Projected NCAA Teams (8): Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana State, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt.
Conference Schedule: 30 games. Schedule begins March 16.
Conference Tournament: Eight teams, May 23-27 at Hoover, Ala.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
ALL-CONFERENCE TEAMC—J.P. Arencibia, Jr., Tennessee (.352-11-52). 1B—Justin Smoak, So., South Carolina (.303-17-63). 2B—Jeffrey Rea, Sr., Mississippi State (.372-2-27, 14 SB). 3B—Pedro Alvarez, So., Vanderbilt (.329-22-64). SS—Zack Cozart, Jr., Mississippi (.338-10-64, 15 SB). OF—Julio Borbon, Jr., Tennessee (.366-1-30, 19 SB); Collin Cowgill, Jr., Kentucky (.298-16-61); Emeel Salem, Sr., Alabama (.356-2-32, 36 SB). DH—Matt LaPorta, Sr., Florida (.259-14-38).
P—James Adkins, Jr., Tennessee (8-6, 4.50; 106 IP/112 SO); David Price, Jr., Vanderbilt (9-4, 3.81; 104 IP/147 SO); Nick Schmidt, Jr., Arkansas (9-3, 2.98; 109 IP/135 SO). RP—Josh Fields, Jr., Georgia (3-2, 1.80, 15 SV).
Player of the Year: J.P. Arencibia, c, Tennessee.
Pitcher of the Year: David Price, lhp, Vanderbilt.
Freshman of the Year: Lonnie Chisenhall, 3b, South Carolina.
Top Newcomers: 1. Lonnie Chisenhall, Fr., 3b, South Carolina. 2. Charlie Furbush, Jr., lhp, LSU (Transfer/St. Joseph's, Maine). 3. Nick Fuller, Fr., rhp, South Carolina. 4. Jess Todd, Jr., rhp, Arkansas (Transfer/Navarro, Texas, JC). 5. Jared Mitchell, Fr., of, LSU.
PROJECTED TOP PROSPECTS, 2007 Draft
1. David Price, lhp, Vanderbilt.
2. J.P. Arencibia, c, Tennessee
3. Julio Borbon, of, Tennessee
4. Josh Fields, rhp, Georgia
5. James Adkins, lhp, Tennessee.
6. Josh Donaldson, c/3b, Auburn
7. Nick Schmidt, lhp, Arkansas.
8. Zack Cozart, ss, Mississippi.
9. Charlie Furbush, lhp, Louisiana State
10. Matt LaPorta, 1b, Florida
PROJECTED TOP PROSPECTS, 2008 Draft
1. Pedro Alvarez, 3b, Vanderbilt
2. Justin Smoak, 1b, South Carolina
3. Cody Satterwhite, rhp, Mississippi
4. Tony Delmonico, ss, Tennessee
5. Reese Havens, ss, South Carolina
BEST TOOLSBest Pure Hitter—Pedro Alvarez, Vanderbilt. Best Raw Power—Matt LaPorta, Florida. Best Strike-Zone Discipline—Pedro Alvarez, Vanderbilt.
Best Athlete—Julio Borbon, Tennessee. Fastest Runner—Julio Borbon, Tennessee. Best Baserunner—Emeel Salem, Alabama.
Best Defensive Catcher—J.P. Arencibia, Tennessee. Catcher/Best Arm—J.P. Arencibia, Tennessee. Best Defensive First Baseman—Justin Smoak, South Carolina. Best Defensive Second Baseman—Jeffrey Rea, Mississippi State. Best Defensive Third Baseman—Pedro Alvarez, Vanderbilt. Best Defensive Shortstop—Zack Cozart, Mississippi. Infielder/Best Arm—Zack Cozart, Mississippi. Best Defensive Outfielder—Antone Dejesus, Kentucky. Outfielder/Best Arm—Collin Cowgill, Kentucky.
Best Fastball—Josh Fields, Georgia. Best Breaking Ball—James Adkins, Tennessee. Best Changeup—Craig Cobb, Tennessee. Best Control—Greg Dombrowski, Kentucky.
• The end of Louisiana State's streak of consecutive regional appearances at 17 years helped cost Smoke Laval his job, and Paul Mainieri, formerly of Notre Dame, replaced him as the Tigers' head coach. Laval's LSU clubs struggled most on the mound, posting a league-worst 6.87 ERA in SEC games last season. Mainieri brought in a pair of potential impact LHPs as transfers to try to rectify that: Blake Martin from Birmingham-Southern's defunct program, and Charlie Furbush from St. Joseph's (Maine). Normally, a Division III transfer from Maine wouldn't be expected to be a Friday pitcher in the SEC, but Furbush was a Cape Cod League all-star, has good size and above-average stuff for a college lefty. Mainieri also hopes freshman OF Jared Mitchell, who played seven games for LSU's football team as a wide receiver, can contribute more on the baseball diamond.
• South Carolina is playing its final year at Sarge Frye Field in anticipation of a new 6,000-seat stadium scheduled to open in 2008. The Gamecocks had two of the SEC's most anticipated freshmen a year ago in SS Reese Havens and 1B Justin Smoak, and Smoak had a banner freshman season, capped when he copped No. 1 prospect honors in the Cape Cod League. He's the top college prospect for the 2008 draft. Now the Gamecocks have another banner freshman duo in RHP Nick Fuller, an unsigned third-round pick of the Devil Rays, and 3B Lonnie Chisenhall, an unsigned 11th-round pick of the Pirates. The Gamecocks' two top power pitchers could use help from Fuller and fellow hard-throwing frosh RHP Sam Dyson. Jr. LHP Arik Hempy has a career 2.93 ERA but has had repeated elbow problems, including Tommy John surgery, and RHP Wynn Pelzer, moving to closer, took last summer off to rest after a heavy workload last spring.
• Arkansas has relied heavily on Jr. LHP Nick Schmidt the last two seasons, and coach Dave Van Horn brought in significant reinforcements this year. JC transfers Jess Todd (Navarro, Texas) and Duke Welker (Seminole State, Okla.) ranked among the top prospects in the Texas Collegiate and Alaska leagues last summer, and both have power arms. However, strike-throwing Jr. RHP Shaun Seibert seems poised to seize the No. 2 spot behind Schmidt after earning co-pitcher of the year honors in the Cape Cod League (0.35 ERA). The Razorbacks also get a boost with the return of corner IF Danny Hamblin, who didn't sign as a ninth-round pick of the Athletics.
• Scouting directors and crosscheckers will undoubtedly flock to Nashville April 20-22 for the series between rivals Vanderbilt--with its highest preseason ranking ever--and Tennessee. The two teams had four of Team USA's top players in Commodores Jr. LHP David Price, the No. 1 prospect for the 2007 draft, and So. 3B Pedro Alvarez, No. 1 in 2008, as well as Volunteers juniors OF Julio Borbon and C J.P. Arencibia. All played well for Commodores coach Tim Corbin with Team USA last summer, helping the Americans win the gold medal at the FISU World University championships. Scouts also will be bearing down on Vols Jr. LHP James Adkins, and all five are possible first-round picks.
• Mississippi returns its entire weekend rotation as well as hard-throwing So. RHP Cody Satterwhite, a potential first-rounder in 2008 who led the team in wins as a reliever last spring. For the Rebels to break through to Omaha after consecutive super-regional losses, they will need a big bat to come forward and aid Jr. SS Zack Cozart, the league's top defensive player in addition to Mississippi's leading returning home run hitter.
• Mississippi State snuck into the back of the NCAA tournament last year, despite a worse conference record than LSU. To avoid a repeated poor record, the Bulldogs need a full season from RHP Matt Lea (5-1, 2.01), the son of ex-big leaguer Charlie Lea. Biceps tendinitis curtailed Lee's freshman season after just seven starts last year.
• A league doormat no more, Kentucky won the SEC East to earn its first conference baseball title ever. It also set a program record with 44 victories. Coach John Cohen, in his fourth season, fashioned the SEC's best offense last season (7.1 runs per conference game) but lost cleanup hitter Ryan Strieby. However, two sluggers, Sr. C Sean Coughlin and Jr. LF Collin Cowgill, are back and combined for 33 homers in 2006.
• Florida fell from College World Series runner-up to the SEC East's worst team in one year, and the Gators need big years from Sr. 1B Matt LaPorta, an unsigned 14th-round pick of the Red Sox, and Jr. RHP Bryan Augenstein (9-6, 3.07) to improve their lot. LaPorta led Division I with 26 homers in 2005 but slumped to 14 and a .259 average as a junior. The Gators also return LHP Stephen Locke, who missed 2006 after having Tommy John surgery. Locke pitched the first game of Florida's CWS championship series loss to Texas in '05 and went 5-2, 4.04 that season.
• Georgia's success hinges most on its pitching depth, headed by the sophomore trio of RHPs Trevor Holder and Stephen Dodson and LHP Nathan Moreau. The Bulldogs have a fascinating non-conference schedule that includes a Feb. 9-11 series against defending national champion Oregon State and a March 2-4 set against Southern California.
• Auburn stumbled to the SEC's worst record last year with a freshman-dominated lineup and will be pretty young again this season, with Jr. C Josh Donaldson (.276-10-42), a potential first-round pick, the only upperclassman assured of plenty of playing time. While So. LF Mike Bianucci (.359-8-31) lived up to the hype as a freshman, IF Justin Bristow (.255-0-13, 23 Es) struggled and will move off shortstop in deference to someone who can relate--Sr. Philip Stringer, a former top recruit at Tulane who has hit just .185 in three college seasons. Another two-way Tiger, RHP/1B Luke Greinke (.286-1-17; 3.76 ERA), is the younger brother of Royals RHP Zack Greinke.
• Alabama lost sophomore-eligible RHP David Robertson as its closer; he signed in August with the Yankees as a 17th-round pick. The draft also giveth, however, as the Crimson Tide got Sr. CF Emeel Salem back as an unsigned 10th-round pick (Orioles); Salem led the SEC with 36 stolen bases last spring.
+ 2006 conference tournament champion; 2006 NCAA regional participants in bold; 2006 records listed; 2007 national rankings in parentheses