2017 Conference Previews: Sun Belt Conference

Nick Lee (Photo by Brian Westerholt) 
SEE ALSO: College Preview Index 

Members: East Division—Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, South Alabama, Troy; West Division—Arkansas-Little Rock, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Texas State, Texas-Arlington.

Team to Beat: Louisiana-Lafayette. The Cajuns bring back several building blocks on the mound from last year’s regional hosting team, and they should be deeper and more physical in the lineup as they look to fend off newcomer and defending national champion Coastal Carolina for the Sun Belt crown. 

Player of the Year: Travis Swaggerty, OF, South Alabama. Swaggerty should be a driving force for the Jaguars, able to impact multiple areas of the game with his hitting (.303/.431/.422 as a freshman last year) and speed (20 steals) on the bases and in center field. 

Pitcher of the Year: Andrew Beckwith, RHP, Coastal Carolina. Coming off a 15-1, 1.85 season and winning Most Outstanding Player honors at last year’s College World Series, Beckwith has a tough act to follow. But after an offseason of working hard to build muscle and improve his secondary stuff, don’t count him out.

Freshman of the Year: Todd Lott, of, Louisiana-Lafayette. The No. 353 prospect on last year’s BA 500, Lott has plus raw power and consistently finds the barrel. He’s a big reason the Ragin’ Cajuns expect to be a more offensive group in 2017.

Top 25 Teams: (13) Louisiana-Lafayette, (15) Coastal Carolina.

Other Projected Regional Team: South Alabama. The Jaguars tied ULL for last year’s Sun Belt regular-season title and earned an at-large NCAA berth. They were the second-highest scoring offense in the conference last year and should be solid there again with five of their top six hitters returning, led by Swaggerty. The X-factor will be a pair the junior college transfers slotted into their rotation, lefty Zach Melton and righty Jason Lott, behind senior righty Randy Bell (7-1, 2.45), the lone returning starter from last year.

Notable Storylines: With Coastal’s addition taking the Sun Belt to 12 baseball members, the league has expanded its conference tournament from eight teams to 10 and will divide into East and West divisions. Juggernauts Coastal (East) and ULL (West) are on opposite sides and thus won’t play every year, but they do go head-to-head this spring when the Cajuns visit Conway, S.C., for a three-game set April 7-9.

Troy tied for third place in 2016 under first-year head coach Mark Smartt and will try to keep its momentum going with seven returning starters in the lineup. Senior outfielder Joey Denison (.322/.398/.495, 7 HR) and junior shortstop Matt Sanders (.317/.381/.407, 2 HR) are the ringleaders, but the Trojans are also excited about the potential of freshman third baseman Drew Frederic, an advanced defender that can handle the bat too. They’re also in the same boat as South Alabama as far as having to replace a pair of proven weekend starters. If junior college transfer Daren Osby, whose fastball can get up to 94 mph, and sinkerballing former reliever Cory Childress (2-4, 3.12) can successfully transition to Troy’s rotation, they’ll be a dangerous group.

Arkansas-Little Rock has been largely a non-factor since joining the Sun Belt in 1992. It has just two winning seasons in league play in 25 years, but one of them came last year, when UALR went 17-13 against league opponents—albeit just 26-28 overall—to tie Troy for third place. The Trojans (yes, they also share the name with Troy) owned both the Sun Belt’s top scoring offense (6.8 runs per game) and its worst team ERA (6.20). They lose last year’s Sun Belt player of the year in outfielder Ryan Scott, but otherwise the offense is fairly intact, with five of their top seven hitters returning. And, for better or worse, the entire weekend rotation is back as well, so the Trojans will be counting on guys like senior two-way threat Matt McDowell (.280/.321/.360; 4-3, 4.74) and senior righty Cory Malcom (5-4, 5.43) to take steps forward.

Appalachian State made the Sun Belt’s lone coaching change, replacing Billy Jones with Kermit Smith, formerly of Division II Lander (S.C.). Smith led Lander to a pair of D-II College World Series appearances and was the school’s all-time winningest coach at the end of his seven seasons. The Mountaineers, who were a win away from a super regional appearance in 2012 under current Duke coach Chris Pollard, have finished last in each of their first two seasons in the Sun Belt after coming over from the Southern Conference, with last year’s team undone by a woeful offense that averaged just 4.3 runs per game, worst in the Sun Belt and 269th in the country.

Tournament: 10 teams, two single-elimination play-in games followed by double-elimination bracket play. May 23-28 at Statesboro, Ga.

2017 Top 20 Prospects 2018 Top 10 Prospects Top Newcomers
1. Jordan Gore, ss, Coastal Carolina 1. Jason Bilous, rhp, Coastal Carolina 1. Todd Lott, of, Louisiana-Lafayette
2. Jared Barnes, c, South Alabama 2. Nick Lee, rhp, Louisiana-Lafayette 2. Cory Wood, of, Coastal Carolina
3. Keegan Curtis, rhp, Louisiana-Monroe 3. Travis Swaggerty, of, South Alabama 3. Ryan Fultz, lhp, Troy
4. Handsome Monica, c, Louisiana-Lafayette 4. Brandon Lockridge, 2b, Troy 4. Rafi Vazquez, rhp/1b, Coastal Carolina
5. Kevin Woodall, 1b, Coastal Carolina 5. Hogan Harris, lhp, Louisiana-Lafayette 5. Rigsby Mosley, of/lhp, Troy
6. Alex Cunningham, rhp, Coastal Carolina 6. Darius Sewell, of, Georgia State 6. Luke Berryhill, c, Georgia Southern
7. Brady Cox, c, Texas-Arlington 7. Josh Minjarez, ss, Texas-Arlington 7. Terrell Frazier, of, Georgia State
8. Steven Sensley, of, Louisiana-Lafayette 8. Chase Smartt, c, Troy 8. Drew Frederic, 3b, Troy
9. Bobby Holmes, rhp, Coastal Carolina 9. Brendan Donovan, 3b, South Alabama 9. Haden Erbe, rhp, Louisiana-Lafayette
10. Cory Childress, rhp, Troy 10. Colin Schmid, lhp/of, Appalachian State 10. Dax Roper, c, Coastal Carolina
11. Daren Osby, rhp, Troy    
12. Andrew Beckwith, rhp, Coastal Carolina    
13. Joey Denison, of, Troy    
14. Jarrett Hood, 3b, Georgia State    
15. Joe Robbins, of, Louisiana-Lafayette    
16. Evan McDonald, ss, Georgia Southern    
17. Quintin Rohrbaugh, of, Texas-Arlington    
18. Gunner Leger, lhp, Louisiana-Lafayette    
19. Luke Watts, rhp, Appalachian State    
20. Billy Cooke, of, Coastal Carolina    

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