The 2016 NCAA Division I baseball season was one to write home about with more than one Hollywood storyline scattered across the season. For example, Coastal Carolina’s cinderella run came to fruition when they won games two and three in a best of three series with the University of Arizona for the College World Series title. And the best moment of the season was when heavy favorite Louisville Cardinals led the little known (little known in the CWS that is) UC Santa Barbara 3-0 in the bottom of the 9th with two outs and the bases loaded with future first round closer Zack Burdi facing a freshman pinch hitter with less than 30 at bats during the season… and I wouldn’t be writing about it now if UCSB’s Sam Cohen struck out.
In 2016 we enjoyed a great season of college baseball, but with the 2017 season about one month away from today what better way to kick off the 2017 season a little early with N2K’s very own Preseason College Baseball Top 25 Poll.
1. TCU Horned Frogs
The Horned Frogs have created quite the powerhouse within college baseball but coach Jim Schlossnagle is still chasing his first national championship. TCU will be led by junior Evan Skoug, a first round talent behind the plate who will be catching the ace tandem of senior Brian Howard and redshirt sophomore Jared Janczak. The Horned Frogs will need Luken Baker to improve on his strong freshman campaign and defensive standout Nolan Brown who sat out the 2016 season due to injury to have a great comeback season in order to not only contend once again but be the favorites for the National Championship.
2. Florida Gators
The Gators will go as far as their pitching staff and JJ Schwarz take them. Schwarz will most likely be splitting time between catcher and designated hitter due to the emergence of Mike Rivera. Alex Faedo has been mentioned as a potential number one overall pick come the draft in June and last year many believe that Faedo was the true ace ahead of sixth overall pick AJ Puk. There are two main question marks for this Gator team and the first is Brady Singer, can he breakout to solidify the number two spot in the Florida rotation? The second is whether or not the two new recruits (left fielder Austin Langworthy, and outfielder/pitcher Andrew Baker) will be able to produce in their first experience with the SEC and college baseball.
3. LSU Tigers
The LSU Tigers will be on a mission to redeem themselves from last year’s loss to eventual College World Series Champion Coastal Carolina in the Super Regionals, two long wins away from Omaha. The Tigers are bringing back an extremely strong core of players led by junior pitcher Alex Lange and senior second baseman Cole Freeman who won the Thurman Munson Batting Title of the Cape Cod League over the summer. Sophomore center fielder Antoine Duplantis is hoping to improve on an impressive freshman season and is my LSU player to watch for the 2017 season.
4. South Carolina Gamecocks
Just like the previously mentioned LSU Tigers, the South Carolina Gamecocks were a #1 seed in their regional bracket but were eliminated in the CWS Super Regionals. The main strength of this year’s Gamecock team is their pitching staff led by potential first round pick, junior Clarke Schmidt alongside sophomore Adam Hill and juniors Wil Crowe and Tyler Johnson. Wil Crowe did not play last season due to injury so his production this year will be directly related to South Carolina’s success. On the offensive side of the ball the Gamecocks are led by junior Alex Destino who slashed 0.321/0.373/0.509 last season with 59 RBIs to boot. South Carolina will be looking to win their third National Championship in program history.
5. Vanderbilt Commodores
Even in a rebuilding year of sorts for the Commodores we still have them locked in at #5 in our top 25. The coaching of Tim Corbin and leadership of upperclassmen Jeren Kendall, Will Toffey and Kyle Wright will lead Vandy once again deep into the College World Series tournament. In our 2017 MLB Mock Draft, junior pitcher Kyle Wright and junior outfielder Jeren Kendall are going first and second overall respectively. We expect junior third baseman Will Toffey to have a breakout year after a good showing offensively in the prestigious Cape Cod League. Toffey’s main issue is his defense but the pitching of Vanderbilt should be able to bail him out if he makes any errors. The central question around the Commodores is after sophomore pitcher Patrick Raby, who will step up to solidify the rotation?
6. Florida State Seminoles
The Seminoles are a very strong team this year but they will most likely have three starters that are incoming freshman. Third baseman Drew Mendoza, outfielder JC Flowers and outfielder Rhett Aplin will make or break the back end of the lineup for the Seminoles. Sophomore catcher Cal Raleigh and junior first baseman Dylan Busby will handle the bulk of the offensive production and the balanced Seminoles lineup will be complimented nicely by their pitching staff. Sophomore Cole Sands will be the ace for Florida State and his progression as a leader from the pitching rubber should work wonders for the team as a whole.
7. UNC Tar Heels
Although UNC did not make the postseason last season, they are sitting pretty awaiting the 2017 season. Offensively, the Tar Heels will be led by a strong trio of juniors that include outfielder Brian Miller, second baseman Zack Gahagan and shortstop Logan Warmoth. UNC might just have the second best middle infield in all of the NCAA this year (Maryland in my opinion) but on top of Gahagan and Warmoth the Heels have perhaps the best college arm of the 2017 draft class in the form of JB Bukauskas. You can definitely expect the Tar Heels to make a strong push for the CWS title in 2017.
8. NC State Wolfpack
Elliott Avent has been coaching the Wolfpack for 20 years now and his 2017 offense might be the most well-rounded it’s ever been during his tenure. Junior third baseman Evan Mendoza who slashed 0.362/0.417/0.449 last season is the blue chip hitter of the team but he’ll be heavily supported by junior shortstop Joe Dunand, junior rightfielder Brock Deatherage, junior centerfielder Josh McLain, sophomore leftfielder Brett Kinneman, junior second baseman Stephen Pitarra just to name a few… or basically their entire roster. The Wolfpack are still looking for their first national title for their program and with the lineup they have, maybe this is their year.
9. Oregon State Beavers
Oregon State boasts one of the more powerful offensive lineups led by the powerful bats of first baseman KJ Harrison and designated hitter Christian Donahue. The contact hitting sophomore second baseman Nick Madrigal who slashed 0.333/0.380/0.456 in his freshman season will look to pave the way with Harrison and Donahue for incoming freshmen catcher Adley Rutschman. The pitching duo of junior Luke Heimlich and sophomore Bryce Fehmel will need perform efficiently in order for the Oregon State Beavers to make it into the College World Series, unlike their 2016 efforts.
10. Louisville Cardinals
The Louisville Cardinals lost out on the College World Series in heartbreaking fashion last year to UC Santa Barbara (see video in the intro of the article) and after losing a strong core of players including Corey Ray and Kyle Funkhouser it is quite the accomplishment to open up the preseason in the top ten. Although the Cardinals lost a few guys they also had some great talent returning including first round draft prospect dual-threat junior Brendan McKay. In McKay’s previous two seasons he compiled a 21-7 record with a 2.05 ERA on the pitching rubber while slashing 0.321/0.416/0.474 with 75 RBIs in the batters box. Incoming freshman and second baseman Logan Wyatt could play a key role for the Cardinals this year. Senior outfielder Colin Lyman will be the anchor for Louisville, last year he batted 0.301 while making zero errors in the outfield. After losing in such a dramatic way last year, the Cardinals are hungry to make another deep run into the tournament.
11. Miami Hurricanes
Many people believed that this year would be a rebuilding year of sorts for the ‘Canes but not me, although the U lost some very quality talent they are bringing a strong core of leaders back as well as some extremely talented freshmen. Mainly the loss of Zack Collins will be a tough pill to swallow but promising freshman catcher Michael Amditis looks primed to fill his shoes. Seniors shortstop Johnny Ruiz, second baseman Randy Bautista first baseman Chris Barr and third baseman Edgar Michelangeli will return to make a very formidable infield. Junior centerfielder Carl Chester will hope to improve upon his 2016 slash of 0.336/0.426/0.395. As for the pitching of the Hurricanes they will have ace junior lefty Michael Mediavilla as well as strong sophomore reliever Frankie Bartow. Miami made it all the way to the College World Series last season but missed out on an opportunity to play for the National Championship after being eliminated by the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos.
12. Clemson Tigers
For a program that has had the success that Clemson has had, it seems a little weird that they are still looking for their first national title. As a matter of a fact, the Tigers haven’t been to the College World Series since 2010 after getting upset in the regionals last season. The lineup card for Clemson coach Monte Lee will be strong this year led offensively by 2016 Golden Spikes finalist sophomore first baseman Seth Beer and junior centerfielder Chase Pinder. The Tigers will have two newcomers by way of transfer and one incoming freshman join their team with expectations of starting (junior third baseman Patrick Cromwell, freshman shortstop Logan Davidson and senior designated hitter Weston Jackson). Senior left-handed pitcher Pat Krall will lead the rotation hoping to improve upon his 10-2 record and 1.67 ERA from last season.
13. Virginia Cavaliers
The batting lineup of the Cavaliers is one of the best in the business led by Cape Cod League MVP junior second baseman Ernie Clement as well as fellow CCBL standouts junior first baseman Pavin Smith and junior dual-threat pitcher/outfielder Adam Haseley. If the Cape Cod League is any indicator of future performance, UVA will be in for one special season presumably led by Smith, Haseley and Clement. Pavin Smith is one of the first round prospects for the upcoming 2017 MLB Draft. The Cavs struggled with injuries last year and whether or not senior catcher Robbie Coman, sophomore leftfielder Jake McCarthy and sophomore pitcher Jake Sperling will be able to bounce back will determine their success this season.
14. Maryland Terrapins
Believe it or not, the Maryland Terrapins have never been to the College World Series but coach John Szefc is building something special and it is no doubt that this will be the Terps’ breakout year. Junior shortstop Kevin Smith and sophomore second baseman Nick Dunn makeup perhaps the best middle infield in all of the NCAA. Both Smith and Dunn shined during the Cape Cod League with Smith going on to win Playoff MVP Honors. Other returners include junior first baseman Kevin Biondic, sophomore rightfielder Marty Costes and senior leftfielder Madison Nickens who all combined for 22 home runs and 89 RBIs. The Terrapins also have George Mason transfer and redshirt senior Brandon Gum who will most likely start at third base. Gum played shortstop at George Mason but lost the majority of his senior season due to injury when he tore his rotator cuff diving into home. As for the Maryland pitchers, they boast the strong one-two punch of juniors Taylor Bloom and Brian Shaffer. Maryland definitely has the roster to make it to the College World Series this year but crazier things have happened in the college baseball world.
15. Stanford Cardinal
I have been hesitating putting the Cardinals this high in the rankings since their offense, on paper will not be very good but pitching on the other hand will be elite. The rotation will be led by Tristan Beck who could very well be the best pitcher in all of college this season if he pitches to his potential. In addition to Beck, the Cardinal also have lights out reliever Colton Hock who like Beck is a first round draft prospect. On the offensive side junior outfielder Quinn Brodey and senior designated hitter Alex Dunlap will be expected to lead the way but the reason behind my high ranking of Stanford is that I predict breakout years from juniors first baseman Matt Winaker and second baseman Mikey Diekroeger. The two time national champion baseball program hasn’t even made it to the regionals of the College World Series in a few years so they’ll be hungry for success this season.
16. Cal State Fullerton Titans
Next on our list are the Titans of Cal State Fullerton led by the strong three-headed pitching staff of junior Connor Seabold, sophomore Colton Eastman and junior John Gavin. Seabold, Eastman and Gavin all had stellar ERAs of 2.48, 2.24 and 2.09 respectively. Pitching clearly is no issue but scoring runs will be the issue for this Titans team due to the fact that their offensive is rather lackluster. Cal State Fullerton does have some hope in the batter’s box after junior college transfers second baseman Dillon Persinger and leftfielder Chris Prescott. The Titans will be looking to add their fifth program national title, the last of which they won in 2014.
17. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
Last year, the Gauchos made it to Omahafor the first CWS berth in their program’s history. Coach Andrew Checketts is building a powerhouse in Santa Barbara led by redshirt-junior second baseman and leader of the Gauchos JJ Muno. Muno batted 0.294 last season while swiping 17 bases on only 23 attempts and ended the season on a thirteen game hitting streak. Redshirt-junior catcher Dempsey Grover will be key to helping the Gaucho pitching staff which could be led by sophomore righty Noah Davis. Junior first baseman Austin Bush is the main power threat on the Gauchos and he’ll look to best his 11 homers from 2016. Junior college transfer Colton Burns could be the spark that the Gauchos need to get back to Omaha after slashing 0.386/0.481/0.514 during his junior college career. It will also be interesting to see what type of role 2016 hero Sam Cohen (who went to the same high school as Tom Brady) will have this year. 2016 was supposed to be a rebuilding year for UCSB and they ended up in Omaha, so 2017 could be special for the Gauchos if they can hit the ground running in the Big West.
18. Oklahoma State Cowboys
The Cowboys made it to the College World Series last year but after losing strong pitcher Thomas Hatch as well as some powerful bats including Conor Costello, they have their work cut for them if they want to make it back to Omaha. This year, Tyler Buffett looks like he’ll be the star of the team after pitching to a 9-3 record as a sophomore with a 2.81 ERA. In the rotation with Buffett will be senior Trey Cobb who earned a 3.09 ERA last season getting appearances as both a reliever and a starter. Junior infielder Garrett Benge should be the offensive leader for the Cowboys after batting 0.292 with 40 RBIs but if senior Dustin Williams can hit for more contact to compliment his ability to hit the longball then the Oklahoma State offensive could become quite dynamic. The Cowboys as a team are a huge question mark and I don’t think that I would be astonished with any way they finish in 2017.
19. Arizona Wildcats
The Wildcats didn’t make it one game away from being crowned College World Series by mistake but with that being said, arguably three of their best four offensive weapons are gone. Arizona does still have junior designated hitter J.J. Matijevic with a solid supporting cast from last year’s runner-up team all looking to play a major role in the 2017 season. My players to watch for the Wildcats are junior centerfielder Jared Oliva who ended last season on fire and senior shortstop Louis Boyd who looks to be the most likely leader for Arizona this season. From the pitching rubber, Arizona knows what to expect in senior J.C Cloney who will be the ace this year. With the momentum of last year’s finish as well as the bitter taste of being CWS runner-ups the Wildcats could be a dangerous team to play late in the season.
20. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
The defending National Champion Coastal Carolina Chanticleers take claim to the 20th rank on our list. Starting pitcher Andrew Beckwith is entering his senior season after a scorching 15-1 record with a 1.85 ERA during his junior season. Senior pitcher Alex Cunningham compliments Beckwith perfectly to make a strong one-two punch after going 10-4 himself in his junior season. Junior third baseman Seth Lancaster batted 0.326 with 7 home runs and 35 RBIs while fellow junior and centerfield Billy Cook batted 0.324 with 27 stolen bases are two returning national champions looking to repeat and with their leadership the Chanticleers could be a very strong team that others don’t want to play when the pressure is on.
21. UNC Wilmington Seahawks
UNC Wilmington might just have the best offense in all college baseball, led by junior catcher Nick Feight who smashed 21 home runs last year with 91 RBIs while batting 0.349. Alongside Feight, the Seahawks are bringing back a bunch of power bats from last season including junior second baseman Brian Mims, redshirt-senior shortstop Kennard McDowell, senior leftfielder Daniel Stack and senior rightfielder Casey Golden who together combined for 61 home runs. Not only do the Seahawks have power but they have contact with the aforementioned Feight, junior first baseman Zack Canada who batted 0.308 and senior centerfielder Robbie Thorburn who batted 0.364 last year. The Seahawks have made the tournament the last two years and they’re sitting in a good position to make it three years straight but they’re still chasing their first College World Series berth and with the offense they have, this could be the year.
22. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns
The strength of the Ragin Cajuns are with their pitching and more specifically juniors Gunner Leger and Dylan Moore as well as sophomore Nick Lee. Louisiana-Lafayette has an offensive that is built around hitting for power and senior centerfielder Joe Robbins looks to build on his 10 homers from 2016. Senior second baseman Brenn Conrad had a whopping 43 RBIs during the 2016 campaign but the contact hitting in the Cajun offense relies on senior third baseman Alex Pinero. The Ragin Cajuns haven’t made the College World Series in over fifteen years and you can bet that coach Tony Robichaux and company have their sights on changing that streak this season.
23. Texas A&M Aggies
This year’s Aggie team has some serious potential but their entire roster has not been entirely set although senior shortstop Austin Homan, senior first baseman Joel Davis and senior centerfielder Nick Choruby are are set in stone. It will be interesting whether or not senior rightfielder Blake Kopetsky who missed last season due to injury will be able to live up to what the A&M coaches saw in him when he transferred from Temple College after the 2014 season. The pitching rotation for Texas A&M is extremely promising led by juniors Brigham Hill and Turner Larkins as well as sophomore Mitchell Kilkenny. The Aggies haven’t been to the College World Series in five years and they have some work to do this year if they want to break that trend.
24. East Carolina Pirates
This is the year if the Pirates want to deep run into the College World Series due to the fact five of their projected offensive starters as well as the top two pitchers are seniors. Although I have East Carolina ranked 24th I could easily see them in the top ten by the end of the season. Senior left-handed pitchers Evan Kruczynski and Jacob Wolfe will be the backbone of the Pirates and freshman Trey Benton will compliment the front end of the rotation well. On the offensive side of things, East Carolina has senior catcher Travis Watkins and sophomore centerfielder Dwanya Williams-Sutton who burst onto the scene as a freshman when he slashed 0.360/0.455/0.551 with five longballs.
25. Rice Owls
And the last spot on our preseason rankings goes to Rice University, the alma mater of Red Sox all star Brock Holt. This year’s Rice roster is quite strong but could be even stronger next season depending on which players leave for the MLB. Rightfielder Charlie Warren is the only senior on the projected lineup and after batting 0.341 just last season, perhaps Warren will become the leader of the Owls due to his seniority and production. The strength of the Owls lies with their middle infield which is made up of sophomore shortstop Ford Proctor and junior second baseman Tristan Gray. Junior starting pitcher Ricardo Salinas will be the ace of the Owls’ rotation after going 9-2 with a 3.39 ERA last season. Rice will be looking to reach their eight CWS in program history.
What do you think of our list? Do you agree with it? Who do you think we snubbed or were a little too generous to? Be sure to let us know in the comments below, via Twitter @N2KSports or on Facebook at N2K Sports.
Cover Photo via SC Sports Source
Various Photos via TCU 360, Alligator, The Advocate, Baseball America, Florida State Seminoles, UNC Tar Heels, Oregon Live, Tiger Net, WTOP, San Antonio Express, Wahoos, Stanford Daily, Cal State Fullerton Titans, Tuscon, Scout, The Advertiser, Omaha, Hurricane Sports, The Diamondback, College Baseball Central, UNCW Athletics, Louisville Athletics, The Boston Herald, ESPN