The College Baseball Blog continues our series of conference previews today with the SEC Western Division. LSU and Ole Miss tied for the Division Title with identical 20-10 records. Alabama finished in third place at 18-11. Arkansas finished at 14-15 to come in fourth place while Auburn (11-19) and Mississippi State (9-20) finished in fifth and sixth place respectively. You can check out our SEC Eastern Division preview by clicking here.
Alabama (37-21 overall, 18-11 SEC)
The Alabama Crimson Tide finished last season with a 37-21 overall record while going 18-11 in the SEC, which was good enough to finish in third place in the SEC West Division. They went 0-2 in the SEC Tourney, losing to South Carolina, 9-5, and LSU, 9-6. They were selected to play in the 2009 NCAA Tournament to go to the Clemson Regional where they lost to Oklahoma State, 10-2, and Tennessee State, 6-2. The biggest difference this season is that Mitch Gaspard has taken over the reins of the Crimson Tide program. Gaspard was the head coach at Northwestern State from 2002-2007 where he compiled a 211-128 record, returning to Tuscaloosa for his second stint as an assistant coach under Jim Wells in 2008.
The Alabama offense returns three out of the top four hitters from last year’s team, led by Jake Smith who hit .359 with 18 homers and 54 RBI. He is also an accomplished fielder as he made only five errors in 113 chances at third base. He suffered torn ligaments in his ankle during the SEC Tourney which ended his season early. Ross Wilson (.353 BA) and Taylor Dugas (.352) are the other top returning hitters. Josh Rutledge had an outstanding freshman year in 2008 returns after having a disappointing 2009 season which saw him hit .305 with five homers and 44 RBI. The big wildcard this season will be the role in which former South Carolina quarterback Chris Smelley will be used. He is currently listed as a catcher but will need to beat out Cody Trotter and Brett Booth.
Adam Morgan is the only starter coming back that made more than five starts from the 2009 season after going 4-2 with a 4.17 ERA in 13 appearances, including nine starts. Tyler White is the top 2009 returnee from the bullpen, as he had a 1-0 record in 17 appearances while having an ERA of 2.28. Jake Smith could also see some more time on the mound this season, as he made six appearances with a record of 0-1 and an ERA of 2.13.
Arkansas (41-25 overall, 14-15 SEC)
Arkansas finished last season with a 41-25 overall record while going 14-15 in SEC play, to finish in fourth place in the SEC Western Division. They went 2-2 in the SEC Tournament with two victories over Florida by scores of 8-5 and 10-7. The two losses were to Georgia by a score of 2-1 and Vanderbilt, 11-1. They were selected to take part in the Norman Regional where they went 3-0 with a 10-3 victory over Washington State before defeating Oklahoma twice by scores of 17-6 and 11-0. They were then sent to the Tallahassee Super Regional where they picked up a 7-2 and 9-8 victory over the Florida State Seminoles to advance to the College World Series. In the CWS, they opened up with a 10-6 victory over Cal-State Fullerton before dropping a game, 9-1, to SEC foe LSU. They followed that up with a 4-3 victory over Virginia before being eliminated by LSU by a score of 14-5.
The Razorbacks top returning hitter is Andy Wilkins who led the team in all three triple-crown categories with a .317 average, 19 homers and 58 RBI. Zack Cox, who had a solid freshman season in 2009, returns after hitting .266 with 13 homers and 59 RBI. Brett Eibner also comes back after having a .231 average with 12 homers and 34 RBI in 45 games.
The Razorbacks return two out of three starting pitchers from last season in Brett Eibner and TJ Forrest. Eibner went 5-5 in 2009 with a 5.00 ERA, while Forrest was 2-6 with a 5.99 ERA. They will need to replace the closer, Stephen Richards, who went 6-2 with a 2.19 ERA while picking up nine saves.
Auburn (31-25 overall, 11-19 SEC)
Auburn finished last season with a 31-25 overall record while going 11-19 in SEC play. The Tigers finished in fifth place in the Western Division, failing to qualify for the SEC Tourney.
The Tigers return four out of the top five hitters from last year’s squad, led by Justin Hargett who hit .330 with four homers and 31 RBI in 53 games. Brian Fletcher is the only other returnee that hit over .300 last season, as he hit .301 with 17 homers and 54 RBI. Trent Mummey also returns after leading the Tigers with 17 stolen bases in 20 attempts.
Auburn returns all three of the starting pitchers from last year’s squad in Jon Luke Jacobs, Grant Dayton, and Dexter Price. Jacobs went 3-4 last year with a 5.74 ERA, while Dayton went 2-6 with a 5.92 ERA, and Price with a 4-3 record and 6.04 ERA. Austin Hubbard served as the closer last year, going 3-3 with a 4.20 ERA and 12 saves.
LSU (56-17 overall, 20-10 SEC)
The LSU Tigers are coming off another national championship season after tying for the SEC Western Division title with Ole Miss, going 20-10. The Tigers went 5-1 in the SEC Tournament after losing the first game to Vanderbilt by a score of 4-1, before rolling off victories over Alabama, 9-6, South Carolina, 4-1, Georgia, 16-0, Georgia, 3-2, and defeating Vanderbilt in the championship game by a score of 6-2. LSU then hosted the Baton Rouge Regional where they went a perfect 3-0 with victories over Southern, Baylor, and Minnesota. The next round saw them selected to host Rice in the Super Regional, where the Tigers walked away with 12-9 and 5-3 victories to head back to the College World Series. LSU went a perfect 3-0 to get into the CWS Championship Series by defeating Virginia, 9-5, and Arkansas, 9-1 and 14-5. They ended up taking on the Texas Longhorns in the Championship Series with LSU taking Game 1, 7-6, before dropping Game 2 by a score of 5-1, and clinching the National Championship in Game 3, beating the Longhorns 11-4.
LSU returns only one out of their top five hitters for the 2009 team in Blake Dean. He is expected to be one of the top power hitters in the entire country as he had a .328 average with 17 homers and 71 RBI last season. (#8 TCBB Top 100). Tyler Hanover and Mikie Mahtook come back after decent freshman seasons. Hanover hit .321 with five homers and 47 RBI, while Mahtook hit .316 with seven homers and 38 RBI. (#42 TCBB Top 100). The other player to watch this year is Micah Gibbs who is projected as one of the top catchers in the entire country. He hit .294 with six homers and 42 RBI in 2009. (#30 TCBB Top 100).
The LSU Tigers return two of the three starting pitchers from last year in Anthony Ranaudo and Austin Ross. Junior Anthony Ranaudo was outstanding in 2009, making 19 starts while going 12-3 with a 3.04 ERA. Ross went 6-8 with a 5.18 ERA in 19 appearances, including 17 starts. Sophomore relief pitcher Matty Ott comes back after appearing in 37 games with a 4-2 record including 16 saves and an ERA of 2.68.
Mississippi State (25-29 overall, 9-20 SEC)
The Mississippi State Bulldogs had a difficult season in 2009 going 25-29 overall and only 9-20 in SEC play. They did not qualify for the SEC Tourney or the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs return three out of the four top hitters from last year’s team in Ryan Duffy, Jet Butler, and Russ Sneed. Duffy finished second on the team with a .339 average, while finishing second on the team with 10 homers, but driving in only 33 runs. Butler finished the 2009 season with a .335 average, while Sneed finished at .333. Connor Powers also comes back after leading the Bulldogs with 19 homers and 63 RBI last season while batting .301.
The starting rotation sees the top two pitchers come back from last season in Nick Routt and Tyler Whitney. Routt finished last season with a 5-3 record with a 4.15 ERA in 13 starts while pitching four complete games. Whitney on the other hand went 3-4 with a 5.18 ERA in 13 appearances, including 11 starts. This biggest debate is who is going to replace Chad Crosswhite in the back end of the bullpen, as he had six saves. Greg Houston is the only returnee to the pitching staff to record a save last year, finishing with a 2-2 record and 6.92 ERA.
Ole Miss (44-20 overall, 20-10 SEC)
The Ole Miss Rebels finished 2009 with a 44-20 overall record, going 20-10 in SEC play. They went 0-2 in the SEC Tourney losing to Georgia, 6-3, and Florida, 12-2. They were selected to host the NCAA Regional in Oxford where they went 3-1 with one victory over Monmouth before defeating Western Kentucky in two out of three games to advance to the Super Regional round. They played a very intense series against the Virginia Cavaliers, taking Game 1, but losing the final two games to end the season.
The Rebels return three out of the five top hitters from last year’s team in Tim Ferguson, Zach Miller, and Matt Smith. Ferguson led the team last season with .358 average, while stealing 18 bases in 19 attempts. Miller finished last season with a .341 average with five homers and 38 RBI, while Matt Smith had .336 average and eight homers.
The only weekend starting pitcher returning is Drew Pomeranz, who made 16 starts last season while going 8-4 with a 3.40 ERA. (#5 TCBB Top 100 Countdown). Aaron Barrett is next on the team in starts last season with only four. He went 0-1 with an 8.70 ERA, pitching in a total of 30 innings, having opponents hit .344 off him. Junior RHP Jake Morgan, who served last season as the closer, comes back after going 4-1 with nine saves and a 3.46 ERA.
The top four teams in this division are some of the best in the country. I can make a case for anyone out of the top four to win the division but right now with the offensive prowess of the Razorbacks, I see them winning the divisional title. Alabama brings back an experienced pitching staff while having a potent offense. LSU has some major holes in the lineup which will need to be filled quickly before the start of the 2010 SEC season, and should be a formidable opponent during the postseason. Ole Miss has some major question marks in the rotation after Pomeranz which need to be solved. If they can fill those spots, then they will be tough. Auburn and Mississippi State are still a step behind the upper half of the division right now.
Special thanks to William Knox for assisting with this article.