Written By: Zack Silverman
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Every year, a couple highly regarded college prospects here and there decide to stick around an extra year, most recently guys like Mississippi State’s Jake Mangum and LSU’s Zach Watson and Zack Hess. This year, it obviously happened to a lot more guys, so we’ll have a ton of high level talent not only heading to campus, but returning to campus next year. Below I’ll walk through the top college prospects to go undrafted and return to school.
Nine out of ten names are pitchers, which is a testament to the incredible depth of college pitching in this year’s class. It wasn’t just that run we saw in the back half of the first round (Jarvis, Cavalli, Shuster, Miller, etc.), but a truly deep class that went well past the top 100 names. With so many options available, teams didn’t have to take risks on upside plays like Tommy Mace or Gavin Williams, and these kids decided to return to school to bet on themselves. Guys like Williams, Brandon Birdsell, and Trenton Denholm will still be age-appropriate come draft day, though many others will be older than their competition and Mason Erla will be a few months shy of his 24th birthday by the time the 2021 draft rolls around.
1. RHP Tommy Mace, Florida
Florida had two pitchers with draft aspirations in the shortened 2020 draft, but both Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich elected to return to school. Mace was the top college player on my personal list to go undrafted, with the chance to have gone as high as the second round. He was a well known draft prospect coming out of high school in the Tampa suburbs in 2017, a classic projection right hander as a 6’6″ beanpole. Three years later, he’s made some incremental progress, but Mace clearly believes (he would prefer the verb “knows”) he has more in the tank. His fastball sits in the low 90’s and can get up to 96, while his cutter/slider hybrid is an effective, above average offspeed pitch and his changeup gives him a third reliable offering.
It’s a fairly ordinary package, but there is still a lot of projection left in his lanky frame and his stuff has steadily gotten sharper throughout his career with the Gators. After putting up a 4.85 ERA and a 119/50 strikeout to walk ratio over 152.1 innings over his first two seasons, he improved to a 1.67 ERA and a 26/5 strikeout to walk ratio over 27 innings this year, including an excellent outing against a very tough Miami lineup. As a slightly above average strike thrower, he’s not nearly as raw as most projection arms, and his competitive nature helps him significantly. He’ll return as the ace of one of the best rotations in college baseball next year with Leftwich and rising-sophomore Hunter Barco, perhaps second behind only Vanderbilt’s one-two punch of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter. Mace could have easily pitched his way into the Top 50 picks with a strong run through SEC play this year, so he’ll hope to do that next year.
2. RHP Gavin Williams, East Carolina
Gavin Williams, like Tommy Mace, was a projectable 6’6″ high school arm in 2017, hailing from Fayetteville, North Carolina. He hasn’t made quite as much progress as Mace during his time at East Carolina, having only thrown 68 innings for the Pirates with a 3.57 ERA and a 70/32 strikeout to walk ratio along the way. That said, he’s also eight months younger and won’t be much older than most of the regular juniors next year.
He throws a premium mid 90’s fastball that can touch triple digits in shorter stints, and with his now-filled-out 6’6″, 240 pound frame, that velocity comes out pretty naturally. He adds a big, slow curveball in the low to mid 70’s, one with great shape but which needs to add power. There’s an above average changeup as well, which rounds out his arsenal nicely. The command is sort of shaky, but it’s not terrible, and he really hasn’t been on the mound all that much anyways. More consistent innings in the ECU rotation next year could do wonders for his stock, and I could see him pitching himself into the top 50 picks pretty easily with a strong stint in the rotation. He probably projects as a reliever, but the upside is certainly there and I wouldn’t rule him out as a starter if he makes the necessary adjustments. One big thing he could do would be to add power to that curveball, which he is certainly capable of with his arm strength.
3. LHP Seth Lonsway, Ohio State
Seth Lonsway marks a third straight pitcher who was a big name for the 2017 draft out of high school. Lonsway grew up in Celina, Ohio, a small town just off the Indiana border, and after sitting out the 2018 season, he’s become a mainstay in the Buckeyes rotation. This year, he put up one of the most unique stat lines in college baseball, holding a 3.00 ERA and striking out 42 batters in just 18 innings (more than half of those he faced!) but also walked 18 in that same span, including eight in his final start against Stetson.
Lonsway has an electric left arm that sits in the low to mid 90’s on his fastball, getting up to 96 with relative ease. He adds a power curveball that misses bats in bunches, as well as a more lateral slider and a solid changeup. The ball explodes out of his hand and has completely confounded college hitters, but he really struggles to repeat his release point and that has led to massive command struggles. By walking eight in his final start, he didn’t give pro teams much confidence he could fix that, and he’s betting on himself by going back for his redshirt junior season. If his command struggles continue, teams will be more convinced that he’s a reliever and he could fall out of the Top 100 picks, but even cutting his walk rate to perhaps 4.5 per nine could do wonders in proving he can start. Aside from his command, really, there’s no reason to believe he can’t. And Ohio State will love to have him back because the Big Ten can’t handle the stuff.
4. RHP Kevin Abel, Oregon State
This one makes a lot of sense, because Kevin Abel has barely pitched since his freshman season and there were rumors he was considering returning to Corvallis even before the draft was shortened to five rounds. If you’re a college baseball fan, then you definitely recognize this name, because Abel went 5-0 with a 0.62 ERA and a 41/8 strikeout to walk ratio over 29 innings in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, knocking down LSU, Washington, Mississippi State, Arkansas, and Arkansas again in order. In that last start against the Razorbacks, he tossed a compete game, two hit, ten strikeout shutout to take home the National Championship.
That was all as a true freshman, but he went down with Tommy John surgery 16.1 innings into his sophomore season in 2019 and we haven’t seen him since. Now, we’ll be able to see Abel again in orange and black, and fans in Corvallis couldn’t be more excited. The last time we saw him throw, the San Diego native sat in the low 90’s with his fastball and added an above average curveball and a plus fading changeup, and for a freshman, he commanded it all pretty well. With natural, healthy progression, it’s easy to see him having above average command at this point, but of course he’s been rehabbing instead, so it’s hard to say where that command is today. Either way, with a very solid three pitch mix, a 6’2″ frame, and plenty of big game experience, he’ll be in a great position to lead Oregon State’s rotation next year. Adding a little bit of power to his curveball, which stands out more for its depth than any kind of hard bite, in addition to taking that step forward with his command, would make him a great mid-rotation starting prospect. While the three names ahead of Abel on this list have a fairly wide range of outcomes, I see Abel as the most straightforward despite the injury.
5. RHP Brandon Birdsell, Texas Tech
Technically, Brandon Birdsell isn’t “returning” to Texas Tech because he’s coming from San Jacinto CC, where he joined Cubs fourth rounder Luke Little and Nationals fifth rounder Mitchell Parker on an insanely talented pitching staff. Having lost Clayton Beeter (Dodgers, competitive balance round), Bryce Bonnin (Reds, third round), and John McMillon (Royals, undrafted free agent) from last year’s pitching staff, Texas Tech will get a needed boost from bringing on Birdsell.
What he lacks in track record, he makes up for in projectable starter traits, and I guess teams wanted to see him prove them in Lubbock (or he bet on himself to prove them beyond teams’ expectations). His velocity has crept up throughout his college career and was the highest it’s ever been in his final start of the 2020 season, where he sat in the mid 90’s. He showed a loopy slider in high school outside of Houston that had some nice depth but lacked any sort of power, but he’s tightened it up really well and it looks like an above average pitch at its best. With a projectable, durable 6’2″ frame, a clean delivery, and solid strike throwing ability, he’s really gathering his starter traits together nicely and Texas Tech will look to help him continue on that upward trend. Unlike the other names on this list, he’ll be a junior next year rather than a senior, so he’ll fit right in with other college arms age-wise. With a full season of success in the Red Raiders rotation, Birdsell could have his stock in a much stronger place a year from now.
6. RHP Trenton Denholm, UC-Irvine
This is probably the first one on the list where I’d expect it was more a product of the short draft than him wanting to bet on himself and pricing himself out. Had their been a sixth round, my guess is Trenton Denholm would have been drafted. The Sacramento-area native is a really fun pitcher to watch, and he’s been productive too with a 1.90 ERA, a 0.84 WHIP, and a 118/30 strikeout to walk ratio over 123.1 innings for UCI over the past two seasons. Sure, the Anteaters play in a relatively pitcher-friendly park and don’t have the toughest schedule around, but Denholm has been perhaps even more impressive over two seasons in the elite Cape Cod League: 32.2 innings, one unearned run, and a 41/10 strikeout to walk ratio.
Undersized at a skinny 5’11”, he makes up for average stuff with an extremely competitive demeanor on the mound and a willingness to attack hitters with everything he has. He throws his fastball in the low 90’s, topping out around 93, adding two solid breaking balls in a curveball and a slider. His changeup is perhaps his best pitch with nice fading action, but his stuff really works best when he’s locating it well. The good news is he possesses the above average command to make it work, though it’s hard to see him adding much more velocity. If he can get a slight velocity bump in 2021, that would help push him more into the top 100 picks, though his undersized frame and lack of a true strikeout pitch probably push him into a long relief role. I wouldn’t bet against him though because he’s shown the ability to get everything out of what he has, and with a really late birthday that makes him the age of a rising junior rather than the rising senior he is, he’ll be fun to track in 2021.
7. OF Parker Chavers, Coastal Carolina
After six pitchers, we finally get to our first position player. Parker Chavers (great baseball name) raked for two seasons at Coastal Carolina, slashing .319/.435/.554 with 22 home runs, 19 stolen bases, and a 101/78 strikeout to walk ratio over 119 games from 2018-2019. The Montgomery, Alabama native also homered seven times while slashing .274/.354/.478 over 44 games against top pitching in the Cape Cod League over the summer, setting himself up for a big 2020 season. However, shoulder surgery meant that didn’t happen, and Chanticleers fans thought they had seen the last of him when the season shut down. Now, he’ll bring his potent bat back to Conway for the 2021 season.
He’s a tooled up outfielder who stands out most for his above average raw power, a product of natural athleticism and strength despite a smaller 5’11” frame. There’s plus speed as well, though it plays more as above average on the field because his game is raw overall. He has some strikeout concerns that were more evident against top pitching on the Cape than they were against a relatively ordinary Sun Belt schedule, and his base running and defense are in need of more refinement. Chavers has a great opportunity to get that done in 2021, but he was already pretty old for a college junior this year and he’ll be nearly 23 by the time the next draft roles around. If he doesn’t refine his overall game significantly by then, Chavers will be much more of a day two money saver than a true top 100 prospect.
8. LHP Andrew Abbott, Virginia
Back to the mound, Andrew Abbott is the first true reliever on this list. A product of Virginia’s rural Southside region, Abbott has been UVA’s part-time closer over the past three seasons, putting up a 3.24 ERA and a 165/49 strikeout to walk ratio and nine saves across 108.1 innings. With an uptempo delivery, a smaller frame, shaky command, and a two pitch arsenal, there is very little chance he gets to start in pro ball, so he’ll head back to Charlottesville to prove he can be a sure-thing type of arm. He throws a low to mid 90’s fastball that tops out around 95 and brings a plus curveball from the left side, which helped him strike out 28 batters in 13.1 innings in 2020. Abbott is aggressive with his pitches and attacks the zone with a bulldog, closer mentality, but he struggles to locate his pitches consistently and that gives him below average command despite that willingness to pitch in the zone. In that sense, he’s a lot like Burl Carraway-lite, though Carraway’s fastball is a little faster and his curve is a little sharper. He’s relatively young for a college junior and will only turn 22 around draft time, so he won’t be that old, but sharpening his command a little bit will definitely be key in keeping himself in the top tier of relief prospects given the extra development time.
9. RHP Carson Seymour, Kansas State
This is a clear case where going back to school could really help, or really hurt, your draft stock. Carson Seymour grew up in Southern California but began his career at Dartmouth, then transferred halfway back across the country to Kansas State, where he’ll stay put. Seymour is a big 6’5″, 250 pound righty with very little track record to speak of, instead enticing scouts with his arm strength and one great final start in which he tossed six shutout innings (one unearned run) with nine strikeouts against Stanford.
His best pitch is a low to mid 90’s fastball that he has run up to 99 in the past, adding an inconsistent slider and curveball that can flatten out at times and look like above average to plus pitches at others. He definitely has the build to start, but his command is even more inconsistent than his secondary pitches and he throws with a fair amount of effort. Seymour was hoping that strong Stanford start could be the start of a big run through Big 12 play, which was badly needed given his lack of a track record, but scouts weren’t comfortable with an unproven arm with just 28 college innings to show. He’ll head back to Manhattan (Manhattan, Kansas that is) to refine his game a bit more, which is certainly possible given the lack of mileage he has on his arm.
10. RHP Mason Erla, Michigan State
Mason Erla is definitely going to be an interesting one, because he’s almost 23 already and will be coming up on 24 by the time the 2021 draft rolls around. Erla has been a solid but unspectacular arm throughout his career at Michigan State, but an uptick in velocity in 2020 led to a 1.04 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and a 42/6 strikeout to walk ratio over 26 innings, albeit against a relatively weaker schedule. The 6’4″ righty comes from a low three quarters arm slot and now sits in the low to mid 90’s with his fastball, adding a solid average slider and changeup to go along with it. With solid average command as well, he has enough starter traits to make it work, and could be a big league starting pitcher if a drafting team is willing to be patient. It’s not that he’ll take a long time to work his way up, it’s just that he’ll be almost 24 and might not hit the big leagues until he’s 26 or 27. Erla probably fits better as a reliever anyways due to a lack of a true strikeout pitch, and he could move much quicker in that role. Either way, 2021 will be about proving his newfound velocity is for real and building off those four strong starts in the 2020 season.
3B Jamal O’Guinn, Southern California
RHP Jack Leftwich, Florida
SS Luke Waddell, Georgia Tech
LHP Ryan Webb, Georgia
C Casey Opitz, Arkansas
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