LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In just five seasons as a member of the ACC, Louisville has firmly established itself as the conference’s standard bearer, winning four regular-season titles in five years and posting a dazzling 109-40 aggregate mark in ACC play — that’s more conference wins than any other Power Five program in that span. Postseason success has followed accordingly, as the Cardinals have won six regionals in the last seven years, advancing to Omaha four times in that span. They reached the national semifinals in 2019, and they return so much talent that they’ll head into 2020 on the very short list of candidates to be preseason No. 1 for the first time in program history.
Some programs would prefer not to have that kind of bull’s eye on their chests, but Louisville relishes high expectations.
“We’re not afraid of it, it’s where you want to be,” said 14th-year head coach Dan McDonnell, the lead architect of this thriving college baseball superpower. “You can’t be afraid of that, you’ve gotta want that, hope for that, expect that. It doesn’t guarantee you anything, but it says a lot about where you are as a program.”
There’s plenty of reason to be excited about the 2020 Cards, but first and foremost is a truly elite pitching staff, which might very well be the nation’s best. It starts with junior left-hander Reid Detmers (13-4, 2.78, 167-33 K-BB in 113.1 IP), the reigning ACC pitcher of the year and a first-team All-American. Detmers has a lot in common with former Louisville star and Golden Spikes Award winner Brendan McKay (at least, as a pitcher). Both are physical left-handers with low-90s fastballs, vicious putaway breaking balls and enough feel for an occasional changeup to keep righties on their toes.
Detmers reached 94 mph in his first outing of the fall in the Dominican Republic two weeks ago, and he worked comfortably at 91-93 in his second outing last week in the Pizza Bowl, Louisville’s fall world series. He looked in midseason form, breezing through 3.1 innings with six strikeouts, repeatedly buckling knees with his filthy downer curveball at 75-76 with a spin rate in the 2600-2800 range. He also mixed in a couple of good 80-81 changeups, even using one as a strikeout pitch. Simply put, Detmers will head into 2020 as one of the favorites for national player of the year honors.
“I said it last year, doing all those interviews before weekend series, you’re trying to be careful, you don’t want to put a guy in McKay’s sentence, but just the demeanor and the body, it’s just very similar,” McDonnell said.
Detmers will pitch on Fridays, and he’ll be followed in the rotation by two high-end power right-handers, in some order: junior Bobby Miller (7-1, 3.83) and senior Luke Smith (6-1, 4.24). Scouts who have seen Miller this fall have reported that his stuff is more electric than ever, with a fastball that has reached 98 mph and a newly developed 88-92 cutter to complement his low-80s curveball and solid changeup. It’s top-half-of-the-first-round stuff; he just needs to repeat his delivery a bit more consistently and take one more step with his command, but he made good progress in that regard as a sophomore last spring.
Smith had an uneven regular season working mostly as a midweek starter as a junior college transfer last year, but he exploded onto the prospect scene in the postseason. He showed overpowering stuff over eight innings of one-run, three-hit ball against eventual national champion Vanderbilt in the CWS bracket final, before the Commodores rallied to win in the ninth. Smith received plenty of criticism for letting his emotions get to him late in that game, but that was also a sign of his intense competitiveness, which is an asset for him when channeled right. McDonnell even gave pitching coach Roger Williams a hard time about putting Smith on the same Pizza Bowl team as Detmers, because “Luke Smith is not losing.”
“In the Dominican, in their big stadium opening night against Las Estrellas, who won the whole thing last year, he goes four innings, he’s on a pitch count, he’s got a 65 pitch count limit, he’s at 55,” McDonnell said. “He comes off the field and I shake his hand, I say, ‘Luke, good job man, way to start the trip off on a good note.’ He said, ‘Coach, I’ve got one more inning.’
“I said, ‘Luke, it’s the fall.’ He said, ‘Coach, seriously, let me run out there for one more.’ But I kind of made that message to all the pitchers, there’s something about guys that don’t want to come out, there’s something about that quality, more guys need to have that.”
The Cards also have a fourth established big power arm anchoring the bullpen in junior left-hander Michael Kirian (3-1, 1.69, 42-9 K-BB in 32 IP), who came out of the chute throwing 95 mph chowder early in the fall before coming down with mononucleosis, sidelining him for the Pizza Bowl. McDonnell believes the Cardinals have three legitimate closing options in Kirian, senior left-hander Adam Elliott and sophomore righty Jared Poland. Elliott (2.48 ERA in 32.2 IP) has been up to 92 this fall with a good breaking ball and should be a quality senior sign in the draft. Poland is a two-way talent who was regarded more as a hitting prospect coming out of high school, but his stuff has gotten better and better, making him more of a prospect on the mound. He was up to 94 mph in the Dominican, along with a good breaking ball and an 80-81 changeup that he’s working hard to develop this fall. Williams is emphasizing that pitch with him, and it’s progressing nicely.
Sophomore lefty Garrett Schmeltz (3.55 ERA in 15 relief appearances as a freshman) is a candidate for midweek starts or to serve as a valuable bridge guy in the bullpen. He started opposite Detmers when I was in town last Wednesday, and though he got hit around some, he showed the makings of a nice three-pitch arsenal, with an 86-89 fastball that bumped 90 from a three-quarters slot, a solid 73-78 breaking ball with a spin rate around 2400 and an 80-82 changeup that got a few swing-and-misses. Another key lefty will be freshman Michael Prosecky, the highest-profile member of Louisville’s latest strong recruiting class. He was outstanding last Wednesday, racking up seven strikeouts over four scoreless innings of relief, locating with an 89-90 fastball, a very good low-80s changeup and an improving 76-78 breaking ball. Watching from the third base dugout after Prosecky struck out Lucas Dunn on a changeup and Alex Binelas on a fastball, McDonnell smiled.
“Rog will be fired up about this, this will be the highlight of the day, [going on four scoreless IP]against some good hitters,” McDonnell said. “He just struck out Dunn and Binelas. That’s pretty damn good.”
Prosecky is a good bet to land a midweek starter role, and Schmeltz seems like a great fit in the bullpen, but those roles are to be determined. Two other freshmen who could see meaningful innings are right-hander Ryan Hawks and lefty Kellan Tulio. Hawks is a thick-bodied strike-thrower with a short three-quarters arm action who reminds McDonnell a bit of former UL ace Kyle Funkhouser. He’s a USA Baseball 18U national team alumnus, and he’s fearless, attacking the bottom of the zone with a fastball that has been up to 90-91 this fall as well as a slider and changeup. Tulio has a durable 6-foot-3, 200-pound pitcher’s frame and a strong arm that has produced 93 mph heat in the past, though he was 86-89 last week, with a big sweeping three-quarters curveball at 71-73 with tight spin around 2400 rpm.
Flame-throwing right-hander Jack Perkins will miss the season after having Tommy John surgery, but fellow sophomore righty Kerry Wright is an X-factor. Perhaps the highest-profile member of the highest-ranked recruiting class in Louisville history last year, Wright looked great out of the chute last spring, coming at hitters with 95 mph heat. He struggled with his command as the season progressed, and his velocity was down in the Cape League as he concentrated on improving his control. He’s shut down now with some elbow trouble, though the MRI came back clean and he’s not expected to have surgery. If he comes back strong and turns the corner with his pitchability, he could certainly carve out a key role on this staff in 2020.
The Cardinals must replace four everyday regulars in the lineup (shortstop Tyler Fitzgerald, first baseman Logan Wyatt and outfielders Drew Campbell and Jake Snider), plus catcher Zeke Pinkham, who hit .324 in 102 at-bats. But there’s still a very nice core of five returning starters, and the Cards always do a great job of developing players while they wait for their turn to play every day, so this lineup should still be well stocked with experienced players.
The centerpiece will be sophomore third baseman Alex Binelas, who hit .291/.383/.612 with a team-best 14 homers last year to earn freshman All-America honors. He was outstanding last year, and he has the power potential and approach to become one of the nation’s very best hitters as a sophomore.
Junior Lucas Dunn (.309/.399/.398) is the big name in this offense, a high-motor speedster who saw action with Team USA and in the Cape Cod League this summer. He’s perhaps the best defensive center fielder on the team, but he’s expected to return to second base next spring, and he defends very well at that position too. He filled in at shortstop last Wednesday for the injured senior Justin Lavey (out with a back issue), and he defended ably at that spot too, giving the Cards some peace of mind. But McDonnell’s top choice to replace Fitzgerald at short is Lavey, who has played third base and second in his career.
“He made one error the entire year at second base last year, just played great defense,” McDonnell said. “It looks really good at short. He’s got plenty of arm strength, he’ll steal 20-something bases, I think he led us in stolen bases last year without having a great offensive year.”
Sophomore Tim Borden, a physical athlete who can run and defend, is another option at shortstop, but McDonnell said he hasn’t had a great fall offensively. Another infield configuration would have Poland at second base (where he’s very good defensively, though he’s had a bad fall offensively) and Dunn at either short or center field. So the Cards have some valuable flexibility.
The first base job appears to be a wide-open free-for-all between junior Ben Bianco, sophomore Andrew Benefield, freshman Dalton Rushing and Poland. McDonnell describes Bianco as a classic “program guy” who developed behind the scenes and waited in the wings for a chance at more playing time. McDonnell likes the way he grinds out at-bats. Benefield, a lanky 6-foot-4 athlete who can also play a good third base and a serviceable middle infield, didn’t log any time as a freshman but had a good summer in the Northwoods League and looked great last Wednesday, ripping an RBI single through the left side and a two-run homer to left — both with exit velocities in the triple digits. He’s a 6.8 runner with some whip in his swing, giving him intriguing upside.
Rushing is the top freshman hitter in this recruiting class, and his bat will find its way into the lineup somewhere. A catcher by trade, he’s getting some work behind the plate this fall, but he would fit better at first base or DH on this team. McDonnell doesn’t like to use freshmen at DH because of the mental toll it can take. Rushing had a rough day when I was in town, striking out three times, but the Cardinals love his feel to hit and the obvious left-handed power potential in his thick 5-foot-11, 235-pound physique.
“He hit a home run Monday, he leads our teams in home runs. He’s gonna play,” McDonnell said. “He really doesn’t work with the first basemen, he’s a little raw. We’re trying to teach him how to catch, learn our system, do everything with Coach [Eric] Snider and Coach Williams. He’s a catcher, it’s a [Kyle] Schwarber comparison, but the bat is like, that’s the tool. But he’s got arm strength, Schwarber type hands at the plate. We remember, we played him three times when he was a freshman.”
The Cards don’t need Rushing to catch this year because they have a premium defender in sophomore Henry Davis and a good “scrap dog” backup in Ben Metzinger. McDonnell says Davis is a plus catch-and-throw guy who competes at the plate and has some juice in his righty stick. He looked good Wednesday, cranking a double into the left-field corner and singling through the right side, while also showing off his accurate arm to nail a base stealer.
Louisville has some older players in the crowded outfield mix as well, but only one returning starter: senior Danny Oriente, who led the team with a .332 average and 17 doubles last year. With a flat right-handed stroke and a mature gap-to-gap approach, Oriente might be the team’s best pure hitter, and McDonnell likes him in the cleanup spot even though he’s not a real home run threat. He doesn’t have a rifle arm, but it plays well enough in right field at this level, and the Cards have given him some work behind the plate in case any scouts are interested in converting him.
Left field is a battle between juniors Zach Britton and Cameron Masterman, two potential breakout candidates at the plate. McDonnell has always liked Britton’s left-handed stroke, power potential and athleticism, and he envisions Britton hitting in the 5-hole, whether he’s the DH or the left fielder. He came in as a catcher, but his offense has taken off since moving to a less demanding position. The same is true of Masterman, who has been moved from the infield corners to left. The 6-foot-4 Masterman has been crushing the ball this fall, and he continued to do so last Wednesday, lining a single to left that came off the bat at 105 mph, then hitting a homer to left-center at 107 mph. He also has a strong arm that is in asset in left field, and he’s looked pretty good on his jumps and reads.
Finally, center field looks like a competition between two speedy junior college transfers: junior Luke Brown and sophomore Levi Usher. Brown is a plus-plus runner who swiped 60-plus bags in junior college ball last year after winning Conference USA freshman of the year honors in 2018 at Western Kentucky. He’s a left-handed-hitting slasher in the Brett Gardner mold.
Usher was a high-profile prospect coming out of high school in Iowa until injuring his leg. He’s another good runner, but he has more whip in his lefty stroke and can drive the ball with more authority. Both of those outfield competitions are healthy, but McDonnell feels great about his options.
“So I really like our depth,” McDonnell said. “After last year, we lose the Fitzgeralds and the Wyatts, Pinkham and some of the older guys, Snider, Drew Campbell. We lost the junior position players and a couple seniors, but I still feel really good about our depth.”