OMAHA—TD Ameritrade Park opened just as Rosenblatt Stadium closed: with a South Carolina national championship. The Gamecocks did it even after losing rotation stalwarts Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson after their first title run, as Michael Roth, Colby Holmes and Forrest Koumas turned an area of uncertainty into a strength.
A year ago, the Gamecocks graced our annual post-Omaha list of early picks to click in following season—but the questions about their starting rotation landed them in our second group of eight. Of our early Eight for Omaha picks from last year, four made it to the 2011 CWS (Florida, Texas, Vanderbilt and Virginia), and another reached super regionals (Stanford). Six of this year’s eight College World Series teams were among the top 24 teams on our list (we also included North Carolina in the “eight sleepers” category at the bottom of the list).
Nine of our top 16 teams actually finished among the top 16 by advancing to super regionals (Arizona State, Connecticut and Florida State were the others). And of our top 24 teams, 16 of them finished among the top 24 at the end of the year by reaching a regional final (including UCLA, Clemson, Arizona, Baylor, Georgia and Miami). Two of our 24 failed to make regionals (Oregon and Louisiana State).
So while South Carolina has repeatedly defied predictions, there is still value in looking ahead. Or at least, there is entertainment in looking ahead. With that in mind, here are our very early predictions for 2012, keeping in mind that the draft signing deadline makes it impossible to know how rosters will be constructed next season—so we reserve the right to revise these picks between now and next February.
Eight For Omaha
Arizona reached the finals of the College Station Regional this year with a sophomore-laden club. Infielders Alex Mejia and Seth Mejias-Brean plus outfielders Robert Refsnyder and Joey Rickard give the lineup a core of quality juniors-to-be. Another rising junior, righthander Kurt Heyer, has been the staff ace for two seasons and is a proven big-game pitcher. Tyler Hale and Konner Wade, who split Arizona’s No. 3 starter duties this year, figure to join Heyer in the solid weekend rotation. Losing catcher Jett Bandy as a 31st-round pick was a bit of a blow, but the Wildcats could get lucky if draft-eligible sophomore Cole Frenzel (a seventh-rounder) returns for 2012. And outfielder Steve Selsky—Arizona’s best player in 2010—fell to the 33rd round after an injury-plagued junior season; he could boost his stock if he returns for another year and rebounds.
For the second straight summer, Florida is the very early favorite to head into the next spring as preseason No. 1. The Gators will miss senior second baseman Josh Adams, and their deep bullpen figures to take a small hit with the likely departures of Nick Maronde, Anthony DeSclafani and perhaps Tommy Toledo, but Florida is loaded with talented arms waiting in the wings such as Keenan Kish and Daniel Gibson. Preston Tucker, a 16th-round pick, could return for his senior year, but even if he doesn’t the lineup will be loaded, led by Mike Zunino, Nolan Fontana, Austin Maddox and Brian Johnson. The latter two are also key contributors on the mound, where Florida welcomes back ace Hudson Randall and flame-thrower Karsten Whitson, as well. A historic 2009 recruiting class followed by the nation’s No. 6 class in 2010 has left the cupboards stocked with talented players, many of whom now also have the experience of back-to-back Omaha runs.
The Yellow Jackets must replace All-American Mark Pope and first-rounder Jed Bradley in their rotation, plus leading RBI man Matt Skole and potentially starting shortstop Jacob Esch (11th round). But the Yellow Jackets largely played above their heads with a very young team in 2011, and their rising sophomore class looks very special. Expect two-way talent DeAndre Smelter to take a major step forward as a sophomore, potentially joining Buck Farmer and Matt Grimes in what could be an electric weekend rotation. The staff will feature more quality arms in the bullpen, led by Luke Bard, Devin Stanton and Dusty Isaacs (unless he moves into a starting role). Daniel Palka led the team in homers as a freshman and figures to take over as the lineup centerpiece, alongside Jake Davies. Kyle Wren will continue to be a catalyst atop the lineup, while fellow rising sophomores Mott Hyde and Zane Evans give the Yellow Jackets two more talented up-the-middle players with a full season of experience. If Esch does sign, expect Hyde to slide over to shortstop, where he started 2011.
The Tigers missed regionals in a disappointing 2011, but they look poised to return to prominence in 2012, as their second-ranked 2010 recruiting class matures. LSU took its lumps at times with two or three freshmen in the starting rotation all season, but Kurt McCune, Kevin Gausman and Ryan Eades gained invaluable experience, and they are talented enough to give LSU one of the nation’s best rotations. Draft-eligible as a sophomore, Gausman will get plenty of scouting attention. Righthander Tyler Jones (11th round) is one of several draft X-factors on LSU’s roster; he showed mid-90s gas as a junior-college transfer this spring, and he could blossom into a quality mound piece if he returns for his senior year. The infield has a chance to return intact if shortstop Austin Nola (31st round) and third baseman Tyler Hanover (40th round) return to school, joining talented second baseman JaCoby Jones and first baseman Mason Katz, who is fresh off a breakout sophomore campaign. Nola’s younger brother Aaron is a big-time talent who dropped to the 22nd round, in part because of his firm commitment to LSU, and he could give the Tigers a big boost on the mound thanks to an exceptional changeup and fastball command.
The Owls never reached Omaha in Anthony Rendon’s three-year career, but they have a real chance to get there a season after his departure. Pitching and defense is a winning formula in the BBCOR era, and the Owls are loaded with quality arms, thanks to a recruiting class that ranked 10th in the nation last year. Austin Kubitza and John Simms give Rice an electric duo atop the weekend rotation, and power-armed Matthew Reckling could return for another season as well after slipping to the 22nd round of the draft. Closer Tony Cingrani is gone, but Tyler Duffey should prove more than capable as closer, and the staff should still have good depth. Getting two-way talent Chase McDowell and outfielder Jeremy Rathjen (a top-five-rounds talent who slipped to the 41st round after tearing his ACL this spring) back from injuries will also be a huge boost, provided Rathjen doesn’t sign. Rice looks rock-solid up the middle with catcher Craig Manuel, shortstop Derek Hamilton and second baseman Michael Ratterree all back in the fold. Infielder Chris McFarland and righty Jordan Stephens lead another strong recruiting class that will provide reinforcements.
It’s time to stop doubting the Gamecocks, until further notice. Sure, South Carolina has some big shoes to fill—Jackie Bradley Jr. seems very likely to sign as the No. 40 overall pick, and departing seniors Scott Wingo, Adrian Morales, Brady Thomas and Rob Beary were consummate winners and leaders who will be sorely missed. Vital setup man John Taylor also graduated, and the Gamecocks could lose closer Matt Price as a sixth-round pick—and maybe also shortstop Peter Mooney as a 21st-rounder. So there is plenty of uncertainty facing the champs this summer, but their weekend rotation will return intact. Ace and first-team All-American Roth made it clear to scouts he intends to return for his senior year (he’s a standout student and he’s spending his summer studying Spanish and windsurfing in Spain), which is one reason he slipped to the 31st round of the draft. Holmes and Koumas will also be back. Other key recruits include speedy undersized outfielder Tanner English, versatile Joey Pankake (a potential replacement in the middle of the infield) and powerful catcher Grayson Greiner. If that group arrives at school, they will form a sound supporting cast for lineup centerpieces Christian Walker and Evan Marzilli, and hopefully senior-to-be Adam Matthews, a 23rd-rounder.
Aside from Florida, Stanford looks like the strongest bet on this list. The Cardinal brought in recruiting classes ranked in the nation’s top two in each of the last two years, giving them a roster full of electrifying juniors and sophomore heading into 2012. Seven everyday starters will be back, and they are the team’s top seven hitters from 2011, led by third baseman Stephen Piscotty. If ultra-talented Kenny Diekroeger bounces back from his second-half sophomore slump and fellow premier talents Brian Ragira and Austin Wilson continue to progress, the Cardinal offense will be fearsome. Flame-thrower Mark Appel, a strong early candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick next year, fronts a pitching staff that needs a major step forward from righty A.J. Vanegas, a blue-chip recruit who struggled as a freshman. And lefty Brett Mooneyham, the projected ace in 2011 before a cut finger ended his season before it began, figures to return to Stanford after falling to the 38th round, giving the rotation another cornerstone piece.
Power arms in the weekend rotation carried the Aggies in 2011, and they could have to replace two-thirds of them if wild card John Stilson (who slipped to the third round because of injury concerns) and fellow righty Ross Stripling (ninth round) sign as juniors—and the smart money is on both signing. But All-American Michael Wacha gives the Aggies a likely future first-rounder to move into the Friday starter spot, and the Aggies hope lefthander Ross Hales can get back on track after a shoulder injury derailed him for almost all of the last two seasons. Righty Gandy Stubblefield, a 14th-rounder out of high school this year, could be the next great A&M power pitcher if he makes it through the draft. A&M’s top four hitters will all be back in the fold, including the two players who make the lineup go—Big 12 player of the year Tyler Naquin and speed merchant Krey Bratsen. Matt Juengel and Jacob House give the Aggies a pair of veteran run producers in the middle of the lineup, and Adam Smith (25th round) could be back for his senior year as well.
Eight More For Super Regionals
Arizona State, Arkansas, UCLA, Jacksonville, North Carolina, Texas, Texas Christian, Vanderbilt
Baylor, Cal State Fullerton, Florida International, Florida State, Miami, Missouri, St. John’s, San Diego