After a nine-year drought, the SEC, usually considered the strongest conference in just about every sport, has righted itself the last two years, with LSU and South Carolina winning it all in 2009 and 2010 respectively.
Last year, three of the teams I had in my preseason top 10 made it to Omaha, after my top four teams made it to the College World Series in 2009. I really like the chances for Florida, TCU, UCLA, Oklahoma and Arizona State to repeat this year given the amount of returning talent they have. Texas, who was my number one team at this time a year ago, also has impressive returning depth in their staff, as does Vanderbilt.
And you won’t see the defending national champion South Carolina Gamecocks below. I think they lost too much in their Friday and Saturday starters, Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson, as well as their second best hitter to Jackie Bradley, Jr. in Whit Merrifield, to have the same impact this coming season.
Here is how I view the top 10 college teams stacking up for the year, not to be confused with Perfect Game’s and PG Crosschecker’s official college rankings once those are released. Just missing the cut were Arizona, Cal State Fullerton, Clemson, LSU, Miami, Texas A&M and Virginia, and I really like the potential of non-traditional baseball powerhouses Coastal Carolina, Connecticut and Washington State.
1. Florida Gators
The Gators finished tied for seventh in Omaha a year ago, boasting an incredible amount of talent among their underclassmen. It is rare for freshmen to step in and make an immediate impact at the college level, but an impressive recruiting class led to some big contributions from now sophomores Austin Maddox, Brian Johnson and Nolan Fontana.
Almost their entire starting lineup returns intact, led by Maddox, Johnson, Fontana, first baseman Preston Tucker, second baseman Josh Adams, catcher Mike Zunino and outfielders Tyler Thompson, Daniel Pigott and Kamm Washington. Losing team leader Matt den Dekker (their leading hitter a year ago) will hurt, but another big recruiting haul highlighted by unsigned first-round pick Karsten Whitson, Daniel Gibson and Keenan Kish will help fill whatever holes this team may have.
Team veterans Ben McMahon and Bryson Smith will offer leadership and a pair of big bats off the bench.
Whitson and Gibson will help complement a starting staff that includes Johnson, Alex Pantellodis, and Hudson Randall, a trio that accounted for more than half (25 of 47) of the team’s wins a year ago. Lefties Nick Maronde and Steven Rodriguez may be poised to replace Kevin Chapman as the team’s closer. Anthony DeSclafini, Michael Heller, Greg Larson, Justin Poovey and Tommy Toledo all return to provide pitching depth, likely making up the bulk of the bullpen.
You’re not going to find a more balanced team than Florida. They can hit, pitch and field up the middle as well as any team in the nation, which makes them my preseason favorites to win it all this coming year.
2. TCU Horned Frogs
It was a difficult choice picking Florida over TCU as my number one team. The growth of the TCU program has been apparent, as they have graced my top 10 list for several years now, with their CWS berth becoming the pinnacle of that growth.
Matt Purke wasted little time living up to his reputation, posting a perfect 16-0 record and leading the Horned Frogs to Omaha. He returns as the team’s Friday ace, and one of the top three to five players in the nation eligible for this year’s draft. Purke’s weekend rotation mates Kyle Winkler and Steven Maxwell also return, and that trio accounted for 39 wins a year ago.
A big reason I don’t have TCU number one is due to their pitching depth. While strong, they did lose three of their top bullpen arms from a year ago in closer Tyler Lockwood, Paul Gerrish and Greg Holle. Kaleb Merck may seamlessly assume the role as the team’s closer this coming season, with Trent Appleby, Erik Miller and a pitching-based recruiting class filling other crucial roles.
The team’s leading hitter, left fielder Jason Coats, also returns and is poised for an even bigger season. TCU will also have their other two starting outfielders from last year, Aaron Schultz and Brance Rivera, back.
Jerome Pena and Taylor Featherston are rocks up the middle of the infield, while freshman all-american Josh Elander could replace either Bryan Holaday behind the plate or Matt Curry at first. Jimmie Pharr, Kyle Von Tungeln, Joe Welk and Jantzen Witte will help fill in the other holes while also providing valuable depth off of the bench.
3. Vanderbilt Commodores
A recurring theme of strong pitching continues with a Vanderbilt team that boasts the same weekend starting staff in Sonny Gray, Jack Armstrong and senior Taylor Hill. Grayson Garvin was named the Cape’s top pitcher last summer, and may push for a few weekend starts of his own. This quartet didn’t post gaudy statistics a year ago, but they have the potential to do so, with Gray, Armstrong and Garvin forming arguably the most talented draft-eligible trio in the nation.
Vanderbilt did lose several key members of their bullpen, but will be highlighted by a pair of live-arms in right-hander Navery Moore and lefty Sam Selman. Will Clinard and Corey Williams also return to assume key roles in the bullpen, while talented freshman lefty and prized recruit Kevin Ziomek will be looking to find a significant role on the team as well.
The offense will be led by their two star corner infielders, third baseman Jason Esposito and Aaron Westlake. Catcher Curt Casali was also one of their leading hitters from a year ago, as well Anthony Gomez, who may slide over from second base to shortstop to replace Brian Harris. Former Aflac All-American Conor Gregor will likely see significant playing time as a freshman, either in the outfielder or as the team’s DH, with productive returnees Connor Harrell and Joe Loftus expected to assume their roles as everyday starters in the outfield.
Infielder Bryan Johns and outfielder Mike Yastrzemski enjoyed success last season serving in extended part-time roles, and likely will be a bigger part of the team this coming season.
4. UCLA Bruins
If Florida has the most depth, TCU the best retuning staff and Vanderbilt the best draft-eligible trio, then the Bruins easily have the most dynamic one-two punch in the nation.
It starts with Gerrit Cole, a former Aflac All-American and unsigned first-round pick from the 2008 draft that consistently throws in the mid to upper-90s. You just can’t teach that kind of velocity, and his command has improved his first two years for the Bruins. Trevor Bauer struck out more batters than Cole did a year ago, with an aggressive approach, hammer curve and quirky mannerisms on the mound.
Sunday starter Rob Rasmussen has moved on, and UCLA may turn to a pair of freshmen, Adam Plutko and Cal transfer Eric Jaffe, to assume their Sunday and/or mid-week roles. Even if they don’t debut as starters, they will help add reinforcements to a bullpen that lost significant contributions from Garett Claypool, Eric Goeddel, Matt Grace and closer Dan Klein. Mitchell Beacom is the only returning reliever that made more than 10 appearances a year ago, with Scott Griggs and Brandon Lodge expected to play a bigger role this coming season.
Returnees Beau Amaral, Trevor Brown, Dean Espy, Jeff Gelalich, Dennis Holt, Cody Keefer, Tyler Rahmatulla and Cody Regis all hit .300 or better last season, although they didn’t have a single batter reach double-digits in home runs, and Rahmatulla was the only player to reach double-digits in stolen bases. Steve Rodriguez is a rock behind the plate, and will help stabilize both the defense and the pitching staff.
5. Texas Longhorns
It won’t be easy for Texas to replace Brandon Workman’s 12 wins, or Chance Ruffin’s 14 saves, but year after year they have some amazing recruiting classes, not to mention returning depth to help address what appears to be glaring holes.
Taylor Jungmann very well may be the best pitcher in all of college baseball, whose name is in the same discussions in relationship to the draft as Gerrit Cole and Matt Purke as mentioned above. Cole Green returns for his senior year after being drafted in the fourth round a year ago, and Sam Stafford is coming off of an exceptional summer pitching in the California Collegiate Baseball League. Austin Dicharry was more productive during his freshman year than he was a year ago, although he was shut down mid-season a year ago with shoulder tendinitis.
Lefties Hoby Milner and Andrew McKirahan went 5-2 out of the Longhorns bullpen a year ago between 41 appearances collectively, with right-handers Kendal Carrillo and Stayton Thomas going 6-0 in 40 combined appearances. That quartet returns giving the Longhorns excellent depth for a team whose starting staff has a knack for working deep into ballgames.
There are a few more names in the starting lineup to replace, but they do return their entire starting infield in first baseman Tant Shepherd (their leading hitter last year), second baseman Jordan Etier, shortstop Brandon Loy and third baseman Kevin Lusson. Centerfielder Cohl Walla also returns, and sophomore Jonathan Walsh will see more playing time either behind the plate, on a corner outfielder spot, as the team’s DH or some combination of those positions given his versatility.
6. Stanford Cardinal
If you could slap labels like 5 tool talent, projectability and upside about an entire team as opposed to an individual prospect, Stanford would be the one you would do so for. Stanford has significant upside as a team, with a tremendous talent base, and they return almost their entire pitching staff. Their recruiting class was arguably the best in the nation, and they have an incredible base of sophomores, making their talent from top to bottom similar to the Florida Gators from a year ago.
But that talent is far from proven, with some question marks almost as big as the overall talent they boast.
Brett Mooneyham has among the highest potential of any 2011 draft-eligible player, but he needs to hone his command significantly to be productive on a weekly basis. Outfielder Jake Stewart has a similar profile as a positional prospect, with five tool talent but the need for polish to bring his game together. As noted, they had a great recruiting class (led by Austin Wilson, Brian Ragira and A.J. Vanegas), but that talent needs to prove to be productive, and expecting anything from any of them as freshmen may be asking too much.
Their best prospect, infielder Kenny Diekroeger, had an excellent freshman year a season ago, and overall the offense should be strong with Stewart, Stephen Piscotty, Tyler Gaffney, Zach Jones, Ben Clowe and Eric Smith all returning to assume everyday roles on the field.
The pitching staff is in even better shape, as each and every pitcher (14 in total) that made an appearance during the 2010 season returns. As noted above, Mooneyham has room for improvement, and Mark Appel, Scott Snodgress and Chris Reed in particular are also expected to take big steps forward.
7. Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners are going to score a lot of runs, I don’t think there is any question about that, led by corner infielders Garrett Buechele and Cameron Seitzer, the sons of former big leaguers Steve and Kevin. Those two and three others (Tyler Ogle, Cody Reine and Max White) each hit 10 or more home runs a year ago, and all five return to form the heart of the Sooners’ lineup.
The middle of the infield will be the biggest question mark to open the year. Shortstop Caleb Bushyhead has a torn ACL and is expected to miss at least the first month of the season, and their everyday second baseman a year ago, Danny Black, has moved on to a professional career. Juco transfer Evan Mistich, a Northwoods League all-star last summer, likely will be counted in to fill in at one or both positions during the course of the season, possibly keeping shortstop warm for Bushyhead before sliding across the middle infield upon his return.
Chris Ellison returns to centerfield to provide very good defense up the middle and speed (24 stolen bases in 28 attempts last year) at the top of the lineup. Overall, the outfield has very good depth with Reine and White flanking Ellison and a trio of seniors on the roster (Tyler Brady, Rick Eisenberg, Casey Johnson) who will be looked upon to provide valuable leadership and experience off of the bench.
On the pitching side of things, replacing Jeremy Erben and Zach Neal won’t be easy, but another notable juco transfer (something Oklahoma excels at acquiring), Burch Smith, is expected to step in and assume a crucial weekend starting role. He may join senior returnees Michael Rocha and Bobby Shore, who collectively went 20-7 last season, as well as closer Ryan Duke, who notched 12 saves. Sophomore lefty Ryan Gibson also should assume valuable innings, but rounding out the rest of the pitching staff will be a challenge with a lot of newcomers and underclassmen in the mix.
8. Arizona State Sun Devils
I’m still putting Arizona State in my top 10 despite the fact that they lost significant members of their 2010 College World Series team, particularly in the pitching staff. Replacing starters Seth Blair, Merrill Kelly and Jake Borup, who collectively went 33-5, and closer/utility man Jordan Swagerty, who closed 14 games, will be no easy task.
A trio of talented sophomore right-handers, Jake Barrett, Alex Blackford and Brady Rodgers, will be looked upon to do just that. Barrett and Rodgers in particular are already being looked at as two of the top pitchers eligible for the 2012 draft, and Blackford has a knockout curveball and good command. Lefty Mitchell Lambson returns with the most experience, going 8-2 in 39 appearances last year, but there will be a lot of new faces rounding out the rest of the pitching staff.
If any team could take comfort in their ability to consistently out-score their opponents, it would be the Sun Devils. Sophomore stud shortstop Deven Marrero led the team in hitting a year ago as a freshman, and will be part of arguably the most dynamic infields in the nation with the reigning Pac-10 player of the year, Zach MacPhee, serving as his double-play partner. Zach Wilson will be at the hot corner and Riccio Torrez will be scooping his throws across the diamond at first. Johnny Ruettiger and Andrew Aplin will see regular playing time in the outfield, and all six of these batters hit .337 or better a year ago.
They also boast speed, as Marrero, MacPhee, Ruettiger and Torrez all reached double-digits in swipes, and both Wilson and Aplin also have the potential to do so.
9. Florida State Seminoles
I learned early in my college baseball fan-ship that counting against Florida State from making Omaha is not a good idea, as they assemble their kind of team with their kind of players better than any other program in the nation.
Replacing their leading hitter and catalyst, Tyler Holt, from a year ago will be no easy task, but senior outfielder/pitcher and team MVP Mike McGee and his knack for delivering the big hit (17 home runs) while also closing games (13 saves) is back.
They are strong at the infield corners with Sherman Johnson at the hot corner and Jayce Boyd at first. In particular, I really liked how first baseman Jayce Boyd performed during his freshman year, and expect him to take another big step forward this coming year. Other regulars such as James Ramsey and Stuart Tapley also return, while frequently used part-timers Justin Gonzalez, Rafael Lopez and Devon Travis expect to receive even more regular playing time. Look for freshman Eric Arce to receive extended looks as well.
The pitching staff will again be led by Sean Gilmartin, a gifted overall athlete who also could see time in the outfield, leading the Seminoles in both wins (nine) and batting (.383) during his sophomore year. Outside of John Gast and Geoff Parker, most of the pitching staff returns intact, and Florida State does a very good job balancing the bullpen from game to game and series to series. Right-handers Daniel Bennett (6-foot-4, 220) and Hunter Scantling (6-foot-8, 270), as well as lefty Brian Busch (6-foot-3, 235), who combined for 75 appearances last year, stand out for their super-sized statures and should take on equally large roles on the staff this coming year.
10. Oregon Ducks
Despite the fact that the Ducks lost a few key contributors from a year ago, most notably weekend starters Justin LaTempa and Zack Thornton, I’m a believer in the Ducks’ rapid success and re-emergence after not fielding a baseball team for 28 years. No one expected much out of Oregon during their first year back, but last year they took a huge step forward by finishing 40-24, almost flipping their 14-42 record from the previous season.
Pitching and defense will likely continue to be the calling cards for this team, led by lefty ace Tyler Anderson, who went 7-5 with a 2.98 ERA last spring and didn’t allow an earned run in three starts with Team USA last summer. Scott McGough could move from the bullpen to take another weekend spot, and Madison Boer will anchor the bullpen. James Housey, Alex Keudell and Christian Jones also return to retain key roles on the Ducks’ staff after each made at least 20 appearances a year ago.
The infield defense will be strong thanks to the return of shortstop KC Serna, third baseman J.J. Altobelli and second baseman Danny Pulfer. Infielders Jack Marder and Shawn Peterson as well as outfielders Andrew Mendenhall and Marcus Piazzisi also return to help round out the everyday lineup.
Talented freshmen Ryon Healy and Stefan Sabol could add some much needed power to a lineup that hit only 32 home runs as a team a year ago, depending on how quickly they acclimate themselves to the college game.
The thoughts and opinions listed here do not necessarily reflect those of Perfect Game USA. Patrick Ebert is affiliated with both Perfect Game USA and 5 Tool Talk, and can be contacted via email at email@example.com.