At the conclusion of the College World Series, Baseball America annually looks ahead to the next year’s NCAA Tournament to make predictions for what the Omaha field will look like. With this year’s CWS cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, we’re doing so today, on the day after what would have been Selection Monday had the 2020 season not been prematurely halted.
Making predictions a year in advance for any sport isn’t easy and this year’s complications present some significant challenges. College teams annually must navigate the draft with both their own players and recruits. This year’s shortened draft (five rounds, down from the usual 40) means fewer players will be lost to the professional ranks, but uncertainty will remain until the signing deadline passes Aug. 1. A much different landscape this summer (and possibly fall) make forecasting player development more difficult.
We’ve already taken a stab at predicting next season’s Top 25 and will continue to update that throughout the offseason. But, for now, with 388 days until the 2021 College World Series begins, here’s a projection of how the Omaha field will take shape.
The Gators this spring raced out to their best start in program history, were the last undefeated team in the country and were ranked No. 1 at 16-1 headed into SEC play when the season was halted. From that team, Florida is likely to lose the 1-2 punch of righthanders Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich, who both project to be drafted next month. But those may be its only significant losses and it’s the early top-ranked team in the 2021 Top 25. Outfielders Jud Fabian and Jacob Young will lead a lineup that also returns shortstop Josh Rivera and catcher Nathan Hickey, giving it strength up the middle. Lefthander Hunter Barco can take over at the front of the rotation, and Florida has a wealth of impressive arms beyond him, including Tyler Nesbit, Christian Scott, Ben Specht and Brandon Sproat. With another elite recruiting class on the way, the Gators will have everything they need to break in their new stadium in style and make a return to the CWS.
It’s easy to dream big about the 2021 Tigers. They’ll have to replace outfielder Daniel Cabrera and righthander Cole Henry is also expected to be drafted, though he perhaps has a bit more to consider as an eligible sophomore in a college-pitching-rich draft class. But LSU will benefit from a fully healthy righthander Jaden Hill, who could be an electric Friday starter, to go with righthanders AJ Labas and Landon Marceaux in what should be a formidable rotation. Except for Cabrera, the offense should return pretty well intact, led by Cade Beloso, Cade Doughty and Gavin Dugas. LSU will also have the benefit of a strong recruiting class and getting shortstop Zach Arnold healthy, after he missed the start of the 2020 season. If LSU’s pitching lives up to its potential, it could be a fun spring in Baton Rouge.
Louisville’s biggest strength this season was on the mound, where Reid Detmers, Bobby Miller and Luke Smith formed one of the best rotations in the country and closer Michael Kirian anchored the bullpen. Those four pitchers may all be moving on to pro ball this summer, however, leaving the Cardinals’ pitching more of an unknown in 2021. While Louisville will have a new look on the mound, it will have one of the nation’s best offensive cores. Third baseman Alex Binelas, catcher Henry Davis and outfielder Levi Usher could all be first-rounders in 2021. That lineup could be even better if the draft breaks well for the Cardinals. With righthander Jack Perkins returning from Tommy John surgery, lefthander Michael Prosecky ready to move into the rotation and a strong group of pitchers in its recruiting class, Louisville will have enough on the mound for pitching coach Roger Williams to work with. Between Louisville’s recruiting and player development prowess, another Omaha trip could well be in the cards.
The Rebels were one of this year’s early-season surprises as they didn’t miss a beat despite some significant losses from their 2019 super regional team. They won’t sneak up on anyone in 2021, however. Lefthander Doug Nikhazy and righthander Gunnar Hoglund will form one of the best 1-2 punches in the country, with righthander Derek Diamond rounding out the rotation and closer Braden Forsyth will be back to anchor a deep bullpen. Offensively, Ole Miss will have to replace shortstop Anthony Servideo and possibly third baseman Tyler Keenan, its top two hitters, but it has plenty of depth in players like infielder Peyton Chatagnier and Hayden Leatherwood, in addition to a solid incoming recruiting class. The pieces all remain for the Rebels to make a deep run next June.
It might sound trite to say that Texas Tech is at the point where it just reloads rather than rebuilds, but the evidence is inarguable. Year after year, Tech puts its most talented players into pro baseball and graduates productive seniors, and every year, it comes back as the team to beat in the Big 12. So why should that be any different in a year when they should get just about everyone back? Righthander Clayton Beeter emerged as an ace early in the 2020 season and his potential departure will be a tough one to swallow. However, there’s still a talented core on the mound set to return, led by righthanders Micah Dallas and Hunter Dobbins, and lefthanders Mason Montgomery and Jakob Brustoski. And there’s little reason to worry about the offense. Not only do the Red Raiders always hit, but they’re not expected to lose anyone of consequence in the lineup, unless senior second baseman Brian Klein decides to move on. Texas Tech has a massive recruiting class scheduled to enroll this year, and that should make competition in the preseason fierce.
The Bruins were the No. 1 overall seed in the 2019 NCAA Tournament and didn’t miss a beat in 2020, even after losing a dozen players in the draft. Outfielder Garrett Mitchell is projected to be a first-round pick next month, but UCLA’s list of departures to pro ball will be much shorter this summer. Among the returners will be shortstop Matt McLain, who this spring lived up to his star potential to lead a young lineup. The Bruins could return their rotation intact and they also have plenty of depth in the bullpen. UCLA is poised to add another impressive recruiting class, which will only serve to deepen its roster. UCLA looks like the clear Pac-12 favorite and will be well-positioned to make its first trip to Omaha since its 2013 national championship.
The Commodores are going to sustain significant losses to the draft, starting with All-American Austin Martin, who is in consideration to be the first overall pick. Lefthander Jake Eder and righthander Mason Hickman lead a cadre of pitchers who will draw interest. But despite all of that, Vanderbilt will again be formidable in 2021. Righthanders Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter will form perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the country at the front of the rotation and closer Tyler Brown, who would be in the draft mix, has already said he wants to return. Those frontline arms will match up with anyone in the country. Beyond them, the Commodores are going to need their young hitters to take a step forward. Shortstop Carter Young impressed as a freshman and outfielder Isaiah Thomas showed off some power. Without Martin, it will be imperative that Vanderbilt find a new offensive focal point. But with its premium pitching, it won’t need to outslug opponents often to reach Omaha.
This might seem like a bold prediction for a program that hasn’t been to the postseason at all since 2017, but that’s how impressive the assembled talent is on the Virginia roster, and it’s no small thing that it looked like a much improved team in 2020 already. Righthander Mike Vasil, lefthander Nate Savino and outfielder Chris Newell are all the type of players that you typically expect to move from high school to pro baseball rather than college, but instead, they’re all in Charlottesville and ready to star in 2021. Righthander Nick Bitsko, a reclassified 2020 high school graduate, very well could join them if the draft doesn’t go his way. But it’s not just a handful of excellent talents that elevates the Cavaliers to this level. The roster is also littered with productive veteran players like outfielder/catcher Brendan Rivoli, first baseman Devin Ortiz and righthander Griff McGarry. The stars appear to be aligning for Virginia to make a return to the CWS in 2021.
Eight More For Super Regionals
Arizona, Arkansas, Duke, Florida State, Michigan, Mississippi State, Oklahoma, Texas
Notably, from this group, Arizona, Florida State and Texas all were strongly considered for the Omaha field. Florida State has already gotten good draft news, as outfielder Reese Albert declared his intention to return to Tallahassee and not sign out of the draft. Arizona and Texas both have promising young rosters that, with another year of development, could have them pushing back to national prominence in 2021. Michigan, the 2019 national runner-up, had an up-and-down start to 2020, but should benefit from a five-round draft, with only ace Jeff Criswell seeming like a lock to go to pro ball. Even with a few other departures, the Wolverines should still have an experienced lineup to go with a rotation fronted by Steve Hajjar, a likely first-round pick in 2021. Oklahoma, meanwhile, has serious Omaha aspirations if it gets some draft luck, especially among its starting pitchers. Getting either Dane Acker or Levi Prater (or both) to return to campus would be a nice boost to the Sooners. Duke must replace ace Bryce Jarvis, but largely has a young team otherwise that had pushed into the top 10 this spring. Arkansas and Mississippi State will both face difficult losses in the draft, especially in their lineups, but the way they recruit and develop players, reloading in 2021 will be the expectation.