Don’t look now, but opening day of the college baseball season is less than eight weeks away.
To help get you ready, we’re working through our list of the 25 most interesting programs for the 2019 season, five programs at a time. Some of these programs are on the list because they’re poised for huge seasons. Some are listed because of the presence of certain players, and still others are here because there are simply a lot of questions to be answered.
Let’s get going.
In just a matter of five weeks or so late last season, the Huskies went from perhaps being on the outside looking in for regionals to finding themselves in the College World Series.
Going into a mid-May series against UCLA, UW was still looking for a marquee series win. Not only did they get that by winning two out of three against the Bruins, they got another one two weeks later when they took two out of three from eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford. That got them into the postseason. Then, a 3-0 sweep through the Conway Regional and a nail-biting super regional series win over Cal State Fullerton later, and the Huskies were in the CWS for the first time in program history.
With all of those ups and downs, it would be tough for Washington to have a season any more compelling than 2018, but they’ve got the talent to, at the very least, leave less doubt about their postseason chances in 2019.
Workhorse Joe DeMers, who had as much to do with UW’s 2018 success as anyone, is gone, but a pitching staff led by Jordan Jones, Josh Burgmann, and Stevie Emanuels has a chance to be just as good collectively as last season’s group, especially if some new faces are able to step into roles immediately and give the bullpen more depth than they had a year ago.
Offensively, what stood out about the Huskies last year was their versatility and athleticism. They weren’t really outstanding in any one area, but they did a lot of things well. It would seem, at first glance, that that will be the case again in 2019.
Joe Wainhouse, who was granted one final year of eligibility, will give them some pop in the middle of the order after hitting 19 homers last season. Mason Cerrillo, who hit .341 a year ago and was perhaps the most consistent UW hitter from beginning to end last season, is back. Catcher Nick Kahle, who led the team in doubles last year with 20 and chipped in with six homers, will provide some support for Wainhouse in the lineup. Braiden Ward, who led the team last year with 19 stolen bases, will be a catalyst on the base paths.
Outfielder Christian Jones could be set for a breakout season as well. A highly-touted prospect who was the Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Washington as a senior at Federal Way High School, Jones just hasn’t been able to put it all together at UW. Last season, he hit .264/.337/.380 in a full-time role, but a big step forward for Jones personally in 2019 could portend another step forward for the program as a whole. Jonathan Schiffer, Ben Baird, and Kaiser Weiss also return after playing big roles last year.
For all the success Meggs has had in turning around the Washington program, one thing they haven’t done is get to regionals in back-to-back seasons. With the tailwind of a historic appearance in Omaha pushing them forward and the talent on the roster, the 2019 season could end that streak.
Washington looked like an unlikely College World Series participant for much of last season. It was the same story for Mississippi State in 2018, if for some different reasons.
What a roller coaster Mississippi State baseball was last year. After getting swept by Southern Miss to begin the season, their head coach, Andy Cannizaro, was fired. They were fortunate to have an experienced hand in Gary Henderson available to take over as the interim head coach, but it’s not as if it was smooth sailing from there. After playing reasonably well over the rest of their non-conference schedule, including an impressive 3-0 showing in the Shriners College Classic in Houston, they dropped their first three SEC series. They were up and down throughout the conference slate after that, and only a sweep of Florida on the last weekend of the season put them comfortably in the postseason picture.
The postseason wasn’t any less stressful. They were one strike away from going 0-2 in the Tallahassee Regional before coming back to win the whole thing, and they were driven to three games in a road super regional against Vanderbilt. They were simply outmanned once they got to the CWS, but that doesn’t take anything away from how exhilarating the ride was to get there.
After all of that, MSU is once again in a unique position, as they have a new head coach in former Indiana skipper Chris Lemonis. It’s not often a team goes from Omaha one season to a first season under a new head coach the very next.
Lemonis, who led the Hoosiers to three regional appearances in four seasons at the helm, has to be excited about what he has on the roster heading into the season.
Senior outfielder Jake Mangum is one of the most accomplished players in all of college baseball, and he’s popular enough in Starkville that it has only somewhat jokingly been suggested that he could win a mayoral election there if he decided to run. He’ll be joined in the order by a ton of guys who were integral pieces on the 2018 team like Rowdey Jordan, Justin Foscue, Jordan Westburg, Tanner Allen, Dustin Skelton, and Elijah MacNamee.
On the mound, Ethan Small is back after emerging as the team’s ace a season ago. He could be joined in the rotation by a freshman with ace potential in J.T. Ginn, one of the highest-drafted players in the most recent draft to elect to go to college instead.
Keegan James, Spencer Price, Cole Gordon, and Riley Self also return to the mound with significant innings under their belts, and some big-time arms will undoubtedly emerge from MSU’s highly-regarded recruiting class to complement those veterans.
The Bulldogs thrived under chaotic circumstances last season. The waters will be calmer in 2019, and as much fun as they probably had during their whirlwind 2018 season, there’s little arguing that that’s good news for this program.
Bryant has been the unquestioned best team in the NEC basically since the moment the Bulldogs made the move up to Division I. In fact, they’ve won at least a share of the conference regular season title every year since 2012.
Central Connecticut finished in a virtual tie with Bryant in 2017 and Wagner did so in 2018, but in 2019, LIU-Brooklyn could be the team that finally breaks through and wins the title outright.
If you believe in program momentum, the Blackbirds certainly have it, as they won the NEC’s automatic bid in 2018, which pushed them into the postseason for the first time since 1972.
They’ve also got talent and experience on their side. First baseman and top hitter Andrew Turner, now in the Miami Marlins organization, will be a tough loss and the graduated Dom Paiotti was a quality contributor as well, but everyone on offense outside of those two is back. That includes catcher Edwards Modica, center fielder Andrew Smith, third baseman Alex Briggs, second baseman Anthony Warneke, shortstop Luis Arias de los Santos, outfielder Greg Vaughn, Jr., and catcher/designated hitter Brock Hallum.
With 83 stolen bases on the season, one thing LIU-Brooklyn did particularly well a year ago was make things happen on the bases, and that should again be the case in 2019. The top four base stealers from last season, Vaughn, Jr. (17), Arias de los Santos (16), Warneke (13), and Smith (11), are back.
Things are perhaps even rosier on the mound. The team’s top two starting pitchers are back in Zach Pederson and Patrick Clyne, and perhaps more importantly, so are the Blackbirds’ dual bullpen aces, Rob Griswold and Mike Krieger. That pair combined to throw 75 relief innings last year, with 2.10 and 2.20 ERAs, respectively. Jackson Svete, who had a 3.75 ERA across 57.2 innings in a swing role, is another key returning piece.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Bryant at the top of the NEC standings, if for no other reason than we’ve never seen anyone but Bryant at the top in so long. It’s a tall task, to be sure, but LIU-Brooklyn could get it done in 2019.
Seasons don’t end in much more heartbreaking fashion than being walked off on a home run by the opposing team in the deciding game of a postseason series, which is how Auburn’s season ended against conference foe Florida in their super regional.
As tough as that must have been to swallow for the Tigers, in the macro view, just simply getting to that point was another milestone in the building job being done by head coach Butch Thompson and his staff.
In 2019, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Auburn takes it one step further and gets back to Omaha for the College World Series for the first time since 1997.
They’ll have to do it without an ace the caliber of Casey Mize, sure, but they’ve got plenty of holdovers from last year’s super regional team and they just welcomed in a top-five recruiting class that’s sure to bear fruit early on.
You can’t reasonably expect to completely fill the hole left by Mize, but Tanner Burns in the rotation, Cody Greenhill as an elite stopper in the bullpen, Elliott Anderson as a steady hand in relief, and Davis Daniel, regardless of the role he holds, is a pretty solid foundation around which to build a pitching staff.
Offensively, they’ll have plenty of firepower with the return of Edouard Julien (17 HR), Steven Williams (12 HR), and Will Holland (12 HR). Holland’s skills with the bat (he hit .313/.406/.530 last season with 18 doubles to go with his 12 homers) combined with his ability to handle a premium defensive position at shortstop have made him into a potential first-round pick for the 2019 draft. Aside from those three, Conor Davis and Judd Ward are two others who will bring plenty of experience to the batting order.
There are plenty of holes to fill heading into next season. You can’t just replace Mize, Jay Estes, Brendan Venter, Josh Anthony, Brett Wright, and Luke Jarvis with the snap of your fingers. But it says a lot about where Auburn is as a program that, even with that type of roster attrition, expectations are still high.
There was just no way that TCU was going to be able to keep up the pace they had set for themselves. Getting to Omaha in any single year is an incredible accomplishment that takes skill, deft management of a roster, and plenty of luck, and if you’re missing any one of those three, it’s probably just not going to happen.
So it goes without saying that making four consecutive College World Series appearances, as the Horned Frogs did between 2014 and 2017, is pretty absurd, and eventually, they were going to miss out. Still, it was tough not to be taken aback by TCU missing out on the postseason altogether in 2018.
Injuries certainly played a role in some of their struggles. Slugger Luken Baker ended up missing about half of the season when it was all said and done, and he was hitting the ball well enough when he did play that he still ended up leading the team in home runs with nine. Starting pitcher Jared Janczak was also limited to about half a season, as he made just eight starts.
Still, it might have been just a win or two that stood between TCU and a postseason appearance, so with some better health in 2019 and some guys stepping into bigger roles, it’s easy to see a scenario where they’re right back in a regional next season.
If nothing else, Jim Schlossnagle and pitching coach Kirk Saarloos have to feel pretty good about what they have coming back in the weekend rotation. Jared Janczak and Nick Lodolo are both veterans who have thrown a ton of innings for the program, and when it comes to the third spot in the rotation, they’ve got quality options, including Charles King and Jake Eissler, two more veterans who have had success in other roles and might be ready for more primetime innings.
There are a few more question marks in the lineup, but getting Josh Watson back is a huge boon for the Frogs. After a tough 2017 season, Watson bounced back in 2018 and looked more like the Josh Watson that burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2016 and emerged as a crucial offensive running mate for Baker.
Around Watson, there will be plenty of experienced pieces, including outfielder Johnny Rizer, infielders Conner Shepherd and Adam Oviedo, and catcher Zach Humphreys. What they’ll need, however, is for some or all of that group to be more consistent at the plate over the course of the season. Last season, that quartet hit .231, .208, .228, and .225, respectively, although Shepherd did flash some considerable pop with seven homers.
TCU welcomed in a recruiting class that included a number of players they’ll turn to in the lineup from day one, and how well they acclimate to Division I baseball is a huge key. Recent history suggests that it would be foolish to bet against the Horned Frogs getting back into a regional, but whether or not they get there and then how deep that run in the postseason is if they do get there looks to hinge on what kind of production they get from the offense, and in particular, from some new faces heading into the season.