There wasn’t much doubt that former Bulls shortstop Kevin Merrell would be a high selection in this year’s MLB draft, which began Monday night.
Merrell was chosen 33rd overall by the Oakland Athletics on the first day of the MLB draft, nearly 20 picks higher than his ranking of 51 on Baseball America’s list of the top 500 prospects.
With family and friends by his side, Merrell watched from his Odessa home as Oakland selected him in Competitive Balance Round A — a five-player round between the first and second rounds reserved for the bottom 10 teams in the league in terms of revenue and market size.
Along with Merrell, senior pitcher Phoenix Sanders was drafted in the 10th round (289th overall pick) Tuesday evening by the Tampa Bay Rays.
Since transferring from Daytona State College to USF for the 2016 season, Sanders has been the Bulls’ frontline starter. In 31 starts at USF, Sanders went 11-7 with a 3.46 ERA and 204 strikeouts in 192 1/3 innings.
Though Merrell and Sanders were the only two Bulls to be selected in the first two days of the draft, USF signee Jackson Tetreault was drafted in the seventh round by the Washington Nationals, and will have a tough decision to make.
Tetreault pitched for State College of Florida for the past two seasons and signed to play with USF next season, but could choose to turn pro instead. In 2017, he was 4-6 with a 2.58 ERA and 105 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings.
Through his first-round selection, Merrell became the third-highest player drafted in program history and the first Bull to be picked in the first three rounds since 1997.
Merrell’s estimated pick value is $2 million, according to MLB.com.
Throughout his three-year career at USF, Merrell is the only player to lead the Bulls in hitting for three straight seasons.
In his final year, Merrell batted a conference high of .384 and led the Bulls in slugging percentage, on-base percentage, runs scored, total hits and stolen bases. He swiped 19 bags in 23 attempts.
“I like wherever I can get in the lineup, whether that’s shortstop, second or left,” Merrell told The Oracle in April. “But I’ve played shortstop my whole life, so that’s where I’m most comfortable. I can play pretty much anywhere else, but I can’t play catcher.”
Scouts project him as a top-of-the-lineup player who can be rotated around the field.
Oakland A’s scouting director Eric Kubota told the San Jose Mercury News that Merrell has a “unique ability” with speed that matches any player in this year’s draft. However, Kubota adds he’s more than just wheels.
“He’s a very good contact hitter and his power is developing, although it’s not going to be a big part of his game,” Kubota said. “It’s the style of hitter he is.”
With explosive speed and versatility, Merrell’s position at the pro level may not necessarily be shortstop.
“I think he’s a guy who can do a lot of things,” USF coach Mark Kingston told The Oracle. “The pros will look at him as a guy who can really impact both the offense and defense in a positive way, and I still think he has a lot of improving he can do.
“I think teams look at him as someone who is a very nice asset for their system.”
Merrell’s versatility caught the eyes of national experts as well.
“Merrell might have been the fastest player in college baseball this spring,” MLB.com expert Jim Callis said. “He’s a table setter with some gap power who has played shortstop and second base. He could wind up in center field in the long run.”
Potentially joining Merrell later in the draft are fellow juniors Joe Cavallaro (reliever) and Duke Stunkel (outfielder).
Stunkel led the team in triples and was second in batting average.
Should USF lose Stunkel to the draft, it would be without its top three hitters from 2017 as Luke Borders, who had the team’s third best batting average, graduated this spring.
Though USF will miss Merrell's bat next season, Kingston said his ability to adapt and play any position will serve him well in his time with the Athletics and future franchises alike.
Additional reporting by Vinnie Portell