OMAHA—Like any prognosticators, we’ve had our share of hits and misses in this space over the years, but we can proudly say we’ve been driving the Arizona bandwagon for quite a while.
A year ago, Arizona and South Carolina both graced our annual post-Omaha list of College World Series picks for the following year, and those teams wound up meeting in the CWS Finals. We also hit on Florida, but went just 3-for-8 overall in last year’s early eight for 2012. Rice, Texas A&M, Stanford and Louisiana State also graced last year’s list, and all of them at least hosted regionals, with the Cardinal and Tigers winning regionals. The eighth team on last year’s list, Georgia Tech, won the ACC tournament and finished as the runner-up in the Gainesville Regional.
Arkansas and UCLA were listed among our next group of eight last year, while Florida State was among our “eight sleepers.” So six of the eight teams that reached the 2012 CWS were included among the 24 teams on our very early look ahead last year (Kent State and Stony Brook were the two we missed).
So here are our very early predictions for 2013, keeping in mind that the draft signing deadline in mid-July 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
The Hogs will lose the left side of their infield—Matt Reynolds and Tim Carver—plus hard-throwing middle reliever Nolan Sanburn. Junior righthander D.J. Baxendale is a wild card who could return for his senior year or elect to sign with the Twins as a 10th-round pick. If he comes back, Arkansas figures to keep its weekend rotation intact (lefty Randall Fant was a 29th-round pick), but even if Baxendale signs, the Hogs will be loaded on the mound. Ryne Stanek is a near-lock for preseason first-team All-America honors next year, and Barrett Astin will be back to anchor the bullpen or move into the rotation. Bullpen stalwarts Brandon Moore, Colby Suggs, Trent Daniel and Cade Lynch will also be back, and talented freshmen Greg Millhorn and Mark Reyes should take steps forward, making this staff embarrassingly deep. First baseman Dominic Ficociello will return to anchor the lineup, which will benefit from the continued development of promising youngsters Joe Serrano, Brian Anderson and Conor Costello, as well as the addition of Baxendale’s younger brother Blake, a slugging catcher/first baseman.
Sure, the Bulldogs must replace SEC pitcher of the year Chris Stratton and bulldog reliever Caleb Reed, but the overwhelming majority of MSU’s SEC tournament championship team will be back—and better, it stands to reason. The Bulldogs will remain incredibly deep on the mound, headlined by holdovers Kendall Graveman (a 36th-round pick who figures to return to school), Ben Bracewell, Evan Mitchell, Ross Mitchell and Luis Pollorena. Closer Jonathan Holder dominated as a freshman, giving MSU a bullpen anchor. Lefty Jacob Lindgren and righthander Brandon Woodruff were heralded recruits who figure to take big steps forward as sophomores. Dynamic shortstop and leading hitter Adam Frazier returns to lead the offense and defense, and the Bulldogs will be much better if they can get a full healthy year from two-way talents C.T. Bradford and Taylor Stark, both of whom have plenty of tools. Darryl Norris and Trey Porter will be back to provide some physicality in the middle of the lineup, and toolsy Hunter Renfroe is a wild card who could blossom.
Like Arkansas, the Tar Heels will be led by a pair of the nation’s top rising juniors: third baseman Colin Moran and ace lefty Kent Emanuel. Benton Moss was stellar as a freshman and could be even better as a sophomore, and Hobbs Johnson (7-1, 1.56) also returns to one of the nation’s top pitching staffs. UNC will have more arms than it knows what to do with—it was already loaded with power-armed underclassmen such as Chris McCue, Luis Paula and Mason McCullough. Incoming freshmen Taylore Cherry and Kayden Porter give the Tar Heels even more power arms (though both are raw), and Porter should bring important righthanded power, having set Utah’s career home runs record. Talented freshman Korey Dunbar will compete with junior Matt Roberts to fill UNC’s hole behind the plate, and newcomer Skye Bolt adds athleticism and upside to UNC’s collection of grinder outfielders (Chaz Frank, Brian Holberton, Parks Jordan, Tom Zengel). Michael Russell, Mike Zolk and Cody Stubbs will team with Moran in a strong infield. With no apparent holes, the Tar Heels should be among the top contenders for the preseason No. 1 ranking.
North Carolina State
No recruiting class made more of a splash this year than N.C. State’s, as first-team All-America lefthander Carlos Rodon, blazing third baseman Trea Turner, center fielder Jake Fincher and switch-hitting catcher/outfielder Brett Austin all became impact regulars. The ‘Pack lost just two drafted players off this year’s super regional team—leading home run hitter Ryan Mathews and shortstop Chris Diaz, though it will also miss graduating captain Andrew Ciencin. Outfielder Brett Williams, who hit .286/.368/.445 with six homers in 2011, should return as a fifth-year senior after missing 2012 with a knee injury. Turner should slide seamlessly to short, while Austin should tap into more of his significant raw power and become a centerpiece of the lineup. Leading hitter Danny Canela also returns to keep Austin from having to shoulder the catching burden on his own. Outfielder Tarran Senay, second baseman Matt Bergquist and righties Ethan Ogburn, Chris Overman and Ryan Wilkins join Canela in what should be a strong senior class. Rodon returns as the cornerstone of the pitching staff, and the power-armed duo of Logan Jernigan and Anthony Tzamtzis also figures to improve. The recruiting class is heavy on pitching, giving the Wolfpack plenty of choices for the rotation and depth in the bullpen. In short, N.C. State will be loaded, and should have every piece in place to reach Omaha for the first time since 1968.
Oregon State’s last recruiting class ranked No. 7 in the nation, but perhaps only N.C. State’s class made more of an impact this spring. Outfielder Michael Conforto instantly became one of the premier power hitters on the West Coast—or anywhere else—and lefthander Jace Fry lived up to his billing, leading the Beavers in ERA. The Beavers lost a pair of drafted regulars in Ryan Dunn and Ryan Gorton, but their other key everyday players are back, including breakout shortstop Tyler Smith, rifle-armed catcher Jake Rodriguez, undrafted juniors Danny Hayes and Ryan Barnes. Dylan Davis should continue to refine his massive raw tools—both on the mound and at the plate—as a sophomore, and Kavin Keyes should bounce back from his lackluster sophomore year. If 13th-rounder Matt Boyd doesn’t sign, the Beavers will have all of the key pieces back in a very deep pitching staff, including starters Ben Wetzler and Dan Child plus relievers Scott Schultz, Tony Bryant and Cole Brocker. Lefthander Carlos Rodriguez and righty Riley Wilkerson should find more innings as sophomores and could be difference-makers. The wild card is perennially injured righty Adam Duke, who has flashed premium raw ability but has yet to blossom into a star.
The Cardinal graced this list a year ago as well, but its ballyhooed junior class (Mark Appel, Stephen Piscotty, Kenny Diekroeger, Jake Stewart and Tyler Gaffney) fell short of a trip to Omaha, falling in super regionals at an ACC opponent (Florida State) for the second straight year. Stewart (a ninth-round pick) and Gaffney (24th round) could be back as seniors, and Appel remains unsigned as the No. 8 overall pick but still seems like a long shot to return for his senior year. Still, Stanford will have one of the nation’s most talented junior classes for the second straight year in 2013, headlined by first baseman Brian Ragira, slugging outfielder Austin Wilson, shortstop Lonnie Kauppila (who had his season cut short by injury but is on track to make a full recovery) and righthander A.J. Vanegas. Third baseman Alex Blandino established himself as a rising star in the second half of his freshman year, and fellow rising sophomore Dominic Jose also has the ability to be a standout, with both power and speed. Infielder Austin Slater and catcher Wayne Taylor are two more rising sophomores with a chance to make an impact. The Cardinal needs some of its young arms (such as David Schmidt, John Hochstatter and Spenser Linney) to make major steps forward in order for Stanford to meet its goals. Incoming freshman righty Freddy Avis ranked as the nation’s No. 56 draft prospect thanks to a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, and he should help immediately. Fellow recruit Daniel Starwalt also has bumped 95 mph in the past and flashed a plus curveball, though his senior season was disappointing. Overall, pitching does look like a question mark heading into next year for Stanford, but the offense should be one of the nation’s most fearsome.
The Frogs must replace mainstays Josh Elander and Jason Coats, plus sparkplug Kyle Von Tungeln and reliever Kaleb Merck. But the rest of the core remains intact, and the Frogs relied on a bushel of talented underclassmen during their run to super regionals this year. Freshmen Derek Odell and Jerrick Suiter flashed star potential as freshmen and should make big leaps forward as sophomores. Slick-fielding shortstop Keaton Jones needs to improve upon his .166 average, but he is a quality defensive anchor in the middle of the diamond. Once he got healthy around midseason, hulking first baseman Kevin Cron showed why he was drafted in the third round out of high school, and he’ll be a powerful presence in the middle of the lineup for the next two years. A full healthy season from defensive stalwart third baseman Jantzen Witte will also be a big plus. The pitching staff looks loaded, with a nice blend of power arms (led by Andrew Mitchell, Brandon Finnegan, Stefan Crichton) and funky low-slot sinkerballers (Preston Morrison and Justin Scharf). Four incoming freshmen should contribute, from hard-throwing righties Mitchell Traver (who has showed 92-94 mph heat with hard sink as well as a hard curveball) and Riley Ferrell (who has bumped 94 but his inconsistent) to lefties Austin Fairchild (who has also touched 94) and Trevor Seidenberger.
The young Commodores took a while to gel in 2012, but when they finally did they became one of college baseball’s most dangerous teams. Vandy loses pitchers Sam Selman, Drew Verhagen and Will Clinard plus shortstop Anthony Gomez, but most of the core should be back. That includes outfielders Mike Yastrzemski and Connor Harrell, who were drafted in the 30th and 31st rounds and figure to return as quality seniors. Tony Kemp will be back to set the table, Conrad Gregor returns to provide some physicality in the middle of the lineup, and Spencer Navin returns behind the plate, though he could be pushed by powerful Chris Harvey, a key recruit who struggled as a freshman this spring after enrolling early. Expect athletic outfielder John Norwood to make a step forward as a sophomore as well. Incoming freshman Dansby Swanson has the athleticism, speed, makeup and smooth infield actions to replace Gomez at shortstop immediately. On the mound, the trio of T.J. Pecoraro, Tyler Beede and Kevin Ziomek has a chance to be special if Ziomek can regain his freshman year form and Beede can make the expected leap to superstardom as a sophomore. Brian Miller, Jared Miller, Adam Ravenelle and Steven Rice form a nice bullpen group. The staff should get a boost from elite recruits Walker Buehler (who ranked as the draft’s No. 50 prospect thanks to the makings of three legit plus pitches) and Carson Fulmer (the No. 123 prospect thanks to one of the nation’s best fastballs). Fellow incoming freshman Rhett Wiseman brings premium bat speed and athleticism, though he’s raw.
Eight More For Super Regionals
Cal State Fullerton, Florida State, Louisville, Mississippi, Oregon, Rice, South Carolina, Texas.
Arizona, UCLA, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana State, Pepperdine, San Diego, Southern Mississippi.