Louisville Baseball January Notes: Leadoff Dinner

20 days. That is all that separates us from the start of the 2020 Louisville baseball season, where the Cardinals have higher expectations than ever before. Louisville will be starting the season next month as the #1 team in three of college baseball’s six major polls. With some key returning pieces in both the pitching rotation and the batting lineup, the Cardinals should be a surefire contender for a national championship later this summer.

But before Louisville starts its season next month, let’s get caught up in what the Cardinals have been doing in recent weeks.

Louisville Baseball Leadoff Dinner

U of L’s 2020 season had its unofficial start with both the first day of practice and the Leadoff Dinner taking place on Friday. Louisville has held the Leadoff Dinner for its baseball team to hype up the upcoming season every year since 1996.

Former Cardinals Will Smith and Brendan McKay returned to Louisville as the headlining guests of the 2020 Dinner. Both Smith and McKay shared stories of their journey from the minors to the big leagues with fans, as well as stories of their time at U of L and how head coach Dan McDonnell and the assistants helped shape their careers. They also sat down with the media before the dinner to discuss these topics and more.

The big news item, though, is that blueprints for a potential indoor practice facility were unveiled. Athletic Director Vince Tyra showed a brief video of the facility, which would be built in the gravel lot behind the left field berm of Jim Patterson Stadium.

Photo Credit: Michael McCammon, 24/7 Sports
Photo Credit: Michael McCammon, 24/7 Sports

The dinner also highlighted some of the baseball team’s success off the field. The team posted a 3.353 grade point average, the highest in the program’s history and now marks 17 straight semesters with a 3.0 or higher cumulative GPA. They also covered the team’s trip to the Dominican Republic this past fall.

Adam Elliott also received the Muhammad Ali scholarship during the Leadoff Dinner from Lonnie Ali, who was also in attendance and delivered a speech. The senior enters 2020 as a team captain and one of Louisville’s top relievers, coming off a 2019 campaign where he went 3-2 with a 2.48 ERA in 23 appearances.

Other Preseason Baseball Notes

As mentioned earlier, Louisville is the preseason #1 team in three of the six college baseball polls entering 2020. The Cards are atop the rankings of Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, Perfect Game, and D1Baseball.com, while also starting #2 in the Baseball America and USA Today Coaches polls (defending national champion Vanderbilt is #1 in both of those polls). Provided both Louisville and Vanderbilt dominate the college baseball season like expected, that could set the stage for a highly anticipated rematch of two of the better teams in the sport on May 5th in Nashville.

Louisville has appointed four team captains for the 2020 season. Senior pitchers Adam Elliott and Luke Smith, as well as outfielders Zach Britton and Danny Oriente, were all selected as captains by their teammates and coaches. Elliott’s top reliever status for U of L has already been noted, but Smith’s return gives the Cards an option to replace Nick Bennett as the third weekend starter. Luke Smith went 6-1 last year with a 4.24 ERA, including back-to-back 8+ inning outings against Illinois State and Vanderbilt in the NCAA Tournament, making him an ideal candidate for rubber match scenarios in a weekend series.

Britton and Oriente are two of Louisville’s most experienced outfielders returning this year. Britton has appeared in 93 games during his Louisville career, and last year batted .288 with five home runs and 28 RBIs (including a .571 batting average in pinch-hitting scenarios). Oriente has arguably been the most consistent hitter of any Louisville player the last two seasons, hitting .330+ in 2018 and 2019 and leading the team last year in batting (.332).

If you’re an MLB Draft junkie and want to see more Cardinals in the big leagues, there’s a chance Louisville could have multiple first round picks once again. As of today, Reid Detmers (14th) and Bobby Miller (48th) are both top-50 prospects on MLB.com’s Prospect Watch. Detmers is the third-highest left-handed pitcher on the board and could potentially be a top ten pick in this summer’s draft if he follows up on his record breaking 2019 season, where he tied the U of L record in wins (13) and took the strikeouts record (167). I think Miller has the tools to potentially become a first round pick with another stellar season, especially with his size and strong fastball that can go 95+ MPH with quality placement.

Early 2020 Prognostications

It’s hard to argue that Louisville isn’t a top three team this upcoming season, and possibly the best team in the country. Not many teams this year have the 1-2 punch in their weekend starting lineup like the Cardinals do with Reid Detmers and Bobby Miller. A proven big-game player like Luke Smith also adds to an already impressive Louisville weekend rotation, and should give the Cardinals a very solid chance in every series this season.

Louisville does have to replace its closer, but should once again have a very strong bullpen under pitching coach Roger Williams. Adam Elliott and Michael Kirian both headline a talented bullpen, with Kirian earning All-American honors recently. Kirian should be in line to replace the departing Michael McAvene as Louisville’s closer, after he led the team in ERA (1.69) and had five saves in 2019. Jared Poland and Garrett Schmeltz also return as top bullpen options after ending the season with stellar postsesason performances as freshmen last year. That’s all before getting to players like Michael Prosecky and Kellan Tulio who are arriving and could be pushing for significant roles in Louisville’s rotation right away.

And that is also before getting to Louisville’s position players, where the Cardinals have a steady mix of veterans and prospects. Alex Binelas should be a lock to become Louisville’s top power hitting option, a favorite to become a 3-hole or cleanup hitter this spring and locking down the third base role. They also have an incoming freshman in Dalton Rushing that could compete for an early DH or even catcher / first base role right away, especially since he led fall ball in home runs. Henry Davis is also primed for a breakout year after a stellar freshman season.

The outfield will see some new faces, as Drew Campbell and Jake Snider depart while Lucas Dunn (likely) moves back down to second base. That opens the door for Zach Britton to come in as a potential left / right field option, with JUCO standouts Levi Usher and Luke Brown joining him. If both Usher and Brown start, it will also give Louisville some speed to continue its long-standing tradition of being one of the top base running teams in the country.

Joining Brown and Usher in that mix would be senior Justin Lavey, who led the team last year with 20 stolen bases and likely figures to do so again in 2020. Lavey is Louisville’s most dynamic option in the infield, with the ability to play at second, third base, and shortstop. His role in 2020 likely figures to be at shortstop, where he would replace the departing Tyler Fitzgerald. That would also allow Louisville to keep Lucas Dunn and Alex Binelas at second and third base, respectively, while also allowing head coach Dan McDonnell a chance to find somebody that can replace Logan Wyatt at first.

Overall, Louisville is ridiculously stacked with talent this year. I’m normally very cautious about making preseason predictions with anything U of L related, but this team is absolutely capable of winning the national championship this year.

They’re also going to be tested throughout the season against top competition, especially on the road. Louisville will have to go on the road to face Miami (FL) and Vanderbilt, both of which are top-five teams. They’ll also have weekend road series against Ole Miss and Florida State, both top 25 teams and potential College World Series contenders. If Louisville plays up to its potential against a schedule like that, a national championship could be at the doorstep for the Cardinals.

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