25 Most Interesting Programs for the 2019 Season – Part 2

Photo Credit: John Sullivan/RiceOwls.com

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be listing off our 25 most interesting college baseball programs for the 2019 season, five programs at a time.

Whether it’s because these programs have standout players poised to be high draft picks, because the 2019 version of the team is ready to break out in a big way, or because there are lots of questions about how the 2019 season will go, these are the 25 programs that have us most excited for things to get going in February.

If you missed part one, get caught up here.

Rice

It will be interesting to watch the 2019 season play out for Rice regardless of how things go on the field, simply because someone other than Wayne Graham will be the head coach.

The new head coach, Matt Bragga, comes to Houston from Tennessee Tech, where he was last seen taking his Golden Eagles to the program’s first super regional, making him a particularly fun head coaching hire to follow. Recruiting for the two programs is different, there’s a difference between CUSA and the OVC, and there’s obviously very different histories between the two.

So with that in mind, how will Rice look with Bragga at the helm? Will the Owls begin to put up offensive numbers like that of an OVC team? Or will Rice continue to be a pitching-oriented program, as they were for so long under Graham? Will it be something in between? That all remains to be seen, and it will take more than the 2019 season to get those answers.

What we do know is that he’ll be tasked with turning things around, as Rice finished 26-31-1 in 2018 and missed the postseason for the first time since 1994.

What will make that a tough job in 2019 is that Conference USA looks to be as competitive at the top as it has been in a long time, perhaps since before conference realignment shifted many of the league’s best teams to the American Athletic Conference.

The good news, however, is that this is far from a complete rebuild from a talent perspective. On the mound, Bragga will have a true Friday night ace on his hands in Matt Canterino. Addison Moss isn’t a bad guy to have behind Canterino in the rotation either. He also has a couple of high-octane arms in the bullpen Garrett Gayle and Roel Garcia. You factor in proven commodities like Evan Kravetz and Zach Esquivel, and suddenly, you’ve already got the makings of a really good pitching staff.

Offensively, there’s not really anyone of Canterino’s pedigree, but Braden Comeaux and Trei Cruz are a pair of quality infielders around which to build a lineup, a fully healthy Dominic DiCaprio is a dangerous bat to have in the order, and there’s a ton of power potential in the bat of Justin Collins.

New faces will certainly have to emerge and hold down major roles for Rice to be back in the postseason in 2019, but the foundation seems to be in good shape for that to happen.

Vanderbilt

The Commodores have come tantalizingly close to advancing to Omaha over the last two years. In 2017, they won the Clemson Regional before being eliminated by Oregon State in a road super regional. Last year, they they once again played their way through the Clemson Regional and then fell one 11-inning loss to Mississippi State in a home super regional away from getting there.

In 2019, they have the talent to break through.

Like conference mate LSU, they got some good news in the draft this past summer. Ethan Paul, after being drafted in the 26th round, elected to return. After manning second base in deference to Connor Kaiser in past years, he’ll likely slide over to shortstop. Stephen Scott, a 31st-round pick, is back to bring some thunder to the lineup once again. Then there’s Kumar Rocker, the highest-drafted high school pitcher in his class to elect to go to college instead. Even with a whole host of returning pitchers vying for spots in the weekend rotation, Rocker is talented enough to break through as a freshman.

Photo Credit: Joe Howell/VUCommodores.com

And if Rocker doesn’t end up in the weekend rotation, they’ll still be in good shape with Drake Fellows, Patrick Raby, and Mason Hickman all bringing experience in that role to the table. The bullpen, for their part, is stocked with big arms like Zach King, Jackson Gillis, and Tyler Brown, all of whom will undoubtedly benefit from having a full season and offseason under their belts.

Many of the members of last season’s standout freshman class, which also featured Hickman and Brown, took on starring roles in their first seasons, including catcher Philip Clarke, third baseman Jayson Gonzalez, utility man Austin Martin, and outfielder Pat DeMarco, and they’re all back in the fold as well.

Rounding out the most notable names for Vanderbilt are first baseman Julian Infante, who will look to return to his sophomore form after a tough junior season, and outfielder J.J. Bleday, who led the team in hitting last season and will come into the 2019 season as one of the best position player prospects in college baseball.

Last year’s Vanderbilt team was incredibly talented, but much of that talent was young and untested. This year’s Vanderbilt team has yet another talented freshman class on campus, and this time, they have the experienced talent to go along with it. In summation, the Commodores are stacked heading into the season. That will reflect in the preseason polls, and barring a surprise, in the results on the field as well.

Wichita State

Wichita State took a huge jump in 2018. They went 35-21 overall, the highest win total for the program under head coach Todd Butler, and they tied a program record by having ten players drafted. When you consider how many great players have come through Wichita, that’s no small feat.

Still, they had to be disappointed to miss out on a regional considering the way things started.

Going into their American Athletic Conference-opening series against East Carolina, the Shockers were 18-4 and nationally ranked. Then, they kicked off that series with a 14-3 drubbing of the Pirates behind huge games from third baseman Alec Bohm and catcher Gunnar Troutwine.

Unfortunately for WSU, that ended up being the high water mark of the season. They lost the final two games of the ECU series, and then won just two conference series from that point forward – at home against Tulane the weekend after the ECU series and on the road against Memphis on the final weekend of the season.

It was an objectively good season for Wichita State in many ways, but they simply weren’t able to do enough down the stretch to get into the postseason.

It would be a bit harsh to say that the Shockers are starting from scratch in 2019 with all of the talent they lost, but they’re certainly going to have some serious rebuilding to do. Offensive stalwarts Bohm, Grayson Jenista, Troutwine, Trey Vickers, and Dayton Dugas are gone, as are 2018 innings leader Codi Heuer and top relief arms Chandler Sunburn and Keylan Killgore.

WSU’s top hitter for average last season, Luke Ritter, is back, and Liam Eddy gives them a proven arm to plug into the weekend rotation, but they’ll need plenty of others to fill in around them in order to continue to compete in a rough and tumble league in which they took some lumps last season. The extent to which that happens is an interesting storyline to watch as the season unfolds.

Miami

For one reason or another, the end of the Jim Morris era at Miami seemed to fly under the radar a little bit as a storyline.

There a few possible explanations. For one, the move was not a surprise. His retirement date, with Gino DiMare named as his successor, was established long ago, so this wasn’t a breaking news story late in the 2018 season. It also didn’t help that there was a lot of news surrounding some other longtime head coaches as the 2018 season wrapped up and the offseason got underway, as UM rival Florida State announced that 2019 would be Mike Martin’s final season at the helm and Rice parted ways with Wayne Graham. To top it off, it was another tough year in Coral Gables, as the Hurricanes missed the postseason for the second consecutive season, when before the 2017 season, they hadn’t missed the postseason at all since 1972.

Under DiMare, how quickly will Miami get up off the mat and get back into postseason contention?

If the answer to that question is the 2019 season, perhaps it will be on the back of a couple of promising pitchers in the weekend rotation in Evan McKendry and Chris McMahon. The former had an outstanding 2018 season, putting up a 3.52 ERA and a 114/33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 87 innings of work. The latter came into last season as a much-hyped freshman. Injuries caused him to miss significant time over the first half of the season, but he showed flashes when he did take the mound later in the year. In 26.1 innings, he had a 4.44 ERA and held opponents to a .248 batting average.

Gregory Veliz could be a key piece on the mound for the Canes as well. He had a solid freshman season in 2017 as a starting pitcher before suffering through an injury-plagued 2018 season. He’s got a track record of success as a starting pitcher, but over the summer, he shined as a closer with Chatham in the Cape Cod League. In 13 appearances and 21 innings of work there, he had a 2.57 ERA, four saves, and 32 strikeouts.

Offense has been the bigger issue for the Hurricanes over the last two years, and they’ll look to a talented core of players who have taken their lumps and grown up together as freshmen and sophomores the last two seasons to make jumps. Michael Amditis, a hyper-talented catcher who has struggled to stay healthy in his two seasons with the program and who also spent some time on the Cape this past summer, will likely be a big part of things, as will slugging first baseman Alex Toral, outfielder Tony Jenkins, infielder Freddy Zamora, and infielder Raymond Gil, who got a cup of coffee on the Cape in 2018 as well.

The Canes, of course, also welcome to campus another highly-ranked recruiting class to bolster the roster, so we’ll no doubt see some new faces step up into big roles right away.

It’s a new era for Miami baseball, but they’ll be looking to get back into the postseason again sooner rather than later, to make it feel like so many past eras for one of the proudest programs in college baseball.

Baylor

Under Steve Rodriguez, it seems fair to say that the Bears have been ahead of the schedule most would have anticipated for the program’s rebuilding process.

After a 24-29 record in Rodriguez’s first season at the helm, 2016, the Bears went 34-23 in 2017 and earned the program’s first regional appearance since 2012. They followed that up in 2018 with a 37-21 record and a Big 12 Tournament title. Now, the 2019 season looks like it could be the best of the Rodriguez era thus far.

Athletics – Baylor Baseball vs Kansas – BB – Baylor Ballpark – 03/24/2018

Optimism about Baylor in 2019 has to start with a few foundational pieces who have been incredibly productive for the Bears throughout their carers and who also find themselves highly-ranked on 2019 draft prospect lists.

The most notable of that group is catcher Shea Langeliers, a potential first-round draft pick and a member of Team USA this past summer. Over two seasons, he’s hit .281 with a combined 32 doubles, 21 homers, and 82 RBI. Then there’s third baseman Davis Wendzel. He hasn’t had as much buzz around him during his Baylor career as Langeliers has, but he’s been nearly as productive in two years. Over that span, he’s hit .306 with a .432 on-base percentage and a combined 29 doubles, 16 home runs, and 79 RBI. He was drafted in the 37th round last season and chose to return, but he’s looked at as a player who could come off the board in the first few rounds of the draft this next time around.

Cody Bradford, after an up and down freshman season in 2017, took a huge step forward in 2018 to become the ace of Baylor’s staff on the way to being named the Big 12’s Pitcher of the Year. Over 96.2 innings across 14 starts, he went 7-6 with a 2.51 ERA, an 87/26 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .240 opponent’s batting average. With another season like 2018, he’ll hear his name called early as well.

The experience and quality on Baylor’s roster goes far beyond a handful of guys, however, because they return a ton of experienced players who were a big part of the team’s success last season. As a matter of fact, the Bears return quite literally everyone from their primary starting lineup and weekend rotation. In addition to Langeliers and Wendzel, Richard Cunningham, Andy Thomas, T.J. Raguse, Davion Downey, Nick Loftin, Josh Bissonette, and Cole Haring are back to give Baylor what could be one of the most potent offensive attacks in college baseball. In the rotation, Bradford will be supported by Hayden Kettler and Tyler Thomas.

So not only will it be a talented Baylor team in 2019, it’s going to be an experienced team that won’t be overwhelmed by anything they encounter along the way.

It’s not a hot take to say that Baylor had fallen behind other marquee teams in the state of Texas in recent years, but perhaps the 2019 season will be the catalyst behind reversing that trend and putting the Bears back among the best programs in the country.

 

About the Author

Joseph Healy
Growing up in Houston, Joe Healy was introduced to college baseball at a young age, and it was love at first sight. Like most good love stories, that love has only grown throughout the years. When he's not at the ballpark, he enjoys tacos, college football during the fall, and the spectacle that is American politics. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from Sam Houston State University and a Master's in Public Administration from Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville.