2019 Sun Belt Conference College Baseball Preview
1. Coastal Carolina (38-17, 23-7)
2. South Alabama (30-23, 18-11)
3. Troy (38-18, 19-11)
4. Georgia Southern (29-24, 18-11)
5. Georgia State (26-28, 10-19)
6. Appalachian State (18-36, 9-21)
1. Louisiana-Lafayette (33-23, 18-12)
2. Little Rock (28-25, 15-14)
3. Texas-Arlington (21-33, 11-19)
4. Texas State (28-26-1, 16-14)
5. Louisiana-Monroe (23-31, 10-20)
6. Arkansas State (20-30, 11-19)
Team to Beat: Coastal Carolina
Since Coastal Carolina joined the Sun Belt for the 2017 season, immediately following its national championship, the Chanticleers are 45-14-1 in conference games and has won back-to-back titles. South Alabama ranks second with 40 Sun Belt wins in the last two years, and no other team is closer than eight games behind Coastal. In short order, the Chanticleers have become the Sun Belt’s dominant team and shows no signs of abating this season. Second baseman Cory Wood (.296/.435/.390) is back at the top of the lineup, with center fielder Parker Chavers (.323/345/.498, 7 HR), a Freshman All-American, and first baseman Zach Biermann (.302/.419/.561, 13 HR) back in the middle of the order. On the mound, the Chanticleers welcome back relievers Bobby Holmes and Austin Kitchen, both of whom missed last season due to injuries but have plenty of experience pitching in high-leverage situations and will anchor the bullpen. The Chanticleers must replace shortstop Seth Lancaster and first baseman Kevin Woodall Jr., who last year combined to hit 39 of Coastal’s 81 home runs, as well as starting pitchers Jason Bilous and Zack Hopeck. But the Chanticleers have recruited at a high level, this fall bringing in a Top-25 recruiting class for the first time in program history, and that young talent gives them big upside. In righthander Zach McCambley (3-0, 3.14) and lefthanders Anthony Veneziano (7-1, 3.81) and Garrett McDaniels, Coastal has the potential for a premium rotation. If they’re up to the challenge, and the Chanticleers grow into a more balanced lineup with Chavers and Wood leading the way, they’ll again be a team that no one wants to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Player of the Year: Parker Chavers, OF, Coastal Carolina
Chavers put together a standout freshman year, hitting .323/.435/.498 to lead the Chanticleers while adding seven home runs and nine stolen bases. Coastal will now ask for even more from him as a sophomore. He is working to improve his speed. and if he can also cut down on his strikeouts, he’ll be a very dangerous hitter in the heart of a deep Chanticleers’ lineup.
Pitcher of the Year: Hunter Gaddis, RHP, Georgia State
Gaddis has stood out his first two years at Georgia State and enters his junior year 13-8, 3.28 with 165 strikeouts and 43 walks in 175.2 career innings. He’s spent his summers either with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team or in the Cape Cod League, adding to his track record. Listed at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Gaddis combines his imposing size with a powerful arm and has positioned himself to this June become the highest drafted player in program history.
Freshman of the Year: Garrett McDaniels, LHP, Coastal Carolina
McDaniels was the headliner of the Chanticleers’ 25th-ranked recruiting class. Ranked No. 203 on last year’s BA 500, he has a lean, projectable frame and solid pitchability that gives him plenty of upside. His fastball has been up to 93 mph, but he more typically throws it in the upper 80s with sinking action to go with a curveball and changeup that have the potential to be above-average offerings. McDaniels will slot right into Coastal’s rotation, a spot he figures to hold for the next few years.
Top 25 Teams: Coastal Carolina (23)
Troy last year put together an impressive season, going 42-21 and earning an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, their first appearance in regionals since 2013. The Trojans will likely take a bit of a step back this spring, however. They lost center fielder Brandon Lockridge, shortstop Matt Sanders and closer CJ Carter to the draft and also graduated leading hitter Joey Dennison and starting pitchers Andrew Crane and Daren Osby. The good news is that they welcome back third baseman Drew Fredric (.331/.432/525, 7 HR, 28 SB) and outfielder Rigsby Mosley (.322/.390/.505), who can anchor the lineup. Troy needs to figure out its pitching staff, but its been recruiting at a high enough level that there’s solid talent on the roster for coach Mark Smartt to work with.
South Alabama went into last season with high expectations but never quite got going and finished in third place in the East Division and on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Now, the Jaguars must replace All-American Travis Swaggerty, the 10th overall pick in last year’s draft, and three other drafted players. South Alabama brought in a solid recruiting class heavy on junior college transfers who will be asked to quickly contribute. If transfers such as outfielder Nick Lewis, righthander Drake Nightengale and freshmen Zach Young, a righthander, and Ethan Wilson, an outfielder, can make the adjustment to Sun Belt competition, the Jaguars should again be in the mix at the top of the standings. They’ll also benefit if righthanders Zach Green (2-4, 3.79), who returned for his senior year after being drafted in the 15th round, and JoJo Booker (2-1, 7.15), who last year came to school with much fanfare as an unsigned fifth rounder, can take a step forward in the rotation.
Louisiana, like South Alabama, had an up-and-down season that ended on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Ragin’ Cajuns won the West Division, but its 34-25 record and 50-plus RPI kept them out of regionals for the second year in a row. Louisiana gets a big boost this season with the return of lefthander Gunner Leger, who missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. If he can get back to his pre-injury level, when he went 10-2, 1.97 and was named Sun Belt pitcher of the year as a junior, he gives Louisiana a true ace at the front of the rotation. The Cajuns need it after losing big-time arms Colten Schmidt, Hogan Harris, Logan Stoelke, Dylan Harris and Nick Lee to pro ball. Louisiana also must get its offense on track after hitting just .242/.323/.348 as a team. It’s not a new problem and there are some hitters with some loud tools on the roster, such as Todd Lott, but especially with so much turnover on the mound, the Cajuns need a little more out of their offense this spring.
When the Sun Belt added Coastal Carolina, it looked like the conference could make a jump in baseball and routinely become a multi-bid league, much like Conference USA. But so far, it hasn’t worked out like that. The Sun Belt got just one team in the tournament in 2017, and last year Troy just edged into the field. This year doesn’t look much better, as Coastal is the lone team projected in the Preseason Field of 64. While it wouldn’t be a surprise if South Alabama or Louisiana made the field, they are hardly locks coming into the year. Some of this is cyclical in nature, and the power conferences are monopolizing at-large NCAA Tournament bids in every sport, but the fact that Coastal has been able to dominate the league so far has been surprising.
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Top 10 2019 Draft Prospects
1. Hunter Gaddis, RHP, Georgia State
2. Anthony Veneziano, LHP, Coastal Carolina
3. Seth Shuman, RHP, Georgia Southern
4. Cory Wood, 2B, Coastal Carolina
5. Zach Green, RHP, South Alabama
6. Nick Lewis, OF, South Alabama
7. Todd Lott, OF, Louisiana
8. Gunner Leger, LHP, Louisiana
9. Zach Bierman, 1B, Coastal Carolina
10. Drew Frederic, 3B, Troy