See also: Eight For Omaha In 2014
About 4,000 fans crammed Vanderbilt’s indoor athletic facility Thursday for a celebration of the Commodores’ first national title. It was a huge moment for an athletic program whose only previous national championship came in women’s bowling in 2007. But just because Vanderbilt hadn’t won it all before doesn’t mean it was a surprise.
A year ago, after the conclusion of the 2013 College World Series, we took a stab at predicting the 2014 field—and both Vandy and fellow CWS Finalist Virginia were among our eight teams. Unfortunately, we missed the other six, but we’re pretty sure few people in the world envisioned Texas Tech and UC Irvine making it to Omaha a year ago. We did include Texas and Texas Christian on our expanded list of 25 teams to watch in 2014, however.
Predicting what will happen in college baseball isn’t easy; there is more parity than ever, and the BBCOR era has led to an abundance of close games, giving underdogs better shots to pull off upsets. There were 48 one-run games in the 2014 NCAA tournament, the most ever (the previous record was 42 in 2001).
One final caveat: the mid-July signing deadline can still change the complexion of college baseball teams, for better or worse. And player development during the summer and fall will also shape our opinions of these teams, so our preseason Top 25 in January figures to vary quite a bit from this very early, rough list.
The Crimson Tide must replace its top two starting pitchers, Spencer Turnbull and Justin Kamplain, but the bulk of its lineup returns, led by a group of juniors that ranked as the No. 4 recruiting class in the country when it showed up on campus in 2012. The Tide has already gotten plenty of valuable production out of the pillars of that class—Mikey White, Georgie Salem, Kyle Overstreet and Wade Wass—but they should be even better in 2015, forming the core of a potential Omaha team. Expect Will Haynie and Casey Hughston to take big steps forward as sophomores in the lineup. Other rising sophomores will assume key roles on the mound, but there is plenty of reason to set expectations high for Thomas Burrows, Nick Eicholtz and Geoffrey Bramblett, who made big impacts as freshmen this year. The Tide will need a bounceback year from Ray Castillo on the mound, and a big senior year from lefthander Jon Keller.
The Titans were one of college baseball’s most disappointing teams this spring, but they rallied late to keep their 23-year NCAA tournament streak intact. Fullerton will lose the two best hitters from a meager offense, but it returns what should be the nation’s best weekend rotation: Justin Garza, Thomas Eshelman and Phil Bickford. As an indication of how trying this season was, four Fullerton juniors drafted between rounds 14 and 28 have already signed (Grahamm Wiest, Clay Williamson, Koby Gauna, and Austin Diemer), depriving the Titans of a solid senior core. But expect Scott Hurst and D.J. Peters to be big-time impact players as freshmen. Fullerton also needs good years from returnees Tyler Stieb, Taylor Bryant and Timmy Richards. The lineup will be full of question marks, but that rotation will be good enough to carry the Titans a long way.
The Bruins followed up their national championship by missing regionals, as injuries to their two best everyday players (Eric Filia and Kevin Kramer) proved too much to overcome. But Filia and Kramer will be back as fourth-year juniors next year to lead an offense that should benefit from all the experience gained by Ty Moore, Trent Chatterton, Luke Persico and Christoph Bono in 2014. Infielders Nick Valaika and Sean Bouchard have the potential to be impact freshmen, making the lineup deep and versatile. But UCLA’s pitching will be its strength again, highlighted by an intriguing rotation of James Kaprielian, Grant Watson and Cody Poteet. The Bruins could also get 2013 All-America closer David Berg back for his senior year, because there’s a decent chance he will decide not to sign as a 17th-round pick by the Rangers.
The Gators brought in the nation’s best recruiting class last year, and its ultra-talented rising sophomores figure to take leaps to stardom in 2015. Logan Shore established himself as a star as a freshman, and there will be plenty of competition for rotation spots behind him between A.J. Puk, Aaron Rhodes, Danny Young, Bobby Poyner and Eric Hanhold. Expect big things also from Dane Dunning and Brett Morales, two marquee prospects who pitched sparingly as freshmen on Florida’s deep staff. Four of the top five hitters from the team that one the SEC regular-season title this spring will also be back next year: Harrison Bader, Braden Mattson, Richie Martin and Peter Alonso. Puk, John Sternagel, Buddy Reed and Ryan Larson should assume more prominent roles in the lineup as sophomores, and all four have real talent. Gritty veterans Josh Tobias and Zack Powers will also be back, and another strong group of freshmen will ensure the Gators remain one of the deepest teams in the nation.
Pitching depth was the strength of the Longhorns this spring, and they’ll lose a number of key arms (John Curtiss, Dillon Peters, Nathan Thornhill and possibly 15th-rounder Lukas Schiraldi and 19th-rounder Parker French). The ’Horns will also miss senior outfielder Mark Payton, their best overall player for three straight years. But they recruited very well over the last two years, leaving a rising junior class and a rising sophomore class that are both talented and savvy. Shortstop C.J Hinojosa looks like he’s on the verge of an All-America junior campaign, and speed/power threat Ben Johnson also should have a big junior year. Tres Barrera hit in the middle of the lineup and as the everyday catcher during his freshman year; he’s a star. Fellow freshmen Kacy Clemens and Zane Gurwitz gained valuable experience this year and should progress as sophomores, while the Longhorns will get much more out of Andy McGuire, Bret Boswell, Blake Goins and Josh Sawyer, four key freshmen who were not factors in 2014 but will be in 2015. Goins and Sawyer will strengthen a pitching staff that has a strong core of Chad Hollingsworth, Morgan Cooper and Travis Duke, even if Schiraldi and French sign.
The Horned Frogs should be one of the leading candidates for preseason No. 1 next year, thanks to a returning core of talented Omaha veterans. Even without first-rounder Brandon Finnegan, the pitching will be elite, led by Big 12 pitcher of the year Preston Morrison (who went undrafted as a junior this year) and flame-throwing righthander Riley Ferrell (who could move into the rotation or remain at the back of the bullpen, where he was dominant this year). Lefty Tyler Alexander went 10-3, 2.36 as a freshman, giving TCU another proven rotation piece. Trey Teakell, Alex Young, Brian Trieglaff and Travis Evans will also be back on a loaded pitching staff; expect more production from the power-armed Trieglaff and the lefty Evans. TCU’s top two hitters also return (Garrett Crain and Boomer White), as does its stalwart left side of the infield (Keaton Jones and Derek Odell), and likely its table-setter/center fielder (Cody Jones).
The Commodores look like the heavy favorite to enter 2015 atop the rankings at this early stage. Five ’Dores were drafted in the top 15 rounds (Tyler Beede, Adam Ravenelle, Vince Conde, Jared Miller and Brian Miller), but even if all five signed, Vandy will be loaded. Its top three hitters will be back (Bryan Reynolds, Dansby Swanson and John Norwood), and Swanson is a playmaker who should have no trouble making the transition from second base to shortstop. Rhett Wiseman and Zander Wiel, two middle-of-the-order run producers, will also be back, as will CWS hero Tyler Campbell and catchers Jason Delay and Karl Ellison. Ro Coleman and Kyle Smith should be bigger contributors next year, and both are talented enough to be difference makers. And then there’s the pitching. Vanderbilt’s likely 2015 weekend rotation has a chance to produce three first-round picks, as Carson Fulmer, Walker Buehler and Tyler Ferguson all have electric stuff. Lefty John Kilichowski and righty Hayden Stone proved as freshmen that they have the right heartbeat for big games; Stone figures to anchor the bullpen, regardless of whether or not any Vandy juniors return for another year. And he might wind up being college baseball’s best closer, thanks to a slider that is simply unfair.
Virginia will lose several blue-chip hitters (Mike Papi, Derek Fisher, Branden Cogswell and Brandon Downes) plus Omaha bullpen stalwarts Artie Lewicki and Nick Howard. But pitching wound up being UVa.’s greatest strength in 2014, and the bulk of its pitching will return, including the entire weekend rotation (Nathan Kirby, Brandon Waddell and Josh Sborz). Connor Jones showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman and should develop into either a shutdown closer or another impact starter in 2015. The lineup also returns key everyday players at catcher (Robbie Coman and possibly Nate Irving), shortstop (Daniel Pinero), third base (Kenny Towns), DH (John La Prise) and right field (Joe McCarthy). Expect La Prise to take over at second base and talented rising sophomore Matt Thaiss to get into the DH/catcher mix and make an impact.
Eight More For Super Regionals
Arizona State, Louisiana State, Miami, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Texas Tech
Nine More To Make Top 25
College of Charleston, Florida State, Houston, Louisville, Maryland, Rice, Southern California, Stanford, Tennessee