February 12, 2008
Wait 'Til Next Year
The Next Rung Down
Last week we looked in detail at the spring prospects for last year's eight Omaha finalists, and found that not one of them looks a sure bet for a repeat trip. So as I continue a comprehensive look at the nation's top programs and 2008 contenders, the logical next step is to see what teams that were close last season are poised to make the last leap. For today, I reviewed the final top 25 rankings in the Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball, and the USA Today Coaches Poll from last June. Outside of the eight Omaha teams, 18 other universities were ranked in the top 25 by at least one of those three polls. Below are the prospects of each of these teams. Next week, we'll finish out this series on the eve of college baseball by looking at the team's that could rebound from a disappointing 2007 with a big finish in 2008.
Vanderbilt (#6 BA, #9 CB, #9 USA)
Vanderbilt was devastated last season by failing to advance past the regional round, losing a heartbreaking last game to Michigan. It was a horrible way for Price and Weathers to close out their college careers, but that voters still fancied this as a top 25 team is credit to their dominance during the regular season. The first-round arms gone means that Vandy won't be as dominant on Fridays and in the ninth innings, but almost all of their offense is back, including the nation's best heart of the order: shortstop Ryan Flaherty, top college player Pedro Alvarez, and top senior Dominic de la Osa. Mike Minor is still a very good Friday night pitcher, but the key decision will be what to do with flamethrower Brett Jacobsen-Saturdays, or the ninth? From there, a slew of underclassmen will be charged with making sure the Commodores don't end up outscored.
Last year, the Gamecocks' strength was their dominant, 113-homer offense. Their pitching, on the other hand, was something of a patchwork, and the staff faces bigger losses than the offense, so I'll give you a guess what will be true again this season. Between Justin Smoak, James Darnell, and Reese Havens-all players that will likely be off the draft board at the end of the third round-the offense should again put plenty of balls out of the yard. The pitching will again be the problem, with pitchers shorter on stuff than normal for such a well-regarded program.
Wichita State (#13 BA, #13 CB, #11 USA)
The two big names from the loss column were the real heart and soul from last year's team-do-it-all middle infielder Damon Sublett and steady Friday ace Travis Banwart. That's a devastating pair of losses, followed by a recruiting class that ended up decimated by better draft showings than the Shockers had anticipated. There's still talent here, at both the top and the periphery. On offense, there is still senior catcher Tyler Weber and Cape Cod standout Conor Gillaspie, both of whom should be good. The weekend rotation is fantastic, with potential first-rounder Aaron Shafer and very good college southpaws Rob Musgrave and Anthony Capra.
Texas A&M (#12 BA, #14 CB, #12 USA)
It's really testament to the job Rob Childress has done in College Station that I really see some potential with his 2008 team, even after they lost a lot. Hicks was one of the Big 12's most valuable players, and Nicholson might have been the conference's most valuable pitcher. Throw in a Friday arm in Newmann and a big bat in Stinson, and there's a lot to overcome. But this team still has second baseman Blake Stouffer and outfielder Kyle Colligan, and freshman pitcher Scott Migl showed a lot of drive at the end of his first season. The key will be the development of several pitchers: Kirkland Rivers and Kyle Thebeau, two frustrating but very capable arms, as well as über-talented freshman Barret Loux.
Clemson (#15 BA, #12 CB, #13 USA)
You might not find a more talented group of players that have left a single university between last spring and this one. D'Alessio, Smith, and Harbin provided 40 homers between them, while the pitchers logged 340 innings and about as many strikeouts. But this program is a machine, and they will contend again with a group of players returning from injury. They key is Stan Widmann, the shortstop on last year's team who broke down and never returned. He'll lead an offense that is otherwise going to be highly dependent on five-year senior catcher Doug Hogan. The pitching staff will be led by Cape standout and sinkerballer D.J. Mitchell, and also returning weekender Ryan Hinson. A key will be how well a pair of star 2006 recruits pitcher/infielder Graham Stoneburner and hurler Josh Thrailkill do this season, as they have the potential to make Jack Leggett forget about Moskos and Kopp.
Augie Garrido leaned very hard on five pitchers last season to carry the brunt of the Longhorns' workload-only four others surpassed ten innings pitched. Of that group of yeomen, only Austin Wood returns, so he'll head straight to Friday-night duties. Garrido's weekend rotation has potential in freshman Brandon Workman and Florida State transfer Casey Whitmer, with 6-10 starter Kenn Kasparek also being worked back from injury. The offense will be fantastic thanks to Kyle Russell, Jordan Danks, and star transfer Brandon Belt.
Florida State (#14 BA, #10 CB, #15 USA)
Second maybe only to Arizona State, the Seminoles' offense was a force to be reckoned with last season. It was so as a result of Tony Thomas' breakout campaign, Jason Stidham's out-of-nowhere freshman season, and D'Vontrey Richardson's much more expected freshman season. While losing Thomas, Hallberg, and Gildea out of the lineup was expected, Richardson's decision to focus on a football is devastating. Buster Posey, Jack Rye, Stidham and transfer Tony Delmonico represent the core of a good offense, but they won't score enough runs to hold up a pitching staff that needs major help.
Mississippi (#17 BA, #19 CB, #16 USA)
The Rebels are one of the only teams we've seen on this list that, a year later and despite three big losses listed above, are a better team. That's because they will still have a veteran pitching staff led by the best one-two combo in the nation: Lance Lynn and Cody Satterwhite. For that pair, 20 wins and 300 strikeouts is a ridiculous outside possibility. The offense will struggle at times, but Cody Overbeck and Logan Power are good in the middle, and Jordan Henry is great up front. If the takeaway from last week's article was the importance of good pitching in June, this week's should be that Ole Miss is a legit contender in 2008.
Virginia (#16 BA, #15 CB, #17 USA)
In some ways, you can't help but wonder if the Cavaliers didn't capitalize on their opportunities last season. After all, the three players listed above were immensely valuable, especially Doolittle. And you have to expect some regression to the mean from ace Jake Thompson (11-0, 1.50 ERA) and shortstop Greg Miclat (.376/.486/.488), don't you? Like every year, it seems, pitching doesn't appear to be a problem, starting with Thompson and Pat McAnaney and talented freshman Jake Cowan. But finding power outside of the contact hitting of Miclat and Adams is going to be an issue-Virginia might be trying to win the ACC with a sub-.400 slugging percentage, a difficult task indeed.
Michigan (#19 BA, #20 CB, #18 USA)
In most ways, the Wolverines are merely a year older this season, so a year after shocking the world and beating Vanderbilt in the regional, Michigan is poised to make an Omaha run. The team is led by two-way talent Zach Putnam, who will likely close in on a 10-homer, sub-3.00 ERA season, feats that should put him right in the middle of the Golden Spikes race. The key for Michigan might actually be their infield defense, as Putnam, Wilson, Fetter, and Michael Powers all have sink to their fastballs. It sounds easy enough, but if Michigan can catch the ball this season, they are going to be a tough team to beat.
Oklahoma State (#23 BA, #21 CB, #19 USA)
The Cowboys took advantage of the last year of free transfers this season, nabbing two of the best in former Houston catcher Luis Flores and Washington third baseman Matt Hague. They'll do well in replacing a huge part of the offense that left-Brown, Mangini, Wright, and Mach. The transfers join Jordy Mercer, one of the nation's more valuable players given his combined role as shortstop and closer on this year's Cowboy team. Oklahoma State will have some success if they can pitch, and there they could surprise people, as Andy Oliver might turn a corner en route to a 2009 first-round selection; Matt Gardner coming back from injury will be critical. All in all, there is some depth on the pitching side for the first time in a while, so don't be surprised if Oklahoma State doesn't end up higher in the 2008 polls despite seemingly fielding a bit less talent.
San Diego (#18 BA, #16 CB, #20 USA)
It's impossible to talk about the Torreros and not talk about their pitching, because the team has the best collection of talent on the mound in the nation. Fridays offer top college pitcher Brian Matusz, while Saturdays have top two-way player and lefty Josh Romanski. Sunday will bring the dependable senior Matt Couch, with über-talented freshman Kyle Blair slated to start on weekdays. Fantastic closer A.J. Griffin will still man the bullpen with the experienced Ricardo Pecina, while another heralded freshman, Sammy Solis, should be set to go somewhere in between. It's a ridiculous collection of talent, and a group coach Rich Hill is looking to riding all the way to Omaha. The offense is going to need big power on the corners from a few freshmen, because they will otherwise struggle to score runs at times, given their losses on offense.
Arkansas (#21 BA, #18 CB, #21 USA)
Last season, Dave Van Horn's talented weekend staff mustered 319 strikeouts, and that was with Jess Todd not even starting every weekend. It's almost impossible to quantify how much Schmidt, Todd, and Welker will be missed. The team will be going from the nation's most talented weekend staff to not having a single one of them back this year. This will present a lot of pressure for sophomore Dallas Keuchel, who struggled last season, and Shaun Seibert, who was hurt. Star freshman Brett Eibner will need to make quick contributions, as well. Offensively they'll hit even without Hamblin and Walker-watch for Jeff Nutt to make a big jump this season. However, without the weekend staff from last year's team, it's time for Van Horn to focus on rebuilding.
UCLA (#22 BA, #23 CB, #22 USA)
Baseball America has the Bruins in their top spot in the pre-season rankings because of two factors: the strength of their returning offense, and the potential of their pitching staff. Most of the bats are back and promise to be even better; the infield is probably the best in the nation, and Ryan Babineau behind the plate should hit much better than his sophomore line of .272/.323/.398. But coach John Savage will need to work magic with the pitching staff for UCLA to meet the bar set for them, because Brummett and Rustich represent two significant losses. Gavin Brooks and Jason Novak were good-not-great last season, but the key will be how Tim Murphy and Charles Brewer come along. Both are first round talents-Murphy this June, and Brewer next-but neither has shown in-game skills against aluminum yet. If they do, this team certainly has the offensive and defensive talent to make an Omaha run.
Last season featured both a fantastic run and a disappointing end for the Chanticleers-they had certainly hoped for more than to lose in the Regional. After all, this was a team that won 16 games in a row in March, and a team that had tested itself during the season by scheduling a tough slate of weekday games. They were certainly prepared, but in the end, the pitching staff could not contain the Clemson offense in two games. While Coastal Carolina is again favored to win the Big South, national accolades seem a bit more out of reach this season, as the team lost a lot of talent. However, last year's stars-Tommy Baldridge and David Sapelt on offense, and Bobby Gagg and David Anderson in the pitching staff-remain, so they certainly aren't a team I'd like to run into in a regional.
Missouri (#24 BA, #27 CB, #23 USA)
Remember that it was Missouri, not Louisville, that hosted a regional last year, and Missouri won the first of their meetings; to get out of the regional, en route to their Cinderella Omaha run, the Cardinals had to win two games in Columbia off of the Tigers. They did, and went on to make history, but if they hadn't, we might be talking about a repeat Missouri run. Instead, we're talking about the pre-season Big 12 favorite finally doing it this time around, as they haven't yet under Tim Jamieson's tutelage, and that despite the coach building up Missouri as one of the nation's powers. This could be the year to do it, as the Tigers have two fantastic arms at the top in Aaron Crow and Kyle Gibson, along with some solid bats like DH Jacob Priday and sophomore catcher Trevor Coleman.
If we were doing rankings in this space, the Wildcats would be my top team. It's a club that has good depth and top talent, and one with both an offense and a pitching staff. The bats should be fantastic, starting off with a four-headed monster that will make for the best OF-DH combo in college baseball: Diallo Fon, T.J. Steele, Jon Gaston, and Brad Glenn. Throw C.J. Ziegler into the mix, and you're talking about 50 home runs and 50 steals from the group, at least. On the pitching side, Preston Guilmet is an ace if you've ever seen one, Jason Stoffel is a premier closer, and then the team has the ability to mix and match. David Coulon and Mike Colla are dependable, nothing-special starters. Ryan Perry could be drafted in the first round and might start and relieve, while lefty Daniel Schlereth offers similar versatility. If there's a team in the nation that should finish the season on top, in my book it's Arizona.
Texas Christian (#25 BA, #28 CB, NR in USA)
It will be a rebuilding season for TCU this year, as only Clemson can relate to the ridiculous amount of talent that has left this program since last year. Gone is the weekend rotation that was so dependable for Jim Schlossnagle while throwing 280 innings and allowing just ten home runs. Gone also is Sam Demel, the All-American closer. Gone is roughly two-thirds of the team's 64 home runs. While the team has quite a few good transfers (like Andrew Cashner), and some good freshmen (notably Greg Holle), it's difficult to see them any more poised to make a regional run than they were last season. If they do, it will be from returning some real talent from the injured list, like Matt McGuirk and Seth Garrison, as well as the development of sinker-balling sophomore Tyler Lockwood.