ALSO SEE: 2013 College Baseball Preview index
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
Overall/conference won-loss records from 2012 indicated; expectation level denoted -- College World Series= CWS, NCAA Super Regional= SR, NCAA Regional= R
PRESEASON ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
2013 Draft Class
1. Jordan Patterson, Jr., 1B/LHP, South Alabama
2. Danny Collins, Jr., OF/3B, Troy
3. Tyler Alexander, Jr., LHP, Florida International
4. Tanner Perkins, Jr., LHP, Western Kentucky
5. Chase Compton, Jr., 1B, Louisiana Lafayette
2014 Draft Class
1. Aramis Garcia, So., C, Florida International
2. Austin Robichaux, So., RHP/OF, Louisiana-Lafayette
3. Jo-El Bennett, So., RHP/OF, Troy
2015 Draft Class
1. Nick Thurman, Fr., C, Louisiana-Lafayette
* Arkansas State took a big step forward last season by finishing the regular season just a half-game out of first place in the Sun Belt. Now they hope to build off that this season. The Red Wolves have the extremely tough chore of replacing ace pitcher Jacob Lee, and have two starters returning that finished last season with ERA's over five. However, ASU does have an excellent ace closer in senior right-hander John Koch, who had a 1.88 ERA in 38 1/3 innings last season and flashes a big-time fastball up to 94. Meanwhile, senior two-way player Seth McWilliams had a good fall and the speedster is expected to take a step forward this spring. In terms of youngsters, keep an eye on two-way freshman Adam Grantham. ASU has another impressive player to watch in senior third baseman Claude Johnson. Johnson led the league in second baseman last season, and a physically impressive 6-foot-1, 210-pounder.
* Arkansas-Little Rock took a step back last season with a campaign that ended with a 12-18 conference record. However, with the return of several offensive cogs, they hope to return to their winning ways this spring. The Trojans should have a solid offensive lineup with senior catcher Blake Johnson leading the way. Johnson finished last season hitting .315 with six homers and 33 RBIs. Junior outfielder Ben Crumpton had a strong fall and should take a step forward, while the weekend rotation must improve with two starters returning after having ERA's over six last season.
* Florida Atlantic is one of the more motivated teams int he country entering the spring after finishing last season with a 32-22 overall record, but failing to reach the NCAA postseason. The Owls have a solid returning rotation with left-hander Austin Gomber and right-handers Jeremy Strawn and Kevin Alexander leading the way. Gomber and Alexander each finished last season with ERA's under four, while Strawn looked great in the fall returning from an injury. Also keep an eye on right-handed closer Hugh Adams, who's coming off an injury but flashed a big-time fastball during fall workouts ... In terms of breakout players, keep an eye on shortstop Mitch Morales, who displayed better defensive range and more power at the plate during the fall.
* Florida International continues to make some serious waves on the recruiting trail, but hopes to make even more ways on the diamond this spring. FIU should have a solid club, but it's not one void of question marks. For instance, the Panthers have a big-time staff ace in junior right-hander Mike Ellis, who was 89-92 during the fall, touching 93. He also showed a good 81-83 slider with mound presence and a hard-nosed attitude. Meanwhile, Tyler Alexander, who was 89-91 with a plus changeup will be the No. 2 starter, while junior righty Mike Franco, who had Tommy John surgery, returns to the mound after an impressive fall. The Panthers also have a solid closer in veteran lefty Mike Gomez. Offensively, freshman first baseman Edwin Rios is expected to have an impressive year at the plate, while catcher Aramis Garcia is expected to take a significant step forward. Though Rios could improve at the plate, he has a plus arm behind the plate and raw power.
* Louisiana-Lafayette has a tradition of success, so when it finished last season dead last in the Sun Belt at 11-19, it came as a significant surprise. With that said, the Ragin' Cajuns should be significantly better this season. They welcome back two starting pitchers in Chris Griffitt and headliner Austin Robichaux. Robichaux is the highest touted prospect on this staff after having a 2.91 ERA in 43 1/3 innings of work last season. He also struck out 21 and walked 11. The Cajuns also welcome back several key relievers, including Matt Hicks, who had a 2.92 ERA in 26 appearances last season. Offensively, this team must improve after hitting just .263 last season, and that should be possible with the return of several key hitters, including Chase Compton and Ryan Leonards, who each hit over .320 last season.
* Louisiana-Monroe hopes to build off its fourth-place finish in the Sun Belt last season, but that could be incredibly difficult. The offense hit just .270 last season and must replace the big bats of Jeremy Sy, Joey Rapp and Caleb Clowers. That puts much pressure on senior third baseman Judd Edwards to have a good campaign after finishing '12 with a .293 average, four homers and 27 RBIs. Also keep an eye on senior outfielder Brandon Alexander, who had a strong fall in the outfield and at the plate. Meanwhile, Corben Green returns after suffering an ACL injury last season, while senior righty Cale Wine is an interesting potential senior season to follow. Wine was 89-92, topping out at 94 during fall workouts with sink. Breaking ball and changeup could improve, but should be a consistent arm in 2013.
* Middle Tennessee State finished last season with a 31-28 overall record and should be much improved this spring. The Blue Raiders welcome back a very strong weekend rotation with Johnathan Frebis, Hunter Adkins and Keaton Baker leading the way. Frebis is a very talented lefty, while Adkins is a righty who must improve his ERA. Adkins was an 18th-round pick last summer, but decided to return to college. He worked on his composure and offspeed stuff during fall workouts. He was consistently 90-94 with the fastball, while the addition of a changeup and sharpening of his slider was key. Meanwhile, Baker must improve on what was a below average 2012 campaign. Baker has the stuff, though, with a 90-94 fastball flashed during the fall combined with an improved curveball and changeup. Closer-wise, the Blue Raiders have a stud in junior righty Paul Mittura, who was 88-92 with a moving fastball and a solid slider. Offensively, this should be a fun team to watch with six of eight leading hitters returning. Junior designated hitter Trent Miller, who finished last season hitting .345 with 13 homers and 49 RBIs, headlines this lineup.
* South Alabama finished in the middle of the pack in the Sun Belt last season, but they could take a step forward this season with the return of several key players. Second baseman Logan Kirkland returns from a broken foot last season, while right-handed senior starting pitcher Anthony Izzio returns after having an elbow sprain last season. The starting rotation should be solid with Izzio and senior righty Jerron Cito leading the way. Also worth noting, right-handed closer Dylan Stamey had a strong fall with a FB up to 95 and a better SL, while two-way player Jordan Patterson is an interesting prospect with a fastball up to 93. Also keep an eye on sophomore left-handed pitcher James Taylor, who really made big strides in the fall. Taylor is 87-91 with a three-pitch mix. In terms of breakout players, watch for senior outfielder Jeff DeBlieux to make some noise.
* Troy historically fields productive offensive lineups, and that once again should be the case this spring. Though the Trojans finished last season with just a .273 batting average, they welcome back several key cogs this season, including leading hitter Logan Pierce (.341/5/47) and Danny Collins (.318/12/52). Though he didn't have a great freshman campaign, keep a close eye on sophomore outfielder Jo-El Bennett. Bennett was a highly touted prospect after turning down 11th-round money out of high school. He had a huge fall for the Trojans, showing off good gap power and good defensive skills. Continues to develop. Meanwhile, freshman third baseman T.J. Binder has good hitting ability and should be an immediate impact guy. Pitching-wise, the Trojans have a pair of newcomers in the rotation in Will Starling and Tanner Hicks, with Hicks showcasing plus secondary offerings. He's not a high-velocity type of pitcher. Ryan Brady returns to the rotation after tallying a 4.19 ERA in 53 2/3 innings of work last season. Newcomer and junior right-handed pitcher Austin Sullivan was up to 92 in the fall, while left-handers Shane McClain and Ryan Sorce return from injuries, as well as first baseman Kyle Brown.
* Western Kentucky must improve its offensive production if it wants to escape the bottom half of the Sun Belt standings this spring. The Hilltoppers hit .251 last season and must replace their top three hitters. Pitching-wise, this is a solid club to watch. WKU welcomes back Tanner Perkins from an injury last season. Perkins was 87-89 with his fastball during fall workouts with a plus changeup. Meanwhile, closer Justin Hageman is a big-time arm to watch despite the need to improve his ERA. Hageman was 90-94 during the fall with his FB, also including a hard SL. Also keep an eye on freshman outfielder/pitcher Anderson Miller, who was up to 90 from the left side in the fall, and improved senior infielder Blake Crabtree.