As usual the SEC is loaded top-to-bottom. The 2017 season saw each division race come down to the final weekend of the regular season. No one was more dominant in the postseason than the SEC sending eight teams to the NCAA Tournament with six advancing to the Super Regionals and then three to the College World Series. And then of course two SEC teams met in the finals with Florida winning it all. Expect the same level of competition in the SEC this year with the chance for even more teams to enter the postseason.
Alabama (2017 Record: 19-34-1, 5-24-1)
It was not pretty for Alabama in 2017 as they only managed to win five conference games and missed out on the SEC Baseball Tournament. And then they had to replace their head coach who was only there for one year. New Head Coach Brad Bohannon will look to stabilize this Alabama baseball program.
This offense will return a lot of players with plenty of experience. Second baseman Cobie Vance might be the best MLB prospect on this team. He hit .293 last year with 26 runs scored, 11 doubles, and 32 RBI. Outfielder Chandler Taylor has one of the most powerful bats in the country. He hit 16 home runs last year to go along with a .282 average, 39 runs scored, 10 doubles, and 34 RBI. Shortstop Chandler Avant hit .286 last year with 35 runs scored, 15 doubles and 2 home runs. Outfielder Hunter Alexander hit .282 a year ago with 26 runs scored, 6 home runs and 33 RBI. First baseman Cody Henry was second on the team last year with a .294 average to go along with 29 runs scored, 8 home runs and 31 RBI. Joe Breaux is a transfer from McLennan CC (TX) who is expected to take over an outfield spot this season and hit atop the lineup. Freshman catcher Sam Praytor should get an opportunity to play right away.
Senior Jake Walters returns to lead the starting rotation after posting a 3.98 ERA last year in 73.2 innings pitched with 64 strikeouts. The senior has been in the weekend rotation since his freshman season. Sam Finnerty was solid mostly out of the bullpen last year with a 4.60 ERA in 45 innings pitched with 35 strikeouts. He’ll most likely jump into the weekend rotation in 2018. Freshman Brock Guffey is a left-handed pitcher who had a very strong fall and could see some significant innings on the mound this year.
“With this being the first season here at Alabama for this coaching staff, we are simply focused on pounding the strike zone, defending the field at a high level, and stringing together competitive at-bats. If we do those things consistently, then we should have a good season.” – Head Coach Brad Bohannon
Arkansas (2017 Record: 45-19, 18-11)
The Razorbacks ended up having an outstanding 2017 season that saw them fall just short of great accomplishments. They went to the finals of the SEC Tournament, but lost. And then they pushed Missouri State to a final game in the Fayetteville Regional but fell short.
Shortstop Jax Biggers returns as the team’s leading hitter from last year when he hit .338 with 48 runs scored, 14 doubles, 4 triples, 4 home runs and 37 RBI. Outfielder and DH Luke Bonfield hit .294 a year ago with 41 runs scored, 9 home runs and 49 RBI. Dominic Fletcher should return to the outfield after hitting .291 in 2017 with 44 runs scored, 12 home runs and 37 RBI. Fletcher also had a great summer. Another outfielder, Eric Cole, hit .282 last year with 31 runs scored, 12 doubles, 5 home runs and 25 RBI. Second baseman Carson Shaddy hit .279 a year ago with 48 runs scored, 10 doubles, 8 home runs and 40 RBI, while catcher Grant Koch hit .264 with 40 runs scored, 14 doubles, 13 home runs and 42 RBI.
Blaine Knight returns atop the weekend rotation after posting a 3.28 ERA last year in 90.2 innings pitched with 96 strikeouts. A healthy Isaiah Campbell should be in the weekend rotation this year. Kacey Murphy started 10 games last year and posted a 3.65 ERA in 49.1 innings pitched with 68 strikeouts. Matt Cronin and Jake Reindl were both solid out of the bullpen last year, but either could move into the weekend rotation if needed. Cronin had a 2.00 ERA in 18 innings pitched last year with 31 strikeouts, while Reindl had a 2.31 ERA in 50.2 innings pitched with 49 strikeouts.
Arkansas seems to be the darling going into the 2018 season with many people picking them to reach the College World Series. Those expectations are justified with all they have coming back. We’ll see if they can live up to the high expectations.
Auburn (2017 Record: 37-26, 16-14)
The 2017 season started out very strong for Auburn as they were 32-14, 14-7 and atop the SEC West at the end of April. But they finished the regular season just 2-8, which cost them a chance to host a regional. After going 1-2 in the SEC Tournament, they went to the Tallahassee regional where they won the first two games, but then dropped two in a row to host Florida State.
They lose their top two hitters from last season, but have pretty much everyone else back in the lineup. First baseman Conor Davis is the team’s leading returning hitter after batting .282 last year in 163 at-bats. Jay Estes hit .276 last year with 39 runs scored, 19 doubles, 1 home run and 29 RBI. He’ll be transitioning to the outfield for 2018. Second baseman Luke Jarvis hit .276 a year ago with 34 runs scored, 10 doubles, 5 home runs and 27 RBI. Dylan Ingram led the team with 8 home runs last year and will be back. Third baseman Josh Anthony and shortstop Will Holland also return with plenty of experience. Holland had a very good summer and hopes to carry that into the spring. Junior college transfers Brendan Venter and Brett Wright impressed during the fall and could contribute right away. Venter could play a corner infield spot, while Wright will compete at catcher. Steven Williams will also compete at catcher as a freshman, while fellow freshman Judd Ward will compete in the outfield.
Casey Mize returns to lead this rotation and enters the 2018 season as a potential top 10 pick in the upcoming MLB Draft. He led the team with a 2.04 ERA last year in 83.2 innings pitched with 109 strikeouts. The key for Mize will be staying healthy all season. Davis Daniel had an up-and-down freshman season and finished with a 5.89 ERA in 70.1 innings pitched with 61 strikeouts. Calvin Coker was solid out of the bullpen with a 3.78 ERA in 52.1 innings pitched with 41 strikeouts and 2 saves in 2017. Freshmen pitchers Cody Greenhill and Tanner Burns were highly touted recruits and will likely make an immediate impact.
Head Coach Butch Thompson said they will have to replace a lot of experience from behind the plate, but hopes that position gets filled quickly between Wright, Williams or a committee. He also said they are probably deeper 1-10 in the pitching staff, but the question will be how strong they are 1-5 to start the season with the loss of Keegan Thompson. Coach Thompson also mentioned there will be a lot of competition in the outfield at the start of spring.
LSU (2017 Record: 52-20, 21-9)
It was a remarkable season for LSU winning over 50 games and winning the SEC Tournament. Then they fought their way to the College World Series finals after beating top seeded Oregon State in back-to-back games. To me, I thought they were the best team in the country last year, but they came up short against Florida in the championship series.
Outfielder Zach Watson returns to the lineup after leading the team with a .317 average last year to go along with 42 runs scored, 9 doubles, 3 triples, 9 home runs, 37 RBI and 12 stolen bases. He has a chance to become one of the best hitters in college baseball. Antoine Duplantis and Beau Jordan also return to the outfield. Duplantis hit .316 a year ago with 50 runs scored, 14 doubles, 61 RBI and 19 stolen bases. Josh Smith, Jake Slaughter and Nick Coomes should all get a chance to start on the infield. Bryce Jordan will also be back after missing 2017 because of an injury. Two-way player Daniel Cabrera could have an immediate impact.
The pitching staff loses all of its weekend starters from last year with Jared Poche’ and Alex Lange getting drafted, and Eric Walker going down due to Tommy John surgery. Caleb Gilbert and Zack Hess return as leaders of this staff. Gilbert had a 2.16 ERA in 58.1 innings pitched (5 starts) with 67 strikeouts last year. Hess had a 3.12 ERA in 60.2 innings pitched (6 starts) with 83 strikeouts and 4 saves. AJ Labas, Cameron Sanders and Nick Storz are all freshman pitchers who were drafted last summer and could have an immediate impact on the mound.
“Our biggest emphasis right now is developing our pitching staff, since we need to replace our entire starting rotation from last season,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “We realize that nothing will be handed to us. It will take an unbelievable amount of hustle and hard work, a tough attitude, unwavering confidence, and clutch play for us to achieve our goals.”
Ole Miss (2017 Record: 32-25, 14-16)
Ole Miss had a subpar 2017 season with just 32 wins and a losing record in the conference. They made the SEC Tournament but lost to Auburn in their first game, which ended their season.
Outfielder Will Golsan returns to lead the lineup after hitting .312 last year with 41 runs scored, 12 doubles, 3 home runs, 22 RBI and 7 stolen bases. Nick Fortes led the team with a .319 average last year in 138 at-bats with 5 home runs and 32 RBI. Outfielder Ryan Olenek hit .272 a year ago and stole 10 bases. They have three of their top four hitters back from last year, but lose a lot of thump in the lineup with Tate Blackman and Colby Bortles gone (19 of the team’s 47 home runs last year). Infielders Tyler Keenan and Anthony Servideo could see playing time as freshman.
After a great summer, Ryan Rolison enters the 2018 season as one of the top pitching prospects in college baseball. He had a 3.06 ERA last year in 61.2 innings pitched with 64 strikeouts. He’ll lead the weekend rotation. Dallas Woolfolk was great out of the bullpen last year with a 2.15 ERA in 37.2 innings pitched with 41 strikeouts and 12 saves. Junior college transfer Austin Miller should help bolster the pitching staff, as well as freshman Jordan Fowler.
The lineup should be improved or at least the same with only three starters lost; although it was a couple of big bats. The question will be how quickly the starting pitching, outside of Rolison, develops.
Mississippi State (2017 Record: 40-27, 17-13)
The Bulldogs had a chance to win the SEC West title going into the final weekend but were swept at home by LSU. They went 2-2 in the SEC Tournament but advanced to the Hattiesburg Regional. After losing the first game of the regional, they won four straight to advance. They went back to Baton Rouge for the Super Regionals and were swept by LSU again.
There will be a massive hole in this lineup with Brent Rooker gone. Outfielder Jake Mangum will try to pick up the slack and lead this lineup in 2018. He hit .324 a year ago with 51 runs scored, 15 doubles, 26 RBI and 14 stolen bases. Another outfielder, Elijah MacNamee, is back after hitting .267 last year, while infielder Luke Alexander returns as well with plenty of experience. Hunter Stovall and Hunter Vansau hit .288 and .297 respectively last year. They’ll likely take on larger roles in the lineup this season.
Konnor Pilkington returns to lead the weekend rotation after posting a 3.08 ERA last year in 108 innings pitched with 111 strikeouts. Jacob Billingsley started 13 games last year, while posting a 4.78 ERA in 52.2 innings pitched with 52 strikeouts. J.P. France is a transfer from Tulane who should help out in the pitching staff. Spencer Price and Riley Self return to form one of the best bullpens in college baseball. Price had a 2.91 ERA last year in 34 innings pitched with 40 strikeouts and 14 saves. Self had a 3.72 ERA in 48.1 innings pitched with 60 strikeouts and 8 saves.
There is no question that this team has the ability to pitch and stay in ball games. The concern is on offense where they lose a lot of production from last year. If this team is going to get back to where they were in 2017, several bats will need to step up in the lineup.
Texas A&M (2017 Record: 41-23, 16-14)
The Aggies limped into the postseason losing their last three conference series, and then went one-and-out in the SEC Tournament. But then they marched through the Houston regional winning a couple of 1-run games. They ended up hosting a Super Regional and facing a Cinderella team in Davidson. After another 1-run win to start the supers, they breezed to the College World Series. However, the competition caught up with them there as they went two-and-out.
Second baseman Braden Shewmake returns as one of the best players in the country after hitting .328 as a freshman last year with 47 runs scored, 18 doubles, 11 home runs, 69 RBI and 11 stolen bases. Catcher Cole Bedford returns after hitting .301 last year with 24 runs scored, 3 home runs and 26 RBI. Logan Foster hit .280 last year with 33 runs scored, 13 doubles, 6 home runs and 24 RBI. Third baseman George Janca hit .261 with 40 runs scored, 9 doubles, 4 triples, 6 home runs and 30 RBI. First baseman Hunter Coleman hit .283 a year ago with 29 runs scored, 5 home runs and 22 RBI.
Stephen Kolek should lead the weekend rotation after starting 16 games in 2017 with a 3.79 ERA in 90.1 innings pitched with 82 strikeouts. Mitchell Kilkenny had a 3.67 ERA in 56.1 innings pitched with 56 strikeouts last year. John Doxakis posted a 5.44 ERA in 49.2 innings pitched with 51 strikeouts. Kaylor Chafin was great mainly in relief last year as he posted a 2.33 ERA in 77.1 innings pitched with 72 strikeouts and 3 saves. Cason Sherrod posted a 2.89 ERA in 43.2 innings pitched with 38 strikeouts and 4 saves.
I thought this team was a year ahead of schedule in 2017. This year they should be much deeper and prepared for another long postseason run.
2018 All-SEC West Preseason Team
C: Grant Koch (Arkansas)
1B: Cody Henry (Alabama)
2B: Braden Shewmake (Texas A&M)
SS: Jax Biggers (Arkansas)
3B: George Janca (Texas A&M)
OF: Zach Watson (LSU)
OF: Antoine Duplantis (LSU)
OF: Dominic Fletcher (Arkansas)
DH: Luke Bonfield (Arkansas)
SP: Stephen Kolek (Texas A&M)
SP: Ryan Rolison (Ole Miss)
SP: Casey Mize (Auburn)
SP: Blaine Knight (Arkansas)
SP: Konnor Pilkington (Miss. St.)
RP: Dallas Woolfolk (Ole Miss)
RP: Kaylor Chafin (Texas A&M)
RP: Spencer Price (Miss. St.)
2B: Carson Shaddy (Arkansas)
2B: Cobie Vance (Alabama)
OF: Chandler Taylor (Alabama)
OF: Eric Cole (Arkansas)
OF: Jay Estes (Auburn)
OF: Jake Mangum (Miss. St.)
SP: Jake Walters (Alabama)
SP: Caleb Gilbert (LSU)
SP/RP: Zack Hess (LSU)
RP: Riley Self (Miss. St.)
RP: Jake Reindl (Arkansas)
RP: Cason Sherrod (Texas A&M)
Predicted Order to Finish:
- Texas A&M
- Mississippi State
- Ole Miss