January making mark at JUCO World Series

January making mark at JUCO World Series

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. -- Ryan January has been the star of the JUCO World Series, and if his San Jacinto (Texas) Gators go on to win their sixth title, he has a warranted case to be named tournament MVP, even if his contributions have been solely limited as the designated hitter.

This week, the freshman phenom who is expected to be taken in the first 10 rounds of the MLB Draft is hitting .375 and has belted a tournament-best four homers. He hit six total over the first 53 games of the season.

"It was just a matter of time," teammate Caden Williams said. "I know he likes the big stage. I know he's going to thrive in it. Mark my words right now, you'll see him in the big leagues one day."

The consensus among anyone with baseball pedigree this week is that January is surely headed to the pro level, but at what position remains a query. He's played catcher his entire life and is athletically capable enough to do so at the next level, but that will largely depend on personnel needs as he rises the ranks.

He broke his right thumb while catching a bullpen session two months ago, but has made it difficult on coaches to remove him from the lineup, knowing his bat was too valuable a commodity to rest on the bench. He's remained in the heart of the order, but as the DH.

"He continued to hit, which shows a lot of that grit that it takes and desire to continue playing even when he might not feel his best," San Jacinto head coach Tom Arrington said. "We all enjoy having him. Obviously he's a special player and a good friend to these guys, and he's good to coach. He's fun to coach."

His thumb is fully healed, but with the season all but over -- just the championship game against Yavapai (Ariz.) on Saturday -- Arrington has been cautious in returning January to the backstop, particularly with the likelihood his freshman will be drafted next week.

January wants to remain behind the plate at the next level, and given the exhausting demands catchers endure, he's worked tirelessly to keep himself in the most athletically prime shape possible.

"When I was in high school, I had some scouts tell me: 'Go find an outfield glove.' That was just motivation for me," January told MLB.com. "It's going to be hard to take me out from behind the plate. I love it. I'm passionate about it."

His athletic attributes show the protypical look of a corner outfielder. January is speedy in stride and boasts a quarterback-caliber arm to complement his powerful swing. He's played some right field this year for San Jacinto, but primarily in circumstantial situations.

"With a power guy, I think unfortunately sometimes in professional baseball that catching is such a very, very skilled position," Arrington said. "It requires a lot of work. You'll find a handful of guys that end up being good hitters and catchers -- [Yadier] Molina and [Buster] Posey and so forth -- but it can be a breakdown position. It's a grueling job, and if it wears on your swing, they might find another spot for Ryan."

January, who turned 19 last week, admits his plate discipline remains a major work in progress. He's striking out in 26.1 percent of his plate appearances and has whiffed twice as many times (56) as he's walked (28).

But when he does make contact, it's effective and efficient. January boasts a .676 slugging percentage, and 59.3 percent of his 59 hits this year have gone for extra bases.

"I'm not really all that much of a power guy. It's more of an occasional thing," January said of his tournament home run barrage. "I think my approach is my strength, but it can also be my weakness. My third at-bat, I struck out yesterday. I chased the first pitch, which is very uncharacteristic of myself. I get a little bit over-anxious. It happens at this level, at this stage, but the good players can calm it down and control it. And that's what I'm going to try and do."

How he wound up at San Jacinto -- the talent- and tradition-rich community college just outside Houston that has been a platform for Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Brandon Belt to the Majors -- was largely out of inopportunity last year. A New England-area native who ranked among the region's top prospects last summer, January hoped to hear his name called at the 2015 MLB Draft, but to no avail.

He originally committed to LSU before swapping, and after an outstanding freshman season, appears on the verge of playing in the pros

"I'm sure he'll be drafted as a catcher, but I don't know if he'll stay there," Williams said. "The bat plays, as you know, so it doesn't matter where they put him, he's going to hit."

And January concluded: "You're going to have to drag me out from behind the plate. But at the next level, I'll play anywhere to get there. If they tell me to get on the mound and throw, that's what I'm going to do, as long as I'm playing at the next level."

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.