Justin Slaten found a silver lining in the UNM baseball team’s cloudy 2019 season.
If nothing else, several months of adversity helped to prepare the junior right-hander for the stress he’ll face this week. Slaten is widely expected to be the first player with New Mexico ties to hear his name called in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft, which runs Monday through Wednesday.
Several pre-draft publications list Slaten as a potential fourth- or fifth-round pick. Baseball America ranks the 6-foot-4, 197-pound pitcher at No. 129 on its list of the nation’s top 500 draft prospects.
But Slaten, who went 5-5 with a 2.51 earned-run average and more strikeouts (98) than hits allowed (65) in 2019, says he’s not nervous about the draft.
“I’m more excited now than nervous,” Slaten said in a phone interview from his Longview, Texas, home. “I can’t do anything else to help or hurt my case, so I’ll just see what happens. I know there’s a lot of talk and speculation going around, but I’ve gotten pretty good at blocking things out.”
Slaten had little choice. His season started in Surprise, Ariz., with a start against defending national champion Oregon State. With a slew of major league scouts in attendance and radar guns tracking his every pitch, Slaten allowed one hit over five scoreless innings and struck out five.
“That was tough,” Slaten said, “because we were playing a really good team and everyone was watching. Tuning out the scouts and all the outside things got easier after that.”
Slaten, who features a mid-90s fastball and a plus slider, has been climbing the prospect lists ever since. He credits first-year UNM pitching coach Brandon Higelin with helping him rebound from a sub-par sophomore season when he finished 2-9 with a 7.02 ERA.
“A big part of it (is) mentality,” Slaten said. “(Higelin) kept telling me, ‘You have the stuff to be really good. Expect to dominate.'”
Rounds one and two of the draft are set for Monday beginning at 5 p.m. Rounds 3-10 will be Tuesday, with rounds 11-40 to follow on Wednesday.
Slaten is projected to be drafted Tuesday, but fans who attended UNM home games this season could hear other familiar names called tonight. UNLV shortstop Bryson Stott and Texas Tech third baseman Josh Jung, both of whom played in Albuquerque this season, are projected as first-round picks.
A number of other players with New Mexico ties figure to receive pleasant phone calls from major league teams over the next three days.
Three rank among Baseball America’s Top 500 prospects: New Mexico State shortstop Joey Ortiz (.422 average, 25 doubles, 84 RBIs) is ranked at 258. The Western Athletic Conference player of the year also was rated the best in the state and No. 179 overall over the weekend by MLB.com.
New Mexico Junior College shortstop Joab Gonzalez (.315 average, 12 homers, 54 RBIs) is at 441; and former Manzano High left-hander Mitchell Parker (6-0, 1.54 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 64 innings at San Jacinto College) is No. 481.
UNM senior outfielder Jared Mang did not crack the publication’s top 500, but he is No. 4 on Baseball America’s seven-player draft watch list for New Mexico. Piedra Vista High right-hander/outfielder Nate Swarts, NMSU senior outfielder Tristen Carranza and Aggie junior infielder Tristan Peterson are Nos. 5-7 on the list. Swarts is committed to play at New Mexico State if he does not sign a pro contract.
New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham believes several Lobos could be drafted at some point this week. Redshirt sophomore infielder Connor Mang, junior infielder Justin Watari and seniors Hayden Schiling and Malachi Emond are the most likely candidates, Birmingham said. Schilling is an infielder/right-handed pitcher, and Emond was the Lobos’ right-handed closer.