In other words, it's never too early to start talking a little hardball.
While the Kentucky baseball team is preparing to improve on one of its best campaigns in program history that led the Wildcats to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008, MLB.com recognized a pair of former UK aces from seasons past.
On Tuesday, MLB.com released their Top 100 Prospects list for 2013, and two former Wildcats made an appearance. Alex Meyer, a right-handed pitcher who was recently acquired by the Minnesota Twins from the Washington Nationals, showed up as the No. 40 prospect in all of Major League Baseball and was noted as the third-best prospect in the Twins organization. James Paxton came in at No. 61 and the Seattle Mariners' fifth-best prospect.
Meyer, 23, was an anchor of the UK pitching staff in his final season as a Wildcat in 2011 where he posted seven wins (14 starts), a 2.94 ERA, four complete games (two shutouts), 101 innings pitched and 110 strikeouts, which led the SEC.
In 2012, his first season in professional baseball, Meyer split time between Class A Hagerstown and Class A Advanced Potomac in the Washington farm system. Over the entire season, he finished with 139 strikeouts in 129 innings with a 2.86 ERA. He exhibited a 97 mph fastball with a hard slider that can touch 88 mph. As a starter, Meyer is working on a third pitch, a changeup, that's he's been developing in the offseason.
Here is what MLB.com has to say about Meyer:
Scouting Grades* (present/future): Fastball: 6/7 | Slider: 5/6 | Changeup: 4/5 | Control: 4/5 | Overall: 5/6
For much of his amateur career, Meyer intrigued with his plus arm strength, but had trouble always finding the strike zone. He made great strides in that regard during his junior year at Kentucky, pitching himself into the first round and that continued for the most part during his first full season. He took his power repertoire to the Twins organization when the Nationals sent him to Minnesota for Denard Span during the offseason. With his tall, slender frame, Meyer will run into delivery issues, and while that can lead to command problems, he threw strikes more often than not while pitching at two levels. His fastball has a ton of sink and generates groundballs aplenty and he complements it with a big slider that gets swings and misses. His sinking changeup has the chance to be more than usable. All that, if he can maintain his delivery and stay in the strike zone, adds up to the kind of frontline starter the Twins haven't developed in quite some time.
Paxton, a left-handed starter, became the first UK player selected in the first round of the MLB Draft since Joe Blanton back in 2002 by the Oakland Athletics. Like Meyer, Paxton was a highly-successful weekend starter for the Wildcats during his time in Lexington. In his final season at Kentucky in 2009, Paxton struck out 13.22 hitters per nine innings (third in NCAA). He started 13 games going 5-3 with a 5.86 ERA but opted to return for his senior season. After Paxton left the University prior to his senior season, he was picked up by the Seattle Mariners organization in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB June Amateur Draft.
In his first season in the minors, Paxton split time between Class A Clinton and Class AA Jackson. In that 2011 season, Paxton 17 games going 6-3 with a 2.37 ERA. After 10 starts with Clinton with a 3-3 record and a 2.73 ERA, he was promoted mid-season where he found even more success at the Class AA level. In his final seven starts with Jackson that season, Paxton went 3-0 with a sparkling 1.85 ERA striking out 51 batters compared to only 13 walks. He spent the entire 2012 season back in Jackson where he went 9-4 with a 3.05 ERA. After a five-week stay on the disabled lit with a knee injury, Paxton was even better in posting a 6-1 record with a 2.40 ERA over his last 11 starts.
Here is what MLB.com has to say about Paxton:
Scouting Grades (present/future): Fastball: 6/6 | Curveball: 5/6 | Changeup: 3/5 | Control: 3/5 | Overall: 5/6
It's hard to argue with what Paxton has been able to do thus far in his Minor League career since taking until March 2011 to sign. The big lefty has struck out 10.6 per nine innings over his two seasons in pro ball. The only question has been whether his command and his changeup would improve enough to be a starter for the long-term. He has a fastball that's easily plus, one he can get up into the upper-90s and sits in the 93-94 mph range with regularity. He adds and subtracts from his power curve which has plenty of break to it. His changeup has improved, giving more hope to his ability to stay in a starting rotation. His long arm path, along with some other issues with his delivery, has led to command problems (4.3 BB/9) and that remains the key to his future. At the very least, that fastball-curve combination are more than enough to be an outstanding short reliever.