Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Nick Stevens
The 2019 Major League Baseball draft included life-changing phone calls for 1,217 high school and college baseball players from across the country. That may seem like a lot, but when you consider the MLB draft pool consists of Division I-III, JUCO, NAIA and high school players, becoming an MLB draft pick is an incredible honor and the beginning of the hardest journey to the big leagues in any professional sport.
The 2019 class featured 22 players from CAA schools, a record for an oft-overlooked baseball conference. RHP Shelton Perkins, RHP Dan Goggin, RHP Kevin Kelly and RHP Nick Robertson accounted for four of those 22 CAA selections, tying a JMU record for most MLB draft picks in one season.
These four arms join RHP Brandon Withers, LHP Colt Harlow, IF Kyle McPherson, C Jake Lowery and RHP Chris Huffman among the growing group of JMU alumni working their way down the long and difficult road to a major league roster.
With rookie and short-season leagues now well underway, let’s take a peek at how this group of former JMU Diamond Dukes is performing at the professional level.
Kyle McPherson, San Jose Giants (High-A)
.255 average, .332 OBP, 2 HR, 17 RBI, 15 2B, 10 SB.
A 26th-round pick of the San Francisco Giants in 2017, McPherson was a key contributor in his team’s rookie ball league championship to begin his pro career. In his first full season in 2018, McPherson put up All-Star numbers, including a .314 average, and 33 extra-base hits in 65 games. His production led the Giants to promote him from short-season ball to High-A to begin 2019, completely bypassing a full level.
With his ability to get on base, find the gaps with his bat and play multiple defensive positions, McPherson may find himself back in Virginia with the Richmond Flying Squirrels (Giants Double-A affiliate) by the end of this season or beginning of 2020. The Giants major league roster is a mix of veterans nearing the end of their career and castoffs from other organizations. They also lack a lot of depth when it comes to prospects who play up the middle. That leaves a path to the majors for McPherson, if he continues to produce.
Brandon Withers, Beloit Snappers (Low-A)
30 games, 45.2 IP, 3-3 record, 4.53 ERA, 45 K, 2 saves.
Drafted by the Oakland A’s in the 31st round of the 2017 draft, Withers has been a productive reliever at each minor league stop during his brief career. In an era of baseball where home runs have become so common they are boring, Withers has allowed just four in 96.1 career innings. Regardless of what level you’re at, that’s an impressive feat. He didn’t give up his first home run in 2019 until his 28th appearance of the season.
Withers’ numbers are a bit misleading. Two recent rough outings (9 ER in 2.2 IP) have skewed his overall numbers. Of his 30 outings, 14 have been scoreless outings of at least one inning (eight of them lasted at least two innings). His 3.55 FIP (essentially a more accurate version of ERA) and high groundball rate are more indicative of his performance this season. As a reliever, Withers has to continue to stand out as he moves up the ladder and his ability to limit home runs will open eyes.
Colton Harlow, Asheville Tourists (Low-A)
9 games, 17.2 IP, 1-0 record, 3.06 ERA, 24 strikeouts, 2 walks.
Why do I love baseball so much? Colt Harlow’s story summarizes many reasons why. He’s a small-town kid from a place you might have heard of only if you paid special attention to your high school history teacher when they lectured on the Civil War. He played high school ball at a school that gets confused with the bigger school with the same name. He’s smaller than what teams typically look for, yet Harlow became a 30th-round pick of the Colorado Rockies back in 2018 and is now just steps away from the major leagues.
Harlow isn’t supposed to be in Asheville, North Carolina, right now. He was ticketed to spend 2019 back in Grand Junction, Colorado, with the same rookie-ball team he pitched for last season. However, Asheville needed a fresh pitcher as injuries/tired arms piled up and Harlow was the guy called on to help out, just for a few days. Those few days turned into a permanent spot in the Asheville bullpen after throwing two shutout innings of one-hit ball in his first appearance.
The hard-throwing lefty has fanned more than 33% of hitters faced and his 2.21 FIP is nearly a full run lower than his 3.06 ERA. The South Atlantic League is loaded with big-time lineups which can be difficult to navigate for opposing pitchers and Harlow is holding his own during his first tour. I don’t say this lightly when I say every young baseball player should watch the way Colt Harlow plays the game.
Shelton Perkins, Aberdeen Ironbirds (Short-Season)
7 games, 7 IP, 0-1 record, 2.57 ERA, 1 hit allowed, 9 strikeouts
Perkins made national headlines when he threw two perfect innings in his first professional outing, striking out all six batters he faced. Through his first four outings, Perkins refused to allow a single hit, striking out nine hitters in the process. He gave up his first hit as a professional on Thursday night, a solo home run.
A 16th-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles this year, Perkins was relied on heavily in 2019 while at JMU, so I’m curious to see how many more outings he gets from here on out in Aberdeen. The Orioles farm system is the fastest growing system in baseball, going from a barren wasteland mocked by national scouting outlets to one of the top systems in all of baseball, thanks to new leadership and getting rid of outdated development philosophies that died 30 years ago.
The Orioles are still many years away from competing, with much of their top talent just barely old enough to drive a car, meaning Perkins has the potential to move up through the system fairly quickly. He’s already caught the eye of Birdland’s most faithful followers.
Kevin Kelly, Arizona League Indians (Rookie ball)
8 games, 10.2 IP, 1-0 record, 2.53 ERA, 16 strikeouts, 1 walk
That one walk is not a typo. A 19th round pick of the Cleveland Indians, Kelly is in rookie ball with the Indians, carving his way through the league with his multiple arm angles, a deep repertoire and elite baseball IQ. After working as JMU’s Friday night starter this year, the rest of 2019 is more about Cleveland figuring out what they have with Kelly while giving him a minimum workload.
Eight outings worth of box scores in rookie ball doesn’t tell us much of anything, but with the frequency at which Kelly is missing bats and his delivery/repertoire, the Indians have themselves a unique pitcher who can be used in multiple different roles.
Dan Goggin, Brooklyn Cyclones (Low-A ball)
8 games, 15.2 IP, 2-0 record, 2.87 ERA, 2 saves, 24 strikeouts, .151 batting average against.
It’s impossible to understand how the Mets operate or why they do the things they do at the top of their organization, but they nailed their 17th round pick of the 2019 draft by taking Dan Goggin. A few bad outings during his senior season at JMU greatly skewed his numbers, but his stuff was always notable. With Coney Island just behind the outfield wall at MCU Park in Brooklyn, Goggin has taken New York-Penn League hitters on a ride of his own, fanning 24 hitters in just 15.2 innings of work and putting up six scoreless outings out of the pen.
After giving up two runs on two hits and walking three across 2.2 innings on July 19th, Goggin rebounded with two shutout innings, allowing just one hit and striking out three in his next outing. Seeing a young reliever bounce back like that is exactly what you want to see.
Nick Robertson, Ogden Raptors (Low-A ball)
6 games, 6.1 IP, 0-0 record, 0.00 ERA, 10 strikeouts, no walks
After breaking the JMU single-season record for team strikeouts in a season, the quartet of Kelly, Perkins, Goggin and Robertson continue to pile up the whiffs as professional baseball players. Robertson’s first five outings came in the Arizona League, with his most recent outing coming in Ogden after his promotion. He’s allowed just three baserunners during his first six appearances.
Robertson was selected in the seventh round of this year’s draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers, an organization known for producing high-quality pitching prospects. It will be interesting to see if the Dodgers decide to stretch out Robertson and work him as a starter or mold him into a late-inning power arm. JMU fans are familiar with what happens when the 6’6” righty enters the game in the 9th inning with a lead. Dodgers fans may quickly learn as well.
Jake Lowery, Harrisburg Senators (Double-A)
5 games, 1-10 with 3 walks
Named the nation’s top collegiate catcher during his time at JMU, Lowery has been in the minor leagues with the Cleveland Indians and Washington Nationals since the Indians took him the 4th-round of the 2011 draft. He’s currently on the Minor League Injured List. In 455 career games, Lowery owns a .330 on-base percentage and has accumulated 145 extra-base hits.
Chris Huffman, San Diego Padres organization
After pitching in both Double-A and Triple-A last season and a winter ball stint in Mexico, Huffman has not pitched this season in affiliated ball for the Padres. In case you weren’t aware, Huffman hails from Fort Defiance High School, the same school that produced the legendary Megan Good.