After three years as a mainstay in the University of Kentucky baseball team’s starting pitching rotation, Wildcats star Zack Thompson is about to find a new home.
Major League Baseball’s amateur draft will kick off at 7 p.m. Monday. The 40-round event is spread over the course of three days, but Thompson likely won’t have to wait very long to hear his name called.
The junior left-hander is among the top pitching prospects in the country and he’s projected to be taken early in the first round. MLB.com’s draft tracker, which ranks the top 200 eligible prospects, has Thompson listed No. 14 overall and the fifth-best pitcher. He’s one of five players from Kentucky colleges ranked in the top 200 — plus there is a UK signee who could go early in the first round, too (more on that later).
In his latest mock draft, MLB.com writer Jim Callis ranks Thompson even higher. Callis projects Thompson will be taken No. 12 overall by the New York Mets.
Callis writes: “Thompson is pushing to join the top tier of college pitchers, though some teams worry about his medical history because he had shoulder issues in high school and missed two months last year with an elbow injury.”
After a stellar freshman year in which he went 8-3 with a 3.45 earned run average in 20 appearances, Thompson missed seven starts in the middle of his sophomore campaign. But this past season as a junior, Thompson proved both durable and reliable. He emerged as one of the few bright spots on a UK pitching staff that struggled all year after suffering major roster turnover.
The Wildcats had a nation-leading and program-record 13 players selected in last year’s draft, including three starting pitchers. That left Thompson as the No. 1 pitcher in UK’s rotation, and the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Indiana native delivered. Thompson went 6-1 with a 2.40 ERA and 130 strikeouts over 14 starts on his way to being named Second-Team All-Southeastern Conference.
It might come as a surprise to some Kentucky fans that this will be Thompson’s second go-round with the MLB Draft. He was originally drafted out of high school by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 11th round in 2016, but he elected to enroll at Kentucky rather than embark on a professional career. MLB rules mandate that a high school player who chooses not to sign with the team that drafted him must complete at least three years of college or turn 21 years old before again becoming draft-eligible.
Thompson’s decision to hold off on his professional career certainly looks like a wise one, given the drastic improvement of his draft stock and the payday that will come with it. Last year’s No. 14 overall selection, Logan Gilbert, earned a signing bonus of $3,883,800 from the Seattle Mariners. The first pick of the 11th round, Kacey Murphy, signed with the Detroit Tigers for $145,000.
By coming to UK, Thompson worked his way up the draft board and earned himself a massive pay-bump. That same incentive won’t exist for UK signee Jackson Rutledge.
Kentucky signed Rutledge, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound right-hander who was rated the No. 1 junior-college pitcher in the country, out of San Jacinto (Texas) College in November. But the Arkansas transfer lit up the juco ranks this past season, going 9-2 with a 0.87 ERA and 134 strike outs in 13 starts, and shot up the MLB prospect rankings. MLB.com currently ranks Rutledge ahead of Thompson at No. 12, and Callis’ mock draft projects him to be chosen No. 10 overall in the first round by the San Francisco Giants. Callis calls Rutledge “the best junior college prospect since Bryce Harper went No. 1 overall in 2010.”
The University of Louisville has three players ranked in the top 200 by MLB.com: first baseman and former North Bullitt standout Logan Wyatt (58), shortstop Tyler Fitzgerald (157) and pitcher Michael McAvene (174). Western Kentucky right fielder Jake Sanford is ranked No. 107.
2019 MLB Draft
Rounds 1-2: 7 p.m. Monday (MLB Network)
Rounds 3-10: 1 p.m. Tuesday (Livestream on MLB.com)
Rounds 11-40: Noon Wednesday (Livestream on MLB.com)