Top 25 Seniors We Want To See In College Baseball In 2021
Two weeks ago, seniors across college baseball got the good news that they would be able to return for another season in 2021.
Deciding whether they want to return, and then determining whether their program will accept them back and at what aid level, could lead to different outcomes, but at the very least, there is no NCAA rule that will keep them all from being able to come back.
These are the top 25 seniors we want to see back on the field in a college uniform next season.
1. Cam Shepherd, SS, Georgia
One of the most high-profile players to return for a senior season in 2020, Shepherd, a steady hand at a premium defensive position and a solid contributor with the bat, will have the opportunity to do so again for 2021.
Through four weeks of the 2020 season, he hit .268/.372/.493 with four homers and 21 RBI, both good for second on the team, and he was as good as advertised at short.
2. Landon Knack, RHP, East Tennessee State
Knack is among the least likely seniors on this list to return in 2021, because he used an abbreviated 2020 season to become a legitimate draft prospect, even in the face of the draft being shortened to as few as five rounds.
The righthander was a good pitcher for ETSU as a junior in 2019, going 9-4, 2.60 with 94 strikeouts in 97 innings of work, but he was on another level through four starts in 2020. He was 4-0, 1.08 with a 51-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings of work, featuring a fastball that reached the high 90s.
3. Brett Auerbach, 3B/C, Alabama
A versatile player and skilled hitter who enjoyed a breakout on the Cape in 2019, Auerbach was well on his way to ending his career with an exclamation point in 2020 and becoming a very enticing senior sign for some professional organization.
Perhaps Auerbach will still have that chance, even with a shortened draft, but if not, the Crimson Tide would certainly love to have back a guy who was hitting .388/.506/.642 with eight doubles, three home runs and 12 stolen bases in 14 attempts and who can play all over the diamond.
4. Brian Van Belle, RHP, Miami
Van Belle isn’t as famous as rotation mates Chris McMahon and Slade Cecconi, and he doesn’t have the stuff of those two either, but he has been the Hurricanes’ most consistent starter for the better part of two seasons.
After going 10-2, 3.30 a season ago, the righthander had a 0.68 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 26.1 innings in 2020, proving to be just as dominant as anyone on the Miami staff in that small sample size.
5. Luke Smith, RHP, Louisville
Pitching alongside lefthander Reid Detmers and righthander Bobby Miller, Smith was the third most famous member of the Louisville weekend rotation this season, but he was more than holding his own, going 3-0, 3.42.
With the expectation that Detmers and Miller will be off to pro baseball next season, getting Smith back for another season in 2021 would be a huge boon for the Cardinals.
6. Itchy Burts, 2B/OF, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Burts is probably best known for his unique name. After all, he has topped the Baseball America list of best names in college baseball for three years running.
But he’s also a serious baseball player. He hit .401 as a sophomore in 2018 and has a career .337 batting average in 576 at-bats. That’s the type of bat that any coach would love to have in his lineup for another season.
7. Kirby McMullen, 3B, Florida
One of the biggest catalysts for Florida’s run to the No. 1 spot in the rankings, McMullen emerged as a key piece of the lineup in 2020 after serving as a part-time player and a reliever through his first three seasons in the program.
He finished the season hitting .278/.458/.407 with four doubles, good for a tie for second on the club, and a team-leading 14 walks, which was a big part of the Gators showing impressive lineup depth. He’s already said he intends to return in 2021.
8. Brian Klein, 2B, Texas Tech
It would be hard to be as consistent and productive as Klein has been throughout his time in Lubbock. He’s a .320/.409/.467 career hitter with 49 doubles, and in the last three seasons, including 2020, he has walked more (98) than he has struck out (89). Additionally, he has committed just five career errors in 170 games.
He has to be disappointed that this season got cut short, as he was off to a scalding-hot start, hitting .409/.506/.606 with 10 doubles. If he returns in 2021, we should expect him to pick things right back up where he left off.
9. John McMillon, RHP, Texas Tech
The hard-throwing McMillon has done a little bit of everything for the Red Raiders throughout his career, but he has been at his best as a key reliever, as he was for all of a 2019 season that saw him limit opponents to a .201 batting average, and throughout 2020, when he struck out 20 in 9.1 innings.
McMillon has proven to be a poster boy for the Texas Tech pitching staffs of the last few years, which have emphasized putting the best arms in high-leverage spots rather than being married to pitchers slotted into rigid roles, and he should continue to pair nicely with fellow righthander Micah Dallas moving forward.
10. Kyle Mora, RHP, UCLA
A durable, dominant reliever in the mold of so many UCLA pitchers of the past, Mora has been a true workhorse for the Bruins. In 124.1 career innings spread over 96 appearances, he has a 2.10 ERA, 127 strikeouts and a .190 opponent batting average.
The 2020 season was shaping up to be his best yet, what with a 0.96 ERA, 15 strikeouts and a .194 opponent batting average in 9.1 innings. He had also yet to allow an extra-base hit. Getting Mora back for a fifth season in 2021 would be a great start for UCLA building up yet another monster of a pitching staff.
11. Carson McCusker, OF, Oklahoma State
McCusker, at 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds, cuts an imposing figure in the batter’s box, and throughout his Cowboys’ career, he has put up the numbers to match. He hit eight homers in just 129 at-bats in 2018, and then followed that up by leading the team in hitting with a .311 average in 2019.
He was off to a bit of a slow start in 2020, hitting .235 through four weeks, but with five doubles and two home runs, he had still hit for some power, and it was only a matter of time before he broke out. Now, that breakout will have to come in 2021.
12. Justin Dirden, OF, Southeast Missouri State
A product of Jefferson (Mo.) JC who began his career at East Carolina, Dirden has had an up-and-down go of it with the Redhawks. In 2018, he had a massive season, hitting .340/.437/.665 with 16 homers, but an encore performance in 2019 never got started, as he missed the entire season with injury.
Instead, that encore performance came in 2020, when Dirden was showing signs of being the same player he was in 2018. He finished the season hitting .414/.471/.900 with nine home runs, which was good for second in the country, behind only New Mexico State’s Nick Gonzales.
13. Peter Zimmerman, DH, Missouri
Missouri was ineligible for postseason play in 2020, but thanks to a talented roster, including Zimmerman, it was more than capable of playing spoiler within the SEC.
After hitting .287 with seven home runs in 2019, Zimmerman hit .333 with five home runs in the abbreviated 2020 season. Before the 2020 season, as a result of Mizzou’s NCAA sanctions, he had the chance to transfer somewhere else and play right away, but instead, he came back. Now, the Tigers will hope to have him back again in 2021.
14. Brandon Zaragoza, SS, Oklahoma
One of the best defensive shortstops in the country, and an underrated player nationally for his ability to play the position, Zaragoza is a joy to watch play defense.
That side of his game alone provides plenty of value to the Sooners, but he also has had his moments with the bat over four seasons. Zaragoza has already announced his intention to return to Norman for 2021, which will give the Sooners a great building block on the infield.
15. Duke Ellis, OF, Texas
Ellis is a catalyst atop the Texas lineup. He’s not a player you will look to for big power numbers, and in his first two seasons, he hasn’t boasted an eye-popping batting average, but he’s often on base, as evidenced by his career .409 on-base percentage, and with 40 career stolen bases, he can make things happen once he gets on.
Early returns suggest that the 2020 season could have been his best yet, as the season ended with him hitting .302/.441/.377, which all would have been career-best figures, plus seven stolen bases, which was on pace to be his highest total in a single season.
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16. Antonio Velez, LHP, Florida State
In just two seasons at FSU, Velez established a reputation as a pitcher who would come up big in the biggest moments. The best outing of his 2019 season, for example, might have come in the super regional against Louisiana State, as the lefty threw 4.2 scoreless innings with six strikeouts.
He continued that in the small sample that was the 2020 season. In his last outing of the season, a midweek start at No. 1 Florida, Velez threw six scoreless innings, giving up one hit and two walks with seven strikeouts.
17. Stephen Schoch, RHP, Virginia
A likable personality who could also get it done on the field, Schoch had a great deal of success as a reliever at Maryland-Baltimore County in 2018 and 2019, putting up a 2.61 ERA over 110.1 innings.
In 2020, Schoch used his previous success as a springboard to grad transfer to Virginia and live out a lifelong dream of pitching for the Cavaliers, with whom he continued to shine. In 16.2 innings, he had a 1.62 ERA, a 24-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .167 opponent batting average.
18. Andy Thomas, C, Baylor
Perhaps overlooked because of his lack of traditional home run power, Thomas has been one of the best pure hitters in the Big 12 for a number of years now. After playing sparingly as a freshman, Thomas broke out by hitting .324 with a .435 on-base percentage as a sophomore and then added some doubles power as a junior, which contributed to a .335/.413/.519 slash line.
He was hitting just .209 when things shut down last month, but some of his peripheral numbers, such as his 11 walks compared to just eight strikeouts, suggest he was still putting together quality at-bats and would have been poised for a breakout sooner or later.
19. Jake Mulholland, LHP, Oregon State
Mulholland has been the textbook definition of a shutdown reliever in his Oregon State career. He has 40 career saves and his year-by-year ERAs over his first three campaigns in Corvallis go 1.20, 2.20 and 1.93, all of which were seasons of at least 45 or more innings.
A 13.50 ERA through 8.2 innings in 2020 wasn’t what he would have wanted to begin his final year in an OSU uniform, but he’ll have a chance to write a new final chapter in 2021 if he chooses.
20. Matthew Guidry, 2B, Southern MIssissippi
In a lineup that has featured plenty of star power around him in his four seasons, most notably from 2019 supplemental first-round pick Matt Wallner, Guidry has been as steady as they come for the Golden Eagles.
In 178 career games, 154 of which were starts, he’s a .321/.470/.512 hitter with more walks (124) than strikeouts (118), 34 doubles and 19 home runs.
21. Drake Nightengale, RHP, South Alabama
South Alabama seems to have its best seasons when they have a slightly undersized right-handed workhorse at the front of the rotation. Think the 2016 team led by Kevin Hill and the 2017 team with Randy Bell.
It’s a disappointment, then, that the 2020 team didn’t fully get to see what it could do with Drake Nightengale leading the way. Through four starts, he had a 3.09 ERA, 39 strikeouts and a .218 opponent batting average in 23.1 innings.
22. Tristan Peterson, 1B, New Mexico State
Peterson has been overshadowed by teammate Nick Gonzales the last couple of seasons, and understandably so, but he deserves recognition on his own. In 2019, he hit an even .400 with 20 home runs.
At the time things ended in 2020, he was hitting just .250 with one homer. It seems safe to assume that Peterson would have gotten things turned around in plenty of time. At the same time, perhaps a return in 2021, then as the likely focal point of the New Mexico State lineup, would give him a needed clean slate to work with.
23. Andrew Beesley, OF, Louisiana-Monroe
ULM came flying out of the gate in 2020. It was 12-3 with series wins over 2019 regional teams McNeese State and Illinois State.
Beesley was a huge part of that success. He hit .400/.565/.600 with 13 walks compared to just five strikeouts, and he was a perfect 5-for-5 in stolen bases for an offense that was hitting .316/.445/.483 and was setting a torrid pace for stolen bases as a team. That we won’t get to see how ULM’s and Beesley’s season would have played out in 2020 is one of the unfortunate things we lost in a shortened campaign.
24. Christian Peters, RHP, Portland
Like ULM, Portland was one of the hottest mid-major programs over the four weeks of the 2020 season, thanks in large part to ace righthander Christian Peters, a converted reliever who took to his role at the front of the rotation with aplomb.
In four starts, he was 3-0 with a 0.63 ERA, a 35-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .190 opponent batting average in 28.2 innings of work, one season after putting up a 3.18 ERA in 39.2 innings as a top bullpen arm for the Pilots.
25. Parker Bates, OF, Louisiana Tech
Hitters can’t do much better than what Parker Bates accomplished in 2020. Through those four weeks, he hit .422/.531/.891 with eight home runs and 28 RBI, putting him among the national leaders in all of those categories. The eight homers were also already tied for his career high.
He’s surely disappointed to not get to finish out that season, but instead, if he chooses to return, he’ll likely get to play his final season at the newly-rebuilt J.C. Love Field, which is slated to be ready for the 2021 season.