Image credit: LSU's Tommy White (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)
As the calendar flips to 2024, it’s time to start eyeing the college baseball season in earnest. Jan. 2 marks 45 days until Opening Day on Feb. 16.
We’ll start our in-depth season preview content soon enough, but for now, let’s whet your appetite. Here are 45 things I’m excited about or questions I have about the season to come.
1. Can LSU repeat?
No team has won back-to-back College World Series since South Carolina doubled up in 2010-11. South Carolina had a shot at a three-peat in 2012 and Vanderbilt came close twice (including 2019-21), but in the 11 seasons since the Gamecocks’ repeat, no one has matched their feat. In fact, there have been more instances of a reigning national champion missing the NCAA Tournament than returning to Omaha the following season. If you make me pick a national champion today, I’m picking LSU. I think the Tigers have done a good job of reloading after heavy losses, which started with losing the top two picks in last summer’s draft, and they have more depth than any other team in the country. That said, repeating is incredibly difficult, as recent history makes abundantly clear.
2. If not LSU, then who?
That list starts with the last two teams LSU had to knock off to win the national championship: Florida and Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons reloaded themselves after losing three top-50 picks, bringing in two projected first rounders from the transfer portal in righthander Chase Burns and infielder Seaver King. Florida, meanwhile, returns two-way superstar Jac Caglianone, who is probably the single best player in the nation.
Ranking the top 100 players in the Class of 2024 entering the season.
3. But this field is wide open, right?
It sure seems to be. Florida, LSU and Wake Forest might be the favorites, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a big gap between them and teams such as Arkansas, Texas, TCU and Vanderbilt. All of that should make for plenty of excitement this spring.
4. So, what surprises are to come?
This season might feel predictable (more on that in a bit), but the reality is that every season features some wild twists and turns that no one saw coming in the preseason.
Just a few examples from last season:
- Multiple programs were subject to gambling investigations.
- By the end of the year, Stanford’s Alberto Rios was the Pac-12 player of the year, a first-team All-American and a third-round pick. In January, he was a third-year player with a total of seven at bats in his career.
- A super regional was moved due to a scheduling conflict with the Special Olympics.
- Not only did Florida State miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1977, snapping the longest streak in college baseball history, it missed its conference tournament. So did the last two national champions, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
The unexpected is a big part of what makes this sport fun.
5. But you said this season feels predictable?
More than usual, yes. Last year’s Preseason Top 25 had seven of the eight Omaha participants in the top 19 (sorry, Oral Roberts) and 10 of the hosts in the top 22. Will this year’s hold up any better? That’s a high bar, but asked in a different way, which of last year’s hosts do you think are going to fall off? Maybe Alabama or Miami takes a step back following their coaching changes? RPI darlings Indiana State or Kentucky? Do any of the other dozen hosts – Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson, Coastal Carolina, Florida, LSU, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Wake Forest – seem like they’re in danger of not being a Top 25-caliber team?
If that feeling turns out to be correct, it doesn’t eliminate the opportunity for surprise teams. No one had ORU reaching Omaha or Indiana State hosting regionals or reigning national champion Ole Miss missing the NCAA Tournament. But if, by and large, the same teams that operated last season at the top of the sport do so again, it’s fair to ask why that’s happening so much lately. Is it the transfer portal? NIL? The power of investment? The result of elite programs getting coaching hires right? A combination of some or all those factors? That’s something I expect I’ll be exploring this spring.
6. How will the final season of the Pac-12 play out?
The conference, as you may have heard, is breaking up at the end of the academic year, with teams scattering to the ACC (Cal and Stanford), the Big 12 (Arizona, Arizona State, Utah) and the Big Ten (Oregon, Southern California, UCLA and Washington), with Oregon State and Washington State stuck in limbo (at least for now). But all of that is for the future. This spring, the Pac-12, which has produced the most CWS champions, will have one last go-round on the diamond. In fact, the last act of the current Pac-12 will come on a baseball field. And it could be a good year for the conference, as it has a few teams with serious Omaha aspirations.
7. How will Oklahoma and Texas fare in their last season in the Big 12?
This spring also marks the final season before the Sooners and Longhorns move to the SEC. Texas brings plenty of intrigue this year with the 1-2 punch of Tanner Witt and Lebarron Johnson in its rotation and a team that was just shy of the CWS a year ago. The Sooners were up and down all season and got one of the final spots in the NCAA Tournament. Much of that roster is back and Oklahoma will look to recapture the form that took it to the CWS finals in 2022.
8. How will this year’s conference realignment change the landscape?
The truly ground-shaking movements don’t happen until July 1 and the new academic year, but there are some significant moves that do affect the 2024 season. Brigham Young, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston are now all in the Big 12. Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Rice and Texas-San Antonio all moved from Conference USA to the American. C-USA, which last year added Dallas Baptist, now also includes Jacksonville State, Liberty, New Mexico State and Sam Houston State. It’s a lot of shuffling and it’ll make for some different matchups this year — get ready for Texas at UCF and Liberty at New Mexico State — but what kind of impact the new looks will have on Selection Monday remains to be seen.
9. Who are the Player of the Year favorites?
Last year provided a banner Player of the Year race. It would be hard to ask for a repeat of last year’s fireworks, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have fun. Here are 10 of the leading candidates.
- Jac Caglianone, 1B/LHP, Florida. A Golden Spikes finalist a season ago after hitting a BBCOR record 33 home runs and going 7-4, 4.34 as a weekend starter for the national runners-up.
- Tommy White, 3B, LSU. Arguably the most famous player in the country, White last season hit .374/.432/.725 with 24 home runs for the national champions. His 51 career home runs are more than any other player currently in college baseball has hit in the last two seasons.
- JJ Wetherholt, 2B, West Virginia. The national batting champion and Big 12 player of the year returns after hitting .449/.517/.787 with 16 home runs and 36 stolen bases. He’s also the very early favorite to be the No. 1 draft pick.
- Nick Kurtz, 1B, Wake Forest. Kurtz last season hit .353/.527/.784 with 24 home runs, while drawing 63 walks against 50 strikeouts. He’s back to again anchor the Demon Deacons lineup.
- Josh Hartle, LHP, Wake Forest. A pitcher has won the award in three of the last five seasons, even as offense has increased in the sport. Hartle is the leading candidate on the mound after going 11-2, 2.81 with 140 strikeouts and 24 walks in 102.1 innings.
- Charlie Condon, OF/1B, Georgia. The 2023 Freshman of the Year hit .386/.484/.800 with 25 home runs after redshirting in 2022. He led the SEC in slugging percentage and finished behind only Dylan Crews in the conference’s batting race.
- Trey Yesavage, RHP, East Carolina. Yesavage was excellent in his first season in the Pirates rotation, going 7-1, 2.61 with 105 strikeouts and 23 walks in 76 innings. He has the stuff to become one of the best pitchers in the country.
- Vance Honeycutt, OF, North Carolina. Honeycutt had a sensational freshman season in 2022, as he hit 25 home runs and stole 29 bases. He took a step back in 2023, hitting .257/.418/.492 with 12 home runs and 19 stolen bases. His dynamism is unquestioned, however, and he has as much upside as any player in the country.
- Chase Burns, RHP, Wake Forest. Burns is in some respects the pitching analog to Honeycutt. As a freshman at Tennessee, Burns went 8-2, 2.91 with 103 strikeouts and 25 walks in 80.1 innings. He wasn’t quite as good in 2023 and went 5-3, 4.25 with 114 strikeouts and 22 walks in 72 innings and in midseason was moved from the rotation to a relief ace role, in which he excelled. He this summer transferred to Wake and if that change in scenery works, he could take off.
- Travis Bazzana, 2B, Oregon State. Bazzana is more of a contact-oriented, top-of-the-order hitter and, as such, doesn’t fit the typical Player of the Year profile. All he does, however, is hit and last season he batted .374/.500/.622 with 11 home runs and 36 stolen bases. Another season like that would get him in the race, but he’d need to show more power to really put himself among the favorites. The award has been given out annually since 1981 and only Dave Magadan (1983, Alabama) has won it without hitting at least 15 home runs and he set an SEC record with a .525 batting average.
Where could some of the Player of the Year candidates go in the first round? Here’s an early look at the top of the class.
10. Who are this year’s 10 most intriguing transfers?
Intriguing, not best, though many of these are among the best players who transferred over the summer.
- Braden Montgomery, OF/RHP (Stanford to Texas A&M). A premium two-way talent arriving in College Station.
- Chase Burns, RHP (Tennessee to Wake Forest). Burns has as much talent as any pitcher in the country and now has access to Wake’s pitching lab.
- Payton Tolle, 1B/LHP (Wichita State to TCU). A second-team All-American joins a CWS contender.
- Seaver King, INF (Wingate to Wake Forest). After playing for Team USA, King makes the jump from Division II to a Division I national title contender.
- Gage Jump, LHP (UCLA to LSU). After classmate Thatcher Hurd moved from Westwood to Baton Rouge a year ago, Jump makes the same move with plenty of upside.
- Colby Shelton, INF (Alabama to Florida). After a Freshman All-American season, Shelton returns to his home state.
- Mason Molina, LHP (Texas Tech to Arkansas). The Red Raiders’ top starter in 2023 now joins the rotation for Arkansas.
- Sawyer Hawks, RHP (Air Force to Vanderbilt). After a big sophomore season at Air Force, Hawks adds a powerful arm to Vanderbilt’s bullpen.
- Karson Ligon, RHP (Miami to Mississippi State). Mississippi State needed pitching and it brought in Ligon, who spent two seasons in Miami’s rotation.
- Billy Amick, INF (Clemson to Tennessee). One of the breakout players of 2023 takes his powerful bat to Tennessee, where his defensive fit is a bit of an unknown.
Not everyone is a buzzy transfer or a Player of the Year favorite, however. Here are 20 more players to know going into the season. We’re making an emphasis on spreading the love here, so these aren’t meant to be the best players in any particular class.
Who are five seniors to know?
11. Porter Brown, OF, Texas. After transferring from TCU a year ago, Brown made an instant impact with the Longhorns, hitting .323/.426/.545 with 12 home runs and 11 stolen bases.
12. Ethan Bates, INF/RHP, Louisiana Tech. Bates last season earned first-team all-Conference-USA honors after starring for the Bulldogs as an infielder and closer, hitting .270/.377/.540 with 16 home runs, while also making 20 appearances on the mound and going 4-2, 3.16 with six saves.
13. Sam Kulasingam, 1B, Air Force. Kulasingam has won back-to-back Mountain West player of the year awards and last season hit .426/.537/.655. He’s arguably the most decorated player in the nation.
14. Sam Ruta, 3B, Army. Ruta has been a key cog for three years at Army and now has a chance to make a run at several of the program’s career records, including home runs, as the Black Knights take aim at a sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
15. Ryan Targac, 2B, Texas A&M. Targac is coming off of a tough season, but if he can recapture his 2022 form, when he hit .294/.430/.569 with 15 home runs, he could help propel the Aggies back into SEC contention.
We examined the top committed transfers changing schools ahead of the 2024 season.
Who are five juniors to know?
16. Brody Brecht, RHP, Iowa. Brecht has some of the best stuff in the nation and is a premium athlete (he also played wide receiver at Iowa). Control has been an issue so far (career 7.8 BB/9), but if he can take a step forward, his upside is considerable.
17. Jacob Cozart, C, North Carolina State. Cozart might be the best catcher in the nation. He last season hit .301/.392/.546 with 10 home runs and plays standout defense behind the plate.
18. Carter Holton, LHP, Vanderbilt. A consistent part of Vanderbilt’s rotation for the last two years, Holton is one of the most experienced starters in the SEC. He’s not overpowering, but has advanced pitchability and gives the Commodores a strong building block.
19. Griff O’Ferrall, SS, Virginia. O’Ferrall last season set program records for hits (108) and runs (76). Now, he needs 104 hits and 68 runs to set the Cavaliers’ career records. Whether he reaches those marks or not, expect him to be the straw that stirs the drink for Virginia.
20. Kyle Robinson, RHP, Texas Tech. Robinson has mostly pitched in relief over the last two seasons but is poised to take a big step forward in the Red Raiders’ rotation after a strong summer with Team USA. He could be the breakout pitcher of the year.
Who are five sophomores to know?
21. Cam Cannarella, OF, Clemson. Cannarella exploded onto the scene as a freshman and batted .388/.462/.560 with seven home runs and 24 stolen bases. His dynamism at the top of the Tigers’ lineup will be critical this spring.
22. Anthony Martinez, 1B, UC Irvine. Martinez hit .394/.471/.619 with 11 home runs to win the Big West batting title. As the Anteaters look to bounce back from last year’s postseason snub, his play will be critical.
23. Malcolm Moore, C, Stanford. A heralded prep player in California, Moore lived up to the hype as a freshman. He hit .311/.386/.564 with 15 home runs as the everyday catcher for an Omaha team. There will be even more attention on him now.
24. Ethan Petry, OF, South Carolina. If not for Charlie Condon, Petry likely would have been SEC freshman of the year. He hit .376/.471/.733 with 23 home runs, breaking the program’s freshman home run record held by Justin Smoak.
25. Cam Smith, 3B, Florida State. It wasn’t a banner freshman spring for Smith, who hit .258/.326/.517 with 12 home runs. But he had an all-star summer in the Cape Cod League, where he hit .347/.406/.575. If he can build on that success, it would be a big boost for the Seminoles.
Who are five freshmen to know?
26. Drew Burress, OF, Georgia Tech. Burress is a bit undersized but has an impressive offensive track record and could step right into the Yellow Jackets lineup in center field.
27. Trent Caraway, 3B, Oregon State. Caraway was one of the most productive prep players in the country and brings a middle-of-the-order offensive profile to Corvallis.
28. Cam Johnson, LHP, LSU. Johnson surprisingly slid in the draft and ended up at LSU, where his big, physical frame and powerful fastball will make life difficult for opposing hitters.
29. Liam Peterson, RHP, Florida. Peterson might be the best pitcher to arrive in Gainesville since Brady Singer eight years ago and he has the stuff and pitchability to start his career in the rotation.
30. Joey Volchko, RHP, Stanford. Volchko was the highest ranked player to make it to campus and while he has some rough edges to refine, he has premium stuff and adds a powerful arm to the Cardinal staff.
These 25 players could help shape the 2024 college baseball season.
31. How will the new coaches fare?
There are 41 new head coaches across the sport. From that group, who’s best positioned for immediate success? Southern Miss’ Christian Ostrander is an easy answer, and Wofford’s JJ Edwards should also be able to keep the Terriers rolling.
32. What can Miami expect in its first season under J.D. Arteaga?
Following the season, Gino DiMare stepped down after five seasons in charge of the Hurricanes. While they made the NCAA Tournament in each of his four seasons at the helm and hosted regionals in each of the last two years, they have not won a regional since 2016. After a search, Miami opted to promote Arteaga, the program’s longtime pitching coach and one of its most accomplished pitchers.
Now, Arteaga will look to get Miami back to its status as one of the nation’s elite programs. It has some big pieces to replace this season, including third baseman Yohandy Morales, the 40th overall pick, and two-time, first-team All-American closer Andrew Walters. A step back from the last two years seems likely. But if righthander Gage Ziehl can take a step forward at the front of the rotation and some of the Hurricanes’ newcomers make a quick adjustment, they could surprise in the ACC.
33. How will the three new coaches in the SEC fare?
There are three new coaches in the SEC this season: Alabama’s Rob Vaughn (hired from Maryland), Georgia’s Wes Johnson (LSU pitching coach) and Missouri’s Kerrick Jackson (Memphis). Each of the trio inherits a team in a different state of contention. Alabama is coming off a super regionals appearance, Georgia missed the NCAA Tournament last spring but has made three of the last five and Missouri has yet to post a winning record in conference play since joining the SEC in 2013.
With that in mind, it’s fair to say the three coaches are facing dramatically different expectations in 2024. Alabama has a strong talent base even after losing six players to the draft and Freshman All-American Cody Shelton to the transfer portal. A return to regionals would be reasonable. Georgia has the best player in All-American Charlie Condon and wasn’t far off a regionals bid last spring. Johnson could get quick results, though unlike Vaughn and Jackson, he is a first-time head coach. Mizzou faces a bigger rebuild and will likely again be picked at the bottom of the SEC East.
34. Can Coastal Carolina make Gary Gilmore’s final season a special one?
Gilmore, the longtime Chanticleers coach, is set to retire following the season, his 29th at the helm of his alma mater. His 1,335 career wins rank 20th all-time in college baseball and rank fourth among all active Division I baseball coaches.
Coastal is coming off a season in which it won 42 games and hosted regionals. It will be aiming to take things even further this spring, as it looks to send Gilmore off in style. The Chanticleers return six starters, including Sun Belt freshman of the year Caden Bodine, and three of their top four pitchers by innings pitched. Coastal is set up for another dynamic year offensively. If it can take a step forward on the mound after posting a 6.25 team ERA, a postseason run could be in the cards.
35. How will Minnesota and Missouri State fare as they also prepare for their own coaches to retire?
Gilmore isn’t the only longtime coach in his final season. Minnesota’s John Anderson and Missouri State’s Keith Gutin have both also announced 2024 will be their final seasons. Gutin (1,373 wins) and Anderson (1,365) rank 15th and 17th, respectively, on the all-time wins list and trail only Georgia Tech’s Danny Hall (1,378) among active Division I coaches.
Missouri State last season won 33 games and finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bears have aspirations of making the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. Minnestoa, meanwhile, hasn’t had a winning record since 2019 and face an uphill battle to give Anderson a storybook sendoff.
36. Will the first-time host streak continue?
In each of the last five NCAA Tournaments, there has been a team hosting regionals for the first time. There’s certainly some luck to that streak, but my prediction is that streak continues. Who will be this year’s first-time host? I’m going to say Duke. The Blue Devils were in the mix until late in the season a year ago and they have high expectations again this season. It’s more of a dart throw outside the major conferences (who saw Indiana State coming this time a year ago) but Troy could make some noise.
37. What teams that missed the 2023 NCAA Tournament are most likely to make it in 2024?
Any of the snubs – Arizona State, Kansas State, Southern California, UC Irvine – could pretty easily flip the script. Let’s look beyond them. Texas State is old and should again be competitive in a strong Sun Belt. UCLA can’t possibly have as much bad injury luck as it did a year ago. Texas-San Antonio is going to break through one of these years and should get a bit of a boost from its move into the American Athletic Conference. And I’ll say Mississippi gets back on track after last season’s brutal disappointment.
What are six Opening Day matchups to get excited about?
38. Duke vs. Indiana (Myrtle Beach, S.C.). The Hoosiers and Blue Devils will meet as a part of Coastal Carolina’s Baseball at the Beach Tournament and, with an 11 a.m. ET first pitch, will get the day started with a bang. Indiana is perhaps the Big Ten favorite, while Duke is aiming to break through to the CWS after last season’s super regional appearance.
39. Northeastern at Arizona. The Huskies will be a very intriguing team to watch this season as they aim to make back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since 1972-73 and outfielder Mike Sirota tries to become just the third first-round pick in program history. An Opening Weekend trip to Tucson will be a great first test.
40. Tennessee vs. Texas Tech (Arlington, Texas). The annual Opening Weekend tournament hosted by the Rangers is now called the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic (previously the name for the showcase third-weekend tournament hosted by the Astros) and it gets a marquee opening night game. The Volunteers bring plenty of excitement into 2024 thanks to players like righthander Drew Beam and infielders Billy Amick and Christian Moore. Texas Tech is led by catcher Kevin Bazzell.
41. UC Santa Barbara at Campbell. UCSB crosses the country for one of Opening Weekend’s longest trips and a showdown between two of the best mid-major programs. The Camels are coming off perhaps the best season in program history that saw them go 46-15 and reach the Columbia Regional final. The Gauchos last year missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four seasons but are looking to bounce back behind a typically stout pitching staff.
42. Cal State Fullerton at Stanford. A traditional Opening Weekend rivalry is renewed at Sunken Diamond. The Cardinal have some key losses to overcome from last year’s CWS team, but again look ready to contend in the Pac-12. The Titans last season reached the NCAA Tournament, their first appearance since 2018, and now will look to build on that success.
43. California vs. Kansas State (Scottsdale, Ariz.). As a part of the MLB Desert Invitational, the Golden Bears and Wildcats will meet at Salt River Field, the spring training home of the D-backs and Rockies. Not only is it an intriguing matchup of teams with aspirations for regionals, it also should be a big draw for scouts. Each team has two players that are projected to be drafted in the top two rounds this fall – K-State third baseman Kaelen Culpepper and closer Tyson Neighbors and Cal catcher Caleb Lomavita and outfielder Rodney Green Jr.
44. Selection Monday (and Memorial Day) are 146 days away. It’ll be here before you know it. While we’re on the subject, there are 164 days until the College World Series begins. Make your travel plans now.
45. Who are the eight teams that really need to be making Omaha travel plans? My first Eight for Omaha of the year: Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Oregon State, Texas, TCU, Virginia and Wake Forest.