The college baseball preseason polls are out and there are high expectations for the top SEC baseball teams once again.
Eight SEC teams populate all three preseason polls, with 2018 NCAA tournament teams like South Carolina and Texas A&M on the outside of the top 25 looking in. There is plenty to watch this season in the SEC alone, but here are five things that we are really excited for in 2019.
Who's baseball's best: LSU or Vanderbilt?
This isn’t simply a question of who the best team is in the SEC but in all of Division I baseball. Vanderbilt and LSU are ranked either the No. 1 or No. 2 team heading into the 2019 NCAA season.
So, who you got?
Vanderbilt, 2014 College World Series champion, certainly has the experience, returning eight players from its 2018 everyday lineup. We know JJ Bleday will be the leader of the offense, so that makes Ty Duvall one to watch. Likely the lone new addition to the starting lineup, Duvall hit .270 with three home runs in limited appearances last season. He’ll be catching Dores righties Drake Fellows and Patrick Raby, which simply isn’t fair to opposing lineups. The only concern may be a lack of a left-handed presence in the weekend rotation.
LSU's 2017 season saw a quartet of players selected in the MLB Draft decide to return for one more run, making the CWS finals in Omaha. This season, three players — Antoine Duplantis, Zack Hess and Zach Watson — put their professional baseball careers on hold for one more season. That experience, paired with the top-ranked recruiting class, sure makes things interesting in Baton Rouge. While Hess returns to anchor the weekend rotation, Landon Marceaux is the arm to watch. The freshman is expected to enter the weekend rotation right out of the gates, with an advanced four-pitch arsenal that led to 76 strikeouts and just five free passes in 49.1 innings last season.
Florida’s drive for five
Not since Stanford’s impressive run from 1999-2003 has a team made five straight trips to the College World Series. TCU saw its run of four straight appearances in Omaha come to an end in 2018, so now it’s the Gators' turn to see if they can match Stanford.
It won’t be an easy task to get back to TD Ameritrade Park, on paper at least. The Gators need to replace their two aces — Dick Howser Award winner Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar — their All-American closer Michael Byrne and sluggers Jonathan India and JJ Schwarz.
Florida has long been as deep in pitching as anyone in the nation, and the three-headed monster of Tyler Dyson, Jack Leftwich, and Tommy Mace should be just fine. Yes, the lineup loses 34 home runs and 100 RBI in India and Schwarz, but Wil Dalton can rake and Austin Langworthy and Nelson Maldonado return experienced bats as well. Three freshmen — Kendrick Calialao, Cory Acton, and Jud Fabian — can crack the Opening Day lineup. For another program, that could be stress-inducing, but on a Florida team in which head coach Kevin O’Sullivan continues to pump out prospect-worthy talent, it is very exciting and gives us three players to watch this season.
An SEC-filled top 10
Every preseason poll is loaded with SEC baseball teams. Vanderbilt, LSU, Florida, Georgia and Ole Miss are all in D1Baseball’s top 10. Mississippi State, Arkansas, and Auburn join the top 25. That doesn't include 40-win Texas A&M, 37-win South Carolina, or Kentucky and Missouri teams that won 34 games a piece last season.
That's quite the conference. But it comes with some question marks.
Arkansas lost a lot from its run that fell one pitch short of a national championship, but there’s little reason to expect the Razorbacks not to be right back in the mix. The exciting freshmen duo of Casey Martin and Heston Kjerstad exploded on the scene as the top two hitters in the lineup and both are back, but the rotation takes a hit.
Speaking of rotations, Ole Miss has a lot to replace. Ryan Rolison and the entire weekend rotation is gone, but seven players who hit .300 or better return to the potent lineup, while closer Parker Caracci should anchor a deep bullpen.
Georgia hosted a Super Regional for the first time since 2008 last season, seemingly out of nowhere. Not only does most of the lineup and pitching staff return, but two-way SEC star Aaron Schunk — who hit .299 at third while closing out eight games for the Bulldogs — will be one of the more fun players to watch in the conference.
Auburn got off to the program's best since 2001 and made a run to the Super Regionals. The Tigers lose one of college baseball's best pitchers in Casey Mize, so all eyes will be on Tanner Burns atop the rotation. While there are a lot of new faces in the lineup as well, Edouard Julien, Will Holland, and Steven Williams return 41 home runs and 162 RBI for a team that put up a ton (423) of runs last season.
Go ahead, pick a weekend. The SEC baseball schedule is sure to have amazing baseball being played on any one of them.
The next chapter of Mississippi State baseball begins
To say the Bulldogs had an interesting season is an understatement. They lost their head coach early on, came out of the gates 0-3, got swept by Vanderbilt in their SEC opening series, and even had a game canceled due to fog. It was just that kind of year for Mississippi State.
Or so we thought.
Then came the sweep of Arkansas in late April and a sweep of Florida to close the regular season and the Bulldogs were in business. Despite getting bumped from the SEC tournament, Mississippi State made arguably the unlikeliest run all the way to Omaha, where it won two games before bowing out to eventual champion Oregon State.
So, now under the tutelage of a new head coach (again) and opening play at a new-look stadium, expectations are high in Starkville. Jake Mangum brings his sharp hitting and defensive prowess back for his senior season and Ethan Small and exciting freshman JT Ginn (who was drafted 30th overall by the Los Angeles Dodgers but decided to give college baseball a go) are as formidable a one-two punch as any in the SEC. Get the rally bananas ready, it’s go time once again in Bulldog Country.
Who can be this year’s turnaround college baseball team?
Two seasons ago, Nick Mingione helped Kentucky improve from a 34-win team to a 43-win team to reach the program’s first-ever Super Regional. Last year, Georgia saw a 14-win improvement on its way to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011.
So, who will be this year’s feel-good story?
Kameron Misner is enough of a ballplayer to get Missouri to make some noise all by himself. He’ll be one of the most exciting players to watch in the SEC this season, but there is a lot of intrigue in Knoxville, Tennessee this year. Head coach Tony Vitello took over last year and it wasn’t exactly pretty, but now he has a lot of returning pieces that could help the Volunteers make some noise.
Andre Lipcius returns to head up the offense, but some exciting junior college transfers — like catcher Landon Gray and infielder Ricky Martinez — look like they can make an instant impact. The starting rotation — which should be some sort of combination of Garrett Crochet, Garrett Stallings, Will Neely, and Sean Hunley — are all experienced returners as is the back of its bullpen. They may still be a year away with some exciting freshmen in store, but with nine straight games at home to open the season, Tennessee could certainly improve on its 29-win 2018 campaign, and open up with the momentum to get things rolling out of the gate.