Sun Belt Preview

Team to Beat: South Alabama.
A largely unheralded freshman class from two years ago has helped carry the Jaguars to back-to-back regional appearances. Those freshmen are now juniors, and they should arm South Alabama with plenty of offensive firepower. That group is led by breakout center field prospect Travis Swaggerty and also includes outfielder Dylan Hardy, who led the Sun Belt in hitting last season, and first baseman Wells Davis, the team’s leading home run hitter from a year ago. It’s a deep and experienced group, although the sudden loss of senior shortstop Drew LaBounty–who sustained a season-ending injury to his eye during preseason practice–creates a sizable hole that will need to be filled. Junior third baseman Brendan Donovan is one candidate to replace him. There was more turnover on the pitching side, but the Jags still have several intriguing arms on their roster in senior starters Zach Melton and Tyler Carr and electric freshman righthander JoJo Booker.

Player of the Year: Travis Swaggerty, OF, South Alabama.
The No. 2 prospect for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team this summer, Swaggerty is a potential five-tool player and an offensive spark plug who offers both speed and power, hitting .356/.484/.571 as a sophomore. He stole 19 bases in 25 attempts last season while slugging 11 homers and drew hefty praise from scouts. Not only the frontrunner for conference player of the year, Swaggerty is a contender for national player of the year, as well.

Pitcher of the Year: Hogan Harris, LHP, Louisiana-Lafayette.
No. 122 on BA’s Top 200 draft prospects, Harris will slide into the ace role for the Ragin’ Cajuns after fellow lefthander Gunner Leger announced he would miss the season rehabbing Tommy John. Among the top prospects in the league, Harris should be more than up to the task of starting on Fridays. He went 5-2, 2.66 and struck out 87 in 67.2 innings as a sophomore.

Freshman of the Year: Zach McCambley, RHP, Coastal Carolina.
A 6-foot-1, 210-pound righthander, McCambley ranked No. 262 on last year’s BA500 but made it to campus after injuring his PCL in his left knee during high school gym class. For the Chanticleers, McCambley projects to step in as closer, where his upper-70s, future-plus breaking ball gives him a legitimate out pitch.

Top 25 Team: South Alabama (24).

Other Projected Regional Team: Coastal Carolina The Chanticleers took a step back last season and missed a regional berth after winning the national championship the season before. They should be geared to return to the postseason in 2018. Coastal boasts a powerful lineup, centered around senior first baseman Kevin Woodall (.262/.373/.557, 18 HR), senior third baseman Seth Lancaster and sophomore second baseman Cory Wood. The Chanticleers have the potential to be strong on the mound, as well, especially if hard-throwing junior righthander Jason Bilous can more consistently find the strike zone. He has first-round caliber stuff. Lefthanders Anthony Veneziano and junior college transfer Scott Kobos have solid stuff in their own right. They’re unproven but could form a strong rotation if it all comes together.

Notable Storylines:

After missing postseason play last season, Louisiana-Lafayette’s bid for a regional return took a blow when Leger announced he’d miss this season. The Ragin’ Cajuns also lost leading hitters Steven Sensley (.314/.417/.576, 11 HR), Ishmael Edwards (.302/.367/.469) and Joe Robbins (6 HR, 41 RBI) and All-American closer Wyatt Marks (7 SV, 100 SO, 59.1 IP). To compete, the Ragin’ Cajuns will need to rely on an infusion of young talent and the continued development of Harris and talented sophomore outfielder Todd Lott.

Texas-Arlington won the West Division last season with a 20-10 conference record and should have enough returning talent to make another run. The Mavericks will trot out a lineup almost entirely composed of upperclassmen, and senior righthander Trae Patterson (7-4, 2.75) returns to lead the rotation. The key for UTA will be settling on two starters behind him. They have options in the form of junior college transfer Ka’ikepono Anderson and Texas Christian transfer Drew Gooch.

Arkansas-Little Rock has several new faces and several questions but also some intriguing talent. The lineup has been fortified with a few key junior college transfers, namely center fielder Marcus Ragan, who was a 15th-round pick by the Red Sox last June. The Trojans have two physical lefthanders at the top of their rotation–sophomore Chandler Fidel and senior Cole Townsend–and a potential breakout pitcher in 6-foot-5 righthander McKinley Moore, who has touched 97 mph and had a strong fall.

Georgia Southern is another Sun Belt team with the chance to piece together an imposing rotation. Juniors Brian Eichhorn and Chase Cohen both pitched in the Cape Cod League over the summer and work in the low-90s, while sophomore righthander Seth Shuman is giving up playing quarterback for the school’s football team to focus solely on baseball and has the ability to seize the Friday night role at some point for the Eagles.

Tournament: 10 teams, two single-elimination play-in games followed by double-elimination bracket play. May 22-27 at Lafayette, La.

Top 10 2018 Draft Prospects:
1. Travis Swaggerty, OF, South Alabama
2. Jason Bilous, RHP, Coastal Carolina
3. Hogan Harris, LHP, Louisiana-Lafayette
4. Dylan Hardy, OF, South Alabama
5. Marcus Ragan, OF, Arkansas-Little Rock
6. Kevin Woodall, 1B, Coastal Carolina
7. Brian Eichhorn, RHP, Georgia Southern
8. Chase Cohen, RHP, Georgia Southern
9. Scott Kobos, LHP, Coastal Carolina
10. Brendan Donovan, 3B, South Alabama

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