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College  | Story  | 2/17/2016

2016 College Ball: Staff Picks

Patrick Ebert      Jheremy Brown      Andrew Krause      Mike Rooney     
Photo: Reagan Lunn

2016 Perfect Game College Baseball Preview Index

With the 2016 college baseball season set to begin on Friday Jheremy Brown, Andrew Krause, Mike Rooney and Patrick Ebert take their turns making predictions on several different categories. Those categories as listed below are split between individual player honors and achievements, both in relationship to the college baseball season and the MLB Draft, as well as team prognostications on how things may shake out over the next several months.

Impact Freshman
Last year saw several notable players step up in large ways to help propel their individual teams. From Alex Lange for LSU, K.J. Harrison at Oregon State and J.J. Schwarz of Florida – among others – there is never a shortage of first-year players poised to make an impact during their initial season of college baseball.

Luken Baker (TCU Athletics)
Jonathan India, Florida
Florida has an enviable amount of talent spread among their roster. While projectable power righties Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar have garnered plenty of well-deserved attention and figure to be key weapons for a Gators pitching staff that is deeper than the Mariana Trench, India figures to be an everyday player as a true freshman. The former Perfect Game All-American was in the discussion for an early-round draft selection last June thanks to high-level hitting tools and an intriguing combination of strength and athleticism. With the ability to play either second or third base and his consistent ability to use the barrel, India should be another impactful hitter in a talented Florida lineup. – Andrew Krause

An Oregon State infielder
To borrow Horse Racing vernacular, I'll take the Grenier/Madrigal Exacta Box. Oregon State has two elite freshmen infielders in Cadyn Grenier and Nick Madrigal and both are a good bet to have outstanding rookie campaigns. Grenier combines an elite hit tool with a swagger that reminds us of his Vegas roots. Madrigal is a flyer who is a plus defender and he brings big-time energy and baseball IQ to the party. If I can't do the Exacta Box, give me Grenier to win. – Mike Rooney

Luken Baker, Texas Christian
I almost feel like I’m cheating by picking Baker as he’s a true two-way talent and would rank amongst the best hitters or pitchers in the freshman class nationally. An enormous presence at 6-foot-4, 265-pounds, Baker is already penciled in to hit in the cleanup position for the Horned Frogs and toe the rubber every Sunday to round out the weekend rotation. Baker is a former Perfect Game All-American who’s capable of ramping his heater into the mid-90s but the hit and power tool are far too loud to overlook, something Coach Jim Schlossnagle and TCU will benefit greatly from. – Jheremy Brown

Nick Sprengel, San Diego
While consideration was given to Notre Dame’s Matt Vierling, a dominant appearance by Sprengel at the 2014 WWBA World Championship in late October left a lasting impression on me. In that game he carved up hitters (on one of the event’s better teams) with an upper-80s to low-90s fastball and wicked low-80s slider. He slipped in the draft which prompted him to honor his commitment to San Diego where he is poised to become the next great Toreros lefty. He’s now throwing more regularly in the low-90s, starting games in the 92-94 mph range, and will get his feet wet to open the season as USD’s Sunday starter. – Patrick Ebert

Impact Transfer
Similar to the freshmen category transfers always play a large part in helping their team compete on a national level, but as with any newcomer it’s hard to project how their previous production will translate at the Division I level.

Riley Smith (LSU)
Steven Sensley, Louisiana
College pitching didn’t pose too much of a problem for Sensley last season, who transfers to the University of Louisiana after spending his first two years at JUCO power LSU-Eunice. After red-shirting his first year Sensley exploded in 2015 with a .374/.466/.778 triple slash line while blasting out 21 home runs. He continues to refine his approach at the plate while cutting down the swings and misses, giving the Ragin’ Cajuns and excellent 1-2 punch in the heart of their order with another former LSU-Eunice transfer, Stefan Trosclair.  – Patrick Ebert

Riley Smith, Louisiana State
A product of San Jacinto College in Texas, Smith makes his way to the Tigers after he was selection in 31st round of the draft by the Pittsburg Pirates last June and brings with him a wealth of talent and experience. An NJCAA All-American last year, Smith will be a valuable asset however he’s used this year as he is armed with a fastball that was clocked as high as 94 mph in the fall. He has proven he can miss bats as he struck out 139 batters in 149 career innings in junior college, and whether he’s used as a starter or stopper this spring the Tigers are happy to have him in their dugout. – Jheremy Brown

Boomer White, Texas A&M
Texas A&M hit the jackpot here: Boomer White was great at TCU. He played every day as a freshman and sophomore, hitting .314 over 116 starts. 2014 was especially magical as he hit third on a TCU team that went to Omaha and along the way he earned first-team All Big 12 honors and was named the Fort Worth Regional Most Outstanding Player. This is a potential middle-of-the-order bat for the Aggies and here's a fun stat on Boomer: he has struck out only 44 times in 512 college plate appearances. – Mike Rooney

Garrett Benge, Oklahoma State
Benge hit a whopping .502 with 19 home runs and 97 runs batted in last season while at Cowley County College in Kansas. While facing Big 12 pitching week in and week out certainly figures to be rigorous, it is hard to look away from those numbers. Benge added significant strength and good weight since graduating from high school, and while he didn’t post the same monstrous power numbers last summer, Benge did impress during his time in the Texas Collegiate League and reviews were also very positive from the fall. – Andrew Krause

Impact Senior
Seniors always come in various shapes and sizes and also fill a variety of roles, including the intangible qualities such as veteran leadership which quite often prove to be the needed x-factor to help push teams over the top. Each of our writers acknowledged that Louisville’s Kyle Funkhouser is the biggest name to watch among the senior class this season but choosing him for this category was almost too obvious.

Blake Fox (Rice Athletics)
Donnie Walton, Oklahoma State
Here's all you need to know about Donnie Walton: He's the son of one of college baseball's best coaches, he's a four-year starter at shortstop, he won a Cape Cod League championship last summer and was named co-MVP of the CCBL championship series. He's played on three Oklahoma State Regional teams – and two of those teams hosted those Regionals – he's played in a Super Regional, he's been named All-Big 12 three times and he broke the school record for sacrifice bunts as a freshman AND as a sophomore. You're welcome. – Mike Rooney

Eric Filia, UCLA
It’s been a long and strange trip for UCLA outfielder Eric Filia, who was one of the heroes for the Bruins during their 2013 CWS Championship run prior to missing the next two seasons; the first due to injury and the second because of academic issues. Full healthy and committed to the program, Filia is poised for a huge season at the plate after shining during the summers of 2012 and 2015 while swinging a wood bat in the Northwoods League. A program long-defined by their pitching, defense and small ball, UCLA boasts several big bats in their lineup this year with Filia expected to do a lot of the damage from the three-hole. – Patrick Ebert

Reggie McClain, Missouri
McClain was an impact transfer last season, as the junior quickly became the Tigers’ Friday starter. Armed with pinpoint command, the 6-2 righty walked just 19 in a team-high 101 innings. While Missouri narrowly missed out on Regional play last season, the Tigers are expected to make a jump this year, but plenty rests on the shoulders of McClain. Here’s to betting that his experience, command and pitchability allow McClain and the Tigers to take another step forward in 2016. – Andrew Krause

Blake Fox, Rice
In his three seasons pitching for Rice lefthander Blake Fox has lost twice. Not twice per year, but twice in his career while picking up 26 wins in that span. For good measure he has also gone 6-1 with 50 innings pitched in summer ball over the last two years and started the 2015 Cape Cod All-Star Game. In addition to his performance accolades Fox has also seen an increase in his fastball velocity. Having him anchor the staff again this year is big for Coach Wayne Graham and the Owls as the other two-thirds of the weekend rotation – Jon Duplantier and Glenn Otto – don’t have the same experience in a starting role despite having big stuff. – Jheremy Brown

Sleeping Giant
This category was created to acknowledge the players who are already well known talents but could be poised for huge, breakout seasons as the 2016 MLB Draft approaches in June.

Daulton Jefferies (Coastal Carolina Athletics)
Bailey Clark, Duke
Clark’s emergence in 2015 was overshadowed a bit on the national landscape by the injury news surrounding another Blue Devil, Mike Matuella, who was eventually drafted in the third round last June. Fast forward to the beginning of the 2016 season and Clark has put himself in position to be drafted even earlier this June. The athletic, 6-foot-5, 210-pound righty threw well last season (4-5, 2.95 ERA, 49 strikeouts in 58 innings) and continued to impress last summer while with Team USA and in the Cape Cod League. His fastball has been clocked as high as 97 early in the spring and he’s also made strides with both his slider and changeup. He’ll certainly be a big part of the Blue Devils’ overall success this year and is a prime ‘helium’ candidate for the draft. – Andrew Krause

Daulton Jefferies, California
Jefferies may not be as much of a sleeping giant compared to the other selections in this category. After all, he was on the USA Collegiate National Team and enters the year as a potential first rounder. That said Jefferies is poised for an even bigger spring, and despite having an 8-13 career mark he improved his numbers across the board last year finishing with a 2.92 ERA. Listed at 6-foot, 180-pounds Jefferies is capable of matching most pitchers throughout the country pitch-for-pitch thanks to a well-rounded three-pitch mix, and with his balanced, repeatable set of mechanics he’s capable of spotting his pitch more often than not. – Jheremy Brown

Sheldon Neuse, Oklahoma
Sheldon Neuse is a bull in every sense of the word. He blasted his way onto the College Baseball scene with a .890 OPS in his rookie season and won Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Neuse really showed us something in 2015 because he struggled (for him) offensively and still had the fortitude to field .952 at shortstop. This guy has a huge offensive upside, and like a good quarterback he has durability – Oklahoma has played in 119 baseball games over the last two seasons, Neuse has started 119 of them. Here's the encore: he's going to close this year also. – Mike Rooney

Ryan Howard, Missouri
A lot has to go right for Mizzou this year for them to live up to our aggressive preseason ranking, but that isn’t to make it sound like it’s that big of a stretch. Howard already is a very good ballplayer, and we think he could be poised for a huge, breakout season. The tools have always been there, as has the production, hitting .308-5-39 during the spring last year before hitting .310 while serving as Team USA’s starting shortstop during the summer. – Patrick Ebert

Golden Spikes Award
Who is poised to have the biggest individual season and overall impact for their respective teams? We have your answer here:

Mike Shawaryn (Greg Fiume/Maryland Athletics)
Buddy Reed, Florida
Reed is a living upward trend arrow, as he has made remarkable improvements to his game since stepping on foot in Gainesville. His overall athleticism and talents are very similar to those of Kansas City Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain, as Reed has the quick-twitch actions, overall offensive upside and defensive skills at a premium position to be a future star at the next level. Before that happens it’s easy to envision him capping his collegiate career with a huge 2016 season, and possibly a championship in Omaha. – Patrick Ebert

Mike Shawaryn, Maryland
Coming into the 2014 season, Maryland had not qualified for the NCAA Tournament for 43 consecutive years. The Terps have since won Regionals in both 2014 and 2015, both on the road mind you. One common denominator in those two seasons is Mike Shawaryn. Maryland is an amazing 25-8 in his 33 career starts, which is a .758 winning percentage. He is a program changer … and he's a Jersey guy. Sold! – Mike Rooney

Nick Senzel, Tennessee
The numbers across the board from Senzel were already impressive and the fact that he improved almost every statistic while swinging a wood bat on the Cape last summer is jaw dropping. After finishing his sophomore season with a triple slash of .325/.399/.495, Senzel took the Cape by storm with a .364/.418/.558 mark with four home runs and 16 doubles. He started all 50 games for the Vols last spring before suiting up for another 40 last summer and seemed to only get better with additional reps, a scary thought for pitchers in the SEC this year. Senzel continued to tap into his power in the fall and is a solid defender at third base. – Jheremy Brown

Corey Ray, Louisville
While Louisville is an extremely talented and deep team, much of the early season love for the Cardinals is because of their All-American center fielder. Ray has always been an intriguing prospect – and he played well in limited playing time in 2014 – but he exploded as a sophomore last year and carried over that momentum into the summer where he shined for Team USA.  Ray’s development and upward trajectory has been fun to watch, and he has the talent, tools and experience to take yet another step forward this spring. – Andrew Krause

College World Series Sleeper
This category is dedicated to the teams that have a legitimate case to make it to Omaha in June despite the fact that they open the season outside of the Top 25.

Will Craig (Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)
Wake Forest
This is a deep and scary offense and heaven help you if you face them in Winston-Salem. The pitching is thin but ace Parker Dunshee can compete with any Friday night arm. Will Craig will pitch on Saturdays and heroic two-way players are part of the soul of College Baseball (see Todd Helton, Mark Kotsay, Tim Hudson, etc.). And here's a good "Omaha Sleeper" prototype: a Power 5 program that's been close to Regionals but hasn't gotten over the hump. The rigors of the ACC have prepared this unit for the postseason and they could be dangerous if they stay out of the losers' bracket. – Mike Rooney

Ole Miss
The core of this team is battle-tested. Having gone to Regional play for four straight seasons, many of these players have experienced the highs and lows of postseason baseball. Indeed, key contributors like Errol Robinson, J.B. Woodman and Colby Bortles were part of the Rebels team that went to Omaha just two seasons ago. Brady Bramlett and Wyatt Short are proven entities in the rotation and bullpen, respectively, and plenty of young arms have the talent to make a return trip to TD Ameritrade Park well within reason. – Andrew Krause

Every time I scan Indiana’s roster I find myself wondering just how good they could be. Many believed they would take a step backward last year after losing several star players, and their head coach, on a team that advanced to the postseason for two consecutive years, which included an CWS appearance in 2013. However, Indiana proved that the talent cupboard was far from bare, and many of those pieces return for the 2016 season, with reinforcements. Head Coach Chris Lemonis has had three tastes of Omaha while with Louisville and know what it takes to return to the promised land. – Patrick Ebert

Southern California
The Pac-12 is loaded this spring and the Trojans are ready for the rigors of conference play as their weekend rotation returns prominent pieces from last year’s club that made it to the finals of the Lake Elsinore Regional. Senior righthander Kyle Davis will take the Friday reigns while sophomore Mitch Hart and senior Brent Wheatley – who turned down a 17th round selection by Oakland – round out the weekend staff. There is some youth in the infield but the cornerstone positions are covered by players with an abundance of experience like Reggie Southall at shortstop and Jeremy Martinez behind the dish. – Jheremy Brown

Sleeping Giant, Among Giants
Listed below are the teams ranked outside the Top 10, yet within the Top 25, that could be poised for an even bigger season than what is being initially projected.

Andrew Lantrip (Houston Athletics)
The American Athletic Conference is on the rise, a statement that very few would rebut, and a team at the forefront of the charge is Coach Todd Whitting’s Houston Cougars. Between staff ace Andrew Lantrip and stud sophomore lefthander Seth Romero nearly 200 innings return from last weekend’s staff, and having the best Friday/Saturday duo in your conference is a nice place to begin as Houston looks to avenge their pair of one-run losses in last year’s Regional, which included a 20-inning thriller against Rice. They did lose a couple of key bats but have filled the voids with fresh faces like power hitting freshman Joe Davis and JUCO transfer Clay Casey. Those two, among others, will help complement an already strong group of players who are coming off successful 2015 campaigns. – Jheremy Brown

Notre Dame
The Irish surprised many folks last year with their strong performance in Atlantic Coast Conference play, but they shouldn’t creep up on people this season. Even with a bigger target on their back, most teams won’t want to match up with the Irish as the trio of Peter Solomon, Ryan Smoyer, and Brandon Bielak is one of the more formidable starting rotations in the ACC, not to mention the entire country. In addition power arm Brad Bass is a weapon at the back end of the bullpen. While they may not have the most intimidating lineup from top-to-bottom defense and pitching usually tend to win out in May and June, so watch out for the Irish again in 2016. – Andrew Krause

The Ducks have been close, having earned Top 8 National seeds in 2012 and 2013, but their offense has typically been about as intimidating as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. When you take a closer look at this roster here's what you'll find in the position player group: experience, competition at most spots, athleticism and physicality. And let's not forget about Matt Krook's fastball. This is a mid-90s bowling ball with plus life that could push him into the top 10 picks if it all breaks right. By the way, he's their Saturday guy. – Mike Rooney

North Carolina State
The Wolfpack has one of the best weekend rotations (Brian Brown, Cory Wilder, Johnny Piedmonte) that isn’t frequently discussed to go along with one of the nation’s top closers Tommy DeJuneas). There are also some intriguing returning pieces in place on offense, a few candidates poised to make a big step forward in their development as well as some intriguing newcomers. Although they finished last year on the outside of our final ranking of the Top 25 teams we expect NC State to be very competitive in the ACC this year with a better than fighting chance for a deep postseason run. – Patrick Ebert

Super Regional Cinderella
Upstarts abound! Advancing to Super Regional play is no easy task and every year offers a Cinderella from the deepest wells of unexpected performances. The teams listed below were not ranked within Perfect Game’s initial Top 25 or 40 teams nationally but certainly have the talent and history of success to make a late season run.

Bryson Brigman (San Diego)
Saint Louis
There’s always a few teams that seemingly come out of nowhere to capture the hearts of the American public during Regional play. Last year the rise of Virginia Commonwealth University particularly stood out, and this season I like another program from the Atlantic-10 to make a similar type of run. The Billikens of Saint Louis, aside from having an amazing nickname, have the recipe for postseason success in quality veteran starting pitchers like Matt Eckleman, Josh Moore, and Zach Girrens to go along with senior leaders and productive bats in Michael Bozarth and Braxton Martinez. – Andrew Krause

San Diego
This is a young, talented and athletic team that could make some serious noise this year. Due to their youth it may take some time for the pieces to fall into place, and they have a big test right out of the gate as they travel to Nashville to face Vanderbilt on opening weekend. The projected weekend rotation of Troy Conyers, Gary Cornish and Nick Sprengel should more than hold their own, while Bryson Brigman will help set the tone on offense with several other key pieces ready to take their games to the next level. The development of a pair of freshmen, Sprengel and outfielder Kevin Collard, both of whom the program has big expectations for from day one, will be a huge deciding factor in just how far USD advances this season. – Patrick Ebert

St. John's
The Johnnies open the 2016 just outside of the Top 40 but it wouldn’t shock anybody if they find themselves on an upward climb throughout the spring. The weekend staff will feature some turnover from a season ago, a year that culminated with a spot in the Stillwater Regional and two one-run losses. While fresh faces such as Ryan McCormick and Cody Stashak will fill in some of the holes on the pitching staff, the group a whole is very talented, and more importantly, deep. Plus, they have closer Thomas Hackimer (15 saves) returning which virtually shortens their games by an inning. Outfielder Alex Caruso, third baseman Robbie Knightes and outfielder Michael Donadio will lead Coach Ed Blankmeyer’s offense this spring. – Jheremy Brown

New Mexico
One of the keys to winning a Regional is having been there before and Ray Birmingham took the Lobos to four straight Regionals from 2010-2013. In two of those efforts, New Mexico actually won their first game and advanced to the winners' bracket game. Captain Obvious tells me that the 2016 Lobos are stout offensively but their pitching and defense are also intriguing. Ace Tyler Stevens and sixth-year senior Colton Thomson are more than capable of winning a Regional game and from there all bets are off. – Mike Rooney

2016 CWS Champ: Florida or the Field?
The Florida Gators enter the 2016 season as one of the most dominant preseason programs in the history of college baseball. Of course much needs to be done to prove the preseason hype has substance, but it begs the question, Florida, or the Field?

Buddy Reed (Tim Casey)
Here's why taking the Gators is a dumb bet: the field has beaten the entire group of Top 8 National Seeds in 10 of last 12 NCAA Tournaments. I repeat, the National Championship has been won by a Top 8 National Seed only twice in the last 12 seasons. Here's why it’s smart money: The Gators have TWO of the best rotations in the country and they are used to having a target on their back. Under Kevin O'Sullivan, Florida has been a Top 8 National Seed in six of the last seven seasons and they went to Omaha four times in that span. They played for it all in 2011 and fell just short of the championship series last year. They know what this smells like. Game on. – Mike Rooney

The Field
As much as I love the Florida Gators’ roster, it is too hard for me to pick them outright over the rest of the field. I won’t dispute the fact that on paper they’d appear to be the most talented team in the country. However, for any team (even a supremely talented team like Florida) to win a championship plenty of things have to go their way. Vanderbilt had three first-round picks last season, two of whom were starting pitchers, and they were unable to close the deal against a talented Virginia squad that played their best baseball at the right time. Who is to say that couldn’t happen again this season? If I had to pick one team as the favorite to win it all, it would be Florida, but the field also has teams with their own reserves of potential big-league talent like Texas A&M and Oregon State, so I feel fine in taking the safer route here. – Andrew Krause

The Field
The industry is pretty much in agreement that Florida is the top team in the nation thanks to their overwhelming depth and it's a program that has and will continue to produce high round draft picks. With that being said while a part of me really wants to stick with Florida I'm going to take the field, not only because it's the statistically correct thing to do but because I feel the talent level in college baseball is trending up with each and every recruiting class that steps foot on campus. Whether it's a team currently ranked in the Top 10 or one that's looking to squeeze in as the season is set to begin, there's talent and chemistry to be found all over the country. In other words, some team is certain to give the Gators a run for their money. – Jheremy Brown

While the logical, reasonable part of my brain is yelling at me to take the field, it is hard not to reflect back upon my time spent in Omaha last year – on the field, in the press box and down in the tunnels of TD Ameritrade – when I was convinced that the Gators would soon get their championship. That of course didn’t happen in 2015, but if it’s going to happen the 2016 season may present the best opportunity for the Gators. I can’t think of any college team in history with an assembled roster that looks so much like one you would expect to see at a big league ballpark. From speed to defense, big bats and situational hitters, power arms in the rotation and role players in the bullpen and on the bench, Florida has it all. – Patrick Ebert