With the countdown to opening day at 98 one days, 14 weeks, we continue the offseason question-and-answers series with an eye not only towards the 2013 season, but future Big Ten seasons and the players that will take the field across the conference.
The early signing period commences Nov. 14. With future Big Ten student-athletes cementing their pledges by signing a National Letter of Intent, we caught up with one whom knows the talent within the Great Lakes region, a person that has seen many of the players close and often, Rangers Associate Scout Jordon Banfield.
Banfield led the Michigan-based travel team Ann Arbor Travelers, which has propelled student-athletes into the Big Ten the past two seasons. With the fall travel and showcase circuit wrapped up, we caught up with Banfield to get his take on what he saw this fall that is to come in the Big Ten, as well as players already in the conference that played under his watch.
CW: Before we speak to the future classes, as you led the Ann Arbor Travelers, what can Big Ten fans, expect of the guys who coached Travis Maezes and Daniel McKinney at Michigan and Kevin Duchene now an Illini?
JB: Maezes and McKinney are kids I’ve coached since they were 15, watching them develop as baseball players and young men was what made our five-year run with the Travelers so special.
Travis is a kid who can do pretty much anything you ask of him on the baseball field. Prior to this summer there was a perception that there was no way he could play shortstop in college. He’s worked hard to change that and was a different kid defensively. Travis was always a field every ball with two hands, stand up, pat it a couple times and rely on arm strength type guy. He’s now fielding and throwing balls in rhythm from multiple angles which has made him much better on plays to his glove side as well as ones that he has to charge. Down the line in terms of pro ball he’s probably an offensive second baseman or a catcher, but I’m definitely not willing to say he can’t play shortstop for the Wolverines. Offensively he’s a very diverse player capable of playing a power or speed game and I’d expect him to be a major factor in the top of middle of Michigan’s lineup for years to come.
Daniel is a guy who didn’t have the type of spring/summer that he wanted to, and I think he’s determined to prove to everyone that he’ll be back to where he was in the summer after his junior season. At that time he was clearly our number one guy, throwing three pitches for strikes and commanding 86-89 and touching higher in some big game settings. What set him apart was his competitiveness and that certainly hasn’t gone anywhere.
Kevin Duchene has an extremely advanced feel for pitching that in my opinion is ready to step into a B1G rotation right away. He completely transformed his body and when that happened his arm started moving faster and he blew up as a recruit. He’s the rare four-pitch HS guy who will throw any pitch in any count, working off a FB that is mostly in the mid 80’s but will touch higher and should continue to build as he gains more physical strength. When you think about him and Nick Blackburn (up to 92 with two plus secondary offerings) who we were fortunate enough to beat in the regional that’s two really elite freshman arms the Illini are bringing in.
Another kid who you didn’t mention is Kyle Jusick at UM. Kyle is a guy who isn’t physically imposing and people will say doesn’t really have a position. My response is there’s a position called hitter and he’s it. Kyle hit for average and power out of our 4-hole this summer, and has an extremely short swing and simply finds the barrel with regularity. I believe he can be a Big Ten contributor and will earn himself an opportunity to do so at some point. All of these kids were a pleasure to have around and were a big part of what made our team such a great thing to be a part of.
CW: And a former Traveler, Michigan’s James Bourque had a strong summer, As he is in his second year for the Wolverines would you be surprised if he established himself as a premier arm in that class?
JB: James has played for me starting as a 14 year old second baseman and mop-up pitcher that was about 5’5, 110 lbs, now I think he’s 6’5, 190 with more to come.
He started to make a huge jump in the fall after his junior year when he went from throwing 75 to 85 in the span of about two months, he was a high 80s guy as a 155lb HS senior. Since then it’s been a steady uphill climb that doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. We’ve continued to work on his delivery until recently and I’m confident that Coach Kenny can further his development from this point forward.
James played for the Lake Erie Monarchs last summer but also joined us for the Connie Mack playoffs. The game he threw in Farmington, NM against the Midland Redskins was probably the best of his young career taking a 3-1 lead into the 7th. On that day he was up to 93, sitting at 91 with very little effort and flashed a grade 50 CB as hard as 80mph.
As a prospect it wouldn’t surprise me if he becomes a high draft guy and this is an important spring/summer for him to do so as he continues to get stronger. Either way he should be a key member of Michigan’s rotation for at least the next two years and I’m excited to watch his progress. Although he likely won’t be the same kind of pro prospect as James, Trent Szkutnik is another kid from our team who will likely be a weekend guy for Michigan this year, pretty cool to have 2/3 of the rotation be Travelers.
CW: Turning to the players that will be signing with Big Ten programs next week, the fall season sort of wrapped with Perfect Game’s WWBA. As you were there in Jupiter, as well as the World Underclass in Ft. Myers, what were your takes on some of the players committed to Big Ten programs?
JB: With Michigan and Ohio being sort of my expertise that was my main focus but I did get a chance to catch some other B1G commits as well.
Zach Farmer is a kid who I think has been slipping in the eyes of some, but I was actually quite impressed with him in Jupiter. The velo was back up touching 90 and I saw less head violence through his delivery, assuming he makes it to Ohio State and continues to clean things up I think that’s a guy going forward. Combine him with Tanner Tully, who’s a smaller framed kid that was up to 88 for me, and you’ve got two really good left-handed arms which aren’t exactly easy to come by.
Michigan is obviously bringing in a bunch of kids in the ’13 class, some of which I got to see for the first time in Florida. I was probably most impressed with Trey Miller from Kentucky, in the game I saw he looked like a kid who has a chance to stay at short and had a really good feel for the game. Not an overwhelming physical guy, but just a baseball player with good instincts and that made his solid tools play up. Keith Lehman was another guy I saw for the first time, he’s listed as a two-way guy but I only saw him on the mound, up to 90, sitting at 87 with life and some effort. To me he looked like a guy that’d be able to contribute out of the bullpen early on.
I only got a brief look at Jonah Helm who’s another big-bodied hitter in the mold of a lot of MSU’s recent guys like Krill and Salter, although I’m told he’s a better athlete w/ arm strength. Indiana’s Alex Krupa is easily a plus runner who’s extremely aggressive on the basepaths and has a great feel for who he is on the field. Nebraska’s Wes Edrington is a gritty kid who’s fairly physically mature and looks ready to be a contributor on the infield. Lastly Zach Burdi going to Iowa has a really fast arm and with continued development in terms of staying on line etc I think he’s potentially a draft guy after three years in the Big Ten.
As far as Fort Myers (Underclass) goes that tournament is so spread out it’s much tougher to really lock in on guys. I did get to see Oliver Jaskie and Jay Vancenna of Ohio Elite who both committed to UM right after the event. Jaskie is a big 6’4 LHP who throws a ton of strikes (78-82) and already knows how to get outs, something that’s pretty rare for a kid that size and that young, usually you’re projecting command, in his case you’re projecting velocity, if you think it will come then he’s an absolute steal. I watched Vancenna dominate that East Cobb Astros which says a lot in itself. He hit 88 a bunch of times, competed hard and was extremely aggressive pitching mostly off of his fastball.
CW: Not every standout participates in fall ball, Michigan commit Jackson Lamb, for example, was not in Jupiter. With all prospects on the table, as the fall concludes how would you rank the top five or so Big Ten commits out of the Great Lake states that you’ve seen?
JB: Assuming we’re talking strictly about the 2013 class, Farmer and Lamb to me are in a league of their own as prospects.
I talked quite a bit about Farmer earlier, Jackson Lamb is a guy that isn’t all that well known nationally because so much of his time has been spent playing basketball and not traveling the country attending showcases/tournaments. We’re talking about a talent that doesn’t come through the state of Michigan very often.
First off, he’s 6’7 and extremely athletic, a legitimate 2-way player in college, people don’t think guys that tall can hit, well I’m here to tell you he can. His swing is incredibly short for being as big as he is and he’ll be an above average defender in right. As a pro prospect he’s obviously a pitcher who is extremely raw right now but throws strikes and I have no problem projecting him to throw 95-98 with low effort. Everyone knows about Trey Ball who’s way more polished than Jackson but the tools really aren’t that far off. Presently Farmer is way closer to being a B1G contributor on the mound, but in the long run I can’t pass on Lamb.
For the next three I’ll go with guys who I believe will be immediate contributors in college. Wes Edrington, Alex Krupa and Ryne Roper. I talked some about Edrington and Krupa earlier, and believe both can be immediate impact guys. It’s not that often freshman can come in and play SS like I believe Edrington can and 6.5-6.6 runners like Krupa who can actually play baseball don’t grow on trees. Roper is another guy I like who has an advanced feel and has a chance on both sides of the ball, although I probably project him to 3B.
CW: With the premier players for the 2013 class committed and waiting for the signing period to make it official, attention has turned to the 2014 and 2015 classes. Which players in those classes do you expect the heat to turn up on and receive heavy attention by Big Ten programs?
JB: One of the biggest reasons I went to Ft. Myers was I didn’t feel like I had a good enough feel for the ’14 and ’15 classes after spending all of my time with the older guys this summer. The recruiting process just keeps starting earlier and earlier for these young kids which I think is a bit of a shame as they’re forced to make decisions they’re not ready or informed enough to make.
There’s a ton of 2014 kids I can’t even include because they’re already commits. Brad Bass is a big 6’6 2014 arm that looks like a draft pick from the Sparks program in Chicago that puts out a ton of D1 guys every year. Grant Reuss from Michigan just committed to UM and he’s a big LHP who I project to throw really hard. Staying in Michigan I think infielders Logan Magsig from Hudsonville and Josh Smith from Marysville both have Big Ten ability. Alex Sova from Midland Dow is another 2014 arm with a huge frame that I believe has a chance.
Ohio State has an elite national power prospect in Zach Shannon, I’ve had the chance to see him at three different events and the power is the already. I was excited to see a much more advanced approach in Florida than when I saw him in August. The obvious question for him is where does he play on defense, for me probably 1B. I’m told he was also up to 93 on the mound so arm strength obviously isn’t the issue.
Because I could go on for days I’ll stay in my area and finish with Caleb Potter is a 2014 OF from Ohio who I forgot to mention earlier. Looks every bit of 6’3 with extremely broad shoulders and room to get even bigger. Runs well for a kid that size and projects to be really strong, swing is raw at this point but he found the barrel and I can certainly dream on the tools.
CW: Under Bakich, Michigan has been extremely aggressive, and in those early classes, have surged to the front of the conference. Being in that region, what have you noticed first-hand with the approach Michigan has led by recruiting coordinator Sean Kenny?
JB: Aggressive is certainly the right term. They locked up the top 2013 in Michigan within a couple weeks of being hired and haven’t stopped getting commits since. Having only been on campus for a few months now and with the sheer number of guys they’re getting it’s obvious those guys are really hitting the road.
I think the biggest difference I see with this staff is that they have three coaches who are always out seeing guys. When your entire staff recruits it makes an incredible difference in terms of how much ground you can cover. With the number of kids they’re bringing in from across the country and some 2012 guys who look like early contributors I think there’s the potential for a quick turnaround in Ann Arbor.
CW: And in East Lansing, Coach Boss has upped the Spartans’ profile since arrival. Do you feel more of the top players in Michigan are considering these programs instead of having a mindset dead on a power conference program?
JB: It’s impossible to argue with the success Coach Boss has had since he took over.
They’ve got a formula of not issuing walks, not making errors and scoring guys when they get them on base. That’s something a lot of teams would like to do but very few are able to accomplish. The success they’ve had has certainly made it easier for top guys to feel comfortable staying in state.
I think when you look back to the 2011 class where arguably the two top prospects at the time in Joel Seddon and Zach Fish both left the state and compare it with 2012 and 2013 where Maezes, Alleman, Lamb, etc have all chosen either UM or MSU things are clearly trending that direction. In addition, arguably the top 2014 in the state, Dazon Cole, who has elite tools across the board and has a chance to be a two-way guy as he continues to clean himself up mechanically and grow more comfortable facing top competition, is a Central Michigan commit as they continue to have success both recruiting and on the field.
There’s also no doubt that it’s a good thing for baseball in Michigan because there simply aren’t that many truly elite guys. When they do come along it’s important to have successful programs so the kids aren’t in a hurry to go to the ACC/SEC/etc.
CW:Now that the Travelers guys are all moving on to college what’s next for you as a coach?
JB: The Travelers are officially retired. That team was the best thing I’ve ever been a part of. We had tremendous success reaching the Connie Mack World Series two years in a row and more importantly committing 19 kids to D1 schools. It’s been an unbelievable run and the time just seemed right to move forward.
I’ve spent the fall running Great Lakes Baseball Academy (GreatLakesBaseball.com) with my partner Trevor Brewster. We’ve got a great thing going there and with me being away all summer it’s been good to be able to spend some time preparing for a busy winter in there. I’ve also been getting out and seeing guys that I missed over the spring/summer. I do that for my own knowledge but also work as an Associate Scout for Roger Coryell of the Texas Rangers. He’s been a tremendous mentor for me over the years and there isn’t a harder working scout in our area.
After the spring season I plan on pursuing a college job as teaching/coaching elite kids is truly my passion. The work I’ve done coaching/scouting has prepared me to take the next step up the ladder and that’s what I hope to do. If that works out as planned maybe the Travelers will be back when I retire.