Fabulous freshmen have been a staple of the Oregon State baseball program under coach Pat Casey.
From Darwin Barney to Michael Conforto to Andrew Moore, first-year players have continually starred for the Beavers during the Casey era. With 15 freshmen on the preseason 40-man roster, second-ranked OSU is likely to have more breakthrough performances during the 2018 campaign.
Highly touted prospect Kevin Abel is one of the top candidates to make an immediate impact.
Abel, a 6-foot, 180-pound right-hander from San Diego, put off professional baseball for the college experience. He is hoping to crack the starting rotation when the season begins Feb. 16 against New Mexico in Surprise, Arizona.
“It’s been everything I thought it was, if not more,” Abel said of OSU. “I knew the coaching staff was going to be good and I knew (pitching coach Nate) Yeskie was going to be good for me, especially being as young as I am. He’s going to help me grow into that pitcher I know I can be.”
Rated the No. 131 high school prospect nationally by Perfect Game for the class of 2017, Abel was taken in the 35th round of June’s Major League Baseball draft by the San Diego Padres. Abel publicly reaffirmed his commitment to the Beavers immediately after the draft on Twitter.
The Padres’ loss was OSU’s gain.
“The basic skill set is very good,” Yeskie said of Abel, who wields a power fastball and devastating off-speed pitches. “Kevin is extremely intelligent, so he has a heightened sense of awareness and a high level of expectations for himself. Those are things that are characteristics of high-level performers.”
Abel has already made an impression on sophomore catcher Adley Rutschman.
Many freshmen struggle with the mental side of college baseball, Rutschman said. Abel hasn’t.
“I think what has impressed me the most about him is his ability to critique himself and be really constructive with how he goes about his business,” Rutschman said. “It’s a very mature guy and he handles himself at a very mature level, which is something you don’t see with a lot of freshmen.”
Added junior pitcher Bryce Fehmel: “He’s got a real power arm. He can throw all of his pitches for strikes, and that’s basically what you need to do at this level.”
Abel went 9-1 with a 1.30 ERA as a senior for Madison High last spring, striking out 120 in 81 innings. He was the San Diego California Interscholastic Federation pitcher of the year.
A top prospect for the MLB draft, Abel informed scouts of the signing bonus it would require to pry him away from OSU. No teams bit, leaving Abel with an easy decision.
“I held this opportunity pretty highly,” Abel said. “I wasn’t just going to throw it away for anything.”
Junior shortstop Cadyn Grenier went through a similar process in 2015.
The St. Louis Cardinals wanted to select Grenier with the 23rd overall pick, but the club wasn’t willing to match his asking price. The Cardinals passed and later took Grenier in the 21st round, but the southern Nevada native chose OSU instead.
Abel said Grenier sold him on the college experience last April during the Beavers’ road trip to UCLA.
“I didn’t have to do much, the reputation of this place really precedes itself,” Grenier said. “The reputation of coach Casey and the way we go about our business here, it’s really easy to see. All you have to do is come up here and experience one practice, one game, one home series and you’ll see it for yourself.
“I basically told all the guys that there’s not a better coaching staff in the nation. These guys really care about you on and off the field, you’ve got a great fan base here, you’ve got all the resources you could ever want and more that you’ll never even touch, but you have them. It’s easy to sell this place.”
Abel has gained about 15 pounds since arriving on campus.
Added velocity is one bonus, but Abel said his arm feels fresher than ever. He knows the college season is much longer than high school, and the Beavers expect to be playing deep into June.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a grind, it’s more of just an opportunity,” Abel said. “I love college, I love being here. The coaching staff has made it a really fun place to be. I’ve learned a lot in the short time I’ve been here, and I’m really looking forward to the season.”