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February 19, 2008

Wait 'Til Next Year

Other Programs to Follow

by Bryan Smith

Many of us have already began rejoicing that baseball is back, in as much as pitchers and catchers reporting represents the return of baseball. But this Friday baseball will be back in another sense, as the college baseball season's uniform start date will see almost an entire nation's worth of universities hit the field for the first time. Since the New Year, we have gone over the nuances of the college game, the changes it will undergo, the players likely to be the most dominant, and we have gone through the teams themselves. After looking at the 2007 Omaha teams and then reviewing last year's next-best teams last week, I wanted my last pre-season college piece to review 16 more teams that could make some noise in 2008. It's a mix of good programs and underrated programs.

Baylor (2007 Record: 35-27): This team that has a real chance to be very, very good. Mostly, that's the product of coach Steve Smith and recruiting coordinator Mitch Thompson's string of three very good years. This team is high on talent, both defensively--with Beemer Weems at short and Dustin Dickerson at first--and offensively, assuming that the very talented Aaron Miller begins his ascent this spring. But their best asset might be their mound potential, where you'll find a personal favorite, Kendal Volz, and also big recruit Shawn Tolleson (returning from injury), and Wade Mackey, one of the Bears' best a year ago. Although 2009 might be Bears' better season, if this squad's sophomores can step up, they won't waste Weems' last year at short.

Creighton (45-16): Watch out for the Bluejays this spring, because they are certainly going to be able to pitch. Start with Pat Venditte, who famously pitches with both arms, and did so to the tune of a 1.88 ERA last season. Also back will be a trio of weekend arms that combined for over 200 innings a year ago. Like so many Midwestern teams, the question is: will they slug? While the return of Darin Ruf is a good sign, the other power sources on last year's team are gone. While they'll remain patient and their pitching will keep them in games, here's betting that Creighton is undermined by not scoring enough runs on Regional weekend.

East Carolina (40-23): For the Pirates, the key will be the development of their new pitchers. Gone are weekend regulars Dustin Sasser and Josh Dowdy, but coming in are two big transfers, former North Carolina pitcher Matt Cox and former Auburn recruit Justin Bristow. If those two can pitch, they'll make for a nice weekend rotation with returning ace T.J. Hose. The biggest loss, however, might be closer Shane Mathews, though Brett Butts and Bailey Daniels will attempt to continue to shut things down in the late innings. The offense promises to be fine, with only two big losses and a lot of returning power and speed.

Fresno State (38-29): There's many that believe a trip to Omaha is as easy as 1-2-3 good starters. If so, the Bulldogs should be considered a contender, because coach Mike Batesole can put his weekend rotation up against anyone's. Lefty Justin Wilson is a fantastic college ace, and they really think highly of 6'4" Tanner Scheppers, a former shortstop with great arm strength. Clayton Allison, the Sunday pitcher, threw 108 innings last season. Offensively the return of Steve Susford, Eric Wetzel, and Tom Mendonca make for good news, but the lineup's incoming freshman need to step up if the Bulldogs are going to score runs in support of the veteran staff.

Georgia (23-33): Last season was extremely disappointing for Dave Perno and his staff, as the Bulldogs struggled both at the plate (slugging only .399) and on the mound (posting a 4.66 ERA). So what does Perno do to fire up the troops? How about scheduling the first two opening weekends against top ten teams: Arizona at home in just three days, and Oregon State away at the end of February. It will be a great test for a team looking to make the most of their final season from shortstop Gordon Beckham, ace Trevor Holder, and closer Josh Fields. I do think they will pitch well enough, with freshman Justin Grimm and sophomore Ryan Wooley taking on larger roles, but the key will be generating offense, for which a whole new batch of faces will be largely responsible.

Georgia Tech (32-25): The more things change, the more they stay the same for the Yellow Jackets. Last year was more of the same, as GT didn't break the 5.00 ERA barrier. The additional problem is that from last year's .293/.396/.443 offense, Matt Wieters is gone, and so is Danny Payne, and Michael Fisher... in fact, six of last year's regular nine are gone. This means coach Danny Hall will look to Luke Murton to finally break out, as well as expect big things from talented freshman Derek Dietrich and equally talented sophomore Curtis Dupart. Improving the pitching staff will be key, and Tech starts off with a talented twosome of 6'8" pitchers, Eddie Burns and David Duncan. Starting off with big, talented arms is all to the good, but far too often for the Yellow Jackets, translating those velocities to results has been a problem.

Kentucky (34-19): The Wildcats offense was impressive last year under coach John Cohen, as the team posted a .320/.437/.482 line, but unfortunately they managed to go just 13-16 in the SEC. Gone from that team are 1000-plus OPS guys Mike Brown and Sean Coughlin, but 2006 1000 OPS guy Colin Cowgill is now back from injury. Getting Cowgill back will help, and much of the rest of the offense is back. The pitching also promises to be better if only because Kentucky knows 6'8" Scott Green will anchor Friday nights, where the Wildcats were just 4-6 in the SEC last year. Much of last year's pitching staff remains, including three starters representing 230 innings behind Green, as well as every player that earned a save last year.

Long Beach State (39-20): After a summer spent coaching Team USA, Mike Weathers returns to Long Beach with what looks to be a nice, complete team. They do have some star power, with junior shortstop Danny Espinosa and closer Bryan Shaw both likely to land in the first three rounds in June's draft. Between Shane Peterson and Jason Corder this looks like a good, veteran lineup, and on the mound junior ace Vance Worley is healthy with two experienced seniors behind him. The Dirtbags are the favorite to win the Big West, and after watching a few veteran teams make runs to Omaha a year ago, I wouldn't count them out for a trip to Nebraska in June.

Louisiana-Lafayette (45-17): Could I have put two better school nicknames together than the Dirtbags and the Ragin' Cajuns? Louisiana-Lafeyette is not a school that college fans hear about very often, but they have a heck of a program. This season, the unanimous coaches' choice to win the Sun Belt Conference doubles as the most likely small school to appear in a Super Regional. At the top, they have a great one-two combo of Danny Farquhar (115 Ks in 88 IP last year) and lefty Hunter Moody. While the team lost catcher Jon Lucroy (.360/.408/.659) to the Brewers, they'll have one of the nation's best freshman in Thad Griffen to replace him.

Louisiana State (29-26): Entering just his second season with LSU, Paul Mainieri has reshaped the Tigers' roster and re-positioned the program as a contender again in the SEC. The team's success will be a product of how well their newcomers adjust, as three lineup spots and two of the three top spots in the pitching staff will go to new faces. The lineup spots belong to one of the nation's top transfers in Matt Clark--who I could see rising into the third round--and freshmen D.J. LeMaheiu and Chad Jones (the latter a safety and kick returner for the national-champion football team). Jared Bradford returns to the pitching staff, and he'll be joined by newcoming transfers Jordan Brown and Ryan Verdugo and 6'7" behemoth freshman Anthony Ranaudo; collectively, that group will be at the heart of any success on the mound. Mainieri has had to put a lot together relatively quickly, but for the first time in years the Tigers have the talent needed to compete in the SEC.

Miami (37-24): It's hard to believe it has taken this long to get to the vaunted Hurricanes, who surely will boast as much on-field talent as any team in the nation this season. They feature junior sluggers Jemile Weeks and Blake Tekotte at the top, and Yonder Alonso and Dennis Raben in the middle; three of those players (Tekotte's the exception) are likely first-rounders. The rotation will boast senior Enrique Garcia and returning sophomore Eric Erickson, but the key will be solving the bullpen woes that plagued the Hurricanes much last season. Look for coach Jim Morris to integrate more talented freshmen into the program, namely catcher Yasmani Grandal and starter Chris Hernandez this year.

Old Dominion (35-24): Jerry Meyers is entering his fourth season at Old Dominion, having made quick work in turning this program into a contender. Less than five other teams in the nation have a weekend rotation that can match ODU's three juniors: potential second-rounder Dan Hudson, ace Anthony Shawler (10.2 K/9), and the potential-laden 6'6" Dexter Carter. The questions are about the club's offense, as the team will look to succeed with on-base percentage but not power. One key will be the return of Jimmy Miles, the center fielder who missed last season with a knee injury after stealing 39 bases in 2006. This is not a team I would want to play in a regional, that's for sure.

Prairie View A&M (34-25): Included only as a present to fan-of-the-program Kevin Goldstein, the Panthers were again selected as the coaches' favorite to come out of conference and head into the NCAA tournament. As readers of KG know, Prairie View has turned their program around under coach Michael Robertson through a Rickey Henderson Philosophy--walks and stolen bases. In 2006, Prairie View almost pulled one of the great Regional upsets ever by taking Rice to extra innings in Houston, only to lose. They're hurt by the loss of Michael Richard, a star shortstop with 42 steals in 59 games, but the team should pitch better this season as SWAC Pre-Season Pitcher of the Year Wrandal Taylor adds another year of experience.

Southern California (27-29): There's a good chance that I'm a year early here, a good chance I need to give Chad Kreuter one more year to work, and to give Tom House his first year to get settled in. Maybe I need to wait until Grant Green and Robert Stock and Brad Boxberger are juniors, and maybe I'm expecting too much from them in the Pac-10 this early. Then again, here's to betting that Ryan Cook and Boxberger both improve with House's guidance and make a very good one-two at the front of the pitching staff. While losing closer Paul Koss hurts, here's to betting that Stock and Kevin Couture build off of their good Cape campaigns to give USC a nice combination at the end of games. For this team, everything will focus on their power--Green's, Stock's, transfer Mike Roskompf's, and that of the rest of the lineup.

Stetson (42-21): A year ago, this was a team that in February took two of three from LSU and Louisville, and that then ran through the Atlantic Sun Conference, but it proved to be a team that wasn't built to get out of the regionals. The especially bad news is the loss of 225 innings and 212 strikeouts with the departures of Corey Kluber and Chris Ingoglia, which will make things difficult. However, the offense, led by Jordan Bass, promises to be dangerous. This team did a fantastic job of keeping the ball in the park last year (only 23 HR in 566 IP), and their top three pitchers this year will be a trio that allowed just a .305 slugging in 2007. If they can maintain that ability to keep the ball in the park, the Hatters' patience should lead to another Atlantic Sun title, and maybe this year, maybe a bit more than that.

Tulane (34-26): The Green Wave were surely disappointed with last year's 34-26 record, hardly capitalizing on their last year of having ace Sean Morgan around. This year, likely the last from underperforming outfielders Warren McFadden and Aja Barto, will be a big one for the program. Those two will return to a lineup reinforced with four transfers, the best of whom should be Texas transfer Josh Prince. The pitching staff has a formidable ace in potential first-rounder Shooter Hunt, but the key will be the development of sophomores Preston Claiborne and Aaron Loup, transfers Josh Zeid (from Vanderbilt) and Mason Griffin, and freshmen Robby Broach and Nick Pepitone. If that all comes together quickly, it could lead to a nice June run.

I will be back on Friday with an Unfiltered post previewing college baseball's first weekend, and then on Monday I'm hoping to have a college-only chat. Also, next week will begin my weekly college column. If you have suggestions for things you'd like to see on a weekly basis, e-mail me. Until then, enjoy the return of the college game to the baseball landscape.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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