A record-setting 2012 season has helped the UK baseball program earn national prominence, but some former players are helping the Wildcats make an impact on an even bigger stage.
After appearing in 36 games, mostly as a reserve with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011, former UK outfielder Colin Cowgill has carved out a role as a part-time starter for the Oakland Athletics. Cowgill joins Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis as the first Wildcats from the Gary Henderson/John Cohen era to reach the big leagues.
“I think it helps anytime the kids that leave your program have success,” Henderson said Tuesday during a news conference announcing his five-year contract extension. “I think that is pretty obvious. I think it also helps on the front end, in the recruiting process, to try to convince kids to get here.”
Collin Cowgill (Oakland A's photo)
Cowgill, who graduated from Henry Clay High School and is batting .271 with one home run, nine RBI and nine runs scored in 32 games with Oakland this season, still lives in Lexington during the offseason and works out at UK during the winter.
“I think Collin coming here is a great thing for the program,” Henderson said. “I think it’s awesome that he lives in town and he is over here working out and our kids can see him and talk to him and understand the work ethic he has and the type of person he is.”
Cowgill and Kipnis, who played in 34 games for UK in 2007 before transferring to Arizona State where he earned All-American honors, may soon have company in the majors from other former Wildcats. Currently, 25 former Wildcats who played at UK while Henderson was an assistant or head coach are playing in affiliated Minor League Baseball. Three of those players — left-handed pitcher Chris Rusin, first baseman Ryan Streiby and outfielder Sawyer Carroll — have reached AAA.
“If we can get him tuned up just a little bit then Chris Rusin is going to get (to the majors) pretty quick,” Henderson said.
The former Wildcats who may be poised to make the biggest impact on the professional level are currently playing in lower Minor League levels.
Alex Meyer (KyForward photo)
Right-handed pitcher Alex Meyer, a 2012 first-round pick of the Washington Nationals who is currently playing for Hagerstown in the low A South Atlantic League, was recently selected to play in the Futures Game, MLB’s annual prospect showcase on the Sunday of All-Star weekend. Left-handed pitcher James Paxton, who played at UK from 2007-2009 and is currently playing for Jackson in the AA Southern League, was recently ranked the No. 42 prospect in all of Minor League Baseball by Baseball America.
UK added eight Minor Leaguers to its professional ranks from the 2012 draft, where the Wildcats saw nine total players drafted, second most of all college teams. Of the 25 former Henderson players in MiLB, 15 were drafted or signed as free agents in 2011 or 2012.
Like Cowgill, many of those players work out at UK during the offseason. UK recently released a promotional video of Cowgill, Meyer, former outfielder John Shelby, former catcher Luke Maile and current rising sophomore outfielder Austin Cousino taking viewers on a tour of the UK baseball facilities.
“This weight room is the best one you will fine anywhere in the (Southeastern) conference, and I’d put it up against any in the country,” Cowgill said in the video.
In Cousino’s portion of the video, he shows off a wall in the players’ lounge that displays pictures of prominent former Wildcats.
“You’ve got to always remember the players who came here before you,” Cousino said. “This is what it’s about, right here: Kentucky baseball.”
Exposing current players to the professional Wildcats is a valuable experience, Henderson said.
“We had a lot of that when I was in college, a lot of it at San Diego State,” he said. “It really helps shape your perspective if you are perceptive at all because you get to converse, you get to have conversations at a totally different level than when you’re talking to your peers.”
Showing examples of big-time recruits who haven’t experienced the level professional success one might expect also helps in recruiting, Henderson said. He pointed to Strieby, the former SEC Player of the Year who is batting .188 in his third consecutive season at AAA, as an example.
“I don’t think I’ve coached a bigger no-brainer than Ryan Strieby that should be in the big leagues, for him not to make it,” Henderson said. “I think all of those things help in terms of illustrating to families the importance of going to college, all of them.”
Henderson is no stranger to coaching future MLB players. In his 19 seasons as a college head coach or assistant, he has coached 27 future big leaguers.
“I think those things are important on the front end that you can show the guys that made it and did not, the David Ecketeins, Brad Wilkersons, the Collin Cowgills, the Ryan Striebys,” Henderson said. “I think those things are all good for the program, but I really like what it does when the kids are back here.”