FAYETTEVILLE — LSU coach Paul Mainieri paid the ultimate compliment to Ryne Stanek with a message after the pitcher led Arkansas to a win against the Tigers during last month’s Southeastern Conference Tournament.
He was really ready for Stanek’s college career to end.
“He’s about ready for the big leagues,” Mainieri said after Stanek allowed on unearned run over eight innings against the eventual SEC Tournament champions. “I’m about tired of seeing him pitch against us. Let’s move him on to another level.”
Mainieri — and the rest of the SEC — will get that wish with the Major League Baseball Draft beginning today. The junior is expected to be among the first players taken off the board in the three-day, 40-round draft.
Stanek is projected as a top 15 pick by most MLB Draft prognosticators. If it holds true, it would make Stanek just the seventh Razorback selected in the first round in school history and the first since Zack Cox was taken with the 25th pick in 2010.
He also would be the highest Razorback drafted since 1986, when Jeff King was selected with the first overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Stanek, who plans to watch the draft with other draft-eligible pitchers like Colby Suggs and Barrett Astin tonight, said Wednesday he is eager for the wait to end.
“It’s going to be exciting, but it will be good to have all of the curiosity on where you’re going to go and what’s going to happen,” Stanek said. “It will be nice to kind of have that over with and know what could be in store for me in the future.”
It has been a long time coming for the 6-foot-4 right-hander.
Stanek had the chance to job into professional baseball right out of Blue Valley (Kan.) High after being taken by the Seattle Mariners in the third round in 2010. He never came to an agreement with the organization, though, turning down an $800,000 signing bonus with plans to play two seasons at Arkansas.
There was an unexpected catch just before Stanek’s sophomore season began, though. He found out the dates for the 2011 MLB Draft had moved up a few days, which would make him ineligible for the draft. Players must turn 21 within 45 days after the draft to be eligible as sophomores and Stanek just missed the cutoff.
The extra year hasn’t hurt Stanek. In fact, he turned in a dominant junior season, going 10-2 with a 1.39 earned run average. He led the NCAA’s top pitching staff by allowing one earned run or less in 13 of his 16 starts en route to All-SEC honors.
“When he has pitched against us, he’s just been better than us,” South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook said late last month. “He’s been better than our hitters. I think he’s a bonafide first-round draft pick. He’s got a major league arm.”
Stanek wrapped up his Arkansas career by allowing one earned run on two hits in 7 1/3 innings, leading Arkansas to a 3-1 win against Wichita State last Saturday.
Stanek became the 18th Arkansas pitcher to record a 10-win season and finished third in school history in ERA. His 45 career starts also rank fifth in UA history.
“There’s not a lot of ways I feel like I haven’t improve,” Stanek said of his college career. “Mentally, I feel like I have an idea of what I’m doing at all times. No situation is going to be too big and that’s a tribute to playing in front of 8,000 every game and playing against the best competition in the country. … On the performance side, I throw a lot more strikes. I have better second offerings. It’s been a big improvement for me in pretty much every aspect. I’m stronger. I’m healthier. Those are always big things you have to do deal with. I feel like I’ve gotten better at all of those.”
Even more good news: The 2010 decision should prove more lucrative for Stanek.
Stanek is likely to receive a signing bonus well over $1 million if he is selected in the top 15 tonight. So turning down $800,000 three years ago will pay off.
“It seems like it’s going to work out in my favor so that’s always a plus,” Stanek said. “It’s a risk you run coming to school and passing up that kind of money. It’s scary at the time. But if you believe you can do it, you’re going to work hard and you’re not going to waste the opportunity then it was definitely worth it.”
Oklahoma pitcher Jonathan Gray is regarded as the No. 1 pick, while Stanford pitcher Mark Appel is projected to go No. 2 in mock drafts. Stanek could go as high as No. 4 to Minnesota and isn’t expected to drop below Arizona at No. 15.
A Baseball America mock draft projects Stanek as the 14th pick to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Stanek said he’s fine landing anywhere from No. 4 to No. 15.
The Arkansas pitcher is just eager for his professional baseball career to begin after what he deemed three productive — and valuable — years with the Razorbacks.
“I wouldn’t change it for anything,” Stanek said about his decision to come to Arkansas after the 2010 MLB Draft. “This has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life is to come here. It’s helped me out on the field and off the field. I’m tougher on the field. Smarter. Better ballplayer. I understand what I’m doing better than what I did. I’m a lot more mature. It was a great decision.”