This is the first of a 10-part season preview leading up to Kentucky's season opener with No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14 in Wilmington, N.C.
The time is quickly approaching when Kentucky junior two-way star A.J. Reed is going to have to declare a future as either a left-handed pitcher or a slugging first baseman.
That will likely be decided when Reed hears his name, and designated position, called in the MLB Draft.
For now, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound native of Terre Haute, Ind., is enjoying the rare opportunity to shine as the nation's top two-way player.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," Reed said. "That is really all I've ever known. Being able to throw and hit, it is just kind of what I do. Now that the draft is getting a little bit closer, the time may come for me to make a decision. But really ultimately I would do either one in the future. Being able to play every day is what I want to do and that gives me the opportunity to do that."
Reed is coming off a season as UK's Friday-night starter and No. 3 or No. 4 hitter in the lineup - the first player in program history to fill that dual role - earning First-Team All-Southeastern Conference accolades as the designated hitter.
He got off to a blistering start to the season, picking up the win in the season opener on the mound with five innings and a 4-for-5, three-RBI game at the plate. He continued his hot start at the plate in February (.313, 2 HR, 11 RBI) and March (.352, 4 HR, 17 RBI), before wearing down as the grind of a dual role took its toll the last few weeks of the year.
"I started off pretty good and as the season went on, I got tired and we had to change some things up (in the offseason)," Reed said. "I changed my body, just to prepare better for this year. But overall last year, I did okay. I felt like I gave us a pretty good chance to win most games and I felt like I should've hit a little bit better and for a higher average. It was just one of those years where things just didn't go our way and I think we kind of folded."
On the mound, that exhaustion was really evident. Entering his final two starts of the year, Reed was in position to fight for the SEC ERA title with a 2.84 mark, with his 2-6 record at that point emphasizing his role as the hard-luck pitcher that was facing off against the opponents ace. During the year, Reed got a staff-low run support of 4.43 per game, including 2.44 runs per game in his last nine starts.
Overall, Reed's numbers as a sophomore didn't truly reflect his value to the Wildcats. He finished the year with a .280 average at the plate, ranking fourth in the SEC in homers (13) and RBI (52). On the mound, Reed's ERA finished at 4.04 and his record at 2-8 after ending the season with losses to No. 1 Vanderbilt and Missouri, surrendering 14 runs in those two starts to inflate his ERA.
Throughout the season, the USA Collegiate National Team front office and coaching staff were taking a close look at Reed as a potential two-way player on its 22-man roster for the 2013 summer. After the year, Reed was invited to the trials for Team USA, with his teammate, centerfielder Austin Cousino, already guaranteed a spot on the club after leading the team in hitting during 2012.
Reed shined in his time with the USA National Team, going 4-for-11 at the plate with a double and three RBI and working five shutout, one-hit innings in his start on the mound, walking one and striking out five.
"It was a really good experience," Reed said. "It was really cool to play with all those guys, who are the premier guys in college baseball. To be considered one of those guys was an honor and it was just a really cool experience for me to get to play with them."
When the roster was trimmed to 22 for the trip to Cuba, Reed returned to the Harwich Mariners in the Cape Cod League, where he had started his summer in June. He played in 20 games at the plate in the CCBL, batting .224 with five doubles, one triple, two homers and 12 RBI as he shuffled in and out of the lineup with days in between, not starting every day until August. On the mound, Reed finished with a 1-2 record and a 3.60 ERA in 25 innings, striking out 21.
"The Cape Cod is said to be one of the best summer leagues for college baseball," Reed said. "So to be able to go up there for two years and be able to show what I can do and be able to play with those guys is a really good experience and really good baseball. It really kind of shows you where you stand within that group of players that you play against. It is really a good place to play and the Cape Cod is a really nice place, so it was a lot of fun."
Reed's tour in the Cape Cod League was his second consecutive summer in the northeast, as he ranked third in the CCBL in ERA (2.32) as a freshman, owning a 3-1 record in eight starts. Reed's 2012 summer came after he was the first first-team consensus freshman All-America selection in program history. As a freshman Reed hit .300 with nine doubles, four homers and 43 RBI, owning a 5-2 record and a 2.52 ERA on the mound.
Priority No. 1 in the offseason with Reed and UK coach Gary Henderson was making sure he was in the best shape of his life entering the 2014 season.
"Well, the skill set for A.J. Reed is pretty good," Henderson said. "A.J. is making the normal progress that you would hope guys make, probably a little bit more than normal. He has done a really, really good job of changing his body the last four months. He looks great. Fans are going to recognize him but they are also going to recognize that he is a little bit trimmer. He has dropped about 20 pounds. His bat speed is little bit better. He is moving better, left to right, at first base. He is repeating his delivery at a high level. It is pretty exciting."
Henderson, Reed and UK strength coach Ryan DeVriendt worked tirelessly in helping Reed transform his body into a much more efficient and lean 6-4, 240.
"When you lose that kind of weight, it is fairly simple, you are just carrying less weight," Henderson said. "If you are hoping to do something 85 to 110 times and you are doing it with 20 less pounds on your body it is going to be easier to do and easier to repeat and easier to explode at release. The bat speed is going to be able to stay in place longer. The body is easier to control. The brain feels better because you are not fatigued. It is all of it. It is all related. It is important. He has done a really good job. I am proud of him."
His work ethic, leadership and infectious personality have been a key ingredient in what has been a different dynamic for the Wildcats in the preseason.
"The other thing (working so hard in the weight room) does is the influence it has on his peers," Henderson said. "It sends a message that what he is doing is important. I am really proud of him. It is like anybody, you lose 15-20 pounds, that is work, that is effort. He has done it and he is going to benefit from it."
Reed sees the differences in the 2012 and 2013 preseasons and the feel of the club. As a preseason All-American and one of the top performers in program history, his role is much more than just a run-producer and weekend starter.
"Leadership is essential because comparing my freshman year to last year, the leadership was so much better my freshman year than last year and it was reflected on the season that we had," Reed said. "Some of the older guys, we have been trying to bring that feel back, bring everyone together and show the younger guys how we do things around here and how we expect it to be done and just holding each other accountable. Just setting that really good example and telling them this is what we are going to do and this is how we are going to do it."
His freshman legacy was solidified in a heroic performance in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, when the Wildcats and Kent State tangled in a 21-inning marathon that saw the southpaw play the first 12 innings as the DH/first baseman, before coming out of the bullpen to fire nine innings in relief.
He nearly won the game in the bottom of the 18th inning when UK catcher Michael Williams doubled off the cavernous wall with Reed on first base and two outs. With the former Indiana High School Player of the Year motoring around third base before cramping while attempting to slide in as the walk-off run. Despite his cramps, Reed took to the mound and fired scoreless innings in the 19th and 20th to keep UK in the game.
"I know I was extremely tired after that game," Reed said. "It was crazy. All I could think was that this game was never going to end. I was just going out and throwing everything I had and just hoping that we could score a run and just try and keep us in the game and give us a chance to win. Unfortunately it didn't go our way but it was just really special to get to experience it with those guys."
He now enters his junior season with precious little time to play both roles. As a preseason All-America selection by Louisville Slugger and Perfect Game, Reed knows that in order for the Wildcats to reach their expectations, they are going to need production from their two-way star.
"There are not a lot of guys in college baseball, especially in our conference, that get to do both," Reed said. "I take pride in that and being able to do both at this level and have success in both areas. In the future, whatever a team chooses for me I just see that as a positive. Whatever they want me to do, what they think is best for their organization and their team, and I can take all that time that I've spent focusing on the other side of it and put it towards whatever they say and just become better at that area."