No. 28 Draft prospect Culpepper powers K-State in desert finale

February 19th, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- Kansas State’s Kaelen Culpepper encountered one of the toughest challenges in his career when he was sidelined for 19 games last season when broke his left hamate bone on a routine swing in a game against LSU.

“I wanted to be out there with my guys playing every day, battling and competing at a high level,” said Culpepper, MLB Pipeline’s No. 28 Draft prospect. “That happens in life, so I didn't really let that affect me. It's a little bit of that adversity that I had to deal with but I was still on a mission.”

It was the longest time he was away from the sport he loved, but the time away gave him a new profound appreciation for the moments he took the diamond. Culpepper couldn’t stay still. Every day he was at his trainer’s office in hopes of speeding up the recovery process.

Culpepper returned one month after his injury, hoping to pick up where he left off. Instead, he exceeded expectations. He had a slash line of .325/.423/.576 with 10 home runs and 44 RBIs. He didn’t just set new career highs in 11 fewer games played in his freshman year, but he asserted himself as one of the best hitters in college baseball.

“I think he's one of the top players in the country,” Kansas State head coach Pete Hughes said. “He just gets better every year. He's been in our program and I expect nothing different for this year for him to keep making jumps. That's what great players do, they keep getting to the different levels, they keep making the adjustments and making jumps to be productive.”

Culpepper had a busy summer which consisted of splitting time between the prestigious Cap Cod League and the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team for Team USA. He slashed .270/.382/.317 with the Harwich Mariners and slugged a team-leading .853 with a .526 on-base percentage with Team USA.

He ran into some early challenges in the Desert Invitational. Before Sunday’s 7-6 win over Georgetown, Culpepper was 2-for-8 but contact wasn’t an issue as he struck out in just one of those at-bats. The balls just weren’t dropping for base hits. As frustrating as it was, he kept his composure and knew that with plenty of life left in the season, his fortunes would turn around.

That’s exactly what happened in the first inning against the Hoyas. On the fourth pitch he saw against Georgetown, the shortstop crushed a solo home run to center field. Culpepper, with two shiny chains hanging around his neck, trotted around the bases and pointed toward the Kansas State dugout in celebration. The burden of getting that much-needed strong contact hit fainted off his shoulders.

“I'm thankful for the opportunity to be where I am at right now,” Culpepper said. “I'm going back and focusing on right now is the season and winning every day and I can just focus on it day-by-day. So I mean all the other stuff is going to handle itself but right now it's got to focus on a team.”

When asked about his next challenge, Culpepper smiled and said that moving from third base to shortstop is an area he’s been focusing on. The 21-year-old has heard the noise of being doubted to be a productive shortstop, but he is determined to prove everyone wrong by the time the Draft arrives.

“I think they're going to be shocked,” Culpepper said. “A lot of people don't believe that I could play shortstop, you know, especially when I'm moving from third base.

“I think they're going to say that I'm a great shortstop and I can be a run producer at the next level and be a high-caliber player wherever I play.”