(Photo via Blue Jays Today, seen here, Chris Machian)
An underrated program much of this decade, Creighton is again off to a promising start to the season as they kick off conference play. They sit at 19-7 overall, including a series win over a Power Five opponent, Minnesota, and a recent split of a two-game set with #25 Wichita State. With a strong non-conference resume, Creighton sits at #16 overall in RPI. For a program who has ranked near the top of the Big East in each of the past three seasons, those non-conference results could be crucial come May. Despite their regular season success and their consistent churning of interesting professional prospects, Creighton has not made the NCAA tournament in four seasons as a Big East member, with the conference sending only one at-large team (St. John’s in 2017) to regionals since its 2014 realignment.
Despite not generating much national attention, Creighton has proven to be a strong regular-season program since joining the Big East in 2014. They went 48-17 in conference play from 2014-2017, and despite not producing a top-150 overall draft choice in that time, have seen three recent alumni emerge as legitimate professional prospects. Since being selected in the fifth round in 2016, Royals shortstop Nicky Lopez has blossomed into one of the system’s top prospects, ranking sixth according to MLB Pipeline after a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League. Two Creighton players from the 2014 draft are knocking on the doorstep of the majors, as well. Infielder Jake Peter is in Triple-A in the Dodgers’ system, and manager Dave Roberts recently noted that he expects Peter to contribute to the big-league club at some point in 2018. Also expected to be in the big leagues soon is Tigers outfielder Mike Gerber.
Perhaps the best embodiment of Creighton’s success in turning fringe draft picks into noteworthy prospects, the 26-year-old has gone from a 15th round selection in 2014 to Detroit’s potential center fielder of the future. As Emily Waldon of the Athletic noted in a fantastic profile, Gerber has overcome myriad personal challenges to emerge as, in the words of Creighton head coach Ed Servais, a “true prospect.” True to their recent history, Creighton has zero prospects who made Baseball America’s most recent iteration of the top 300 draft prospects for 2018 but they are finding team success nonetheless.
In their most recent estimated NCAA tournament field, Baseball America has Creighton projected to reach regionals on the back of a Big East tournament championship win. Such an achievement would be a first for the Blue Jays, who have fallen in the championship game of the conference tournament in three of their first four years in the conference. While they no doubt hope to snap their recent postseason drought, they may not need to win the conference tournament to get to regionals. In that same projection, BA listed conference rival St. John’s as an early bubble team, an indicator that the conference could send two teams to regionals for the second consecutive season. Creighton’s performance in regular-season play, punctuated by a three-game series against another projected NCAA tournament team in California, will go a long way towards deciding whether Creighton stands a chance at an at-large bid.
Whether Creighton can repeat its past regular-season success will likely revolve around the sustainability of their newest breakout performer. Junior center fielder Clark Brinkman has excelled in his second year in Omaha. After starring as a freshman with McHenry County College, whom he helped lead to the Division II Junior College World Series in 2016, Brinkman had a tough transition to facing Division I pitching. While his work in center field was lauded by the media, Brinkman’s offensive game was a small-ball one. He had only a .364 slugging percentage and led the team in sacrifice bunts, all while striking out nearly 20% of the time.
This season, Brinkman has improved his offense substantially. He has more than doubled his walk rate from last season while cutting his strikeout by four percentage points, and he easily leads the Blue Jays in on-base percentage. He has even become more efficient on the basepaths; after going 8-11 in stolen base attempts in 2017, Brinkman is 18-21 so far this year. He has still not hit for much power, and a spike in Brinkman’s batting average on balls in play no doubt has inflated his numbers somewhat, but Brinkman is more of a threat at the top of the lineup in 2018 than he was last season.
While overshadowed in the state by the reigning Big Ten champion Cornhuskers, Creighton has had ample regular-season success in recent seasons, and they have been better than the Cornhuskers at producing professional prospects in recent seasons. Unfortunately, their underrated talent pipeline and seamless transition to Big East play has yet to translate into postseason success, as repeated conference tournament losses have kept them from advancing to regionals. In 2018, yet again, Creighton is off to a fantastic start to the regular season, one which may be enough to push them into NCAA tournament play regardless of whether they win their first Big East conference tournament. Even so, this team, led by the emergent Brinkman at the top of the order and with quality non-conference wins already on the books, has as good a shot as any in Omaha in recent seasons of achieving postseason success.