2011 was a year of confirmation for the SEC. Not only did South Carolina claim its second national championship in as many years, but SEC teams occupied the top three national rankings for the majority of the season. Furthermore, all three of those teams made the trip to Omaha, while seven teams from the SEC made the NCAA tournament—both tallies being the most of any conference in college baseball. In essence, 2011 cemented the SEC’s ascendancy atop college baseball, and 2012 promises to be more of the same.
After shaking off his team’s loss in the finals of last year’s College World Series, Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan could only help but think one thing: “We’re going to be back here.” And with the majority of the line-up, the entire weekend rotation, as well as the closer and the set-up man from that team returning, there’s no reason to think they won’t. That is why the Gators come into 2012 national pre-season #1, and heavy favorites to win the College Worlds Series. “There will be a lot of expectations on this team this year,” O’Sullivan admitted in an interview. “We’ve got a ton of motivation. We didn’t win the World Series last year. We lost the final two games of the year, so we’ve got plenty of motivation and we’ve got some highly motivated players. We’re going to take a day-to-day approach, just try to get better and see what happens.” Yet while the Gators chances of returning to Omaha are high, so are the chances of them being joined by fellow-members of the SEC.
Although the national attention has faded somewhat form Columbia, SC, the two-time defending champs are not to be (read: never to be) overlooked. Despite losing six starting position players, South Carolina returns the core of their pitching staff (namely starter Michael Roth and closer Matt Price), and have reloaded with one of the most talented recruiting classes in the nation. The third other team from the SEC to make it to Omaha, Vanderbilt, will also be looking to make a splash with a surge of young talent (highlighted by Tyler Beede and Chris Harvey) to make up for the loss of 12 lettermen from last year’s team—most notably SEC Pitcher of the Year Grayson Garvin and power-slugging first baseman Aaron Westlake.
Yet this is not just a conference of three teams. Arkansas, coming off a top-25 ranking, will return the bulk of its pitching staff that managed a 3.20 team ERA (fourth best in the SEC), while Georgia—who made it to the Regional finals in Corvallis last season—only loses two letter-winners from their entire team. Arguably no team will suffer a bigger loss from one player’s absence than that of LSU with Mikie Mahtook. However, Coach Paul Manieri returns the bulk of his lineup, weekend rotation and bullpen (minus closer Matty Ott) which should enable the Tigers to bounce back from an unusually down year.
Alabama and Ole Miss will also be two teams to look out for as both return an impressive corps of hitters despite both teams losing their entire weekend rotations. Conversely, Mississippi State’s biggest concern this year will be to make up for the loss of nearly their entire lineup—8 of 9 starters. (In what must be a silver lining for head coach John Cohen, the Bulldogs do return their weekend rotation from last year as well as All-American closer Caleb Reed.) In the same boat is Auburn who will try to rebuild their entire lineup (who finished fifth in the SEC in hitting) while trying to develop a pitching staff which finished with a 5.09 team ERA (second worst in the SEC). Meanwhile, Kentucky will hope to fill the gap in their pitching staff left by first-round pick Alex Meyer, while their All-SEC third baseman Thomas McCarthy leads an offense that was fourth-best in the SEC in 2011.
Yet perhaps the biggest task before any coach in baseball may be the one that lies before Dave Serrano at Tennessee. Taking over a team which finished last in almost every hitting and pitching statistic, Serrano will try to bring some of the success he experienced at UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton to Knoxville to rejuvenate UT into the powerhouse it once was. While Serrano has the advantage of a clean-slate and low-expectations for this season, he also has the reality that results will be more difficult to achieve in the uber-competitive SEC and likely will not materialize for several seasons.
With the SEC looking for its fourth-straight NCAA championship, 2012 promises to be another exciting season. Despite losing some major talent, the SEC is reloaded and primed to be, yet again, the most competitive conference in college baseball.
Alabama 35-28 (14-16)
Key Returning Players: OF Taylor Dugas, SS Jared Reaves, RHP Tucker Hawley
Key Losses: RHP Jonathan Smart, RHP Nathan Kilcrease, LHP Adam Morgan, C Brock Bennett
Head coach Mitch Gaspard must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when he learned that junior outfielder Taylor Dugas would be returning to school for his senior season. Not only was Dugas a pre-season All-American, but he led the Crimson Tide’s offense in nearly every offensive category in 2012. Although ‘Bama hit just .274 as a team last season, they are returning nearly their entire lineup in 2012 (with the exception of catcher Brock Bennett) and will need to rely on their offense after losing 2/3 of their starting rotation as well as their closer RHP Jonathan Smart. To help alleviate the loss, Gaspard landed the #1 Juco prospect in the country RHP Ian Gardeck (8th round pick of the Chicago White Sox), who will most likely be placed into an 8th or 9th inning role from the start of the season.
Arkansas 40-22 (15-15)
Key Returning Players: RHP DJ Baxendale, LHP Cade Lynch, LHP Randall Fant, 1B Dominic Ficcociello
Key Losses: C James McCann, OF Jarrod McKinney
Arkansas is hoping to build off their success in 2011 as they return nearly all the pieces of a pitching staff that managed a 3.20 team ERA en route to a top-25 ranking overall. Leading the Razorbacks is All-American starter DJ Baxendale, who went 10-2 with a miniscule 1.58 ERA. While it is apparent pitching will continue to be a strong suite for Dave Van Horn’s ball club, he is hoping to get some more production out of first baseman Dominic Ficcociello, after losing offensive stalwarts catcher James McCann and outfielder Jarrod McKinney to the draft. But the team’s pitching might be so good that you should expect the Razorbacks to be right back in the top spot of the SEC West in 2012.
Auburn 29-29 (14-16)
The loss of seven of nine starters from the Auburn line-up is the biggest issue facing a team that posted a 5.09 team ERA, and went 29-29 in 2011. The biggest losses will be All-SEC shortstop Casey McElroy and All-SEC catcher Tony Caldwell, who combined for 16 homeruns and 97 runs batted in. Although head coach John Pawlowski landed highly-touted hitting prospect and Louisville Slugger All-American Craig Shirley, he only returns one hitter with an average over .255. On the mound, the Tigers will look to returning seniors Derek Varnadore (6-3, 3.68 ERA) and Jon Luke Jacobs (1-5, 4.01 ERA) to carry this team through what is sure to be a tough in-conference schedule.
Florida 53-19 (22-8)
Key Returning Players: C Mike Zunino, OF Preston Tucker, SS Nolan Fontana, DH/LHP Brian Johnson RHP Hudson Randall, RHP Karsten Whitson, RHP/DH Austin Maddox
Key Losses: LHP Nick Maronde, RHP Alex Panteliodis
“It’s very rare that you get back your whole weekend rotation and get back as many key pieces from the previous year,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said of his Florida team. “When you have a good year like we did last year, there is usually a lot of turnover. This is one of those years where we return a lot, so it’s reassuring.” Reassuring might be an understatement. The Gators return five All-Americans, and a plethora of talent on both sides of the ball. Highlighting the 2012 Gators is SEC Player of the Year, catcher Mike Zunino (.371, 19 HR, 67 RBI), and starters Hudson Randall (11-3, 2.17 ERA, 73K) and Karsten Whitson (8-1, 2.40 ERA, 92K). While they do lose bullpen staple Nick Maronde, the returns of closer Austin Maddox and set-up man Steven Rodriguez still make this year’s bullpen one of the strongest in the SEC. We’ll check in again with them in June.
Georgia 33-32 (16-14)
Key Returning Players: 2B Levi Hyams, SS Kyle Farmer, 3B Curt Powell, RHP Michael Palazzone, LHP Blake Dieterich
Key Losses: OF Zach Cone
The Georgia bulldogs overcame a rough start to 2011 to reach the Corvallis Regional finals before ultimately succumbing to Oregon State. Luckily for head coach Dave Perno the losses in 2012 are minimal, meaning that this year’s Bulldogs are top five contender in the SEC. Leading this year’s team is arguably the best middle-infield tandem in the SEC: second baseman Levi Hyams (.332, 17 2B, 38 RBI) and shortstop Kyle Farmer (.308, 8 HR, 58 RBI). On the mound, righty Michael Palazzone (10-5, 3.14 ERA), who was so pivotal in UGA’s success, returns to lead a staff looking to improve upon their 4.90 team ERA in 2011. The bullpen still remains a bit of a mystery, however: closer Tyler Maloof was second in the SEC in saves last season (18) despite posting an astronomical 7.16 ERA. Yet with the return of so much talent, Georgia should contend to be a top-5 team in the SEC in 2012.
Kentucky 25-30 (8-22)
Coach Gary Henderson has an uphill battle ahead of him in 2012. Although the Wildcats return their best hitter (Thomas McCarthy) from a lineup which hit .299 (fourth best in the SEC), they lose the only three other hitters who posted averages above .300. The silver lining for Coach Henderson is that catchers Luke Maile and Michael Williams, who combined for 16 homeruns in 2011, are returning and should preserve most of the pop that made Kentucky such a threat at the plate last year. On the mound, the loss of first-round pick Alex Meyer is devastating to a club that didn’t have another starter with an ERA under 4.61. Coach Henderson will look to lefty starter Taylor Rogers and right-handed reliever Trevor Gott (who were both named Cape-Cod League All-Stars over the summer), as well as new-addition LHP Jerad Grundy (see below), to anchor the Wildcats’ pitching staff in 2012.
LSU 36-20 (13-17)
Key Returning Players: OF Raph Rhymes, 2B JaCoby Jones, OF Mason Katz, RHP Kurt McCune, RHP Kevin Gausman
Key Losses: OF Mikie Mahtook, CP Matty Ott
LSU is hoping to improve off of 36-20 finish from a year ago, despite finishing with an RPI in the top 5. Certainly the loss of first-round pick Mikie Mahtook is a blow to Coach Paul Maineri’s squad, but with the next six best hitters in the lineup all returning, 2012 should be another productive year at the plate for the Tigers. Headlining the offense will be outfielders Mason Katz (.337, 21 2B, 53 RBI) and Raph Rhymes (.360, 18 2B, 42 RBI), as well as All-SEC Freshman team second baseman JaCoby Jones. On the mound, the Tigers return their Friday night and Saturday starters, Kurt McCune and Kevin Gausman, respectively, but lose Sunday starter Ben Alsup. Sophomore Ryan Eades showed great progress this summer, starting the Cape Cod League All-Star game for the West Division, and will most likely be called open to fill Alsup’s spot in the rotation. The bullpen remains the biggest question for Coach Maineri, as he loses his stud closer Matty Ott. But with a bevy of young talent and promising incoming class, this should not remain a question mark for too long.
Mississippi State 38-25 (14-16)
Key Returning Players: RHP Caleb Reed, RHP Kevin Graveman, LHP Nick Routt, OF C.T. Bradford
Key Losses: 3B Jarrod Parks, OF Nick Vickerson, OF Jaron Shepherd, 1B Jonathan Ogden
Mississippi State made an impressive run in 2011, finishing the year with the #19 ranking in the country and falling one win short of making it the College World Series. A large part of that run was thanks to seniors Jarrod Parks (.363, 36 RBI, .507 OBP) and Nick Vickerson (.319, 9 HR, 37 RBI) who were the cornerstones for head coach John Cohen’s offense. But the Bulldog’s lineup will have an entirely different look in 2012 thanks to the departures of nine offensive players. The only regular starter for returning for Coach Cohen will be outfielder C.T. Bradford—who, as a freshman, was the only player to appear in every game for MSU. On the flip side, the Bulldogs return nearly all of their pitchers from a year ago, meaning that many of MSU’s games will be decided from the mound this season. Highlighting the ‘Dogs pitching staff are All-American closer Caleb Reed (1.55 ERA, 12 SV) and junior starters Kendall Graveman (5-0, 3.65 ERA) and Chris Stratton (5-7, 5.21 ERA, 76K).
Ole Miss 30-25 (13-17)
Key Returning Players: 2B Alex Yarbrough, OF Tanner Mathis, 1B Matt Tracy
Key Losses: OF Matt Smith, LHP Matt Crouse, RHP David Goforth, LHP Austin Wright
South Carolina 55-14 (22-8)
Key Returning Players: LHP Michael Roth, RHP Matt Price, RHP Forrest Koumas 1B Christian Walker
Key Losses: 2B Scott Wingo, C Brady Thomas, OF Robert Beary, OF Jackie Bradley Jr., RHP John Taylor
While South Carolina might have lost some of the players that got them back-to-back national championships, don’t confuse that with them being a lame duck in 2012 (as is shown by the preseason #2 national ranking). The Gamecocks return arguably their two best weapons, lefty starter Michael Roth (14-3, 1.06 ERA) and righty closer Matt Price (7-3, 1.83 ERA, 20 SV), in addition to the rest of their weekend rotation: righties Forrest Koumas (6-1, 2.96 ERA) and Colby Holmes (7-3, 3.69 ERA). The loss of three-quarters of their infield (notably second baseman Scott Wingo) will be a significant blow to Ray Tanner’s squad, as will be the losses of catcher Brady Thomas and centerfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. Yet as Coach Tanner has reminded us time and time again, this isn’t a team that rebuilds—they just reload. And they have done so again by bringing in arguably the best recruiting class in the nation. Headlining this year’s newcomers are RHP Evan Beal (8th round pick by the Royals), left-hander Jordan Montgomery (2011 Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of South Carolina), outfielder Tanner English (13th round pick by TB Rays, No. 50 best high school prospect in nation), infielder TJ Costen (No. 2 prospect out of state of Virginia, 22nd round pick) and catcher Grayson Greiner (No. 1 catching prospect in the state of South Carolina).
Tennessee 25-29 (7-23)
Key Returning Players: SS Zach Osbourne, C Ethan Bennett, LHP T.J. Thornton
Key Losses: 2B Kayaan Norfolk, 3B Matt Duffy, CF Andrew Toles, LHP Steven Gruver, RHP Matt Ramsey
Head Coach Dave Serrano and Tennessee have a long way to go before they’ll be contending in the SEC again. The Vols, who finished last year with an RPI of 115, say goodbye to arguably their three best players: second baseman Khayyan Norfolk and third baseman Matt Duffy, as well as Friday night starter lefty Steven Gruver. Serrano, whose team finished in the last in almost every offensive category (with the big exception stolen bases), will look to senior shortstop Zach Osborne (.330, 9 2B, 19 RBI) and sophomore catcher Ethan Bennett (.262, 7 HR, 25 RBI) to lead a relatively inexperienced lineup. On the mound, the Vols (who had the worst team ERA in the SEC in 2011), will hope to begin rebuilding their pitching staff by infusing new blood with the likes of lefty TJ Thornton (1-1, 3.25 ERA) and junior reliever Zach Godley (1-1, 3.38 ERA, 2 SV).
Vanderbilt 54-12 (22-8)
Key Returning Players: DH Conrad Gregor, OF Tony Kemp, OF Connor Harrell, RHP T.J. Pecoraro
Key Losses: 1B Aaron Westlake, 3B Jason Esposito, C Curt Casali, LHP Grayson Garvin, RHP Sonny Gray
Vanderbilt will have some big shoes to fill in 2012 after losing starters Grayson Garvin (SEC Pitcher of the Year) and Sonny Gray (12-3, 2.12 ERA), as well as the bedrock of their offense, first baseman Aaron Westlake (.343, 17 HR, 55 RBI). Offensively, the Commodore lineup has a new look with the departures of Westlake, third baseman Jason Esposito and catcher Curt Casali. Head Coach Tim Corbin will look towards sophomore Conrad Gregor (.353 3 HR, 31 RBI) and junior Connor Harrell (.289, 9 HR, 35 RBI) to take on a lot more responsibility in the Commodore lineup, as well as for All-SEC outfielder Tony Kemp to have a big season at the top of the batting order. On the mound there are many new faces after the departure of the entire weekend rotation. The loss of freshman All-American T.J. Pecoraro to season-ending Tommy John surgery makes his return to the mound in 2012 doubtful, but freshman All-American teammate Kevin Ziomek (3-0, 1.60 ERA) is a likely candidate to start full-time. As well, million-dollar recruit Tyler Beede (see below) should see a significant amount of playing time on the mound, if he’s not already an outright starter coming out of fall ball. Regardless, Tim Corbin has restocked his club with an embarrassment of riches so it’s not a stretch to say that Vandy could be right back in Omaha next June.
College Baseball Daily Preseason All-SEC
Newcomers to Watch
2. South Carolina
6. Ole Miss