College Top 25 Chat: Feb. 18

Aaron Fitt: OK, sorry for the delay — a mad dash on the first College Monday of the year, but Three Strikes is finished and will be posted shortly on the College Blog. Check that out for reports on UC Irvine, San Diego State and Georgia Tech’s Buck Farmer. Let’s chat!

    Jeff (Orange County, CA): Hello Aaron, just moved from Portland OR to So. Cal. My wife is a Fullerton Alum. We took
    in the games this weekend and we were impressed with Fullerton's young arms. I know it was only the first weekend. Plus they have a big weekend with TCU coming up, but your thoughts on Fullerton's pitching and how they looked so far?

Aaron Fitt: Welcome to SoCal, Jeff! You’re gonna love it (just stay off the roads in LA county on Friday afternoon, for the love of God. Actually, better to stay off the roads in LA County all the
time…). The Titans are obviously leaning heavily on young arms this year, but they are quality young arms, and this weekend was a very encouraging start. I’m a huge Justin Garza fan — he’ll run it up to 94 with a sharp power breaking ball, and he’s fearless. Thomas Eshelman ranked among our top prospects in the West Coast League this summer and has been very impressive in the offseason, so I wasn’t surprised to see him pitch as well as he did Friday. Grahamm Wiest is an excellent strike-thrower with some funk and deception, and Koby Gauna is emerging as well—he’s got arm strength. I think it will be a good rotation.

    Russell (Austin, TX): Hey Aaron, what impressed you about Texas this week? And also what does Texas have too do to crack the Top 25?

Aaron Fitt: The most encouraging thing was how well Parker French and Dillon Peters pitched, because those guys really will determine whether or not this season is a success for Texas, I believe. Mark Payton had a big weekend in the middle of the lineup — he’s just a
really good player. I was surprised at the bullpen’s struggles Friday, and it sounds like Thornhill wasn’t great Saturday, so the pitching still needs to gel. Texas isn’t far from the Top 25, but failing to sweep Sacramento State at home won’t get them into the rankings when other teams earned their way in with unbeaten weekends against better foes. Although I do think Sac State is improved this year and could be a
factor in the WAC.

    Brad (Chicago): Do you really believe LSU will finish 6th in the SEC?

Aaron Fitt: I believe the SEC is absolutely loaded — seven teams currently ranked in our top 11! Honestly, those teams could finish in any order, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all — I expect it will be tightly bunched, with a game or two of separation in either direction. But obviously Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Arkansas are going to be very formidable in the SEC West, just as LSU will be. I like
all of those teams, and I don’t think any of them is markedly better than the others yet. So yes, I think it is entirely possible that LSU finishes sixth in the SEC — and still hosts a regional.

    Windy (Chicago): Which Tulane offense was the real one: 14 hits in one game or 7 hits over two?

Aaron Fitt: I think there’s some middle ground there, don’t you? This should be a solid offensive club, although I don’t think
they’re going to have 14 hits every game. Keep in mind, the Green Wave faced some quality arms this weekend — that was a strong field in San Marcos. But scouts are really buzzing about the Tulane arms this weekend. Rizzotti, McKenzi, Napoli and Byo all looked good, among others. Will have more on Tulane later this week.

    Nola (Houston): Hey Aaron,

    Great to have college baseball back.

    How impressed were you by Rice this weekend, particularly their starting
    pitching, after taking 2 out of 3 from Stanford? The pitching as a whole had some pretty big shoes to fill with the departures of Reckling,
    Duffey and Chargois. Do you think this current staff has what it takes to get the Owls back to Omaha?

Aaron Fitt: You’re right, the Owls needed some of these
sophomores to take big steps forward, in particular, and you have to be
encouraged with the way Jordan Stephens and Zech Lemond started the season. Kubitza and Simms have had nice careers so far, but I would really like to see them take that next leap to All-America-level performance, and once again, early returns are promising. I’m excited to
see the Owls in two weeks at Minute Maid, which should give me a better
feel for whether or not this is an Omaha-caliber staff.

    danny (florida): How bout them Mountaineers! Another year with low expectations. Are you surprised they were able to just beat down on Rodon? Expectations for the rest of the season?

Aaron Fitt: Yeah, I think it’s safe to say I was surprised by that game Friday — Carlos Rodon hasn’t lost a game since his junior year of high school, and I think he is the best pitcher in college baseball. The Mountaineers weren’t scared, that’s for sure — sounds like Billy Jones has them playing with confidence once again this
season. Our guys who were there might not have characterized it as a “beat down” — they say Rodon actually didn’t look that bad, but App was
just ready for him and hit a couple of big home runs. I’m still not ready to proclaim App State a regional team — I still think it will struggle to replace the arms it lost last year — but this team is still
going to be a factor in the SoCon, I think.

    Brian (Nor Cal): Hey Aaron, glad to have college baseball back! Were you able to check out the new Fowler Park at USD? What does that facility do for that program? More importantly,
    what happened to the Toreros this weekend?

Aaron Fitt: I did, and it was really a stunningly beautiful facility. I always liked going to games at USD anyway because that park is in a pretty spot, carved into a natural hillside bowl with a
nice view. Now you’ve got this gorgeous ballpark stuck in that same setting, and it’s very striking. They did a great job incorporating the architecture of the campus (which is very pretty) into the ballpark, starting with the vaulted entryway, and the sight lines are fantastic all around the open-air concourse. It’s a big league-caliber locker room
too. I think it really elevates the program — most importantly, they’ll be able to host regionals and supers now, which should finally help this program get over the hump to Omaha. And USD has already been able to land marquee recruits over the years, but I suspect they’ll keep
even more of their big-ticket guys now, and lure more recruits away from other SoCal powers. This is easily the best facility in the state of California.

    Alex (California): Aaron, Oregon's Jake reed put together a nice first start at Hawaii on Friday I think he's one of the best arms in the PAC-12. Your thoughts?

Aaron Fitt: I’ve liked him since his high school days because he’s got a loose arm with good projection, and he already has a really good feel for pitching, with a ton of life on the fastball. That’s a nice profile, I think. There are some awfully good Friday guys in the Pac-12, between Appel, Plutko, Wade, Trevor Williams, Justin Jones, Reed — it’s a strong group.

    EScott (Memphis): If you had to pick one, was TCU's lack of offensive production more an indictment on their bats or due to Ole Miss's pitching depth.

Aaron Fitt: If I have to pick one, I’m crediting the Ole Miss pitching staff, which I think is going to be elite this year. That said, I don’t love TCU’s offense; in particular, I think it is more
vulnerable than usual in the lower half of the lineup. But the Frogs will hit better than they did this weekend, and I don’t think there’s any reason for panic. That’s a great coaching staff, and it will find answers. Runs figured to be tough to come by against Ole Miss, which should be a fantastic run prevention outfit with the quality of its pitching and its defense.

    chase (chicago): Aaron brown better player as pitcher or hitter

Aaron Fitt: I used to like him better as a hitter, as most scouts seemed to coming out of high school, but that has been reversed at Pepperdine, and scouts all prefer him as a pitcher now. It’s
power stuff from the left side — up to 94 with a change for an average
changeup and slider. He’s got a chance to be a nice draft pick as an eligible sophomore this year.

    Hank (Sarasota): After attending the Snowbird Classic in Sarasota this weekend, I first came in asking where Mercer University was from and didn't know much about them but they surprisingly came out 3-0 with convincing wins over Ohio State, St. Johns, and Notre Dame. What are you thoughts about Mercer as a mid-major? And is Notre Dame a Big East favorite?


Aaron Fitt: Hank, Mercer is a very good mid-major program that has a chance to make some noise this year, as you probably perceived. They returned all nine regulars and two weekend starters from
last year’s team, they’ve got a big-time power bat as the centerpiece of the lineup in Nick Backlund, and a good senior shortstop in Evan Boyd. As for Notre Dame, I think it will be a regionals team, but I’ve got it penciled in as the No. 2 team in the Big East, behind Louisville (which we have ranked No. 4 in the nation).

    ScottAZ (Phx, AZ): Thoughts on Jameis Winston's
    college debut? Starting RF and DH 1st two games, then 3 innings of 2 hit, no walk ball with 4 K's on the mound

Aaron Fitt: I sure get the impression that he is going to make the biggest impact of all the two-sport guys they’ve brought in over the last decade. Neat to see him play so much in his first weekend of college baseball.

    Chris (Arlington, TX): Great start by the Ole Miss Rebels with a 3 game sweep of TCU! Is this the Rebels year to finally make it to Omaha?

Aaron Fitt: It really might be. We realistically might have two Magnolia State teams in Omaha this year, because I am very bullish on MSU and Ole Miss, and Southern Miss looks very strong as well. I remember writing about the “Magnolia State Bumper Crop” in my recruiting notebook a couple of falls ago, and we are starting to see that banner high school class bear fruit.

    TitaNation (So. Cal.): Among Fullerton, Irvine and Cal Poly, which team had the most impressive opening weekend? It's early, but do you see the Big West getting 3 Bids this year.

Aaron Fitt: Even though I thought Baylor looked very flat on Saturday, I still have to go with Irvine here — sweeping the reigning Big 12 champions in very emphatic fashion is awfully impressive. Sure, Baylor lost a lot, but those guys have plenty of quality pieces back, as well. Certainly, all three of those teams stood out this weekend, as did UC Davis, which won three of four against a Washington team that I have been pumping up a little bit heading into the season. Big West certainly looks reinvigorated.

    Rob (Starkville, MS): After #2 Vanderbilt, #3 Arkansas, and #4 Louisville all lose, why didn't you move #5 MSU up any after they had a 4 game sweep?

Aaron Fitt: We debated it in this morning’s Top 25 meeting — there were those in our meeting who wanted to move MSU up. But when teams win their weekends early in the season, we generally will
keep them where they are in the rankings, even if they only took two of
three. Especially in Week One, we are giving those teams a pass for dropping one out of three. But MSU was clearly the most impressive team of that group in Week One, which is the reason we did strongly debate jumping those guys up.

    Mike Garbus (Smithville, Missouri): I'm surprised that Jeffrey Gardner and Zak Wasseman aren't starting for Louisville. Any insights as to why, Aaron? Thanks.

Aaron Fitt: It’s because the Cardinals faced three good
lefties, so they wanted to give their righthanded hitters opportunities. It sounds like Louisville is going to play some matchups this year — they’ve got a lot of depth, and Dan McDonnell told me it will be common for them to play 11 or 12 guys in a lot of games.

    ScottAZ (Phx, AZ): which freshmen made the loudest debuts this weekend? Heard of the walkoff homer by FSU's Stewart, who else?

Aaron Fitt: Yeah, D.J. Stewart certainly made some noise with that one. He’s one of those guys that looked like a sure-fire
Florida State star when he arrived at campus; sometimes you can just tell with those guys. I’ve got to take one more opportunity to highlight
Bubba Derby, San Diego State’s freshman closer — escaping two ridiculous jams in back-to-back days to preserve those wins against USD showed serious guts. Skye Bolt had a pair of big games for North Carolina. Eshelman and Garza at Fullerton certainly came up big. This is
not an exhaustive list by any means, but those are a few guys that stick out off the top of my head.

    Steve (Austin, TX): Hey Aaron... I was one of the record breaking crowds this weekend at Reckling Park this weekend and I noticed how much more disciplined Rice was compared to previous seasons.. Batters extending the count, pitchers getting and staying ahead, dropping perfect, effective bunts, etc... Seeing this, compared to previous season, I truly belive that this is one of the best Owls squads in years. How much potential does this Rice team have? Is Omaha a
    legitimate for this team? Thanks

Aaron Fitt: Good observations, Steve. Wayne Graham certainly seemed excited about his team this spring; there is reason for
optimism, Rice fans.

    Ryan (New Orleans): There seems to be a lot of disregard for losing a game early in the season after winning the series
    as a whole. Shouldn't there be more credit for teams that can show they
    have more depth at pitching and more consistent hitting to sweep an early season series? Although it's early, I like the position of say LSU
    who swept a Power Conference team over say South Carolina who was unable to win all three games against a vastly inferior opponent.

Aaron Fitt: LSU was certainly the more impressive of those two teams this weekend, and I’ve heard from one scout already today questioning whether South Carolina’s offense will be good enough to justify its preseason ranking. It’s early yet, and I just think it’s important not to rush to sweeping conclusions after one weekend; I don’t
like moving teams down after winning weekends, unless a team behind them really did something eye-opening. Maryland is OK, but there really isn’t much difference between the Terps and Liberty — not enough there for us to move LSU ahead of South Carolina.

    Bill (Atlanta, GA): What was the biggest surprise the first weekend?

Aaron Fitt: How about four preseason first-team All-Americans losing (Appel, Rodon, Manaea, Gonzales) their season debuts? Definitely did not see that coming.

    Anthony (Oxford, MS): With all three of its largest Universities in the top 25, is there a logical answer to explain
    how the state of Mississippi became such a threat in collegiate baseball?

Aaron Fitt: I did touch on the outstanding high school class a couple of years ago, and most of those top guys went to those three schools rather than signing with pro teams. But also there is a really special college baseball culture in that state, with the crowds and the media attention given to the sport. I remember sitting at a restaurant near the state capitol building last year, and having casual conversations with state legislators and other strangers who knew all about what was going on with the Bulldogs and the Rebels on the baseball
diamond — I can’t imagine that happening in Sacramento or Raleigh or Boston, to name the capitals of three states where I have lived. They have fantastic facilities, great coaches — I think it’s pretty obvious why college baseball is so strong down there.

    Shane (Tallahassee): Do you think Florida State
    can overcome the struggles that they had on the mound this weekend if their offense keeps playing as well as it did?

Aaron Fitt: I do worry about their pitching without Compton, and Peter Miller’s poor outing Sunday did nothing to alleviate that concern. But I have worried about FSU’s pitching plenty of times in
the past, and they always figure out how to win 40 or 50 games. In Mike
Martin I trust.

    Thomas (Nebraska): I really liked what I saw from Daniel Gosset and Scott Firth this weekend. I also really liked what I saw from Shane Kennedy taking over at the plate. Do you think Clemson is anywhere near being a threat to top teams nationally?

Aaron Fitt: I also heard great reports on Gossett and Firth, and it sounds like Jake Duggar and Tyler Krieger also looked good
in the lineup; that is a very exciting group of freshmen. I think Clemson will have its ups and downs this year, but I certainly think that team will be good enough to give any team a run for its money when it is playing well.

    Steve Rodriguez (Malibu): Hey Aaron. Saw you at
    our game on Friday. What did you think of my team? Noticed you didn't
    include us in your projected regional field this year. Hoping your opinion might have changed after our dominating weekend.

Aaron Fitt: It was a dominating weekend for the Waves, albeit against an overmatched Western Michigan team. We did not include the Waves in our field of 64 primarily because they lost middle infielders Joe Sever and Zach Vincej (two guys who were really the backbone of their team last year) and replaced them with freshmen. But I
will say that I really liked what I saw from Cody Nulph at shortstop on
Friday — I think he’s going to be a very good player. Good actions and
an accurate arm at shortstop, and he handled the bat well. Scott Frazier looked really good, too — 91-95, with a good curveball as the game wore on. I could certainly see Pepperdine making a regional, but there will be plenty of competition, and I remain high on LMU, which won
its opening series against Utah. Hard to see the WCC getting more than three bids, and competition should be fierce between USD, Gonzaga, LMU, Pepperdine and even USF (even though it had a rotten first weekend).

    Clay (Mississippi): After the first weekend, who is the favorite to win the SEC?

Aaron Fitt: Do you have a seven-sided coin I can flip?

    gary (LA): What games did you attend this first weekend?

Aaron Fitt: I was at Pepperdine and UCLA on Friday, Irvine and USD on Saturday, USC on Sunday. I wrote about the Aztecs and Anteaters today, and if I have time I will empty out my notebook with other observations from the weekend for tomorrow’s blog.

    Alex (Virginia): Where do you see UVA right now, did their two wins down at ECU move the needle at all for you? I'm more than a little biased here but Virginia Tech gave up 14 hits and 9 runs to Kent State and they move in?

Aaron Fitt: Yeah, it moved the needle — it came down to four teams for our last two spots, and we went with Va Tech and Irvine, with UVa and Miami right on the cusp, followed by Texas and Arizona State. Certainly impressed with Virginia’s weekend, but even more impressed with Virginia Tech’s 4-0 weekend against two good clubs. The middle of Virginia Tech’s lineup might be as good as any in the country, and I thought it was very encouraging how well the Hokies pitched in the final three games of their weekend. Even the game its pitching struggled against Kent State, VT found a way to win, because its offense is fearsome. And lest you forget, Virginia’s No. 2 starter (Silverstein) and its top recruit (Kirby) gave up nine runs to ECU this weekend, and I don’t believe ECU’s offense is going to be spectacular this year. Anyway, those teams are close, and you can make a case for either, but we are high on the Hokies and wanted to reward them for their four-win weekend.

    WhenItStrikesMe (NYC): It was a weird weekend in Nashville with some of the smallest strike zones I can recall pairing
    with cold weather. Only two Vandy pitchers (Brian Miller and Kevin Ziomek) and one LBSU pitcher (Hunt) were able to consistently find the strike zone all weekend. Chalk it up to very cold weather and belligerent umpires with nowhere to be, or should Vandy and LBSU worry about a combined 32 walks and 9 HBPs in 50 innings pitched? On the bright side, the new Vanderbilt field turf looked to play well. Quick and true, with the added fun of allowing people to slide 15 or so feet.

Aaron Fitt: Yeah, the first weekend can be fluky, between weather stuff and jitters and getting pitchers stretched out. You can learn some things from opening weekend for sure, but I try not to panic after one weekend, and I’m certainly not worrying too much about the way those clubs pitched this weekend. Thanks for the observations from Nashville.

    Matt (OKC): Aaron, what can my realistic expectations be from the Aggies in their first year in the SEC & a relatively young group of guys?

Aaron Fitt: I think it’s a regionals team… even if it
winds up as the No. 9 team in the conference, which is where we project
it. I just really, really like those top 7 or 8 teams, and the Aggies have a lot of young guys who need to establish themselves, as you point out. But certainly, the talent is there.

    Matt (Atlanta): When would you think the Johnnies will crack the Top 25. They were a super regional team a year ago, and maintained their solid pitching staff from that team.

Aaron Fitt: Well, certainly not after an 0-4 weekend in
Sarasota! I’ve been pretty vocal about my admiration for that program over the years, and I think those guys will be plenty competitive this year, but I don’t envision that being a Top 25-caliber team this season.
Just lost too much from last year

    Bob (Birmingham): The Southern Conference had a
    nice start to the season. Can you see the conference sending three teams to the regionals again this year?

Aaron Fitt: Sure, that could easily happen; we projected the SoCon for two bids in the preseason, and three is not a stretch. Good starts for CofC, Georgia Southern, App State (albeit in just one game), Samford and Western Carolina, all of whom could contend for regionals. And don’t forget about Elon, which had a rough first weekend but will be there at the end. Looks like it could be a very deep

    Matt (Louisiana): I see SDSU missed the cut (I'd imagine barely). They swept No. 25 USD while VT won all of it's four, albeit against an above average UNCW team and a rebuilding, cold weather Ball State team. What was the impetus for putting VT ahead of SDSU? Thanks for the chats!

Aaron Fitt: Well, San Diego State had more to prove, for me — that team finished 26-34 last year, so one good weekend isn’t going to be enough to vault the Aztecs over the glut of teams that we evaluated as being closer to the Top 25 heading into the season. Certainly, I was very impressed with the Aztecs this weekend, but I want
to see them sustain some success before running them into the Top 25. Virginia Tech has more established veterans and is a team we had high expectations for coming into the season — those guys did not have to make as much of a jump to get into the rankings.

    Ben (Leland Grove): Is Kent Emanuel a potential 1st rounder in the works to you?

Aaron Fitt: Yes, I think he has a real chance to be. Some similarities between him at Sean Gilmartin, who was a first-rounder, but I think Emanuel is better than Gilmartin.

    Ralph (Phoenix): DJ Peterson should put up impressive stats this year. Do you think that continues after he's drafted?

Aaron Fitt: The guy is a really, really good hitter with easy power potential. Yes, I think he’s a big leaguer.

    Jordan (Arkansas): My hogs looked great for the
    first two games then fell apart Sunday. Any cause for concern? Big games coming up in Arizona State and San Diego State. We need to get healthy quick!

Aaron Fitt: Nothing to worry about. They do need to get
healthy; that will happen soon, and it will make a big difference. We gave them a mulligan for Sunday.

    Rob (NOLA): Can Cotton close for LSU? If not, who are the candidates to close?

Aaron Fitt: It sure looks like it after he finished the
first two games this weekend! I like him in that role — he’s not your typical flame-throwing closer, like Nick Goody was last year, but they really trust him because he has poise, command and solid enough stuff.

    Matt (Chicago): IU had an impressive win against Louisville this weekend and are your pick to win the Big Ten. Any chance you see them cracking the top 25? How far off are they?

Aaron Fitt: Certainly on the radar — in a group of about 10-12 teams who fell outside the rankings on our Top 25 worksheet this week. The next three weeks afford the Hoosiers plenty of chances to
prove they belong in the rankings, with trips to Georgia Southern and Florida, plus games against Coastal and Indiana State.

Aaron Fitt: OK everybody, I’m out of gas — it’s been a
whirlwind weekend, but a very fun weekend. Hope you guys enjoyed Week One as much as I did. Thanks for all the great chat questions, as always. See you next Monday!