Eight For Omaha In 2019
Oregon State last week won its third national championship in program history, coming back in dramatic fashion to beat Arkansas in the College World Series finals. The Beavers didn’t make things easy in Omaha but in the end fulfilled their potential by pushing through the losers’ bracket to claim the title.
The 2018 NCAA Tournament had some real Cinderella stories as Stetson and Tennessee Tech reached super regionals for the first time in program history. But by the time it got to Omaha, the tournament had stripped away all the upstarts, leaving a field composed mostly of blue bloods.
At the conclusion of the finals every year, Baseball America looks ahead to the next year’s CWS. From our predictions at the end of 2017, we correctly picked five of the eight teams in the field, including the final two teams – Arkansas and Oregon State. Florida, the No. 1 national seed, was also correctly picked to reach Omaha, as well as North Carolina and Texas Tech, while Texas was listed among the projected super regional participants. But Mississippi State and Washington came from off the board to reach the CWS.
Still, 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 6, 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 rankings in January will look a bit different from this far-too-early list. But it makes for a fun thought exercise as we ponder seven months without college baseball games that count.
At this point, Florida must be considered a national title contender until it proves otherwise. The Gators have a lot to replace, beginning with starters Brady Singer, the College Player of the Year, and Jackson Kowar, also a first-round pick. All-American third baseman Jonathan India, the fifth overall pick in the draft, and catcher J.J. Schwarz, a mainstay in the lineup for the last four years, will also move on to pro ball. But Florida still has loads of talent returning. Talented underclassmen pitchers Jordan Butler, Tyler Dyson, Jack Leftwich, Tommy Mace and Hunter Ruth will give coach Kevin O’Sullivan plenty of firepower on the mound, whether or not two-time All-American closer Michael Byrne returns for his senior year. The Gators will have a new-look offense but rising junior outfielders Wil Dalton and Austin Langworthy make for a good start and catcher/infielder Brady Smith broke out in the postseason. If DH Nelson Maldonado returns for his senior year and shortstop Brady McConnell can take a step forward in his sophomore year, the Gators can again be formidable offensively. All of that gives Florida a chance to be the first team to make it to Omaha five consecutive years since Stanford did so from 1999-2003.
The Seminoles this year had the talent to make a deep postseason run but instead crashed out of the NCAA Tournament after going 0-2 in a home regional. Following that loss, legendary coach Mike Martin announced that next year will be his final season before retiring. That gives the Seminoles one final chance to make a run at the national championship that has so long eluded the program. Florida State has some big pieces to replace, including All-American catcher Cal Raleigh and starters Andrew Karp and Cole Sands. But it returns toolsy third baseman Drew Mendoza, who has the potential to be one of the best players in the country, and a talented group of rising sophomores, which includes outfielder Reese Albert and righthander C.J. Van Eyk. Joining that group is shortstop Nander De Sedas, who figures to be one of the highest ranked position players to make it to campus. That core will again make the Seminoles one of the favorites in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Tigers this year took a step back after finishing as runners up in the 2017 CWS, but figure to bounce back strong in 2019. LSU had perhaps the best draft of any college program as it will return a trio of its top draft-eligible players – righthander Zack Hess and outfielders Antoine Duplantis and Zach Watson – and it shepherded another strong recruiting class to Baton Rouge. In addition, shortstop Josh Smith and righthander Eric Walker who both missed all or most of this year due to injuries are expected to return to action. With Hess, Walker and Ma’Khail Hilliard back in the rotation and Todd Peterson at the back of the bullpen, LSU will have an experienced pitching staff to go with a potent lineup. It still needs some arms to step up – Hess was inconsistent on Friday nights, Walker is coming back from Tommy John surgery and Hilliard is an unconventional SEC starter – but the pieces are there for coach Paul Mainieri to shape into a title contender.
The Tar Heels won the ACC regular season title and advanced to the CWS for the first time since 2013. And they did it with a team full of underclassmen. North Carolina gets back five regulars from its lineup and key pitchers such as Gianluca Dalatri, Austin Bergner, Tyler Baum, Josh Hiatt and Caden O’Brien. UNC does lose Cooper Criswell, who stepped up at the front of UNC’s rotation when Dalatri was out for much of the year due to injury, and leading hitter Kyle Datres. The Tar Heels need Baum and Bergner to take a step forward and for Dalatri to stay healthy. If they’re able to do that, UNC will have one of the best rotations in the country. The Tar Heels’ offense this spring wasn’t flashy and doesn’t figure to be next year either, but it averaged more than seven runs per game. That potent combination has the potential to next year carry UNC a long way.
In Dave Esquer’s first season back on The Farm, the Cardinal won the Pac-12 Conference and earned the No. 2 national seed. But the season came to a disappointing end when Stanford couldn’t get past Cal State Fullerton in the Stanford Regional. That ending will next season fuel the Cardinal, who must replace a few key pieces, but otherwise return the bulk of this season’s team. The losses are not insignificant – starting pitchers Tristan Beck and Kris Bubic and shortstop Nico Hoerner leave a big hole – but they are few in number. Stanford has a strong core back on the mound in All-American closer Jack Little, setup man Jacob Palisch and starters Brendan Beck and Erik Miller. The Cardinal’s emphasis on pitching and defense means its offense never has to carry the load, but it will need a couple more hitters to step up and join leading returners Andrew Dashbach and Tim Tawa. If that happens, Stanford can make a run at repeating as conference champion for the first time in 15 years.
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The Big 12 Conference next year looks to be the most wide open of the six biggest conferences but no matter what team rises to the top, it figures to be Omaha caliber. Texas Tech gets the nod here thanks to its experience (three CWS trips in five years) and its returning offense, anchored by All-American third baseman Josh Jung and leadoff hitter Gabe Holt. Texas Tech’s pitching is a little more unsettled, however. Seven Red Raiders pitchers were drafted last month and four are definitely headed for pro ball. Hanging on to the unsigned trio of Ty Harpenau, Caleb Killian and Davis Martin would be significant for Texas Tech, which also returns power-armed John McMillon. Texas Tech will also welcome another strong recruiting class to Lubbock. If Tim Tadlock can put the pieces together, the Red Raiders will again be formidable.
The Bruins this year fielded a team largely composed of exciting underclassmen who should make for an imposing group in 2019. Rising juniors Chase Strumpf, Michael Toglia and Jeremy Ydens form a strong offensive core and a healthy season from Garrett Mitchell would add another dynamic player to the lineup. John Savage never seems to run out of pitching, but the staff enters next year with more questions marks than the lineup. Zach Pettway is coming off an excellent freshman season and Ryan Garcia stepped up to join the rotation, but they will need help. Justin Hooper and Kyle Molnar are both coming off Tommy John surgery and would be key additions if they can recapture their previous forms. Oregon State, typically a pitching heavy team, this year showed a path through the Pac-12 to the national title led by its bats instead of its arms. Maybe UCLA can replicate that success in 2019.
The Commodores this year had the look of a team one year away and nearly made it to Omaha anyway. Their biggest piece to replace is shortstop Connor Kaiser and they’re on track for another elite recruiting class, headlined by righthander Kumar Rocker, who will be the highest ranked player in this year’s draft class not to sign. Vanderbilt figures to return every starter except Kaiser and seven of the 10 pitchers who threw at least 20 innings. Key among the returners are outfielders J.J. Bleday and Austin Martin and starting pitchers Drake Fellows and Patrick Raby. Sorting out the bullpen will be a priority as the Commodores this spring never settled on a closer and lost two of their top relievers to the draft. But with so much talent returning and arriving in Nashville, Tim Corbin will have plenty of options to work through during the season. Whatever lineup and pitching plan he settles on figures to be one of the most talented in the nation.
Eight more for super regionals: Baylor, East Carolina, Georgia, Louisville, Michigan, Mississippi State, Oregon State, UC Irvine.