Part one of the preseason primer covered the happenings surrounding the Louisville baseball team since the end of their 2020 season. Part two will cover who makes up the 2021 roster, covering all the bases and every position.
I’ve said that pitching coach Roger Williams is the unsung hero of the Louisville baseball program. He has done a fantastic job of managing players in his tenure at Louisville and always knows how to set and adjust lineups throughout the season.
Even after losing two first rounders this past offseason in Reid Detmers and Bobby Miller, Coach Williams will find a way to make it work. Luke Smith returns for another year with the Cardinals and should be the favorite for the Friday spot. Smith carries big game energy with him and a lot of experience after two seasons with the Cardinals, in addition to his JUCO stint at Parkland College. He has a nasty change-up and several off-speed pitches that can keep batters off-balance, and should be a contender for all-conference honors in 2021.
Saturday and Sunday’s starters, though, are going to have a big competition. Glenn Albanese would be my choice as the second weekend starter. Albanese held a 2.08 ERA with a .172 opponents’ batting average in 2020, and has a great mix of mid-90s fastballs with some off-speed pitches that got better as the season progressed. He’s made a lot of strides since his Tommy John surgery, and might end up seeing the biggest boost in draft stock if his development turns out as expected.
As for the third starter, as well as midweek, that’s up in the air. Jack Perkins is in the mix for a weekend spot. He had a few midweek starts in 2019, and was possibly in line for the midweek starter spot before having Tommy John surgery that ended his 2020 season before it even started. Perkins was the 61st ranked prospect in Perfect Game’s 2018 recruiting class, and went 3-0 with a 4.18 ERA in 2019.
The midweek starter job is going to be very competitive throughout the season. Michael Prosecky was the starter for three midweek games last year, and should be in line for the job along with Tate Kuehner (who also made midweek starts last year). I’m also expecting big things from Evan Webster and Luke Seed this season.
Luke Smith got to his current position starting as a midweek pitcher coming out of the JUCO circuit, and I think Luke Seed could be due for a similar progression at Louisville. Seed had a phenomenal run at John A. Logan College, finishing 4-0 with 50 strikeouts in 28.2 innings. Louisville loves its lefties with a penchant for punching out batters in plethora, and Seed’s talent could push him to some opportunities as a midweek starter early on, with the potential to make a run for a weekend starting spot down the line.
Another JUCO transfer, Cameron Robinson, could also see time as a midweek or even a Sunday starter. Robinson also comes from John A. Logan and had a very solid sophomore season, going 3-1 with a 3.33 ERA and throwing 35 K’s in 27 innings.
Projected Opening Weekend Starters: Luke Smith (Friday), Glenn Albanese (Saturday), Jack Perkins (Sunday), Luke Seed (midweek)
Key Relief Pitchers
As has been the case in recent years, Louisville’s bullpen is also going to be extremely deep. This is probably the one area that Louisville benefits the most from having so many players return as a result of the abridged MLB Draft this past summer. Michael Kirian and Adam Elliott were likely draft choices if the normal 40-round draft had occurred, but both are returning and likely going to be the main relievers for Louisville in 2021.
Kirian is a powerhouse at 6’6″ and 235 pounds, and has been nothing short of sensational in the previous two seasons for Louisville. He had an 11:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and did not allow an earned run in six appearances in 2020, with as many saves to boot. Kirian also had a 1.69 ERA in 2019 primarily as the setup guy.
As for Elliott, he is a homegrown talent that has developed some serious skill at pitch placement. He’s sort of like a lefty Luke Smith in that they don’t have flamethrowers in their arsenal, but they tend to pressure batters with great placement, change-ups, off-speed pitches, etc. Elliott has been one of the top bullpen options for Louisville during his tenure, and I would expect him to continue to assume that role in 2021.
The closer role has usually been a one guy job for Louisville in recent years with Lincoln Henzman, Michael McAvene, and the Burdi brothers all in mind. In 2021 though, maybe Kirian and Elliott both manage the role depending on how games pan out. I would expect Elliott to see more time as a reliever though, especially as the first man out of the bullpen on Fridays.
In some of the home games I was able to attend last season, I was really impressed with Evan Webster in his freshman season. The Ryle product showed great poise for a player of his experience at the collegiate level, working his way out of jams and giving Louisville huge breaks on the defensive end. Webster was fourth on the team in ERA (1.04) with a .161 opponents batting average in 2020. The starting rotation for Louisville looks to be very righty-heavy to start the season with Smith, Perkins, and Albanese all due for weekend starting spots. If the coaching staff decides to add a lefty into the weekend starting lineup, I think Webster is a dark horse candidate to fill that role.
So, too, would Michael Prosecky. The second-year player had a bit of a rocky start to his collegiate career, but bounced back with a couple of solid outings against Morehead State and Chicago State. He’s a high upside player (top-100 prospect in Perfect Game’s 2019 recruiting class) that could be in for a big leap from 2020 to 2021. The aforementioned Luke Seed, along with Tate Kuehner, Garrett Schmeltz, and Carter Lohman are a few more lefties that could see time in the season.
As for the righties, Louisville is also well stocked in the proverbial pantry. Anthony Silkwood is yet another JUCO player that could factor in some playing time, and he has a hell of a story. The 27-year old spent five years in the Marine Corps before coming to Parkland College, the same JUCO program that produced Luke Smith. Silkwood started two games at Parkland and struck out seven batters in six innings pitched during the 2020 season.
If Jack Perkins needs more time to get acclimated to game speed, I think a reliever role would be fantastic for him, especially since he showed flashes of brilliance in that spot in 2019. Ben Wiegman is a freshman that could see early playing time as well, a 6’3″ right-hander from Antioch, IL that already has 90+ MPH pitches in multiple areas (he’s also a rapper with over 44,000 monthly listeners on Spotify).
We honestly aren’t even scratching the surface with how deep the lineup actually is. Louisville also has guys like Lohman, Schmeltz, and Jared Poland that have already played significant innings for the Cardinals. Poland is unique as a two-way player that could get starts at second base as well, but move over to the mound in relief spots. Poland has also hit mid-90s with his stuff and could be a solid setup option for the Cardinals.
Long story short, this could be the most fascinating season that Roger Williams will have at Louisville, in terms of managing both talented veterans and promising prospects.
Henry Davis is as good of a lock for his position as any player on the roster. The Bedford, NY native is a tremendous hitter with tons of talent on the defensive end, and a cannon for an arm. Davis batted .372 in 2020 with a staggering 1.179 OPS, and led the team among qualified hitters in slugging with a .698 (min. two plate appearances per game and played at least 75% of all games). He’s been one of my favorite players to watch since his arrival in 2019, and should be an early round choice in the 2021 MLB Draft.
Backing Davis up will likely come down to Dalton Rushing and Ben Metzinger, both whom might see more time at other positions.
There are plenty of options for head coach Dan McDonnell, depending on how things shake out at third base. Assuming that Alex Binelas returns as the starter at third base, the battle at first would come to Ben Bianco, Dalton Rushing and incoming freshman Drake Westcott.
Bianco and Rushing are both power hitters that give Louisville some juice in the batting order. Bianco, of course, is the son of current Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco. After not playing a game in 2019, Bianco averaged .268 at the plate and tied for the team lead with three home runs.
Dalton Rushing also has a ton of power at the plate. Rushing has some impressive size at 5’11 and 230+ pounds, and finished his freshman season with a .308 average, starting in six games. He would be my choice for a breakout candidate in 2021, with the potential to have a monster 2022.
Drake Westcott could also get some early run as a top prospect in Louisville’s 2020 recruiting class. He was a top ten player in the state of Illinois and batted .380 in his junior season, becoming a three-time all-state player. He’s also been compared to former Louisville standout Logan Wyatt as a lefty with tons of power and batting prowess, which is a very promising comparison for the youngster.
However, there is still a possibility that Binelas could slide to first base. The power and fielding ability would still be there at the position, but that would also give Louisville a chance to put Ben Metzinger at third and Cam Masterman at DH. While I don’t think that is the most common lineup you’ll see in 2021, I do think it makes Louisville’s lineup really dangerous on both ends.
With Lucas Dunn moving to shortstop, the competition for starting second baseman will be wide open. Tim Borden II filled in admirably for Dunn while the latter recovered from his hamate injury, batting .444 in 11 games played last season. Borden also made a lot of solid defensive plays at second base, which makes him a very appealing candidate for the starting job.
Jared Poland is another option for Louisville at second base, and he offers two-way potential as mentioned earlier. Poland batted .281 in 13 games played last year.
Another interesting option for Louisville at the position is true freshman Christian Knapczyk, who drew rave reviews from McDonnell for his defensive aptitude as a young player. Knapczyk was a top-400 player on Perfect Game’s recruiting board and could be the future for Louisville at shortstop, once Dunn and Cooper Bowman’s eligibility run out.
Dan McDonnell moved Justin Lavey to shortstop in 2020, with the hope that Lavey’s experience and versatility would be a good fit for the position. Lavey was excellent in his time as the starter there, and he hopes to yield the same results with Lucas Dunn at the same position.
Dunn sat out most of last season with a hamate bone injury, but returns as the starting shortstop for the Cardinals. Dunn has spent the bulk of his college career playing in the outfield (primarily at centerfield) and second base. He’s a solid hitter with good base running skills, and one of the best returning defensive players due to his versatility. McDonnell wanted him at shortstop so scouts could take bigger notice of Dunn in games, and I think it will pay dividends down the road for both parties.
Much like Binelas moving to first, I do think Dunn playing some games at second base is still a feasible option. Doing so would allow JUCO standout Cooper Bowman to seek more reps at the position. Bowman comes from Iowa Western, batting .418 in 84 games played for the Reivers.
The likely outcome is that Alex Binelas returns as the starting third baseman. Binelas has a lot of power and great tools to be an appealing prospect in the 2021 MLB Draft, but didn’t get to show off much in 2020 due to a hamate injury that sidelined him for most of the season.
As of this posting (February 12), Binelas is the 9th highest-rated prospect on MLB.com’s 2021 Draft Board. Lefties with the kind of power and efficiency that Binelas possesses are hard to find, and he is a very smooth operator at the plate. Add his relentless work ethic in the mix and he should have an outstanding 2021 season.
There is, however, the possibility that Binelas could move to first base. That would open the door for Ben Metzinger to move out of the backup catcher spot and into a starting role at third base, where he shined in Binelas’s absence. Metzinger averaged .349 and made a ton of solid defensive plays at the hot corner. To me, Metzinger was the breakout player in 2020 due to his two-way ability, and might have even earned his way into a full-time starter role if the season had continued (whether that would have been as a designated hitter, second base, or another position is anyone’s guess).
The two guaranteed starters will be Levi Usher and Luke Brown, both who should be steady hands for Louisville at the top of the order. Not only are they excellent hitters with plate discipline, I’d go as far as to say they’re two of the best base runners on the team. Both Usher and Brown combined for 22 of Louisville’s 36 stolen bases in 2020, and will likely battle for the team lead all season. Brown could likely return as the leadoff hitter for Louisville, having done so in a majority of games last year.
That leaves one more spot in the outfield for the Cardinals to find a starter. Trey Leonard brings a lot to the table as a base runner and a fielder, as does Chris Seng (.167 BA, three stolen bases in 2020). Leonard batted .250 last year and was primarily called upon as a pinch runner in his career, but a full-time starting role at left field could showcase his potential as a defensive presence.
This will likely come down to Ben Metzinger and Cam Masterman, as they were two of Louisville’s better hitters in the abridged 2020 season. Both Metzinger and Masterman averaged over .330 at the plate (.349 and .333, respectively). I give a slight lean to Masterman starting more games at the DH, only because I’m hedging that on Metzinger getting significant starts on defense.
Projected Defensive Lineup Summary
Catcher: Henry Davis
First Base: Ben Bianco
Second Base: Tim Borden II
Third Base: Alex Binelas
Shortstop: Lucas Dunn
Left Field: Trey Leonard
Center Field: Levi Usher
Right Field: Luke Brown
Designated Hitter: Cam Masterman OR Ben Metzinger