Looking Ahead: Eight For Omaha 2011

OMAHA—About 14,000 people packed Colonial Life Arena in downtown Columbia on Wednesday afternoon to welcome home South Carolina’s first national championship team. Fans then packed downtown Columbia Friday for a championship parade, and the celebration will doubtless continue into the night and the holiday weekend—but it’s never too early to look ahead to next year.

Two members of last year’s “Eight for Omaha in 2010″ list reached the CWS: Florida and Florida State. Three others (Cal State Fullerton, Texas and Virginia) fell one win shy of Omaha after losing in three games in super regionals. We also listed “eight more to follow,” a list that included three more World Series teams (Clemson, UCLA and eventual national champion South Carolina) and two more super regional teams (Arkansas and Miami). And we listed eight sleepers, three of whom reached super regionals (Alabama, Coastal Carolina, Vanderbilt) and one of whom reached Omaha (Arizona State).

All told, six of the eight teams that reached the 2010 CWS were among the 24 teams we listed in this space a year ago. And 14 of the 16 super regional teams were also among our 24 teams. Finally, four other teams in our top 24 reached regional finals—meaning 18 of our top 24 actually finished the 2010 season among the final 24 teams standing.

Now, let’s take a crack at 2011:

Eight For Omaha

UCLA

The national runner-up will open 2011 as one of the favorites to win the national title. Two of UCLA’s three aces will be back (future first-rounders Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer), and hard-throwing righty Erik Goeddel could either replace Rob Rasmussen as the No. 3 starter or Dan Klein as the closer, assuming he does not sign with the Mets as a 24th-round pick. Expect another fireballer—righty Scott Griggs—to take a major step forward as a sophomore. The Bruins also return the core of their talented young lineup: rising sophomores Cody Keefer, Beau Amaral, Cody Regis and Jeff Gelalich, plus rising juniors Tyler Rahmatulla, Dean Espy and Steve Rodriguez. Shortstop Niko Gallego, a 27th-round pick by the Diamondbacks, could also be back for his senior year.

Florida

Florida’s historically good freshman class was instrumental in getting the Gators to Omaha for the first time in five years. Shortstop Nolan Fontana, catcher Mike Zunino, third baseman Austin Maddox and DH Brian Johnson all started every day as freshmen and will be back to anchor the lineup. Maddox and Preston Tucker will once again give Florida a fearsome duo in the middle of the lineup. Second baseman Josh Adams went undrafted as a junior; look for him to continue playing solid defense and bounce back with the bat as a senior. Florida has two major pieces to replace: defensive stalwart Matt den Dekker in center field, and closer Kevin Chapman. Rising sophomore Kamm Washington should be able to handle the center field duties, and the Gators are loaded with quality arms. Among the talented returnees: weekend starters Alex Panteliodis, Hudson Randall and Johnson; relievers Nick Maronde, Paco Rodriguez, Greg Larson and Anthony DeSclafani. The Gators will once again be among the nation’s best at run prevention.

Oklahoma

The Sooners are certain to lose only one key player from their Omaha team: righty Jeremy Erben, who emerged as the team’s most reliable reliever as a senior. Oklahoma had three other mainstays drafted—second baseman Danny Black, righthander Zach Neal and third baseman Garrett Buechele—but none higher than the 14th round. All three could conceivably return, and Buechele seems very likely to be back for his junior year, which is critical, as he is OU’s best overall player. If Buechele and Black return, that means Oklahoma will welcome back every starter, including impact players Cameron Seitzer, Max White, Chris Ellison, Cody Reine, Tyler Ogle and Caleb Bushyhead. And if touted recruit Chad Kettler can bounce back from his lost freshman year, the Sooners will be even deeper and better. Neal, Bobby Shore and Rocha should give Oklahoma a rock-solid rotation once again, and closer Ryan Duke will anchor the bullpen as a senior. And the Sooners could have a pair of breakout stars in rising sophomores Jack Mayfield and Drew Verhagen.

Stanford

Stanford started four freshmen most days in 2010, and the Cardinal should reap the rewards in 2011. Stanford brought in the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class last year, and talented rising sophomores Kenny Diegroeger, Stephen Piscotty, Jake Stewart and Tyler Gaffney have legitimate star potential. The Cardinal lost slick-fielding middle infielders Jake Schlander and Colin Walsh, but the athletic Diekroeger could be ready to slide from third base to shortstop. But much will depend on whether Stanford’s crop of power arms develops as hoped. Brett Mooneyham, Mark Appel, Scott Snodress, Chris Jenkins and Garrett Hughes are all capable of dominating if they can refine their command and polish. Bulldog Jordan Pries will be back in the rotation, and Alex Pracher will anchor the bullpen again as a senior.

Texas

Certainly Texas will miss the quality arms and competitiveness of Chance Ruffin, Brandon Workman and Cole Green, plus the power bats of Cameron Rupp, Kevin Keyes and Russell Moldenhauer. But the Longhorns should once again have one of the nation’s premier weekend rotations, anchored again by future first-round pick Taylor Jungmann. Expect righty Austin Dicharry to bounce back as a junior, and lefthander Hoby Milner looks more than capable of holding down a rotation spot as a sophomore. Fellow sophomores Keifer Nuncio and Josh Urban should also be ready to take major steps forward. The lineup will return catalysts Brandon Loy and Cohl Walla as well as regulars Jordan Etier, Kevin Lusson and probably Tant Shepherd (a 49th-round pick as a junior). The Longhorns will need Walla and Jonathan Walsh to emerge as stars as sophomores.

Texas Christian

Can three teams from Texas and Oklahoma make it to Omaha? The Sooners, Longhorns and Horned Frogs should all be talented enough to do so. TCU should have an elite pitching staff again, led by ace Matt Purke and rising junior righty Kyle Winkler. Kaleb Merck and Erik Miller give the Frogs a pair of power-armed bullpen anchors. TCU will miss the leadership of senior catcher Bryan Holaday—plus the power of Holaday and fellow senior Matt Curry—but the lineup returns the other seven regulars, led by No. 3 hole hitter Jason Coats and talented shortstop Taylor Featherston. Rising sophomore outfielder Kyle Von Tungeln is the pick to click for 2011.

Vanderbilt

The Commodores fell one win shy of their first Omaha trip this spring, losing the Tallahassee Super Regional in three games. Power arms Sonny Gray and Jack Armstrong will be back to anchor the rotation as juniors, and Taylor Hill (a 30th-round pick by the Indians) could return as well. A larger key will be Aaron Westlake, the team’s best power hitter, who was drafted in the 22nd round as a redshirt sophomore. If he returns, he’ll team with rising junior third baseman Jason Esposito to form a dynamite one-two punch in the middle of the lineup. Other returning starters include SEC Freshman of the Year Anthony Gomez (who could slide from second base to shortstop to replace mainstay Brian Harris), fellow rising sophomores Mike Yastrzemski and Connor Harrell, plus veterans Joe Loftus and Curt Casali. The pick to click is rising sophomore lefthander Sam Selman, a talented power pitcher who could replace closer Russell Brewer or force his way into a starting job.

Virginia

Yes, the Cavaliers have some big shoes to fill in mainstays Jarrett Parker, Phil Gosselin, Robert Morey, Kevin Arico and Tyler Cannon. And much will depend upon whether or not outfielder Dan Grovatt (11th-round pick by the Pirates) and righthander Tyler Wilson (35th round, Reds) opt to return for their senior years. But Virginia’s starting rotation will be strong regardless. Lefty Danny Hultzen is already one of the nation’s premier Friday starters, Cody Winiarski is solid on Sundays, and rising sophomore Branden Kline looks ready to shine as the Saturday starter. The lineup will have less power but will still get some thump from corner infielders Steven Proscia and John Hicks. And the Cavs will be athletic as usual—especially up the middle, where Keith Werman and Reed Gragnani should make for a fine double-play tandem. Virginia should also have solid seniors in Kenny Swab and John Barr, and they have talented sophomores waiting in the wings in Stephen Bruno, Chris Taylor, Gragnani and Rob Amaro.

Eight More To Follow

Arizona State

The Sun Devils will return seven regulars if Drew Maggi opts not to sign as a 15th-round pick as an eligible-sophomore. Pac-10 Player of the Year Zack MacPhee will be the centerpiece of an athletic lineup that also includes Deven Marrero, Johnny Ruettiger and Riccio Torrez. The question will be on the mound, where the Sun Devils will lose their entire weekend rotation (Merrill Kelly and Jake Borup already signed, and supplemental first-rounder Seth Blair will sign as well) and their closer (second-rounder Jordan Swagerty). Jake Barrett figures to slide from the bullpen into the Friday starter role, and Mitchell Lambson will have to anchor the pen or move into a starting role.

Cal State Fullerton

The greatest challenge facing the Titans will be replacing their two best overall players: All-Americans Christian Colon and Gary Brown. But the pitching staff should be one of the nation’s best. Noe Ramirez, Tyler Pill and Dylan Floro will make for an outstanding weekend rotation even if junior Daniel Renken signs as a 25th-round pick; Renken’s return will make the unit even better. Two-way standout Nick Ramirez will continue to anchor the bullpen and provide pop in the middle of the lineup, but the Titans will need Richie Pedroza, Geno Escalante, Carlos Lopez, Austin Kingsolver, Anthony Hutting and Ivory Thomas to take steps forward and lead the offense as sophomores.

Clemson

Seniors Mike Freeman and Wilson Boyd will be gone, and first-rounder Kyle Parker figures to sign a pro contract as well, but the rest of the potent lineup could be back—if sophomore-eligible John Hinson opts not to sign as a 13th-rounder and Jeff Schaus opts not to sign as a 27th-rounder. Ace lefty Casey Harman, a 29th-round pick, could return to the rotation, where he and Scott Weismann would again form a quality duo. The Tigers need power-armed righty Kevin Brady to develop into a reliable closer or No. 3 starter, but rising sophomores Dominic Leone and Scott Firth are ready to take on larger roles.

Connecticut

You think UConn’s 48-win season was a fluke? Think again. The Huskies will miss departed regulars Mike Olt and Pierre LePage, but they’ll have plenty of key pieces back in 2011. Five-tool outfielder George Springer and hard-throwing righty Matt Barnes are both potential first-round picks next year, and ace lefty Elliot Glynn should be back for his senior year after being drafted in the 49th round. The third member of the rotation, lefthander Greg Nappo, will also be back for his senior year, as will bullpen stalwarts Kevin Vance and Scott Oberg. Leading RBI man Mike Nemeth will also be back, as will talented all-around shortstop Nick Ahmed and speed merchant Billy Ferriter. The pick to click is rising sophomore L.J. Mazzilli, the son of former big league player and manager Lee Mazzilli, who should blossom into another catalyst in the LePage mold.

Florida State

The Seminoles will be very good no matter what happens in the draft, but they could be a national championship contender if they get back All-Americans Tyler Holt (a 10th-round pick) and Mike McGee (41st round), plus starters John Gast (sixth round) and Geoff Parker (ninth). Holt and McGee are key, but even without those two the foundation is strong. Lefties Sean Gilmartin and Brian Busch make for a solid one-two punch in the rotation, and the lineup will return regulars Jayce Boyd, Sherman Johnson, James Ramsey, Devon Travis, Stuart Tapley and Rafael Lopez. And FSU will get a boost from a strong recruiting class, led by talented hitters Jose Dore, Ben Gamel and Eric Arce.

Rice

The Owls must replace five regulars—including mainstays Rick Hague, Diego Seastrunk, Jimmy Comerota and Chad Mozingo. But reigning national player of the year Anthony Rendon will return to anchor the offense as well as the defense, and he’ll have help from talented returnees Michael Ratterree, Jeremy Rathjen and Michael Fuda. Ace lefty Taylor Wall will be back atop the rotation, as will veterans Boogie Anagnostou and Abe Gonzalez. Tyler Duffey, Chase McDowell and Tyler Spurlin could also blossom into key parts of the pitching staff as sophomores. And Owls coach Wayne Graham said he is extremely excited about his incoming recruiting class, led by righthanders John Simms and Austin Kubitza—who could become the next great Rice pitchers—and catcher Tyler Pearson.

Oregon

The Ducks were much improved on offense in 2010, but their pitching and defense remained the biggest reasons for their 40-win season and runner-up finish in the Norwich Regional. Those will be Oregon’s strengths again in 2011, as Tyler Anderson will return to anchor the rotation for the third straight season, and hard-throwing Scott McGough will be back to lead the bullpen or step into a starting job. Expect touted recruit Christian Jones, a polished lefty, to take a major step forward as a sophomore. And the offense should continue to improve as returnees Jack Marder, K.C. Serna, Danny Pulfer, J.J. Altobelli, Andrew Mendenhall, Marcus Piazzisi and Ryan Hambright continue to develop.

South Carolina

The defending national champs will have their hands full replacing Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson atop the rotation, but hard-throwing closer Matt Price will be back to anchor the terrific bullpen, unless he moves into the rotation (and he has expressed some interest in doing so). The Gamecocks will also miss defensive stalwarts Kyle Enders and Bobby Haney—as well as CWS hero Whit Merrifield if he signs as a ninth-rounder—but the lineup returns otherwise largely intact. CWS MOP Jackie Bradley Jr. and slugging first baseman Christian Walker are the headliners, but Evan Marzilli and Adrian Morales are other key pieces who will be back in the fold.

Eight Sleepers

Arizona, Baylor, Georgia, Louisiana State, Miami, North Carolina, St. John’s, Southern Mississippi

College | #2010 #College World Series #Postseason

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