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The ACC has never been more loaded with legitimate postseason contenders. In fact, all 14 teams in the conference appear to have regional-caliber rosters. The shortened five-round draft caused a boatload of established ACC stars to return as fourth-year players, leading to perhaps the strongest collection of position-player talent in the history of the league. Another bumper crop of freshmen across the league further boosted the talent level, as Miami brought in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, leading a pack of six ACC programs in the Top 25 of our newcomer rankings, with four others knocking on the door. Needless to say, the future looks bright for the ACC, and the present is awfully exciting.
Perennial power Louisville looks like the clear-cut team to beat even after losing a pair of first-round picks from its weekend rotation, but there’s a huge jumble of contenders behind the Cardinals, without any real separation between them. NC State, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Wake Forest, Miami and Florida State all landed between No. 13 and No. 24 in our preseason Top 25 rankings, and reasonable arguments can be made for lining them up in any order. Duke and Boston College checked in just outside our Top 25 rankings in the “next 10” group, while name-brand powers Clemson and North Carolina are lying in the weeds more than usual but are always dangerous. And there is a lot to like about Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh as well — all of them have the talent and/or experience to make runs at regionals. There shouldn’t be any gimme weekends on the ACC schedule, which will be even more of a slog because the league added two weekends of conference play due to the pandemic. Instead of playing 30 conference games over 10 weekends, ACC teams will play 36 conference games over 12 weekends.
*Teams are listed in order of projected finish
|COASTAL DIVISION||2020 RECORD|
|ATLANTIC DIVISION||2020 RECORD|
Projected regional teams (10): Louisville, NC State, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Wake Forest, Miami, Florida State, Duke, Boston College, Clemson
Player of the year: Adrian Del Castillo, C, Miami
Pitcher of the year: Mason Pelio, RHP, Boston College
Freshman of the year: Carson Montgomery, RHP, Florida State
Projected regional teams
Head coach: Chris Pollard
2019 record: 35-27 (15-15)
2020 record: 12-4 (2-1)
Strengths: Few teams in college baseball have more star power up the middle than Duke, which has a third-team All-American behind the plate, a potential top-50 pick at shortstop, and a talented fourth-year player in center field. This lineup is crammed with proven veterans and features a strong blend of power, speed and defensive playmakers. The pitching staff might be the deepest of the Chris Pollard era.
Question marks: The Blue Devils lack a proven Friday night ace and an established shutdown closer, roles that were previously occupied by first-rounder Bryce Jarvis and fellow righty Thomas Girard, both of whom are now in pro ball. There’s no shortage of talent on the mound, but the linchpins of the staff still need to solidify.
Star power: It seems crazy that Michael Rothenberg is back in college for a fourth year. He’s a switch-hitting catcher with power, arm strength and a nice offensive track record, and it feels like he surely would have played his way comfortably into the top five rounds last spring had the season continued. Shortstop Ethan Murray also has obvious All-America potential, as an instinctive defender with good actions and arm strength as well as emerging right-handed power potential at the plate.
Glue guys: When Joey Loperfido went down to injury in 2019, Duke foundered. When he returned, the Blue Devils caught fire and made a run to their second straight super regional. It wasn’t a coincidence; Loperfido is simply a winning player with an invaluable presence, in addition to his athleticism in center field and his emerging left-handed power. 1B Chris Crabtree (a hulk who started to unlock his own power potential after making a swing adjustment last summer), 3B Erikson Nichols (a defensive whiz) and speed merchant OF Chase Cheek are three more seasoned veterans in their fourth or fifth years at Duke. LHP Matt Dockman is the consummate “glue guy” on the mound — a wily veteran who isn’t afraid of battling his way through some “dirty innings,” as Pollard put it this fall. Dockman isn’t overpowering but he pounds the zone with three pitches and holds runners very well, with a superb move to first base.
Pick to click: Henry Williams has all the ingredients to be a frontline ACC ace. A high-profile recruit last fall, Williams didn’t get a chance to show what he could do in the spring, logging just two-third of an inning before being sidelined by soreness. A lean, projectable 6-foot-5 righty with an easy high three-quarters delivery, Williams showed feel for three quality pitches in the fall, attacking at 91-93 with a high spin rate in the 2400-2550 rpm range, a power slurve at 79-82 with tight spin, and a solid changeup that he could throw against righties and lefties alike. He’s an obvious breakout candidate in his second year in the program.
Top newcomer: Peter Matt, a graduate transfer from Penn, has some of the best bat speed on the team and could put up big numbers as a power/speed threat in left field. From the freshman class, expect left-hander Luke Fox to be a mainstay of this pitching staff from the jump; he’s a low three-quarters southpaw who is very tough on left-handed hitters, with a 89-91 fastball, a good sweeping slider at 80-82, and the ability to throw his changeup for a strike to righties and lefties alike.
Outlook: This is a program with wind in its sails. Duke knocked on the door to the College World Series in 2018 and ’19, and it looked like it had its best chance to break down that door in 2020. The pandemic robbed the Blue Devils of that opportunity, but Duke’s window remains wide open. There are a couple of significant questions to answer on the mound, but Duke has a deep supply of potential answers. If they click, this may well be the best Duke team yet.
Head coach: Mike Gambino
2019 record: 31-27 (12-18)
2020 record: 6-9 (0-3)
Strengths: Premium star power. Preseason All-Americans Cody Morissette and Sal Frelick plus our preseason ACC Pitcher of the Year Mason Pelio give Boston College one of the most talented cores in all of college baseball. The lineup is deep, balanced and experienced, with impact speed and power as well as high-end defenders at key positions.
Question marks: BC has some exciting power arms, but several of them still must prove themselves as reliable strike-throwers. This is something of a risk/reward pitching staff — the upside is real, but there’s also a chance it simply doesn’t pan out.
Star power: Morissette, a first-team preseason All-America third baseman, can stake a strong claim as college baseball’s best pure hitter, with a silky-smooth left-handed stroke and surprising pop in his wiry frame. He’s also a good runner and a fluid defender at three different infield positions, though he fits best at the hot corner on this club. Frelick is a 5-foot-9, 175-pound dynamo whose frame, tool set and hyper-aggressive style of play evokes Lenny Dykstra. He’s fully recovered from the knee injury that cut short his 2019 season, and he was a force of nature in fall ball. And Pelio showed better stuff this fall than ever before, sitting regularly in the 94-97 range with a plus changeup and a much-improved slider. They call him “Moose”, and he looks like the premier workhorse ace in the ACC.
Glue guys: 5YR SR Jack Cunningham has established himself as one of the most dangerous hitters in the ACC, having hit nine homers in 2019 and putting together a strong .424/.478/.576 start to the 2020 campaign. He has a pretty left-handed stroke with real bat speed, and he’s also a 6.8 runner who holds his own just fine in the outfield, but he likely fits best at first base on this BC team filled with outfield burners. Catcher Pete Burns and shortstop Brian Dempsey are ultra-reliable defenders at vital positions, helping Morissette and Frelick anchor what should be an elite defense.
Pick to click: 2YR FR second baseman Luke Gold will be counted upon to provide right-handed punch in a lefty-dominant lineup. His power potential is big, and he has good feel for hitting and a smooth swing. The breakout pick on the mound is 3YR SO right-hander Emmet Sheehan, who has always tantalized with his raw stuff but has struggled with his control thus far in his career. Long and lean at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Sheehan has a clean arm action that generated 93-96 mph heat this fall, and he’s bumped 98 at times. He also flashes the makings of a swing-and-miss breaking ball and quality changeup. Now he just has to put all the pieces together and throw more strikes, and the Eagles are counting on him to hold down the Saturday starter job.
Top newcomer: Two-way talent Joe Vetrano has a chance to be a big star. He’s a physical 6-foot-3, 220-pounder whose powerful left-handed stroke should make him a key run producer in the heart of the order early in his career. Off the mound, he features a lively fastball up to 92 from the left side, along with the makings of a very promising slider and changeup.
Outlook: Mike Gambino hasn’t shied away from high expectations. He thinks Boston College has a legitimate chance to make an Omaha run this year, which will surely be the final season of the Frelick/Morissette/Pelio era. If the pitching comes together as hoped, BC has a very real chance to host a regional at beautiful 2-year-old Brighton Field come June.
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Head coach: Monte Lee
2019 record: 35-26 (15-15)
2020 record: 14-3 (3-0)
Strengths: Clemson welcomes back its entire lineup from 2020, and the offense should feature a nice blend of athleticism and power potential, along with excellent bench depth. The Tigers also have strength in numbers on the mound.
Question marks: The Tigers must replace third-round pick Sam Weatherly and fourth-rounder Spencer Strider in the weekend rotation, plus stalwart closer Carson Spiers. As a result, the pitching staff has a lot to prove.
Star power: First-team preseason All-American Davis Sharpe is one of the most valuable players in college baseball, as a three-year starter in the heart of the order as well as in the weekend rotation. A physical 6-foot-3, 210-pounder who bats and throws right handed, Sharpe’s power production spiked in the shortened 2020 campaign, when he hit .311/.436/.622 with four of Clemson’s 10 home runs. And he continued to pound the strike zone as a pitcher, going 1-1, 3.93 with a 20-4 K-BB mark in 18.1 innings. Off the mound, he’s a clinician who keeps hitters off balance with an 87-90 mph fastball with natural cut, a big sweeping slurve at 76-79 with tight spin in the 2700-2800 rpm range, and a solid changeup at 81-84 that induces soft contact against lefties. It’s not overpowering stuff, but his pitchability and experience should make him one of the toughest Friday night starters in the ACC. LHP Geoffrey Gilbert also has star potential at the back of the bullpen, as an aggressive competitor who attacks the zone at 90-93 with a putaway breaking ball.
Glue guys: James Parker came into his own in the shortened 2020 season, hitting .294/.315/.392 in 13 games as the starting shortstop. He’s an emerging talent who took another step forward this fall, and he could hit double-digit homers while providing rock-solid defense. Outfielder Kier Meredith, a compact and explosive athlete at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, was limited to 22 games by injuries over his first two seasons on campus, but he got fully healthy in 2020 and was well on his way to a breakout campaign when the season was canceled, hitting .364/.455/.455 in 66 at-bats. He’s a left-handed slasher who uses the whole field and is a tough out, and his above-average speed is a weapon on the basepaths as well as on defense in center field or left. 3YR SO Bryar Hawkins is the favorite for the primary third base job; he hit seven homers as a freshman in 2019 and led the Tigers in average exit velocity this fall. The thick-bodied Adam Hackenberg stands out most for his catch-and-throw skills (Lee said he throws in game action better than anybody he’s ever coached) as well as his leadership, which made him a unanimous choice for team captain in the player voting.
Pick to click: Last year’s prized freshman bat, Dylan Brewer, showed off a patient approach in 16 games last spring, drawing 14 walks against 13 strikeouts, and he offers an exciting combination of athleticism and emerging left-handed power potential. He’s a long-levered athlete who can run the 60-yard dash in 6.7 seconds, and his strike zone awareness gives him a chance to be an on-base machine. On the mound, keep an eye on 3YR FR Carter Raffield, who is now two years removed from Tommy John surgery and showing the arm strength that made him a blue-chip prospect out of high school. He made four relief appearances last spring, posting a 1.17 ERA, and he ran his heater up to 95-96 mph in our fall look, along with a quality changeup with good diving action and an adequate slider at 80-84. If Raffield can continue to sharpen the slider, he could give Clemson’s rotation the front-line stuff it needs.
Top newcomer: Caden Grice has a legitimate chance to make a run at national Freshman of the Year honors if he can harness his enormous gifts as both a pitcher and hitter. A long-levered 6-foot-6, 230-pound specimen, Grice is a premier talent whose raw power has drawn 80 grades from scouts, which could earn him some action at DH. But he also could win a job in the weekend rotation, thanks to his ability to pound the zone at 89-93 from the left side, with a promising but inconsistent slurve at 76-79, and an excellent low-80s changeup with arm speed and late tumbling action. Most encouragingly, he has shown very good feel for pitching and control at a young age, posting some of the best numbers of any pitcher on staff this fall: 20 strikeouts and just six hits allowed in 16 innings, good for a .111 batting average against.
Outlook: Clemson is one of the ACC’s most consistent programs, and it has continued to make the postseason every year under Monte Lee, including three straight home regionals from 2016-18. But despite those hosting chances, Clemson hasn’t won a regional since 2010, and the program is itching to get back to Omaha. If the young talent on this roster develops quickly this spring, the Tigers are certainly capable of making that deep postseason run in a year when external expectations are a bit lower than usual.
Keep an eye on
Head coach: Scott Forbes
2019 record: 46-19 (17-13)
2020 record: 12-7 (0-3)
Strengths: Joey Lancellotti and Caden O’Brien headline a group of veteran holdovers who experienced a College World Series run in 2018 and a super regional in 2019, though most of the key players from the Omaha team are gone. The Tar Heels feel good about their overall depth, both on the mound and in the lineup.
Question marks: UNC got off to a disappointing 12-7 start last spring, opening ACC play by getting swept at home by Notre Dame, exposing some of the team’s flaws, particularly on the mound. The Tar Heels are banking on a big bounce-back season from right-hander Austin Love, and they need a number of newcomers to bolster the pitching staff as well as the lineup. But it’s a strong group of newcomers, so there is reason for optimism.
Star power: Danny Serretti is a three-year starter at shortstop with a chance to make a run at All-America honors and the top five rounds of the draft. He has a quick line-drive stroke and has gotten stronger since last spring, and he remains the linch-pin of what should be a strong defense. Lancellotti was a star reliever over his first two years and moved into the ace job in 2020, going 2-1, 2.22 in 24.1 innings. He was shut down this fall while recovering from the nagging hip injury that bothered him all spring, but if he returns to top form then he can be an aggressive weekend workhorse who can miss bats with his heater and his power slider. He also can bring some right-handed punch to the DH mix. Love was a freshman All-American in 2019 as a bullpen stopper, and his stuff backed up last spring, but his velocity shot back up into the 92-94 range this fall, and he’s always featured one of college baseball’s best changeups. A quality slider completes his three-pitch arsenal, which should make him a good fit in the rotation if his stuff holds up.
Glue guys: Fourth-year sophomore Angel Zarate really came into his own in 2020, leading the team with a .408 average in 71 at-bats. He’s a mature hitter with a nice left-handed stroke and solid athleticism that plays in center or left. LHP Will Sandy has made 15 starts over the last two years and could pitch in the rotation or a swing role. He brings valuable experience, and he showed more velocity in the fall.
Pick to click: UNC is predicting a breakout year from 3YR FR righty Max Alba, who has a good arm and reminds coach Scott Forbes of former Tar Heel and big leaguer Luke Putkonen. He had an up and down fall, but his velocity is starting to get back to where it was before his Tommy John surgery in the summer of 2018. If he puts it all together, he could emerge as an impact weekend starter.
Top newcomer: There are plenty of candidates for this one. 3B Mac Horvath is one of the most polished freshman hitters in the country, with the ability to hit for average as well as power. He reminds Forbes of former Tar Heel Kyle Datres. Junior college transfer Justice Thompson brings a very exciting power/speed combination to the center field spot — he has obvious star potential. Freshman Max Carlson is a competitive strike-thrower in the Zac Gallen mold who could find himself pitching in the weekend rotation early in his career. And graduate transfers Brett Centracchio and Max Troiani both have impressive track records, giving the lineup more valuable veteran at-bats and physicality.
Outlook: North Carolina is a blue-chip program, and it isn’t used to getting the opportunity to sneak up on the ACC. But that’s exactly the position UNC finds itself in this spring. The Tar Heels upgraded their talent with a strong recruiting class this fall, and if the newcomers click as hoped, this club can still make a postseason run. There are questions to answer, but fortunately UNC has the depth that it can try a bunch of different combinations in the lineup and on the mound until it finds the right recipe for success.
Head coach: John Szefc
2019 record: 26-27 (9-21)
2020 record: 11-5 (1-2)
Strengths: This looks like a balanced roster, headlined by an athletic defense and a lineup that should grind out quality at-bats. The rotation of Chris Gerard, Anthony Simonelli and Peyton Alford also has a chance to go toe-to-toe with the best of the ACC.
Question marks: The Hokies must replace one of college baseball’s best catchers in fourth-round pick Carson Taylor, as well as a premier ace in second-rounder Ian Seymour. Those are two big holes to fill. How second-year freshman Cade Hunter handles the everyday catching duty is a major key for this club.
Star power: Seymour is a big loss, but the Hokies might not skip a beat atop the rotation with third-year sophomore lefty Gerard (1-1, 1.26) taking over as staff ace. Like Seymour did before his third year at Virginia Tech, Gerard has taken another jump with his stuff this fall. His velocity has ticked up into the 89-92 range with his typical natural cut action, and his good changeup has gotten even better. He also features a good sharp downer curveball. In the lineup, Nick Biddison has always hit for the Hokies, whether he’s played center field, second base or catcher. His athleticism and versatility are major assets, along with his ability to hit for both average and power.
Glue guys: Fritz Genther is an instinctive playmaker with smooth actions and excellent body control at shortstop, while Kevin Madden is a premier defender at the hot corner, giving the Hokies an elite left side of the infield. Brennan Reback brings blazing speed to center field, and left fielder Tanner Thomas is a veteran grinder who does all the little things to help the team win. Simonelli offers power stuff from the right side (90-94 with a swing-and-miss breaking ball). Fifth-year senior lefty Alford carves up the zone and can miss bats with a quality four-pitch mix: 88-91 fastball from a clean, compact high three-quarters slot, a 78 mph slider with solid tilt, a sharp 72 mph curve, and a 77 mph changeup with very good fading action.
Pick to click: Right fielder Gavin Cross looks primed to do big things as a second-year freshman. He brings intriguing left-handed power potential as well as the ability to hit for average, run, defend and throw. The aforementioned Hunter is a good receiver and blocker who has worked hard to improve his throwing, and he brings a promising lefthanded gap-to-gap bat to the mix as well.
Top newcomer: The freshman who should make the biggest impact figures to be outfielder Jack Hurley, a left-handed hitter with easy plus speed and intriguing power potential in his 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame. He’s one of the best pure athletes on the team, and he could force his way into regular action at an outfield corner, or get his feet wet as the DH. Texas Tech transfer TJ Rumfield adds much-needed punch to the heart of the order. He’s a 6-foot-5, 225-pound ox with a mature approach and good pull-side power.
Outlook: John Szefc and his coaching staff have done a good job gradually building up the program’s talent level year over year, and there’s no question that Virginia Tech has its most talented roster yet in 2021. The problem is, so does everybody else in the ACC. The Hokies have regional-caliber talent and decent experience, and they should be a major factor in thick of the ACC race.
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Head coach: Link Jarrett
2019 record: 24-30 (13-17)
2020 record: 11-2 (3-0)
Strengths: A high-powered offense fueled Notre Dame’s torrid start in 2020, which was capped by an ACC-opening sweep of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Most of the key pieces of that lineup are back, giving the Irish a balanced, deep lineup stuffed with tough outs.
Question marks: The Irish emphasized improving their team defense in the fall, and how that comes together will be critical. It’s also unclear whether Notre Dame has strong enough pitching to withstand the rigors of a long ACC season.
Star power: 1B Niko Kavadas should be one of the ACC’s most fearsome power hitters. He’s a burly slugger with enormous left-handed pop that plays to all fields, giving Notre Dame a dangerous centerpiece in the heart of the order. Fellow fourth-year junior Spencer Myers is an elite catalyst atop the lineup, with advanced bat-handling skills, incredible plate discipline, and plus speed that he really knows how to use on the basepaths. Veteran lefty Tommy Sheehan is a reliable workhorse atop the rotation, with good command of an 89-93 fastball, a quality slider and changeup.
Glue guys: Catcher David LaManna has gradually gotten better over the course of his four-year career, becoming a tougher at at the plate and providing invaluable leadership and steady defense behind the plate. Fellow veterans Jared Miller and Zack Prajzner should form a reliable double-play duo and turn in quality at-bats as well. Carter Putz, like Myers, walked more than he struck out last year and will be a key bat in the heart of the lineup.
Pick to click: Second-year freshman Jack Brannigan enormous upside as both a position player and a hitter. He’s a marquee athlete who can really run, throw and defend at third base, and his bat speed gives him significant offensive upside as his approach continues to mature. Off the mound, he can pump mid-to-high-90s cheddar, making him a valuable bullpen weapon. The other obvious breakout candidate on the mound is Dominic Cancellieri, who showed improved stuff across the board this fall, attacking with a four-pitch mix and running his heater up to 94. Look for him to occupy a weekend starter job.
Top newcomer: Junior college transfer Tanner Kohlhepp, a bounceback from Tennessee, should make a huge impact in the bullpen. He attacked at 93-95 this fall with funk and deception that makes his stuff play up further. He also features an excellent swing-and-miss cutter, and his low slot makes for an uncomfortable at-bat for righties. UCF graduate transfer Joe Sheridan will also be a huge difference maker, as a polished left hander with deception and guile who should help solidify the weekend rotation.
Outlook: Notre Dame opened eyes in the shortened 2020 campaign, but some questions lingered on the mound and on defense. If the Irish can answer those questions this spring, Notre Dame will be right in the thick of the rough-and-tumble ACC this spring.
The rest of the pack
Head coach: Mike Bell
2019 record: 21-34 (8-22)
2020 record: 10-6 (0-3)
Strengths: Pitt stands out for a very experienced and balanced offense with some pop in the middle, a reliable defense and a solid strike-throwing rotation.
Question marks: Bullpen problems reared their heads late in the shortened 2020 campaign, and how the middle relief comes together is the biggest key to Pitt’s season.
Star power: Outfielder Kyle Hess has a power/speed tool set that evokes big leaguer Derek Fisher, a former Virginia star. Nico Popa could also reach double digits in homers and steals in the other outfield corner. Billy Corcoran is an imposing 6-foot-7 righty with good command of an improving three-pitch mix, giving the Panthers a dependable Friday ace.
Glue guys: Shortstop David Yanni is back for a sixth year at Pitt, anchoring the defense up the middle and providing some righty pop at the plate. 2B Sky Duff is an on-base machine who makes the offense go from the leadoff spot. On the mound, Mitch Myers is a competitive, funky righty with a high-spin heater in the 88-93 range and good feel for two secondary pitches, making him a great fit in the No. 2 starter job.
Pick to click: Catcher Riley Walsh posted a 1.010 OPS in a strong 2020 debut after transferring in from the juco ranks, and he could be primed for a star turn in his second year at Pitt. Physical and athletic with sneaky juice in his bat, Walsh also has above-average arm strength behind the plate.
Top newcomer: Jordan McCrum, a graduate transfer from Monmouth, missed most of 2019 and all of 2020 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but came back strong and showed 91-94 heat and a putaway slider this fall, making him a strong closer candidate.
Outlook: The Panthers are undoubtedly better than they have been in recent years — but so is everybody else in the ACC. Don’t be surprised if Pitt sneaks up on the league, because this should be a competitive club, but somebody still has to finish in the bottom four of the conference. The Panthers, who have never made a regional as an ACC member, still feel likely to wind up in that bottom tier when the dust clears, but Bell has them going in the right direction.