(Image from D1Baseball.com, seen here)

With the college baseball season coming to a close, fans will soon begin to turn their collective attention to the minor league baseball scene. It’s an exciting time to see players that they rooted for in college play at the professional level, or to simply follow the progression of the next Major League superstar.

Of course, with all the rounds in the Rule 4 Draft, along with the difficulties or projecting baseball talent, there are bound to be some first round duds; conversely, there are bound to be some late round diamonds in the rough. Think of the likes of John Smoltz, who the Tigers selected, then re-routed to Atlanta, in the 22nd round. Perhaps the most famous case is now Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, who was chosen in the 62nd round by the Los Angeles Dodgers (the draft now only consists of 40 rounds).

Suffice it to say, going in the earlier rounds is usually a better indicator of success, although it’s never a sure thing in this strange sport. Take Mark Appel, who the Houston Astros drafted as the number one overall pick in 2013. He was as safe a pick as they come. He played at the prestigious Stanford University, looked to have close to Major League “stuff” when he signed, and was virtually a lock for whenever the Astros made their run to the World Series.

But he never made it.

Appel struggled, ended up in the Phillies organization, and then retired under his own volition. It had become evident that he wasn’t going to live out his dream.

Appel is simply a high profile case of what happens all the time. A young player with big dreams gets drafted, plays several years of minor league ball, and then is forced to hang up his cleats. It’s a cold game and it won’t wait around for anyone.

The Pittsburgh Pirates hope that they landed a future big leaguer in Round 3 of the Rule 4 draft, when they selected shortstop Connor Kaiser out of Vanderbilt University. Dating back one decade to 2008, the Pirates have selected four players out of Vandy. Most notably, Pedro Alvarez. He was never a superstar, but he did work out fairly well for a time in Pittsburgh.

Between his Sophomore and Junior years in college, Kaiser showed the kind of improvements organizations want to see out of a budding professional. Kaiser isn’t expected to be much of a power threat, but he did display some pop this season, totaling six home runs for the Commodores.

In 2017, he carried a lousy OPS of .600 through his 194 at-bats. He was able to up that total to .835 this past season, a dramatic increase that showed he’s likely changed his approach. That, or he’s made physical changes; changes that have enabled him to better react to high-caliber, Division I, SEC pitching.

If Kaiser can be the kind of “get-on-base” hitter the Pirates have tried to grow in recent years, then he can become a valuable commodity moving forward. It is true, though, as the “hit home runs” trend has increased in baseball, so, too, has the Pirates’ mindset changed about how hitters approach at-bats.

Kaiser projects to be a player that could potentially fit into a scheme like that, but not as a primary component. His potential is rooted in being a leadoff hitter because of his on-base ability, or like the Pirates’ current shortstop, Jordy Mercer, hitting around the eight hole.

Maybe what’s more to like than anything is Kaiser’s ability with the glove. Baseball is changing, and the expectation is truly becoming for everyone to hit, and for everyone to hit for some pop, or at least gap to gap. For years, when evaluating a shortstop, defensive ability placed as number one priority. It may still be that way in a lot of cases, and if so, Kaiser fits the bill.

Kaiser recorded a .988 fielding percentage this past season, having only committed three errors to go along with his 94 putouts and 147 assists. Vandy had one of the top fielding percentages in the country, and that was due in part to Kaiser’s wizardry with the leather.

Kaiser’s only played in two games with six at-bats so far this season for the Pirates’ Single-A Short Season affiliate, the West Virginia Black Bears, in Morgantown, WV. That sample size is obviously smaller than small, but he’s picked up one hit and a walk during that time. Through 14 innings, he’s still been stellar with the glove, cleanly handling every ball hit his way.

Kaiser will likely spend the rest of the year in Morgantown, and it’ll be interesting to see where he begins next season. The hope is that, given that he was a three year player in NCAA baseball, his understanding of the game will come quickly at this level.

Even at the low-A level, things move a little bit more quickly than they did in college. It’s always interesting to see how guys handle that shift from NCAA to professional baseball. Kaiser’s got the tools to be effective at the minor league level right now, and time will tell if he’ll beat out the herd and keep progressing through the system.

As of right now, he looks promising.

Brett Barnett

Staff Writer for CBBSN.

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