With the baseball season still yet to get underway, the guessing game to figure out who looks the best on paper continues. It'll get proven on the field over the next few months, but there are a few squads that stand out as being the cream of the crop. There's a good chance that we'll see several of the following teams in Omaha in June, but given how wacky college baseball is in year in, year out, we'll also see a few of these guys be the victim of the upset bug. But for now, here's who we think are the best of the best in the land, starting with two in-state rivals who won't just be battling for bragging rights, but to be at the top of the heap, both in the conference and in the nation.
(#1) Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils were one of the postseason favorites to be the last team standing in Omaha, but instead, were tripped up by Oregon St. and UC Irvine to end their Omaha run short of glory. However, they start the season on top of our poll, because of one of the most potent lineups in the country, and a quality pitching staff to go with it. The Sun Devils do lose several key members of last year's CWS team, in Eric Sogard, Andrew Romine, Matt Spencer, and star pitcher Brian Flores. However, thanks to a talented cast of returnees, and a few top-notch transfers, Pat Murphy's team will be tough to beat in '08.
Leading the way at the plate is junior infielder Brett Wallace (.404, 16 homers, 78 RBI), who might be on a personal mission to get back to Omaha after his struggles there last year. Fellow juniors Kiel Roling (.356/15/63), Ike Davis (.349/8/61, 23 doubles), and Petey Paramore (.379/6/52) will drive in (and out) plenty, and Kentucky transfer Jason Kipnis, who hit .337 with 6 homers and 27 RBI last year as a freshman in the SEC, should step into the starting lineup right away.
The pitching staff might have been the team's 'weakness' last season, despite having three starters who combined to go 37-7. Two of those starters, junior Josh Satow (13-3, 2.76 ERA, 119 Ks) and sophomore Mike Leake (13-3, 3.69 ERA, 94 Ks) are back, and Winthrop transfer Jason Franzblau (8-4, 3.13 ERA, 90 Ks) will step in where Brian Flores left off and give the Sun Devils one of the nation's top rotations. While the rotation will be strong, the bullpen will ultimately be the key, because if they can be reliable, Murphy won't have to overwork his starters. Sophomore closer Jason Jarvis, who had 11 saves last season, will hold down that role once again, along with figuring into the mix at the plate. As for the other relievers, junior college transfers Reyes Dorado and Stephen Sauer are the most likely options to figure in prominently, along with highly-touted freshman Seth Blair and Davis, who should pitch regular innings after cutting back on his pitching duties in 2007. If those talented arms can combine to make a strong bullpen, the Sun Devils should be able to make a deep run in Omaha, and maybe wind up with their first national championship since 1981.
(#2) Arizona Wildcats
Last season, Arizona was a surprise runner-up in the Pac-10 behind their archrivals, and finished with 42 wins. This season, the Wildcats are primed for an even bigger year, with most of the top players from last year's team returning, led by stud pitcher Preston Guilmet.
The Wildcats had seven .300+ hitters last season, and six of them return, with only leading hitter Bill Rhinehart missing. Rhinehart will certainly be missed, but thanks to C.J. Ziegler (.355/13/63) and Brad Glenn (.333/10/62), Andy Lopez shouldn't have to worry about where the power is coming from. T.J. Steele (.323/7/47/21 SB) has both the power and the speed, and along with Jon Gaston (.319/6/33, eight triples, 12 SB), Diallo Fon (.300/2/13, 10 SB), and Robert Abel (.264/22 RBI, 21 SB), Arizona will be pretty formidable on the basepaths. You can't leave out Colt Sedbrook (.335/1/24), whose bat is plenty good enough to get him base many a time, but gets hit by pitches for a living (16 times in '07), and Glenn (15) and Abel (10) were also boinked often for a bunch that really knows the meaning of taking one for the team (90 HBP last season).
Thanks to that lineup, scoring runs shouldn't be an issue, and giving them up shouldn't be either. Guilmet is the ace of the staff, and one of the nation's best (12-2, 1.87 ERA, 146 Ks in '07). David Coulon (4-3, 4.98 ERA, 62 Ks), Mike Colla (3-3, 5.20 ERA, 45 Ks), and Ryan Perry (0-2, 6.35 ERA, 35 Ks) will battle for the other two spots. The bullpen is one of the nation's best, with Jason Stoffel (5-0, 1.87 ERA, 5 saves, 55 Ks in 43.1 IP), Cory Burns (3-1, 3.62 ERA, 2 saves), and closer Daniel Schlereth (3-1, 2.68 ERA, 47 Ks in 37 IP) a tough trio to go up against. Arizona fans have been waiting since 1986 for a title, and this team might be their best since that '86 squad. Whether they can live up to the lofty expectations remains to be seen, but a pre-conference slate that will see them play three game series against Georgia and Cal St. Fullerton will tell a lot about the merits of this team as a contender.
(#3) South Carolina Gamecocks
Advancing deep in the postseason is a yearly routine for South Carolina, and last season saw them reach yet another Super Regional, where they lost to North Carolina in a tight three-game series. The Gamecocks will contend for a berth in Omaha once again, as Ray Tanner will have one of the nation's most potent lineups at his disposal (what's new there?).
All-American infielders Justin Smoak (.315/22/72) and James Darnell (.331/19/63) lead the way, with Phil Disher (.328/15/63) rounding out one of the most dangerous trios in college baseball. USC also returns starters Harley Lail (.291), Andrew Crisp (.283), and Reese Havens (.274).
Inconsistency and injuries have plagued the pitching staff in the last couple of years, and injuries are already figuring into the equation thus far, with Jay Brown, Steven Nieff, and Brandon Miller all sidelined for the season. The rotation will consist of juniors Mike Cisco and Will Atwood, and sophomore Blake Cooper, and all three need to perform well week in, week out. Curtis Johnson will step in at closer, and Alex Farotto and Jordan Costner will add their experience and talent to the pen. But, consistency and keeping healthy is the key if the Gamecocks don't want to be cutting it close to the .500 mark again in the conference. The offense should carry them a long way, but how well things go on the mound will determine if an Omaha appearance is in the cards.
(#4) Mississippi Rebels
So close, yet so far away has been the case for UM in the last few seasons, as the Rebels have been to three straight Super Regionals and fallen in each one. The 2008 Rebels have a good chance to make it four supers in a row.
Stars Zack Cozart and Justin Henry are gone, but the Rebs will definitely have some punch in their lineup. Justin's brother Jordan hit .376 last season to finish five points behind his brother, and Zack Miller hit .368, so you can expect the sophomores to be a big part of Mississippi's production at the plate in '08. Logan Power will live up to his name and provide some power, along with Cody Overbeck, as the two hit 11 and 14 homers and drove in 51 and 58 runs respectively in '07, leading the team in those categories. JC All-American Michael Hubbard hit 21 homers last season at Arkansas-Fort Smith, so he'll add some pop as well, along with fellow JC transfer Michael Guerrero, who hit 11 homers at Meridian CC last year.
The rotation is in great shape, with preseason All-American Lance Lynn (8-5, 2.85 ERA, 146 Ks in '07) leading the way, Cody Satterwhite makes the transition from relief to rotation, and Nathan Baker, who won six games as a freshman last year, will round out the weekend rotation. Brett Bukvich (7-3, 4.10 ERA) and Justin Cryer (1-0, 4.55 ERA) will lead the bullpen, with Scott Bittle returning as closer. Stud freshman Drew Pomeranz should also make an immediate impact on the mound as well. The question about the Rebs' pitching staff isn't talent, because they aren't short in that department. But, Bittle needs to be far more consistent than he was last season, when he had multiple meltdowns, and as for Satterwhite, we'll have to see how well he makes the transition. But, Mississippi is in good shape, and looks to be the team to beat in the SEC West. But, will they finally be able to get over the super regional hump?
(#5) North Carolina Tar Heels
Two years in a row, North Carolina has been one of the last two teams playing in June. And, both times, they've fallen short to the Oregon st. Beavers. Mike Fox no doubt hopes that the third time will be the charm, as he has another club capable of making it into the second weekend at Omaha again. The Tar Heels do lose the likes of star shortstop Josh Horton, ace Robert Woodard, and closer Andrew Carignan, but UNC is loaded once again, both at the plate and on the mound.
National Freshman of the Year Dustin Ackley (.402/10/74) will hope to avoid a sophomore slump as he leads the charge at the plate, and four other .300+ hitters also return, in Tim Fedroff (.344/5/41), Tim Federowicz (.333/4/65), Garrett Gore (.324/2/27), and Kyle Seager (.308/2/30). Just how potent this lineup is will depend greatly on how well seniors Chad Flack and Seth Williams produce. After going for .335/15/49 and .384/13/68 in his first two seasons, Flack slumped mightily last season (.247/7/46) and must rebound this season. Williams has 25 career homers and has been on the cusp of .300 seasons in the last two years (.298 and .293), and if he can surpass that mark after a strong summer campaign, it'll be all the better for his team's fortunes.
The pitching staff takes a hit with the loss of its top two starters and All-American closer Carignan, but should be just fine. Alex White (6-7, 4.94 ERA) had his struggles as a freshman, but look for a big year from him, and junior Adam Warren (12-0, 2.17 ERA) will carry an unbeaten career record into the weekend rotation. The third spot will likely be taken by highly-touted freshman Matt Harvey, who spurned the pros to come to Chapel Hill. The closer spot won't see any dropoff, as the experienced Rob Wooten (6-1, 2.35 ERA, 58 Ks, 53.2 IP, 47 apps.) will fill Carignan's shoes more than adequately. Tyler Trice, Rob Capatano, and Federowicz are all experienced relievers, and talented freshman Nate Striz (fifth-round pick), redshirt freshman Colin Bates, and sophomore B.J. Dail will give the Heels quality depth in the pen. Getting to Omaha might be the easy part for Fox, but will they finally be able to get those two big wins at the end?
(#6) Rice Owls
The last couple of seasons, Rice has steamrolled to Omaha, and appeared to have a clear path to the championship series after jumping off to 2-0 starts in both seasons. But, they haven't been able to pass that final hurdle, and instead of playing for the national title, they were mere spectators. This year's Rice squad will look to put those two disappointments behind them, and has the goods to get back to Omaha yet again, even with the losses of the likes of Joe Savery, Brian Friday, Tyler Henley, and Danny Lehmann.
Savery, Friday, Henley, and Lehmann's bats were all a key part of solid hitting clubs in the past few seasons, and their departures will leave a big hole. But, there shouldn't be any worries about plate production, thanks to Aaron Luna (.313/13/66), Jess Buenger (.306/7/47), and Jordan Dodson (.302/8/55). Jared Gayhart (.339/4/42) and Diego Seastrunk (.304/1/24) will also be expected to at least reproduce last season's numbers.
Great pitching has been a hallmark of Wayne Graham's teams, and this is once again the case. You'll be hard pressed to find many starting rotations better than Ryan Berry, Matt Langwell, and Cole St. Clair. St. Clair, the team's star reliever, was supposed to make the transition to starter last year, but he missed a great deal of time due to injury, and went back to relief duty when he came back. He's penciled in as a starter for now, but that could change once again. Rice is in a good position either way, because if he does return to relief duty, then senior Chris Kelley or JC transfer Lucas Luetge will fill in just fine. As for the bullpen, Bobby Bramhall leaves some big shoes to fill, though Seastrunk should fit somewhere in the mix after a strong fall, and time will tell what happens with St. Clair, and if Kelley and Leutge end up occupying two of the main relief/midweek starter roles. In the end, the Owls are the team to beat in Conference USA, and they're also one of the teams to beat in the nation. If they're not in Omaha, it will be a surprise, but if they do get there, then it'll be a matter of getting over that hump from the last few years.
(#7) Texas Longhorns
Two years in a row, Texas has entered the regionals as a national seed, and haven't made it past the regional round. It's got to be pretty frustrating for Augie Garrido, after having won two national championships in four seasons and made another appearance in the championshp series.
Texas' lineup received a huge boost in the summer when Kyle Russell, who led the nation in home runs last year with 28, decided to return to school after being drafted in the fourth round by the St. Louis Cardinals. Russell hit .336 with 71 RBIs last season, and expect another big season from him, especially if he can cut down on his strikeouts (64 in '07). The lineup does take some hits with the departures of Chance Wheeless, Bradley Suttle, and Nick Peoples, but along with Russell, Jordan Danks (.332/4/38/19-19 SB), Travis Tucker (.307/1/34/21 SB), Preston Clark (.286/8/45), and Russell Moldenhauer (.278/6/32) return. Transfers Michael Torres (USC) and David Hernandez (Fresno St.) are penciled into start in the infield, and freshman Kevin Keyes, who was a 26th round pick, should get in the lineup because of his bat.
The pitching staff has some rebuilding to do, as starters Adrian Alaniz and James Russell, key reliever Joseph Krebs, and closer Randy Boone are all gone. Austin Wood (8-1, 3.15 ERA), who made the transition from reliever to starter last season, will be a full-time starter and the #1 guy on the mound. Florida State transfer Casey Whitmer will also occupy one of the weekend rotation slots, and the third slot could go to either freshman Brandon Workman, a third-round pick in last year's draft, or junior Kenn Kasparek, who will be returning after missing all of 2007 due to injury. In the bullpen, whoever doesn't make the weekend rotation will likely figure in, both in midweek starts and in weekend relief. As for definites in the pen, Keith Shinaberry and Hunter Harris both return, along with Kyle Walker and Riley Boening, the latter of which missed all of 2007, and is in the same boat as Kasparek, as he could either be a starter or reliever. Freshman Cale Green should also figure in,and transfers Marcus Tackett (Oral Roberts) and Hunter Hill (UCF) will be in the mix as well. There are a few unanswered questions with the Longhorns as of now, but if they can get those answered with as few bumps in the road as possible, they should back up their status as favorites in the Big 12, and may be in line for trip #33 to the CWS.
(#8) Vanderbilt Commodores
Last season was a historic season for Vanderbilt baseball, as they won 54 games, won the SEC regular season and tournament titles, and reached #1. However, the season ended in disappointment for the Commodores, as #1 ran into a Michigan team that knocked them off twice in their own backyard to end their dream far short of an expected place in Omaha. But, this could be the year that Vandy finally makes their first trip to the CWS, as many pieces of last season's record-setting squad return.
Vandy should have one of the best lineups in the SEC, and in the nation, led by Pedro Alvarez, one of the best, if not the best, players in the country. Alvarez (.386/18/68 in '07) has 40 homers and 132 RBIs in two seasons, and should have another big season before he gets plucked with one of the first few picks in June's draft. Alvarez didn't even lead his team in homers last season; that honor went to Dominic de la Osa (.378/20/62), who also returns after being drafted in the 10th round last year. Junior Ryan Flaherty (.381/4/57) is one of the best shortstops in the country, and he joins first-teamers Alvarez and de la Osa as an All-American (second team by Collegiate Baseball). Alex Feinberg (.317/4/44), Andrew Giobbi (.312/1/25), and David Macias (.300, 16 doubles, 26 RBI) join the All-American trio in the lineup, along with returning starters Shea Robin (.286/2/35) and Brad French (.267/2/23), and Parker Hanks (.265/3/14). So, the lineup isn't short on experience and talent, in the least.
The pitching staff won't be either, even with last year's #1 overall pick, David Price, in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays farm system. Sophomore Mike Minor (9-1, 3.09 ERA, 88 Ks) made a big impact as a freshman, and has the talent to be one of the nation's best this year. Nick Christiani (5-3, 4.11 ERA) and redshirt freshman Caleb Cotham will fill the second and third starter roles, and should log many a quality start this season. The one big question mark for Vandy is the bullpen, where stud closer Casey Weathers and most of the team's leading relievers must be replaced. Brett Jacobson, who made 13 starts last season, will fill Weathers' role, and redshirt freshmen Russell Brewer and Mark Lamm should see significant innings in relief. Sophomores Jason Cunningham and Drew Hayes (6-4, 2.72, 86 Ks in 72 IP at Bethel College in '07) should also figure in as well. They'll have a tough task on their hands to repeat as SEC champs, but more importantly than an SEC crown, they'll be looking to erase the sour taste and make more history, and with the talent Tim Corbin has on his hands, they've got a great chance to do so.
(#9) San Diego Toreros
Last season, San Diego was one of the nation's big surprises, as they won 43 games and steamrolled through the West Coast Conference on the way to being the #8 national seed and hosting a regional. However, they were the ones getting surprised in the postseason, as they went two and through in their own regional. However, the Toreros will be a serious contender this season, thanks in large part to one of the best pitching staffs in the country and arguably the top recruiting class in the country.
All-Americans Brian Matusz (10-3, 2.85 ERA, 163 Ks) and Josh Romanski (9-1, 3.05 ERA, 92 Ks) are both All-Americans, and Matt Couch (9-2, 3.69 ERA) may not get as much attention, but is plenty talented himself. Sophomore closer A.J. Griffin is one of the nation's best, after going 6-2, with a 2.70 ERA, 65 Ks, and 11 saves as a freshman. Junior Ricardo Pecina (5-4, 3.96 ERA), highly-touted freshman Kyle Blair, and redshirt freshman Darrin Campbell will be key on the mound, along another highly-regarded freshman, Matt Kohorst.
At the plate, there are some key pieces that must be replaced, in the likes of Justin Snyder, Shane Buschini, and Jordan Abruzzo, but offense shouldn't be a problem. Four .300+ hitters return, led by Romanski, who hit .335 last year. Logan Gelbrich (.316), Kevin Hansen (.316), and Sean Nicol (.300) also return. Vandy transfer Ryan Davis, who hit .309 for the Commodores last year, will step in and start in the outfield, and freshman infielders Victor Sanchez (member of the USA Junior National team) and Steven Kaupang will step into the starting lineup immediately. Abruzzo and Buschini's departures take away more than half of USD's power output, but with Kaupang's 6'6, 230 frame, you can expect him to hoist a few over the fences this year. After the year they had in '07, San Diego shouldn't have that surprise label anymore, so don't be shocked if they're one of the final eight teams left in June.
(#10) Wichita State Shockers
Last season, Wichita St. was on the verge of their first CWS berth since 1996, as they hosted and won their regional over Arizona. However, UC Irvine came into Wichita and pulled off the upset, ending the Shockers' season. The Shockers lose key hitters Damon Sublett, Derek Schermerhorn, and Matt Brown, and stud pitcher Travis Banwart, but Gene Stephenson will have a squad capable of at least getting back to the supers.
At the plate, Wichita St. returns six regular starters, led by third baseman conor Gillaspie (.325, 24 doubles, 6 homers, 63 RBI) and outfielder Andy Dirks (.320/3/31/19 SB). The power will come from catcher Tyler Weber (.297/11/49), and junior infielder speedy Josh Workman will look to regain the form that saw him become a freshman All-American in 2006.
Wichita St. had one of the best pitching staffs in the nation last season, and that won't change this year, even though they'll have to replace Banwart and much of their bullpen. Ace Aaron Shafer (8-2, 2.23 ERA) was named a second-team preseason All-American by Collegiate Baseball, and #2 and #3 starters Rob Musgrave (10-2, 2.59 ERA) and Anthony Capra (7-1, 1.76 ERA) were third-teamers, if that's any indication of the talent of the Shockers' rotation. Those three combined for 252 strikeouts to 64 walks, a ratio of nearly 4 to 1 for a team that record 670 strikeouts and only 179 walks in 75 games. So, they won't be giving anyone anything easily this season, which will make things a lot easier on the bullpen, which is the only uncertainty right now. Andy Womack (3-2, 2.84 ERA) is expected to be a star out of the pen, and seniors Khol Nanny and Max Hutson must step up. Newcomers Justin Kemp, Logan Hoch, and Tyler Fleming should all make an immediate impact, as should Cameron Maldonado. In the end, the bullpen should be just fine, and the Shockers should roll on deep into the postseason with another MVC championship under their belts.