By Rob Rains
There was one line in Zack Thompson’s bio on the Kentucky baseball website which might be a little concerning to Cardinals fans after their team made him the 19th overall pick in the draft on Monday night.
He said his favorite major-league team was the Cubs.
“Hopefully that bio is in the past tense,” said Cardinals’ director of scouting Randy Flores.
“We can work around that,” Thompson later said in a conference call with St. Louis media. “I couldn’t be more happier to be in a program that cares about their people, the way they carry themselves, the way they develop pitchers … it’s a dream come true.”
Other than that one little flaw, which likely will be corrected by the size of the signing bonus he will receive from the Cardinals, there is a lot to like about Thompson, who fared well in the tough SEC conference this year as a junior with the Wildcats.
“He’s one of those guys when you watch him live you just come away really impressed with his physicality; you come away really impressed with his ability to spin the ball and truly you come away impressed with his guts and grit on the mound,” Flores said. “He has improved every year and checks a lot of boxes for us.”
Kentucky won only seven conference games this year, and Thompson was the starting pitcher in five of those games. One of his wins was a shutout of Georgia when the Bulldogs were ranked fourth in the country.
In the conference games, Thompson was 5-1 with a 2.27 ERA, recording 93 strikeouts and walking 27 in 67 1/3 innings. His fastball sits in the low 90s but can reach 94 mph.
“It was important for me to step up and show these younger guys how it’s done, how to carry ourselves as a professional and how to fight through tough times. This season didn’t end the way we wanted but we battled right to the end.”
He became the highest drafted pitcher in the history of the Kentucky program.
Thompson said he really did not have much communication with Cardinals’ scouts during the season and was a little surprised that they were the team which drafted him.
“This kind of came out of left field at the last minute,” Thompson said. “It’s perfect.
“I hadn’t really heard anything from them. They just kind of popped up a few minutes before the pick. I didn’t know what to expect but I didn’t really expect somebody that I hadn’t heard much from to pop up like that but I thank God they did.”
A native of Selma, Ind., Thompson had four games with 11 or more strikeouts this season and for the full season recorded 130 strikeouts in 90 innings, issuing 34 walks, while posting a 6-1 record with a 2.40 ERA. He was ranked by Baseball America as the second-best college pitcher in what was considered a very thin class. He was ranked as the third best college pitcher in the class by MLB.com.
Thompson has had some injury problems in the past, but thought he showed this season those were no longer a concern.
“I made 14 starts and I felt great all year,” he said. “I like to think I got stronger as the year went on.”
It’s the first time the Cardinals have used their first pick in the draft on a pitcher since Flores became the scouting director in 2016 but that was expected this season unless something surprising happened with the picks by the teams drafting ahead of the Cardinals.
Going into this draft, for the first time in years, more of the Cardinals top prospects are position players instead of pitchers and the team hoped to restore that balance with some of their top picks this year.
Including Genesis Cabrera, who will start Tuesday night for the Cardinals, there are only six left-handers in the starting rotations spread across the top five levels of the organization.
“We had a pretty good sense of the possibilities,” Flores said. “At least on our end we weren’t surprised at something that happened.”
The Cardinals’ second-round pick on Monday night was Trejyn Fletcher, a high school outfielder from Portland, Maine. He played just one season there after playing his first two years at a prep school in New York. Fletcher originally was to be in the 2020 draft class before he reclassified to be in this year’s class.
In just a 16-game season, Fletcher hit .456 with three homers and was 17 of 17 in stolen base attempts. He is committed to Vanderbilt.
“We’re excited about his tool set,” Flores said. “As we looked at the board we saw a set of tools that was very intriguing. The Northeast in general is a place that’s difficult to scout at times with the later schedule and weather that you have to deal with. Candidly that’s why he might have been available to be selected there.
“It’s a compressed time frame. It provides opportunity. And it’s one we wanted to take.”
Also drafted on Monday night was Jackson Rutledge, a right-handed pitcher out of Rockwood Summit High School who was playing at San Jacinto Texas Junior College. He went two picks ahead of the Cardinals’ first selection, 17th overall to the Nationals.
Two Missouri players also were drafted. Outfielder Kameron Misner and left-handed pitcher T.J. Sikkema. Misner went to the Marlins and Sikkema to the Yankees in the supplemental round following the first round.
The draft will continue with rounds three through 10 on Tuesday and rounds 11 through 40 on Wednesday.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains