Eight For Omaha In 2020
Vanderbilt last week won its second national championship in six years, defeating Michigan in the College World Series finals to complete a historic season. The Commodores won an SEC-record 59 games and became the first team since 1996 Louisiana State to rank No. 1 in both the Preseason Top 25 and the Final Top 25.
At the conclusion of the finals every year, Baseball America looks ahead to the next year’s College World Series. From those predictions at the end of 2018, I correctly picked just three of the eight teams in this year’s field—Florida State, Texas Tech and Vanderbilt. Three more—Louisville, Michigan and Mississippi State—were listed among super regional participants. In addition, four of the other teams in last year’s Eight for Omaha made it to super regionals—LSU, North Carolina, Stanford and UCLA.
Making predictions a year in advance for any sport isn’t easy and college baseball presents its own unique challenges. The draft changes the complexion of teams every year and while many players have already signed, until the deadline passes on July 12, surprises can still dramatically alter the landscape. Even then, player development and injuries will continue to shape teams throughout the summer and fall.
All that means our Preseason Top 25 will look a bit different than this list. But, now, with less than 350 days until the 2020 College World Series, here’s who I think will be making the trip to Omaha.
The Sun Devils returned to the NCAA Tournament this season after a two-year absence. Now, they’ll take aim at their first trip to Omaha since 2010. Arizona State returns an ultra-talented rising junior class headlined by All-American slugger Spencer Torkelson and shortstop Alika Williams, both of whom are this summer playing for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. The Sun Devils will have to replace outfielder Hunter Bishop, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2019 draft, and ace Alec Marsh, the 70th overall pick, but the bulk of this year’s team was underclassmen. Righthander Boyd Vander Koi will team with righthander Tyler Thornton, who transferred to Arizona State from Saint Mary’s after earning Freshman All-American honors. Arizona State will have to shore up its bullpen, but it has the offensive firepower and defensive prowess to truly return to the national stage.
Every year under Butch Thompson, Auburn has taken another step forward. It won’t be easy for the Tigers to do that again next year having this year reached the College World Series for the first time since 1997. But with righthander Tanner Burns and lefthander Jack Owens at the front of its rotation and a strong returning core in its lineup, they have the makings of another standout team. Auburn will need to develop more depth on its pitching staff and to keep Burns healthy next season. Its offense will also need to take a step forward, which would be accelerated by a return to the form sluggers Edouard Julien and Steven Williams showed as freshmen. Auburn has been a year ahead of schedule every step of the way in the Thompson era. Now it will have to show it can handle heightened expectations.
The Bulldogs have been a top-eight national seed in each of the last two seasons but haven’t been able to win the Athens Regionals either time. Now, Georgia will enter 2020 expected to take the next step and return to the College World Series for the first time since 2008. Righthanders Emerson Hancock and Cole Wilcox both could be top-10 picks next year and give the Bulldogs one of the best rotations in the country. Georgia also got a big boost when shortstop Cam Shepherd announced he would not sign and instead will return to school for his senior year, giving it one of the best defenders in the country to anchor its infield. The Bulldogs must find more offense, particularly with All-American third baseman/closer Aaron Schunk moving on to pro ball. Schunk’s departure also leaves a hole in the bullpen, but Georgia has plenty of pitching and will remain strong defensively. This is a group ready to take the next step.
The Cardinals have been one of the most consistent teams in the country under coach Dan McDonnell, and after reaching the bracket final in Omaha for the first time in program history, they’re well-positioned for a return in 2020. Lefthander Reid Detmers and righthander Bobby Miller will be one of the best 1-2 punches for any rotation in the country, and righthander Luke Smith showed in Omaha that Louisville could have one of the best Sunday starters in the nation next year. The Cardinals also had a strong freshman class this spring, led by third baseman Alex Binelas and catcher Henry Davis, both of whom will be back in key positions next season. Louisville also has a strong tradition of bringing along its high-profile recruits later in its career and several other members of its 2018 recruiting class can be expected to make a jump in the next year. Louisville must replace shortstop Tyler Fitzgerald and first baseman Logan Wyatt, two key members of its lineup the last few years. With a standout rotation and a talented lineup, the Cardinals again look like the ACC favorites.
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The Hurricanes returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in two years under first-year coach Gino DiMare. They were a young team in 2019 and will return several key pieces next year. Shortstop Freddy Zamora and third baseman Raymond Gil give Miami a strong left side of the infield, and outfielder/catcher Adrian Del Castillo and first baseman Alex Toral provide two more big bats in the lineup. Starters Slade Cecconi and Brian Van Belle return, and along with a healthy season from Chris McMahon, could form a high-end rotation. Miami has to replace half of its two-headed relief monster as Greg Veliz moves on to pro ball, but Daniel Federman returns. The Hurricanes will have to prove they can do it on a premium level, but the talent is there for them to take that step forward.
The Wolverines made a magical run to Omaha and expecting them to replicate it seems aggressive when they lose co-aces Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffmann and right fielder Jordan Brewer, the Big Ten player of the year. But Michigan was a 40-win team coming into the NCAA Tournament and learned lessons in June that it should be able to apply throughout next season. Beyond that, the Wolverines return a lot of talent. Righthander Jeff Criswell and lefthander Ben Dragani, who excelled as a freshman but missed this spring while he recovered from Tommy John surgery, will anchor the rotation. Michigan is strong up the middle with catcher Joe Donovan, shortstop Jack Blomgren and center fielder Jesse Franklin all returning. All three, as well as Criswell and Dragani, were a part of Michigan’s hailed 2017 recruiting class, and are more than ready to next year carry the Wolverines forward. They’ve continued to recruit well since then as well, and they should have enough complementary pieces around them for another Omaha trip.
The Red Raiders have made three trips to Omaha in the last four years and they’ll be set up well for another one in 2020. Texas Tech must replace shortstop Josh Jung, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2019 draft, as well as outfielder Gabe Holt and first baseman Cam Warren. Texas Tech also loses power arms Caleb Killian and John McMillon. While that feels like a lot, Texas Tech still has a lot of talent returning. Righthanders Micah Dallas and Bryce Bonnin, who bookended the rotation, return, as does righthander Clayton Beeter, a Freshman All-American reliever. The Red Raiders will need to reload offensively and losing a program cornerstone like Jung is particularly challenging. But second baseman Brian Klein and outfielder/infielder Dylan Neuse return and Texas Tech has talented players ready to step into larger roles such as Max Marusak and Tanner O’Tremba. The Red Raiders will be the Big 12 favorites again next year, which should put them on track to at least host a regional, if not earn a top-eight seed and home-field advantage until the College World Series.
The last time the Commodores won the national championship, they were ranked No. 1 in the Preseason Top 25 the following year. They may well repeat that in 2020 as they will say goodbye to a lot of talent, including a formidable senior class, but also return several key pieces of their roster. Among those departing are outfielder JJ Bleday, the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, righthander Drake Fellows, shortstop Ethan Paul and slugger Steven Scott. But the Commodores bring back righthander Kumar Rocker, the 2019 Freshman of the Year and College World Series Most Outstanding Player, to anchor their pitching staff, as well as righthander Mason Hickman, who won the final game in Omaha, and closer Tyler Brown. Leading hitter Austin Martin returns and should slide over to shortstop, where he could give the Commodores a top-five pick for the second year in a row. Vanderbilt’s draft-eligible sophomores Phillip Clarke, Pat DeMarco and Joe Gobillot have some choices to make, with Clarke the most likely to sign after being picked in the ninth round. But regardless, the Commodores will have plenty of returning talent and another premium recruiting class on the way, headlined by righthander Jack Leiter, the son of former All-Star Al Leiter, who could join Rocker and Hickman in the rotation in short order. No matter how coach Tim Corbin lines it up, this will be a highly talented team again in 2020.
Eight More For Super Regionals
Arkansas, Coastal Carolina, Duke, Florida, Florida State, Louisiana State, Mississippi State, UCLA