Image credit: Vanderbilt RHP Jack Leiter (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt)
There are few things more enjoyable in college baseball than witnessing a breakout season. Whether it’s a player bouncing back after a tough start to his career, one taking on a new, expanded role on the team or simply someone taking a big step forward, these types of seasons are usually catalysts for changing a team’s trajectory in a given year or a player’s career outlook.
There were a few notable breakouts in 2020. Clemson lefthander Sam Weatherly, Notre Dame infielder Niko Kavadas and Mississippi shortstop Anthony Servideo stand out as three of the most prominent examples. But the shortened season did rob us of seeing many more over the course of the entire campaign.
The silver lining, however, is that the 2021 season promises to be filled with them. The sport is not only as talented across the board as it has ever been, but players will also look to pick up where they left off when games were halted in March.
This week, we ranked the top 25 breakout candidates to watch in college baseball next season. Some of these players were on a breakout path before the 2020 season was cut short. Some have been limited by injury. Some are now being asked to shoulder a new, bigger role. And some are just showing signs that they are primed for a breakthrough in 2021. No matter the scenario, they’re all players worth watching next spring.
1. Jack Leiter, Vanderbilt
The No. 2 college prospect for the 2021 draft behind only teammate Kumar Rocker, Leiter is no stranger to college baseball fans, but his track record so far is fairly limited, with just 15.2 innings to his name. He was very good in those innings as a freshman, striking out 22 and putting up a 1.72 ERA, but if he is to live up to his prospect standing, he’ll take a further step forward.
2. Jaden Hill, Louisiana State
Over two seasons, Hill has thrown just 21.2 innings with Louisiana State, so it’s tough to make too many definitive statements about what he has or hasn’t accomplished to this point. But what you can definitively say is that his stuff is among the best in college baseball. He has a fastball that can reach the high 90s, a devastating slider, a cutter that pairs well with both of those offerings and a changeup that was actually his best secondary pitch coming out of high school. He’ll be tasked with leading the LSU rotation in 2021.
3. Nate Savino, Virginia
Savino, who graduated high school a semester early to enroll at Virginia in January 2020, was just getting going when the spring season was canceled. In his final appearance, he earned his first win as a college pitcher in a series-clinching victory over North Carolina State. In 2021, he’ll be looked to as a potential ace of the rotation, working with a fastball that can reach the mid 90s, plus a quality slider and changeup.
4. Isaiah Thomas, Vanderbilt
Thomas started to show signs of breaking out during the 2020 season. In the finale of Vanderbilt’s series against Hawaii in March, he went 3-for-6 with two home runs, including a three-run walk-off shot. A .300/.349/.590 career hitter in 37 games over two seasons, Thomas shined again in the team’s fall world series and he’ll go into the 2021 season as the likely focal point of a Commodores’ offense that will no longer feature Austin Martin.
5. Richard Fitts, Auburn
Auburn needs a pitcher to step up at the front of the rotation to replace the departed Tanner Burns, and with his performance in the fall, Fitts set himself up to be that guy. A third-year sophomore, Fitts has been a swingman for the Tigers the last two seasons, but he spent fall practice firing fastballs up to 98 mph and could be one of the top arms in the SEC in 2021.
6. Glenn Albanese, Louisville
After logging just 18.1 innings through two seasons (plus a redshirt season as a true freshman), Albanese, a fourth-year sophomore, made a jump and now looks poised for a starring role on the pitching staff. In fact, Louisville coach Dan McDonnell was effusive in his praise for Albanese this fall and the improvement in his stuff, which now includes a fastball that sits in the mid 90s and touches the high 90s. Don’t be surprised if the righthander ends up taking over on Friday nights for the Cardinals.
7. Brooks Lee, Cal Poly
After fearing originally that a hamstring injury was going to cost him most or all of his freshman season at Cal Poly, Lee worked hard to return in March, only to have his season end after two games due to the pandemic. Now, he’ll look to break out as a star in 2021 instead. The shortstop projects to be one of the best pure hitters on the West Coast and a solid defender at a premium position for the Mustangs.
8. Austin Krob, Texas Christian
The Horned Frogs are in the enviable position of being able to have the same weekend rotation in 2021 as they did last season, but they probably won’t due to the emergence of lefthander Austin Krob as a potential breakout star. TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle says that he anticipates that Krob will be in the rotation come February and that he has a chance to be as good as some of the best TCU lefties from past years like Matt Purke, Brandon Finnegan and Nick Lodolo.
9. Nick Nastrini, UCLA
An injury and the shortened 2020 season have limited Nastrini to just 35.1 innings over the last two seasons. He was outstanding in five appearances as a freshman before struggling a bit as the team’s Saturday starter last year to the tune of a 4.60 ERA. But he pitched well in his stint in the Cape Cod League in 2019 and he has arguably the highest upside of any pitcher UCLA will evaluate for the starting rotation before next season. If he puts it all together in 2021, he can be one of the best arms in the Pac-12.
10. Brennan Milone, South Carolina
The highest-ranked position player from South Carolina’s 2019 recruiting class, Milone was limited to just five games due to injury last season and he struggled in that small sample size, with just two hits in 13 at-bats. The South Carolina coaching staff sees Milone as the team’s best hitter, though, and will look for him to be a key piece of the lineup in 2021.
11. Jonathan Cannon, Georgia
On a pitching staff that featured elite draft prospects like Emerson Hancock and Cole Wilcox, Cannon didn’t get much of a chance to shine as a freshman in 2020, throwing just 11.1 innings in relief. It will be a different story in 2021, when Cannon will be expected to move into the Georgia rotation. With good command of a four-pitch mix that includes a fastball that touches the mid 90s and a plus changeup, he has the stuff to take to the role well.
12. Tim Elko, Mississippi
Elko was on his way to a breakout 2020 campaign in the Ole Miss outfield. Now, he’ll move to third base to replace Tyler Keenan and take on a more central role in the offense. The righthanded hitter has a big, powerful frame and the raw power to take over in the middle of the Rebels’ lineup.
13. Will Bednar, Mississippi State
Bednar was great in 15.1 innings in his true freshman season in 2020, putting up a 1.76 ERA and striking out 23 batters, but that was mostly in a long relief role. Going into 2021, the Bulldogs will look to him to step into the weekend rotation alongside lefthander Christian Macleod and righthander Eric Cerantola, leaning on his four-pitch mix that features a fastball that typically sits in the low 90s.
14. Troy Melton, San Diego State
Coming off of throwing just 2.2 innings as a freshman in 2019, Melton was a relative unknown going into 2020. Now, he’ll go into 2021 as one of the best arms on the West Coast after he showed signs of a breakout last season by striking out 26 in 22.1 innings of work thanks in large part to a fastball that can reach the mid 90s. The next challenge will be for Melton to have that type of success over the course of a full season now that the book on him is beginning to develop.
15. Brock Jones, Stanford
Jones came to Stanford last year as a two-sport athlete, playing defensive back for the football team and outfield for the baseball team. He quit football this year to focus on baseball and he could tap into some of his upside on the diamond following that change. He’s an excellent athlete with plus speed and a powerful lefthanded bat.
16. Parker Messick, Florida State
Messick last spring impressed as a reliever as a true freshman, going 1-1, 0.77 with 19 strikeouts and two walks in 11.2 innings. Now, after Florida State lost a pair of starters in the draft, he’s in position to move into the rotation. His low-90s fastball pairs well with his curveball and changeup, a combination that will make him dangerous for the Seminoles.
17. Cullen Smith, Arkansas
Smith is bound to be overshadowed in the Arkansas lineup by star players like outfielder Christian Franklin and second baseman Robert Moore, but he has worked hard to put himself in position to be a key contributor in 2021. He transferred from East Tennessee State after the 2019 season in search of a chance to play in the SEC and he’ll get that next season. Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn was quick to praise Smith coming out of the fall after he led the team in batting average and on-base percentage, and it appears that he’s worked his way into a significant role.
18. Kris Armstrong, Florida
Armstrong, a third-year sophomore, came to Florida as a two-way player but has since given up pitching. He had a standout fall at the plate and will get in the mix at first base. He’s a switch-hitter with a strong 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame and could be an impact bat for the Gators, though he’ll have to break into one of the deepest lineups in college baseball.
19. Ben Casparius, Connecticut
In 2018, Casparius was starting at third base for North Carolina in the College World Series. Three years later, after transferring back home to play for Connecticut, Casparius will find himself in a very different role—that of a Friday starter for a Huskies team that expects to be in a regional again in 2021. With a four-pitch mix headlined by a fastball that has been up to 95 mph, Casparius has the stuff to get the job done.
20. J.P. Massey, Minnesota
With Max Meyer drafted third overall in June, Minnesota is on the lookout for a pitcher to front the weekend rotation next season, and Massey is the clear frontrunner for the job. A third-year sophomore, Massey’s first two seasons have been a mixed bag, with a 5.08 ERA in 44.1 career innings, but his stuff, including a mid-90s fastball and an above-average slider, is that of a frontline starter, especially if he can throw more strikes.
21. McCade Brown, Indiana
Stuff has never been a question for Brown, but he’s yet to put it all together in the spring for the Hoosiers. In 6.2 innings, he has a 14.86 ERA and walks have been a real issue. But the righthander seemed to turn a corner this past summer in the Kernels Collegiate League, where he gave up just five hits and struck out 50 batters in 22.2 innings, leading with a fastball that reaches the mid 90s. He’ll bring an electricity to the Friday night role that Indiana hasn’t had in some time, with a chance to be one of the best in the Big Ten if it all clicks.
22. Luca Tresh, North Carolina State
Tresh has already broken out as a hitter, as evidenced by a .405/.444/.690 slash line during the shortened 2020 season, but in 2021, he’ll also be taking over as the full-time catcher after Patrick Bailey was drafted in the first round, and that’s a new role for him. NC State coach Elliott Avent said in the fall that the Wolfpack coaching staff and the scouting community have been pleasantly surprised with Tresh’s ability behind the plate, but his challenge will be consistency at the position all season and maintaining the same level of offensive productivity while dealing with the rigors of catching a full season.
23. Bryce Osmond, Oklahoma State
One of the best prospects to arrive in college baseball last year, Osmond went through an up-and-down freshman campaign in 2020, but it appeared he was settling in as the season abruptly ended. The hard-throwing righthander might defer to veteran lefthander Parker Scott as OSU’s Friday starter in 2021, but he’s almost certainly the pitcher with the highest ceiling on the staff, with a fastball up to 96 mph and a plus slider.
24. Sean Sullivan, California
Sullivan put up a 5.88 ERA as a freshman in 2019, mostly as a reliever. In 2020, he battled back from an injury suffered in the preseason to throw 5.2 innings across two starts. Going into 2021, he’s expected to lead the Cal rotation alongside fellow righthander Grant Holman. The small sample of 2020, plus a solid showing in the Cape Cod League in 2019, gives Sullivan a quality recent track record, but the next step will be doing it over a full season for the Bears next season.
25. Jordan Beck, Tennessee
Beck had a solid freshman season in 2020, hitting .275/.396/.475, but there’s potential for him to be a superstar. In fact, Tennessee coach Tony Vitello thinks he has it in him to be a first-round pick in the 2022 draft. If Beck taps into that potential next season, the Volunteers could have one of the deepest lineups in the SEC.