Kaelen Culpepper was a late bloomer, describing himself as a lightly recruited high school player who was undersized but featured plenty of upside. Kansas State noticed Culpepper’s potential during his sophomore year. The Wildcats followed the Memphis, Tennessee, native’s progression throughout high school, and he verbally committed late in his junior year.
Culpepper’s prospect status has improved significantly over his first two years at Kansas State compared to his high school days. He has matured physically and produced at the NCAA Division I level.
Last year, Culpepper had a highly productive sophomore season at Kansas State. He then held his own in the Cape Cod League, a wood-bat summer league, and was the top hitter on the U.S. collegiate national team during the summer.
Culpepper, a shortstop, enters his junior season as a must-watch player.
“I knew it was a big summer for me, so I just had a lot of goals that I wanted to achieve and accomplish,” Culpepper said. “I feel like I did that, especially going to the Cape Cod League and performing well and then being selected for Team USA. That was huge for me. I’m not done yet. I still have a lot to do. I’m excited for the future.”
Scouts took notice of Culpepper’s performance last year. Professional talent evaluators rave about his potential and skill set, considering the well-rounded position player as a potential first-round pick in July’s MLB draft.
“I’m going to have to deal with outside noise this year,” Culpepper said. “The draft is going to happen, but I can only control what I can control. I just have to take it day by day and worry about winning. I can’t get caught up in the draft because once I do that, I’m going to be stressing about it.”
Culpepper is a 6-foot, 194-pound right-handed hitting shortstop with an intriguing toolset. Culpepper uses a low-mechanic setup, quick swing, and strong contact skills to consistently barrel up the baseball and hit line drives. He shows improving power, especially to his pull side. He also boasts an exciting combination of athleticism and speed.
“Overall power is big for me,” Culpepper said. “I have done a lot of work to achieve that. I still have a lot more room to grow. But for the most part, I feel like I can hit for a lot of power. I take vicious hacks, but I also my contact rate is pretty high. I’m able to hit for average and power. I’m a true five-tool player. I can hit, run, defend. I can do all the things you consider a great baseball player.”
Defensively, Culpepper played third base his first two seasons but will move to his natural position of shortstop this spring. His athleticism allows him to cover plenty of ground and make all the necessary plays defensively. He also has above-average arm strength to handle either shortstop or third base in the future.
Culpepper’s goal is to remain at shortstop at the next level. He believes he has the skill set to handle the position and hopes to prove that this spring.
“Shortstop has always been my prime position,” Culpepper said. “I have no challenge whatsoever transitioning back to shortstop because that’s where I’m most comfortable. I can play third base pretty well, I feel like. But I can play shortstop better than I can third base, so I’m ready to show a lot of eyes that.”
In his first two years, Culpepper played a key role for Kansas State. Culpepper hit .283 with nine doubles, five home runs and 22 RBIs in 166 at-bats in 2022. He took a significant step forward last year, batting .325 with eight doubles, 10 home runs, 41 RBIs and nine stolen bases in 151 at-bats. He has displayed quality plate discipline in his two years, totaling 54 strikeouts and 28 walks.
Kansas State’s roster features plenty of talent, headlined by Culpepper and closer Tyson Neighbors, who are drawing significant draft attention.
Last season, the Wildcats posted a 35-24 record. They just missed the NCAA Tournament and believe they have the talent to qualify for the postseason this season. The Wildcats have advanced to the NCAA Tournament four times in the program’s history, with their most recent appearance coming in 2013.
They are trending upwards as a program under the direction of coach Pete Hughes, with a 98-76 record (.563 winning percentage) in the last three years.
“We have a lot to prove,” Culpepper said. “A lot of people are still doubting us and don’t believe we should be where we are right now. The main focus is to stay confident in what we have to do, continue to work and grind to have that same mindset through the whole season.”
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for nine years. He has interviewed 518 of the top draft prospects in that period, including four No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today, MLB.com, The Arizona Republic and The Dallas Morning News, have quoted his work, while he has appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.