The 2019 DII baseball season closed in familiar fashion with the Tampa Spartans winning their third national championship of the decade, and eighth overall. Despite an abundance of new faces heading into the 2020 season, the Spartans open the season at No. 1 in my DII preseason rankings.
Let's take a look at how the top 25 pans out entering the 2020 DII baseball season.
HISTORY: Schools with the most DII baseball championships
As always, these are my picks, and mine alone. I looked over rosters and stats from the 2019 season, narrowed my selections down to a top 50 and asked coaches and their staffs across the nation for insight on big-time transfers, impact freshmen, and even a few teams in their own region they hope to avoid come May. There's a lot that could happen between now and the DII baseball championship, but these are the 25 teams I expect to compete for a spot on the Road to Cary.
DII baseball preseason rankings: The top 10
No. 1 Tampa | 2019 record: 45-14 | National champions
Tampa lost a lot of talent as four Spartans went in the MLB Draft while playing for the national championship in Cary. That said, Joe Urso will field a team that will contend, no matter who is in the lineup and on the bump. There are a few returners — Drew Ehrhard and Sam Freitas, in particular — in the lineup, but newcomers Mauro Conde and Jose Cadenas could be the next big thing in Tampa. And if you don't know right-hander Jacinto Arredondo after last year's DII baseball championship performance, put him on your radar now.
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No. 2 Colorado Mesa | 2019 record: 53-12 | National runners-up
The 2019 Mavericks were almost the polar opposite of the team skipper Chris Hanks took to Grand Prairie, Texas in 2017. While that team was veteran-loaded, last year was a young team that may have exceeded expectations, but also returns a ton that make them contenders right off the bat. Righty Andrew Morris should take big leaps in his sophomore campaign, and there's already some buzz about Spencer Bramwell and Caleb Farmer as RMAC player-of-the-year contenders. Put lefty Ryan Day on your radar as a transfer who can help Trevin Reynolds and Morris in the rotation much sooner than later.
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No. 3 UC San Diego | 41-16 | Final 8 in Cary
Have you watched DII baseball over the past three years? Head coach Eric Newman has led the Tritons to the final eight the past three seasons in a row, and their run to the finals in 2017 was simply remarkable. Now, the Tritons lose a lot of that core Newman put together, but if you don't think he's recruited a solid team as the Tritons prepare for the jump to DI, you're out of your mind. Big bats Blake Baumgartner, Aaron Kim and Shay Whitcomb are back as is rotation anchor Brandon Weed. The West is getting tougher, but it's still Tritons' territory until further notice.
No. 4 Central Missouri | 46-16 | Final 8 in Cary
I became a big fan of the way head coach Kyle Crookes coaches and the players he fields last year in Cary, and there's a ton of that talent returning. They'll have to replace Mason Janvrin — who was drafted while in the hole during an elimination game in Cary — but All-American outfielder Erik Webb should hold down the lineup. Saturday starter Mason Green was lights out in 2019 (8-0, 2.88 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 75 innings) and should be the ace. One thing that stood out was transfer Jordan Fowler. A lefty transfer from the SEC (Ole Miss) is certainly one to put on your radar as a game-changer.
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No. 5 North Greenville | 45-11 | Super Regionals
There is a lot of buzz around Tigerville that this team may, in fact, be better than last year, which is a pretty impressive statement. The Crusaders lost some talent to the draft, but John Michael Faile was arguably the best freshman in the nation last year and returns to anchor a solid lineup, including Jeremy Whitehead and a full-season from Oklahoma State transfer Michael Neustifter to name a few. They also have a big transfer class loaded with potential, including righty Logan Chapman who made 14 starts for South Carolina in 2018 before missing time with Tommy John surgery.
No. 6 Angelo State | 46-12 | Super Regionals
This may seem like a high ranking, but if things go as expected in San Angelo, it may be too low. This was one of the scariest lineups in DII baseball last year, and almost all of it returns including Josh Elvir and his video-game-like 2019 (.458 average, 1.573 OPS, 20 home runs, 81 RBI). Trent Baker anchors a rotation of returners that could be amongst the toughest in a stacked South Central region. If the Rams and Colorado Mesa battle in the Super Regionals again, we're all in for a treat.
No. 7 Ashland | 48-15 | Final 8 in Cary
The Eagles reached Cary and ran into a Central Missouri team twice that was extremely tough to beat. Eight players from the lineup in Cary return this season, including top power bats Carson Mittermaier and Michael Rogers. Chance Hitchcock — who was 9-2 over 15 starts — will lead an experienced pitching staff both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen as Josh Smith should replace stud closer Chris Slavik. That kind of experience is tough to beat over the ups and downs of a long season.
No. 8 Catawba | 47-14 | Final 8 in Cary
The Indians and Eagles can be almost interchangeable. Like Ashland, Catawba returns a bulk of the lineup that got them to Cary, including stud outfielder/pitcher Hunter Shepherd (.358, 12 home runs, 55 RBIs, 7-4, 3.76 ERA) as well as Joe Butts and Jackson Raper who showed well in the DII baseball championship last season. The Indians will have to replace some pitching but have enough — like Bryan Ketchie and Sawyer Stickland — to make a lot of noise in 2020.
No. 9 Mercyhurst | 36-16 | Final 8 in Cary
The Lakers could be a little higher, but I need to see how Mercyhurst overcomes the loss of Tyler Garbee and Matt Minnick in that rotation. The two were certifiable aces, both drafted in the dugout just a few rounds apart in Cary. The lineup was a scrappy one that got them to Cary in 2019, and the bulk of that order returns. Chad Cwik will be relied upon more in the starting rotation and Vinny Lucente is back after missing all of 2019, so there are pieces that can make it work. Head coach Joe Spano always fields a tough team, it just may take a bit to gel in the super-tough PSAC.
No. 10 New York Tech | 37-16 | Final 8 in Cary
Flashback to April 25, 2019, when this writer predicted that the Bears were going to make it all the way to Cary much to the surprise of everyone. But Frank Catalanotto came in and changed the culture seemingly over night, turning a 13-win team into a DII baseball finalist. The reason I picked the Bears was EJ Cumbo, and the sophomore is back to build off an impressive freshman campaign (.437, seven home runs, and 23 stolen bases). Catalanotto also returns pretty much all of his pitching that learned what it meant to pitch in big situations on the fly last year. The East Region is an unpredictable one, but the Bears get the early nod in 2020.
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DII baseball preseason rankings: Nos. 11 through 25
This is where it got very tricky. The next 15 were so tough to pick, and I'd expect to see a lot of movement in this part of the rankings. It was so hard to narrow down these 15, that I've also added the teams that just missed.
No. 11 Bellarmine: This may be a tad bit aggressive, but the Knights return six big bats in their lineup to go along with Deylen Miley who plays all over the place, including the starting rotation. Junior righty Brandon Pfaadt — who has as much MLB draft buzz as any player in DII baseball right now — is the big reason I have Bellarmine so high.
No. 12 Southern New Hampshire: The Penmen and 40-win seasons go hand-in-hand, and looked like they were heading back to Cary for a second-straight year until they ran into a red-hot New York Tech in the Super Regionals. They return quite a bit offensively but have some holes in the pitching. If that shapes out well, the Penmen could be top 10 quickly.
No. 13 Delta State: There is not a ton returning for the Statesmen, but the pieces that are will have them contending once again. Jake Barlow (.322, 11 home runs) will be a conference player-of-the-year candidate and Hunter Riggins was nasty on the bump in 2019 (11-4, 1.88 ERA). Both are back, as well as a very intriguing class of transfers.
No. 14 Minnesota State: Seven starters from a stacked lineup return, including do-it-all Cam Kline (.386, six home runs, 36 RBI, 10-2, 2.47 ERA, 112 strikeouts). The Mavericks return four players who got on base at a .458 or better percentage and a starting rotation that made 29 starts last year.
No. 15 West Texas A&M: The Buffs only return one starting pitcher, but Zach Dixon is a good one (6-1, 2.63 ERA, 78 strikeouts in 61.2 innings). Keone Givens, Darius Carter, Cade Engle, and Clay Koelzer give the lineup a lot of experience. Matthieu Garnier, a righty who recorded a 2.53 ERA with one save for NC State last season, could be an x-factor in 2020.
No. 16 Augustana (SD): The 2018 national champions return plenty with seven regular position players and five key pitchers from 2019's 43-win team. The Vikings best hitter — Riley Johnson — gold-glove winning third baseman — Ryan Nickel — and potent 1-2 punch of righty Max Steffens and lefty Tanner Brown will make them tough to beat.
No. 17 Colorado School of Mines: While Mickey Gangwish will be tough to replace, the Orediggers do return six in the lineup that bring plenty of firepower. Perhaps most intriguing is the strength of the returning starting rotation — Walter Pennington, Drew Hill and Tyler Blomster — which is always a plus in the thin airs of RMAC baseball.
No. 18 Newberry: The Wolves went from a 25-win team to a 41-win team last year, and while they lose their top player, the return six bats from the starting lineup and two pitchers from the weekend rotation. If they can get the ball to Quinton Driggers (9-0, six saves, 1.40 ERA, 94 strikeouts in 77 innings), they will win plenty of ball games.
No. 19 Azusa Pacific: Two words here: Osvaldo Tovalin. Tovalin (.396, 19 home runs, 1.182 OPS) has player of the year potential and could lead the Cougars to the big season. Having Declan Kearney, AJ Woodall, and Nick Estrella back — who combined for 40 starts in 2019 — is invaluable.
No. 20 Mount Olive: The Trojans are close enough to Cary to seemingly always be a contender to try and get that home-field advantage. They'll have seven position players — including All-American Joe Mason (.388, 12 home runs, 10 stolen bases) and JT Stone (.347 nine home runs, 49 RBI) — back as well as Reed Parris and Caleb Bishop anchoring the rotation. And intriguing freshman class and a slew of transfers could lead to a big year.
No. 21 Nova Southeastern: It will be a new era in Shark country as head coach Greg Brown took a position with the Tampa Bay Rays. But new skipper Laz Gutierrez will have plenty to work with as two of the top hitters from 2019 return. The Sharks will also have some experience in the rotation with the return of Nathan Campbell and Matt Ornelas, as well as the bullpen in JP Williams.
No. 22 Millersville: The Marauders lose a ton of pitching, but I never count out coach Jon Shehan, who seems to lose MLB-caliber players on the regular. Drew Miller will be the only experienced rotation arm returning, but big things are expected from Jeff Taylor, a lefty transfer from Penn State. The lineup should be fine, headlined by Cole Friese whose name should be in player-of-the-year conversations.
No. 23 Arkansas-Monticello: The Boll Weevils look to improve on their 34-win, Great American Conference championship season with a bevy of returners at key positions. Matt Lundh will anchor the rotation after his GAC pitcher of the year performance, while David Reyna (.393, seven home runs, 19 stolen bases) leads a strong supporting cast in the lineup.
No. 24 Charleston (WV): The Golden Eagles were a Super Regional team last year and return plenty of the pieces that got them there. Pitching was a question last year (4.76 ERA, 1.44 WHIP) but Charleston hopes to improve with the return of big arms Austin Henrich and Seth Nightengale.
No. 25 West Florida: The Argos were a top-15 team for parts of 2019 and return a few pieces that helped them get there. Leading hitter Matthew Estrada (.374, .465 on-base percentage, eight stolen bases) fuels a lineup that may lack in power but should be productive. Josh Pahlad and Daniel Floyd proved valuable assets in the pitching department as both starters and out of the pen.
DII baseball rankings: Just missed (in alphabetical order)
The following teams should all spend time inside and out of the top 25 this season.
- Adelphi: The bulk of the key returners come on the mound for the Panthers, and that's always a good thing in the tricky East Region. That said, Tyler Becker and Lawrence Cicileo are solid bats to have returning in 2020.
- California (PA): Nick Riggle (7-2, 2.43 ERA) and Bradyn Kail (9-1, 3.60 ERA) returning to this pitching staff is a big reason I considered the Vulcans. Third baseman Louden Conte will be the name to watch on offense after a big 2019 (.343, five home runs, 28 RBI).
- Cal Poly Pomona: A ton returns to the Broncos, as top-hitter Ryan Knowles highlights a lineup with seven familiar faces from 2019. Cal State Fullerton transfer Gavin Velaquez could put this rotation over the top, making them fast risers.
- Florida Southern: The Mocs had a down year in 2019, which came much to the surprise of plenty. Losing seasons aren't commonplace in Lakeland, and the last time they had back-to-back sub-.500 seasons was in 1958-59. Keep your eye on Jacob Teeter who played in the Cape Cod Baseball League All-Star Game this summer.
- Franklin Pierce: The Ravens were once an East Region powerhouse and their 8-4 finish in May hinted that time may be coming again with the bevy of returners, highlighted by Derek Duffy (6-2, 1.59 ERA, 67 strikeouts in 62.1 innings) and a stable of arms with plenty of experience.
- Illinois Springfield: As it has been recently, plenty of pop returns for the Prairie Stars, especially in Chris Monroe and Zion Pettigrew. If Colton Hale returns to 2018 form after missing last season, the rotation should be just fine.
- Lubbock Christian: The Chaps have some nice returners but transfers George Mendazona and Jaxon Shirley as well as impact utility freshman Jaden Fowler could make this a team to watch.
- North Georgia: I'm putting them here because if right-hander Parker Morrison reaches his potential, the Nighthawks are dangerous.
- Point Loma: The Sea Lions were a force last year and should continue to do so in 2020, especially with Zack Noll (10-2, 2.92 ERA, 102 strikeouts in 83.1 innings) returning. Transfer Andrew Amato and freshman Jack Malone could make a quick impact on the roster.
- Seton Hill: The Griffins seem to be a lock for 30-plus wins, and they'll be right back there this year. Learn the name Tommy Pellis, as the third baseman should get some player-of-the-year noise with a bulk of the starting rotation returning as well.
- Southern Indiana: Plenty returns on offense, pitching is a question mark. I'm very intrigued about freshman centerfielder Steven Molinet.
- St. Cloud State: Pitching will be the strength here as Matt Osterberg and Blake Flint — who combined for 18 starts — and Trevor Koenig and Shannon Ahern — who swung between the rotation and bullpen — are all back.
- Quincy: There is a ton of experience coming back, including Nolan Snyder and Riley Martin (who will likely become the Hawks all-time wins leader). Almost had them in the top 25 but want to see that last year's 4-14 finish was a fluke (which I think it was).
- West Chester: Jad Prachniak always has a tough squad and this year should be no different. Though not as many returners as in recent history, there are some intriguing newcomers like freshman Drew Pierce that should keep the Golden Rams formidable.
- Wilmington (DE): This was a 40-win team last year and have a lot of seniors to replace, but top hitter Eddie Nevins returns to a Wildcats team that should be competitive in the East.
- Young Harris: Six returning bats, three big pitchers, and getting transfer Oscar Serratos from Georgia Tech could boost Young Harris quickly up the rankings.
Next in line: Cal State Monterey Bay, Columbus State, Dixie State, Eckerd, Gannon, Wayne State (MI)