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2020 SEC College Baseball Preview

Vanderbilt last year staked its claim as the best SEC team ever, winning a conference-record 59 games, the College World Series and the SEC Tournament. It was an impressive season from start to finish for the Commodores, leaving little doubt along the way.

Beyond the national champions, the SEC again in 2019 was the best conference in the nation. It produced four CWS teams—Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt—and matched the record of 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament.

Look for more of the same in 2020. The SEC again can match the regionals record (or even break it, though Missouri’s postseason ban may limit its chances of doing so), produce half the Omaha field and a national champion. Vanderbilt enters the year as the top-ranked team in the country and there are seven SEC teams ranked in the top 15. All of them have credible national championship aspirations.

The conference’s pitching depth is always a strength, but this spring may reach an even higher level. All four starting pitchers voted by scouting directors as first-team Preseason All-Americans are from the conference – Tennessee’s Garrett Crochet, Mississippi State’s JT Ginn, Georgia’s Emerson Hancock and Texas A&M’s Asa Lacy – and another four made the second and third teams. The conference could easily produce half a dozen first-round pitchers in June. And that doesn’t account for what looks to be another strong 2021 class of arms, with Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter leading the way.

The fun isn’t all on the mound, however. Vanderbilt third baseman Austin Martin is the most dynamic player in the country. Arkansas was the only team in the country with two first-team Preseason All-Americans in outfielder Heston Kjerstad and shortstop Casey Martin. All three figure to be first-round picks in June and if the Mississippi State double-play combination of Justin Foscue and Jordan Westburg worked their way into that range, few would be surprised.

All that means it figures to be a thrilling 10-week conference season again this spring, culminating with the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala. In this conference, you’ve got to come ready to play, because it just means more.

Preseason Awards

Player of the Year: Heston Kjerstad, OF, Arkansas.

Kjerstad has established himself as one of the nation’s best hitters over the last three years and scouting directors made him a unanimous selection as a first-team Preseason All-American. Listed at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, the lefthanded hitter has plus raw power and consistently gets to it well. He hit .327/.400/.575 with 17 home runs as a sophomore and carried that momentum into the summer, when he led USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team in hitting. Now, Kjerstad will look to join Andrew Benintendi as the only Razorbacks to be named SEC Player of the Year.

Pitcher of the Year: Kumar Rocker, RHP, Vanderbilt.

The 2019 Freshman of the Year is poised for an even bigger 2020 season. He was very good during the regular season a year ago but took it to another level in the postseason and during the NCAA Tournament, he showed just how dominant he can be. He threw a no-hitter against Duke in the super regionals and then built on that performance at the College World Series, where he was named Most Outstanding Player. His 4-0, 0.96 line in the NCAA Tournament is probably unsustainable over a full season, but if anyone can do it, it would be Rocker.

Freshman of the Year: Jack Leiter, RHP, Vanderbilt.

For the second year in a row, Vanderbilt landed the highest ranked player on the BA 500 to make it to a college campus. Last year it was Rocker and now, Leiter, the son of former all-star Al Leiter, will try to follow his path to Freshman of the Year honors. Leiter joins a deeper pitching staff than Rocker did, but his talent and advanced feel for pitching will help him get on the mound quickly. No matter how Vanderbilt uses him, Leiter will make an impact this spring.

Maddux Bruns Mikejanesfourseam

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Predicted Order of Finish (2019 record)

East Division

1. Vanderbilt (59-12, 23-7)

The Commodores enter 2020 as the reigning national champions and the top-ranked team in the Preseason Top 25. They’re looking to become the first team to repeat as champions since South Carolina in 2010-11. It won’t be easy, especially after losing SEC Player of the Year JJ Bleday and several other cornerstone pieces like shortstop Ethan Paul and starters Drake Fellows and Patrick Raby. But Vanderbilt returns All-American third baseman Austin Martin (.392/.486/.604, 10 HR, 18 SB), the most dynamic player in the country, to anchor its lineup and the best frontline pitching staff in the country. Righthander Kumar Rocker (12-5, 3.25), the 2019 Freshman of the Year, is ready to lead the rotation. Closer Tyler Brown (3-1, 2.19, 17 SV) is one of the best in the nation. Lefthander Jake Eder (2-0, 2.97) and righthander Mason Hickman (9-0, 2.05) are ready for larger roles. To all of that, Vanderbilt added the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, headlined by righthander Jack Leiter, the highest ranked player not to sign last year in the draft. There’s no doubt that Vanderbilt has what it takes to repeat.

2. Florida (34-26, 13-17)

After four straight trips to Omaha, Florida took a step back in 2019 as it went through some serious growing pains. The Gators still found their way to regionals, however, and are now ready to return to national prominence. Righthanders Jack Leftwich (6-5, 5.31) and Tommy Mace (8-5, 5.32) combine to give Florida a premium 1-2 punch in the rotation. Behind that duo, the Gators again have a wealth of arms that could be one of the deepest in the nation. They also added blue-chip lefthander Hunter Barco, the second-highest ranked player not to sign in last year’s draft. Florida started four freshmen in its lineup most of last year and went through growing pains as a result. But that quartet, led by center fielder Jud Fabian (.232/.353/.411, 7 HR, 7 SB) is ready to take a big step forward in 2020. Florida also gets back senior outfielder Austin Langworthy (.283/.362/.498, 10 HR), helping to lengthen its lineup. The Gators have everything they need to make another run to Omaha.

3. Georgia (46-17, 21-9)

The Bulldogs have been a top-eight national seed in each of the last two years. Now, they’re looking to take the next step and advance to the College World Series for the first time since 2008. With Preseason All-American righthanders Emerson Hancock (8-3, 1.99) and Cole Wilcox (3-2, 4.07) at the front of their rotation, they have a real chance at breaking through. Hancock and Wilcox may be the best 1-2 punch in the nation and lefthanders C.J. Smith (3-3, 4.30) and Ryan Webb (1-0, 3.75) give the staff enviable depth. Georgia got a boost when shortstop Cam Shepherd (.231/.333/.386, 8 HR) chose to return for his senior season. He’s one of the best defenders in the country and will help keep Georgia’s run prevention at a high level. This won’t be an explosive offensive team, but they have an experienced lineup with hitters like Riley King (.295/.403/.440, 8 HR) and Patrick Sullivan (.263/.350/.360), who make it tough on opposing pitchers. Georgia doesn’t need its lineup to mash, it’s elite pitching and defense can take it to Omaha.

4. Tennessee (40-21, 14-16)

In coach Tony Vitello’s second year in Knoxville, Tennessee won 40 games and returned to regionals for the first time since 2005. The challenge now is to improve on that mark. Tennessee has a pair of potential stars to lead them in lefthander Garrett Crochet (5-3, 4.02) and outfielder Alerick Soularie (.357/.466/.602, 11 HR), both of whom were voted Preseason All-Americans. Crochet has a big arm, capable of running his fastball up to 100 mph, and he’ll now step to the front of the rotation. If he and classmate Chase Wallace (0-0, 1-35) can take a step forward, the Volunteers will be tough on the mound. Soularie led the team in hitting last year and will again be the focal point of the offense. The Volunteers will need some newcomers to step up around him and will get a boost from the return of first baseman Luc Lipcius (.347/.459/.694), who was off to a strong start last season before a broken foot sidelined him 16 games into the season. There’s certainly upside in Knoxville. Now, the Volunteers have to capitalize on it.

5. South Carolina (28-28, 8-22)

After reaching super regionals in 2018 in coach Mark Kingston’s first season, South Carolina last year took a step back. The Gamecocks ranked last in the SEC in both batting (.236) and ERA (5.51) and only just squeaked into the SEC Tournament. There is hope for a rebound this spring, however. Righthander Carmen Mlodzinski was limited to three starts last year by a broken foot but returned in time to be able to pitch in the Cape Cod League, where he excelled. He’s now ready to front the Gamecocks’ rotation and major league scouting directors voted him a Preseason All-American. With him and sophomore righthander Brett Kerry (4-1, 2.62, 7 SV) back in the fold, South Carolina has some good building blocks on the mound. It also went heavy into the junior college route for a top-15 recruiting class, bringing in highly regarded righthanders Thomas Farr and Andrew Peters, who likely would have signed in the draft if they had been fully healthy last spring. Instead, they give the staff two more premium arms. Offensively, South Carolina returns outfielder Andrew Eyster (.309/.389/.576, 10 HR). The Gamecocks will need some other hitters to step up, however. Junior second baseman Noah Campbell (.239/.324/.378) will be counted on for more after another solid summer on the Cape that earned him Preseason All-America honors for the second year in a row. Making a jump on the mound should be a quicker fix than the lineup and that alone will get South Carolina back into the mix in the SEC.

6. Missouri (34-22-1, 13-16-1)

The Tigers this spring will be ineligible for the postseason after the NCAA in November upheld its sanctions, denying the school’s appeal. The penalties result from an academic misconduct investigation of a tutor who worked with a dozen players across three sports. The NCAA initially levied the ruling last year, two weeks before Opening Day, but the sanctions did not go into effect while the school appealed. In addition to the one-year postseason ban, the program was hit by a five percent scholarship reduction, a fine and recruiting restrictions, including a reduction in evaluation days. The violation occurred a few years ago and the players involved are no longer in school. Unfortunately for this year’s team, Missouri has a group talented enough to make a regional. Righthander Ian Bedell (3-1, 1.56) broke out last summer in the Cape Cod League and will move to the front of the rotation to replace TJ Sikkema. Righthanders Konnor Ash (2-2, 4.19) and Trey Dillard (1-2, 6.92) have big arms and are ready for bigger roles as juniors. The lineup is an experienced group, though perhaps a little lacking in firepower. How well Missouri holds up during what figures to be a difficult season is something to watch, but coach Steve Bieser has done a good job of keeping everyone together through a difficult stretch.

7. Kentucky (26-29, 7-23)

The Wildcats last year were the only SEC team to finish with a losing record overall—despite having All-American Zack Thompson in the rotation. Thompson is now gone, drafted 19th overall by the Cardinals, and Kentucky is looking to bounce back. Some powerful veterans return to lead the lineup, including designated hitter T.J. Collett (.259/.340/.494, 10 HR), catcher Coltyn Kessler (.297/.384/.473) and outfielder Jaren Shelby (.273/.375/.447, 13 SB), but the Wildcats are going to need to improve a group that ranked 13th in the SEC in runs (307). Outfielder Oraj Anu, a junior college transfer, should help add depth to the lineup. The pitching staff looks to be deeper this year but replacing Thompson will be a tall task. Junior lefthander Mason Hazelwood (2-3, 3.92) will move to the front of the rotation. Junior righthander Jimmy Ramsey (4-6, 7.26) may be ready to take a step forward and freshmen, such as righthander Zack Lee, can push for innings. Kentucky’s going to need the whole group to get back to the level it showed in 2018.

West Division

1. Mississippi State (52-15, 20-10)

The Bulldogs put together a special 2019 under first-year coach Chris Lemonis. They have the talent for another big spring, but it will be a different look in Starkville without Jake Mangum and Ethan Small. Replacing Mangum, who ranks fourth nationally all-time in hits, won’t be easy. The Bulldogs still have a potent offense with outfielder Tanner Allen (.349/.426/.516), Preseason All-American second baseman Justin Foscue (.331/.395/.564, 14 HR) and shortstop Jordan Westburg (.294/.402/.457) all back in the lineup. The Bulldogs lose Small from the front of their rotation and Cole Gordon from the back of the bullpen but have solid depth on the mound. Sophomore righthander JT Ginn (8-4, 3.13), a first-team Preseason All-American, gives them a star on Friday nights and classmates Christian MacLeod and Eric Cerantola will round out a powerful rotation. If Mississippi State can find the right combination on the mound, it can make its third straight trip to Omaha.

2. Arkansas (46-20, 20-10)

Shortstop Casey Martin (.286/.364/.548, 15 HR, 10 SB) and outfielder Heston Kjerstad (.327/.400/.575, 17 HR) were the only teammates voted first-team Preseason All-Americans by major league scouting directors and they form the most dynamic offensive duo in the country. They alone would make Arkansas’ offense dangerous, but they have plenty of help in the lineup. Leading hitter Matt Goodheart (.345/.444/.517) returns, as does third-team Preseason All-American catcher Casey Opitz (.243/.379/.311). The Razorbacks again figure to have one of the best offenses in the SEC, but their pitching staff has more to prove. After All-Americans Isaiah Campbell, Matt Cronin and Blaine Knight headlined the pitching staff the last few years, Arkansas will need sophomores Connor Noland (3-5, 4.02) and Patrick Wicklander (6-2, 4.32) to step up. If the Razorbacks can find some answers on the mound, they have Omaha upside again.

3. Auburn (38-28, 14-16)

Auburn last year took another step forward under coach Butch Thompson and advanced to the College World Series for the first time since 1997. It was another bit of steady progress for the program, which is poised for more success in 2020. Preseason All-American righthander Tanner Burns (4-4, 2.82) and lefthander Jack Owen (4-2, 2.75), who opted not to sign in the draft last June and instead return for his junior season, form a premium 1-2 punch at the front of the rotation. Righthander Cody Greenhill (2-3, 3.45, 12 SV) gives the Tigers a veteran reliever who they can use in a variety of roles. Auburn returns seven of its nine regulars from last year’s Omaha team. It must replace the left side of its infield, but with sophomore Ryan Bliss (.281/.367/.369, 11 SB) moving from second base to shortstop and catcher Matt Scheffler (.260/.331/.342) and center fielder Kason Howell (.262/.340/.307, 14 SB) returning, Auburn will be strong up the middle. With another strong recruiting class arriving on the Plains in the fall, Auburn has the talent on hand to make this another special spring.

4. Louisiana State (40-26, 17-13)

The Tigers are not short on talent this season. Preseason All-American outfielder Daniel Cabrera (.284/.359/.516, 12 HR) is one of the best hitters in the country and will lead the lineup. Catcher Saul Garza (.303/.358/.476) opted to return to LSU for his junior season instead of signing in the draft and slugger Cade Beloso (.279/.339/.429, 10 HR) also returns). Righthander Cole Henry (4-2, 3.39) last spring emerged as the Tigers’ Friday starter as a freshman and returns in that role in 2020. Classmate Landon Marceaux (5-2, 4.66) is also back in the rotation and righthanders Matthew Beck (3-0, 2.05) and Devin Fontenot (5-4, 3.71, 7 SV) give the staff two veteran relievers to lean on. LSU does have key pieces to replace as it lost its three leading hitters—Antonie Duplantis, the program’s all-time hits leader, Josh Smith and Zach Watson—as well as hard-throwing righthanders Zack Hess and Todd Peterson, but it also added a top-10 recruiting class headlined by outfielder Maurice Hampton, the highest ranked position player not to sign in last year’s draft. It may take coach Paul Mainieri several weeks to get everything aligned, but the Tigers should be in high gear down the stretch and into the postseason.

5. Mississippi (41-27, 16-14)

The Rebels heated up at the end of last season, finishing as runner-up in the SEC Tournament and then advancing to super regionals for the first time since 2014. After the season, however, Ole Miss suffered some heavy losses, including five regulars, its ace and closer. The good news is Ole Miss returns an excellent 1-2 punch of sophomores in lefthander Doug Nikhazy (9-3, 3.31) and righthander Gunnar Hoglund (3-3, 5.29) and brought in a big, talented recruiting class that ranked No. 2 in the country. Talent won’t be an issue but Ole Miss will be young in a conference that isn’t forgiving of growing pains. The Rebels will need infielders Tyler Keenan (.285/.420/.506, 15 HR) and Anthony Servideo (.287/.429/.388, 24 SB) to lead the offense and several newcomers to seize the opportunity presented. The big wildcard for Ole Miss will be its freshmen outfielders/football players Jerrion Ealy and John Rhys Plumlee. The duo stood out on the gridiron this fall and won’t be overwhelmed by the moment this spring, but how ready they are to hit SEC pitching remains to be seen. If Ole Miss can put it all together quickly, they have the talent on hand not to miss a beat this spring.

6. Texas A&M (39-23-1, 16-13-1)

The Aggies last season led the SEC in team ERA (3.21) and finished third in strikeouts (673) but also were 13th in batting (.251) and 11th in runs (346). That contrast was laid bare in the SEC Tournament when, on consecutive days, A&M lost to Georgia and Mississippi while allowing a total of three runs and five hits. The Aggies again have an elite staff, led by Preseason All-American lefthander Asa Lacy (8-4, 2.13), a projected top-five pick this June. They have impressive depth behind Lacy, including lefthander Chris Weber (4-1, 3.18), righthander Christian Roa (3-2, 3.56) and lefthander Joseph Menefee (3-2, 3.75). But improving the offense will be critical and losing shortstop Braden Shewmake, the team’s leading hitter last year, as a first-round pick only makes that tougher. A&M hired Chad Caillet away from Southern Mississippi to be its new hitting coach and he has some solid talent to work with. Outfielder Zach DeLoach (.200/.318/.294) won the Cape Cod League batting title and will look to carry that momentum into 2020. Infielder Bryce Blaum (.292/.394/.464) is back after leading the team with nine home runs and the Aggies this fall brought in some solid newcomers who can step right into the lineup, including infielder Logan Sartori, a junior college transfer. The pitching staff can carry the Aggies a long way and, if the offense takes a step forward, they have Omaha upside.

7. Alabama (30-26, 7-23)

The Crimson Tide is stockpiling top-15 recruiting classes and building momentum. Coach Brad Bohannon, entering his third season in Tuscaloosa, is getting close to engineering a breakthrough and a jump in 2020 shouldn’t come as a surprise, though 2021 is perhaps a more realistic target for a return to regionals. Alabama has some solid talent in the lineup, led by junior outfielder Tyler Gentry (.310/.378/.552, 13 HR), who led the team in nearly every offensive category a season ago. Senior Brett Auerbach (.270/.364/.341), who can play anywhere on the diamond, and sophomore T.J. Reeves (.255/.394/.482, 9 HR) are coming off impressive summers and could take big steps forward this spring. Alabama has a wealth of inexperienced players who will get a chance this spring, from catcher Sam Praytor, who missed almost all of last season, to toolsy freshman Myles Austin to promising freshmen lefthanders Antoine Jean and Connor Prielipp. The success (and readiness) of Prielipp and Jean, who will be asked to take on big roles this spring, will determine just how fast Alabama gets out of the cellar. If they’re ready to compete in the SEC as freshmen, the Tide will rise this spring.

Top 2020 Draft Prospects

  1. Emerson Hancock, RHP, Georgia
  2. Austin Martin, 3B, Vanderbilt
  3. Asa Lacy, LHP, Texas A&M
  4. Carmen Mlodzinski, RHP, South Carolina
  5. JT Ginn, RHP, Mississippi State
  6. Casey Martin, SS, Arkansas
  7. Garrett Crochet, LHP, Tennessee
  8. Heston Kjerstad, OF, Arkansas
  9. Daniel Cabrera, OF, Louisiana State
  10. Tanner Burns, RHP, Auburn
  11. Cole Wilcox, RHP, Georgia
  12. Justin Foscue, 2B, Mississippi State
  13. Jordan Westburg, SS, Mississippi State
  14. Tommy Mace, RHP, Florida
  15. Jake Eder, LHP, Vanderbilt
  16. Cole Henry, RHP, Louisiana State
  17. Zach DeLoach, OF, Texas A&M
  18. Tyler Brown, RHP, Vanderbilt
  19. Jack Leftwich, RHP, Florida
  20. Casey Opitz, C, Arkansas

Top 2021 Prospects

  1. Kumar Rocker, RHP, Vanderbilt
  2. Jack Leiter, RHP, Vanderbilt
  3. Jud Fabian, OF, Florida
  4. Gunnar Hoglund, RHP, Mississippi
  5. Jaden Hill, RHP, Louisiana State
  6. Jacob Young, OF, Florida
  7. Kendrick Calilao, 1B, Florida
  8. Christian MacLeod, LHP, Mississippi State
  9. Doug Nikhazy, LHP, Mississippi
  10. Landon Marceaux, RHP, Louisiana State

Top Newcomers

  1. Jack Leiter, RHP, Vanderbilt
  2. Hunter Barco, LHP, Florida
  3. Maurice Hampton, OF, Louisiana State
  4. Jerrion Ealy, OF, Mississippi
  5. Spencer Jones, LHP/1B, Vanderbilt
  6. Cade Doughty, 2B, Louisiana State
  7. Brett Thomas, RHP, South Carolina
  8. Hayden Dunhurst, C, Mississippi
  9. Brennan Milone, 3B, South Carolina
  10. Thomas Farr, RHP, South Carolina

Best Tools

Best Pure Hitter: Austin Martin, Vanderbilt
Best Power Hitter: Heston Kjerstad, Arkansas
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Austin Martin, Vanderbilt
Best Athlete: Jerrion Ealy, Mississippi
Fastest Runner: Jerrion Ealy, Mississippi
Best Baserunner: Anthony Servideo, Mississippi
Best Defensive Catcher: Casey Opitz, Arkansas
Best Defensive Infielder: Cam Shepherd, Georgia
Best Infield Arm: Casey Martin, Arkansas
Best Defensive Outfielder: Jud Fabian, Florida
Best Outfield Arm: Jud Fabian, Florida
Best Fastball: Emerson Hancock, Georgia
Best Breaking Ball: Kumar Rocker, Vanderbilt
Best Changeup: Redmond Walsh, Tennessee  
Best Control: Emerson Hancock, Georgia

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