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Kentucky Baseball

UK's Thompson, 2020 Commit Rutledge Selected in 1st Round of MLB Draft

June 5, 2019

Day one of the 2019 MLB Draft is in the books, and there aren't many huge surprises just yet. First-round picks, after all, aren't terribly hard to predict as being first-rounders.

As expected, UK's LHP Zach Thompson was one of those first-round picks, going 19th overall to the St Louis Cardinals. He is now the highest-drafted pitcher in UK's history, passing Alex Meyer's 2011 draft position of 23rd, overall. 

While there were preseason concerns about his 2018 injury history (shoulder and elbow inflammation), he stacked up an impressive list of honors. Baseball America already considered him the top 2019 draft prospect in the SEC, while MLB Pipeline had him listed as #7 among all college prospects and #15 among all amateur prospects. Thompson was a preseason All-SEC selection by Perfect Game, as well as making the coaches' First-Team list, and he was First-Team All-America for Baseball America.

After totaling 130 strikeouts in 90 innings over 14 starts this year, Thompson became the 14th pitcher in UK history to reach 200 strikeouts, and is now fourth on the all-time career strikeouts list with 268 in 196 2/3 career innings. He was 18th nationally in K/9 with 12.26 (among pitchers with 75 IP or more), and 21st in fewest hits per nine (6.09). Opposing batters managed only a .184 average against him (.190 career). His outstanding performance made him a semifinalist for the Dick Howser and Golden Spikes Awards, as well as Second-Team All-SEC.

Thompson sits 92-94 with a fastball that may have a bit of run or sink on it, and he can touch 96 when he needs it. His command makes it play up, even more. He also throws a low-80's slider with tight spin and late, two-plane break, as well as a curve at 78-80 that also has excellent spin and break. His mechanics are smooth and repeatable, and he is aggressive and confident on the mound.

With three already-above-average pitches, average-to-above-average velocity, and consistent control, he looks the part of a future #3 starter at the major-league level, but having a more-consistent change-up will be important to his progression through the minors, especially when facing opposing batting orders the second and third time through. If he should happen to end up as a reliever, I would expect him to focus on the slider as his second pitch, with a fastball that would likely sit in the mid-90's. Retaining the curve as a second breaking ball would only make him more dominant in a short relief role, as it's tough to say which breaking pitch is better and both are already solid offerings.

Another first-round selection with Kentucky ties is RHP Jackson Rutledge, a sophomore out of San Jacinto JC who was selected 17th-overall by the Washington Nationals. Having pitched only 15 2/3 innings for Arkansas in 2018, Rutledge transferred to San Jacinto for the 2019 season. However, he had announced during the 2018 off-season that he would play for UK in 2020. Rutledge dominated the opposition this year, finishing with an astounding 134 strikeouts in 82 2/3 innings over 13 games, as well as a sterling 0.87 ERA.

At 6'8”, 250, Rutledge is a huge presence on the mound. He delivers from a high arm slot, creating a tremendous amount of leverage on a fastball that sits in the mid-90's and may reach triple digits. Rutledge creates sinking action low in the zone, and his height combined with the high release point gives his fastball a classic “rising” look to it when high in the zone. He throws a hard slider with excellent two-plane movement that comes in at 87-89, and compliments this with a classic 12-6 curve around 82-83 MPH. There is no perceptible change in his arm speed between any of his pitches. His mechanics are simple and compact, somewhat more so than his time with Arkansas, though he sometimes appears to be short-arming his pitches and his command is inconsistent, at times.

If Rutledge is to remain a starter, and he certainly has the stuff and endurance to do so, it may behoove him to develop his change-up (as with Thompson and many other young prospects). If he's relegated to the 'pen, the Nationals could have a three-pitch reliever with 100+ MPH heat.

Rutledge has definite top-three starter potential, and if it all comes together for him he could be a #1 in the bigs. Both Thompson and Rutledge could begin their pro career in Class-A Advanced; for Thompson, that would put him with the Palm Beach Cardinals in the Florida State League. For Rutledge, he would begin with the Potomac Nationals in the Carolina League, though at 20 years old he may make a brief appearance with the Hagerstown Suns in the South Atlantic League, in which case there's an outside change that we may see him when the Suns come to Lexington from August 8th-11th. His advanced arsenal may very well allow him to skip Low-A, altogether, as the case may likely be with Thompson.

Tags: Baseball, 2019
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