College : : Story
Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Eight for Omaha 2017

Mike Rooney        
Photo: South Carolina Athletics




2016 College Baseball Awards
Final Top 25 | Chants named 2016 CWS champs
PG/Rawlings College All-Americans | PG/Rawlings Freshmen All-Americans


If you were raised in the 1980s (like most great Americans) then 2017 could only be relevant if we are talking about Buck Rogers and his space odysseys. But alas, next season will in fact bring us to the 2017 version of Omaha. And even though that makes me feel ancient, and with age comes wisdom, picking the ‘Eight for Omaha’ continues to border on the impossible.

Maybe it would be more appropriate to name this piece “Two Seeds for Omaha,” or “Omaha: A Place Where Top 8 National Seeds Are No Longer Welcome.” All kidding aside, the Arizona/Coastal Carolina pairing in the CWS Finals marked the first time since 1992 (when Pepperdine beat Fullerton) that we had a National Championship matchup that did not feature at least one No. 1 seed. Here is why that is incredible: Arizona and Coastal Carolina played a combined 14 NCAA Tournament road games on their way to Omaha.

These are fun times in College Baseball, and as long as only 27 players per program can receive baseball scholarship dollars, our NCAA Tournament will continue to get more and more unpredictable. For what it’s worth, we went 2-for-8 (Florida and Miami) in last year’s “Eight for Omaha” prediction. Here’s a shot at what next year’s field will look like.


The Eight


Florida

2016 Record: 52-16
2016 Finish: College World Series

This would mark Florida’s sixth trip to the CWS in the last eight years, a truly remarkable accomplishment.  The Gators’ rising junior class has been the heart and soul of this program for two years and Mike Rivera and Dalton Guthrie run the show here. J.J. Schwarz had a “down” year but the fact that his version of a down year included 25 extra-base hits and 60 RBI tells us everything we need to know about his talent.

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, this rotation could actually get better as Alex Faedo will most likely be joined by uber-talents Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar. The bullpen will be the key for Kevin O’Sullivan as the loss of closer Shaun Anderson is huge.

Texas Christian

2016 Record: 49-18
2016 Finish: College World Series

The Horned Frogs went through College Station on their way to a third straight CWS appearance. More remarkable is the fact that Jim Schlossnagle’s troops did that after replacing five seniors from his 2015 starting lineup in addition to the entire rotation.

The 2017 squad starts with two players named Luken Baker, as he is both impact hitter and pitcher. Evan Skoug is another impact veteran for a lineup that will return eight of nine starters. Ironically, the one open spot will probably go to dynamic center fielder Nolan Brown who had to redshirt due to injury.

Brian Howard and Durbin Feltman will anchor the pitching staff. Howard was outstanding in the postseason and Feltman held hitters to a BAA of .129 in the closing role.

Louisiana State

2016 Record: 45-21
2016 Finish: Baton Rouge Super Regional

2016 was scheduled to be a rebuilding year for the Tigers, except for the fact that they don’t do “rebuilding” in Baton Rouge. It was choppy early but this team that needed to replace eight bats in the lineup caught fire late in the year en route to earning a Top 8 National Seed.

The 2017 team will benefit from this transition season as Paul Mainieri handles the opposite situation: the return of eight starting position players. A middle infield of Cole Freeman and Kramer Robertson is a great place to start and high-upside talent Greg Deichmann turned into a viable middle-of-the-order bat late in the season. Antoine Duplantis had an excellent freshman year and looks to be the center fielder of the future.

It appears that LSU’s fortunes will once again depend upon pitching coach Alan Dunn’s ability to shape a talented but uncertain pitching staff. Of course, Alex Lange – and his 125 strikeouts – gives this staff an outstanding Friday night rock to build upon.

Florida State

2016 Record: 41-22
2016 Finish: Gainesville Super Regional

FSU is the nation’s most consistent program, racking up 40-win seasons in a mind-boggling 37 straight seasons. For those of you doing the math at home, that means that skipper Mike Martin has never “endured” a 30-win season.

Having said that, the Seminoles have three CWS appearances in the last 16 years and they are looking to get back to Omaha for the first time since 2012. However, there is no shame in losing back-to-back Super Regionals at recent super power Florida.

A strong rising-sophomore class should lead the way as Jackson Lueck and Cal Raleigh had outstanding freshman seasons. The switch-hitting Raleigh is a very talented catcher who could be the ‘Noles next first round pick. This lineup will also have depth as veterans Taylor Walls, Dylan Busby and Quincy Nieporte combined for 80 extra-base hits in 2016.

There is also considerable depth returning on the mound and a rotation of Drew Carlton, Cole Sands and Tyler Holton will bring 44 starts from last season to the table. If pitching coach Mike Bell can find a quality answer at the back of the bullpen then this is a team that could win it all.

Oregon State
2016 Record: 35-19
2016 Finish: Tied for 3rd place in Pac-12 (Did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament)

The Beavers entered the 2016 season ranked No. 6 in the Perfect Game preseason rankings and they also made this list a year ago. OSU got off to a good start but never seemed to recover from the loss of ace Drew Rasmussen to Tommy John surgery.

This will be the best lineup on the west coast and this group is headlined by Nick Madrigal, K.J. Harrison and Christian Donohue. Aside from these three, the considerable high-upside talent on the position player side of this roster is intriguing, and rising-sophomore Cadyn Grenier leads the charge here.

The pitching staff appears to be the most uncertain area for the Beavers, but Bryce Fehmel, Luke Heimlich and Max Engelbrekt had excellent 2016 seasons and they are a great place to start. If big-armed reliever Mitch Hickey can rediscover his Freshman All-American form of 2015 then this could very quickly become a strength for Oregon State.

South Carolina

2016 Record: 46-18
2016 Finish: Columbia Super Regional

Chad Holbrook orchestrated one of the nation’s best turnarounds in 2016, going from missing Regionals a year ago all the way back to hosting a Super Regional this past season. Gene Cone, Dom Thompson-Williams and Braden Webb are significant losses for the Gamecocks yet the 2017 roster looks like it could be even better than this year’s unit.

Clarke Schmidt, Tyler Johnson and Adam Hill give South Carolina three big-time arms to build on. On top of that, the returns of Wil Crowe and Cody Morris from injury will provide pitching depth that might even rival that of Florida’s.

Alex Destino had a breakout sophomore year but John Jones will need to regain his form from the first half of this season when he put together a first team All-American caliber performer. Incoming freshman Carlos Cortes was arguably the best pure hitter at the 2016 Perfect Game All-American Classic and he could provide immediate impact in the middle of the order.

Vanderbilt

2016 Record: 43-19
2016 Finish: Nashville Regional

Vanderbilt was on the younger side in 2016 and this roster has some intimidating high-end talent. Jeren Kendall is in the conversation for the first pick overall in next year’s draft and ace Kyle Wright also looks like a first round talent.

Will Toffey was still drafted as an age-eligible sophomore in the 25th round despite hitting .227 and slugging .266, which speaks to his talent level. Toffey’s return to form is critical, but Ethan Paul, Julian Infante, and Alonzo Jones are potential stars in that lineup as well. 

Matt Ruppenthal and Patrick Raby had outstanding freshman seasons and both are rotation candidates for 2017. A healthy Hayden Stone could be the key as Ben Bowden will be tough to replace at the back of the bullpen.

NC State

2016 Record: 38-22
2016 Finish: Raleigh Regional

This may seem like a reach but let’s not forget that the Wolfpack have had an eventual Final Four team down in the ninth inning of a Regional elimination game two years in a row (TCU in 2015, Coastal Carolina in 2016). We often see great stories of redemption in Omaha and no program is more due for good fortune that Elliot Avent’s troops.

The departed Preston Palmiero and Andrew Knizner stole most of the headlines but the underclassmen actually provided most of the production. Returning position players Evan Mendoza, Brock Deatherage, Josh McLain, Joe Dunand, Brett Kinneman and Stephen Pitarra all hit .291 or better in 2016.

There are significant question marks on the mound and lefthander Brian Brown will lead an experienced but mostly unproven group. The wildcard – no pun intended – is arm-strength righthander Cory Wilder, who has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two years.


The Next Eight


Clemson

2016 Record: 44-20
2016 Finish: Clemson Regional

Monte Lee made a huge first impression in Clemson, earning the Tigers’ first Top 8 National Seed since 2006. Ace lefthander Pat Krall is coming back for his senior year and that is a huge development. Chase Pinder had an outstanding sophomore season and Seth Beer is arguably the best college baseball player on planet Earth.

UC Santa Barbara

2016 Record: 43-20-1
2016 Finish: College World Series

The Gauchos were the darling of Omaha in 2016 and while Andrew Calica and Shane Bieber are massive losses, there is a lot to like for 2017. Clay Fisher and J.J. Muno blossomed into an elite middle infield combination and Austin Bush may be the scariest power hitter on the west coast. Noah Davis has Friday night stuff and his 2016 postseason excellence is certainly a cause for optimism.

Ole Miss

2016 Record: 43-19
2016 Finish: Oxford Regional

Despite a disappointing 0-2 Regional exit, Mike Bianco’s Rebels had an excellent 2016 season and just missed being a Top 8 National Seed.  Colby Bortles elected to come back for his senior year and he will combine with Tate Blackman to solidify the middle of the order.  The pitching staff  should have depth but the incoming freshman class could steal the show.  This group might end up being ranked #1 once the signing deadline comes and goes, and catcher Cooper Johnson will immediately be one of the best defensive catchers in the SEC.

Louisville

2016 Record: 50-14
2016 Finish: Louisville Super Regionals

Over the last four seasons, the Cardinals have earned two trips to Omaha and also experienced two heartbreaking home Super Regional losses. The 2016 unit may have been the best to date, having seven players selected among the first 115 picks. Despite this attrition, Brendan McKay is the equivalent of two returning All-American players. Shortstop Devin Hairston (.361-3-45) and righthander Kade McClure (12-0, 2.54) are coming off of outstanding breakout seasons.

Washington

2016 Record: 32-21
2016 Finish: Nashville Regional

The Huskies have been to Regionals in two of the last three seasons and there is momentum building in Seattle. Noah Bremer is a strike-throwing ace and Joe DeMer’s pedigree suggests that he will improve upon a pedestrian yet promising freshman campaign. The lineup could return as many as seven starters and incoming freshman Ben Baird was a Perfect Game All-American who has star potential.

Rice

2016 Record: 38-24
2016 Finish: Baton Rouge Regional

The Owls will be seeking their first trip to Omaha since 2008, but if not for a controversial call in the Baton Rouge Regional, it might have been Rice playing Coastal Carolina in a Super Regional last year. Blake Fox and Jon Dulplantier are enormous losses but Rice’s offense, led by PG Freshman All-American Ford Proctor, should be their best in recent memory. Glenn Otto brings versatility as he could emerge as the Friday night starter or remain a lockdown closer.

UC Irvine

2016 Record: 31-25
2016 Finish: Tied for 7th in Big West (Did not qualify for NCAA Tournament)

Mike Gillespie’s 2017 squad will test the theory that having extreme talent at the top of your roster is all you need to navigate through the postseason. Keston Hiura may be the nation’s best pure hitter and fifth-year senior shortstop Mikey Duarte earned first-team All-Big West honors in 2015. Adam Alcantara will provide protection for Hiura and closer Calvin Faucher pitched to a 0.71 ERA last season. The rotation will need to come together and lefthander Cameron Bishop has ace potential if his strike-throwing improves.

Houston

2016 Record: 36-23
2016 Finish: 5th place in AAC (Did not qualify for NCAA Tournament)

Houston did not meet high expectations in 2016 but this roster still has big potential. Seth Romero is a bona fide ace and rising sophomores Mitch Ullom and Trey Cumbie are coming off of outstanding rookie seasons. The Cougars return their top four hitters from last season led by Joe Davis, who is one of the top five sluggers in the country.


Four more for good measure: Texas Tech, Stanford, Georgia Tech, Virginia.


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