The 2017 baseball season was filled with hope and positive results. The Wildcats were the story of the SEC as they surprised many on their way to a 43-win season before seeing the campaign end in the Super Regionals. With a promising young head coach and a new stadium on the horizon, Kentucky looked like a program that was turning into one of the fastest risers in college baseball.
As we move ahead to four years later, this appears to be a program that is stuck in the mud. The Wildcats went one-and-done in the 2021 SEC Tournament with a Tuesday loss to Florida. Mingione has now finished five years in Lexington — barring a surprise at-large invite to the NCAA Tournament — and the Wildcats only have one postseason berth to show for it. This is not where many thought the program would be when Kentucky Proud Park was opened.
As we move forward, there is a lot to contemplate. Following a promising start, it appeared that the wheels fell off for the Bat ‘Cats in the last month of the season while another talent exodus could be arriving. This is a baseball program that is at a major crossroads.
To reflect on where everything stands at the moment, it’s time to take a look back at the season and put a bow on what exactly happened for the Wildcats. However, the elephant in the room remains regarding the immediate future of the program.
Lack of pitching depth
As the team got into the meat and potatoes of the SEC schedule, one thing became clear. The Wildcats just did not have enough quality arms in its rotation or bullpen. Teams can struggle to win baseball games when the opposing team is plating 6.74 runs per outing in the 31 SEC contests.
The injury luck didn’t help.
Mason Hazelwood was the most experienced arm on Kentucky’s roster and the senior from Salvisa, Ky., entered the year with 13 career starts providing a much-needed left-handed arm in the rotation. Hazelwood posted a 2.13 ERA with a WHIP of 1.18 in five starts before the proven commodity was lost for the year in the second SEC series of the season. This produced a giant ripple effect for the staff.
UMass transfer Sean Harney was taken out of the bullpen and moved into the weekend rotation. It placed much more pressure on sophomores Zack Lee and Cole Stupp to produce at a high level throughout the season as weekend starters. The bullpen was majorly affected by the lack of depth. Outside of senior Daniel Harper, Kentucky consistently struggled and had to patch together innings. Every player out of the bullpen posted an ERA that was well over five.
More often than not, losses came by blowout fashion because Kentucky did not have enough depth on the pitching staff. This made things very difficult for the team. The Wildcats often needed to produce runs in bunches to collect victories.
Both T.J. Collett and Coltyn Kessler delivered career seasons for Kentucky as seniors. The two left-handed bats led the team in OPS, hits, home runs, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage during SEC play. This gave the lineup life and chances to post big numbers. However, the expected superstar was unable to consistently deliver.
John Rhodes entered his second season on campus with sky-high expectations. The Tennessee native was a preseason third-team All-American by multiple publications while being listed as a consensus top draft prospect. The National Co-Freshman of the Year in 2020 needed to be a superstar at the plate.
However, Rhodes struggled with inconsistency and dealt with some second-year blues on offense.
The right-handed hitter finished the year batting just .262 with 39 strikeouts and seven stolen bases. The outfielder led the team in doubles (16) and was second in home runs (11) but the hits just were not consistent enough throughout the season. This might be the last time Rhodes wears a college jersey.
Due to an early birthday, Rhodes is eligible for the MLB Draft after just two seasons in college. The Athletic’s Keith Law still has Rhodes listed as a top-100 prospect in 2021. Kentucky was unable to cash in on the raw talent and that is disappointing.
State of the program
Earlier this season, Kentucky announced a contract extension for Nick Mingione. The head coach received a three-year extension through 2024 with a base salary of $575,000. If fired after 2021 or 2022, the university would owe Mingione $862,500 over incremental payments. The buyout falls to $575,000 after the 2023 season. The extension certainly feels like a head-scratcher now.
After posting an RPI in the top-35 in his first two seasons, Kentucky has had an average finish of 66.67 over the last three seasons. Despite piling up a ton of early wins in 2021, Kentucky’s RPI sat at 61 this year thanks to a lack of quality wins and a light non-conference schedule. The program is just 100-82 since reaching the Super Regionals.
When looking at the future, Kentucky could lose all of its top bats from this season. Oraj Anu, Collett, and Kessler are all seniors. Meanwhile, Rhodes and Austin Schultz are both draft-eligible and should be attractive prospects to MLB franchises. Meanwhile, Harney and Daniel Harper were arguably the most reliable pitchers in SEC play and both were seniors. Lee and Stupp could be something to build around, but all signs point to the offense taking a major step backward in 2022.
When looking into recruiting, things aren’t much more promising. According to Perfect Game, Kentucky currently has the worst class in the SEC while being outside of the top-40 nationally. That is a recipe for disaster playing in a conference that is home to 6 of the top 10 recruiting classes in the sport.
To put it bluntly, this is a monstrous offseason for Kentucky baseball. Mitch Barnhart and the administration have to make a tough call. Plenty of signs point to not much getting corrected in 2022. Despite a contract extension, the program could save money if they just went ahead and pulled the plug now on Mingione but that is easier said than done. The head coach led the program to one of the best seasons in program history, but things have just not been right since.
This is a program at a crossroads playing in a fresh stadium with some excellent recent facility upgrades. The SEC is a bear to deal with, but the Wildcats should not be going four years without a postseason appearance. Only time will tell where the Bat ‘Cats go as we move on from another disappointing season.