Preseason Top 25 Capsules: UCF

2017 Record: 40-22 (15-9 in AAC); reached regional. Final ranking: NR. Coach (Record at school): Greg Lovelady (40-22, one year). Top 200 2018 Draft Prospects: LHP Bryce Tucker (164).

The good news: Greg Lovelady’s first season at UCF was a smashing success, as the Knights won 42 games, delivered a worst-to-first turnaround in the American Athletic Conference and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. While UCF was an older team last season, it returns several key players. Closer Bryce Tucker is back, after spending the summer pitching for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Lefthander Joe Sheridan and first baseman Rylan Thomas made quick transitions to college baseball last year as freshmen and will play key roles again this spring. Righthander Cre Finfrock, who was the Knights’ Friday starter for two seasons before undergoing shoulder surgery, is back healthy after missing last season and figures to pitch significant innings. UCF also added a strong recruiting class heavy on junior college players who will help make up for the large group of veterans the Knights lost from last year’s team.

The bad news: Among the players UCF must replace are righthander Robby Howell, the AAC pitcher of the year, and Eli Putnam and Kyle Marsh, its two leading hitters in 2017. Howell, who had an outstanding senior season, leaves a hole in the rotation, but UCF has a few candidates to fill it. Righthanders J.J. Montgomery and Jordan Spicer transferred from junior colleges, and both have impressive stuff. Junior righthander Thad Ward was one of UCF’s most reliable relievers last spring and could get a chance to start. The Knights plan to work Finfrock back slowly, but by the middle of the season, he could be back in the rotation. Offensively, UCF will be counting on some of its newcomers. Tyler Osik and Brody Wofford were a part of Chipola (Fla.) JC’s national championship team last spring and could provide immediate impact.

Returner to know: Rylan Thomas, 1B.  Thomas was UCF’s leading power threat last year, leading the team in home runs (14) and slugging percentage (.530) as a freshman. He continued to slug this summer in the Northwoods League, where he homered 10 more times. His presence in the middle of the order will be critical for UCF as it works out its new-look lineup. Thomas also made seven scoreless appearances last spring, but he is not expected to pitch much this year.

Path to Omaha: UCF will have its hands full in the AAC, which looks like it will be a dogfight again this year. But that competition will only help the Knights gel throughout the spring. Their pitching staff has a chance to be special, with power arms such as Finfrock, Montgomery, Spicer and Ward meshing with the experience of Sheridan and redshirt junior Chris Williams, and Tucker closing out games. If UCF can find a couple hitters to help Thomas shoulder the offensive load, it will have all the pieces necessary to make noise in the postseason.

2018 lineup:

C Anthony George, Jr. .294/.357/.392 | 102 AB | 1 HR | 10 RBI
1B Rylan Thomas, So. .303/.359/.530 | 234 AB | 14 HR | 53 RBI
2B Matthew Mika, Jr. .278/.344/.339 | 227 AB | 0 HR | 28 RBI
3B Tyler Osik, R-Jr. Transfer – Chipola (Fla.) JC
SS Brandon Hernandez, So. .222/.295/.343 | 198 AB | 5 HR | 21 RBi
LF Dalton Wingo, Fr. HS – Plant City, Fla.
CF Ramon Alejo, R-So. Transfer – Northwest Florida State JC
RF Brody Wofford, Jr. Transfer – Chipola (Fla.) JC
DH Dallas Beaver, So. .158/.304/.368 | 19 AB | 1 HR | 1 RBI
RHP J.J. Montgomery, Jr. Transfer – Northwest Florida State JC
LHP Joe Sheridan, So. 10-4, 3.25 ERA | 72 IP | 64 SO | 0 SV
RHP Chris Williams, R-Jr. 5-4, 2.65 ERA | 78 IP | 48 SO | 0 SV
RP Bryce Tucker, Jr. 2-2, 1.66 ERA | 38 IP | 55 SO | 9 SV
RP Thad Ward, Jr. 4-0, 2.29 ERA | 35 IP | 32 SO | 1 SV

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