Dating back to elementary school, a good friend of mine and I have dreamed of retiring some day, buying a recreational vehicle (or a pair of Harley’s) and traveling the United States in a quest to see every single big-league ballpark. That dream started with following our hometown team, the Milwaukee Brewers, but over time we expanded our lofty aspiration to cover every team in Major League Baseball. I also discovered over time that my interest in baseball extended to the minor league game as well, and, as I’m sure you can imagine given my affiliation with Perfect Game, pretty much any level of the sport.
I started following the college game seriously in 1992, with an emphasis on talent that projected the best at the next level. Former Cal State Fullerton third baseman Phil Nevin I think is the first collegian that I followed closely, watching him hit his way to Omaha. His Titans may have finished second that year to Pepperdine, but Nevin took home the Golden Spikes award, and was the first pick in that year’s draft.
(While that wasn’t my first taste of signability and its presence in baseball in relationship to the draft -- I have Alex Fernandez and Kenny Henderson to thank for that -- the 1992 draft was one of the more memorable moments in draft history for me when Jeffrey Hammonds made it known it would take a considerable bonus to get him in the fold.)
My day job doesn’t allow for me to sneak away in mid-June to take in the College World Series for myself, although following it in recent years in high definition isn’t a bad consolation prize. However, making it to Omaha (and most are shocked when I tell them I’ve never been) is pretty much at the top of my bucket list.
With that, I’m going to expand my dream in context to this coming season, conjuring up a road trip of my own that would lead me to Omaha and the end of the college baseball season. My goal is to see as much talent and all of the teams Perfect Game, courtesy of Kendall Rogers, currently has ranked in the top 25. Here is how I would map out that trip this year, spending a full weekend at one series or tournament, and visiting a location in between destinations for a mid-week contest.
Big East/Big Ten Challenge
I start my travels in the Clearwater/St. Petersburg area to take in the third annual Big East/Big Ten Challenge in what is turning out to be a pretty impressive collection of teams and talent from two non-traditional power conferences. Many think #16 Connecticut could make some of noise with Omaha potential this year, with St. John’s frequently being named as a sleeper to make some noise of their own. UConn boasts two players, George Springer and Matt Barnes, who are projected to be drafted among the top 10 overall picks come June, both of whom will be the biggest names to watch in this tournament. Other targets on my short list include infielders Joe Panik (St. John’s), Derek Dennis (Michigan), Ryan Wright (Louisville), and Jordan Steranka (Penn State), and right-handed pitchers Brian Dupra (Notre Dame), Ray Black (Pittsburgh), Kyle Hansen (St. John’s) and Tony Zych (Louisville).
Stanford at Rice and Kent State at Georgia Tech were also considered for the opening weekend of the college baseball season due to the number of impressive prospective professional talent in attendance of both series.
Memphis @ Ole Miss
On my way to Fort Worth I would take a short detour to Oxford, Mississippi (possibly en route to Owasso, Oklahoma the next day for an intriguing high school matchup between Archie Bradley and Dylan Bundy). Ole Miss may not be as strong as they have been in recent years, but they always have some interesting prospects worth watching including Chipola transfer and former Aflac All-American Austin Wright. Memphis has a pair of intriguing 2012 draft eligibles in outfielder Derrick Thomas and right-handed pitcher Dan Langfield.
Cal State Fullerton @ TCU
This is arguably the best early season matchup in all of college baseball, pitting the #3 Horned Frogs against the #8 Titans. Both teams have deep pitching staffs, with draft-eligible sophomore Matt Purke being the most recognizable talent. Kyle Winkler, Jason Coats, Taylor Featherson, Noe Ramirez, Nick Ramirez and Tyler Pill give this series plenty of other players worth watching. Fullerton may very well be the best team TCU faces prior to regional play, assuming they make it that far, and it will be interesting to see how the pitching matchups play out.
Stanford playing Vanderbilt in Nashville would be fun series to catch as well, and with a full week spent in Texas I would make it a point to catch as much juco and high school action as possible.
Texas State @ Baylor
Unless Texas State bumps up Carson Smith to face Baylor mid-week, similar to how Florida Gulf Coast did the same with Chris Sale a year ago, I likely won’t be seeing any marquee pitching match-ups in this game. I should have a chance to check out a pair of talented two-way prospects in Brooks Pinckard (Baylor) and Kyle Kubitza (Texas State), and Baylor has a pair of hitters in Logan Vick and Max Muncy that could factor into the early rounds of the 2012 draft.
Houston College Classic
The participating teams aren’t quite as impressive as they have been in recent years, largely due to the absence of Texas and TCU, but #14 Rice has the number one player in the nation and the preseason Golden Spikes award favorite (not to mention the favorite to go first in this year’s draft) Anthony Rendon. Alex Meyer (Kentucky), Logan Verrett (Baylor) and John Stilson (#20 Texas A&M) give this tourney a trio of exciting right-handers with Friday ace potential. In addition to Rendon and his teammates Michael Fuda, Jeremy Rathjen and Michael Ratterree, catcher C.J. Cron (Utah) and outfielder Caleb Ramsey (Houston) will offer some big bats to watch over the weekend.
There are quite a few interesting series taking place this weekend. Stanford’s incredibly difficult pre-conference schedule continues as they travel to Texas to play the Longhorns, Clemson plays in-state rival and the defending College World Series champion South Carolina Gamecocks, Miami plays Florida in Gainesville and Kent State travels to Louisville.
South Alabama @ Southern Mississippi
This game wouldn’t be loaded with talent, but it’s a nice mid-point between Houston and my next stop in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The focus in this game would be shortstop B.A. Vollmuth, who enters his junior year with a lot of questions about how his bat will translate to hitting with wood at the next level as well as whether he will be able to stick at the shortstop position long-term.
Caravelle Resort Classic
I wanted to make sure to make it to one of #19 Coastal Carolina’s several pre-conference tournaments in Myrtle Beach, and the projected matchup between Anthony Meo and Kent State’s Andrew Chafin should draw a fair number of scouts and crosscheckers. Both the Chanticleers (Taylor Motter, Scott Woodward, Daniel Bowman) and the Golden Flashes (Travis Shaw, Kyle McMillen, Ben Klafczynski) have plenty of big bats in their lineup and should have no problems scoring runs this season. Seniors Brian Dupra (Notre Dame) and Ryan Woolley (Alabama-Birmingham) give the tourney two more power arms to watch, possibly facing each other on Friday.
Arizona State traveling to face Auburn and Clemson hosting Virginia to kick off the ACC schedule would also be worthwhile series.
Auburn @ Alabama
Seeing any matchup between these two historic rivals would be a can’t-miss event for this northerner. Each team has an outfielder that figures to go in the early rounds of this years draft: Taylor Dugas (Alabama) and Creede Simpson (Auburn). #23 Auburn is typically a program that has no problem scoring runs, and that’s no different this year as they have several other hitters worth watching, including promising freshman recruit and former Aflac All-American Zach Alvord.
Florida @ LSU
The projected best of the SEC East (#1 Florida) travels to Baton Rouge to take on the best of the West (#25 LSU) in an exciting matchup as SEC conference play begins. Florida’s talent has been well chronicled, as they boast, in my opinion, the deepest and most well-rounded roster in all of college baseball. What makes Florida’s talent so interesting is that each class is arguably among the best, if not the best, in the nation from their seniors down to their freshmen (with another talented recruiting class potentially on the way). LSU is two years removed from winning the College World Series, and while they don’t have the same amount of talent on paper as they have in past years, I project that right-handed pitcher Kevin Gausman will be talked about as a premium, first-round pick come this time next year as a draft-eligible sophomore.
The big matchup in the ACC this same weekend between Florida State and Virginia will also get a lot of attention.
Arizona State @ Cal State Fullerton
It took me a while to get to the West Coast, and it may be difficult to make it from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Fullerton, California by Tuesday, but fortunately this mid-week series (the DeMarini West Coast Challenge) last two days making Wednesday’s contest more manageable. I will have already caught the #8 Titans play against TCU a month prior, and will catch #11 Arizona State again in just over a week. This will give me a good sense of the Sun Devils depth in their pitching staff, the biggest question they face to enter the season.
Washington State @ California
No way was I going to let the 2011 season go without seeing #21 Cal go out in style. Both the Bears and the Cougars are considered upset sleepers in the Pac 10, with Erik Johnson and Adam Conley likely squaring off in Friday’s contest. I’m anxious to see Cal shortstop Marcus Semien after covering him in the Northwoods League last summer, and he just missed my own college sleeper list revealed a couple of weeks ago. Washington State has a pair of big bats in the middle of their lineup in Taylor Ard and Derek Jones that also pique my interest.
Once the Friday night game was over, I’d likely travel south to catch Stanford host Drew Gagnon and Long Beach State before heading back up to Berkeley for the rest of the Cal series.
Watching South Carolina, the defending College World Series champions, take on the preseason #1 Florida Gators, would also be a great series to take in.
UC Irvine @ USC
Unfortunately my schedule won’t allow for me to catch USC right-hander Austin Wood this season, assuming he sticks in the weekend rotation all spring, but I will have the chance to see first baseman Ricky Oropesa swing for the fences for the Trojans.
Oregon @ Arizona State
This is going to be an exciting matchup being two teams whose are built quite opposite from one another. #11 Arizona State enters the year with questions about how their young pitching staff will come together, while #12 Oregon has more questions about how many runs they can score on a game-to-game basis. Pitchers Tyler Anderson, Scott McGough, Christian Jones and Madison Boer form the foundation for the Ducks, while Riccio Torrez, Johnny Ruettiger, Zach MacPhee, Zach Wilson and Devn Marrero could form the most dangerous lineup one-through-nine in the nation.
Oklahoma State @ Oklahoma
Norman, Oklahoma seems like a fine Tuesday destination prior to traveling to Georgia, and this in-state rivalry offers yet another great mid-week matchup. Oklahoma, like Arizona State, has a fine lineup anchored by infield corners Cam Seitzer and Garrett Buechele, the sons of former big leaguers Kevin and Steve. Mark Ginther of Oklahoma State mans the hot corner for the Cowboys, and was among the players that just missed my college sleeper team. Should Chris Marlowe come out of the bullpen for Oklahoma State, he would likely show the most electric arm in this game.
Virginia @ Georgia Tech
The big draw in this series is the projected matchup between left-handers Danny Hultzen and Jed Bradley. Hultzen of course has been a college baseball star since joining #15 Virginia, and will once upon be looked upon to carry the torch for this otherwise young team starting on Friday nights. Bradley’s career has been a little more slow to develop, but his draft stock saw a significant jump up draft boards after his impressive showing on the Cape last summer. There are plenty of other interesting players to watch in this series, including #24 Georgia Tech’s Matt Skole, Buck Farmer, Brandon Thomas, Luke Bard, Mark Pope, DeAndre Smelter and Kevin Jacob. The Cavaliers’ Steven Proscia and John Hicks are the main holdovers from last year’s squad that just missed Omaha after making it in 2009, with underclassmen Reed Gragnani, Stephen Bruno, Branden Kline and Chris Taylor expected to assume larger roles this year.
Another ACC matchup, North Carolina at Florida State, also was considered for this weekend.
East Carolina @ North Carolina
This will be my only chance to catch #22 North Carolina this season, unless I see them in postseason competition. The Tar Heels took a hit when Brian Goodwin was declared academically ineligible to play this season, which prompted him to transfer to Miami-Dade College. Shortstop Levi Michael becomes the focal point for North Carolina, a team, like the Pirates, that boasts a lot more talent in their sophomore and freshman classes.
Vanderbilt @ South Carolina
I’m hitting the heart of the college baseball schedule, with some exciting rivalry matchups both leading up to this weekend and following it. #4 Vanderbilt travels to #9 South Carolina in what may be a battle for the SEC East crown. While the Gamecocks have a lot of questions about their pitching staff, that isn’t an issue for Vandy, who have arguably the best pitching staff from top to bottom in the nation. Former Team USA teammates Sonny Gray and Jackie Bradley will duel in the first game of this series, both of whom are projected to be selected among the top 10 overall picks in this year’s draft.
Arkansas @ Oral Roberts
Arkansas lost quite a bit of talent from last year’s team, but I still think they have the pieces to put together a solid season this year, and could push LSU for the SEC West title. Catcher James McCann is the most notable name to watch in regards to the draft, and the Razorbacks overall should be solid up the middle with Tim Carver returning to shortstop and Collin Kuhn, Jarrod McKinney and Kyle Robinson patrolling the outfield. I am interested to see how juco transfer Brandon King’s (Oral Roberts) bat plays this spring after following his big summer in the Northwoods League.
UCLA @ Stanford
I’ll spend the Easter weekend watching arguably the most impressive talent for this year’s draft between Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer of UCLA play against Stanford’s loaded sophomore and freshmen classes. It has taken me longer to get out West to see #2 UCLA than I would have preferred, but this Pac-10 series against #13 Stanford should make it worth the wait. Both teams are fairly deep in both their lineups and their pitching staff, although the Cardinal has more questions due to a relatively inexperienced squad. Should the talent step forward as many expect, players such as Kenny Diekroeger, Austin Wilson, A.J. Vanegas, Mark Appel, Stephen Piscotty and Jake Stewart may just out-shine the Bruins’ dynamic duo.
LSU travels to Vanderbilt the same weekend for yet another exciting SEC series.
Arizona State @ Arizona
This mid-week game may rank as the best after seeing other mid-week games against in-state rivals such as Alabama/Auburn, and Oklahoma St./Oklahoma. Arizona State will be a team that I will be plenty familiar with by this time, but this will be my first look at #18 Arizona, who like Cal and Washington State will help make the Pac-10 one of the deepest conferences in all of college baseball this year.
April 29-May 1
Oklahoma @ Texas
Similar to my comments above about taking so long to see UCLA, this Big 12 rivalry game should make this series well worth waiting for. The stands should be rocking in this series, and while I got to see #6 Oklahoma earlier this year, I likely would not have seen their best pitchers, including juco transfer Burch Smith, take the mound. He could be doing so against Taylor Jungmann, the ace of #5 Texas’ staff that includes senior Cole Green, junior Sam Stafford and sophomore Holby Milner. There will be a distinct difference in the team’s offenses, as the Sooners can easily out-score opponents while the Longhorns play Augie Garrido’s distinct style of small ball, constantly pressuring the opposing team’s defense.
I could choose to follow Stanford to Tempe to play the Sun Devils this weekend, but there’s no way I’m missing this potentially classic Big 12 matchup.
Tulane @ LSU
Having seen #25 LSU earlier in the year, this game could allow me to see a little more of their questionable pitching depth, since I likely won’t be watching Kevin Gausman in this contest. I will be able to follow-up on the progress of outfielder Mikie Mahtook and the double-play combo of Austin Nola and Tyler Hanover. Jeremy Schaffer is Tulane’s top prospect to watch, and I may get a chance to see two of the best ‘trick’ pitches in the college game in Matty Ott’s slider and Nick Pepitone’s sinker should they continue to be used in relief.
Georgia @ Auburn
I had the choice to head to the Pacific Northwest after the Oklahoma-Texas series to catch UCLA play Oregon in Eugene, but I set out this spring to see as much talent from as many different teams as possible. While Georgia is coming off of a disappointing season, they have a ton of talent, and in my opinion could surprise a lot of people with a bounce-back year. The Bulldogs have plenty of hitters worth watching, led by centerfielder Zach Cone and complemented by Chase Davidson, Peter Verdin and Levi Hyams. Juniors Cecil Tanner and Michael Palazzone were once thought of much more highly than they are currently, but they still have the potential to rebound and show what they capable of. Freshman lefty Alex Wood has been drawing rave reviews and could help that potential comeback season. I did catch #23 Auburn earlier in the season, but likely will not see their best pitchers. This series should allow me to catch juco transfer Andrew Morris in the weekend rotation and Bradley Hendrix in either a similar role or serving as the team’s closer.
Indiana @ Kentucky
Indiana wasn’t present at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge to kick off the college season, so I had to make sure to catch them due to the presence of potential first-round pick Alex Dickerson. Kentucky two-way performer Braden Kapteyn and catcher Mike Williams would be the other targets for this mid-week contest.
Louisville @ Connecticut
I admit I was doing my best to arrange my schedule so I didn’t see any teams twice, at least as far as weekend series are concerned. Since it will be so long since I saw either team, this Big East series is going to be a lot of fun to watch. The names will remain the same as those listed above, but by this point we will probably know a lot more as far as the rumors are concerned just how early George Springer could be selected. We will also know if Matt Barnes will have ironed out some command and consistency issues, while also seeing if Ryan Wright can duplicate the big numbers he posted a year ago as a sophomore.
Florida at Vanderbilt and Miami at Virginia are two more series in the East that are sure to draw considerable national attention.
Florida Atlantic @ Miami
#17 Miami is similar to North Carolina in that I would have liked to see them play an entire weekend series, but since most of their talent lies in their everyday lineup, I’m hoping for a big offensive output in this late, mid-week game against Florida Atlantic. Nathan Melendres, Zeke DeVoss and Chris Pelaez are going to cover a ton of ground in the outfield, and Harold Martinez has the potential to follow the footsteps of Yasmani Grandal in having a big junior year to lead to a big jump on draft boards. Joining Martinez on the infield will be sophomore Stephen Perez, and the two should form one of the most dynamic left side of the infields in college baseball.
Clemson @ Florida State
This series kicks off a day early due to championship week beginning the following Wednesday, and this series may be the most exciting to watch. Both #7 Florida State and #10 Clemson will be looking for a repeat appearance in the College World Series. Florida State is a well-oiled machine, assembled with players that fit the way Mike Martin likes to play the game. Two-way clutch performer Mike McGee returns for his senior season to provide big hits in the lineup and big saves out of the bullpen. Sean Gilmartin also returns to resume his role as the Seminoles’ ace, while their best hitter, Jayce Boyd, enters his sophomore year looking to post even bigger numbers. Clemson also has a senior returnee with a knack for delivering clutch hits in Jeff Schaus, and a dynamic two-way threat in Will Lamb. Overall, Clemson has more recognizable draft-eligible players, including a promising left-side of the infield formed by Brad Miller and John Hinson, as well as projected weekend starters Scott Weismann and Kevin Brady.
Texas A&M and Texas would be an intriguing series to catch prior to the Big 12 tournament as well.
As for the rest of the season, I’d likely wait to see how things played out before deciding which of the conference tournaments to attend. The SEC (Hoover, Alabama) and ACC (Durham, North Carolina) tourneys would likely be my preferences, but I may just head back West to catch yet another exciting Pac-10 series between UCLA and Arizona State in Tempe before waiting for Regional sites to be announced.
Overall I wouldn’t spend much time in the Midwest in my travels, but I would likely target a Super Regional site closer to Omaha so I can spend as much of the week leading up to the College World Series there. At this point in time I’m guessing the closest of which would be in Norman, Oklahoma should the Sooners push towards a repeat appearance as expected.
In total I would likely approach 20,000 miles on the road, see all of the preseason top 25 teams, and 74 of the top 100 college prospects eligible for this year’s draft. Dream on.
The thoughts and opinions listed here do not necessarily reflect those of Perfect Game USA. Patrick Ebert is affiliated with both Perfect Game USA and 5 Tool Talk, and can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.