The College Baseball Blog continues our series of Conference Previews today with the SEC’s Eastern Division. Florida won the division last year with a 19-11 record while South Carolina finished in second place with a 17-13 record. Georgia finished in third place with a 15-15 record while Vanderbilt finished 12-17 to grab the final spot in the SEC Tournament. Both Kentucky and Tennessee missed the SEC Tournament in 2009 after finishing with 12-18 and 11-19 records. We will be previewing the other division of the SEC in the coming days.
Florida (42-22 overall, 19-11 SEC)
The Florida Gators finished last season with a 42-22 overall record, going 19-11 in SEC play, winning the SEC Eastern Division title. They went 1-2 in the SEC Tournament, losing the opener to Arkansas by a score of 8-5, and beating Ole Miss, 12-2, before being eliminated by the Razorbacks, 10-7. The Gators were selected to host an NCAA regional going 3-0 with a victory over Bethune-Cookman, and two against Miami (FL). Florida then was selected to host a Super Regional against Southern Mississippi, where they lost both games by scores of 9-7 and 7-6 to end the season.
The top returning hitter for the Gators is sophomore first baseman Preston Tucker, who led them in all three triple-crown categories, hitting for a .364 average, with 15 homers and 85 RBI. He was a consensus Freshman All-American, as well as the NCBWA Freshman Hitter of the Year, and Co-SEC Freshman of the Year. (#27 CBB Top 100) They also return Josh Adams, who finished third on the team with a .342 average, including eight homers, and second on the team with 52 RBI. The biggest loss for the Gators on the offensive side of things is the departure of Avery Barnes.
The Gators return three out of the four starters last season to make at least ten starts. The only starter missing is Stephen Locke, who went 5-2 with a 4.32 ERA in 12 starts. The top returning starting pitcher is sophomore LHP Alex Panteliodis, who made 22 appearances, including ten starts, with a 6-5 and 4.38 ERA. Sophomore LHP Nick Maronde is also back after making 21 appearances, 11 starts, while going 3-1 with a 4.40 ERA. The other returning starting pitcher is sophomore RHP Anthony DeSclafani, who made 21 appearances with 11 starts, as he accumulated a 6-3 record with a 4.98 ERA. The Gators back end of the bullpen will have a big hole as Billy Bullock had a 3-3 record with a 2.64 ERA and 11 saves. Florida also returns senior RHP Jeff Foster and LHP Alex Panteliodis, who each recorded one save last season.
Georgia (38-24 overall, 15-15 SEC)
The Georgia Bulldogs finished last season with a 38-24 overall record, while going only 15-15 in the SEC. They qualified for the SEC Tournament where they picked up victories over Ole Miss and Arkansas before losing two straight games to LSU. They were put into the Tallahassee Regional in 2009 NCAA Tournament where they picked a victory over Ohio State before losing to Florida State and Ohio State to end the season.
Georgia returns only two out of their top six hitters from last season. The top returning hitter for the Bulldogs is sophomore Colby May, who hit .339 with eleven homers and 42 RBI while also being hit by 13 pitches. Sophomore Levi Hyams is the second best returning hitter as he had a .263 with five homers and 24 RBI. Sophomore Zach Cone, who only started 20 games while appearing in 45 games, is coming back after hitting .323 with four homers and 18 RBI.
The Bulldogs return two out of the top three starters from last season in junior RHP Justin Grimm and senior LHP Alex McRee. Grimm finished last season with a 4-4 record and 4.15 ERA in 15 starts (#49 CBB Top 100), while McRee finished with a 4-4 record and a 6.27 ERA in 15 appearances, including 13 starts. The biggest loss in the rotation was Trevor Holder, who went 7-5 with a 4.48 ERA in 15 starts. They also lose Dean Weaver, who led the team with 10 saves while going 4-2 with a 3.60 ERA. The only returning player that recorded a save is sophomore RHP Michael Palazzone who had one.
Kentucky (28-26 overall, 12-18 SEC)
Kentucky finished the season with a disappointing 28-26 overall record while going 12-18 in SEC play. They missed out on the SEC Tournament by a half game and did not get a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats return four out of the top five hitters from the 2009 team led by junior infielder Chris Bisson. He finished last season with a team high .360 average while hitting two homers and driving in 52 runs. He was also strong on the base paths, stealing 13 bases in 15 attempts. Bisson played in the Cape Cod Baseball League this summer where he hit .269 while stealing 32 bases in 36 attempts. Sophomore outfielder Chad Wright also returns after hitting .343 with four homers and 23 RBI in 50 games. Sophomore infielder Braden Kapteyn and red shirt senior catcher Marcus Nidiffer are the other two returnees in the lineup. Kapteyn hit .319 with four homers and 27 RBI, while Nidiffer had a .312 average including a team high 10 homers, driving in 32 runs.
The Wildcats return two out of the three weekend starting pitchers from last season in sophomore RHP Alex Meyer and senior LHP James Paxton. Meyer finished last season with a 1-4 record with a 5.73 ERA while struggling with his control, as he walked 45 in 59.2 innings, but also struck out 80 batters. Paxton, on the other hand, went 5-3 with a 5.86 ERA in 13 appearances with 115 strikeouts in 78.1 innings. (NOTE: Paxton is currently involved in a lawsuit with the NCAA over his eligibility which will be heard before the start of the 2010 season.) The other spot in the rotation I expect is going to be filled by junior LHP Logan Darnell, who had a 5-6 record while having an ERA of 4.50. (#82 CBB Top 100).
South Carolina (40-23 overall, 17-13 SEC)
The South Carolina Gamecocks finished last season with a 40-23 record while going 17-13 in SEC play. They qualified for the SEC Tournament after finishing second in the Eastern Division. The Gamecocks went 1-2 in the tournament with a victory over Alabama, 9-5, in 11 innings before losing to LSU, 4-1, and Vanderbilt, 5-4. They were sent to the East Carolina Regional for the NCAA Tournament where they opened the weekend with an 11-3 win over George Mason and a 12-2 win over East Carolina. This put them in the Regional Final where the lost two straight games to East Carolina by scores of 8-6 and 10-9 which ended the season.
The Gamecocks return four out of the top six hitters from last year, losing DeAngelo Mack and Justin Dalles. The top returning hitter is sophomore outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr., who finished with a .349 average, 11 homers and 46 RBI. Junior infielder/outfielder Whit Merrifield comes back after hitting .340 with 11 homers and 49 RBI, while stealing 15 bases in 20 attempts. Junior Parker Bangs appeared in 40 games including 31 starts as he hit .328 with five homers and 36 RBI. The Gamecocks top returning power hitter is senior third baseman Nick Ebert, who led the team with 23 homers and 72 RBI while hitting a respectable .321. (He is currently ineligible due to an incomplete in one of his classes. Thanks to PalmettoBBFan for pointing this out).
South Carolina returns the top three starting pitchers from last season in senior RHP Blake Cooper, junior RHP Sam Dyson, and sophomore LHP Nolan Belcher. Cooper finished last season with a 9-4 record and a 4.50 ERA in 17 appearances, including 16 starts. Dyson went 9-4 with a 5.21 ERA in 16 appearances, 15 starts, while striking out 94 batters in 102 innings. (#29 CBB Top 100). Nolan Belcher went 4-5 record with a 5.33 ERA in 16 appearances, including 13 starts, in 2009. The biggest loss for the Gamecocks pitching staff was Alex Farotto, who led the team with seven saves and went 4-2 with a 4.96 ERA. The Gamecocks do not have a pitcher on the staff that recorded a save last season.
Tennessee (26-29 overall, 11-19 SEC)
Tennessee finished last season with a 26-29 overall record while going 11-19 in SEC play, which was not good enough to get them in the SEC or NCAA Tournament.
The Volunteers return four out of the top five hitters from the 2009 squad. Junior Cody Hawn led them in all three triple-crown categories, hitting .364 with 22 homers and 81 RBI in 50 games. Junior catcher Blake Forsythe finished second on the team in 2009 with a .347 average, 15 homers and 47 RBI in 55 games. (#17 CBB Top 100). Junior outfielder Josh Liles appeared in only 35 games last season but had a respectable .313 average while hitting eight homers and driving in 25 runs to go along with eight stolen bases in 10 attempts. Junior outfielder P. J. Polk is the other top returning for the Vols, as he hit .298 with only three homers and 21 runs driven in. The real wildcard is how junior shortstop Matt Duffy handles the SEC after transferring out of Vermont after the baseball program was dropped. Duffy had an outstanding 2009 season in America East with a .388 average, 13 homers and 57 RBI. He was named America East Player of the Year for his season.
Tennessee loses both of their starting pitchers from last season in Nick Hernandez and Ty’Relle Harris, who combined to make 20 appearances in 2009. Senior RHP Stephen McCray is the top returning starting pitcher with 19 appearances, including nine starts, where he went 4-3 with a 5.19 ERA. Sophomore LHP Adam Adkins and senior RHP Aaron Tullo are the only two starters coming back with more than five starts last season. Adkins made 15 appearances, including six starts, while going 2-1 with a 5.27 ERA, while Tullo made 15 appearances with six starts, for a 2-6 record with a 7.80 ERA. The biggest question mark is junior LHP Bryan Morgado who has outstanding talent but has never put it together in college as he went 4-2 with a 6.36 ERA last season in 20 appearances (five starts). (#50 CBB Top 100)
Vanderbilt (37-27 overall, 12-17 SEC play)
Vanderbilt finished last season with a 37-27 overall record while going 12-17 in SEC play. They qualified for the SEC Tournament, where they went 3-1 with victories over LSU, South Carolina, and Arkansas, before losing to LSU in the SEC Tournament Championship game. They were sent to the Louisville Regional where they lost the opener to Middle Tennessee State, 5-4, before reeling off wins over Indiana, 10-0, and Middle Tennessee State, 6-0, to put them in the Regional Final. They ended up winning the first game against Louisville by a score of 8-4, before losing the deciding game, 5-3, to end the season.
The Commodores return seven out of the nine position starters from last year. The top returning hitter is sophomore Aaron Westlake, who finished last season with a .377 average while hitting 10 homers and driving in 57 runs. (#46 CBB Top 100) Junior Curt Casali is back after hitting .336 with 10 homers and leading the team with 69 RBI. Riley Reynolds is the only other starter to hit over .300 last season, as he finished with a .332 average while driving in 22 runs and stealing 12 bases in 19 attempts.
Vanderbilt returns 10 out of 14 pitchers from last season. The biggest loss for the Commodores was Mikie Minor, who was selected in the first round of the 2009 MLB Draft and served as the Friday night starter for most of the 2009 season. They also lost the other two weekend starter in Nick Christiani and Caleb Cotham to leave a huge hole. Sophomore RHP Sonny Gray is expected to step into the number one spot in the rotation this season after going 5-1 with a 4.30 ERA in 58.2 innings pitched, striking out 72 batters while working primarily out of the bullpen. (CBB #16 Top 100). Junior RHP Russell Brewer and junior RHP Chase Reid are the other two top returnees. Brewer went 1-2 record, including four saves, with a 2.96 ERA while striking out 39 batters in 27.1 in innings of work. Chase Reid went 3-0 with a 4.46 ERA while striking out 38 batters in 34.1 innings. The real wildcard this year with Vanderbilt is sophomore RHP Jack Armstrong who had a strong summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League where he was named an All-Star, but finished the 2009 college season with a 12.91 ERA in six appearances
2. South Carolina
I can make a case for any team in this division besides Tennessee to win the conference. I really don’t see any team far ahead in terms of talent on paper. The Florida offense is still going to be led by Preston Tucker who might be one of the best hitters in the entire country and enters the 2010 season as the SEC’s top hitter. South Carolina returns a potentially solid lineup with Jackie Bradley, Jr., and has all three of their pitchers coming back from last season. The biggest wildcard is Kentucky which has three excellent pro prospects in their rotation (if Paxton plays) and have a solid lineup. Vanderbilt lost their entire weekend rotation and if they can settle the weekend rotation with Sonny Gray leading it then they will be fine with the biggest question being the offensive side of things. Georgia lost a ton of offensive talent from last season and the returning pitchers are very questionable right now. Tennessee has many questions in the rotation which puts them in last place right now but they have a great hitting club so they could hit themselves out of the cellar.