The 2019 college baseball season is complete. Vanderbilt closed out the season raising the trophy in Omaha, winner of its second College World Series title since 2014.
So, do the Commodores have what it takes to get back to Omaha and defend their title in 2020?
We think they do, which is why they come in atop our early — and totally fun — preseason rankings. A lot can change by the time fall ball starts, after all. We took a look at the expected returners, the rankings on incoming freshmen and how each team finished in 2019 to come up with a pre-preseason top 25 for the 2020 college baseball season.
The Commodores lost a lot in the MLB draft, but that’s something the Tim Corbin regime is long used to in Nashville. Vanderbilt continues to be one of the top recruiting programs in the nation, and after having an elite recruiting class for the 2019 season, most people will say the same for the coming 2020 season.
Along with the incoming troops, Vanderbilt gets Kumar Rocker back atop the rotation and Austin Martin back atop the lineup. Those two names alone are among the very best at their respective positions in college baseball. A Rocker and Mason Hickman-led rotation with Tyler Brown behind them, after four huge relief appearances in Omaha, leaves this team stacked for a title defense in 2020.
We know, we know. UCLA is ahead of Michigan and that seems odd. Especially when you take into consideration what the Bruins lost in the draft. Still, there is a core of returners back and another quality group of recruits expected to be in Los Angeles.
Getting back your top two hitters is always a good thing, and that’s exactly what the Bruins do. Catcher Noah Cardenas (.375, three home runs, .976 OPS) and outfielder Garrett Mitchell (.349, 32 extra base hits, .984 OPS) should both be in the new lineup in 2020, and that’s a good duo to build around. While the rotation takes a big hit, Jesse Bergin and a hopefully healthy Zach Pettway also return after combining for 25 starts last year. But the bullpen is what could be a big advantage for the Bruins with both Michael Townsend and NCBWA stopper of the year Holden Powell expected to anchor the pitching to close out games.
The last Big Ten team to get to back-to-back College World Series was these very same Wolverines, who did it in 1983 and 1984. There is no doubt the departures of College World Series hero Tommy Henry, reliable front-end starter Karl Kauffmann, the Big Ten player of the year Jordan Brewer and Ann Arbor folk hero Jimmy Kerr are going to leave some holes in the roster. But you have to trust the national coach of the year Erik Bakich to put a contender on the field.
While on paper, the incoming recruits aren’t ranked highly, we learned a lot about Bakich’s philosophy, to build a team that represents America. So maybe where they lack in talent, they will excel in filling the holes with specifically what Michigan needs. Jeff Criswell proved he’s a big-game pitcher this June, and the lineup still has plenty of postseason experience with Jesse Franklin, Jack Blomgren and a healthy Jordan Nwogu as just a few who are back after an Omaha run.
One of the last four teams standing in the 2019 College World Series returns its breakout ace and a few seniors that should have Dan McDonnell looking at yet another trip to Omaha.
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Leading hitter Danny Oriente (.332) and infielder Justin Lavey — who heated up in regional and super regional play before cooling off in Omaha — should provide that senior leadership, while players like Alex Binelas gained invaluable experience as freshmen. And with Reid Detmers already the Friday night starter, things should start off just fine in 2020 for the Cardinals.
5. Mississippi State
How does a team that loses the senior leadership of Jake Mangum, Elijah MacNamee and Marshall Gilbert, as well as one of the best aces in college baseball in Ethan Small, get ranked this highly? Well, how about Chris Lemonis for one.
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Those seniors saw four head coaches in four years, but now MSU has some stability with one that seems to be among the new wave of up-and-comers. Well, that and the core of the lineup like Rowdey Jordan, Justin Foscue, Jordan Westburg and Josh Hatcher are back. Having JT Ginn with a year of experience as the expected ace also helps, as does another alluring class of incoming freshmen. The Bulldogs have been to two straight CWS, and a third is not out of the question.
6. Texas Tech
The Red Raiders lost some pop from the heart of their lineup in the MLB draft, but there is still plenty to go around. After all, this team is coming off back-to-back CWS appearances and should have enough for at least one more run.
Dru Baker should be fun to watch mature even further as a sophomore after a big freshman debut. A solid junior class led by Dylan Neuse, Braxton Fulford and Cody Masters should provide plenty of leadership on the field. Micah Dallas had to come of age quickly in the College World Series and he and Bryce Bonnin should have control of the rotation. A bevy of bullpen pieces also returns giving Texas Tech some depth to overcome some of the star power departing Lubbock.
The Razorbacks should have another quality group of reinforcements coming by way of incoming freshmen, but they will also have one of the scarier offenses in the SEC with all the explosiveness returning in the lineup. Dave Van Horn has gotten his team to two consecutive College World Series, so even with the loss of its ace and venerable closer, we’re keeping Arkansas highly ranked.
Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin have been key cogs in this lineup and have never seen a season end short of the CWS. Matt Goodheart proved to be a welcomed addition, leading the team in hitting (.345). Pitching is where the Razorbacks take the biggest hit, but rising sophomores Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander combined for 34 starts last year and should continue to progress in their second seasons.
What’s better than a recruiting class that multiple outlets like Baseball America and Perfect Game has ranked in the top 10 for the 2020 season? How about nearly everyone returning to the lineup from Auburn’s College World Series run?
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Pitcher Jack Owen and third baseman Eduoard Julien were drafted but have said they would both be back for another go at the CWS. Conor Davis, Ryan Bliss, Steven Williams, Judd Ward and a handful of other position players are back in the lineup while Owen is joined by Tanner Burns in the rotation and Cody Greenhill’s 12 saves in the bullpen. That’s just too much experienced firepower to overlook in 2020.
9. Florida State
Things will certainly be different in Tallahassee next season without the head coach known most affectionately as “11.” But Mike Martin Sr. hands the reins over to a very able assistant in his son Mike Martin Jr., who has been along for 22 seasons of 11's 40-year ride.
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This team willed its way to Omaha in walk-off fashion against LSU and pulled off an opening win before bowing out by scoring just one run over its next 18 innings in the CWS. But another good crop of recruits and a solid foundation of freshmen like Nander De Sedas, Matheu Nelson, Robby Martin and Elijah Campbell, along with rising juniors CJ Van Eyk and Shane Drohan on the bump should provide Martin Jr. with plenty of pieces to continue his father’s long line of success in the ACC.
10. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys are probably the biggest wild card in the top 10. Like the other teams considered for this spot, Oklahoma State lost a lot either to the MLB draft or graduation, so plenty will depend on yet another top 20 recruiting class and the emergence of young stars and leadership of some seniors that should remain for one more season.
Leading hitters Carson McCusker and Alix Garcia are two of those seniors that should be back. Hueston Morrill looked exciting as a freshman and should only improve this coming season. The Cowboys take a hit on pitching but do return plenty that have experience, like Nate Peterson, Parker Scott and Brett Standlee. It will be interesting to see how Oklahoma State competes in the Big XII but this should be a contender.
After the top 10, it gets a bit murky, as many of these teams are very similar in talent.
No. 11 North Carolina: We’ve been big on the Aaron Sabato and Danny Serretti freshmen duo before they stepped on the field, and after leading the Tar Heels in hitting, there’s no reason to back off. Besides, when does Mike Fox not field a contender?
No. 12 Stanford: Brendan Beck, Cody Jensen and Alex Williams could probably make this a top 10 team, but the Cardinal lost so much on offense which is why we have them right outside.
No. 13 Georgia: The Bulldogs will have a new lineup but there are plenty of arms that should help ease the transition. Emerson Hancock will be the ace, while other pieces like Cole Wilcox, Darryn Pasqua and Ryan Webb all take the next step forward.
No. 14 East Carolina: The Pirates are another team that lost a lot, but we do like what returns. Jake Kuchmaner should become the ace and Alec Burleson was impressive as a sophomore, as both a closer and the team's leading hitter.
No. 15 West Virginia: Tyler Doanes (.316, .898 OPS) and leading slugger Paul McIntosh (10 home runs) are back, but Jackson Wolf is the lone returner with legitimate starting experience. Expect names like Ryan Bergert and Zach Reid to step up in 2020.
No. 16 Miami (FL): JP Gates (.340, four home runs) and Adrian Del Castillo (.331, 22 doubles, 12 home runs) are just two of many returners heading to South Beach for 2020. Pair that with an always strong recruiting class and Miami should be strong in the ACC.
No. 17 LSU: The Tigers lose a lot, but Paul Mainieri always has one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Both Daniel Cabrera (.284, 12 home runs) and Cade Beloso (.279, 10 home runs) are back in Baton Rouge, so there will be firepower. If young arms like Landon Marceaux, Jaden Hill and Cole Henry improve, this team is dangerous.
No. 18 Clemson: There are certainly some big shoes to fill but Davis Sharpe and Mat Clark return, who led the team in starts on the mound last year, both posting ERAs south of 3.25. That’s always a good place to start.
No. 19 Arizona State: Here's a bold and aggressive prediction. Sure, Hunter Bishop is gone, but Spencer Torkelson, Trevor Hauver, Alika Williams and Gage Workman return to power a scary offense. And when you have Boyd Vander Kooi — one of the, well, cooler names in college baseball — leading a pitching staff full of returners, it seems like a run may be in order.
No. 20 Georgia Tech: The pitching will certainly look different with the rotation going in the MLB draft, but there are some interesting returns like breakout star Michael Guldberg and rising sophomores Cort Roedig and Luke Bartnicki on the bump.
No. 21 Texas A&M: A highly-touted recruiting class, plus Asa Lacy as the weekend ace leaves the Aggies in good shape despite some of the losses in the MLB draft. The offense will see some new faces, but a lot of pitching returns.
No. 22 Creighton: The Bluejays lose quite a bit but should be among the most competitive in the Big East, and as defending champs they get the nod here. Parker Upton and Will Hanafan will lead by example in the outfield while some senior arms should anchor the bullpen.
No. 23 Dallas Baptist: The Patriots just always seem to find themselves in the mix. They lost a lot to both graduation and the MLB draft, but expect them to stay in the conversation in 2020.
No. 24 Duke: Though the offense wasn't record-breaking in 2019 by any means, six starters should return to the lineup. With Thomas Girard coming back to lead the back of the bullpen, he could help the new-look rotation settle in with some bumpy starts at the beginning of the year.
No. 25 Baylor: The Bears lost a ton offensively, but still return enough nice pieces like Andy Thomas, Nick Loftin, Chase Wehsener and Davion Downey to make a splash. They should also have a very veteran pitching staff with plenty of starting experience.
Just missed: Oregon State, Cal State Fullerton, TCU, Arizona, Florida, N.C. State