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2021 Southeastern Conference Preview

Kumar_Rocker_BillMitchell (1).jpg
(Photo by Bill Mitchell)

The SEC has consistently been the best conference in college baseball for more than a decade. Its teams have won six of the last 11 national championships and it produced half the 2019 College World Series field.

Look for more of the same in 2021. Florida enters the year ranked No. 1 and looks like a clear national championship favorite. Nine teams from the conference rank in the Preseason Top 25 and six rank in the top 15. The SEC will challenge to break the record for most teams from one conference to advance to the NCAA Tournament. The record—held by the ACC and SEC—stands at 10, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the SEC send anywhere from 10-12 teams to regionals in 2021.

Vanderbilt righthander Kumar Rocker is the preseason favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and he and Florida outfielder Jud Fabian were the only two players voted unanimous first-team Preseason All-Americans by major league scouting directors. Not only does the SEC have the top talent in the 2021 draft class, it also has the top prospects in the 2022 class in Florida lefthander Hunter Barco and Alabama lefthander Connor Prielipp.

After debating other schedule formats, the SEC opted for a status quo schedule in 2021—meaning it will have 10 conference weekends of three-game series and a full-slate of 26 non-conference games. The fun will culminate with the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.

Preseason Awards

Player of the Year: Jud Fabian, OF, Florida.

Fabian can impact the game in every facet and was voted a unanimous first-team Preseason All-American by major league scouting directors. He’s a talented center fielder and has impressive all-around tools at the plate. He hit .294/.407/.603 last spring and 11 of his 20 hits went for extra bases, including five home runs. If he has the kind of season that leads him to be a top 5-10 draft pick, it’ll go a long way to helping the Gators.

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

Rocker lived up to the hype as a freshman in 2019, helping lead the Commodores to the national championship and being named Freshman of the Year and College World Series Most Outstanding Player along the way. He was again excellent in 2020, going 2-1, 1.80 with 28 strikeouts in 15 innings. Now, the hype train is rolling again as Rocker enters the 2021 season as the top-ranked player in the draft class. He’s sure to be appointment viewing this spring.

Newcomer of the Year: Dylan Crews, OF, Louisiana State.

Crews is the latest premium outfielder to land in Baton Rouge and will take over from Daniel Cabrera in the lineup. Crews was a projected top-two rounds pick before formally removing his name from the draft a week before the event. He has the look of a prototypical right fielder and figures to hit in the heart of the Tigers’ lineup.

Predicted Order of Finish (2020 record)

East

1. Florida (16-1)

The Gators last spring were off to the best start in program history and were playing like the best team in the country when the season halted. That team returns almost completely intact with a top-five recruiting class joining it. Florida will have one of the deepest pitching staffs in the country, as it returns its rotation of Tommy Mace (3-0, 1.67), Jack Leftwich (2-0, 4.15) and Hunter Barco (2-0, 1.40) and key relievers like Ben Specht (2-0, 0.75, 3 SV) and Christian Scott (2-0, 1.20). Florida’s entire bullpen has the ability to pitch multiple innings and coach Kevin O’Sullivan will have a lot of options at any given time, making for tough matchups for opposing hitters. Offensively, Florida returns eight of nine regulars from last year’s team, including center fielder Jud Fabian (.294/.407/.603, 5 HR), who could be the first college position player drafted in June. Also returning is fellow outfielder Jacob Young (.450/.514/.517, 6 SB), the team’s leading hitter, catcher Nathan Hickey (.311/.439/.622, 4 HR), shortstop Josh Rivera (.298/.385/.439) and plenty of experience around the diamond. In every facet of the game, Florida will have premium talent and depth, making the Gators the favorites not only just for the SEC, but also for the College World Series.

2. Vanderbilt (13-5)

It all starts for Vanderbilt with the dynamic duo of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter. The pair is expected to be the best 1-2 punch of any rotation in the country and the righthanders could become the first rotationmates to both be drafted in the top five picks since UCLA’s Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer in 2011. Rocker (2-1, 1.80), the 2019 Freshman of the Year, is the early favorite to be the first overall pick and is as talented as any pitcher in the country. Leiter (2-0, 1.72), a second-year freshman, is not as proven but last season flashed the upside that made him the highest-rated player in the 2019 draft to make it to campus. There’s plenty of talent behind those two, including lefthander Hugh Fisher (2-0, 4.41 in 2019), freshman righthander Christian Little and righthander Ethan Smith (3-0, 1.42), but with starters Jake Eder and Mason Hickman and closer Tyler Brown moving on to pro ball, Vanderbilt will need new pitchers to step up. That will also be true in the lineup, where Vanderbilt is replacing Ty Duvall, Austin Martin and Harrison Ray. The Commodores have plenty of talent—outfielder Isaiah Thomas (.258/.313/.532, 4 HR) and slugger/lefthander Spencer Jones (.206/.333/.324) were both voted Preseason All-Americans and shortstop Carter Young (.328/.373/.377) is one of the best defenders in the country—but new players are going to have to emerge as focal points. Vanderbilt’s upside is huge, but coach Tim Corbin may need some time to help his team find its form.

3. South Carolina (12-4)

It’s been an up-and-down stretch for the Gamecocks since 2014, as they’ve see-sawed between making the NCAA Tournament—and twice advancing to super regionals—and missing out entirely. But South Carolina has done a good job stockpiling talent and as coach Mark Kingston enters his fourth season in Columbia, it is primed for a strong season. While ace Carmen Mlodzinski moved on in the draft, righthanders Thomas Farr (3-0, 1.72) and Brannon Jordan (2-0, 1.71) are back in the rotation. Righthander Brett Kerry (2-0, 3.60) has pitched in a variety of roles and returns as well and lefthander Julian Bosnic (2-0, 0.00) is a breakout candidate. The Gamecocks also get back the bulk of their offense and have the pieces to put together a deep lineup. Brady Allen (.327/.459/.571, 3 HR), Wes Clarke (.286/.406/.714, 8 HR) and Andrew Eyster (.305/.400/.593, 4 HR) form a solid core, as Allen led the Gamecocks in hitting and Clarke and Eyster bring the power.

4. Tennessee (15-2)

The Volunteers broke through in 2019, ending their long regionals drought. They were in the process of building on that success early in 2020. Now, they’ll look to continue that momentum and have a trio of Preseason All-Americans to help them do just that. Second baseman Max Ferguson (.333/.462/.524, 9 SB), a first-team Preseason All-American, and third baseman Jake Rucker (.339/.425/.581), a third-teamer, headline what figures to be a deep lineup. Tennessee this year doesn’t have a top-of-the-draft ace like Garrett Crochet (who made just one appearance in 2020), but it does have depth, versatility and power arms. Righthander Jackson Leath (4-0, 1.45), who was voted a Preseason All-American, is emblematic of the group. If Tennessee puts it all together, it will again be in the mix.

5. Georgia (14-4)

The Bulldogs were built to be a national championship contender in 2020 thanks to a rotation fronted by Emerson Hancock and Cole Wilcox and a veteran lineup. Now, however, Georgia must regroup. Hancock and Wilcox were both drafted in 2020 and the Bulldogs also lost outfielder/closer Tucker Bradley and shortstop Cam Shepherd as nondrafted free agents. Expecting Georgia to replace that group and not miss a beat is asking a lot, though it still has a strong talent base. Fourth-year junior Ryan Webb (2-0, 1.20), a Preseason All-American, and second-year freshman Jonathan Cannon (3-0, 0.00) will likely move from the bullpen to the rotation to join lefthander C.J. Smith (0-1, 3.32). The Bulldogs will be younger in the lineup, but do return center fielder Ben Anderson (.414/.544/.552, 5 SB), left fielder Riley King (.203/.306/.203) and Cole Tate (.339/.350/.536), who will slide over to shortstop. Georgia also brought in a strong recruiting class and if some of those newcomers can provide instant impact, it will create strong depth. The Bulldogs may need some time to gel, but the upside is clear.

6. Missouri (11-5)

Missouri last year was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament due to academic infractions from several years prior. Those sanctions are no longer hanging over the Tigers’ heads and they will be able to chase their first regionals appearance since 2012. If Mizzou breaks through, it will likely come on the strength of its pitching staff. While ace Ian Bedell was drafted in the fourth round, the Tigers return starters Konnor Ash (2-0, 4.15) and Spencer Miles (1-0, 3.60) and key relievers Trey Dillard (2-0, 1.08, 5 SV) and Lukas Veinbergs (0-1, 3.00). Seth Halvorsen, who was recruited as a two-way player, is expected to join the rotation after just hitting in 2020, adding another powerful arm to the mix. Offensively, the Tigers lost slugger Peter Zimmermann as a nondrafted free agent, but outfielder Brandt Belk (.457/.544/.652), their leading hitter, returns. Mizzou will need to find some more power as Zimmerman and Austin James, who transferred, combined to hit more than half of its 13 home runs. But with a pitching and defense-based approach, the Tigers can put together a solid season.

7. Kentucky (11-6)

Kentucky struggled in the early going in 2020, twice getting swept—at Texas Christian and at home against UNC Wilmington. The Wildcats’ pitching and defense faltered, as they had a 4.38 team ERA and were fielding .957. They will look to correct both with the help of a solid recruiting class that includes shortstop Ryan Ritter and catcher Alonzo Rubalcaba, both junior college transfers, and righthander Ryan Hagenow, a premium freshman. Kentucky has some strong returners to build around as well, starting with outfielder John Rhodes (.426/.485/.672), who was voted a Preseason All-American. Sluggers Oraj Anu (.294/.368/.549, 3 HR), T.J. Collett (.290/.351/.580, 5 HR) and Austin Schultz (.393/.479/.754, 5 HR, 5 SB) give the Wildcats plenty of power in the heart of the order. On the mound, righthander Mason Hazelwood (2-1, 1.64) is back to lead the rotation. Finding the right mix around him will be critical. Righthander Jimmy Ramsey (2-2, 3.26) will fill an important role and Kentucky will look for righthander Zack Lee (1-1, 9.35) to take a step forward and righthander Zach Kammin, a graduate transfer from Division III Coe (Iowa), to play a key role. How well Kentucky’s newcomers adjust to life in the SEC will determine how much of an improvement the Wildcats make in 2021.

West

1. Mississippi (16-1)

After an Opening Day loss to Louisville, Ole Miss rattled off 16 straight wins, outscoring opponents 159-51 during the streak. The Rebels’ challenge now will be carrying that momentum into 2021 despite losing third baseman Tyler Keenan and shortstop Anthony Servideo, their two leading hitters. Ole Miss still has the makings of a deep, powerful lineup, now led by second baseman Peyton Chatagnier (.311/.449/.574, 4 HR), third baseman Tim Elko (.354/.373/.667) and outfielder Hayden Leatherwood (.361/.477/.639). As much upside as the Rebels have offensively, they stand out most on the mound. They return their rotation of lefthander Doug Nikhazy (3-1, 2.35) and righthanders Gunnar Hoglund (3-0, 1.16) and Derek Diamond (2-0, 3.48), which could be one of the best in the country. Also back are bullpen anchors Taylor Broadway (2-0, 0.56) and Braden Forsyth (1-0, 1.23, 5 SV). If Ole Miss’ new-look infield with Elko and freshman shortstop Jacob Gonzalez on the left side gels, it has everything it needs to make its first College World Series appearance since 2014.

2. Mississippi State (12-4)

The Bulldogs lost their double-play combination of Justin Foscue and Jordan Westburg in the top 30 picks of the draft but still have plenty of talent to make another run at the College World Series. Mississippi State is particularly deep on the mound and its rotation of lefthander Christian Macleod (4-0, 0.86) and righthanders Will Bednar (0-0, 1.76) and Eric Cerantola (1-1, 3.18) has as much upside as nearly any in the country. All three have big, powerful arms and could be drafted in the top two rounds. The trio, however, has made a combined 13 career starts, none of which have come in SEC games. How those three hold up in the heat of the conference race will be critical for the Bulldogs. Offensively, Mississippi State returns a strong, veteran core of outfielders Tanner Allen (.240/.387/.400) and Rowdey Jordan (.308/.395/.338) and first baseman Josh Hatcher (.311/.338/.508). It’ll look to second baseman Scotty Dubrule, a Jacksonville graduate transfer, and shortstop Kamren James (.308/.339/.423), who will slide over from third base, to replace Foscue and Westburg. If it all comes together, Mississippi State has another deep postseason run in it.

3. Louisiana State (12-5)

Even after last year losing ace Cole Henry as a second-round draft pick, LSU still has premium upside on the mound. Righthander Jaden Hill (0-0, 0.00, 2 SV) was the top-rated player in the Tigers’ top-ranked 2018 recruiting class but has pitched limited innings due to injury and the pandemic. Now, LSU is ready to let him loose at the front of the rotation. He has No. 1 overall pick upside and if he comes close to it, the Tigers will be flying high as well. LSU has veteran righthanders back in the rotation—Landon Marceaux (2-0, 2.70) and A.J. Labas (1-2, 3.55)—and the bullpen—Matthew Beck (1-0, 0.00) and Devin Fontenot (1-0, 0.90, 4 SV)—making for a strong all-around staff. The Tigers must replace outfielder Daniel Cabrera in their lineup after he was drafted in the second round, but have a replacement ready in freshman Dylan Crews, one of the top-rated recruits to reach campus nationally. With outfielders Cade Beloso (.313/.353/.453) and Giovanni DiGiacomo (.351/.429/.459, 5 SB) back and perhaps a step forward from second-year freshman infielder Cade Doughty (.278/.365/.407) the makings of a solid lineup are there for the Tigers. If, like many teams under coach Paul Mainieri, they peak at the right time, they could return to Omaha.

4. Arkansas (11-5)

While the Razorbacks must this season replace outfielder Heston Kjerstad and shortstop Casey Martin, both 2020 Preseason All-Americans, they still have star power in their lineup. Outfielder Christian Franklin (.381/.467/.619) and second baseman Robert Moore (.317/.403/.444) were both voted second-team Preseason All-Americans by major league scouting directors. Catcher Casey Opitz (.302/.361/.509) is the best defender in the conference and slugger Matt Goodheart (.302/.400/.492) adds another experienced bat to the lineup. Arkansas has a lot of experience and options on the mound, but its pitching staff doesn’t have the same kind of ceiling as some of its rivals. Starters Conor Noland (2-0, 2.00) and Patrick Wicklander (2-2, 6.32) return, as do Caleb Bolden (1-0, 1.12) and Zebulon Vermillion (1-0, 0.00), who both can fill a variety of roles on staff. Finding a reliable Friday starter will be important, but Arkansas’ success on the mound is more likely to come from its depth of talent rather than elite impact arms. If the Razorbacks can find the right blend, they could make a strong postseason run.

5. Alabama (16-1)

The Crimson Tide were one of the biggest breakout surprises of the 2020 season, as they opened the season on a 14-game winning streak and were tied with Florida and Ole Miss for the best record in the country when the season was halted. While they didn’t get the chance to prove themselves against SEC competition, the talent they return to Tuscaloosa is undeniable. Second-year freshman lefthander Connor Prielipp (3-0, 0.00) is at the front of the pack and has already established himself as one of the early favorites to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft. The Tide have a deep pitching staff and have several options to join Prielipp in the rotation and bridge the middle innings to key relievers Brock Guffey (3-0, 1.04) and Chase Lee (1-0, 1.64, 2 SV). Alabama must replace Tyler Gentry and Brett Auerbach, its two leading hitters in 2020, but does return much of its lineup. Catcher Sam Praytor (.350/.452/.667, 6 HR) anchors the offense, and with slugger Owen Diodati (.309/.431/.673, 5 HR) and first baseman Drew Williamson (.340/.521/.480, 5 SB) back as well, the Tide have a solid core to build around. Alabama has the talent to climb out of the SEC West basement in 2021, but still has a lot to prove on the diamond.

6. Auburn (13-5)

The Tigers have become consistent competitors in the SEC under coach Butch Thompson, breaking through in 2019 with their first College World Series appearance in 20 years. Auburn figures to be in the mix again this year thanks to the breakthrough this fall of righthander Richard Fitts (1-0, 2.77) as a first-round prospect and the return of veterans Cody Greenhill (0-0, 0.00, 2 SV) and Jack Owen (3-1, 3.43). That gives Auburn the pieces to build a strong staff around them, even after losing starters Tanner Burns and Bailey Horn in the draft. Offensively, outfielder Judd Ward (.315/.365/.507) and third baseman Rankin Woley (.412/.487/.618) are back with a lot of college at-bats under their belts and shortstop Ryan Bliss (.377/.412/.597, 5 SB) was voted a third-team Preseason All-American. If some younger players like second-year freshman catcher Nate LaRue (.294/.350/.353) or true freshman infielder Cole Foster step forward this spring, Auburn will have the talent to well out-perform this projection.

7. Texas A&M (15-3)

Led by Asa Lacy and Zach DeLoach, the Aggies were off to a strong start in 2020. While they now must replace both stars, there’s reason to believe they won’t take a big step back. Under coach Rob Childress, A&M annually has a deep, talented pitching staff and that won’t be any different in 2021. Righthander Bryce Miller (1-2, 3.27, 3 SV) has premium stuff and can move from the back of the bullpen to the front of the rotation. Lefthanders Jonathan Childress (2-0, 1.84), Dustin Saenz (2-0, 3.12) and Chris Weber (1-0, 2.35) all have a chance to start as well and if Childress can regain his form from before he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019, he has as much upside as any pitcher on staff. Righthander Trevor Werner, who will also be in the mix on the infield, is an X-factor. His arm strength plays well in the bullpen and he could end up as the Aggies’ closer. Replacing DeLoach in the lineup won’t be easy, but with center fielder Ray Alejo (.300/.444/.380, 6 SB) and third baseman Logan Sartori (.364/.446/.600) back, the Aggies have a pair of good table-setters at the top of the order. First baseman Will Frizzell (.274/.384/.484) brings the power and catcher Taylor Smith, a junior college transfer, leads an exciting group of newcomers. If the Aggies can settle into their new roles, they—like Auburn—can greatly exceed this projection. But they’ll have a challenge in the rough-and-tumble SEC West.

Jack Leiter Vanderbilt

Can Jack Leiter Leapfrog Kumar Rocker In MLB Draft Prospect Rankings? (Mailbag)

Our latest mailbag focuses on Vanderbilt's star arms, a potential rising bat at South Carolina and much more.

Top 20 2021 Draft Prospects

  1. Kumar Rocker, RHP, Vanderbilt
  2. Jack Leiter, RHP, Vanderbilt
  3. Jud Fabian, OF, Florida
  4. Jaden Hill, RHP, Louisiana State
  5. Gunnar Hoglund, RHP, Mississippi
  6. Richard Fitts, RHP, Auburn
  7. Tommy Mace, RHP, Florida
  8. Christian Macleod, LHP, Mississippi State
  9. Christian Franklin, OF, Arkansas
  10. Jonathan Cannon, RHP, Georgia
  11. John Rhodes, OF, Kentucky
  12. Will Bednar, RHP, Mississippi State
  13. Ryan Bliss, SS, Auburn
  14. Isaiah Thomas, OF, Vanderbilt
  15. Max Ferguson, INF, Tennessee
  16. Landon Marceaux, RHP, Louisiana State
  17. Jonathan Childress, LHP, Texas A&M
  18. Eric Cerantola, RHP, Mississippi State
  19. Doug Nikhazy, LHP, Mississippi
  20. Ben Specht, RHP, Florida

Top 10 2022 Draft Prospects

  1. Hunter Barco, LHP, Florida
  2. Connor Prielipp, LHP, Alabama
  3. Spencer Jones, LHP/1B, Vanderbilt
  4. Josh Rivera, SS, Florida
  5. Robert Moore, 2B, Arkansas
  6. Colby Halter, INF, Florida
  7. Brennan Milone, 3B, South Carolina
  8. Hayden Dunhurst, C, Mississippi
  9. Carter Young, SS, Vanderbilt
  10. Cade Doughty, INF, Louisiana State

Top Incoming Prospects

  1. Dylan Crews, OF, LSU
  2. Enrique Bradfield, OF, Vanderbilt
  3. Christian Little, RHP, Vanderbilt
  4. Colby Halter, INF, Florida
  5. Cole Foster, SS, Auburn
  6. Ty Floyd, RHP, LSU
  7. Jacob Gonzalez, SS, Ole Miss
  8. Grayson Hitt, LHP, Alabama
  9. Timmy Manning, LHP, Florida
  10. Ryan Hagenow, RHP, Kentucky

Best Tools

Best Pure Hitter: Jacob Young, Florida
Best Power Hitter: Wes Clarke, South Carolina
Best Strike-zone Discipline: Ben Anderson, Georgia
Best Athlete: John Rhys Plumlee, Ole Miss
Fastest Runner: John Rhys Plumlee, Ole Miss
Best Baserunner: Max Ferguson, Tennessee
Best Defensive Catcher: Casey Opitz, Arkansas
Best Defensive Infielder: Carter Young, Vanderbilt
Best Infield Arm: Trevor Werner, Texas A&M
Best Defensive Outfielder: Jud Fabian, Florida
Best Outfield Arm: Jud Fabian, Florida
Best Fastball: Kumar Rocker, Vanderbilt
Best Breaking Ball: Jack Leiter, Vanderbilt
Best Changeup: Jaden Hill, LSU
Best Control: Gunnar Hoglund, Ole Miss

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