OMAHA—Every year, as soon as the College World Series wraps up, we take an early stab at predicting the following year’s CWS field. Making predictions before July’s draft signing deadline is difficult, because we don’t know how rosters will be constructed next season, so we reserve the right to alter these picks between now and February.
On last year’s list, we correctly pegged Mississippi State, North Carolina, N.C. State and Oregon State as 2013 Omaha teams. Our list of eight more for super regionals included a fifth team that wound up in Omaha (Louisville), and our third tier of eight teams featured two more CWS participants (UCLA and Louisiana State). Overall, last June we listed 24 teams to follow in 2013, and 15 of them wound up finishing among the last 24 teams standing (by making a regional final, a super regional or the CWS).
Here are our very early picks for the 2014 College World Series, listed in alphabetical order.
Cal State Fullerton
The Titans will miss first-team All-American Michael Lorenzen for his thump at the plate, his defense in center and his power arm at the back of the bullpen. But Fullerton will return its stellar weekend rotation—All-Americans Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza plus crafty Grahamm Wiest. J.D. Davis could follow in Lorenzen’s footsteps as one of the nation’s best two-way players, potentially anchoring the back of the bullpen with his own power repertoire. Potential 2014 first-rounder Matt Chapman could slide from third base back to short, replacing Richy Pedroza. Chapman will anchor the lineup, and the Titans should get more production out of athletic players like Jake Jefferies, Austin Diemer, Greg Velazquez and Clay Williamson.
Pitching was FSU’s strength in 2013, and the core of its staff returns largely intact. Senior Sunday starter Scott Sitz is gone, but flame-thrower Luke Weaver and crafty lefty Brandon Leibrandt will be back, and 2012 freshman All-American Mike Compton will return from Tommy John surgery to ably fill Sitz’s spot in the rotation. The Seminoles will miss catcher Stephen McGee and power-hitting outfielder Marcus Davis, but D.J. Stewart, Jose Brizuela, Josh Delph, Jameis Winston and John Nogowski will make for a solid offensive core. And fifth-year senior Justin Gonzalez will return to provide experience at shortstop and more pop in the middle of the lineup.
North Carolina State
The Wolfpack must overcome significant losses for the second straight year, as key relievers Grant Sasser, Chris Overman and Ryan Wilkins are gone, and the bullpen might have been the greatest strength of the 2013 team. But N.C. State might have the two best players in the country next year in ace lefty Carlos Rodon and shortstop Trea Turner, and the supporting cast should remain strong. The ‘Pack remains rock-solid up the middle, as Brett Austin returns behind the plate, Logan Ratledge will be back at second, and Jake Fincher will make a seamless transition from right to center, replacing Brett Williams. The rotation behind Rodon should be strong, as lefty Brad Stone and righty Logan Jernigan have oustanding stuff and figure to make jumps forward in 2014. Andrew Woeck, who made 26 appearances this spring, could emerge as the bullpen anchor.
In Tommy Thorpe, Cole Irvin and Jake Reed, the Ducks will return the entire weekend rotation from a team that earned a national seed this year. Oregon pitched and defended at an elite level in 2013, and it will do so again next year. Lefty Garrett Cleavinger is ready to assume the closer role if Jimmie Sherfy signs as a 10th-round pick, but if Sherfy returns the Ducks will be even better. Lefty Christian Jones (an 18th-round pick) and outfielder Brett Thomas (a 21st-rounder) are two other key X-factors to watch as signing day approaches. With Ryon Healy gone, Oregon could use Thomas back to lead the offense, which will lean heavily upon scrappers like Aaron Payne, Scott Heineman, Mitchell Tolman and Tyler Baumgartner. Scoring runs could be an issue again, but few teams will be better on the mound.
The Beavers lose a lot—most notably ace Matt Boyd and shortstop Tyler Smith—but they return Pac-12 Player of the Year Michael Conforto and first-team All-American Andrew Moore. Dylan Davis, Andy Peterson and Kavin Keyes will also be back to help Conforto lead the offense, while lefty Jace Fry will be farther removed from his Tommy John surgery and will team with Moore to give OSU a dynamite one-two pitching punch. Max Engelbrekt could anchor the bullpen or slide into the rotation. Catcher Jake Rodriguez and righties Dan Child and Scott Schultz were all drafted in the 17-19-round range, giving the Beavers at least a chance to get one or more of them back, which would bolster the team’s depth.
The Gamecocks reached a super regional this year with a team whose most talented players were underclassmen. Sure, South Carolina will miss departed seniors L.B. Dantzler, Nolan Belcher and Tyler Webb, but the returning pieces are outstanding. Shortstop Joey Pankake, second baseman Max Schrock, catcher Grayson Greiner and center fielder Tanner English will make South Carolina one of the nation’s best teams up the middle. Connor Bright, Graham Saiko, Kyle Martin, Brison Celek and T.J. Costen should lead a strong supporting cast. And South Carolina should be able to build a solid pitching staff around lefties Jordan Montgomery and Jack Wynkoop, who will form an excellent one-two punch.
The Commodores must replace mainstays Tony Kemp, Mike Yastrzemski, Connor Harrell, Conrad Gregor, Spencer Navin and Kevin Ziomek. Only a program that reeled in the nation’s best recruiting classes in each of the last two years could absorb those losses and still compete at an elite level. Vandy will still be absurdly loaded on the mound, between Tyler Beede, Carson Fulmer, Walker Buehler, Brian Miller, T.J. Pecoraro, Philip Pfeifer, Tyler Ferguson, Steven Rice, Adam Ravenelle, and Jared Miller. Xavier Turner and Vince Conde will be back on the left side of the infield, and athletic specimens John Norwood and Rhett Wiseman will be ready to assume larger roles in the outfield. So will Chris Harvey behind the plate and versatile infielders Dansby Swanson, Joel McKeithan and Kyle Smith.
The Cavaliers lost just three drafted players—closer Kyle Crockett, No. 2 starter Scott Silverstein and versatile senior Reed Gragnani—plus fifth-year senior first baseman Jared King from a team that earned a national seed this spring. Virginia’s lineup has a good chance to be college baseball’s best next year, led by fearsome fivesome Mike Papi, Brandon Downes, Joe McCarthy, Derek Fisher and Brandon Cogswell. On the mound, freshman lefties Brandon Waddell (who handled the Friday starter spot ably this year) and Nathan Kirby should take steps forward as sophomores, as should righties Josh Sborz and Cameron Tekker. Virginia will also welcome likely the nation’s best freshman in righty Connor Jones, the No. 34 prospect for the 2013 draft (who told teams before the draft that he was heading to UVa.). So there is plenty of talent to work with on the mound, and coaches Brian O’Connor and Karl Kuhn have earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to developing arms. Besides, the offense and defense will both be elite.
Eight More For Super Regionals
UCLA, Clemson, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Mississippi State, North Carolina
Nine More To Make Top 25
Alabama, Cal Poly, East Carolina, Kentucky, Miami, Southern Mississippi, Rice, Texas, Texas Christian