2024 Sun Belt College Baseball Preview


Image credit: Gary Gilmore (Photo by Robert Gurganus_Four Seam Images)

Another year, another four bids to the NCAA Tournament for the “Fun” Belt as the conference continued to establish itself as one of the best leagues outside the ACC, SEC and Big 12. 

The Sun Belt saw Southern Miss—in its debut season—advance the farthest after winning the conference tournament, taking Tennessee to a third game in super regionals, while the Golden Eagles were joined in the postseason by regular-season champion Coastal Carolina, Louisiana-Lafayette and Troy. While the Chanticleers hosted after earning the No. 10 overall seed, they were eliminated by Duke in the regional final at Springs Brooks Stadium. Louisiana logged a win before falling to host Miami, while Troy won its opener and then lost back-to-back games in their respective regionals.

After a year of transition with four additions and two subtractions ahead of 2023, the Sun Belt’s 14-team form is settled (for now). That’s not to say the league isn’t undergoing changes, however.

Most notable is Southern Miss bidding adieu to coach Scott Berry, who retired after the 2023 season and passed the reigns to longtime assistant Christian Ostrander. Coastal Carolina’s Gary Gilmore—the reigning Sun Belt coach of the year and 2016 National Champion—announced that 2024 will be his last year. The conference also saw 20 players selected in the 2023 MLB Draft, including three in the first four rounds from a trio of programs.

Now, with the quartet of tournament teams returning strong rosters and several intriguing teams right below them, the conference figures to yet again be an entertaining watch from start to finish. Expect quite the dogfight after the top tier of teams with a bevy of teams on the upswing.

Below, find the following as we dive deep into the Sun Belt Conference…

  • Predicted order of finish
  • Player, Pitcher and Freshman of the Year predictions
  • Team-by-team breakdowns
  • Top draft prospects
  • Top newcomers

Predicted Order of Finish (2023 Record)

1.     Coastal Carolina (42-21, 23-7)
2.     Troy (40-22, 18-12)
3.     Southern Miss (46-20, 22-8)
4.     Louisiana (41-24, 18-12)
5.     Texas State (36-23, 17-13)
6.     Old Dominion (32-23, 15-15)
7.     South Alabama (23-31, 11-19)
8.     Georgia State (30-29, 16-14)
9.     Georgia Southern (27-29, 16-14)
10.   James Madison (31-25, 15-13)
11.   Appalachian State (30-25, 16-13)
12.   Arkansas State (20-31, 9-19)
13.   Marshall (16-36, 5-24)
14.   Louisiana-Monroe (17-37, 6-23)

Player of the Year: Derek Bender, C/DH, Coastal Carolina

Reigning Sun Belt player of the year Shane Lewis (Troy) returns after posting a 1.141 OPS and clubbing 27 home runs, but Bender had quite the season of his own. The sophomore hit .341/.399/.635 with 19 home runs and drove in six more runs than Lewis. It served as a breakout year for Bender, who had just 39 plate appearances as a freshman, and he used it to build into a dynamic summer on the Cape. In 31 games with Bourne, Bender hit .374/.446/.557 with four home runs and 18 stolen bases, and earned an all-star starting assignment at DH. Expect big things from Bender yet again in 2024, especially with plenty of protection in a deep Coastal lineup and another year of experience under his belt.

Pitcher of the Year: Grayson Stewart, RHP, Troy

Southern Miss starter Tanner Hall was unhittable in conference play a season ago on his way to the award—he went 9-1, 2.05 and held opponents to a .191 batting average against, which was no small feat considering the conference had nine top-100 teams in scoring. Another pitcher who performed quite well was Stewart, who doubled his workload from the year prior en route to a 9-3 record, a 3.65 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 91 innings pitched. Stewart is arguably the top returning arm in the conference after an all-Sun Belt first-team selection, and has a strong pitch mix. He’ll be looking to cut down on allowing home runs (13, 1.3 HR/9) and continue his evolution after serving as a closer in 2022. Others to keep an eye on include Southern Miss’ Niko Mazza and Old Dominion’s John Holobetz.

Freshman of the Year: Ryne Farber, 2B, Texas State

Texas State is no stranger to elite freshmen playing key roles in the lineup. Daylan Pena—a key piece this year—started 54 games back in 2022 and hit .270, while Chase Mora took the college baseball world by storm with a 17-homer freshman campaign last year. Now, the potential is brimming for yet another big first-year campaign for a Bobcat in Farber. The 5-foot-9 switch-hitter out of San Antonio led the team in hitting during the fall and projects as the leadoff hitter for what should be a strong lineup. Farber plays well defensively and is penciled in as the team’s starting second baseman—which speaks to how valuable he could be for Texas State.

Sun Belt Team-By-Team Breakdowns

1. Coastal Carolina (42-21, 23-7)

The reigning champions, boasting 16 consecutive Sun Belt series wins, are projected to repeat in what will be Gary Gilmore’s final season in charge. The Chanticleers will look to do so with a veteran lineup that can make things easier on a pitching staff that’s more up in the air—getting improvement on the mound will likely be the difference between another regional exit and a deeper postseason run.

Coastal Carolina arguably has more high-level offensive experience than any team in the conference. Derek Bender (.341/.399/.635) and Caden Bodine (.367/.456/.609, 11 HR) both thrived on the Cape this summer, while the likes of Graham Brown (.278/.377/.573, 17 HR), Zack Beach (.321/.458/.613, 13 HR), Chad Born (.297/.406/.459, 6 HR), Blake Barthol (,308/.424/.572, 7 HR) and Ty Dooley (.281/.350/.417, 6 HR) are all back. Add in Sam Antonacci, the reigning NJCAA Division II player of the year, and it’s clear why the Chanticleers expect to maintain their high-octane offense after hitting .311 (15th) and scoring 9.2 runs per game (fourth) last season.

More questions linger on the mound after injuries sunk the rotation in 2023 and their closer, Teddy Sharkey, is off to pro ball. Improving on a 6.25 ERA and 1.65 WHIP will be necessary for a deeper run in the postseason and Coastal is counting on returnees. Riley Eikhoff (3-1, 4.43 ERA), Bryce Shaffer (5-1, 6.27) and Darin Horn (3-2, 5.60) should be their top arms—the first two likely in the rotation with Horn projecting to take that closer role. A trio of fifth-year arms from Division I programs—Trevor Hinkel, Josh O’Neill and Henry Weycker—should add some stability to the bullpen.

2. Troy (40-22, 18-12)

Skylar Meade has guided Troy to 72 wins across his first two seasons, reaching the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since 2018. Now, with a lot of upside on the mound and proven hitters throughout the lineup, the Trojans will look to make a deeper postseason run.

Losing two double-digit home run hitters is significant but lessened by the tandem of Shane Lewis (.286/.436/.705, 27 HR) and Kole Myers (.297/.404/.538, 13 HR) returning. Lewis—the reigning Sun Belt player of the year—and Myers combined to drive in 118 runs and scored 120 last year. Other veterans Troy will count on include Ethan Kavanagh (.314/.425/.385), Tremayne Cobb Jr. (.300/.416/.484) and Kyle Mock (.260/.398/.427). Add in several strong portal additions like Charlotte’s Will Butcher (.266/.356/.458, 10 HR) and Western Kentucky’s Aidan Gilroy (.317/.391/.424) and the Trojans could be even better at the plate in 2024.

The strength of this team will likely be its pitching staff, a year after ranking 11th nationally in K/9 (10.6). Grayson Stewart (9-3, 3.65 ERA) is the highlight and should be one of the conference’s top starters, while Noah Manning (11 SV, 3.74) is a veteran closer. The team is bolstered by Garrett Gainous’ return from injury—if he can re-capture his 2022 form, in which he fanned 69 across 57 innings with a 2.98 ERA, the Trojans could have one of the best one-two punches in the league. The Trojans have some other intriguing pieces like Clemson’s Jay Dill (1-1, 8.47), Florida’s Clete Hartzog (1-0, 8.53) and junior college transfer Dylan King. Overall, the talent Meade has put together on the staff paired with the strong lineup should mean big things for Troy in 2024.

3. Southern Miss (46-20, 22-8)

While it may be surprising to see 46-win and back-to-back super regional host Southern Miss slot in here, it speaks more to the quantity of returnees above and less of the Golden Eagles and new head coach Christian Ostrander. The biggest questions facing Southern Miss are on the offensive side, where they are replacing Dustin Dickerson, Matthew Etzel, Danny Lynch, Christopher Sargent and Reece Ewing—quite the group. While expectations are sky-high on the mound, the relative unknown of the lineup sinks them below the veteran groups that the preceding teams have—but don’t be surprised if they’re the ones celebrating a second Sun Belt Tournament title in as many years come May.

Let’s start with the strength: The staff. It’s very likely that this group improves from last year, even with Tanner Hall’s departure alongside closer Justin Storm. Veterans Niko Mazza (5-1, 4.13) and Billy Oldham (8-3, 4.21) are a strong one-two punch—and the rotation is bolstered with Chandler Best returning after a medical redshirt and Will Armistead (2-0, 2.09) is poised to jump from a reliever role. The bullpen has had several players take big jumps, including JB Middleton (0-3, 8.68) and redshirt freshman Jake Cook, who’s up to 95 mph from the left side. Plus, there’s the top returnee on the backend—Kros Sively—a low-slot lefthander who fanned 59 and posted a 3.70 ERA.

On the other hand, the five names mentioned above combined for 50 home runs and 233 RBIs—and that’s not to mention the departures of four of the other seven hitters who logged at least 10 hits last year. It’s a lot to replace, but the Golden Eagles aren’t starting fully from scratch. Slade Wilks (.289/.377/.594) led the team with 20 home runs last year, while Carson Paetow (.269/.365/.421) and Nick Monistere (.320/.422/.523) were key pieces. Ostrander has done a good job in filling out the lineup card around those three—BYU’s Ozzie Pratt (.305/.409/.465), Valapairso’s Nolan Tucker (.298/.406/.415), Braden Luke and Gabe Broadus. It’ll be interesting to see how the group comes together and if they can produce at the level the Golden Eagles have been at.

4. Louisiana (41-24, 18-12)

Another team brimming with veteran talent, Louisiana has logged 30-plus wins the last three seasons under Matt Deggs and consecutive tournament appearances for the first time since 2013-16. Expectations are high in Lafayette this season with what should be another strong offense and an experienced pitching staff poised to overcome a few key losses. Louisiana runs well, plays good defense and limits damage on the mound.

Offensively, the Ragin’ Cajuns are absorbing a prolific trio of departures—Heath Hood, Carson Roccaforte and Julian Brock—that combined for 25 home runs, 161 RBIs and 65 stolen bases. Still, it’s easy to be optimistic when you can build around star shortstop Kyle DeBarge (.371/.448/.546, 18 SB). Second baseman John Taylor (.304/.429/.503, 7 HR) and left fielder Conor Higgs (.324/.400/.621, 7 HR) were good last year, while the likes of Caleb Stelly, Trey LaFleur and Ben Robichaux will look to make the most of bigger roles. Transfers Duncan Pastore and Zach Storbakken bring experience, with the former coming off a great season with Division II Nova Southeastern (Fla.), in which he hit .345 and swiped 13 bases. DeBarge will need to lead the way, but Louisiana should reload well.

Three of the top five in innings pitched—including the top two by games started—are gone, but Deggs & Co. are confident the staff can continue to be one of the better pitching teams in the conference. The Cajuns ranked second in the Sun Belt in ERA (4.87) and WHIP (4.16) last season and will look to Carson Fluno (4-1, 4.69 ERA) to head up a new-look rotation. Junior college transfer Louis-Philippe Langevin posted a 14.3 K/9 last season while D-III addition Jack Martinez held opponents to a .163 batting average with a 2.12 ERA at Trinity (Texas). If they adjust well, Louisiana will be in good shape thanks to a bullpen heavy on returnees: JT Etheridge (2 SV, 4.71) highlights a group of five key relievers who totaled 109 appearances a season ago.

5. Texas State (36-23, 17-13)

A veteran-laden team is the name of the game in San Marcos, as the Bobcats—who finished 60th in RPI but missed out on the NCAA Tournament after a 1-2 showing in the conference tournament—welcome in 22 newcomers, only six of which are freshmen. Experience dots both the lineup and pitching staff, with the former figuring to improve after finishing near the bottom of the league in scoring last year.

Chase Mora (.316/.382/.653, 17 HR) had a remarkable true freshman campaign, and three other double-digit homer hitters return in the form of Daylan Pena (.245/.392/.474, 11 HR), Cade Manning (.251/.390/.497, 10 HR) and August Ramirez (.280/.333/.535, 10 HR). Texas State clubbed 83 home runs last year and has the bats to put up similar numbers. The best pure hitter on the team is likely Davis Powell (.337/.431/.522), who led the team in hits (62) and runs (48). The newcomers to know are Ryne Farber, a switch-hitting freshman second baseman who could hit lead off, and Ohio’s Alec Patino (.356/.421/.550).

A trio of big names in Levi Wells, Zeke Wood and Tristan Dixon have moved on, but belief is there that Texas State will continue to throw the ball well. The Bobcats were fifth in the Sun Belt in ERA (5.57), K/9 (9.3) and third in WHIP (1.54), and several key contributors to those numbers return. While Dixon was the big name, returnee Jack Stroud (3-2, 3.56 ERA) had arguably better numbers and will anchor the bullpen. Junior college transfers Austin Eaton (11-0, 2.12 ERA at Navarro) and Sam Hall (5-3, 3.95 ERA at Panola) are two promising righthanders—the former running it up to 96 mph—while Tony Robie (5-4, 4.91), Peyton Zabel (2-2, 5.46) and Keller Eberly (6-0, 4.20 ERA at JC of Central Florida) will factor in as well. There’s less known about this staff compared to last year, when Wells and Wood returned after leading the team in innings, but the upside is certainly there.

6. Old Dominion (32-23, 15-15)

The Monarchs finished .500 in conference play in their debut Sun Belt season, a dip after a 41-win campaign the year prior. But after getting their bearings, they should land as one of the stronger teams in 2024. Head coach Chris Finwood, in his third conference at the helm of Old Dominion (CAA, C-USA), has put together a promising roster with quite a few returnees on both sides of the ball. It is worth noting: Sixth through 10th in the Sun Belt should be wide open in 2024.

First-team all-Sun Belt selection Hunter Fitz-Gerald is off to pro ball, but there’s a veteran group back that should mash once again. The Monarchs have averaged 111 home runs per season over the last three years and welcome back sluggers Jake Ticer (.292/.453/.708, 16 HR) and Alex Bouche (.299/.420/.527, 11 HR). Kyle Edwards (.341/.379/.659) surged late last year, hitting six home runs and swiping 12 bases in just 88 at-bats, while Kenny Levari (.312/.415/.477) and Luke Waters (.296/.374/.469) will be key again.

John Holobetz (6 SV, 3.38 ERA) will headline the rotation, making the move from a closer role after he posted a 49:10 K/BB ratio in 42 innings. Other bullpen pieces projected to make the jump to starting roles are swingman Dylan Brown (2-3, 6.88), Trent Buchanan (3-0, 4.12) and Jacob Gomez (1-3, 4.70). While starting experience may be light, all three proved their mettle in bullpen roles and are consistent strike-throwers. Perhaps the most notable name not mentioned yet is Blake Morgan, a southpaw who had a dynamic freshman 2022 campaign (8-0, 1.69) before a knee injury derailed him in 2023. He projects to return mid-season and could provide a massive boost if he can return to form.

7. South Alabama (23-31, 11-19)

The Jaguars were picked sixth in last year’s preseason coaches’ poll, but dramatically underperformed—they snapped a stretch of seven straight winning seasons and finished 11th, ending the year on a 10-game losing streak. Quite a bit of turnover in the lineup and on the mound saw the team have its batting average fall by 19 points and its ERA rise by nearly two runs compared to 2022. 

There’s hope that last year was a blip in what has been a strong stretch from the Jaguars, who are just two years removed from a regional appearance that included a 19-1 thumping of host Florida. They’ll be looking for another big year from outfielder Will Turner (.349/.460/.591), one of the league’s top prospects, and Joseph Sullivan (.304/.485/.591). That duo, along with JG Bell (.279/.379/.346), were three of four players who started in 50-plus games last season. Nine of the 12 other players who earned double-digit at-bats are back, and newcomers include Auburn’s Cam Hill and Oklahoma State’s Brennan Holt.

More questions are on the mound, although departing 14th-round draft pick Jeremy Lee struggled last season. Six players with double-digit appearances return, including starter Mitchell Heer (3-2, 4.76) and closer Grant Wood (4-3, 5.61). Promising arms arrived through the portal in the form of Jacksonville State’s Eli Zielinski (6-0, 2.93), an all-ASUN third-team selection as a freshman, and East Tennessee State’s Cade Carlson (5-2, 3.25), an all-Southern Conference second-team honoree. Zielinski posted an 11.0 K/9 across 46 innings, and both he and Carlson should make an impact in the rotation. The pieces are there to take a step forward on both sides of the ball and should South Alabama do so, it’ll be in a good spot to forget the struggles of 2023.

8. Georgia State (30-29, 16-14)

A pair of heartbreakers in the conference tournament—a 5-4 defeat to Coastal Carolina and a 6-5 elimination loss to Texas State in 12 innings—ended the Panthers season right as they were starting to heat up. Before those defeats, Georgia State had won six of seven. Now, with more talent on the mound and an imposing lineup—even without Cameron Jones and Max Ryerson—the Panthers are hoping to continue to build under fourth-year coach Brad Stomdahl.

Jones and Ryerson contributed all-Sun Belt numbers, but the Panthers have a lot to like in their starting nine after ranking third in the conference in scoring. Not only will they be stout defensively, but they also have proven hitters. Matt Ruiz (.308/.412/.548), JoJo Jackson (.319/.437/.595) and Luke Boynton (.279/.366/.577) all hit double-digit home runs last year, while Will Mize (.308/.367/.482) and Jesse Donohoue (.287/.400/.407) were strong as well. Georgia Southern added quite a bit of talent, too—Rutgers second baseman Maximus Martin (.203/.342/.475) could emerge as the team’s top prospect, while Auburn’s Ryan Dyal (.222/.344/.222) and Davidson’s Henry Koehler (.290/.382/.440) bring veteran experience.

There’s talent on the mound, too, just with less experience after key departures like ace Ryan Watson, No. 2 starter Joseph Brandon and Jones. The team’s biggest roles will likely go to underclassmen, with Brady Jones (2-2, 5.06)—who closed as a freshman—slotting in on Friday nights while sophomore Davis Chastain (2-1, 5.87) could close. Junior college transfers Rob Evans and Caleb White should be in the rotation, while Dylan Matela returns from injury in the bullpen and Kameron Douglas (1-0, 1.53) is back after an impressive freshman campaign. The unknowns in the rotation make Georgia State difficult to predict, but if the talent gels, it could be a strong year on the mound.

9. Georgia Southern (27-29, 16-14)

Expected to contend for the Sun Belt crown last season after hosting a regional in 2022 and returning a group of key players, the Eagles instead slipped below .500 and finished outside the top 100 in RPI. A season-opening series win over West Virginia was overshadowed by struggles against the top half of the conference and four losses to rival Georgia State, including in the first round of the conference tournament. Better things are expected from Georgia Southern in 2023, particularly if the lineup meshes well and the pitching staff can bounce back as a whole.

The team’s leaders in average (Jesse Sherrill) and home runs (Noah Ledford) are gone, as are three other lineup regulars, but Jarrett Brown (.294/.402/.529, 12 HR) returns to anchor the lineup. Sam Blancato (.303/.421/.436) is another veteran presence, while JD Kaiser (.228/.347/.374), J.C. Peacher (.239/.388/.250) and Cory Dowdell (.284/.387/.461) picked up 90-plus at-bats last year. Georgia’s Josh Tate and Vanderbilt’s T.J. McKenzie both saw limited time with their respective programs last year but are interesting SEC additions, while there are quite a few talented junior college transfers incoming as well. Luke Odden, Cade Parker and Daniel Haab are among others who should play key roles.

After a strong year on the mound in 2022, the staff took a step backward. Friday night starter Ty Fisher (4-6, 7.07 ERA) was a prime example, as the southpaw saw his ERA inflate. He’s one of several arms who will look to return to form, like Ben Johnson (4-4, 6.20)—the righthander was a Cape Cod League all-star in 2022. Southpaw Mitchell Gross (3-4, 4.81) led the team in ERA, moving from the bullpen to the rotation by the end of the season, while it’ll be great to see Jaylen Paden (1-0, 8.18) back after he was shut down due to injury after just 11 innings. Paden was a part of the weekend rotation in 2022 and went 6-2. Another key piece should be Ga’von Wray (4-3, 5.98) as the Eagles aim to return to previous heights.

10. James Madison (31-25, 15-13)

Year one in the Sun Belt for James Madison could be characterized as a success: 15 wins, a seventh-place finish and a win in the conference tournament. The Dukes did so despite quite a new-look roster and will be looking to build on that in 2024.

On the mound, there’ll be quite a few familiar faces—the team returns five of its top six pitchers by innings pitched. Weekend starters Todd Mozoki (1-4, 4.89 ERA) and Ryan Murphy (5-4, 4.89) are back, while big things are expected of sophomore Jaden Kinsler (2-0, 4.21), a hard-throwing lefty moving from the bullpen. James Madison will have one of the top relievers in the league in Joe Vogatsky (4-1, 3.34)—the righthander was a 14th-round draft pick but opted to return after 21 appearances a season ago. Southpaw T.R. Williams (2-3, 5.84) should have a big role as well. The Dukes had a 6.34 ERA last year and ranked last in the conference in strikeouts, but the potential is there.

In the lineup, it starts with dynamic outfielder Fenwick Trimble (.342/.452/.631) after a 13–home run campaign. Replacing Jack Cone and Kyle Novak will be tough, but Michael Mancini (.284/.413/.388) is coming off a great freshman campaign, and fully healthy seasons from Jacob Steinberg (.355/.438/.548 in 19 games) and Ryan Dooley (.324/.370/.514 in 25 games) will be huge. Mason Dunaway (.312/.419/.420) was a plus defender at shortstop and a good bat, while Rider’s Brendan O’Donnell (.244/.360/.521) is an intriguing veteran pick-up. James Madison was strong offensively and defensively last year—hitting .298 (third in Sun Belt) and fielding at a .972 clip (third)—and that should continue.

11. Appalachian State (30-25, 16-13)

If you want a sleeper team in the Sun Belt, it might very well be the Mountaineers. After a sixth-place finish, App State went on a run in the conference tournament after an opening-game loss and came a game short of a title game appearance. The Mountaineers are replacing a lot offensively—as well as ace Xander Hamilton—but have a chance to still be strong offensively and aim to take strides forward on the mound.

Even with Hamilton, a 14th-round draft pick, App State finished dead last in the conference in ERA (7.65) and will need to improve should the lineup take a step back after scoring nearly eight runs a game. Expectations are high that returnees will do just that—none more important than Bradley Wilson (0-3, 10.42 ERA), who struggled over 14 starts last year but has taken a jump in the fall with the help of new pitching coach Ricky Meinhold. Jackson Steensma is another key piece projected to move from the closer role, where he logged seven saves, to the rotation.

The likes of Hayden Cross, Luke Drumheller, Golston Gillespie and Andrew Terrell—who each played in 50-plus games with OPS above .840—are gone, but there’s plenty of optimism with the mix of returnees and newcomers. CJ Boyd, a returning first-team all-Sun Belt selection, was limited to 43 games due to an injury but hit .364 with 17 home runs and is poised for a monster season. Xavier Moronta (.339/.444/.459) and Ole Miss transfer Banks Tolley round out what should be an excellent outfield trio, while shortstop Austin St. Laurent—the 2022 Sun Belt freshman of the year—is back to full strength after an injury limited him to 40 games last year.

12. Arkansas State (20-31, 9-19)

Arkansas State’s last winning season came back in 2017 and last season’s struggles could largely be attributed to difficulties on the mound. The Red Wolves hit .276 and averaged over eight runs per game, but a 7.35 staff ERA and a gaudy 5.95 BB/9 contributed to an up-and-down campaign. Some of the scores appeared to be football-esque: Losses by margins of 18-13, 17-7, 19-14 and 11-10 stand out.

Now, with the veteran lineup back, the Red Wolves should again be able to swing it—it’ll be more of a question of whether they can find enough pitching to support them. A lack of proven starts might not bode well—especially after top starter Kyler Carmack transferred to Mississippi. Still, reliever Arlon Butts (3-5, 4.05 ERA) was a reliable option last year and moves into the rotation, while Rider’s Dylan Heine (4-4, 5.37) adds much-needed experience. Bryce Schares (2-1, 6.63) and Coby Greiner (0-1, 9.24) are veteran options in the bullpen.

Offensively, there are a lot fewer unknowns and a lot to like as a result. The bulk of the team’s top hitters return, highlighted by Will French (.318/.455/.449), slugger Brandon Hager (.348/.500/.657, 15 HR) and Blake Burriss (.295/.411/.454). Add in several players with some at-bats under their belts taking steps into starting roles, and you can see why there is reason to be optimistic about the Red Wolves maintaining offensive success in the new year.

13. Marshall (16-36, 5-24)

Marshall was expected to go through some struggles in 2023 after a last-minute coaching change saw Greg Beals hired away from Akron—after four months in charge of the Zips—and arrive in Huntington in early January. Now, after enduring a painful 16-win campaign that saw the year end with 15 straight losses, the expectations will be raised, but a significant improvement would be surprising. The biggest news around the program is the new Jack Cook Field, a stadium expected to be ready for the home opener.

The pitching staff ranked 10th in the conference in ERA (6.66) last year—and they’ll try to improve with four of the team’s top five pitchers and 46 of 52 starts moving on. Drew Harlow (6-4, 5.56 ERA) is expected to head up the rotation and returnees in new roles dot the rest of the roster. Marshall’s lineup—which ranked last in the Sun Belt in on-base percentage (.333), scoring (5.0 runs per game) and second-to-last in batting average (.254)—must find more to contribute. Owen Ayers (.283/.368/.491, 7 HR) and Gio Ferraro (.272/.366/.431, 8 HR) are key pieces to get back, while Akron’s Jack Firestone (.252/.387/.558, 17 HR) is a nice pick-up from the portal. Expect a continuation of the rebuild under Beals in 2024.

14. Louisiana-Monroe (17-37, 6-23)

Over the past four full seasons, the Warhawks have won fewer games than the year before. It’s a slide that has proven difficult for head coach Mike Federico to correct, but ULM is expected to be better than last year with more depth offensively and more options in the bullpen. It’s an uphill battle in a league of the Sun Belt’s caliber, but meaningful steps forward would be important to see.

Shawn Dalton Weatherbee (.279/.412/.405) was the team’s offensive leader a season ago, as the Warhawks finished 272nd in scoring (5.1 runs per game). He’ll be joined by a few regulars needing to take steps forward, while freshman Easton Winfield and junior college transfers Ian Montz and Colby Lunsford will look to breathe new life into the lineup. Finding improvements there will be pivotal, especially after the pitching staff struggled mightily.

The group allowed run totals of 17, 19, 25 and 35 runs en route to a 7.34 ERA—and saw top pitcher Nicholas Judice drafted in the eighth round. Dalton Burrell (0-0, 4.18 ERA) and New Orleans transfer Beau Blanchard (0-4, 9.29) slot atop the rotation, while veteran experience in the bullpen should bode well. Chipper Menard (2-6, 6.96) and Cam Barlow (3-6, 5.88) were primarily starters last year, but hope a change of scenery turns in better results, while Carson Orton (4-5, 5.51) is the top returnee by appearances (20).

2024 Top 100 Prospects

See the full Top 100 entering the 2024 season headlined by Orioles SS Jackson Holliday.

Top 10 2024 Draft Prospects

1.     Derek Bender, C, Coastal Carolina
2.     Will Turner, OF, South Alabama
3.     Kyle DeBarge, SS, Louisiana
4.     Sam Antonacci, 3B, Coastal Carolina
5.     Darin Horn, RHP, Coastal Carolina
6.     Fenwick Trimble, OF, James Madison
7.     Joseph Sullivan, OF, South Alabama
8.     Niko Mazza, RHP, Southern Miss
9.     Garrett Gainous, RHP, Troy
10.   Alexander Meckley, RHP, Coastal Carolina

Top 10 Newcomers for 2024

1.     Sam Antonacci, 3B, Coastal Carolina
2.     Ryne Farber, 2B, Texas State
3.     Ozzie Pratt, 2B, Ole Miss
4.     Jack Martinez, RHP, Troy
5.     Will Butcher, 1B, Charlotte
6.     Brennan Holt, OF, South Alabama
7.     Louis-Philippe Langevin, RHP, Louisiana
8.     Aidan Gilroy, 3B, Troy
9.     Eli Zielinski, LHP, South Alabama
10.   Jack Firestone, 1B, Marshall

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