2019 Southern Conference College Baseball Preview
1. Samford (37-26, 16-8)
2. Mercer (38-22, 11-13)
3. UNC Greensboro (39-15, 18-3)
4. East Tennessee State (28-25, 11-13)
5. Wofford (36-23, 15-9)
6. Western Carolina (11-47, 5-19)
7. Citadel (19-34, 8-16)
8. Virginia Military Institute (26-27, 12-12)
9. Furman (24-28, 9-12)
Team to Beat: Samford
The Bulldogs last year swept through the SoCon Tournament to advance to regionals for just the second time in program history. Samford made a statement in the NCAA Tournament, upsetting host Florida State in the opening game of the Tallahassee Regional. The last time Samford made the NCAA Tournament, in 2012, it lost most of that team and had to rebuild. That is not the case this year, and the Bulldogs enter the year as the SoCon favorites. It starts on the mound for the Bulldogs with lefthander Samuel Strickland (8-2, 2.33), a 2018 Freshman All-American, leading the way. Redshirt senior Jesse McCord returns after missing last season due to injury and, if he’s back to his best, will give Samford a formidable one-two punch at the front of its rotation. Key relievers Wyatt Burns and Josh Rich, who combined last season to throw 127.2 innings, must be replaced, but Samford has the depth in the bullpen to do so. Senior righthander Stephen Jones (3-5, 4.64), who returned to school after being drafted in the 38th round by the Phillies, took off after a midseason move to the bullpen and figures to play a prominent role. In the lineup, Samford must replace speedy second baseman Troy Dixon and slugger Austin Edens, but returns leading hitter Brooks Carlson (.343/.429/.552, 10 HR), shortstop Branden Fryman (.262/.333/.342, 25 SB) and catcher Anthony Mulrine (.307/.390/.446, 8 HR). The lineup should also receive a boost as slugger Jordan Fucci returns after an injury limited him to seven games last season. He should help ease the loss of Edens’ big bat in the lineup. Samford’s winning formula will be a little different this season, as it no longer has its twin bullpen aces to shorten games, but its combination of star power and all-around talent will be tough to beat.
Player of the Year: Caleb Webster, 3B, UNC Greensboro
The 2017 SoCon freshman of the year, Webster is a career .381/.416/.484 hitter entering his junior year. Listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, he doesn’t produce a lot of power, but has impressive hittability and a good feel for the barrel. With All-American Andrew Moritz, the 2018 SoCon player of the year, now in pro ball, Webster will this spring be asked to lead the Spartans’ offense.
Pitcher of the Year: Samuel Strickland, LHP, Samford
Strickland as a freshman quickly established himself as Samford’s ace. He finished the season 8-2, 2.33 with an 0.83 WHIP, 87 strikeouts and 15 walks in 81 innings. He has above-average control of his low-90s fastball and does a good job of missing bats—he allowed just 5.78 hits per nine innings. There’s still room for growth—Strickland is working to refine his secondary stuff and could still see his velocity tick up as he physically matures—but with his present overall package, he’s already shown how good he can be.
Freshman of the Year: Jalon Long, RHP/OF, Samford
The son of former big leaguer Terrence Long, Jalon Long is a talented two-way player. He’s most advanced on the mound, where he runs his fastball up to 92 mph and throws his full three-pitch arsenal for strikes. He should pitch significant innings this spring, maybe as a midweek starter, but possibly in a key role on the weekend. Long is a versatile position player and should also be in the mix for at bats.
Top 25 Teams: None.
UNC Greensboro has been on an impressive run in recent seasons, winning the SoCon Tournament in 2017 to advance to regionals for the first time in 20 years and last year finishing in first place in the SoCon standings. The Spartans last season stumbled in the SoCon Tournament, losing twice to last-place Western Carolina and missed the NCAA Tournament due to a subpar RPI. UNCG had six players drafted off last year’s team, including both Moritz and righthander Matt Frisbee, the SoCon player and pitcher of the year, respectively. That leaves some big holes in the Spartans’ roster, but coach Link Jarrett has the program in a position to quickly reset. Webster and senior Austin Embler (.357/.438/.467) give UNCG two key pieces to build around. On the mound, the Spartans lost their four most-used pitchers, leaving them to account for 293 innings. That leaves the pitching staff as UNCG’s biggest question mark entering the spring. The Spartans brought in several junior college transfers, and if they can make a smooth transition, they’ll help keep UNCG in contention for the conference title.
Mercer won the regular season title in each of their first three seasons in the SoCon, but last year took a step back and finished in fifth place. The Bears had a talented team but could never find consistency in conference play and now must replace four players who were drafted, including All-American reliever Robert Broom. Mercer still has the makings of a contender. Sophomores Le Bassett (.282/.377/.678, 17 HR), a Freshman All-American, and RJ Yeager (.324/.410/.458) give the lineup some firepower, as does grad transfer Kel Johnson, who arrives after a solid career at Georgia Tech. On the mound, Mercer will look to get senior righthander Kevin Coulter back on track after a subpar junior year and for another strong season out of senior righthander Nick Spear (2-2, 3.52, 60 SO, 38.1 IP). Like UNCG, Mercer needs to sort out its pitching staff to get back to the top of the SoCon standings, but the pieces are there for coach Craig Gibson and his staff to work with.
VMI put together a strong 2018 season, finishing fourth in the SoCon, producing three draft picks and winning 26 games, its most since 2011. The Keydets now must rebuild after losing leading hitter Matt Pita and ace Josh Winder. It will be a new look team, but if junior righthander Zak Kent (5-5, 5.85) can build on a solid sophomore season, VMI could have another solid draft prospect in its rotation.
MLB4 Tournament's Challenging Slate Will Pay Off Come June
Dave Serrano explains how the MLB4 Tournament's challenging slate will benefit Cal State Fullerton, TCU, Vanderbilt and Virginia later in the year.
Top 10 2019 Draft Prospects
1.Branden Fryman, SS, Samford
2. Zak Kent, RHP, VMI
3. Jordan Fucci, OF/1B, Samford
4. Chad Sykes, RHP, UNCG
5. Anthony Mulrine, C, Samford
6. Stephen Jones, RHP, Samford
7. Caleb Webster, 3B, UNCG
8. Kel Johnson, OF, Mercer
9. Philip Sanderson, RHP, UNCG
10. Brett Rodriguez, 2B/OF, Wofford