The New Mexico baseball team's 2014 season may have ended on a sour note, but the Lobos' future looks bright. With such a young roster, they will return a significant amount of talent for 2015.
Of course, the great nemesis of all college coaches, the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, still looms later this week. That event kicks off Thursday at 5 p.m. on MLB Network with the first and second rounds, followed by rounds three through 10 on Friday and 11 through 40 on Saturday.
The good news is the Lobos should not lose nearly as many players as last year, nor do too many of their recruits seem to be in jeopardy of being lured away before ever setting foot on campus. There are no guarantees, however, with the draft.
Coach Ray Birmingham said “the obvious guys will go,” pointing out junior catcher Alex Real (.320/.391/.465, 25 doubles, 47 RBI), senior right fielder Chase Harris (.377/.432/.559, 8 HR, 63 RBI), senior right-hander Josh Walker (7-5, 3.87 ERA) and possibly senior outfielder John Pustay (.324/.371/.436, 2 HR, 37 RBI). Junior lefty Colton Thomson (6-6, 3.68) is one to keep an eye on, though Birmingham said he expects junior center fielder Aaron Siple (.290/.371/.322, 25 RBI) will be back.
“Thomson is one you’re worried about a little bit,” Birmingham said. “But I don’t think he’ll go. If somebody chooses him, they’ll choose him late enough where that amount of money, there’s no way you’ll give up school for that. So we’re (not too) worried about that.
“But you’re in the kid business and this is one of their dreams. But you want to make sure Major League Baseball doesn’t take advantage of them financially. Because a college degree is a big deal. That’s about it. There’s not going to be any surprises. There’s not many guys that are draft-eligible.”
If Thomson returns as expected he will be joined by sophomore right-hander Drew Bridges (4-1, 3.66) in the rotation for next season. Sophomore closer Victor Sanchez (4-1, 2.33, 10 saves) should be back to anchor the bullpen.
The entire starting infield should return as well. First baseman Jack Zoellner (.301/.416/.421, 2 HR, 15 RBI) and third baseman Andre Vigil (.311/.345/.378, 30 RBI) will only be sophomores next season, while second baseman Sam Haggerty (.340/.420/.418, 2 HR, 38 RBI, 14 stolen bases) and shortstop Jared Holley (.314/.379/.358, 19 RBI) will be juniors.
Lane Milligan, who hit well (.333/.414/.356, 9 RBI) as the backup catcher, should replace Real. In the outfield, Siple should be rejoined by Mountain West Freshman of the Year Danny Collier (.353/.419/.410, 20 RBI).
Beyond those players, a strong recruiting class should be on campus this fall. No one in the class was ranked amongst Baseball America's top 500 draft prospects, indicating they should end up Lobos instead of in the minor leagues.
“We need a four-hole hitter, a mature four-hole hitter,” Birmingham said. “Now we’ve got some commitments from some guys who are in D.J. Peterson’s caliber. They’re coming only because they can get to be better hitters by going to UNM.”
In addition to a large number of returning players, UNM will continue to see improvements with its facilities. A new locker room and permanent bathrooms for the fans are expected to be ready for next season.
“The great thing to me is we do have a good program,” Birmingham said. “We have a nationally respected program. So I think if we keep plugging and keep doing the things we’re doing, and our administration is supporting us with the facilities the best we can, then it’s a matter of New Mexico taking pride in New Mexico.”