlined by Frankfort, Illinois, shortstop Tyler Bell, who is ranked as a top-75 player at both Perfect Game and Prep Baseball Report. However, Bell’s stock has continued to rise over the past year and he could be tracking as a day one draft pick in this summer’s MLB Draft. 

Other notable prospects are mainly on the mound, including Lexington (Ky.) Frederick Douglass left-handed pitcher Leighton Harris, Laporte, Indiana, right-handed pitcher Bradley Ferrell, Yorkville, Illinois, right-handed pitcher Nate Harris, Elizabethtown (Ky). Central Hardin right-handed pitcher Zak Spurrier and Lawrenceburg (Ky.) Anderson County left-handed pitcher Logan Grubb.

Augusta Christian outfielder Khaleel Pratt is ranked No. 190 nationally by PBR. He went viral for a dunk during his high school basketball season. Pratt is a bit of a project for the Wildcats but his raw tools are intriguing. He was the 2023 Region Player of the Year in his section of Georgia high school baseball. 

Biggest storyline

One of the legitimate gripes I see most from the fan base is an overall lack of consistency from the baseball program. In the modern NCAA Tournament format, which began in 1999, Kentucky has participated in the postseason just six times. It has never made the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons. Therefore, returning to the NCAA Tournament is the biggest storyline for this team.

Some might view that as a conservative goal considering Kentucky returns a strong core that gained super regional experience last year. The upside of this team could be quite good, but I also know that history hasn’t been kind to this program when it’s had expectations. 

Following the winningest season in school history in 2012, the 2013 team was projected to finish third in the SEC East. The season was a flop as it struggled to a 30-25, 11-19 SEC record. In 2018, Kentucky returned a strong pitching staff and several position players from its first-ever NCAA regional championship team. The Wildcats were picked to finish second in the SEC East and even spent time in the top five in the coaches poll early in the year, but the season cratered once injuries piled up in the back half. Kentucky finished with a strong RPI and went 34-22, 13-17 in the SEC, but it was one of the first teams left out of the tournament field. 

Expectations, at least based on preseason projections, aren’t as high as those two seasons. The Wildcats are picked to finish fifth in the SEC East. However, this is a veteran roster that caught some breaks in the 2023 MLB Draft with Burkes and Moore returning. There will be heavy turnover from this team – potentially the entire starting nine on some days – likely setting up a rebuilding year in 2025. 

Other coaches have produced better three-year stretches than Mingione (John Cohen won 122 games and appeared in two NCAA regionals from 2006-08; Gary Henderson won 112 games and appeared in two regionals from 2012-14) but none were able to capture back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. If Mingione does so, he would at minimum have led the program to its two best postseason finishes and become the first coach to provide postseason baseball in consecutive years. 

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2024-03-02