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2014 CBD Season Preview: SEC

SEC Circle Gold Letters on White BackgroundSEC East

Florida Gators

2013 record: 29-30 (14-16)
Finish: Regionals (4th place, Bloomington)

2013 was a season of frustration and disappointment for a team coming off back to back to back College World Series appearances. Injuries decimated the Gators, and many even questioned whether they belonged in a regional after finishing one game over .500 heading into postseason play. After a quick 0-2 exit in Bloomington, the answer was, well, probably not.

That didn’t stop Florida from bringing home the #1 recruiting class in college baseball this offseason, and many of the incoming freshmen are expected to compete for playing time. Florida regains starting pitcher Karsten Whitson who missed the 2013 season with shoulder surgery. The Gators should be improved from last year, but it remains to be seen if they’re going to be able to become a powerhouse in the SEC like in years past. The answer will largely depend on just how big of an impact their #1 recruiting class will make in 2014.

Georgia Bulldogs

2013 record: 21-32 (7-20)
Finish: No postseason

Coming off a miserable 2013 season, the Georgia Bulldogs are looking to make strides to turn around a program that has been trending downward. Since finishing runner up in the national championship in 2008, the Bulldogs are 56-87 in SEC play and have missed postseason action in three of the past four seasons. That all led to the firing of head coach David Perno and the hiring of Scott Stricklin who led Kent State to the College World Series in 2012.

Returning starter Jess Posey leads the way as the team leader in OBP at .408 from 2013, with Hunter Cole (.378 OBP) and Nelson Ward (.371 OBP) also key players heading into the season. Freshman pitcher Sean McLaughlin was a bright spot, posting an impressive 3.28 ERA in 13 starts.

Kentucky Wildcats

2013 record: 30-25 (11-19)
Finish: No postseason

After being a #1 seed in their regional in 2012, Kentucky took a step backward last season going one and done in the SEC Tournament and missing the postseason altogether thanks in large part to SEC struggles.

The Wildcats are expecting a bounce back season in 2014, with much of the weight on the shoulders of do-it-all junior outfielder Austin Cousino. After a sensational freshman season in which he did pretty much everything but manage the ballclub, Cousino struggled at times in 2013, as did his team. With crucial core guys like AJ Reed, Kyle Barrett, Max Kuhn and Matt Reida returning, there’s no reason the Wildcats can’t flip the script and start winning the close SEC ballgames they lost last season.

Missouri Tigers

2013 record: 18-32 (10-20)
Finish: No postseason

Much like their football program, year one in the SEC was an adjustment process for the Missouri Tigers. Climbing out of the basement in a powerful conference like the SEC isn’t going to be easy, but this is a program who won the Big XII Tournament less than two seasons ago and has had plenty of success in the past, including producing big leaguers like Max Scherzer and Aaron Crow.

Offensive production is going to be the real challenge for the Tigers, as last season as a team they belted just 15 home runs. Only three players (Keaton Steele, Dane Opel and Josh Lester) had multi-home runs although Steele and Lester are returning to pace the offense. Losing ace Rob Zastryzny to the MLB draft is a difficult blow for a team trying to rebuild, and Mizzou is going to need big years on the mound from Keaton Steele and Brett Graves if they want to make noise in conference play.

South Carolina

2013 record: 43-20 (17-12)
Finish: Super Regionals (eliminated by North Carolina)

Despite head coach Ray Tanner stepping down from head coach to become athletic director, South Carolina didn’t miss a beat in 2013. Chad Holbrook stepped in and led the Gamecocks to the Super Regionals, although they missed going to Omaha (and championship series) for the first time since 2009. The current model program in the SEC with back-to-back NCAA titles in 2010/2011 and many other College World Series appearances, it’s Omaha or bust just about every season and 2014 will be no different.

Replacing 1st baseman LB Dantzler’s power (15 HR, .617 SLG) and eye at the plate (.444 OBP) will be a challenge, but the Gamecocks brought in the #11 recruiting class and will look to shortstop Joey Pankake to lead the way offensively. As always, this group will be right in the middle of the SEC title race and has a great chance at getting back to Omaha.

Tennessee Volunteers

2013 record: 22-30 (8-20)
Finish: No postseason

Slowly but surely, Dave Serrano is trying to rebuild Tennessee. The program has been in the SEC cellar for years now, last appearing in the SEC Tournament in 2007 and postseason in 2005. Serrano is in his 3rd season at the helm in Knoxville having come from powerhouse Cal State Fullerton and brought in a top 15 recruiting class this season.

If the Vols have any hopes of playing in the postseason they must fix a pitching staff that struggled mightily in 2013. Pitching gave up double digit runs in SEC play 8 times and on the season had a team ERA of 5.37.

Vanderbilt Commodores

2013 record: 54-12 (26-3)
Finish: Super Regionals (eliminated by Louisville)

Last season Vanderbilt went down in the record books winning more SEC games than any team in league history at 26. Unfortunately they had an all-too-familiar early exit in the post-season going in with aspirations of winning a championship.

2014 they will be looking to replace former stars in Tony Kemp, Kevin Ziomek, Conner Harrell, Conrad Gregor and Mike Yastrzemski, all of which were drafted in June. Just like division rival South Carolina, Vanderbilt has become a program so powerful they simply plug in big time recruits and get great results year after year. This season they are lacking the experience of years past but are expected to contend per usual and will lean heavily on the arm of right-handed ace Tyler Beede, who had a 2.32 with 103 K’s in 101 IP in 2013.

Prediction
1. South Carolina
2. Vanderbilt
3. Florida
4. Kentucky
5. Georgia
6. Tennessee
7. Missouri

SEC West

Alabama Crimson Tide

2013 record: 35-28 (14-15)
Finish: Regionals (3rd place, Tallahassee)

Alabama loses top hitter Brett Booth and reliable SEC weekend starter Charley Sullivan, and junior righty Spencer Turnbull will look to pick up the slack and become the ace of the staff by having his best season yet after posting a 3.70 ERA in 15 starts. The Tide aren’t necessarily overwhelming but are relatively solid all around and should be in contention for a possible return trip to the NCAA Tournament. Sophomore infielder Daniel Cucjen is a player to watch having posted a .471 OBP in very limited action last season who should see a lot more time on the field.

Arkansas Razorbacks

2013 record: 39-22 (18-11)
Finish: Regionals (2nd place, Manhattan)

You can look no further than their anemic offense as to why the Razorbacks underachieved last season and that will be the big question in 2014 as well. Losing star pitchers Ryne Stanek and Barrett Astin to the early rounds of the MLB draft hurts, but pitching will likely be a strong suit again for the Hogs with sophomore Trey Killian playing a big role for their SEC weekend rotation after mostly pitching out of the bullpen in 2013. If Arkansas can find a way to score any runs, this team could go far. Otherwise it’s going to be another season of grinding out 2-1 and 3-2 games and hoping for the best.

Auburn Tigers

2013 record: 33-23 (13-17)
Finish: No postseason

New head coach Sonny Galloway is on The Plains looking to improve a team that finished last in the ultra-competitive SEC West, but he knows it won’t be easy. Many question marks surround the Auburn pitching staff, especially what it’s going to look like on SEC weekends. Durable lefty Michael O’Neal (2.73 ERA, 2 CG, 14 GS) is back, but it’s going to take a lot more than O’Neal to form a formidable rotation and compete in the SEC.

The Tigers offense is expected to have to carry the team this season and in all likelihood win a lot of high scoring affairs. The versatile Jordan Ebert returns after an impressive freshman season, and co-home run leader Damek Tomscha (7 HR, 26 RBI, .384 OBP) is going to be counted on to drive in runs as Auburn looks to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.

LSU Tigers

2013 record: 57-11 (23-7)
Finish: College World Series (T-7th place)

LSU enters the 2014 season with all the ingredients you need to win a national championship – a bona fide ace in Aaron Nola (1.57 ERA, 126 IP, 122 K’s, 0.80 WHIP), quality lineup led by super shortstop Alex Bregman and third baseman Christian Ibarra, and a very good bullpen.

Losing Mason Katz, Raph Rhymes and Jacoby Jones from the middle of the lineup will hurt but it’s still a championship type mentality the Tigers will be bringing to the table. It’s a crapshoot once you get to Omaha, but if LSU doesn’t at least make it back I’ll be very surprised.

Ole Miss Rebels

2013 record: 38-24 (15-15)
Finish: Regionals (3rd place, Raleigh)

Most of the past decade Ole Miss baseball has been known for two things: successful regular seasons and disappointing post-seasons. The Rebels will be looking to change the latter, but are going to need some young players in their 12th ranked recruiting class to step up in a major way.

All-SEC catcher Stuart Turner is gone, as are their top two pitchers in Bobby Wall and Mike Mayers. Ole Miss still has a lot of talent on the 2014 team and certainly has the looks of a group that will return to the NCAA Tournament, but if they’re going to be more than middle of the pack in the league their SEC weekend rotation will have to make some great strides.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

2013 record: 51-20 (16-14)
Finish: College World Series (2nd place)

The Bulldogs enter 2014 coming off the greatest season in school history as they finished runner-up in the national championship to UCLA. You don’t replace players like Hunter Renfroe, Adam Frazier and Kendall Graveman, but Mississippi State feels very confident about where they’re at in 2014 thanks to a lot of talent and depth, not to mention bringing in the #2 recruiting class in the nation.

Some of those new additions include outfielder Joey Swinarski, who has all the talent to become an immediate impact guy, catcher Daniel Garner who hit .363 with a .450 OBP in the California League over the summer, and Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year Reid Humphreys at shortstop.

The offense will be anchored by powerful 1st baseman Wes Rea, who delivered clutch hit after hit during their run to Omaha last season. Infielder Alex Detz has the plate discipline straight out of Moneyball (.449 OBP) and Brett Pirtle sports a .408 OBP along with stellar defense at second base. And we haven’t even gotten to pre-season All-Americans Jonathan Holder and Ross Mitchell, both of which lock down an impressive bullpen.

Without any major injuries, the Bulldogs definitely have the look of a team who could make another deep run this season.

Texas A&M Aggies

2013 record: 34-29 (13-16)
Finish: Regionals (2nd place, Corvallis)

In their first year in the SEC the Aggies had a solid campaign, eventually being eliminated by College World Series participant Oregon State. Shortstop Mikey Reynolds returned for his senior season and had a great year, but replacing him will be a difficult task. The Aggies do return their top two hitters outside of the departing Reynolds in Cole Lankford and Troy Stein, and ace Daniel Mengden (2.11 ERA, 16 GS) is back for his junior season and is expected to carry the staff on SEC weekends.

It’s extremely important for A&M to get off on the right foot in SEC play as they have a very manageable first half of the schedule, but a brutal finish: their last four series are @ Mississippi State, vs LSU, @ Arkansas and vs Ole Miss. (Gulp.)

Prediction
1. LSU
2. Mississippi State
3. Arkansas
4. Ole Miss
5. Texas A&M
6. Alabama
7. Auburn

  • Blytheville Schools

    A very well-written article, and it’s easy to tell that the writer knows his stuff – and then some. With LSU and Mississippi State in the mix, the SEC West is definitely the best division in college baseball.