(Photo via Blaine Knight’s Twitter feed, seen here)

The 2017 college baseball season was a very successful one for the Arkansas Razorbacks, even if it ended in somewhat disappointing fashion. They advanced to the SEC Championship Game for the first time in a decade, getting there thanks to a 16-0 drubbing of the eventual National Champion Florida Gators in the semifinals of the conference tournament. They were rewarded with a #12 overall ranking entering the NCAA tournament. The Razorbacks hosted a tournament regional, but they were upended twice in a three-day stretch by visiting Missouri State to end their season. While they lost SEC Tournament hero Chad Spanberger and ERA leader Trevor Stephan to the MLB draft shortly thereafter, the team’s other top pitcher made the decision to return to campus for 2018: Blaine Knight. The righty will be leading the Razorbacks’ pitching staff into a promising year for both himself and the team.

Among SEC pitchers last season, Knight ranked in the top 20 in terms of innings pitched, ERA, and strikeouts, one of the better performers in a conference that saw two of its teams play against one another for the national title. He ranked 10th in the conference in ERA, with a 3.28 mark that nearly matched the 3.21 mark sported by Brady Singer, whom Baseball America ranks as the top college prospect in the country for 2018.

In terms of run prevention and peripheral statistics (particularly, strikeout-to-walk ratio), Knight was at least comparable to, if not outright better than, such players as Wil Crowe of South Carolina, Tanner Houck of Missouri, and Kyle Wright of Vanderbilt. All of those arms were selected in the top two rounds in the 2017 draft, with Wright going fifth overall and pulling a $7 million signing bonus.

Knight’s strong season came in his sophomore year, while many of the league’s other top starting pitchers (except Singer and Auburn’s Casey Mize) were juniors, more physically advanced and well-regarded than Knight was as draft prospects. Make no mistake, however, Knight was viewed as a strong prospect himself, with Baseball America ranking him as the best prospect from the state of Arkansas in the 2017 class, and MLB.com ranking him as the #58 prospect overall. MLB.com praised Knight’s four pitch mix, emphasizing, in particular, his low-mid 90s fastball and above-average slider and praising his significant development from 2016.

As a draft-eligible sophomore, however, Knight had a little bit more leverage than most draft prospects have in contract negotiations, and that impacted his draft status in June. College seniors tend to have almost no leverage come draft day, because they have little recourse if a team offers them a depressed signing bonus, without an option to return to school to continue playing there.

In order to avoid this situation, most college players selected near the top of the draft tend to sign after their junior years. Knight, because he was only a sophomore, had the rare freedom – most college players only become draft-eligible after their junior and senior seasons – to drive a harder bargain than most in contract negotiations, as he could justifiably return to Arkansas to attempt to cement his status as a top prospect if not offered a signing bonus to his liking. While the pre-draft reports from media outlets acknowledged this possibility, most assumed he would indeed sign, until Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn offered some additional hope for Razorback fans for 2018 at his end-of-season press conference, acknowledging that Knight was considering returning to campus.

Van Horn told the media that he and other coaches within the conference believed that Knight would be able to cement himself as a first-round pick with a strong junior season. Apparently, MLB teams believed that it would be difficult to coax Knight out of Fayetteville, with the Texas Rangers buying the rights to a negotiation by using their 29th round draft choice on him. Of course, had Knight been deemed easy to sign, he would have been selected much higher.

When the signing period passed, Knight  remained unsigned. In a released shortly thereafter, he explained his rationale for returning to school for another run, citing his disappointment in the team’s season coming to an end at home, as well as his passion for the team’s fan base and his long history as a University of Arkansas fan. He finished his statement with a promise to Diamond Hogs fans that he would “See (them) in Omaha.”

Undoubtedly, fans will also be happy to see him on the mound at Baum Stadium come February. The return of one of the best pitchers in the conference is a strong start to making the Razorbacks a legitimate contender both in the SEC and on the national stage for next year.

As for Knight himself, he will certainly draw the attention of professional scouts as he tries to live up to the conference coaches’ lofty regards for him. Van Horn noted that Knight needs to continue to mature physically, a concern echoed by MLB.com analysts, who noted that some scouts still flag Knight as a potential relief pitcher because of his lean build.

At 6-foot-3, however, there is reason to believe that he can fill out his frame to become a reliable innings-eater, and Knight has already demonstrated some ability to take on a heavy workload. After functioning in a hybrid swing role in his freshman year, Knight proved durable and consistent in his sophomore season, tying with Stephan for the team lead in games started (16) and finishing 1/3 of an inning behind Stephan for the team lead in that category.

Should he replicate his results and his durability in his junior year, Knight is likely to leap up draft boards because the general consensus among evaluators is that he has enough stuff and athleticism to be a major league caliber starting pitcher in time. Baseball America currently ranks him as its #19 pre-draft college prospect for 2018, and with pitching always scarce at the major league level, advanced starting pitchers with a resume that includes big-conference success usually do well on draft day.

Knight is certainly a player to keep an eye on in 2018. His physical development and his performance against some of the best players in the country have the potential to make him a player worthy of attention from professional teams in preparation for next June’s draft. If Knight continues to develop as expected, he and his teammates may very well be celebrating his first-round selection with a trip to Omaha shortly thereafter.

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