The arrival of the MLB Draft brings uncertainty for college baseball programs across the country, and Scott Berry’s Southern Miss program is no different.
He can usually make a strong guess as to how many of his players may be lost to the pros, but you never know until all 40 rounds of the draft are complete. After watching the picks roll in over the course of three days, Berry has to feel good about where his team stands for the 2020 season.
As expected, redshirt junior outfielder Matt Wallner will forego his final year of eligibility after being made the 39th overall selection by the Minnesota Twins. The only other Golden Eagle to be drafted this week was senior right-hander J.C. Keys, who has completed his eligibility, in the 23rd round with the Cincinnati Reds.
“The guys that didn’t get drafted, I’m sure it’s disappointing for them,” Berry said Thursday. “The guys that have been drafted, we accounted for that. Losing Matt, we figured that would happen. We weren’t sure about some other guys and how they would be drafted or if they would be drafted.”
As for the three signees who were set to join the team for 2020, one player has decided to go pro — Clinton High School right-hander Dallas Dyar, who was picked in the 21st round by the Philadelphia Phillies. The two USM other signees drafted this week are Cowley (Kansas) Community College catcher Cody Milligan (ninth round, Braves) and Hillboro, Missouri, right-handed pitcher Michael Brewer (32nd round, Rangers).
Berry seems optimistic that the 6-foot-4 Brewer will make his way to USM, but it remains to be seen whether Milligan, who played the 2018 season at Oklahoma State, will eventually land in Hattiesburg.
When it comes to losing players with remaining eligibility to the draft, Berry has had far tougher seasons at USM.
“It allows us to again be very competitive on the field,” Berry said. “Had we lost them, obviously we would have had a lot of room for concern going forward. We’d be able to replace them with a body, but it wouldn’t be quality. Right now, I feel good about our situation moving forward to next year.”
Some of the 2019 draft-eligible players who are in position to return to USM for the 2020 campaign are:
▪ Redshirt sophomore left fielder Gabe Montenegro — The Second-Team All-Conference USA selection teamed with LSU’s Saul Garza to be named Co-Most Outstanding Players in the Baton Rouge Regional. The left fielder led USM with a .341 batting average and scored 68 runs out of the leadoff spot. In the Baton Rogue Regional, he was 10-of-17 at the plate with with a homer and eight runs scored.
▪ Redshirt junior right-handed pitcher Walker Powell — The First-Team All-Conference USA selection was USM’s Friday night starter with a 6-2 record and a 2.81 ERA.
▪ Redshirt junior second baseman Matthew Guidry — The Oak Grove product hit .297 with eight homers and 47 RBIs and led USM with a .457 on-base percentage.
▪ Redshirt junior designated hitter Bryant Bowen — The Second-Team All-Conference USA pick as a designated hitter hit .341 with 11 homers and 51 RBIs. With Cole Donaldson graduating, Bowen has a chance to move behind the plate as the starting catcher in 2020.
▪ Junior right-hander Hunter Stanley — The junior college transfer took over as the team’s closer and led the team in appearances with 29. He finished with a 5-2 record, 3.07 ERA and four saves.
Donaldson and senior first baseman Hunter Slater will leave holes to fill with their graduations, but USM should again feature one of the better lineups in Conference USA next year.
This doesn’t mean that Berry already has a starting nine in mind for 2020. Starting jobs will likely be up for grabs at catcher, shortstop, first base, center field and right field.
When it comes to pitching, Southern Miss is in position to have one the best staffs it has ever had with freshman right-hander Gabe Shepard ready to step up as a weekend ace and Powell returning with a career record of 17-8. Berry and pitching coach Christian Ostrander will have plenty of other options to choose from for the No. 3 starter. Also, Keys is the only major piece lost from this year’s bullpen.
Keys gets the call
When the third day of the draft rolled around on Wednesday, Keys had a pretty good idea that the Reds might be the team to pick him up. The team had been in contact and let him know that they hoped to select him.
“(Assistant coaches Chad Caillet and Ostrander) had both been telling me that I was going to get an opportunity,” he said. “I didn’t know when I was going to get drafted. I just kept my hopes up and I was praying to get that call, and it finally came.”
Keys had a bumpy close to the regular season, but made a strong showing in the Baton Rouge Regional. He finished with a 2-1 record, 4.50 ERA and three saves in 22 appearances out of the bullpen.
The main goal for Keys, who has a fastball that reaches the mid 90’s, will be to improve on his accuracy after striking out 49 and walking 27 in 31 innings as a senior.
“It’s just a matter of being able to remain consistent, to be reliable in whatever role I play at the next level,” he said. “My ultimate goal is to be able to limit the walks.”