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If you speak with coaches in the Southeastern Conference who have already faced Kentucky two-way star A.J. Reed this spring, it's not about if when it comes to him as an elite prospect and player. It's much more about which position he'll play at the next level.
Reed experiencing at least some success isn't a phenomenon. He's experienced success as a lefthanded pitcher for the Wildcats since his freshman campaign, tallying a 4.04 ERA in 82 1/3 innings, along with 52 strikeouts and 15 walks last season. And so far this year, he's again impressing on the mound with a .2.20 ERA in 49 innings, along with 29 strikeouts and 14 walks.
Before this season, most scouts wanted Reed as a pitcher at the next level, as the professional game places a premium on sturdy, talented, lefthanded arms. But now? The mood has changed, and the preference, in the eyes of many, has shifted to his offensive talents -- a key reason why he leads our National Player of the Year race at the halfway point in the season.
Kentucky's A.J. Reed has been a force in a variety of ways. (UK photo)
"Here's the thing about A.J. Reed. If I'm a scout, I'm thinking to myself, which direction do I want to go with this guy?", one Southeastern Conference head coach said. "He's in the same mold as some of those other stud two-way guys of the past in this league. He's just become a pure hitter, and I think, without a doubt, he's the best hitter we've faced this season.
"Whatever way you want to go with Reed, it'll work," he continued. "But I have to admit, it would be really hard right now to deny a powerful bat like his."
Reed has made across the board improvements with his offensive game. Reed has dropped some noticeable weight over the past year, and appears to have increased his muscle mass, as his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame looks well put together.
Production-wise, the Wildcats couldn't ask for much more from Reed. The two-way star finished the 2013 season with a .280 average, 13 homers and 52 RBIs, along with a .519 slugging percentage and .378 on-base percentage. Now? Reed is hitting .343 with nine homers and 33 RBIs, along with an outstanding .676 slugging percentage and .481 OBP. Reed ranks third nationally in homers, behind William & Mary's Michael Katz (13) and Georgia State's Nic Wilson (12). Also impressive about Reed's season thus far has been his pitch selection. Reed is showing much more patience at the plate, as evidenced by his 21 walks this year (26 all of last year) and just 19 strikeouts (41 last year).
"In addition to his actual production, I'm really impressed with the way A.J. handles himself out there," the SEC coach said. "You know, he's pitching and hitting in the four-hole against us. He has a situation early in the game where he gets robbed of a home run. Then, he just bounces back and acts like nothing ever happened. He just has a great attitude, and in addition to his offensive skills, he has an impressive three-pitch mix."
With his fantastic start this spring, Reed's overall stock is soaring. He began the season ranked as our No. 38 college prospect, but comes in at No. 20 in our latest College Top 50 prospects list.
Reed is answering a lot of questions about his abilities. Now, he hopes to finish his junior campaign off with a bang, including leading the Wildcats back to the NCAA postseason, and perhaps even the College World Series.
Besides Reed, San Francisco outfielder Bradley Zimmer and South Carolina catcher Grayson Greiner are the first two players who come to mind.
Midseason Pitcher of the Year: Aaron Nola, rhp, LSU
The Tigers might be scuffling overall in the Southeastern Conference the first couple of weeks, but you wouldn't know that by following Nola's progress. The talented righty has taken the next step forward and continues to improve as an overall pitcher. Nola, as usual, sits anywhere from 90-93, and up to 94 with his fastball, but it's his exceptional command of his secondary offerings that makes him such a valuable pitcher to not only the Tigers, but potentially to someone picking in the top five rounds in this summer's Major League Baseball draft.
Nola has made seven starts this season and has a 0.55 ERA in 49 innings. He also has struck out 61, walked nine and teams are hitting him at just a .151 clip.
Midseason Freshman of the Year: Wil Crowe, rhp, South Carolina
It was difficult not to go with Auburn two-way player and righthanded pitcher Keegan Thompson in this spot, because he's well deserving as well. But overall, I gave the edge to righty Wil Crowe, who's been a mainstay and consistent arm in the Gamecocks' weekend rotation.
Crowe, a former 31st round pick to the Cleveland Indians and 6-foot-1, 230-pounder, is mature beyond his years, and that shows with each outing. Crowe has a 1.37 ERA in 46 innings, along with 28 strikeouts and six walks and a .214 opposing batting average.
Midseason Coach of the Year: Todd Whitting, Houston
There are plenty of coaches in college baseball who are doing terrific jobs this spring, but what Whitting and his staff already have accomplished at UH this spring is a step above the rest.
It has been a while since the Cougars were a player on the national stage, but it has been a gradual climb under Whitting the past couple of seasons. UH finished the 2012 season with an 18-35 overall record, before almost reaching the NCAA postseason last year with a 36-22 overall record. This year? The Cougars have taken the next step and more, sitting 23-5 overall, 2-1 in league play, and the most important metric as far as the postseason is concerned, UH has an RPI of 2.
Along with Whitting, assistant coach Frank Anderson, formerly the head coach at Oklahoma State, deserves a mention as potential Assistant of the Year. UH has one of the nation's elite pitching staffs with a 1.72 ERA and dynamic duo of righthanders Aaron Garza and Jake Lemoine leading the way.
One prospect to watch the second half: Sean Newcomb, lhp, Hartford
Newcomb is one of the fast rising arms on the national stage, and chances are great he'll increase his stock even more between now and this summer. Newcomb began the season as the No. 15 college prospect, but rose to the No. 9 spot in our latest rankings.
The imposing 6-foot-5, 240-pounder, is having quite the season. He has yet to allow an earned run in 39 2/3 innings (just one run allowed) and has struck out 46 and walked 19. Newcomb also is holding teams to a .111 batting average.
Stuff-wise, Newcomb is anywhere from 90-95 with his fastball, and has shown a four-pitch mix this spring with a slider, changeup and curveball, and easy delivery.
Biggest surprise: Washington
The Huskies have made one of the more impressive climbs since last season. UW finished the 2013 campaign with a 24-32 overall record, but has been infinitely better so far this spring. The Huskies have a 20-5 overall record, along with a fabulous 8-1 mark in the Pac-12, and No. 18 national ranking.
The impressive aspect of this club is its balance. The Huskies are hitting .299 as a team with Brian Wolfe (.370) and Andrew Ely (.370) leading the charge, while on the mound, they've got a 3.29 ERA with Tyler Davis and Jeff Brigham leading the way. Brigham is a fast-rising arm on the national stage with a 1.59 ERA in 39 2/3 innings, along with a powerful arm.
Biggest disappointment: Kansas State
Though the Wildcats are a prime candidate to get things rolling down the stretch, they've been a disappointment so far this spring. Expected to headline the Big 12 Conference, the Wildcats are now behind at least a couple of clubs in the pecking order.
Kansas State began the season with a 1-7 overall record, but have since played a much better brand of baseball. Will that continue as Brad Hill's team goes through the meat of their schedule? KSU's offense isn't a concern with Ross Kivett and others leading the way, but the pitching staff must rise to the occasion.