At College Baseball Central, our bias is toward good stories.
What’s going to be the most fun to watch play out? Where are the storylines that are being overlooked? What questions are there to be answered? We’re still several months from the start of the season, but these are already things on our mind as the 2019 season draws ever closer.
A lot of that curiosity can be expressed in talking about the programs that have our attention heading into the season, so that’s what we’re going to do. Over the next few weeks, we’ll roll out the list, five at a time, of the 25 most interesting programs in college baseball heading into the campaign.
Whether it’s because the program is in line for a potentially-historic season, because they’ve got certain exciting players poised for big years, or there are just a lot of unanswered questions, these are the 25 programs that have us ready for first pitch.
When you recruit and develop as much pro talent as LSU does on a year-to-year basis, rebuilding in the offseason just kind of comes with the territory as players get drafted and then sign to begin their pro careers. For the longest time, it didn’t look like the offseason after the 2018 season was going to be any different.
The Tigers already knew that they would be losing productive seniors in Austin Bain, Beau Jordan, and Nick Coomes, and there was a whole bevy of juniors with pro-level talent that you assumed would be drafted in a range that would push them to move on to pro ball. But after the draft and signing day passed, LSU did better than they reasonably could have expected going into it.
Antoine Duplantis, one of the most productive outfielders in the SEC over the last three seasons, made the decision to return to Baton Rouge after being drafted in the 19th round. Zack Hess, who at different points has been LSU’s most effective reliever and most reliable starting pitcher, made the same decision after being drafted in the 34th round. And Zach Watson, a 40th-round selection, will return to man center field.
That trio making the decision to return really changes the complexion of several position groups.
Beforehand, LSU was looking at having just one sure thing in the outfield in sophomore Daniel Cabrera. Instead, they have arguably the best outfield in the nation with Cabrera, Watson, and Duplantis in the fold.
Having such a productive outfield also trickles down to the infield, where the Tigers might be able to put more of an emphasis on defense with players like Hal Hughes and Brandt Broussard, knowing that they don’t have to push to generate more offense.
In the rotation, had Hess not come back, LSU would likely have turned to a pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery, Eric Walker, and a freshman, Landon Marceaux, to lead the team into the weekend. Head coach Paul Mainieri will still look for those two to be a big part of the team’s plans in 2019, but having a workhorse like Hess back takes some pressure off of them.
With a whole boatload of returning relievers back in the mix as well and Hess pushing everyone down the depth chart one spot, pitching depth doesn’t appear like it will be an issue either.
LSU was going to be a factor in the postseason in 2019 regardless, but after they came out of the draft as unharmed as they possibly could have, it turned them into nothing short of a clear national title contender.
The term “roller coaster” comes to mind when you think of Michigan’s 2018 season.
Things really couldn’t have gone much worse in the beginning. They got off to a 4-11 start, with the 11th loss, an 8-3 defeat to NAIA program Lawrence Tech, being particularly tough to swallow. From there, they ripped off 20 wins in a row, turning what looked like a complete rebuilding season into one that looked like it might end with a postseason run. But the final twist was the Wolverines struggling with the tougher portion of their Big Ten schedule, which effectively knocked them out of regional contention.
After his team was eliminated from the Big Ten Tournament, and it was becoming increasingly clear that they were not going to be playing baseball in June, head coach Erik Bakich noted that his team was still going to gather to watch the selection show on Memorial Day for a couple of reasons.
“We’re going to watch the selection show as a group because that’s going to be a ritual we do in our program and it has been for the last few years,” Bakich said at the time. “We may not see our name on the screen on Monday, but I want them to feel that as well, especially for those younger guys because it’ll be the last time they ever feel that.”
When it comes to his 2019 team, his confidence appears more than warranted, as the Wolverines return a good portion of their most productive players from a 2018 team that nearly arrived a year early, they continue to recruit at an incredibly high level, and they look the part of early leaders to capture the Big Ten title.
The rotation was dealt a blow when news broke that Ben Dragani would miss the 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery, but Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffman both proved capable of leading the rotation after fantastic sophomore campaigns. In the bullpen, Angelo Smith and Jeff Criswell are back after having a lot of success as a freshmen in relief roles. Offensively, the likes of Jesse Franklin, Jordan Nwogu, and Dominic Clementi give the offense plenty of punch, while Ako Thomas, Miles Lewis, Blake Nelson, and Jimmy Kerr, as seniors, provide plenty of experience to go along with their production.
Top-level teams in the Big Ten continue to succeed on a national level in the postseason, with Minnesota being the most recent example, and Michigan could be next in line in 2019.
What do the Golden Eagles do for an encore in 2019 after getting to the program’s (and the OVC’s) first super regional in 2018?
Will they challenge to win their third consecutive OVC title and make their third consecutive regional appearance? Or will it be a rebuilding year after losing so much talent to pro baseball after the season?
The argument for the latter is pretty simple, as Tech had eight players drafted and signed after the season, lost two-way player Nick Osborne after he signed a free agent deal over the summer while he was on the Cape, and had three other contributors graduate. To top it off, of course, head coach Matt Bragga moved on to become the new head coach at Rice.
The argument for the former scenario, however, is pretty compelling as well. Tennessee Tech is far from a one-year wonder. They’ve won 40 or more games in four of the last six seasons, and they’ve proven to have more staying power at the top of the conference than any other OVC program.
While they will be replacing a ton of talent from that historic 2018 team, there are much worse pieces to rebuild around on offense than outfielder Kevin Strohschein, who in three years in the program has 51 doubles, 47 homers, and 200 RBI. On the mound, they return one weekend starter from last year in Alex Hursey, plus swingmen Devin Lancaster and Nic Dye, and key bullpen arms Tyler Sylvester and Grant Phillips.
And as far as successors for Bragga go, Justin Holmes seems like a natural fit. He was already part of the staff, which provides continuity for the players in the program, and he exudes energy and positivity, much in the same way his predecessor did.
Perhaps it’s asking too much for Tennessee Tech to dominate the OVC the way they have in the last two regular seasons, but it also seems foolish to assume that this is a program that will simply fade into a complete rebuild in 2019.
There’s a lot of intrigue around the Oregon State program heading into the 2019 season, and not just because it’s always interesting to see what national champions do to follow up their championship.
The Beavers will be breaking in a new head coach after longtime skipper Pat Casey stepped away after the season. That new head coach, at least for this season, is Pat Bailey, who, on paper, seems like a coach capable of providing as much of a smooth transition as one can expect. He has plenty of head coaching experience, having been the head coach of George Fox University for a number of years prior to joining the OSU staff, and he’s also been around Corvallis a while, as this coming season will be his 12th on staff.
On the field, there is some turnover, but plenty of key contributors from a year ago return, including Andy Armstrong, Tyler Malone, who was named to the CWS All-Tournament Team in 2018, and Zak Taylor. Then, of course, there’s catcher Adley Rustchman, who could very well be the first overall pick in the 2019 draft. Veterans like Preston Jones and Joe Casey also appear ready to take on bigger roles.
On the mound, they’re in great shape, despite no longer having the services of Luke Heimlich and Drew Rasmussen. A potential weekend rotation of Kevin Abel, Bryce Fehmel, and Grant Gambrell will be one of the best in the Pac-12 and perhaps the entire country, and the likes of Jake Mulholland, Christian Chamberlain, Brandon Eisert, and Dylan Pearce give OSU a ton of versatility in the bullpen.
There are questions with this team, to be sure. No matter how seamless a transition might appear, it’s always a change for a team when there’s a new head coach in place. Even with that uncertainty, however, there’s still more than enough talent here to make another run to Omaha.
One of the toughest parts of building a successful program is taking it from being a flash in the pan with isolated success to a program that expects to challenge for postseason appearances year after year.
The Duke Blue Devils under head coach Chris Pollard have clearly eclipsed the firsts barrier. In 2016, they got to the program’s first regional since 1961, and then in 2018, they took things a step further by winning the Athens Regional to get to the program’s first super regional.
Now the aim is to string together regional appearance and become a year-after-year contender at the top of the ACC, and the 2019 team has the potential to be the one that kicks things off in that regard.
The rotation will be led by a steady hand in veteran Adam Laskey, who has thrown 130.1 innings in two seasons in Durham, and Graeme Stinson, a first-round talent who dominated in 2018, mostly as a reliever. Returners Bill Chillari and Bryce Jarvis could find themselves rounding out the rotation or in a bullpen role, as the Blue Devils look to replicate last season’s shutdown relief corps.
Offensively, Joey Loperfido is back after a standout freshman season that saw him lead Duke in hitting, as is Kennie Taylor, a senior who has played 123 games in his three years on campus. There’s also Chris Crabtree, who was the best story in the Duke program during their postseason run in 2018. After playing sparingly throughout the regular season, Crabtree took advantage of his opportunities in the Athens Regional and went 10-for-14 to earn regional Most Outstanding Player honors, suggesting that perhaps he’s ready to become a feared slugger in the middle of the order in a full-time role for the Blue Devils. It also always helps to have an experienced catcher, and Duke will have that in sophomore Michael Rothenberg, who played in 34 games a year ago.
With two postseason appearances in three years, Pollard has woken a once-dormant program, and perhaps the 2019 season will be the start of Duke taking that difficult next step.