Spring training is just around the corner, but the college ranks get a jumpstart on MLB with their season getting underway on Friday. Defending College World Series champion Vanderbilt leads off Athlon Sports' preseason Top 25.
1. Vanderbilt (51–21, 17–13 SEC)
Do you like sequels? Well, this could be your year with the Commodores. The frontline pitching is a who’s who of future first-round MLB picks in righties Carson Fulmer (7–1, 1.98), Walker Buehler (12–2, 2.64) and Tyler Ferguson (8–4, 2.69). Sophomores Hayden Stone (4–0, 1.71) and John Kilichowski (0–0, 1.57) will head the bullpen corps. Seven returning starters include top hitters Bryan Reynolds (.338, 14 SBs) and Dansby Swanson (.333, 22 SBs).
2. TCU (48–18, 17–7 Big 12)
Despite losing World Series pitcher Brandon Finnegan — last seen doing some work for the Royals in the “other” World Series — the Frogs are well armed for another Omaha run. Preston Morrison (9–4, 1.32) and Tyler Alexander (10–3, 2.36) return to weekend duty and have flame-throwing Riley Ferrell (15 saves) to back them. Top hitter Garrett Crain (.324) joins solid infielders Keaton Jones (.265) and Derek Odell (.264). Also watch for incoming C Evan Skoug and Georgia Tech transfer Elliott Barzilli.
3. Virginia (53–16, 22–8 ACC)
Yep, those Wahoo sightings in Omaha will continue, especially with all three weekend starters back on the mound in Nathan Kirby (9–3, 2.06, 112 Ks), Brandon Waddell (10–3, 2.45) and Josh Sborz (6–4, 2.92). After losing flamethrowing closer Nick Howard, some bullpen re-tooling will be necessary, but the defense will be solid with 3B Kenny Towns (.278) and SS Daniel Pinero (.261). Offensively, top hitter John La Prise (.348) and Joe McCarthy (.301) wield lethal sticks.
4. Oklahoma State (48–18, 18–6 Big 12)
The Pokes have their guns up for a reason this year. The pitching staff returns 54 starts and a fleet of relievers, including Jon Perrin (8–5, 2.38), Blake Battenfield (4–0, 1.69) and Tyler Buffett (2–1, 2.95). If lefties Garrett Williams (4–1, 5.40) and Tyler Nurdin (4–3, 6.54) pitch to potential, look out. Offensively, C Gage Green (.310, 20 SBs) and SS Donnie Walton (.310) will lead a capable attack. Josh Holliday has built his alma mater into a national power in just a few short years.
5. North Carolina (35–27, 15–15 ACC)
Coach Mike Fox must be chomping at the bit to get 2015 started. Pitchers Trent Thornton (7–4, 2.73), Benton Moss (4–2, 3.62) and Zac Gallen (5–4, 4.64) combined for 46 starts a year ago. Not only that, but most of the bullpen returns as well. The offense needs a kick of adrenaline as Landon Lassiter (.305) and Wood Myers (.298) hope that Skye Bolt (.257) reverts to form.
6. South Carolina (44–18, 18–12 SEC)
Oh sure, some familiar names are gone — like Pankake, Greiner, English, Montgomery and Seddon. But seven pitchers with a sub-3.00 ERA and seven bats in the order return. Wil Crowe (8–3, 2.75) and Jack Wynkoop (7–6, 2.86) are solid weekend arms. 1B Kyle Martin (.336-5-36) is back despite getting drafted last summer and will join 2B Max Schrock (.299-5-20) and OF Connor Bright (.311) to wreak havoc.
7. UCLA (25–30–1, 12–18 Pac-12)
The Bruins are the Wall Street of college baseball — up, down and unpredictable. But they’ll have their entire weekend rotation back, led by junior James Kaprielian (7–6, 2.29) and All-America reliever David Berg (132 career apps, 36 saves), who turned down the Rangers as a 17th-round draft pick. Experienced stalwarts like OF Eric Filia and 3B Kevin Kramer return after missing all of last season.
8. Arizona State (33–24, 19–11 Pac-12)
Tracy Smith, the Indiana mastermind, comes to the desert and inherits a deep cupboard of talent. All three weekend starters are back on the mound, including lefty juniors Brett Lilek (4–5, 2.68) and Ryan Kellogg (8–3, 3.76), and fireballing bullpen stud Ryan Burr (3–3, 3.27, 12 saves) will back them. Last year’s youthful batting order has seven starters back.
9. Florida (40–23, 21–9 SEC)
Remember that outstanding freshman class from last year? Well, coach Kevin O’Sullivan has set their dials to “dominate” in 2015. Of the top 10 returning pitchers, six of them are sophomores, including ace Logan Shore (7–4, 2.16), A.J. Puk (5–2, 3.19) and relief specialist Kirby Snead (3–0, 2.40). Speedsters like CF Harrison Bader (.337, 13 SBs) and SS Richie Martin (.265, 18 SBs) are among seven returning fielders.
10. Louisville (50–17, 19–5 AAC)
Dan McDonnell’s troops have become Omaha veterans. He’ll have All-America candidates in Kyle Funkhouser (13–3, 1.94) and Anthony Kidston (9–1, 3.40) in the rotation, along with Josh Rogers (3–3, 3.63), who started in the postseason. Double-play combo Zach Lucas (.270) and Sutton Whiting (37 SBs) will team with OF Corey Ray (.325) to wreak havoc on the basepaths.
11. Houston (48–18, 14–9 AAC)
This is a dangerous team. A few roles need to be filled in the bullpen, but beyond that, all three weekend starters are back, led by All-America candidates Aaron Garza (9–5, 2.92) and Jake Lemoine (6–8, 2.87). Leadoff hitter Kyle Survance (.308, 31 SBs) is one of the most exciting players in the country and teams with Justin Montemayor (.298) for a good one-two offensive punch.
12. Texas Tech (45–21, 14–10 Big 12)
Tim Tadlock has something special brewing in the panhandle. His Raiders return their two wins leaders in LHPs Dylan Dusek (8–0, 1.94) and Cameron Smith (8–3, 2.79) and 11 of their 16 saves in the bullpen. Plus, Quinn Carpenter brings his mid-90s heat to campus. Tech features the best infield in the country with SS Tim Proudfoot (.309) and 2B Bryant Burleson (.272).
13. LSU (46–16–1, 17–11–1 SEC)
The Tigers lost their ace in Aaron Nola, but don’t shed too many tears for the boys on the Bayou — they still have All-Americans in SS Alex Bregman (.316-6-47) and OF Andrew Stevenson (.335), plus rising sophomore pitchers Jared Poché (9–3, 2.45), Parker Bugg (2–2, 2.75) and Alden Cartwright (1–1, 2.41). The No. 1-ranked recruiting class will keep the Tigers chugging along.
14. Rice (42–20, 23–7 C-USA)
It’s an ominous sign for opposing batters when Wayne Graham has a stocked staff. Junior lefties Blake Fox (12–0, 1.46) and Kevin McCanna (8–3, 2.69) will team with All-C-USA flinger Jordan Stephens (8–4, 2.43 in 2013), who missed nearly all of 2014. The offense loses four of the top five hitters, but seniors John Clay Reeves (.317) and Ford Stainback (.258) are experienced leaders.
15. Nebraska (41–21, 18–6 Big Ten)
Nothing makes a coach smile like experience. Darin Erstad has a senior-heavy team for 2015, including returning pitchers Chance Sinclair (9–1, 2.15), Kyle Kubat (5–2, 4.55) and Josh Roeder (12 saves) and top hitters Blake Headley (.323) and Tanner Lubach (.282). Also watch for a pair of dynamos in OF Ryan Boldt (.311) and SS Wes Edington, who missed 2014 with an injury.
16. Stanford (35–26, 16–14 Pac-12)
Try to look surprised, but the Cardinal will again feature numerous blue-ribbon hurlers. A full 100 percent of last year’s starts and 90 percent of their innings pitched from last year come back, led by sophomores Cal Quantrill (7–5, 2.68), Brett Hanewich (4–4, 3.17) and Chris Viall (2–3, 4.74), along with wins leader John Hochstatter (10–3, 3.36). Only three returning starters are behind them, but the No. 8-ranked incoming class will help.
17. Mississippi State (39–24, 18–12 SEC)
The Bulldogs hit a few bumps in the road a year ago but look like they’re back to contender status now. Buoying their hopes are returning senior starters Ross Mitchell (8–5, 2.53) and Trevor Fitts (5–3, 2.58), who have the potential to dominate on the mound. 1B Wes Rea (.245-5-41), OF Jake Vickerson (.264, 11 SBs) and Seth Heck (.299) all need to play to their potential for this team to excel.
18. Loyola Marymount (32–24, 17–10 WCC)
Yes it’s true — the hearts of the Lions will be big this year. The pitching staff got a few shots of adrenaline as third-round MLB draftee Trevor Megill returns, joining his incoming brother Tylor Megill to provide a pair of lively arms and big bodies. Friday ace Colin Welmon (10–2, 2.37) also returns. Freshmen All-Americans Austin Miller (.374, 25 SBs) and David Fletcher (.329, 17 SBs) were the top two hitters last year.
19. Ole Miss (48–21, 19–11 SEC)
Yes, there were some big losses to the roster, including every .300-plus hitter in the order and staff horse Chris Ellis. But Christian Trent (9–0, 2.05) and Sam Smith (5–4, 3.61) return to the rotation. Power-slugging Sikes Orvis (.294-14-53) will team with J.B. Woodman (.298, 10 SBs) and Errol Robinson (.294) to reload the offense. Watch for slick-fielding freshman Tate Blackman, a 20th-round Brewers draftee.
20. Cal State Fullerton (34–24, 14–10 Big West)
Hopefully the soap opera of 2014 is over. Obviously, without All-America aces Thomas Eshelman (8–3, 1.89) and Justin Garza (5–4, 3.22), the Titans don’t sniff the Top 25. They’ll have to lean heavily on the 10th-ranked recruiting class, which features five drafted players. Keep tabs on SS Tristan Hildebrandt, a 16th-round pick, and OF Scott Hurst, who led the Alaska League in batting (.429) as an incoming freshman.
21. Florida State (43–17, 21–9 ACC)
We don’t usually see the Seminoles this far down, but there was a small exodus from 2014. The offense still has All-American D.J. Stewart (.351-7-50) and mercurial Ben DeLuzio (.281, 16 SBs), but they are the only returnees hitting better than .268. Four-year guys like Mike Compton (7–3, 3.23), Billy Strode (2–1, 2.62) and Bryant Holtmann (5–1, 3.68) will be the building blocks of a retooled pitching staff.
22. Oregon State (45–14, 23–7 Pac-12)
The Beavers need to re-dam the stream and will rely heavily on a top-flight recruiting class that features five drafted players. Andrew Moore (6–5, 2.77) assumes the Friday role and will have Jake Thompson (3–2, 4.25) and Zack Reser (5–0, 1.71) behind him. There will be strength up the middle with CF Jeff Hendrix (.351), C Logan Ice (.250), 2B Caleb Hamilton and SS Trever Morrison.
23. Texas (46–21, 13–11 Big 12)
You may not see a better defensive team, as all five infielders return, led by SS C.J. Hinojosa (.298) and power-stick C Tres Barrera (.261-5-35). The mound is always a Longhorn strength, and getting Parker French (7–5, 2.41) back for his senior season was big. Also keep an eye on relief aces Travis Duke (2–1, 0.29) and Chad Hollingsworth (4–0, 1.15). The freshman class was ranked seventh nationally.
24. Maryland (40–23, 15–14 ACC)
The Terrapins make the move from the ACC to the Big Ten confident and loaded for another postseason run. Most of the arms corps returns, so losing ace Jake Stinnett won’t be hard to overcome. Mike Shawaryn (11–4) and saves ace Kevin Mooney (13 saves) lead a deep, experienced staff. Seven starters are back in the order, led by top bat Brandon Lowe (.348) and Jose Cuas (.279-5-42).
25. UC Santa Barbara (34–17–1, 12–12 Big West)
The Gauchos are still steaming over their NCAA at-large snub, despite finishing just one spot lower than Fullerton. Well, revenge starts with All-America hurlers Justin Jacome (8–2, 2.61) and saves ace Dillon Tate (12 saves, 1.45 ERA). Offensively, Robby Nesovic (.325) and speedsters Peter Maris (.272, 16 SBs) and Andrew Calica (.310, 10 SBs) should keep the pressure on.
—Written by Eric Sorenson for Athlon Sports. This is just one of the features that can be found in Athlon Sports' 2015 MLB Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands and online now. Starting with 22 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy now!