Strike One: Mid-Major Star Power
One of the centerpieces of our 2009 College Preview is a fabulous profile of preseason Player of the Year favorite Stephen Strasburg, written by frequent BA contributor Kirk Kenney. Strasburg posted eye-popping numbers as a sophomore at San Diego State last year, and after his overpowering summer for USA Baseball’s collegiate national and Olympic teams, it’s easy to envision him having a 2009 season that ranks among the best ever for a college pitcher, right alongside Eddie Bane’s 1972 campaign, Ben McDonald’s 1989, Mark Prior’s 2001 and Jered Weaver’s 2004. Of course, all of those pitchers played in power conferences, and Strasburg plays in the Mountain West–which has a reputation for being very unfriendly toward pitchers but which also cannot match the Pac-10, Big West or SEC for talent. So if Strasburg somehow lives up to the enormous expectations that greet him in 2009, putting his accomplishments into historical perspective will be a challenge of its own.
Strasburg is far from the only elite talent hidden away in a mid-major conference, and one of the goals of our 2009 College Preview is to shine the spotlight on some of the others, as well. Over the next two weeks leading up to the Feb. 20 start date, we’ll present features on some of the best players that the sport has to offer, though they might come from oft-overlooked parts of the college baseball landscape. From Long Island’s James Jones to Jacksonville State’s Ben Tootle, from Indiana’s Josh Phegley to Kennesaw State’s Kyle Heckathorn, from Louisville’s Chris Dominguez to Fresno State’s Tommy Mendonca, there is plenty of talent outside the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-10. And when our preseason All-America team (which is voted on by major league scouting directors) is released on Feb. 18, don’t be surprised to see some of those names on the list.
Strike Two: Reloading, Not Rebuilding
Not all college baseball programs are created equal. Some are simply stronger than others–they recruit better, they coach better, they have larger budgets and better facilities, and they win year-in and year-out. Miami and South Carolina are two such programs, and that’s why it’s a little jarring to see both omitted from the preseason top 25 rankings. Their exclusion is a function of just how much talent they produced–and then lost–last season.
The Hurricanes and Gamecocks must replace a combined five All-Americans, 11 everyday regulars, four members of the weekend rotation and, in Miami’s case, a closer who was a first-round pick. Programs of such high caliber usually reload after heavy losses and field competitive teams the following year, and that’s just what we expect Miami and South Carolina to do in 2009: to be very competitive. Maybe the newcomers will mesh perfectly and one or both teams will make noise in the postseason–it’s worth noting that the last two times the Hurricanes entered a season unranked and facing so many question marks (in 2003 and 2006), they reached the College World Series. The last time South Carolina entered a season unranked was 1997, which was coach Ray Tanner’s first year in the program.
Arizona State also suffered serious attrition from last year’s Pacific-10 title team, losing 13 of its record-tying 14 drafted players including first-rounders Brett Wallace and Ike Davis. But the Sun Devils reloaded better than anyone in the nation, bringing in a number of elite junior college transfers as part of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, so ASU begins the season ranked No. 13.
Like ASU, Miami and South Carolina have potentially dominant No. 1 starters (Mike Leake for ASU, Chris Hernandez for Miami and Sam Dyson for South Carolina). The Hurricanes and Gamecocks brought in solid junior college transfers of their own, highlighted by South Carolina catcher Justin Dalles and Miami infielders Scott Lawson and Chris Hermann. Still, Arizona State patched its holes just a bit better and landed back in the rankings. Miami lost two potential impact players in lefthander Eric Erickson (fall arm surgery) and corner bat Joey Terdoslovich (transfer), and South Carolina would be a much different team if Lonnie Chisenhall and Nick Fuller—kicked out of school as freshmen in 2007 due to a burglary incident—were still around. But don’t expect any team that plays Miami or South Carolina to treat them as underdogs. Internal expectations never drop at places like Coral Gables and Columbia.
Strike Three: Introducing The Golden Spikes Spotlight
Three Strikes is a staple of our weekly College Monday content, but it will have a slightly new look in 2009. Starting with the season’s first weekend recap on Feb. 23, one of the Strikes will be the home of the Golden Spikes Spotlight, which will highlight a strong weekend performance from one of the top contenders for USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes Award. Don’t worry–our Player of the Year award isn’t going by the wayside, but we’re happy to partner with USA Baseball to recognize some of the game’s top stars every week. You’ll be able to read more about the Golden Spikes Spotlight players, among other features, at goldenspikesaward.com and, of course, every Monday at www.baseballamerica.com