College Top 25 Chat: Feb. 20

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Aaron Fitt: Hello everyone, welcome to the first college chat of the regular season. I'll get started in just a few minutes — sorry for the delay.

Aaron Fitt: OK, sorry for the delay — hectic morning here in Week One. Three Strikes is finished and will be posted shortly. In the meantime, let's chat!

    Justin (Toronto): Do you think Rice is the most complete team in the state of Texas? How big of a gap is there between them and a team like Stanford?

Aaron Fitt: I do think Rice is the most complete team in the Lone Star State, although Texas A&M is not far behind. I thought both the Owls and the Aggies got very encouraging outings from their starting pitching this weekend (in A&M's case, the question was the Sunday starter job, and that appears to have been answered for now). Rice and Stanford are just constructed very differently. Stanford is an extremely, extremely offensive club, but its pitching after Appel and Mooneyham is still trying to sort itself out. I think Rice's greatest strength is its bullpen, which was lights-out this weekend, and its lineup is much less intimidating, though certainly plenty capable, as it showed this weekend. Great to have Jeremy Rathjen back if you're Rice.

    John (Atlanta): I watched the Titans play the Gators this weekend. Do you think their streak will continue f? I think their young pitching staff will get better as the season goes along.

Aaron Fitt: I assume you're talking about Fullerton's postseason streak, and if so, the answer is most definitely. I agree that the young pitching will get better as the season progresses. I heard a report that Kenny Mathews actually looked pretty decent this weekend even though his line wasn't great — he has good feel for pitching and good life on the fastball. Koby Gauna was great in relief against an extremely good offensive team, and Grahamm Wiest knows how to pitch. I thought Fullerton showed a lot of toughness and fight this weekend against a significantly more talented team. All in all, a very encouraging weekend for the Titans, despite falling out of our Top 25 (just barely...).

    Pat (Chicago): Hi Aaron, It wasn't against the best competition this weekend, but Tulane's offense looked much stronger than last year. The pitching, save for Kyle McKenzie, also looked sharp. Could Tulane sneak up on some people this year and finally get back on track? Will the upcoming series against Indiana tell us anything? Thanks!

Aaron Fitt: As I mentioned in the preseason, I am rather intrigued by Tulane's team, but I'm not sure this weekend really showed us a lot. Playing Siena in February is just not much of a barometer. I saw some encouraging things in those box scores — how about D.J. Ponder going four hitless innings of relief Friday? But McKenzie is a big key to Tulane's season, and he didn't get an out Sunday. That's certainly a concern. Indiana's a decent club; that will be more of a test for Tulane next weekend.

    Rory (Breckenridge, CO): What do you think of the New Mexico Lobos this year? Their young team really came on at the end of last year, and they have pretty much the entire team back. Could you see them possibly making a regional this year?

Aaron Fitt: I could see it. Ray Birmingham has shown an ability to get a lot out of his teams. They fight hard, they play with an edge, and this team does have some intriguing talent. I don't have them projected for a regional bid, and I don't see them beating out TCU for the regular-season MWC title, but they could gel again by the conference tournament and get that automatic bid again. I thought Sam Wolff's strong outing Saturday was a very encouraging sign. He was a key recruit for San Diego a couple years ago, and he could give that Lobos pitching staff a real boost if he can put it all together.

    Navin (Pasadena, CA): Why hasn't UCLA's offense adapted to the new bats yet? Is it too early to draw the negative conclusions most UCLA fans have over the offense and bullpen?

Aaron Fitt: It is too early — I think the offense still should be good. It did not look good in the two games I saw this weekend, when the Bruins combined to score two runs... and you're right, there will come a point when we have to stop giving UCLA mulligans, but for now I still expect you'll see better things to come from guys like Keefer and Amaral and Gelalich and Regis — those guys are too experienced, surely their bats will come around. UCLA did have a lot of opportunities to score runs this weekend, it just couldn't get the big hits. The bullpen, though — the jury is still out there. It's a very inexperienced bullpen. Griggs looked very shaky on Friday — was casting his breaking ball way out of the zone, missing arm-side and up with the fastball, just couldn't control his stuff. He was much better on Saturday, needing just nine pitches for a 1-2-3 inning, and UCLA must hope that was the real Griggs, because he is absolutely crucial for their season. I did like what I saw from Fr. LHP Grant Watson this weekend — real nice piece in that bullpen.

    Thomas (Atlanta,GA): What was your analysis on College of Charleston? Their pitching is lights out this year. Team ERA under 1 after sweeping on the road in their Opener. Monte Lee has a talented bunch, even after losing 6 position players of last years team. Brought in a Top 25 Recruiting Class too...

Aaron Fitt: A road sweep against a decent South Alabama club is a nice way to start the year, and it looks like CofC played well in all facets this weekend. I'm really excited about Christian Powell, who allowed just two hits over six scoreless on Sunday. No question, the Cougars will be a major factor in the SoCon, right up there with Georgia Southern and Samford, I think. Very experienced on the mound, and those guys got off to a great start, as you said.

    Ryan (Bloomington, IN): Wow, Stanford didn't mess around last weekend. They definitely seem worthy of that #2 ranking you gave them. Do you think they can get through the gauntlet with a 4-0 weekend series record before their 2-week Finals break?

Aaron Fitt: Considering they've got three of those four series at home (including Rice and Texas), yes, I think it is possible they could win them all. Obviously I think Stanford is better than Rice, Texas and Fresno or we wouldn't have ranked the Cardinal higher in the preseason. That doesn't mean Stanford WILL definitely win all those series, but man, you have to like what they did this weekend.

    USDfan (San Diego): Aaron, what a great start to college baseball! Not so great for my Toreros. I know it's early, but what happened? The pick to win the WCC loses its series, while Santa Clara, Pepperdine, Gonzaga, and others win some big games. Any changes to the preseason picks?

Aaron Fitt: I really thought the WCC was more wide open than any other conference heading into the season (I think I even wrote that in my WCC preview). USF, Gonzaga, St. Mary's, Portland, Pepperdine — I like all of those clubs and could see any one of them winning the conference. Santa Clara had a really good weekend — that was one of the biggest surprises of the weekend, because I don't think anybody expects a whole lot from the Broncos this year, except maybe the people in that dugout. But I actually thought Santa Clara was a sleeper last year, and many of the players I liked are back. They just need to produce, and so far, so good. As for the Toreros, it looks like the bats and the bullpen let 'em down. I expect both to improve as the season goes on. It's early yet; don't write off USD.

    Shawn (Fort Worth): TCU looked good offensively against Ole Miss, even though Ole Miss' outfield won them the game on Friday (threw two guys out at the plate, 2 diving catches and a robbed a potential home run by Elander). Do you think the offensive can perform well enough to keep this young pitching staff from getting behind early in the games? Where do you rank this pitching staff?

Aaron Fitt: That is the idea for TCU: the offense is supposed to carry the load for this team. In our preseason Top 25 capsules, we graded TCU's hitting and power both as 70s on the 20-80 scale, and we gave their starting pitching a 55 and bullpen a 50, so that gives you an idea how we think this team is constructed.

    Matt K (Stayton, OR): Anything to take away from Oregon State and the Pac-12 this weekend?

Aaron Fitt: Weird weekend for the Beavers, with that crazy 12-inning suspended game. OSU made four errors in that game leading to a ton of unearned runs, which was very uncharacteristic. I think that was probably an aberration; OSU should be solid defensively. The Beavs just need to get back to full strength on the mound. Jace Fry and Adam Duke have real impact ability.

    Baseball an (Maryland): Will Virginia be a powerhouse again this year?

Aaron Fitt: I wouldn't say a powerhouse — they lost too much for that — but I think the Cavs will get better as the season progresses and their new weekend rotation gels. Extremely encouraging start from Scott Silverstein this weekend, going five hitless innings (walked three, allowed two runs, one earned). He's finally healthy and can give that staff a big boost, with power stuff from the left side. Whit Mayberry also pitched well in the win against Coastal, so those are positive signs for UVa.

    Jimmy (Va): What do you think of Boston college after going 3-0 down at coastal Carolina and beating UVA and James Madison

Aaron Fitt: One of the weekend's big surprises, along with Santa Clara and Maryland. BC got strong starting pitching and a balanced offensive attack — and as a New England team playing against three warmer-weather teams, that is quite a weekend. That's a team to watch closely.

    Greg (NYC): Aaron, it was a rough weekend for my Commodores in Palo Alto. Despite having to replace about 85% of last year's innings pitched, do you think it's possible that losing Curt Casali's calming presence behind the plate might have been the key to Vanderbilt's sloppy play and the lack of composure on the infield and on the mound? I'm confident that this will be a far different team in April and May than it is now, but 11 errors and an ERA over 9.00 is pretty concerning, even when going up against an elite team like the Cardinal. As a side note, the Cardinal squad reminded me a lot of last year's Commodores. Very, very good squad.

Aaron Fitt: You raise a great point, Greg, about Casali. I was hoping to mention this in weekend preview, but didn't wind up fitting it in: having a trusted senior catcher makes a huge difference for a pitching staff, and Casali really was a field general for that team last year. It's interesting that Stanford also has a new catcher this year, having lost its own senior behind the plate, Zach Jones. I'll have to ask around to find out just how much of an impact the catching situations for both teams made this weekend, but it's definitely something to keep in mind when thinking about Vandy.

    Adam (Louisiana): Who would you take...(Randall, Whitson, and Johnson) or (Gausman, Eades, and McCune)?

Aaron Fitt: It's a valid question, but for me the answer is Florida pretty clearly. Florida's guys are a little more proven and experienced. Gausman and Eades put up bigger velocity numbers than Randall and Johnson, but Randall and Johnson have really, really good command that sets them apart, and Whitson has a premium arm, obviously. McCune has good command too, but for me he's the No. 6 guy out of these six pitchers.

    Bill (Atlanta, GA): Kent State starter David Starn was very impressive against GT in the first game Friday, shutting out the Jackets. Do you see the Golden Flashes as a regional team?

Aaron Fitt: Yes, eight shutout innings for Starn against what should be a very good offensive team — quite impressive. He has a really good changeup and advanced feel for pitching, just a great college ace. And yes, I see Kent State winning the MAC and getting back to regionals.

    Brett (Florida): What are your thoughts on DJ Hicks of UCF as a pro prospect?...he certainly has big power.

Aaron Fitt: Big power, but a long swing with some holes who struggles against really good stuff, though he punishes below-average fastballs. Probably a fringy prospect for pro ball, but a really nice college power hitter for UCF.

    Brandon (Washington, DC): What should we think of Cal Poly's sweep of Oklahoma State this weekend, and how close are the Mustangs to the top-25?

Aaron Fitt: I chatted with a scout who saw one of those games this weekend, and he came away saying that Oklahoma State is "not very good." Maybe the Cowboys will get better, but this weekend was pretty discouraging. Cal Poly should be a top-half of the Big West kind of team. This weekend put them on the radar, but still not really close to the top 25. They'll have to prove more to get into that mix.

    John Morgan (Tallahassee): I see on the top prosepects list there is no Jayce Boyd, Devon Travis, or Justin Gonzales. This is probably the best infield in the country. Why no love for these Noles?

Aaron Fitt: I really, really like all of those guys, and I agree that it might be the nation's best college infield. But there is a difference between being a great college player (Florida State always has a bunch of guys who fit that description, which is why they always win so many games) and being a great pro prospect. In this case, I think all three guys you mentioned are legit prospects — Travis is one of my favorite draft sleepers, in fact. Boyd is a standout defender with power but needs to improve as a hitter. Gonzalez has arm strength and range at short, and some pop in his bat, but he too needs to become a more consistent hitter. All of those guys are top 10 round types for me, and I could see Travis and Gonzalez being top five round guys, maybe even a little better.

    Dougner (Albuquerque): Cal State Fullerton travels to Gainesville, plays three competative games and wins one. They pitched pretty well, hit the ball well and played solid defense. How do you drop them out of the top 25? Florida is after all the #1 team in the country, are they not supposed to win 2 of 3 against the 25th ranked team?

Aaron Fitt: I know what you're saying, and it all makes perfect sense. I would have been fine with leaving the Titans in the rankings for the reasons you said, but the rest of our staff felt like we had a chance to reward another team that had a nice weekend by knocking out a team at the very back of the rankings that did ultimately lose its weekend series. No big deal; if Fullerton wins its series next weekend against TCU, it will be right back in the rankings.

    Anthony (Fresno): What do you think of Fresno State's Tyler Linehan?

Aaron Fitt: 13 strikeouts this weekend — nice way to start off the season. He's a lefty who can reach 93 and has a good power slider — I like him. One of the top prospects in the WAC, and he's developed into a really nice top-of-the-rotation college starter, too.

    Bryan (Baton Rouge): What are your thoughts on SE Louisiana this year? They once again have a solid team, but received zero attention in the preseason and through Week 1. Do you think they have a decent shot at catching Texas State this year in the SLC?

Aaron Fitt: I still think Texas State is the team to beat in the Southland — the Lions have a number of new faces in the lineup that must prove themselves. But they have a great catalyst atop the lineup in Brock Hebert and a nice veteran one-two punch atop the rotation in Joseph Koon and Jordan Hymel, a couple of wily competitors (Hymel even can throw a knuckleball!).

    Sam (Greenville, NC): Whats your take on the Keith LeClair Classic this weekend? Shaping out to be a good weekend with ECU, Purdue, WCU, and Maryland. Whats your take on the Pirates?

Aaron Fitt: Yeah, that's a nice field. Purdue and Western Carolina can really swing it, while ECU can really pitch and I think Maryland has a nice balance. The Pirates have to be encouraged by Jharel Cotton's strong outing on Saturday, and by the way its lineup performed. Should be a better offensive club than it was a year ago — another pretty balanced team. The top six hitters in the ECU lineup are all pretty good, and all capable of carrying the load on different days. I could see the Pirates breaking into the Top 25 in the coming weeks.

    Al (Wisconsin): Matt Reynolds and Brian Ragira had big offensive weekends. Do you expect both to be this much improved over the whole season or is it just a small sample size.

Aaron Fitt: Yes I do. I think both are major breakout star candidates, as I believe I wrote in my Top 25 capsules. More great things to come for both of them.

    Seth (Raleigh): How close was Kent State to cracking the rankings this week after a solid opening weekend including a win over Georgia Tech? Also did Tech answer some pitching depth questions playing 4 games in 2 days? Do you think Tech is more balanced this year in that neither pitching or offense seems to be superior and the other what could hurt them come postseason?

Aaron Fitt: I don't know, I thought they were pretty balanced last year, too. Sure, the pitching was the strength, but that young lineup wound up being pretty dangerous. This year I think the lineup is a little better on paper, but the pitching staff has a lot of potential, and it was good to see them largely perform well on the mound this weekend. In particular, DeAndre Smelter, Cole Pitts and Zane Evans turned in strong outings in that last game against Winthrop. The Yellow Jackets will need those guys to keep it going.

    Todd (Nashville): What do you think about Tennessee's Drew Steckenrider? He had a great opening day. I know its just NIU but... 4 shutout innings and about a foot shy of hitting a HR from both sides of the plate. The upside is very tantalizing with this kid. I see Serrano tapping into some talents all through that team that maybe none of us knew were there. I'll hang up and listen...

Aaron Fitt: Tantalizing upside has always been the book on Steckenrider, since his high school days. He has some big raw tools with his arm strength and power potential, it's just a matter of putting it all together. I'm looking forward to getting a look at him at the Houston College Classic in a couple of weeks.

    Mick (Chicago): Is this the saddest state of the game comment and proof that kids don't play baseball anymore in our country? Out of ALL the universities in ALL of America, the only legit shortstop prospect is Puerto Rican Deven Marrero.

Aaron Fitt: He is the only one that I would characterize as a safe bet to stick at shortstop all the way through pro ball, you are right. That's pretty remarkable.

    James (Maryland): Very excited about the Terps taking 2 of 3 from UCLA over the weekend. I know it's still very, very early, but what are your thoughts on MD baseball this year?

Aaron Fitt: Please see my Three Strikes blog for my detailed thoughts on Maryland. That is now live on the College Blog.

    tman (Myrtle Beach): Going into this season, what team nationally do you think has has the most imposing weekend rotation? Thanks!

Aaron Fitt: Florida, with South Carolina not too far behind. Also have Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M in the discussion.

    Brandon (Half Moon Bay, CA): Hello Aaron. I went out to the Saturday game at Sunken Diamond. One of the more interesting players I saw was David Schmidt, a freshman RP, for Stanford. Was consistently 92-94 with easy action. What's the word on Schmidt?

Aaron Fitt: I hadn't heard Schmidt produced that kind of velocity, but he's definitely going to be a key contributer for them. Pitching coach Rusty Filter compared him to Dean McArdle, a grinder type who doesn't give in.

    Brandon (HMB, CA): His defense let him down, but a less than impressive start of Saturday for Beede. Nice changeup, but his velocity is far off the reports from his HS days. Any cause for concern?

Aaron Fitt: Yeah, he has not shown that mid-90s fastball velocity since he set foot in Nashville — wasn't there all fall or in the spring preseason. The fact that Vanderbilt still trusts him enough to make him its Saturday starter out of the gate suggests there probably is no cause for concern; his velocity should come back in time, you'd think.

    Zach (Broken Arrow, OK): I know it's early, but should Oklahoma fans be worried?

Aaron Fitt: I wouldn't say "worried." Mildly concerned, maybe. We knew Oklahoma was going to rely heavily on newcomers. The Sooners expect a lot from Jonathan Gray and Steven Okert, and they just didn't deliver this weekend. It was their first taste of actual Division I competition, however, and it's customary for most juco transfers to have an adjustment period. I actually liked what I saw from some of Oklahoma's other newcomers, like Damien Magnifico (more to come on him soon at, Garrett Carey, Matt Oberste and Hunter Lockwood. I think all of those guys are going to be good players for the Sooners, and they've got a couple of quality lefties in Jordan John and Ty Taylor. If Gray and Okert continue to struggle in the rotation, I suspect you could see Jordan John take over a rotation spot. Whatever role you put that guy in, I think he'd do just fine — he can really pitch. It's just 86, but it has great life and he spots it well. He can really spin a breaking ball — mid-70s with break that he can alter as he needs to — and his changeup is a nice pitch as well. He'll have a big year. I did think Gray showed pretty good stuff on Saturday — 89-94, pretty good 80-81 slider with two-plane break. He just needs to do a better job throwing strikes, which he did in the preseason. Maybe you can chalk it up to jitters, but he should be much better than he was this weekend.

    matt (california): I was wondering how good pepperdine freshman Aaron brown could be he look like the real deal this weekend

Aaron Fitt: He is the real deal — college superstar in the making. See my Three Strikes blog for more on him.

    Eric (Alameda Ca): Cal finishes 5th in last years CWS and has a strong showing against UOP. How are they not ranked at all in this years poll? They were one of the top 8 teams last year, how do you justify not ranking in the top 25?

Aaron Fitt: Because last year is not this year, and Cal's 2012 roster is not the same as its 2011 roster. I really like Cal's lineup and its top four arms, but its pitching depth was a major question mark heading into the season, because the tumult with having the program cut last season severely affected Cal's latest recruiting class. Cal got a nice start this weekend from Michael Theofanopoulos, who is one of the guys they need to emerge, so that's a good sign. Joey Donofrio and Keaton Siomkin also pitched well in two relief outings, Friday and Sunday. Those are two more key guys. I'll want to see those guys keep doing it a little longer before I consider them a Top 25 team, but I had them as a 26-30 team entering the season, and I've still got them in that range.

    Shannon (Gainesville, FL): After losing so many pitchers to last year's draft, it seemed as though the bullpen would be the wildcard this season apart from Rodriguez, Larson, and Maddox. How much of a concern is middle relief for the Gators, given the result yesterday? Who do you see stepping up to fill in some of those vacant roles?

Aaron Fitt: I'm not concerned about it at all. Jonathon Crawford had an ugly line yesterday, but he really wasn't hit that hard — one hard-hit ball by Ivory Thomas and a bunch of choppers, according to Kevin O'Sullivan. Sully said Crawford was 93-95 with sink, and he'll throw him right back out there again without hesitation. I like some of their other middle relief pieces too — Johnny Magliozzi, Daniel Gibson, Justin Shafer. Those guys will be fine.

    Joey (Ft. Lauderdale): Miami pitching staff, especially starters on Friday and Saturday. How would you evaluate the staff moving forward and with Florida coming up in 2 weeks?

Aaron Fitt: Eric Erickson's re-emergence was a huge boost. He gives them a proven, fearless Friday starter who has been through the rigors of the ACC before, and he pitched very well on Friday. That's a legit weekend rotation — I like Whaley and Radziewski also.

    Dominic (Santa Monica): Did you have a chance to see any of Plutko at UCLA on Friday night? Looks like another strong outing and no support. Thoughts on him and also on whether you think this weekend is just early sloppy for the Bruins or a warning sign for another long season of inept offense

Aaron Fitt: I did catch the last few innings of Plutko's start, and he was very good. He was only 86-89, but he really lives off his fastball, which has such great movement and is always down in the zone. His changeup is a plus pitch with great movement and arm speed, and he mixes in a slider and curveball effectively, though neither is his calling card. One point that John Savage made about Plutko that I think is interesting: He's really a flyball pitcher, which makes it pretty amazing that he was so good pitching on Sunday afternoons as a freshman. Making the move to Friday nights, when the ball doesn't carry as well, should make him even more dominant.

    Jared (College Park, MD): Two "cold weather" ACC programs, Boston College and Maryland, had great first weekends. Do you project either team contending for a regional spot or will the ACC be too much for both?

Aaron Fitt: Too early to tell for both teams, but let's do the math. I think you've got six locks for the postseason with UNC, Clemson, GT, FSU, Miami and UVa, with NC State looking like a pretty strong seventh team. So if it plays out as I expect, you're probably looking at everybody else fighting for a maximum of one regional spot. Maryland, Wake Forest, BC, Duke and Virginia Tech all have things to like and dislike, and I'm not yet ready to declare which of them I like the most. But I did think Maryland looked feisty this weekend.

    Marty (Port St Lucie, FL): How close was FAU to getting ranked after sweeping Bama, and never trailing in series?

Aaron Fitt: Quite close — right in the mix with Baylor and Mississippi State (the other teams in our discussion were Cal, UC Irvine and Stetson).

    Trevor (Los Angeles): Other than three wins for the Zags, what do you take out of their sweep at Nebraska? Does it tell you more about Gonzaga or more about Nebraska?

Aaron Fitt: I think Nebraska is in rebuilding mode, though I expect the Huskers to play hard for Darin Erstad, and I like a few of their arms. Gonzaga was a game away from making a regional last year and got a good chunk of its core back. I think Gonzaga is just the better team, but a road sweep exceeded my expectations for this weekend. It took some Sunday heroics from Gonzaga's best player, Marco Gonzales, but a sweep is a sweep. That WCC race will be very compelling, I think.

    Greg (Boston): Kyle Hansen....future starter or reliever?

Aaron Fitt: I think he's probably a reliever in pro ball, but a nice Friday starter in college.

    Justin (Marion, SC): What's your thoughts on South Carolina? Especially with the questions of who's going to be the catcher, second basemen, closer, and who the main relievers are going to be. I expect them to figure it all out and be really good, maybe even better than last year. I think it will be impossible for them to match what last years team did defensively but I think offensively, the 'Cocks are going to be a team to reckon with once the lineup gets figured out. What say you?

Aaron Fitt: I also expect them to figure it all out, which is why we ranked South Carolina so highly (No. 3) in the preseason. So far, so good — Grayson Greiner and L.B. Dantzler had real nice weekends in the middle of the lineup. That's a nice physical heart of the order, with those guys and Christian Walker. South Carolina looks like a really balanced team.

Aaron Fitt: OK folks, tried to go longer on the back end to make up for being a couple minutes late, but I'm out of time for today. Thanks for all the great questions, as usual. Have a great Week Two!