High expectations for UK baseball newcomers

By Jon Hale

Most freshmen enter college with the hopes of a large paycheck awaiting them after graduation, but one UK baseball player is here after turning down a seven-figure offer to play professional baseball. Alex Meyer, ranked the fifth best high school baseball player in the nation by Baseball America, leads UK baseball head coach Gary Henderson’s first recruiting class after turning down a reported $2 million from the Boston Red Sox.

Meyer was selected by Boston, the defending World Series champions, in the 20th round of the Major League Baseball Amateur draft in June. The fire-balling left-handed pitcher was considered a first-round talent by Baseball America, but fell to the 20th round because of his strong commitment to UK.

Major League teams had until Aug. 15 to sign draft picks. With the clock ticking toward the deadline to sign Meyer, the Red Sox used their biggest weapon to try and reel in the lefty. Theo Epstein, the Red Sox general manager, visited Meyer’s home on deadline day and offered Meyer a $2 million signing bonus, according to Baseball America. If Meyer had signed, the bonus would have been a record for any player drafted after the third round.

Meyer, ranked as the second best high school graduate in the nation who didn’t sign a professional contract, is one of a number of highly touted incoming players for the UK baseball team. Henderson’s first recruiting class as head coach boasts four draftees and five Louisville Slugger All-Americans.

“This is our best class since I’ve been here,”  said Henderson, who was an assistant coach at UK for the past five years. “Come talk to me in three years, and I’ll tell you how good it was, but if this group stays healthy they have a chance to be one of the best classes ever at UK.”

Andy Burns, an infielder from Fort Collins, Colo., was considered a third- to fifth-round talent, but fell to the 25th round after clubs were scared away from his commitment to UK.

Braden Kapteyn, an infielder and right-handed pitcher from Lansing, Ill., was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 39th round. Cory Farris, a catcher and outfielder from Florence, Ky., was drafted in the 43rd round by the Chicago White Sox.

The class also features three junior-college transfers. Gunner Glad, a right-handed pitcher and utility player, was an all-region and all-conference performer for Eastern Oklahoma State College. Nick Kennedy went 8-1 with a 2.00 earned run average last season for East Los Angeles College. First baseman Will Campbell batted .337 with four home runs and 21 RBIs for Bellevue Community College in 2008.

“I think we all wanted to be here,” Burns said. “I pretty much knew I was going to come, but it helped when we all decided to come together.”

The UK signees were thrown a curve ball  one day after the draft when John Cohen left the program to take the head coaching job at Mississippi State. Any hesitance among the UK players that were drafted was quickly relieved when UK promoted Henderson to the head coaching position the same day Cohen left.

“That (the coaching change) didn’t really matter,” Burns said. “Coach Henderson and I had a great relationship. It was hard to see coach Cohen go, but the program went into the hands of a great guy.”

Said Henderson: “I didn’t feel like the coaching change hurt at all. (Assistant coach) Brad Bohannon and I had been the guys that recruited them. The families were comfortable with the staff that was going to be here.”

The Cats didn’t escape the draft process completely unscathed. Three of their commitments signed professional contracts after being drafted in the first four rounds. Daniel Webb, a right-handed pitcher from Paducah, Ky., declined to sign a professional contract after being drafted in the 12th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks, but enrolled at a junior college in Florida instead of attending UK.

Praise for the recruiting class before they play their first game for the Cats has been widespread. In Baseball America’s pre-draft preview, Jim Callis projected that Meyer would be in the mix for the number one overall pick in 2011.

Until then, Meyer and the rest of the heralded UK recruiting class will try to help the Cats to their fifth consecutive winning season.

“It’s the same game,” Glad said. “We’re going to have a target on our back, but that’s what makes it fun.”