Strike One: Who's Next?
Last year at this time, everyone was trying to predict who would be the next Fresno State; that is, the next mid-major team to come out of nowhere and win the College World Series. But normalcy was restored in the 2009 postseason when perennial powers and preseason favorites Louisiana State and Texas were the last teams standing. Another mid-major title run seems even less likely now that the NCAA has imposed a moratorium on composite-barreled bats, which are susceptible to tampering.
So let's readjust our goals. Instead of trying to find the next Fresno, let's try to find the next Southern Mississippi (consistent program from a solid conference poised to make the leap to Omaha); the next Virginia (annual major-conference contender that finally breaks through to the CWS); the next Texas Christian (strong mid-major team with a chance to win a regional); and the next Boston College (team on the verge of breaking a long postseason drought).
The next Southern Miss: Minnesota. The Golden Gophers spent nine weeks in the Top 25 a year ago, and they return a rock-solid defense, an athletic offense led by physical outfielder Michael Kvasnicka, and power arms atop the rotation (Seth Rosin) and at the back of the bullpen (Scott Matyas and Cullen Sexton).
The next Virginia: Vanderbilt. Like the Cavaliers under Brian O'Connor, the Commodores under Tim Corbin have had some great teams with Omaha-caliber talent but have yet to reach the CWS. Virginia finally got there a year ahead of schedule with last year's sophomore-laded team; Vandy has a chance to do the same behind sophomore flame-throwers Sonny Gray and Jack Armstrong.
The next TCU: Bowling Green State. The Falcons won the Mid-American Conference regular season each of the last two years, and they are talented enough this year to reach a regional and even win it. The lineup, led by third baseman Derek Spencer, returns seven starters from a unit that was very offensive a year ago, and the staff is anchored by reigning MAC pitcher of the year Brennan Smith.
The next Boston College: The Eagles snapped a 41-year regional drought last year. In 2010, Connecticut and Virginia Tech have a chance to break more modest but still significant droughts of 15 and nine years, respectively. UConn has a strong group of under-the-radar stars in third baseman Mike Olt, second baseman Pierre LePage, outfielder George Springer and power-armed righty Matt Barnes. The Hokies have huge talent but need preseason All-Americans Jesse Hahn and Austin Wates plus electric righty Mathew Price to live up to their potential.
Strike Two: Breakout Stars
A big key to Virginia's success last year was outfielder Jarrett Parker's leap into college baseball superstardom as a sophomore. Here are my picks to make that leap in 2010:
Jackie Bradley Jr. showed true-five-tool talent as a freshman right fielder at South Carolina in 2009. Now he moves to center, and expect his all-around game to continue to mature. What sets Bradley apart from other similar athletes is his mature approach and feel for the game, as evidenced by last year's 34-31 walk-strikeout ratio. Bradley will miss the first few weeks of the season after breaking his hand on a swing-and-miss in practice on Feb. 6, but the Gamecocks are optimistic he'll make a full recovery by mid-March, so we'll stick with him as a breakout candidate.
For the second breakout candidate, let's go back to Charlottesville. Third baseman Steven Proscia split his time between baseball and football at powerhouse Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey, but he was not nearly as raw as most two-sport stars as a freshman last year. Proscia's instincts and blue-collar mentality, combined with his big-time power and athleticism, make for a very special package.
Since Bradley's injury was announced after our College Preview issue went to press, let's include a bonus third breakout candidate for this Web edition of Three Strikes. Gonzaga lefthander Ryan Carpenter showed flashes of his immense potential as a freshman last year, but he really started to break out in the Alaska League, showing a heavy 92-94 mph fastball and ranking as the circuit's No. 2 prospect. If his slider and changeup continue to develop, he can be a top 10 overall pick in the 2011 draft. Carpenter is primed to take a huge step forward as a sophomore this spring.
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight
Three Strikes on the BA College Blog is a staple of our weekly College Monday content, and we are pleased to continue working with USA Baseball to make Strikes the home of the Golden Spikes Spotlight, which highlights a strong weekend performance from one of the top contenders for USA Baseball's Golden Spikes Award. 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 at goldenspikesaward.com and, of course, every Monday at www.baseballamerica.com.