Checking In: Wisconsin prep stars in pro ball


By Andy Sroka
Staff Writer

The Major League Baseball season concluded on Sunday night as the Boston Red Sox downed the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fifth game of their best-of-seven matchup to win the World Series. Though there wasn’t much local representation within this series, the season’s end does allow us to take a complete look back at the 2018 season – from the draft, minor leagues, and up – to see which prospects born and raised in the area are striving to help their organizations hoist their next World Series trophy.

MLB DEBUTS

+ The Toronto Blue Jays drafted C Danny Jansen (Appleton West, 2013) out of high school and demonstrated careful handling with his development. Jansen broke into affiliated ball in 2015 with a 46-game stint with Class-A Lansing but middling results hampered his progress. In 2016, the Blue Jays decided to push Jansen to Class-A-advanced Dunedin but he continued to struggle, as evidenced by a sub-.300 slugging percentage, and battled through various injuries. In the offseason prior to the start of the 2017 season, Jansen addressed some of the trouble he was having with his eyesight. A simple trip to the optometrist revealed an astigmatism in both his eyes. He donned his first pair of glasses in-game in the competitive Arizona Fall League in October of 2016 and the immediate results were glowing.

After slashing .282/.366/.338 against his stiffest competition yet in the AFL, Jansen torched High-A pitching in his return to Dunedin in 2017. A promotion to Double-A with similar results revealed his performance was no fluke. Jansen actually earned a promotion all the way up to Triple-A Buffalo for the final 21 games of the season where he kept up his season-long hot streak. This past season, 88 games into things, Jansen made his Major League debut in Kansas City on Aug. 13. In 31 games at the MLB level, Jansen produced an OPS of .779. With improving receiving skills and what looks to be a Major League-level bat, Jansen has emerged as the Blue Jays’ primary catcher for at least the near future.


+ Joining Jansen as an MLB debutant from the 2018 season is RHP Alex McRae (Eisenhower, 2011; Jacksonville; MLB Draft: Pirates, Round 10). McRae had a phenomenal career as a four-year starter in New Berlin resulting in a commitment to Jacksonville University. The 6-foot-2 righty had a natural climb to the big leagues: He spent his 2014-15 seasons in Low-A and Class-A ball, split his time between High-A and Double-A in 2016, and spent all of his 2017 season in Double-A Altoona. This past season, an uptick in Ks at Triple-A Indianapolis and a thin bullpen at the big league club forced the Pirates to call McRae up to make his MLB debut. In total, he pitched 6.1 innings with Pittsburgh and struck out five – including a few Cubs in his first-ever appearance.

HEATING UP

+ Both MLB Pipeline and the Los Angeles Dodgers themselves awarded Gavin Lux (Indian Trail, 2016; MLB Draft: Dodgers, Round 1) the title of the organization’s prospect of the year. The shortstop from Kenosha had spent his 2016 and 2017 seasons acclimating his offensive game to the speed of the professional level. The former Super 60 attendee’s carrying tool has long been his deft glove but his upside offensively from the left side of the plate is what helped him get selected in the first round. The breakout came this past season, finally, and Lux has been riding a hot streak ever since April.

The Dodgers assigned Lux to High-A Rancho Cucamonga where he slugged 11 homers out of nowhere in just over 400 plate appearances – for perspective, he hit a grand total of seven in nearly 750 professional at-bats prior. Slugging .520 in High-A, L.A. rewarded Lux with a promotion to Double-A Tulsa where he didn’t slow down. He hit four more home runs at the level and maintained the patient approach (11.7 percent walk rate) that helped buoy his offensive profile before his power-packed outbreak. This newfound level of skill at the plate, combined with his smooth defense and above-average speed, has made Lux one of baseball’s hottest prospects.


+ Daulton Varsho (Marshfield, 2014; Wisconsin-Milwaukee; MLB Draft: Diamondbacks, Round 2) flew under the radar on his way to campus in Milwaukee. It’s a wonder how exactly Varsho slid under everyone’s noses – he has MLB bloodlines courtesy of his father Gary, he started at Marshfield all four years, and was even an all-state football player. He started 43 games as a freshman at UWM and really took off as a sophomore, earning Horizon League Player of the Year honors in 2016. In his draft year, Varsho led the conference in a ton of different statistics, including each of the triple slash categories. The buzz lifted him all the way into the second round of the MLB Draft, too.

What’s interesting about Varsho is his skillset, it’s different than the prototypical catcher. One of Varsho’s most useful tools is actually his above-average speed, especially for a catcher. You’d assume his all-state status on the gridiron came from his work as a linebacker since most catchers have a frame like Jake Ryan or Blake Martinez. That wasn’t Varsho though. His premium athleticism made him one of the best free safeties in the state of Wisconsin.

In pro ball, he’s done a better job at getting to his game power, but Varsho’s plus hit tool combined with his speed allows him to turn singles into doubles and doubles into the occasional triple – more often than the usual backstop anyway. As of today, Varsho trails only Tyler Nevin (Colorado) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Toronto) in batting average (.389) in the AFL. His .972 OPS in 36 at-bats also helped him earn a spot in this Saturday’s Fall Stars Game.


+ Varsho won’t be the only Wisconsin-bred prospect there on Saturday either. In the opposite dugout will be LHP Evan Kruczynski (Franklin, 2013; East Carolina; MLB Draft: Cardinals, Round 9). This October, Kruczynski has made four starts (15.2 IP) in Arizona and has allowed just three runs, scattering 19 hits allowed and striking out 14, walking seven. A co-captain in his senior season at East Carolina, the lefty didn’t garner much draft attention in his junior campaign despite his 2.01 ERA in 116.2 innings. The Cardinals took a chance on the big-bodied Kruczynski in the 2017 draft for his competitiveness and his work ethic. The former Franklin ace works without a plus pitch in his repertoire by living in and around the strike zone with three pitches, attacking hitters. In 2018, Kruczynski made his Double-A debut on July 30, where he spent the rest of this past season. He finished his time in Springfield with a 2.50 ERA in six starts at the level.

+ Owen Miller (Ozaukee, 2015; Illinois State; MLB Draft: Padres, Round 3) has made a splash within a loaded San Diego Padres system in his first few months of games. After being selected No. 84 overall in the most recent MLB Draft, Miller lit up the pitching at the Low- and Class-A levels leading to some early excitement on the former Illinois State and Ozaukee High School star. Back at the prep level, Miller was a high-profile Wisconsin prospect, ranked No. 2 in the state, and was invited to the 2015 Super 60.

With no standout tools Miller was passed by in the 2015 draft, allowing him to fulfill his commitment to Illinois State where he became a day one starter in Normal. He led the Redbirds in virtually every major offensive category as a freshman and was named to an assortment of freshman all-American teams. He went on to start every single game in his collegiate career and slashed .384/.433/.537 as a junior which helped revitalize his case of becoming Major League material.

After being selected this summer, San Diego sent Miller to Low-A Tri-City for a 49-game spell in which he played like he was back in the Missouri Valley Conference. He played even better after being promoted to cap his long season. At Class-A Fort Wayne, Miller slugged .495 in 114 plate appearances, possibly setting himself up for another promotion to start the 2019 season.

Owen Miller (4.21.18)

+ And finally, there’s Jarred Kelenic (Waukesha West, 2018; MLB Draft: Mets, Round 1). The highest draft pick in Wisconsin’s history validated his No. 6 overall selection by quickly dispelling the stigma that often surrounds prep picks from cold-weather states. The New York Mets wrapped up signing their top pick in 2018 rapidly and sent him to their Gulf Coast League affiliate on June 15. It took just 51 plate appearances for Mets brass to realize Kelenic was ready for his next challenge – he slashed .413/.451/.609 for the GCL Mets.

Kelenic was promoted to Kingsport on July 9 and homered in his first game, already the second homer of his pro career. He homered again two games later and finished the season with a total of five, which is a phenomenal sign for a prospect who was thought to be more hit over power. The outfielder is already exhibiting five-tool traits. He’s taking to center field early on in the minors, he’s obviously hitting for both power and average, and he stole 15 bags in 56 games.

The hard working, intense Kelenic is seamlessly translating his game unto the professional scene, helping bring more eyes to the Wisconsin prep scene. In 2019, Kelenic might have already proven that he should be fast-tracked to full-season affiliated ball in Class-A Columbia next April.

Jarred Kelenic (2.4.18)


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