As we inch ever closer to opening day of the 2019 season, we’re going down our list of the 25 most interesting college baseball programs for the coming campaign, five programs at a time.
Whether it’s that they have a marquee player or group of players poised for huge seasons, the team is on the cusp of a potential breakout performance, or just because there are a lot of questions to be answered about the 2019 team in particular, these are the 25 programs that have us most excited for first pitch.
The Pirates are on the short list of the most consistently successful college baseball programs to never make an appearance in the College World Series. They’ve certainly come close in recent years. In 2016, they came one game short in a hotly-contested Lubbock Super Regional, and in 2018, they were good enough to host a regional. Now, heading into 2019, ECU has the pieces in place to potentially get over that hump and make history for the program.
Outfielder Bryant Packard is perhaps one of the most underrated hitters in college baseball. A season ago, he hit .406/.462/.671 with 16 doubles, 14 homers, and 50 RBI on the way to being named the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. Spencer Brickhouse, who tied Packard for the team lead in doubles with 16 and was second on the team in homers with ten, will give Packard some help in the middle of the order once again. Brady Lloyd will be back to be a spark plug after hitting .322 with 16 stolen bases in 2018.
Catcher Jake Washer will add some thump to the order and give ECU an all-important experienced hand behind the plate. Shortstop is another position where it pays to have a ton of experience, and they’ve got that covered too, what with Turner Brown back in the fold. Brown has played 170 games in the program, with nearly 700 plate appearances under his belt. That’s to say nothing of Chandler Jenkins, Nick Barber, and Dusty Baker, all veterans who could hold big roles in 2019.
It’s the same story on the mound, where they have a core of guys in Jake Agnos, Trey Benton, Alec Burleson (who will see time at the plate as well), Tyler Smith, Gavin Williams, Sam Lanier, and Evan Voliva, all of whom have thrown a lot of innings.
A lot of things have to go right for any team to get to Omaha, no matter how talented and experienced they are, but ECU has the goods to get there.
The Bulldogs have won 75 games in the first two years of Lane Burroughs’ tenure in Ruston, the most in any head coach’s first two seasons in the program. They’re also coming off of a program-record 21 conference wins. Make no mistake about it; as we covered in the profile on Louisiana Tech this past summer, this is a program with a distinct upward trajectory.
Seasons of 36 and 39 wins haven’t led to regional appearances, but in 2019, with just about everyone back from a team that came oh so close to getting to the postseason last year, there’s real potential for it to be a huge season for the Bulldogs.
Perhaps La Tech has been known more for offense recently, but they have to feel pretty good about what they have returning on the mound, with all three members of the starting rotation, Matt Miller, Logan Robbins, and Logan Bailey, back in the fold, along with midweek starter David Leal.
And that’s no small thing, because whether it’s Leal or someone else, the midweek starter is a vital part of this roster, as they annually play at least a handful of marquee midweek games against potentially RPI-boosting competition. This year is no exception. Louisiana, Sam Houston State, and LSU are all on the 2019 schedule, with the Ragin’ Cajuns and Bearkats both playing the Bulldogs on multiple occasions. If they’re going to get into at-large consideration, La Tech will want to bag some wins against those teams throughout the season.
In the bullpen, the trio of Tyler Follis, Kyle Griffen, and Braxton Smith return after contributing a combined 106.2 innings in 2018, all with ERAs of 3.21 or lower.
Offensively, eight of the top nine hitters are back. That’s a list that includes the team’s top hitter for average last year (Hunter Wells), the team’s doubles and RBI leader (Parker Bates), their leader in on-base percentage (Taylor Young), and the leader in stolen bases (Mason Mallard). All told, they bring back 91 of 106 doubles, 41 of 50 homers, and every regular who had an OBP of .400 or better last year.
What makes the 2019 version of Louisiana Tech so interesting, though, isn’t just the promise that they show. It’s that they show such promise ahead of a season where you should expect the top of Conference USA to be as competitive as it has in a long while, perhaps since before conference realignment drastically changed its membership in 2013 and 2014.
At this point, Southern Miss and Florida Atlantic have done enough that you just have to assume they’ll be there. Rice might have been down in 2017, but there’s enough talent on that roster that a return to the postseason isn’t anywhere close to out of the realm of possibility. Then there’s FIU, which, under head coach Mervyl Melendez, has been stockpiling talent at an impressive rate. Eventually, you figure that talent will translate into wins in bunches.
Before the 2019 season has even arrived, that’s five teams, including La Tech, that you feel pretty confident about at least being in the postseason mix at some point, and the Bulldogs have the potential to be the best of the bunch.
Coming off of the best season in program history in 2018, what will we see from the Hatters in 2019?
A season ago, with a 2.66 team ERA, pitching clearly led the way. While they have a number of key pieces to replace from that pitching staff, most notably first-round pick Logan Gilbert, Jack Perkins, a dominant starting pitcher in his own right, and record-setting closer Brooks Wilson, there are also some returning pitchers that should help Stetson put together a quality staff once again.
Chief among them is Mitchell Senger, a lefty who had a 2.51 ERA, a 114/28 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .196 opponent batting average in 93.1 innings of work. He’ll go into the season as the no-doubt ace of the staff.
They also return a couple of bullpen arms in Vlad Nunez and Austin Wood who might not have pitched a ton of innings last year, but were dominant in the innings they did pitch. The former had a 4.26 ERA, 20 strikeouts, and a .159 opponent batting average in 19 innings. The latter had a 2.84 ERA, 22 strikeouts, and a matching .159 opponent batting average in 12.2 innings. Both could be in line for more work in 2019 with Wilson and fellow bullpen workhorse Ben Onyshko gone.
Stetson didn’t have the most dynamic offense in 2018, although they did come alive in their home regional, scoring nearly ten runs per game in their three wins after averaging fewer than six per game over the course of the entire season.
Top hitters Mike Spooner and Wilson, who was a two-way player, are gone, but there will be experienced players all over the field in 2019. Center fielder Jacob Koos, who hit .291 with 14 doubles and a team-leading 23 stolen bases, will be a catalyst in the lineup. Also back are third baseman Jonathan Meola, shortstop Jorge Arenas, outfielder Andrew MacNeil, and first baseman Eric Foggo, all of whom had major roles on last year’s team.
It’s probably too much to expect the Hatters to turn into an offensive juggernaut overnight, but it’s not hard to see the offense catching up a little bit with the pitching staff this coming season, and that could go a long way toward helping Stetson get back into the postseason in their encore performance.
Oklahoma State was a difficult team to figure out in 2018.
They ended the season hitting just .258 as a team, with only one player, Matt Kroon, hitting .300 or better. On the mound, they had a 5.53 team ERA, with only one pitcher among those who saw regular innings, swingman C.J. Varela, sporting an ERA lower than 4.00. Over the course of the season, they outscored the opposition by just 11 total runs, 351 to 340.
And yet, they finished just one game back of Texas in the Big 12 standings, and up until the last couple of weeks of the season, were in position to potentially host a regional.
Perhaps the Cowboys outperformed what the statistics say they should have done in 2018, but with what they have returning for 2019, the expectation going into the season is that OSU will have even more impressive results, with the statistics to match.
Statistically speaking, one thing OSU did exceedingly well in 2018 was hit for power, and that will undoubtedly be a big part of their offensive success again this coming year.
Three of the top four home run hitters from a year ago, catcher Colin Simpson (18), outfielder Trevor Boone (10), and outfielder Carson McCusker (8), return, as do three out of the top four doubles hitters from 2018 in third baseman Michael Neustifter (15), Simpson (13), and Boone (13). That core will also include Christian Funk, who added ten doubles and seven home runs a season ago.
It’s well-documented that strikeouts were a big issue for OSU in 2018 (they had 560 of them), so finding a way to make more consistent contact in some places throughout the lineup might be a key to this offense taking the next step, but it looks like the talent is in place to do so.
Meanwhile, getting a healthy Jensen Elliott back and in the starting rotation should go a long way toward improving how the Cowboys perform on the mound. He’s pitched in just eight combined games the last two seasons, but in 2016, he was a huge part of the program’s run to Omaha, going 9-3 with a 3.50 ERA and a .248 opponent batting average across 17 starts.
He’ll be helped by the presence of experienced arms in Joe Lienhard, Brady Basso, and the aforementioned Varela, but there’s also little doubt that OSU will need some new faces, or returning ones that haven’t seen a ton of time yet, to step up into big roles. With his track record, you have to figure any pitching staff led by Rob Walton will do just that.
Are there questions to answer with this team? Absolutely, but they probably overachieved a little bit last season, so it’s not a huge leap to suggest that with what they have returning and with this coaching staff’s pedigree, they could accomplish something special.
Arizona State’s last couple of seasons closely resemble those of the Miami Hurricanes. Much like UM, ASU has missed the postseason in each of the last two seasons after an extended period of time as one of the most successful programs in college baseball.
For the Sun Devils, the 2017 season, a 23-32 campaign, signaled the end of a regional streak that began back in 2000, and more jarringly, the end of a 54-season run of winning 30 or more games overall. A 2018 season that saw the Sun Devils once again finish 23-32 might have caused some handwringing, but heading into 2019, the work that head coach Tracy Smith has put into building the program back up looks poised to bear some fruit.
The most obvious piece of evidence to that end is the presence of Spencer Torkelson, who burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2018 and with his 25 homers, announced to the world that he is perhaps the best power hitter in all of college baseball. He’ll be back on the scene in 2019 to help lead what should be a pretty dangerous offense, what with Lyle Lin, Carter Aldrete, Alika Williams, Gage Workman, and Hunter Bishop also back in the fold.
Alec Marsh was productive a year ago in putting up a 3.38 ERA and a .238 opponent batting average in 71.2 innings, mostly as a starter, but he’s a candidate to make a big leap forward. He might have only thrown 11.1 innings this past summer for Yarmouth-Dennis in the Cape Cod League, but they were dominant innings, as his 1.58 ERA and 20 strikeouts might suggest.
Last year, as ASU worked to find the right combination of players, a lot of different pitchers saw time in a lot of different roles, and that bodes well as Smith and his staff try to build a staff around an established piece like Marsh. Boyd Vander Kooi, Brady Corrigan, and Sam Romero are all guys who saw time starting games and coming in as relievers, providing some flexibility and some bankable experience, which could pay off as the coaches mix in some new faces on the pitching staff. Also back is Chaz Montoya, who led the team in appearances with 25 and saves with five.
ASU will have a lot to prove in 2019, but Torkelson helping lead an offense that returns just about everybody and Marsh looking the part of a pitcher ready to be a true ace at the front of the rotation sounds like a pretty good start toward proving it.