During last year's MLB Draft, the Mid-American Conference had to wait until the sixth round to hear its first athlete's name called, with former Akron RHP J.T. Brubaker getting selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Mere days away from this year's draft, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that we won't have to wait nearly that long on the first MAC draftee this year.
That's thanks in large part to a pair of junior left-handed pitchers, Kent State's Eric Lauer and Western Michigan's Keegan Akin, putting together dominant seasons in 2016. Lauer's been in the spotlight much longer than Akin has, getting drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays out of high school but choosing to honor his commitment to the Golden Flashes. That decision has proven to be a good one time and again, with Lauer receiving MAC Pitcher of the Year and Division 1 National Player of the Year honors and recording the lowest ERA for an NCAA starting pitcher since 1979.
Lauer, for his part, looks like a big-league pitcher. Standing at 6-foot-3, 205 lbs, he has both the body and mechanics that scouts look for when searching for durable, high-floor pitching prospects. Lauer also makes up for a lack of flashy velocity by mixing in up to four plus offerings, his slider being praised as among the best in college baseball. And while he may not flirt with triple digits with his fastball, he can still sit around 92mph with it, and is able to locate it very well. Lauer has been projected as high as a mid-teens pick in the first round, but is typically slotted between the 25th and 35th picks of the first round. MLB Pipeline ranks him as the 27th-best prospect in the draft, and Minor League Ball's John Sickels projects him as a mid-rotation starter.
Akin, meanwhile, has impressed with his ability to launch himself toward the high end of many people's draft radars, in part because of a 2016 season in which he recorded a program record 133 strikeouts in 109 innings en route to leading the Broncos to a MAC tournament title. At 6-foot-0 and 200 lbs, Akin doesn't have the traditional build scouts look for in potential starters, but his mid-90's fastball and stamina make his size a little bit more palatable.
Akin was undrafted out of high school, but seized his opportunity the moment he stepped foot on campus at Western Michigan. He was penciled in as the Sunday starter for the Broncos his freshman year, and first caught significant attention from around the conference when he fanned 12 in a complete game shutout against Ohio to earn MAC Player of the Week. Akin won't likely hear his name called on day one, but is a reasonable pick to earn 3rd-4th round consideration, maybe higher if a team believes they can fast-track him into their MLB bullpen for some left-handed help.
Some other names to look for this weekend:
Nick Deeg, LHP, Central Michigan
Best Tool: Change-up
Deeg got his big chance at impressing scouts last summer when he performed well enough in the Cape Cod League to earn all-league honors on the mound. At 6-foot-5, 220 lbs, Deeg has an athletic build that should help him add some extra gas to his high-80's fastball once he gets acclimated to professional baseball, something that should make his already plus change-up even more attractive. He struggled to make the results match the stuff as a Chippewa, but it'd still be surprising to see him fall out of the single digit rounds.
Mitch Longo, OF, Ohio
Best Tool: Contact
Another year with the Bobcats would almost certainly see Longo shoot up all kinds of career offensive program records, but the more likely ending to Longo's tenure will probably come this weekend with a 8th-12th round selection in the draft. Longo did nothing but hit in the last three years, hitting .355 and slugging .481 while compiling 60 walks alongside just 48 strikeouts. There's more power potential here than he's shown, and his glove and arm profile well in left field. He'll be a fun player to watch to see how his game will translate to the professional level.
Alex Call, OF, Ball State
Best Tool: Contact
The 2016 MAC Player of the Year is as close to a five-tool player the conference has, combining an ability to hit for average and power with imposing speed on the basepaths and a terrific glove in the outfield. Call's numbers compare well with another do-it-all MAC outfielder, current Chicago White Sox center fielder Adam Eaton, and their styles of play seem to match up closely as well. Call could hear teams calling in the low single-digit rounds, but could warrant a 4th-6th round pick if someone believes most or all of his tools could play well in the majors.
Jarett Rindfleisch, C, Ball State
Best Tool: Power
The best catching prospect in the conference, Rindfleisch has done a nice job polishing off his skills behind the plate, gunning down nearly 40 percent of would-be base-stealers against him in 2016. Rindfleisch has a cleaner BB/K ratio than most MAC sluggers tend to boast, and has managed to keep it that way throughout his college career. Time will tell if he's able to stick behind the plate professionally, but his bat should keep him in lineups for years to come.
Matt Kaelin, RHP, Buffalo
Best Tool: Fastball
Another possibility for some fast-tracking, Kaelin combines a rare combination of velocity and command that led to him posting a very strong 44/6 K/BB in 35.1 innings as the Bulls' closer in 2016. He got knocked around a bit this season, allowing a .270 opposing batting average after back-to-back seasons of keeping it down at .214 and .177, but his mid-90's fastball continued to impress. Prospective teams will have to look past his 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame if they want to believe in his staying power, but if he continues to prove doubters wrong, he could end up as a late-round steal.