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February 17, 2009
Wait 'Til Next Year
The 2009 Pre-season Baseball Prospectus NCAA Top 25
The 2009 Pre-season Baseball Prospectus NCAA Top 25:
Rk. School 1. Louisiana State 2. Texas 3. Texas A&M 4. Cal State Fullerton 5. North Carolina 6. Missouri 7. Mississippi 8. UCLA 9. Baylor 10. Rice 11. Clemson 12. San Diego 13. Georgia 14. Georgia Tech 15. Stanford 16. UC Irvine 17. Oklahoma 18. Florida State 19. Oklahoma State 20. Miami 21. Alabama 22. Louisville 23. Arizona State 24. Coastal Carolina 25. Pepperdine
Last week, I analyzed college baseball's top tier-the first six teams on the list. The task of finding the final two teams to fill out my College World Series predictions came down to choosing from among the 12 teams that make up the nation's second tier. I won't talk much about the final seven teams today; they're interchangeable with another half-dozen teams that aren't ranked, but I'm sure each will warrant further discussion at some point during the season.
A year ago, Ole Miss and UCLA left me disappointed; both failed to achieve their potential after being designated pre-season favorites. The offseason dealt each program significant losses: UCLA saw four-fifths of their infield drafted, while Ole Miss lost two aces and their top slugger. Still, with a nucleus of proven talent and a pair of weakened conferences, both programs seem better prepared for late-season success in 2009. The Rebels have a bona fide ace (Drew Pomeranz), the best closer in the country (Scott Bittle), and a solid returning offensive core. With shortstop Evan Button healthy, the defense will improve exponentially. The Bruins, on the other hand, will look to balance an expected regression in Defensive Efficiency with a significant step forward from their pitching staff. Freshman Gerrit Cole should have the kind of success that Matt Harvey (UNC) and Kyle Blair (USD) did a year ago, and it's time that juniors Gavin Brooks and Charles Brewer finally live up to their promise.
In all, the 12 schools that make up the second tier sort out into three different groups, and we'll break them down as such to reveal why they rank where they do:
The Offense-Dominated: Clemson, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma, Florida State
A year ago, the ACC had two of college baseball's thee best offenses in Florida State (.355/.459/.565) and Miami (.320/.419/.541). This year, both schools will have good offenses yet again (more on the Seminoles below), but the conference's offensive statistics will be dominated by a new pair of programs: Clemson and Georgia Tech. There's little question the Yellow Jackets will have one of the nation's top offenses, with four returning players coming off of double-digit home-run seasons. Consider this comparison between Derek Dietrich and another freshman shortstop from the same state:
Beckham added 131 points to his OPS as a sophomore; if Dietrich could do the same, it would bring his OPS up to 1133. Beckham didn't have the luxury of a surrounding cast of players that season, and Dietrich has a pair of giant sluggers in Tony Plagman and Luke Murton to provide him with some measure of protection. This offense should improve on last year's 92 team home runs and surpass the triple-digit mark, just as the Hurricanes and Seminoles did a year ago.
Second to the dynamic Yellow Jackets' offense will be that of Clemson, a team that is looking to rebound after posting a lackluster 31-27 season a year ago. The Tigers look better geared in all areas this spring, but it should be their offense that carries the team past 40 wins. First baseman Ben Paulsen will be the face of the team, likely knocking on the door of 20 home runs. Clemson's success will depend upon the rest of the infield stepping forward, especially fifth-year shortstop Stan Widmann, whose 2008 (.238/.297/.325) was a far cry from his .307/.373/.386 sophomore campaign.
Clemson is ranked at the top of this group, as might be expected, because they have the best pitching of the group. There is no natural Friday night pitcher-which should leave Clemson exposed when beginning their weekend series-but there's considerable depth with five potential starters. I'm really interested to see what the team will get from senior Ryan Hinson and sophomore Josh Thrailkill; the latter a highly recruited prepster coming off of Tommy John, while Hinson posted a 2.74 ERA as a sophomore before injuries derailed his junior season. It's actually possible that if all these arms come together, their pitching staff could be transformed into a source strength, and Clemson could sneak nearer to the top of the ACC. Georgia Tech is nearly the opposite, with a viable Friday night ace in Deck McGuire, but little in the way of depth. If the team can patch together improvements from a variety of sophomores, they might pitch enough to give their offense the chance to guide them to Omaha.
The third team in the conference with the same offense-oriented make-up is Florida State, who will again post huge numbers in hitter-friendly Dick Howser Stadium. While they'll have the benefit of getting D'Vontrey Richardson back playing baseball, will his teammates forgive him for sitting out their College World Series season after hitting .351/.431/.481 in 2007 as a freshman? What's interesting is that coach Mike Martin seems to be foregoing defense to maximize their runs per game, but with a thin pitching staff, it just doesn't make much sense to stretch out junior Jason Stidham at shortstop. If it works, however, Stidham's draft stock should shoot up as a gap-hitting utility infielder. As far as the pitching staff goes, I really like sophomore John Gast, who showed a dominant curveball in his two CWS appearances.
Finally, I'm waiting to see Sunny Galloway continue to guide Oklahoma back to college baseball prominence with a step forward this season. Oklahoma has a veteran team, with an offense that looks primed for a composite .300/.400/.500 line. They're the shortest on power in this tier, but senior catcher J.T. Wise should cross the double-digit barrier in home runs for the first time since his freshman year at LSU, when he hit .299/.369/.507. Wise hasn't been the same since. The pitching staff needs a lot of help, but I can still recall hearing about Garrett Richards after his freshman season in the Cape, pitching in the mid 90s with consistency. Expect this to be the year that he turns his velocity into something useful.
The Run-Prevention Specialists: Ole Miss, San Diego, UC Irvine, Stanford
It's clear that San Diego coach Rich Hill believes that building a college team around run prevention is the key to winning at this level. It has led to quite a bit of success in recent years, but even with Brian Matusz and Josh Romanski leading the weekend rotation, the team couldn't get it done in the postseason the past two years. The team will operate within the same parameters this season, and should improve on last year's 3.40 team ERA. Ace Kyle Blair could be the draft's top pick in 2010, and closer A.J. Griffin is a scout's favorite as well. But much like Texas A&M's projecting veteran Scott Migl for mid-week starts, the most impressive aspect of this team is that fifth-year senior Matt Couch is projected for a weekday role. Few in the nation can compete with that kind of depth.
For the Torreros to have post-season success, however, the offense will need to step forward in May and June. It helps to have both Victor Sanchez and James Meador back; they are the real deal at the plate. But outside of Kevin Muno at the top of the order, there's not much else to fear. Seniors first baseman Jose Valerio and shortstop Sean Nicol must lead this team in the postseason for Rich Hill's methodology to be rewarded.
UC Irvine is nearly as dogmatic, even if Mike Gillespie has only been in town for one year. The team has long been built around pitching and defense, with the offense relying on sacrifice bunts and stolen bases. This season will be no exception; ace Daniel Bibona might be the best pitcher in the nation that no one has heard of (yet). Saturday pitcher Christian Bergman will see some regression as a junior-he had a 1.94 ERA in 60 innings last season-but he needs to keep his head on his shoulders. The offense will again be bunt-friendly, led by senior shortstop Ben Orloff, but it still hopes to find power somewhere. Catcher Francis Larson has a little pop, but if the team surpasses 50 home runs it would be a significant surprise.
I didn't know where to put Stanford, but given what should be a fantastic defense, I think that they belong here. The left side of Jake Schlander and Zach Jones is all-world, and the outfield is filled with athletes. I think this will benefit Jeffrey Inman and Danny Sandbrink immensely, the latter of whom showed great potential in Omaha last season. On the offensive side, losing Jason Castro and Sean Ratliff will be insurmountable, but there is still potential to be found on this team. Outfielder Toby Gerhart is primed for a substantial breakout, and I think he'll finally put together all of the skills he has shown: raw power (.256 ISO), patience (24 BB in 155 PA), and good contact skills (19 K). All he needs to do is improve last year's ghastly .229 BABIP-a number more than .100 points below where it should have been.
Finally, there are the Rebels, who we've touched upon. Ole Miss should be dominant in the run-prevention category, with a pitching staff and defense that are both among the nation's best. Drew Pomeranz is a true ace, but it's the depth they have that's admirable-for most teams, incoming transfer Aaron Barrett would be a projected Saturday starter, at least. For the Rebels, he's bound for a mid-week job. But it's the defense that will make the staff look fantastic, as Button's return from injury allows Tim Ferguson to slide from shortstop to third base, where he'll be a significant improvement over Cody Overbeck. If the offense can get Button and Jordan Henry to hit up to their potential, there's more than enough power coming from Matt Smith, Logan Power, and the freshman Snyder twins. While Scott Bittle's choice to spurn the Yankees for his senior season might not be a great personal decision-there's just no way to maintain a 16 K/9, right?-he should be rewarded with team success.
The Well-Rounded: UCLA, Baylor, Rice, Georgia
For me, UCLA is the team that really jumps out here, and that's a testament to the recruiting ability of coach John Savage. He deserves at least some credit for Gerrit Cole's decision not to sign last August, Cole's documented indecisiveness notwithstanding. Savage still needs to prove his mettle in getting the most out of his talent, from Brooks and Brewer to the Bruins frustrating power duo of Gabe Cohen and Cody Decker. Consider this lack of development:
Year Name AVG/ OBP/ SLG Name AVG/ OBP/ SLG 2007 Cohen .345/.404/.549 Decker .307/.376/.583 2008 Cohen .204/.304/.429 Decker .218/.340/.382
Statistically, the best explanation is BABIP: Decker's dropped from .341 to .250, Cohen's from .412 to .256. However, there is also a disturbing team-wide trend of a lack of progression, and Savage is too esteemed a coach to get or perhaps deserve such blame. The gamble in predicting UCLA as the Pac-10 favorite and West Coast Omaha representative is that these problems are transient, and that they instead maximize the impact of the talent on hand.
The same must be true for Baylor to achieve success this season. Five juniors make up the starting lineup of this year's team, in addition to the team's ace (Kendal Volz) and closer (Willie Kempf). I've given a lot of grief to guys like Aaron Miller and Dustin Dickerson, two of the nation's bluest of chips in '06, but Miller seemed to turn it around last season. Don't be surprised if by year's end both he and Volz further their progress and both are nominated as Big 12 Player of the Year candidates in a stacked season for the conference. Without that progress, the Bears may disappoint again. They'll need more than that, however, because the 96th-ranked defense from 2008 lost their star defensive player (Beemer Weems), and it's hard to imagine things improving on that end. For Volz to live up to his potential-and moreso for sophomores Shawn Tolleson and Craig Fritsch-this defense will need enough patchwork to be average.
I stand to catch some flak for underselling Rice here; every other outlet I can find paints the Owls as an Omaha-bound ballclub. I just don't see the depth that so often defines a Wayne Graham team, especially on this pitching staff that promises to lean heavily on freshmen. The top of this team is fantastic; Rick Hague is a superstar in the making at shortstop, and Steven Sultzbaugh could be the nation's top transfer. I love Ryan Berry on Friday nights, and Matt Evers is a great closer, but this is a team leaning on at least five unproven talents in their lineup, and at least two in the four-man rotation. I like the commitment to defense after struggling in the area so much last year; new men on the corners and the exit of Aaron Luna will help immensely in that regard. Graham has pulled bigger surprises before, and in a weakened Conference USA, I don't doubt another national seed is in his future. I just can't see a repeat Omaha trip this time around.
I'll close out the analysis of the second tier with Georgia, the second-ranked team at the end of last season. It's impossible to talk about the Bulldogs and not acknowledge the step backward that the offense is bound to take-the drop-off from Beckham to Michael Demperio at shortstop is worth a couple of wins all by itself. But Rich Poythress could be SEC Player of the Year, Chase Davidson could be Freshman of the Year, and I really like Joey Lewis to break out on offense. The team's real breakout player should be on the pitching side, as Alex McRee showed an enormous amount of potential in Omaha last year. The tall, lanky left-hander can touch 94 with his fastball, and has a good slider. I expect big things, including significant interest from major league scouts. Expect to find radar guns aplenty in the stands on regional weekends in Athens this May.
Rounding Out the Top 25
Oklahoma State and Coastal Carolina both benefited in these rankings with the renewed eligibility of their aces, Andy Oliver and Bobby Gagg, respectively. You know Coastal will cruise to 45 wins, and you know Oklahoma State will hit the ball in Stillwater. ... Miami and Arizona State have so much to overcome, but both offenses should be fine. Jim Morris and Pat Murphy are depending heavily on transfers and freshmen, and I do think that we'll have stars emerge in Harold Martinez, Chris Hermann, Kole Calhoun, and Jordan Swagerty. ... It's going to be very exciting to see what Louisville and Pepperdine can do with such veteran squads this season. These are teams where the defense will be really important, especially for Pepperdine, who can't afford a regression after ranking in the top 20 last year.