7 of college baseball’s biggest questions before the 2018 season
Last week, we took a look at a few things that will make the Southeastern Conference fun to watch this season. But what about the rest of the country?
There are 64 teams that will get a chance for the glory of playing in TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. The road to the College World Series is half the fun. There are plenty storylines to watch this year, but here are a few that we find the most compelling.
Will TCU end the season in Omaha for a fifth consecutive year?
“We block out everything outside," Luken Baker told NCAA.com. "Everyone has all these expectations for us. But what makes TCU unique is the core values — selfless, excellence, energy — and maintaining the culture of how the program is run. It’s run on character and discipline and doing the little things right.”
They have one of the more exciting players in the nation returning to help them get back to Omaha.
Baker had a monster freshman year, leading the Big 12 in batting average (.379), hits (94), runs (59), RBI (62), and total bases (143) to go along with 16 doubles and 11 home runs. He was on pace for a big sophomore year (.317/.454/.528, eight HRs, eight 2Bs) before his season ended on May 12 due to injury.
“I’m ready to go, I don’t feel any lingering effects," Baker said. "I’ve felt 100 percent since two or three weeks after I was fully cleared. I’m excited to get back out there and win a championship.”
There’s sure to be a lot of new faces in the lineup, but where there is familiarity is on the bump. Jared Janczak and Nick Lodolo return from last year’s rotation.
“Having Janczak, Lidolo, and Sean Wymer, they’re incredible," Baker said. "Whenever I see them step on the mound, the whole team gets excited. We know they’re going to get out there and shove, they have great stuff and great mentalities. It puts the defense and offense at ease. The defense knows they’re going to fill up the strike zone and the offense knows that they’re going to give us a chance to win every time.”
Baker, who came into college ball as a potential two-way star, has given up pitching to focus on his big bat. The Frogs have a deep staff and he doesn't need to worry about a return to the mound.
“Yea, I miss pitching, but I don’t think about it too much," Baker said. "I’m not big on living in the past, but I’ll make a joke now and again. But with that three-headed monster we got rolling and the bullpen that we have, there’s no reason for me to get back on the bump.”
Evan Skoug and Austen Wade are gone. The stage is Baker’s for the spotlight. If he stays healthy he should be able to shine. Four straight trips to the CWS, so anything less with one of college baseball’s brightest stars would be disappointing. They will sure be fun to watch.
“We have some exciting pieces," Baker said. "It’s baseball, it’s never one guy. We have a lot of talent that’s come in. We’ll get help from that pitching staff at the beginning of the year when we’re getting our feet underneath us offensively, but I feel like the new guys are going to play a big role in what we are going to do this year.”
RELATED: D1Baseball's Preseason Top 25
How big can Oregon State's Nick Madrigal play?
Madrigal had a huge season for the Beavers, toppling his dazzling freshman year numbers. Oregon State’s second baseman hit .380/.449/.532 with four home runs and 20 doubles, while swiping 16 bags, scoring a team-best 53 runs as one of the leaders for a 56-win Beavers squad.
All that at just 5-foot-7.
Madrigal has transformed himself from a nice hitting, middle infielder to a potentially high draft pick. While he may not have the power to send it over the fence too often, he knows how to find the gaps and hardly strikes out. He puts the barrel on the ball, and with he and Steven Kwan atop the lineup, the Beavers should score plenty of runs once again in 2018.
Madrigal will have the opportunity to play even larger than last year. Oregon State returns a lineup full of experience, with all nine starters earning significant playing time last season. Kwan, Madrigal, Trevor Larnach, Jack Anderson, Tyler Malone, Michael Gretler, Adley Rutschman, and Cadyn Grenier are all back. That's scary for any team, especially one coming of a 56-win campaign. If there is any team that can top that, it may be this one.
What can Clemson's Seth Beer do in his junior season?
Fun name? Check. Fun beard? Check. Fun home run swing? You better believe it.
Beer stepped into the national spotlight with a huge freshman campaign in 2016. He won Freshman of the Year honors as well as the Dick Howser Award slashing .369/.535/.700 with 13 doubles, 18 home runs and 70 RBI. He displayed some of the best plate discipline in the nation, walking more than double the amount of times he struck out (27 strikeouts, 62 walks).
Not bad for a kid that graduated high school early to play in the spring.
Beer’s follow-up campaign in 2017 was good by every measure. Except his own. He fell short of the lofty expectations he set the previous season, and while he put up numbers most others would love to have, they simply didn't build on the year prior.
Now the stage is set. The ACC has no shortage of star power and elite programs. If Clemson -- a team returning no starting pitching from last year's 42-win squad -- wants to return to the postseason, the offense will have to carry the charge early on. If Beer gets rolling out of the gate, the Tigers are heading back to Top 25 territory.
Can Tristan Beck reclaim his status as the Stanford ace?
Beck made an immediate impact on the college baseball landscape as a freshman in 2016. He was just the third freshman to get the ball on Opening Day in Stanford history (Mike Mussina and Cal Quantrill the other two), and quickly became the ace of the rotation, finishing 6-5 with a 2.48 ERA in 2016. But Beck wouldn't see the mound in 2017.
While he missed the season due to injury, something happened on the bump for Stanford. Kris Bubic broke out.
Bubic is coming off a monster campaign as the Cardinal's ace, going 7-6 with a 2.79 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 90 innings. He continued to light it up in the Cape Cod Summer League with a 1.65 ERA and a league-best 41 strikeouts en route to Pitcher of the Year honors.
It's a new era of Stanford baseball as David Esquer steps in after Mark Marquess ended his 41-year tenure as skipper of the Cardinal. Esquer gets to start his career with a one-two punch to be reckoned with. They'll be put to an early test, facing Cal State Fullerton on opening weekend.
What’s next for West Virginia?
Twenty-one years. West Virginia teased the nation in 2016, looking like they would end its 20-year drought from NCAA regional play with an exciting team, but fell just short. Last year, head coach Randy Mazey's crew finished what the 2016 team started.
The Mountaineers made it to the finals for the third time in program history, but failed to advance. This could very well be the season they break the mold.
Despite losing Jackson Cramer and Kyle Davis, WVU has big group of returners. Braden Zabrinsky is the most exciting, finishing the season as one of five finalists for the John Olerud Award. As the only two-way player amongst the finalists back in 2018, he's arguably the early favorite.
Zabrinsky led the team with a .336 batting average, albeit in limited time in the starting lineup. He was an even bigger presence out of the bullpen, where he went 6-2 with a 2.75 ERA, a team-best six saves and more than a strikeout per inning.
The Big XII is loaded with top notch programs, but with a lot of experienced players, West Virginia could finally rewrite its history and reach the ever-elusive Super Regionals.
How quickly can Scott Googins turn around Cincinnati?
Xavier baseball wasn't a very big national presence before Scott Googins arrival. He leaves after 12 seasons, the all-time winningest coach, rewriting the record book. Xavier won its first Atlantic 10 Championship in 2008 under Googins, and then went on to win its first NCAA tournament game the same season. He helped make the Muskateers a presence in the Big East, winning back-to-back conference championships in 2016 and '17.
Now, Googins takes his talents down the road, looking to turn around a Bearcats baseball program.
This is a big challenge and to expect them to compete in Year 1 is a bit unfair to Googins. The Bearcats haven't been to the NCAA tournament in 43 years, and the American Athletic Conference is stacked with tough competition from top to bottom. But, he can use that AAC exposure and spacious Marge Schott Stadium to go out and bring in players that fit his mold.
Googins has some nice pieces to work with. A.J. Bumpass broke out last season, batting .287 with 15 doubles and seven home runs, all of those numbers second-best on the team. Connor McVey has started 176 games in his Cincinnati career and as a guy that can get the bat on the ball, his leadership will be needed. J.T Perez, David Orndorff and A.J. Olasz combined to make 30 starts last season, so there are veterans on the bump.
His work is cut out for him. But if Googins has shown anything its that he can make his teams fun to watch.
What can South Alabama's Travis Swaggerty possibly do next?
Swaggerty has been a stat sheet stuffer since his arrival in Mobile, Alabama in 2016. He had an impressive freshman campaign, slashing .303/.431/.422 with 12 doubles, four home runs and 20 stolen bases. When the lights shined the brightest, so did Swaggerty, hitting .412 in his first career NCAA postseason.
The 5-foot-11 outfielder followed that up with a Second-Team All-American performance, slashing .356/.484/.571 wih 11 home runs and 19 stolen bases. He exploded in the first game of the NCAA Tournament, going 3-4 with a double, home run and four RBI in a 6-3 victory against Mississippi State in the Hattiesburg regional.
Swaggerty then became the first Jaguar to play for Team USA over the summer. He represented them well, hitting .328 with 21 hits and six stolen bases.
That's a pretty stout resumé for two years.
South Alabama enters the season No. 20 in the D1Baseball.com poll, and Swaggerty is piling up preseason All-American honors. All eyes will be on Mobile as South Alabama should contend for the Sun Belt title. With the exciting Dylan Hardy atop the lineup, Swaggerty could be in for his biggest season yet.