College baseball bid adieu to Rosenblatt Stadium in a dramatic fashion. Whit Merrifield's RBI single in the bottom of the 11th-inning sent South Carolina to their first collegiate title in baseball since 1950, coincidentally the first CWS to ever be played at Omaha's baseball haven.
But just like that, the page has turned on the 2010 NCAA season. The Gamecocks are no longer champions, but rather just another hungry team looking to take home some precious hardware.
But so many teams stand in their way.
TCU looks stronger than ever and UCLA should be one of the best teams, boasting possibly the best rotation of any team in the country.
And there's certainly no shortage of star power.
Anthony Rendon has been named Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year by Baseball America in back-to-back seasons and returns to the diamond after an ankle injury that cost him valuable summer time with Team USA. Regardless, he should be one of the front-runners for POY honors, as well as the prime candidate to be taken number one in the 2011 draft.
The real strength of college baseball this season should be in it's pitching. Sonny Gray, Taylor Jungmann, Trevor Bauer, Noe Ramirez and Jack Armstrong are just a few of the talented players whose names you'll soon hear about with "first-round talent" attached. And that doesn't even include the top two dogs, TCU's Matt Purke and UCLA's Gerrit Cole, both of whom should be top-five picks.
So without further ado, let's get into it, and see what the 2011 college baseball season has in store for us, answering some of the questions that are on every college fans mind along the way.
The easy choice here would be South Carolina.
Not only did they defeat a mighty UCLA squad for last year's title, but they also return some of their most talented players, including outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. Bradley Jr. was sensational last year for the Gamecocks, especially deep into the CWS. He came up with huge hit after huge hit, and was mostly responsible for USC's six-game winning streak to end the season.
Carolina's biggest question mark should be their rotation, where they saw 13-game winner Blake Cooper depart via graduation and future ace Sam Dyson sign a deal as a fourth-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays. They do have some talent available, just not tons of experience. The best of the bunch is Matt Price, who was nearly unhittable down the stretch. He worked solely out of the bullpen in 2010, but necessity could force a switch to the rotation. Lefty Nolan Belcher might also get a shot after making six starts last season, as could sophomore Colby Holmes, who made six starts last season as well.
South Carolina should be primed for another good season, but the best team they are not.
To me, that honor comes down to one of five teams, ranked from five-to-one, in the order of my opinion.
We'll begin with...
#5 Texas Longhorns
The Longhorns had a great season in 2010, but their ride ended a bit early at the hands of in-state rival TCU, who took two out of three games from UT. Still, the Longhorns have plenty of momentum working for them. They did lose Chance Ruffin as well as Brandon Workman to the draft, but they return plenty of talent.
Taylor Jungmann leads what should be a stellar rotation. Jungmann went 8-3 last season and posted a 2.03 ERA. He's now 19-6 for his career with an ERA around 2.00. Backing him up is Cole Green, the 2010 Big 12 Pitcher of the Year after a season in which he went 10-0 in conference play, posting an 11-2 overall record and a 2.74 ERA. Green turned down an offer from the Detroit Tigers to return to Austin.
In the field, Cohl Walla returns, leading an offense that scored nearly seven runs per game last year. Walla did a lot of the damage himself by hitting .316 with eight homers, 40 RBI and 14 steals.
Joining Walla will be freshmen Mark Payton, the top high-school player from Illinois who has plus-speed, a solid arm and a quick bat. The rookie platoon is further solidified with Christian Summers, one of the best defensive high-school shortstops last year, and Jacob Felts, a rookie catcher who looks like he's going to develop into a legit power hitter.
#4 Vanderbilt Commodores
For all the crap Vandy's football squad takes on and off the field, at least the school has a storied baseball program. They should be in fine form once again in 2011 as the Commodores are led by pitchers Sonny Gray and Jack Armstrong, as well as infielder Jason Esposito—all of whom profile as top picks in the 2011 draft.
Gray was named Baseball America's Summer Player of the Year from the college ranks and it was a well-deserved honor. Gray has had a solid career at Vandy and he could further promote his draft stock by leading the Commodores into the CWS regionals, where both he and Armstrong had trouble last year.
Armstrong should be a top-pick as well, but only if he can reign in the control issues that have plagued him the past few years. The sky is the limit for him, though, and if he can get on a roll Vandy should be tough to beat.
In the field they have another star in Esposito. He hits for average and is a stellar defensively with the leather, the kind that puts former Vandy star Pedro Alvarez to shame multiple times over. He's got some deceptive power in his bat and this might be the year that he finally breaks out. He could reach the 20-homer mark if he can tap into some of that power.
Infielder Anthony Gomez returns as well after leading Vandy with a .379 average, along with IF/OF Aaron Westlake who could profile as a middle-of-the-order bat someday if things fall into place for him.
#3 UCLA Bruins
It's tough not to like UCLA as the number one team in the country with a rotation that features Trevor Bauer AND Gerrit Cole. Really! They are easily the best one-two tandem in the country.
Both pitchers epitomize the word "domination," as they combined to go 23-7 with 318 strikeouts in 254.1 innings last year. Further, neither shows any signs of slowing down. It hurt to lose arms like Rob Rasmussen (Florida) and Daniel Klein (Baltimore), but they still have Erik Goeddel coming back.
At the plate UCLA returns Mr. Everything Beau Amaral, as well as Dean Espy, Tyler Rahmatulla and Cody Regis, who led the Bruins in home-runs as a freshman. They aren't a team that can out-slug anyone, but they are incredible at clawing and scratching for runs anyway they can.
With that rotation, they should be a lock as one of the final four teams left at the end of the year.
#2 Florida Gators
Looking at their roster, it's a wonder they didn't win the whole thing last year.
Coming back they have: Preston Tucker (.331 11 HR, 49 RBI), Nolan Fontana (.287 15 2B, 53-29 BB-K), and Austin Maddox (.333 17 HR, 72 RBI). That doesn't even include Josh Adams, who had a rough 2010, but still hit nine homers and drove in 42 runs. They also have two-way star Brian Johnson, who hit .405 in 27 games last season, and Tyler Thompson, who hit .301 with six homers in 146 at-bats.
On the mound, the Gators are similarly stacked.
Alex Panteliodis went 11-3 and anchors a staff that includes Brian Johnson (6-4, 51 K, 14 BB), and the appropriately named Tommy Toledo (3-2 4.39 ERA). Their bullpen is stocked too, featuring stud sophomore Steven Rodriguez who went 2-0 with a 2.57 ERA in 20 appearances and Nick Maronde (2-0 37K in 26.1 IP).
The Gators will also have an impact freshman in Karsten Whitson, the highest pick from the 2010 draft (#9) to not come to an agreement on a contract. Whitson could be a huge addition—especially out of the bullpen—and could blossom into a great late-season star.
#1 TCU Horned Frogs
TCU's dream season ended at the hands of the UCLA Bruins, and if fate has it's way, the two teams could end up being two of the final squads left come next June.
TCU's impressive roster starts with Matt Purke who is a potetntial number one pitching prospect in the 2011 draft. He was downright dominant last season as a freshman, posting a perfect 16-0 record and 142 strikeouts in 116.1 innings.
But TCU's pitching doesn't stop there.
After Purke comes Kyle Winkler, a short but talented right-hander who posted a 12-3 record last season. Winkler throws in the low 90s and has had nothing but success dating back to high-school. But, if you can get through Purke and Winkler, you still have to deal with Steven Maxwell, who went 11-2 and posted the best ERA of the three last season (2.70).
Out of their bullpen, Kaleb Merck (1.47 ERA in 22 outings) and Trent Appleby (3-1 in 23 appearance) return, as does Erik Miller, who struck out 30 in 27 innings last season.
In the field and at the plate, TCU returns two of it's better hitters in Jason Coats (.361 13 HR, 69 RBI) and Josh Elander (.356 11 steals). Brance Rivera (.342 and six homers in 187 at-bats), Taylor Featherston (.338 eight homers and 52 RBI) and Jerome Pena (.313 with 11 HR and 52 RBI) also return. As do role players Jantzen Witte (.374 and 39 RBI in 32 games) and Jimmie Pharr (.363 and 21 RBI in 26 games), who figure to have bigger roles this year.
TCU also bolstered their pitching staff with four touted freshman: Tony Rizzotti, who throws in the low 90s, Andrew Mitchell, Nick Frey and Stefan Crichton.
Given the three-headed beast of a rotation, as well as the returning talent at the plate and in the field, TCU is hands-down the team to beat this year.
In more explainable terms, which team has the best shot at doing what South Carolina did in 2010? Meaning, upsetting a few teams, making their way to the CWS final, and then somehow winning it all against the odds.
Here are a few bets, ranked from least-to most-likely.
#4 Rice Owls
You have to give Rice a legit shot and not just because they have Anthony Rendon, the best all-around player in college baseball.
They also have some pretty good depth, starting in their infield, where Michael Fuda, who hit .346 with seven homers and 45 RBI plays, splitting time in the outfield. Jeremy Rathjen also returns in the outfield a year after ranking third on the team in homers (13) and second in RBI (69). Michael Ratterree and Craig Manuel also return.
On the mound the Owls have Boogie Anagnostou, a polished pitcher who should easily top his numbers from last year, and Taylor Wall, a junior lefty with tons of promise.
The Owls also added some talented freshmen. Did I mention they have Anthony Rendon?
#3 USC Trojans
There really is no explanation why USC has been as bad as they have been the past few years. They've had the talent (see, Grant Green) and they certainly have the prestige (12 national titles).
This season the Trojans might be able to see the light, and may just get back to the CWS for the first time since 2005.
If they do, it will most likely come as a result of two things: a huge season from slugger Ricky Oropesa, who hit .353 with 20 homers and 67 RBI last season, and a big impact from junior-transfer Austin Wood. Wood lit up the Cape Cod League and will be pitching for his third team in as many seasons.
Hopefully, Wood can rub off of the lesser talented pitchers on the squad, helping the entire rotation improve a little before he runs off after this season to untold big league riches.
#2 Stanford Cardinal
Stanford has a real shot at making some noise in 2011.
It starts with their rotation which is led by junior Brett Mooneyham. Mooneyham has never really had the results to back up the kind of physical pitcher he is. He throws in the mid 90s and has two really good complimentary pitches that could be above-average at the next level. He's certainly more than talented enough to get college hitters out on a consistent basis.
After Mooneyham the ball is passed to some seriously talented freshman, led by A.J Vanegas, one of the top prep pitchers to bypass pro ball for college.
The Cardinal also have some top-flight talent coming in the form of sluggers Austin Wilson and Brian Ragira, both of whom should help the Cardinal to a much better record than the 31-25 mark they posted last year.
And add to the bunch Kenny Diekroeger, Stanford's best returning player, and this group could find some serious footing come late May and early June.
#1 Connecticut Huskies
UConn certainly isn't known for it's baseball prowess, but if George Springer and Matt Barnes have anything to do about it, it won't be long before baseball prospects are flying out of Storrs and into the big leagues.
Springer is one of the top position players in the 2011 draft and for good reason. He's fast (33 steals), can hit for average (.337), and has some serious power prospects (18 homers). He does just about everything for the Huskies and helped lead them to a super-impressive 48-16 record in 2010.
Barnes is just as vital. After finishing up a very impressive season (8-3 3.92 ERA and 75 K in 82.2 innings), Barnes made the most of his time this summer. He was one of the bright spots at the Team USA tryouts in Cary, NC, making headlines by striking out Jackie Bradley Jr. and Anthony Rendon. He has a mid 90s fastball, an decent changeup, and two potential average- to above-average pitches in his curveball and slider.
Beyond Springer and Barnes, UConn has Nick Ahmed, a solid all-around shortstop and Elliot Glynn, team-captain and staff ace.
Choosing an All-American team seems to be a pretty easy thing to do in college baseball. You pretty much go with whoever made the team last year, because they figure to be pretty good bets. And if those players have graduated or been drafted, then you move on to the second-team guys. Sometimes it's not that easy, but here's my picks for All-American consideration.
If you don't know C.J. Cron's name yet, you certainly will after this season as he returns to his natural position of catcher. He played mostly first-base for Utah last season after an injury forced him out from behind the plate. Still, learning a new position didn't negatively affect his game. He hit .431 with 20 homers and 81 RBI. Cron should have a good enough year to at least move into first-round draft consideration.
Runners-Up: Peter O'Brien, Bethune-Cookman
Florida's Preston Tucker wasn't a very highly sought after recruit with FSU turning him down twice on separate occasions. Somehow he made his way to UF and has blossomed. He should be a day-one pick in the 2011 draft, but before he goes he will most certainly help Florida into the super-regionals once again. Last season he hit .331 with 11 homers and 49 RBI, way down from his 2009 numbers (.364, 15 homers, 85 RBI), but still pretty good. He should get back to numbers similar to those from his freshman season.
Runner-Up: Ricky Oropesa, USC
Zack MacPhee was one of the reasons that Arizona State didn't suffer much of a hangover from all of the allegations flying around Tempe. He started the season hotter than any other hitter and somehow maintained an average that fluttered around .400 all season long before finally settling for a .394 number. He contributed all over the place: at the plate, where he hit nine homers and drove in 63 runs; in the field, where he played a little bit of second-base, shortstop and third-base; and on the basepaths, where he turned 19 steals into 65 runs scored. MacPhee isn't the most athletic or draftable athlete, but he certainly gets more out of what he has than anyone.
Runner-Up: Kolten Wong, Hawaii, Ryan Wright, Louisville
MacPhee and Deven Marrero form one of college baseball's most lethal double-play combinations in the field, while at the plate they are easily the best middle-infield duo around. Marrero is used to playing around stars as he played on the national championship winning American Heritage squad that featured first-round pick Eric Hosmer. Finally, Marrero is developing into a star himself, building off of his freshman season, in which he hit .397 with six homers, 42 RBI, and 11 steals.
Runner-Up: Taylor Featherston, TCU, B.A. Vollmuth, Southern Miss
Anthony Rendon is everything you look for in a college superstar and a number one draft pick. He hits for power (46 career HR) and average (.391 career), and has excellent plate discipline (86 walks to 45 strikeouts). Rice coach Wayne Graham says Rendon is the best he's ever seen.
Runners-Up: Matt Skole, Georgia Tech, Garrett Wittles, FIU, Jason Esposito, Vanderbilt
George Springer (UConn) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (South Carolina) easily rank as the top two outfielders in college baseball. Springer emerged as a legit five-tool talent last year, hitting for average, power and showing excellent speed on the basepaths. He should not only help the Huskies to a fantastic season, but he should also be a top-ten pick in the 2011 draft.
Bradley Jr. had a coming out party during the CWS, helping lead the Gamecocks to the title while doing a little bit of everything. He can hit for average or power, and has a great arm in the field. Picking a third outfielder is tricky. There are tons of worthy candidates, but I'll put my money on Indiana's Alex Dickerson. Dickerson has as much raw power as any collegiate player. He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009 and took home Player of the Year honors in 2010. He's primed for a huge year.
Runners-Up: Zach Cone, Georgia, Taylor Dugas, Alabama, Levi Michael, UNC, Mikie Mahtook, LSU,
Mike McGee was hands down the best two-way player last season. He hit .335 for the Seminoles and slugged 14 homers, driving in 67 runs. He helped guide the Noles back to the CWS, and even helped out on the mound, where he pitched to a 0.38 ERA in 24 innings. Pitching primarily as FSU's closer, he saved 11 games while striking out 28 batters and holding hitters to a .103 average.
Choosing the top five starting pitchers in college baseball is kind of easy. You could drop about 15 names in a hat and be good with any five of them. The three you really have to start with, though, are Matt Purke (TCU), Gerrit Cole (UCLA), and Sonny Gray (Vanderbilt). All three have big-time arms, but aside from that couldn't be more different.
Purke is the lean lefty, who made headlines by going 16-0 during a stellar freshman season. Cole is the hard-throwing righty who turned down a contract with the Yankees to head to college, where he put one on dominating show last season, striking out 153 batters in 123 innings. And Gray is the diminutive right-hander who throws in the mid 90s and was named Baseball America's Summer Collegiate Player of the Year. All three are primed for huge seasons.
After those three, I'll go ahead and tab Cole's mate in the UCLA rotation, Trevor Bauer. It was Bauer, not Cole, who led the Bruins, as well as the entire country in strikeouts last season and was every bit as impressive in the CWS. Taylor Jungmann makes a great fifth guy. He has been dominating during his two-year career as a Longhorn, posting a 19-6 record and an ERA around 2.00.
Runners-Up: Kyle Winkler, TCU, Danny Hultzen, Virginia, Noe Ramirez, Cal State-Fullerton, Brett Mooneyham, Stanford, Jed Bradley, Georgia Tech, Matt Barnes, Connecticut
Tony Zych generated some serious momentum this summer after pitching lights-out in the Cape Cod League, finally settling the debate once and for all that his home should be in the bullpen. During his time at Cincinnati he has gone back and forth from the rotation to the pen, but as a reliever he is easily one of the top five.
Runners-Up: Dixon Anderson, Oregon, Brett Huber, Ole Miss
There are so many good series to look forward to this season. And even though the season doesn't officially begin until the calendar switches to 2011, we've already missed a great one.
These two teams aren't actually scheduled to meet this season, but they did get together to play two exhibition games: And they were good ones. In game one, Vandy took it 7-2 behind stellar pitching from Sonny Gray who went three scoreless innings. Game two went the Longhorns way with Texas winning 7-5 in 12-innings.
With the firepower on these two teams, it's a darn shame that the only realistic shot at them meeting again would be late in the CWS.
These teams meet only for three games this year—all of which will take place in Nashville. Both teams should come into the season ranked in the top five, and since this is a series that takes place during the final weeks of the regular season all the big guns should be out. That means lots of Sonny Gray, Grayson Garvin, Preston Tucker, Nolan Fontana and Alex Panteliodis.
Texas is a perennial powerhouse and should have no problem dominating their schedule, but the most intriguing matchup they have all season will be a three-game set with Stanford, who could be a real sleeping giant this season. The Cardinal added some talented freshman to an already impressive roster that underachieved the past few seasons. They should have a bounce-back season on the arms of Brett Mooneyham and A.J. Vanegas. Texas, on the other hand, should be stacked. They have one of the most impressive rotations in college baseball and some depth on offense.
USC and UCLA meet for the annual Dodgertown Classic in March at Dodger Stadium. This game should be the best of the Classic, and pits two impressive teams against each other. UCLA features tons of talent, especially in their stacked rotation, while USC could be a team to keep an eye on. They have some great players on offense, and have a much improved rotation, with junior-transfer Austin Wood joining it.
TCU-Cal State Fullerton (2/25-2/27)
The Horned Frogs will face their first true test during the second week of play when they host the Titans, who look to be just as good as ever with ace Noe Ramirez and slugging first-baseman Nick Ramirez. TCU will most likely throw Kyle Winkler and Matt Purke at them while utilizing their very talented, very deep starting nine to try to steal three games from Fullerton.
Florida-South Carolina (3/25-2/27)
One of the best bets to win the CWS title meets the team that took home the hardware last season. This matchup should be fantastic. Taking place in Gainesville a few games before the halfway point in the season, this series should signal to everyone who the top team in the SEC is. Carolina lost a lot of talent off of their championship roster, and what they lack in depth, the Gators make up for in spades. The Gators have an impressive rotation too.
Arizona State-UCLA (5/27-5/29)
I can think of no better way to celebrate my birthday than with one of the best series of the season. Arizona State is primed for another good year, led by the talented infield duo of Zack MacPhee and Deven Marrero. And UCLA is UCLA, oozing talent. This series should go a long way towards determining the seeding between the top two teams in the Pac-10.
When you talk about compelling storylines, you have to start with Garrett Wittles and his quest to break Robin Ventura's mark of hitting in 58 consecutive games. Wittles ended the season with a hit in 56 straight games and is now three away from breaking the mark. The first three games of Florida International's season will be broadcast online on ESPN3, and it will no doubt make for great Sportscenter fodder.
But Wittles isn't the only interesting story to watch this year. Here's a few more.
How will ankle surgery affect Anthony Rendon?
This is a fantastic question. Rendon went down with a bum ankle during the summer and should have enough time for surgery and rehab before the 2011 season starts. He injured his ankle last summer as well, and bounced back pretty nicely, so I'm betting he'll be fine. But if he's not, and the ankle prohibits his movement at third-base where he is an excellent defender, he could be in trouble. He is, as of right now, the presumed number one overall pick in the 2011 draft, and a slide could cost him millions of dollars. Not to mention ruining any shot Rice has at a decent season.
SEC Baseball under the lights to be televised.
The SEC made the first major move into the spotlight by coming to an agreement with ESPN. Every week starting on April 7th, the network's collegiate dedicated channel will be broadcasting the SEC game of the week. Some of the matchups include South Carolina-Tennessee, Florida-Arkansas and LSU-Kentucky. Hopefully this can help pave the way for weekend games on one or more of the ESPN channels.
The race for the number one pick.
For the first time in quite some time, it appears that most, if not all, of the top draft-able talent is in the college ranks. The top hitter (Rendon) and the top three pitchers (Purke, Cole and Gray) are all collegiate stars. This makes this upcoming season even more intriguing. It will be great to watch each player try to out-do each other, not only for the good of their teams, but for boatloads of cash. We are going to be treated to some outstanding matchups.
Tony Gwynn takes on cancer.
You all know the news by now: Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn has a slow-moving, but aggressive form of cancer. He is set to begin chemo treatment soon, but still plans to return to the dugout to coach his San Diego State Aztecs. The San Diego Union Tribune did a great story on Gwynn and the diagnosis a few months back that you can check out here. Gwynn is reportedly facing seven to eight weeks of five-day-a-week radiation therapy.
Everyone should be rooting for Gwynn this season.
College World Series post Rosenblatt Stadium
College baseball bid a sad farewell to Rosenblatt Stadium last season. The new home of the CWS will be TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. It will have a capacity of about 24,000 with the ability to accomodate 35,000. While it's hard to imagine college baseball's greatest moments taking place elsewhere, it's fitting that with college baseball getting bigger and bigger, that it have a new home fitting of it's growth.
Cal cuts baseball.
Players, both current and former, as well as the coaches, and most certainly fans were all stunned with the news that the University of California will cut the men's baseball program after the 2011 season. It's not like this was some school that wasn't very good at baseball. Cal and it's off-shoots, Fullerton, Northridge, and UCLA are what give California baseball a storied tradition. For now, however, the focus is on the 2011 season, and you know these Bears are going to give it all they've got.
Anthony Rendon has a strangle-hold on Baseball America's yearly awards. A season after being named college baseball's top freshman, he was named the player of the year. And with him coming back healthy after ankle surgery, it doesn't seem like he's going to let go of that award anytime soon.
So, I think Rendon for Player of the Year is a pretty safe bet.
The race for Freshman of the Year should be a lot more intriguing. With several top prospects bypassing pro ball for college, there should be a pretty deep class to draw from.
Karsten Whitson, who spurned a multi-million dollar offer from the Padres, should be an important part of Florida's 2011 squad, where he could make a few spot starts and be a tremendous arm out of the bullpen.
San Diego's Dylan Covey should also be an important part of the Toreros rotation.
But I'd put my money on Stanford's A.J. Vanegas. Vanegas was a seventh-round pick, also by the Padres, and decided to head to Stanford instead of signing. Vanegas won't be the number one guy in his rotation, so for the most part, he'll be lucky enough to face other teams number two starters.
Vanegas was perfect during his senior year, going 10-0 with a 0.50 ERA and 130 strikeouts. He also threw a no-hitter in his last start of the season.
There are so many talented teams, each capable of taking home a title, and as many as I can think could win it, I'm sure there's five or six other teams that could pull a Carolina and come from nowhere.
Still, through it all, I'm sticking by the Florida Gators. They may not have the biggest name hitter (Rice's Anthony Rendon) or the biggest name on the mound (TCU's Matt Purke). And they certainly won't be mistaken for the most baseball rich program. But when it comes down to it, I think they offer the best bet in terms of pitching, hitting, fielding and depth. The fact that they appear to have great team chemistry counts for something too.
They have some excellent hitters in Preston Tucker, Austin Maddox, Nolan Fontana, and Josh Adams. And they have a deep pitching staff with Alex Panteliodis, Nick Maronde, Steven Rodriguez and Karsten Whitson.
They are also a very well-coached team, led by Kevin O'Sullivan, who in his fourth year as head of the program will lead them to the promised land.
If I had to pick a runner-up, I would take TCU. These two teams in the final would make for one excellent series.
But in the end, it's the Gators.