Hundreds of thousands of fans will congregate in downtown Omaha over the next two weeks for the 70th men’s College World Series, which begins Saturday. There’s no shortage of talent: The eight qualifying teams produced 12 selections in the first five rounds of this month’s MLB draft, many more in the later rounds and are comprised of prospects that undoubtedly will hear their names called down the road.
Five players, though, appear a cut above the rest.
A.J. Puk, Starting Pitcher, Florida
Some analysts were flabbergasted when Puk, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound junior, dropped to sixth in the draft. Seen by many as a potential No. 1 overall selection — which would have made him the highest Iowan ever selected — Puk’s control and inconsistency caused the left-hander to drop a few spots before the Oakland Athletics scooped him up.
Puk has never had any serious arm injuries and has operated under a coaching staff that is notorious in its wariness with long pitching outings. He hasn’t eclipsed 78 innings in a season and, as Tthe Ringer’s Michael Baumann noted, reached the 100-pitch mark in less than half of his starts this year.
With a screaming, mid-90s fastball, a slider that can reach 88-90 mph and a quality changeup, the strikeout artist has mowed down 101 batters this season. He ranks fourth in the nation in strikeouts per nine innings pitched (12.34), and has ranked in the top five nationally in the metric each of the past two seasons.
That holding true, he is liable to walk a less-than-pleasing number of batters each start, and has a propensity to give up the long ball.
When his command is locked in, however, it’s lights out for opposing batters.
Considering the Athletics tout one of the worst starting rotations in baseball this season — ranking in the bottom three in wins above replacement, earned-run average and walk rate — there’s a reasonable possibility Puk, 21, could be on a big league mound soon.
Zach Collins, Catcher, Miami
There was no one more proficient this season at drawing walks than Collins. He led the nation with 75 of them, 13 more than any other player, and enters the CWS as the nation’s active leader in career walks. That translated to the second highest on-base percentage (.538) in the country.
However, the Chicago White Sox didn’t take the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Pembroke Pines native because he could meander his way to first base. They picked him because of his budding potential, and the fact that he led the Hurricanes — one of the strongest offensive teams in the country — in walks, total bases, home runs, runs batted in, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Furthermore, he ranked seventh nationally in on-base plus slugging (1.187).
Collins can flat-out rake at the plate, and has the dexterity to pound the ball to the opposite field.
Despite not being an elite defensive prospect, he is serviceable at both catcher and first base. He’s drawn comparisons to Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs, and although he provides less pop at the plate, he holds significant value at the next level.
Thomas Hatch, Starting Pitcher, Oklahoma State
The Big 12 conference pitcher of the year and noted “Star Wars” enthusiast helped bring the Cowboys to Omaha for the first time since 1999. He coming off a 14-inning scoreless streak in the NCAA tournament and, as The Oklahoman’s Chris Dearing noted, hasn’t allowed a run in his last 17 innings on the mound.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound third-round pick of the Chicago Cubs missed the entire 2015 season with an arm injury. Hatch proceeded to toss 119.1 innings this season, fourth-most of any pitcher nationally, led the conference in strikeouts (105) and ranked 27th in earned run average (2.04).
Not only can Hatch ring batters up, he’s deft at keeping the ball low in the strike zone and inducing ground balls.
Bobby Dalbec, Third Baseman/Relief Pitcher, Arizona Wildcats
For a team with four national titles, the Wildcats ending up in the CWS is a surprise to many. Dalbec is a key reason why they’re in Omaha, though, and the 6-foot-4, 220-pound infielder was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the fourth round.
“It’s people’s dreams to play in Fenway, so this is obviously a step closer to that,” he said.
The team’s Swiss Army knife, Dalbec ranked second on the team in wins (10) and strikeouts (70), fourth in ERA (2.92), and hit .270 while cracking seven home runs.
He generates plenty of power in his hips and legs at the plate, and is adept at getting out of the box as soon as contact is made.
On account of the power, Dalbec has been compared to Troy Glaus (320 career home runs) and Chris Dominguez.
JJ Schwarz, Catcher, Florida
Pegged by some as a possible No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft, the sophomore has a gun from behind the plate, which keeps base runners at bay, and has yet to produce an error this season.
At the plate, he led the team and ranked second in the Southeastern Conference with 60 runs batted in, while drawing the third-most walks of any player in the conference. As a freshman, he set a school record by cranking four home runs in one game, and has added seven this season. As a high on-base percentage player (.405), Schwarz has a chance to be a star at the next level.