Three Strikes: Preseason Preview Edition

Strike One: Dawn Of A New Era

We wrote in detail this fall about the new bat standards that are going into effect for the 2011 season. In case you haven’t heard, take note: the new bats are going to radically change the complexion of college baseball.

The new BBCOR bat standards will make the bats play much more like wood. And I think it will be a good thing for college baseball. More emphasis will be placed on defense and fundamentals, games will move quicker, and talent will rise to the top. Opinions among college coaches are mixed, but there are plenty who are looking forward to the new era—which coincides with the opening of a brand-new, $127 million home for the College World Series in Omaha, ending Rosenblatt Stadium’s glorious six-decade run.

In the course of gathering information for the College Preview, we send out a questionnaire to coaches that asks them (among other things) to make predictions in the categories below. We’ve decided that Aaron Fitt and John Manuel, who spearhead our college coverage, should go out on that same limb. Here are our predictions for 2011’s national honors:
Category Aaron Fitt John Manuel
NATIONAL CHAMPION: Florida Vanderbilt
OMAHA SLEEPER: Fresno State Wichita State
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Anthony Rendon, Rice Anthony Rendon, Rice
PITCHER OF THE YEAR: Sonny Gray, Vanderbilt Gerrit Cole, UCLA
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR: A.J. Vanegas, Stanford Dylan Covey, San Diego

“I really believe the home runs are going to be cut at least in third, and it could be more than that,” Rice coach Wayne Graham said. “I like the fact there won’t be as many cheap home runs. So the game will be less capricious in my mind, it will be all in the doing. There will still be home runs from the guys that can hit them, but some guys who have gotten six or seven homers in the past may not get any. There’s definitely a dropoff—they hit about like the best wood.”

Strike Two: Who Will Break Out?

Last year in this space, I laid out some of my personal picks to click—sleeper teams and breakout players. I had a pretty good success rate, as Connecticut, Virginia Tech and Minnesota all put together strong NCAA tournament seasons. My top breakout candidate was South Carolina’s Jackie Bradley Jr., who went on to earn CWS MVP honors. Emboldened by that success, I’m going to take another shot at prognostication.

As we did in 2010, let’s focus on a player who posted a strong freshman year and is poised to make the leap to college baseball superstardom this spring. My pick this year is Rutgers sophomore Steve Nyisztor, a physical athlete who handled the move from second base to short last summer in the Northwoods League, where he ranked as the No. 1 prospect. Like former Rutgers All-American Todd Frazier, Nyisztor hails from Toms River, N.J., and he has the same kind of skill set as Frazier, highlighted by his easy power potential and grinder mentality.

My pick to end a long regionals drought is Liberty, which has not been to the NCAA tourney since 2000. Fourth-year coach Jim Toman has quickly boosted the Flames’ talent level; Liberty has three power arms in the weekend rotation, highlighted by breakout candidate Blake Forslund, who can reach 98 mph. Tyler Bream leads a solid offense.

My Omaha sleeper is familiar to college baseball fans: Fresno State. We were high on the veteran-laden Bulldogs heading into 2008, ranking them No. 18 in the preseason, and they wound up winning the national title. The coaching staff believes this team is constructed similarly, with stars like Jordan Ribera and Dusty Robinson surrounded by an experienced core. That could be a recipe for a deep postseason run.

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight

There are more ways than ever to follow Baseball America’s college coverage on the Internet. All season long, you can find our Weekend Preview every Thursday, features and blog posts all week, a new Top 25 on Monday along with a chat, podcast and Three Strikes column. In 2011, we will continue our relationship with USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes Award. Each Monday, we’ll highlight a strong weekend performance from one of the nation’s top players in Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight, which will be available at and

Of course, you can also follow us on Twitter (@baseballamerica, @aaronfitt and @johnmanuelba) and Facebook.