(Photo of Louisville Players & Dan McDonnell: Matt Stone/Courier Journal, Courier Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - We're over a week into the new year, and that means only one thing: the 2021 college baseball season is just around the corner. After having their 2020 season unceremoniously cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Louisville baseball program is gearing up for another potential run at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
After opening last season as the No. 1 overall team in the nation, the Cardinals find themselves in a similar position this year. Louisville was recently voted as the preseason No. 2 team by Perfect Game, trailing only the Florida Gators, who ended the 2020 season as the consensus No. 1 overall team across the six major D1 polls. The Cardinals have also had five players named as Preseason All-Americans (Perfect Game), the most out of any program in the country.
Head coach Dan McDonnell will be entering his 15th season with the program, sporting an overall record of 618-244, which is the most wins of any team in the country since his hiring in 2007. The Cardinals also return pitching coach Roger Williams, who has been with McDonnell at 3rd & Central since day one, as well as hitting coach Eric Snider and assistant coach Adam Vrable, both of whom are entering their seventh seasons at Louisville.
In case you have been living under a rock for the last ten months, you probably already know that 2020 was a less than normal season (and year in general), followed by an equally abnormal offseason.
Barely a month into last season, the COVID-19 pandemic completely shut down, and later cancelled, the remainder of the 2020 season as well as the NCAA Tournament & College World Series. Louisville would finish the year with a 13-4 record (2-1 in ACC), and were ranked as high as the No. 2 team in the country at the time of the season's cancellation.
From there, several changes occurred over the offseason, both at the collegiate and professional level, that would have a direct impact on Louisville.
Let's start with the MLB Draft. Because of budgetary restrictions caused by the virus, Major League Baseball made the decision to reduce the 2020 Draft from 40 rounds to just five. As a result, just LHP Reid Detmers, RHP Bobby Miller and outfielder/catcher Zach Britton ended up getting drafted. For context, eight Cardinals were drafted the year before in 2019.
While MLB did give players the option to sign UDFA deals worth $20,000, the NCAA also made the decision to grant all players an extra year of eligibility because of the virus. As a result, two of Louisville's four seniors decided to return, as well as all the juniors who went undrafted.
Instead of experiencing their normal exodus of players due to graduation and the MLB Draft, Louisville ended up returning way more players than normal, as did every college baseball program in America. Oh, and top that off with bringing in a Top 25 draft class.
Fortunately, the NCAA did the smart thing and provided the sport with some much needed roster relief for the 2021 season. The 35-man roster limit was lifted, the annual scholarship counter was raised from 27 to 32 and the 25% scholarship minimum was lifted.
Now that rosters are taken care of, at least relatively speaking, now that left is to figure scheduling in the time of COVID. While the Atlantic Coast Conference has yet to formally announce the framework for the 2021 season, D1Baseball is reporting that it will consist of a 50-game season with 36 conference games, or 12 weekends of ACC play.
Overall, Louisville is only losing three games, as a normal D1 regular season consists of 53 contests. The ACC is actually increasing the number of conference games from the previous amount of 30, and decreasing the non-conference games from 23 to 14.
More than likely, this is probably for reasons similar to in football and basketball, so that the league can have uniform COVID-19 guidelines & protocols across more games.
Now that we're caught up, time to get into the actual team.
Many believed that, had the 2020 season been played to completion, that it was arguably Dan McDonnell's best chance to win a national championship. This was mostly due to the dominance of the pitching staff, and primarily starting pitchers Detmers & Miller.
If Louisville is going to make a deep run into the postseason and finally capture a title, it will most likely be due to the combination of elite talent and depth with the position players.
The Cardinals will be returning five qualified hitters (2 PA/G, 75% of games played), including their top two offensive statistical leaders in outfielder Levi Usher (.411, 2 HR, 10 RBI) and catcher Henry Davis (.372, 3 HR, 13 RBI). Among qualified hitters, they both led the team in OPS with 1.055 and 1.179 marks, respectively.
Outfielder Luke Brown (.328, 6 RBI), utility man Jared Poland (.281, HR, 7 RBI) and catcher/first baseman Ben Bianco (.268, 3 HR, 14 RBI) are the other three qualified hitters to return to Jim Patterson Stadium.
On top of them, Louisville will also be getting back two healthy full time starters in third baseman Alex Binelas and infielder/outfielder Lucas Dunn. Both missed the majority of the shortened seasons due to hamate bone injuries, but were already well established by then. In 2019, Binelas was named a freshman All-American after posting a .291 batting average with 14 home runs and 59 RBIs, while Dunn was one of four qualified hitters to bat over .300, batting .309 with a single homer and 25 RBIs.
We've only started to scratch the surface, as Louisville has plenty of secondary position players that many Division I programs would welcome as day one starters. Infielder Tim Borden II (.444, 1 HR, 9 RBI), catcher/third baseman Ben Metzinger (.349, 2 HR, 8 RBI) utility man Jared Poland (.281, 1 HR, 7 RBI) & catcher/first baseman Dalton Rushing (.308, HR, 6 RBI) each stepped up when injuries started to mount around the team.
Last season among the nearly 300 teams that compete at the Division I, Louisville was third in batting average (.323), fifth in hits (189), 10th in stolen bases (36) 11th in runs (146) and 13th in scoring (8.6). The Cardinals return 68.3% of their hits, 83.3% of their stolen bases, 61.7% of their RBIs and 68.7% of their total bases.
And we haven't even gotten to talk about the new additions. Out of the nine position players to sign with Louisville, first baseman Drake Westcott, catcher Jack Payton and shortshop Christian Knapczyk all ranked in the Top 400 according to Perfect Game. The Cardinals also bring in JUCO transfer shortstop Cooper Bowman, who hit .435 with 2 home runs and 16 RBI last season for Iowa Western.
Overall this looks to be a group that will build on their already successful 2020 season at the plate, and possibly find ways to find even more success if they can stay healthy. Even with the program retaining so much starting talent, there potentially could be a lot of shuffling within the field due to the pure depth they have.
Speaking of starters, the only real notable change is that it seems that Dan McDonnell wants to primarily keep Dunn at shortstop so that he can help his draft stock with scouts. Usher & Brown will likely bounce between center & right field, and the most "open" position seems to be left field, with Trey Leonard (2-8, RBI) Chris Seng (1-6, RBI) and maybe Tyeler Hawkins (DNP) in the running for that starter’s spot. Plus, it goes without saying that the DH spot has plenty of worthy candidates.
Losing Reid Detmers and Bobby Miller to the majors is undoubtedly a big loss for the program, as it marked the first time in program history that Louisville had at least two pitchers drafted in the first round of a single MLB Draft.
That being said, there is still plenty of talent to go around when it comes to the pitching staff, and Louisville has a pretty well known guy being presumably elevated to Friday night starter status.
After having the option to pursue an undrafted free agent contract following the end of last season, right-hander Luke Smith decided that he wanted one last ride as a Cardinal, with the potential of being the ace playing a role in his decision. In his four starts last season, he went 3-0 with a 3.42 ERA, while striking out 18 batters over 23.2 innings of work.
When losing two of your three weekend starters, there will be plenty of resulting competition when trying to grab those spots. Smith obviously is guaranteed one, but one of the next pitchers in line is right-hander Jack Perkins. After missing all of 2020 because of Tommy John surgery, Perkins is back at full strength for the Cards. His last season of action saw him post a 4.18 ERA in 16 appearances and four starts, with 37 strikeouts to 18 walks in 32.1 innings as a freshman.
For the remaining two spots in the starting pitching rotation, the Sunday and midweek spots, there are a few solid options for McDonnell to choose from.
In nearly every single season of Louisville baseball under McDonnell, there has been at least one pitcher make the jump from reliever to starter. Based on what Coach Mac told the media following the conclusion of the 2020 fall season, it seems that the most likely candidate for the Sunday starter spot will be right-hander Glenn Albanese, as he got a fair share of starters reps in the fall. Last year, he made five appearances and tossed 8.2 innings, finishing with a 2.08 ERA and 18 strikeouts to just five walks.
Now for the midday starter's role. While this typically is left to some of the relief pitchers to start and make it a bullpen game, Louisville actually has a couple legitimate starting options here. The Cards were able to nab yet another JUCO transfer from Parkland College in right-hander Anthony Silkwood. A former Marine, the 27-year old struck out 7 batters over 6.0 innings of work this past season at Luke Smith's alma mater before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown the season.
Along with Silkwood, left-hander Michael Prosecky is a viable midweek option, as he showed us flashes of brilliance as a freshman last year. Appearing in five games and three starts, Prosecky had some boom or bust moments. He was slapped with the loss against Wright State after giving up four earned runs, but his final two appearances of the season were in shutout fashion against Morehead State & Chicago State. He finished with a 4.50 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 18.0 innings pitched.
As good as Louisville's starting rotation has potential to be, their closers might be their strength. Preseason All-American Michael Kirian, and Adam Elliott, who decided to return for his fifth season, combined for 25 strikeouts to just four walks over 16.2 innings of work last season, with Kirian earning six saves to lead all of Division I.
Where Louisville maybe could use a little bit of work is their middle/long relievers. Left-hander Evan Webster looked good as he tossed a 1.04 ERA in 8.2 innings; but righty Ryan Hawks and lefties Tate Kuehner, Carter Lohman and Kellan Tulio had ERAs north of 4.00, with the latter two's being over six. Fortunately, there has been plenty of time since the end of last season to hone in on their craft.
While the Cards have noteworthy position players coming in as freshman, two of their top three recruits to sign are actually pitchers. Right-handers Benjamin Wiegman & Alex Galvan both rank in Perfect Game's top 250, with Wiegman having a perfect 10/10 grade, and Galvan having a fastball that tops out at 94mph.
Louisville very much has earned their No. 2 preseason ranking. They have one of the deepest position player groups in all of college baseball, with a starting rotation that will keep you in games and a bullpen that will do more than simply shut the door.
Whenever the ACC coaches release their preseason projections, I fully expect the Cardinals to be a near-unanimous selection to win the ACC, with maybe Miami and/or Virginia taking a couple first place votes.
I firmly believe that Dan McDonnell's team last season was *the* year for him to win the title based off the combined talent he had. However, if everything gels together, this team has potential to usurp the expectations from that team.
- Lucas Dunn (SS)
- Luke Brown (RF)
- Alex Binelas (3B)
- Henry Davis (C)
- Levi Usher (CF)
- Ben Bianco (1B)
- Tim Borden II (2B)
- Ben Metzinger (DH)
- Trey Leonard (LF)
- Luke Smith (RHP)
- Jack Perkins (RHP)
- Glenn Albanese (RHP)
- Anthony Silkwood (RHP)
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