OMAHA—The College World Series Finals get started in a few hours, and the last two teams standing are filled with eminently likable players. UCLA and Mississippi State have been fun teams to cover this season, and I expect them to provide a worthy conclusion to a great season of college baseball.
Every year before the Finals, I like to step back and thank the players and coaches who make my job so enjoyable. So here’s my annual All-Fitt team—a list of my favorite players to watch and interview in 2013.
C: Brian Holberton, North Carolina
Holberton assumed UNC’s full-time catching role when Matt Roberts was injured in regionals, and he handled his defensive responsibilities well. I like Holberton’s lefthanded swing and his baseball savvy; he offered good insights into UNC’s pitchers in Omaha.
1B: Wes Rea, Mississippi State
This is not an original choice—everybody loves the 6-foot-5, 272-pound Rea, unquestionably the largest player ever to make the All-Fitt team (which is so often populated with lovable runts). With his quick wit and folksy deep South style, Rea wins every press conference. Voted a captain as a sophomore by his teammates, Rea embodies MSU’s fun-loving, free-spirited clubhouse culture. “What’s not to like about Mississippi State’s team?” said UCLA ace Adam Plutko on Sunday. “Big Wes Rea gives a hug to the umpire after he punches him out and says, ‘You missed that one,’ and walks away. There are not too many guys in the country that can do that.”
2B: Tony Kemp, Vanderbilt
I’ve been driving the Kemp bandwagon since I first saw him as a freshman during Vandy’s 2011 opening weekend at San Diego. He’s a dynamic player who makes things happen with his speed and athleticism. No player smiles more on the field, and his energy is infectious. When I profiled Kemp in May, he provided my favorite interview of the year, packed with thoughtful, insightful answers. And at 5-foot-6, he’s an inspiration to short guys everywhere.
SS: Trea Turner, North Carolina State
A repeat member of this squad, Turner impressed me as much with his rare insightfulness as with his special baseball ability. Sure, he’s an electrifying player, with game-changing speed, a lightning-quick bat and the ability to dazzle on occasion at shortstop. But UCLA coach John Savage rightfully gushed about Turner’s analytical skills after Turner broke down Nick Vander Tuig’s performance against the Wolfpack. So Turner gets the nod over three other players who were a joy to watch this year, LSU’s Alex Bregman, Texas A&M’s Mikey Reynolds and Cal State Fullerton’s Richy Pedroza.
3B: Kris Bryant, San Diego
I consider myself fortunate to have spent the last three years living in Southern California, where I’ve gotten a chance to watch Bryant’s college career unfold up close. I’ve also gotten to know him and his family, and he is one of the genuinely nicest stars I’ve come across. He’s also the most gifted power hitter I’ve seen in my nine years at Baseball America. Every time you go to see Bryant play, there’s a decent chance he’ll do something that makes your jaw drop.
OF: Pat Biondi, Michigan
OF: Leon Byrd, Rice
OF: Max Gordon, Oregon State
These three players fit the All-Fitt prototype: undersized spark plugs that play with abundant energy. Biondi and Byrd showed mature offensive approaches, big-time speed and sterling defensive ability in center field. Gordon also made his share of highlight-reel catches in center, even though he lacks the pure physical tools of the other two. Gordon reminded me of former Virginia second baseman Keith Werman: Neither of them put up gaudy numbers, but they did all of the little things to help their teams win, keeping them in the lineup despite poor batting averages.
DH: Joey Falcone, Columbia
Falcone is one of the neatest stories in college baseball. A former combat medic in the U.S. Marine Corps Infantry, he was deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. For that alone, he deserves our admiration. But he also has an effervescent personality and a dynamite Brooklyn accent, making him a press conference star at the Fullerton Regional—where he had a big game on his 27th birthday to help the Lions upset New Mexico.
SP: Matt Boyd, Oregon State
I got to know Boyd a little bit over two days at UCLA, where he sat near me charting pitches on Saturday and Sunday. He’s got a great baseball mind and a huge heart, and he showed with his gritty performances in the postseason. OSU coach Pat Casey has called Boyd one of his favorite players he’s ever coached, and it’s easy to see why.
SP: Justin Garza, Cal State Fullerton
Pedro Martinez was my favorite player to watch growing up, and Garza has a little bit of Pedro in him. He has a similar smallish build, an electric fastball and has developed an excellent changeup. He’s also a fearless competitor. He’ll be a treat to watch for two more years at Fullerton.
SP: Marco Gonzales, Gonzaga
I found myself toasting Gonzales last night, while I enjoyed a steak dinner courtesy of Jim Callis, who bet me last summer that Gonzales would not be drafted inside the top 20 picks. Jim was right that Gonzales lacks overwhelming stuff, but his command and polish are special, and so is his disappearing changeup and his makeup. Gonzales is also very charismatic and gave a good interview.
SP: Adam Plutko, UCLA
Not many pitchers have had better college careers than Plutko, who has 28 wins over three outstanding seasons. He is a model of consistency on the mound, and he is one of the friendliest players I’ve covered, always going out of his way to say hello and make conversation. He’s a baseball rat who follows the national picture closely—just a fun guy to talk baseball with.
RP: David Berg, UCLA
I feel like I’ve seen Berg 50 times over the last two years—and considering he’s made 100 appearances in that span, it’s possible. A submariner with serious sink on his two-seamer, Berg is amazingly resilient, and consistently filthy. And he’s a neat success story—a guy who was overlooked by colleges until the summer after he graduated, then joined UCLA as a walk-on and became one of the linch-pins of two CWS teams.
UT: Michael Lorenzen, Cal State Fullerton
Like most of the players on this list, Lorenzen is very gregarious and likable. He also can do just about anything on the baseball field, from making sensational catches in center field to hitting home runs to throwing 98 mph off the mound in the ninth inning. Players with big tools are fun to watch, and Lorenzen’s tools are huge.