When SIU's baseball team opens the Missouri Valley Conference tournament against Wichita State Wednesday afternoon, it will be the beginning of the end for five senior starters.
Starting pitcher Chad Whitmer, outfielders Ryan Smith and Dyllin Mucha, shortstop Will Farmer and third baseman Ryan Sabo are all seniors. Depending on how the Major League Baseball first-year players draft goes in June, it might also be the last days of six Saluki juniors.
SIU could have the most players taken in the three-day event in school history this summer, which will be great for recruiting. Eight players were taken in 1969, and three of them, Mike Rogodzinski, Bill Stein and Skip Pitlock, reached the majors. The draft could also devastate a promising 2018 club.
Leading hitter Greg Lambert, stolen base leader Connor Kopach, and closer Ryan Netemeyer, a semifinalist for the National Pitcher of the Year Award, are all eligible juniors. Catcher Nick Hutchins, who has thrown out 12 of 38 potential basestealers, and preseason all-conference picks Michael Baird and Logan Blackfan are also eligible.
The MLB draft is the most difficult to project in professional sports. Aside from the surefire candidates — when you watch Missouri State third baseman Jake Burger, you can tell he's definitely a top 20 pick — there is a lot of unknowns. None of SIU's prospects are Chris Serritella, a power-hitting lefty who stood 6-foot-3 and set the school's doubles record that Blackfan recently broke.
Netemeyer appears to be SIU's top draft prospect. He's up for the Stopper of the Year Award by the NCBWA, has already set the single-season saves record this year, and will break the career record if he comes back. He's a hard-throwing righty with 30 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings and a 3.03 ERA in 26 appearances.
Lambert doesn't have a ton of pop — he's got six home runs in 55 games entering the tournament — but he's the toughest out the Salukis have. He has always hit for a high average, can play the outfield and/or first base, and has decent speed, with 11 stolen bases on 17 attempts.
Lambert's eight assists this season are the most of any Saluki outfielder.
Kopach and Baird are interesting prospects, but it's tough to judge how they'll do at the next level. A talented fielder, Kopach has 32 stolen bases in 38 attempts this season, 10 shy of SIU's single-season record. Baird looked like a sure-fire pick in the first five rounds before a rough second half of the season. The 6-5 righty led the MVC in ERA last season at 1.76, but is 4-3 with a 4.46 ERA this year. In Valley play, he's 0-3 with a 7.36 ERA.
Blackfan was a high prospect entering the season, but has struggled mightily at the plate. He is batting .194 in league play and .223 overall with 62 strikeouts, one off the single-season school record. Blackfan has some pop, with 11 career home runs and 95 career RBIs, but could drastically improve his draft status by returning in 2018.
Of SIU's seniors, look for Whitmer, Smith and left-handed starter Joey Marciano to go high in the draft. Hopefully there are some more seniors on the Saluki roster to judge next season.