Strike One: The Stony Brook Effect
Last year was a bonanza for Northern college baseball, as Stony Brook became the first Northeast team to reach Omaha since 1986, Kent State became the first Ohio team to make it since 1970, St. John’s won a regional in Chapel Hill, and Purdue hosted a regional after winning its first Big Ten title in more than a century. Momentum had been building in the North for a few years, but now the bar has been raised.
“With some of the real good coaches we have in the Northeast now, it is now realistic for a Northeast player to say, ‘I want to go to a regional, a super regional, or Omaha,’ ” said one long-time Northeast area scout. “The last three years, with what UConn and St. John’s and Stony Brook have done, it’s elevated everybody around here. I told (Stony Brook coach) Matt Senk the first time I saw him after that, ‘You have no idea what you did on so many levels.’ Everybody was excited to go home and watch Stony Brook on TV. The next day, a kid came to practice and had ‘Jankowski’ written on the back of his jersey in magic marker. It was tremendous.”
All-American Travis Jankowski and many other key Seawolves are gone, but Stony Brook and Kent State have established themselves as the premier programs in their conferences, and they are strong bets to head back to regionals in 2013.
But which Northern or mid-major programs will follow in their footsteps with breakthrough seasons this spring?
The Northern team that looks most dangerous in 2013 is Notre Dame, which has a nice veteran core supporting a pair of front-line talents in Eric Jagielo and Dan Slania. For more on the Irish and that Jagielo/Slania duo in particular, subscribers can read the feature by Teddy Cahill we posted last week.
Stony Brook and Kent State reinforced the value of battle-tested upperclassmen during their runs last year, so look for veteran-laden mid-majors like Saint Louis, Austin Peay State and Sam Houston State to be factors this year. The Billikens are coming off a school-record 41 wins and their first-ever Atlantic 10 Conference title, and they return eight of nine regulars and 10 pitchers, led by co-aces Alex Alemann and Clay Smith.
SHSU has seven starters back from a team that reached a regional final last year, plus a strong one-two pitching punch in Caleb Smith and Cody Dickson. And Austin Peay has six upperclassmen back who have at least two years of experience as starters. The Governors made regionals each of the last two years and played well in both.
All three could make noise in regionals.
Strike Two: Roth Stars, Redux
In last year's College Preview, cover boy Michael Roth did not crack our preseason All-America team. In fact, he didn't even garner a vote from the major league scouting directors who cast ballots to select the team. Roth was the most accomplished pitcher in college baseball, a returning first-team postseason All-American, but our preseason team serves a different purpose: to illustrate how scouting directors view the talent pool in college baseball, rather than to reward college performers who might lack big-time prospect status.
That prompted us to come up with a list of "Roth Stars" for each region—college standouts who excel at helping their teams win, even if they aren't marquee prospects.
This year, three of the four players on our cover—North Carolina's Colin Moran plus N.C. State's Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner—are first-team preseason All-Americans. But the fourth player, UNC ace lefthander Kent Emanuel, fell a few votes shy of cracking our third team. Emanuel is undoubtedly a good prospect—he has added strength and a tick of fastball velocity since last year, and I have a strong suspicion that he could climb into the first round by the end of the season.
This year we're tweaking the Roth Stars model a bit by putting together a team of the most valuable and accomplished college players who did not crack our preseason All-America team. Some of them are good prospects like Emanuel, and some of them are more modest prospects, but all of them are true college baseball stars who deserve recognition.
C: Mitch Garver, New Mexico
Garver just missed our All-America team, finishing fourth in the balloting at catcher, but no returning catcher put up better numbers last year than he did (.377/.438/.612, 10 HR), and he's a solid defender with invaluable leadership skills. He was a third-team All-American at the end of last season.
1B: Mason Katz, Louisiana State
Though he's undersized at 5-foot-10, 188 pounds, Katz is one of the nation's best fastball hitters—"You can't throw it hard enough" to get it by him, one scout said—and ranked third in the SEC with 13 homers last year. He's also a stellar defender at first.
2B: Jordan Hankins, Austin Peay State
A gifted pure hitter with a patient approach (64-38 BB-K mark in two seasons), Hankins added power to his tool kit last year (10 HR, .544 slugging percentage, 66 RBIs), making him a very complete player. He's also a steady defender with good all-around baseball instincts.
3B: Erich Weiss, Texas
Weiss has produced at the plate since he arrived at Texas, hitting .348/.483/.518 as a freshman and .350/.428/.547 as a sophomore—particularly loud numbers given the pitcher-friendly environment where he plays his home games. The 'Horns need more consistent defense out of him this year, as he fielded just .884 in 2012.
SS: Kyle Farmer, Georgia
Farmer has been Georgia's starting shortstop since his freshman year and has been a model of consistency, fielding .960 or better for three straight seasons (.970 last year), while also hitting better than .300 each season. His reliability made him Team USA's shortstop last summer. Good shortstops are even harder to find this year than usual, so the rock-solid Farmer stands out.
OF: Boomer Collins, Dallas Baptist
After struggling for his first two seasons at Nebraska and then sitting out a year when he transferred to DBU, Collins emerged as a star last year, providing speed (15 steals in 18 tries), power (13 homers, 23 doubles, 58 RBIs) and good outfield defense while hitting .374/.466/.647. He's a performer who does it all, and he will move to center this spring.
OF: Ryan Tella, Auburn
Like Collins, Tella has a varied skill set. He hits (.360/.448/.508 last year), he runs (17 steals in 21 tries), and he plays standout defense in center field. He is an instinctive player with a lot of energy, and he makes Auburn's offense go.
OF: Brandon Thomas, Georgia Tech
An unsigned fourth-round pick last year, Thomas is the most physically talented position player on this list—a switch-hitter with power, speed, arm strength and strong defensive skills. He also produced last year, hitting .360/.481/.550, and he just missed cracking our preseason All-America third team as a senior, a year after he was voted onto it as a junior.
DH: Raph Rhymes, Louisiana State
His flirtation with .500 deep into the season was one of 2012's biggest stories. Rhymes cooled off down the stretch, but there's nothing wrong with a .431/.489/.530 line, especially for someone who plays in the nation's best conference. His smooth, flat stroke makes him a hitting machine, plain and simple.
UT: A.J. Reed, Kentucky
At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, Reed is an even bigger version of former Florida two-way star Brian Johnson. Like Johnson, Reed provides lefthanded power at the plate and good feel for a firm three-pitch mix on the mound. Not many players in the country are more valuable.
SP: Kent Emanuel, North Carolina
Not only is Emanuel talented, he is also very accomplished: He went 9-1, 2.33 and threw a CWS shutout against Texas as a freshman, then went 8-4, 1.96 as a sophomore. His ability to spot his fastball and changeup, along with his tenacity, make him a true ace.
SP: Aaron Nola, Louisiana State
Nola was outstanding as a freshman, pounding the zone at a startling rate (89-7 K-BB in 90 IP), and he looks primed to make the leap to superstardom as a sophomore. His fastball is even firmer than it was last year, his changeup is a major weapon, and his poise is unflappable.
SP: Nick Petree, Missouri State
A strong case can be made that Petree was college baseball's pitcher of the year in 2012, when he led the nation in ERA (1.01) and went an incredible 72.1 consecutive innings without giving up an earned run. And he did all that while pitching through a herniation in a forearm muscle, which often limited his velocity to the low-to-mid-80s. Obviously, his feel for his four-pitch mix is superb; just imagine what he can do when he's completely healthy this spring.
SP: Konner Wade, Arizona
Wade learned to harness the extreme life on his fastball over the course of his sophomore year, which culminated in a pair of brilliant complete-game outings in the College World Series. Now that Roth is gone, Wade can claim the mantle of best big-game pitcher in college baseball.
RP: Jimmie Sherfy, Oregon
Sherfy earned second-team All-America honors as a sophomore after posting 19 saves, a 2.20 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 61 innings. His vicious power curveball is one of the nation's best out pitches, and his arm has proven resilient, but he lacks physicality so the Ducks must deploy him with caution this spring—especially after he exited Oregon's final super regional game last year with an injury. But he's healthy now, and when he's healthy, he's filthy.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight Returns
Today marks the end of our three-week-long College Preview extravaganza here at BaseballAmerica.com; we hope you have enjoyed it. As a reminder, you can catch up on everything we've posted with this page, which has links to all of our College Preview content.
Our regular in-season routine begins tomorrow with the season's first Weekend Preview, and I'll have updates all weekend from college baseball action around Southern California on Twitter (@aaronfitt). Between Friday's fine showdown between UCLA's Adam Plutko and Minnesota's Tom Windle, the opening of San Diego's new ballpark, a nice series between Baylor and UC Irvine, and a good tournament in Palm Springs, I should have plenty of nice tidbits to pass along.
Don't forget to stop by again for College Monday, which will feature a new Top 25, chat, podcast and Three Strikes column every week. And we are pleased to team up with our friends at USA Baseball once again this year to bring you the Golden Spikes Spotlight as part of Three Strikes each week, right here on the College Blog. Every week in the Spotlight, we'll examine a candidate for the Golden Spikes Award who stood out for his play during the weekend. You can read more about the Golden Spikes Award at goldenspikesaward.com, where the 50-man preseason Watch List will be released tomorrow.