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April 17, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

The SEC Ascendant

by Bryan Smith

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College coaches spend a great deal of time defending their conference. Talk to any coach for any length of time, and concerns about the number of bids his conference will receive in the NCAA Tournament inevitably comes up. Every coach, subconsciously, also elevates the strength of his conference in his own mind. In the end, there's one conference that gets it done, year in and year out, in terms of championships, talent, and depth: the Southeastern Conference.

This season, the Pac-10 is in the weakest shape we've seen in many years. This is a good thing for Arizona State (25-8, 10-2 in conference) and Oregon State (22-7, 7-2), but not so good for the rest of the teams. The fact is, that come tournament time, we're going to be talking about how the Big West sent more teams to the tournament than the Pac-10, or worse, that the Mountain West Conference sent just as many. The Big 12 was supposed to be the year's great program, with six schools in my pre-season top 20, with one more (Kansas State) that in hindsight, should have been. But Missouri (19-19, 6-9) is not as good as I had thought, and Oklahoma State (24-14, 4-8) and Texas A&M (22-14, 8-7) are just as quickly falling on their faces. It's a very good conference, much like the ACC, and though every season it looks as if one conference might outshine the SEC, it just never works out that way.

At the end of May, the SEC is going to send eight or nine teams into the NCAA Tournament. It's a fantastic accomplishment, and in the spirit of rewarding them, I'd like to break down the 12 teams in the conference in detail. They're presented below and ranked subjectively, using the criteria listed in each snippet (ISR and RPI are from boydsworld.com, statistics through 4/13).

Louisiana State (27-9, 10-5, #18 ISR, #10 RPI)

Statistics: .310/.410/.520 (fourth in SEC), 4.22 ERA (third), .624 DER (eighth)
Completed SEC Series: Kentucky (2-1), @South Carolina (2-1), Ole Miss (2-1), @Georgia (2-1), @Alabama (2-1)
On the Horizon: Tennessee, Auburn, @Arkansas, Florida, @Mississippi State.
Three Thoughts: Concerns about losing Jared Bradford's grit and leadership from the pitching staff have been quashed thanks to the emergence of senior Louis Coleman, who has handled both the set-up role and the Sunday starter job simultaneously in many weeks. ... This team might really succeed in Rosenblatt Stadium, as opposed to the New Alex Box Stadium, where Coleman, ace Anthony Ranaudo, and closer Matty Ott (who, by the way, has 44 strikeouts and only two walks in 26 1/3 IP) would likely see a decrease in their composite 1.25 HR/9. ... The defense worries me, but it would worry me more if every damn position player wasn't pulling his weight. I know Stephen Strasburg has this Golden Spikes Award all locked up, but will someone tell me how far down Jared Mitchell is going to finish on the ballot? He might not get to 50 steals and 20 home runs, but he won't be far off.

Georgia (29-7, 11-4, #13 ISR, #16 RPI)
Statistics: .320/.410/.548 (second), 3.59 ERA (first), .630 DER (fifth)
Completed SEC Series: @Alabama (1-2), Mississippi State (3-0), @Tennessee (3-0), LSU (1-2), @Kentucky (3-0)
On the Horizon: Arkansas, @Ole Miss, Florida, Vanderbilt, @South Carolina.
Three Thoughts: Yeah, that Mitchell guy is OK, but how about Rich Poythress? The Bulldogs first baseman is certainly out of Gordon Beckham's shadow now, hitting an insane .430/.528/.852 that may raise some doubts about how closed up this Player of the Year race really is. ... On the one hand, this is the SEC-leading pitching staff. On the other, Trevor Holder (3.86 ERA) and Justin Grimm (4.61) take up two-thirds of the weekend rotation. I was right about Alex McRee (2.30 ERA), however-some team will make a steal drafting him in the third round. And, for the second straight year, this bullpen shortens every game. ... You really have to wonder how good this team would be if they had an elite middle infield. Levi Hyams and Michael Demperio aren't really getting it done on either end, as .260/.370/.400 with errors aplenty just doesn't cut it in this conference.

Arkansas (24-9, 10-4, #7 ISR, #8 RPI)
Statistics: .284/.388/.454 (ninth), 4.31 ERA (fourth), .632 DER (third)
Completed SEC Series: Florida (3-0), @Auburn (3-0), Mississippi State (2-1), @South Carolina (2-1), Vanderbilt (0-2)
On the Horizon: @Georgia, @Tennessee, LSU, @Alabama, Ole Miss.
Three Thoughts: There hasn't been much of a reason to criticize the Razorbacks this season, but the series to Vanderbilt-after a mid-week sweep of Arizona State-gives us an opportunity. Sunday's rainout robbed the team of their chance to save face, leaving them outscored 22-6 in the two-game series. It was Arkansas' first series loss of the season, unless you count that one-game midweek affair at Centenary on March 10. ... If the Vanderbilt losses proved anything, it's that this offense will be leaned on heavily down the stretch, as Dallas Keuchel and T.J. Forrest aren't getting it done in the rotation. Moving Brett Eibner into the weekend rotation, and fast, should be a priority with their dangerous schedule down the stretch. ... If Arkansas loses four of the five remaining series, are they a two or a three?

Florida (25-12, 9-6, #33 ISR, #24 RPI)
Statistics: .299/.388/.448 (10th), 3.79 ERA (second), .644 DER (second)
Completed SEC Series: @Arkansas (0-3), Tennessee (3-0), Alabama (3-0), @Vanderbilt (1-2), @Auburn (2-1)
On the Horizon: Ole Miss, South Carolina, @Georgia, @LSU, Kentucky.
Three Thoughts: The bats are the only thing lagging behind, and Preston Tucker could slowly be changing that. Tucker has been the team's hottest hitter over the past two weeks, including one game with three consecutive home runs and 11 RBI. If Josh Adams and Matt den Dekker step up, this team becomes a real sleeper as a two-seed in the tournament. ... The draft sleeper on this team is Billy Bullock, who has really embraced the closer's role. He won't go for a couple of rounds, but a plus slider and a fastball that has touched 95-96 mph makes him the conference's best ninth-inning guy. ... It's a testament to coach (and former pitching coach) Kevin O'Sullivan, and to the defense, that this staff ranks second in the conference in ERA, but they need more from their starting staff. Patrick Keating has fallen apart since beating Louisville in the season opener, and freshman Nick Maronde hasn't shown the consistent improvement that the Gators needed. The best arm might be Anthony Desclafani; though he has only five starts on the year, his 29/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34 2/3 innings bests everyone else on the team by a too-healthy margin.

Ole Miss (26-10, 9-6, #34 ISR, #26 RPI)
Statistics: .306/.393/.441 (11th), 4.32 ERA (fifth), .608 DER (10th)
Completed SEC Series: @Vanderbilt (2-1), Alabama (2-1), @LSU (1-2), Kentucky (3-0), South Carolina (1-2)
On the Horizon: @Florida, Georgia, @Auburn, Mississippi State, @Arkansas.
Three Thoughts: Scouts don't really know what to make of Scott Bittle's potential as a professional, but there's little question that he's #2 on the "Most Dangerous NCAA Pitcher" list. It's certainly hard to imagine that he wouldn't make a fantastic southpaw reliever in the major leagues with his cutter. ... The team defense has been terrible-Matt Smith and Logan Power, the team's only consistent sluggers, are not good defenders, and seeing as how only five players have made 25 or more starts, it's clear there is not enough day-to-day consistency happening for the defense to improve organically. This is not a condemnation of the coaching, but of the recruiting-these position players are in over their heads. ... Hopefully, the second half of the season will give us more of Taylor Hightower and Matt Snyder, the team's top two freshmen recruits. Snyder, the brother of former Orioles first-rounder Brandon, has six home runs in 67 plate appearances. Hightower has been dynamic at the plate, but not so much behind it, with two errors and none caught-stealing (in five attempts) in just two starts.

South Carolina (24-13, 7-8, #36 ISR, #24 RPI)
Statistics: .298/.386/.519 (fifth), 5.02 ERA (eighth), .670 DER (first)
Completed SEC Series: @Mississippi State (1-2), LSU (1-2), @Kentucky (2-1), Arkansas (1-2), @Mississippi (2-1)
On the Horizon: Auburn, @Florida, Vanderbilt, @Tennessee, Georgia.
Three Thoughts: I don't understand how a team can win a series at Mississippi, and then lose at Mississippi State, but these Gamecocks are nothing if not unpredictable. The 2-1 records against both Clemson and Long Beach State would be more impressive in other years, but RPI is still friendly. Boyd Nation says that SC needs to go just 11-8 to finish the year ranked in the Top 32, which should make them a two-seed somewhere. ... Scouting Directors take notice: these pitchers are even worse than they appear. For the second consecutive year, a fantastic team defense is turning a bad pitching staff into a tolerable one, and that's why the below-average weekend rotation has allowed just 126 hits in 134 2/3 innings. Not many programs would tolerate a .175/.343/.313 guy in the lineup, but by prioritizing defense, Scott Wingo has a job in the middle infield. ... If you recall, this would have been the junior season of Lonnie Chisenhall and Nick Cooper, had the pair not been expelled during their freshmen seasons. With those two, this team would be an Omaha threat.

Vanderbilt (23-13, 7-7, #37 ISR, #38 RPI)
Statistics: .311/.405/.447 (tied for sixth), 4.52 ERA (seventh), .617 DER (ninth)
Completed SEC Series: Ole Miss (1-2), @Kentucky (1-2), @Auburn (1-2), Florida (2-1), @Arkansas (2-0)
On the Horizon: Alabama, Mississippi State, @South Carolina, @Georgia, Tennessee.
Three Thoughts: In a draft this thin, I think Mike Minor is going to be a very nice find in the back half of the first round. The lefty has never pitched as well as he has in the past month, and now has three pitches that are really working. Seven extra-base hits allowed in 208 at-bats is damn impressive. ... Kudos to the team for quickly realizing that, while freshman Sonny Gray was ready for the prime-time closer role, peers Navery Moore and Jack Armstrong would be best served by not pitching much this season. Both are going to be big-time arms for this program, but not yet. ... The real star freshman is Jason Esposito at shortstop. He's definitely raw, as the walk-to-strikeout ratio and errors show, but he's also done a fine job replacing Ryan Flaherty at shortstop, hitting .338/.390/.496. Between Esposito and Gray, the Commodores will have a 2011 first-rounder, I can promise you that.

Alabama (24-13, 7-8, #54 ISR, #40 RPI)
Statistics: .345/.430/.601 (first), 4.53 ERA (eighth), .625 DER (seventh). Completed SEC Series: Georgia (2-1), @Ole Miss (1-2), @Florida (0-3), Tennessee (3-0), LSU (1-2)
On the Horizon: @Vanderbilt, Kentucky, @Mississippi State, Arkansas, @Auburn.
Three Thoughts: This is a good old "beat who they should beat, lose when they should lose" team, with one good upset against Georgia to open conference play. If the trend continues, look for them to rise up, as no SEC team has an easier schedule over the last five weeks. Nation says that the Tide must go 12-5 to finish in the top 32 in RPI, and if they can get past Vanderbilt on the road, it looks like a decent possibility. ... Probably not enough is being said about Kent Matthes, Alabama's great slugger. The senior outfielder leads the team with nine steals, but his running ability isn't what is impressing me; it's the 20 home runs. It will be hard to deny Matthes SEC Player of the Year if he keeps hitting .394/.481/.976, Poythress be damned. ... Miers Quigley's career has been very disappointing, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better. The former blue-chip recruit has a 6.86 ERA; he's struck out 24 in 19 2/3 innings, but he's allowed 33 hits. Come to think of it, this staff has 328 strikeouts in 324 innings, even though they aren't very good.

Kentucky (19-16, 4-11, #67 ISR, #35 RPI)
Statistics: .293/.380/.419 (last), 5.10 ERA (ninth), .595 DER (11th)
Completed SEC Series: @LSU (1-2), Vanderbilt (2-1), South Carolina (1-2), @Ole Miss (0-3), Georgia (0-3)
On the Horizon: @Mississippi State, @Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn, @Florida.
Three Thoughts: If you doubt how good this conference is, consider Kentucky's conference record and their RPI. Then realize that this is a team that should win between nine and 11 of their remaining weekend games. According to Nation, if they finish 13-6, which is very possible, they finish in the top 32 of the RPI. I don't think they're a two seed, but they are an imposing #3. ... Once you look at their ranks in the statistical categories, however, they look a little less imposing. This is undoubtedly an offense that can be beat-they don't walk, they don't steal, they don't hit home runs. The best offensive production has come from a seldom-used player with one hell of a baseball name: Gunner Glad, who has six home runs in 62 at-bats. ... James Paxton and Chris Rusin have looked brilliant at times this season, especially Paxton, who is a likely first-rounder this June. For the teams scared off by the pair's hit rates (62 hits in 53 2/3 IP for Rusin, 50/43 for Paxton): don't be. This defense is terrible, and both will see their BABIP drop in pro ball. Also, that DER, and freshman Alex Meyer's 30 hits allowed in 40 1/3 innings, make for one impressive combination.

Auburn (24-13, 7-8, #41 ISR, #27 RPI)
Statistics: .296/.390/.558 (third), 5.93 ERA (last), .593 DER (last)
Completed SEC Series: @Tennessee (2-1), Arkansas (0-3), Vanderbilt (2-1), @Mississippi State (2-1), Florida (1-2)
On the Horizon: @South Carolina, @LSU, Mississippi, @Kentucky, Alabama. One Thought: Auburn really does have a chance to make it a 10-bid conference, but only if they can survive this brutal five-week finish. I can't expect them to, but then this is a team with a conference-leading 79 home runs, and just 13 from Hunter Morris and Kevin Patterson. If those two can get going, and the Tigers continue to see production from Joseph Sanders and Trent Mummey, watch out.

Tennessee (17-21, 3-12, #111 ISR, #78 RPI)
Statistics: .291/.387/.490 (sixth), 5.67 ERA (eleventh), .625 DER (sixth)
Completed SEC Series: Auburn (1-2), @Florida (0-3), Georgia (0-3), @Alabama (0-3), Mississippi State (2-1)
On the Horizon: @LSU, Arkansas, @Kentucky, South Carolina, @Vanderbilt
One Thought: I don't really know what to make of junior southpaw Nick Hernandez. After a good summer, he came into the season with potential as a third-round pick. His 5.29 ERA hasn't helped matters, and the team defense is too average to write off the 60 hits he's allowed in 51 innings. You have to like that 44:9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but 10 home runs allowed is a bad indicator for the future.

Mississippi State (19-18, 5-10, #76 ISR, #60 RPI)
Statistics: .292/.399/.448 (tied for seventh), 5.65 ERA (10th), .631 DER (fourth)
Completed SEC Series: South Carolina (2-1), @Georgia (0-3), @Arkansas (1-2), Auburn (1-2), @Tennessee (1-2)
On the Horizon: Kentucky, @Vanderbilt, Alabama, @Ole Miss, LSU.
One Thought: There is some talent here, but they're awfully top-heavy. The weekend rotation has 133 strikeouts in 131 2/3 innings, and the rest of the team has 133 strikeouts in 182 innings. It's not that the program needs a complete overhaul, but they do need to add a significant amount of depth in the coming years. In this conference, and with their coach, I don't doubt that it will happen.

A revised top 25 will be posted in Unfiltered on Friday.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

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