I have to admit my East Coast bias up front. While I'm Midwestern through and through, when it comes to college baseball, my preference lies with the Atlantic Coast Conference. After the ACC expansion, the conference features three of the best programs in the history of college baseball (Miami, FSU, GTech) as well as many great other programs like Clemson and North Carolina.
Not only does the depth within the conference race pique my interest, but the level of play as well. Many of the players in this conference are some of the nation's best, stemming from great prep programs in Florida, Georgia or Virginia. This season is no exception as it features the projected top choice in the 2006 draft (Andrew Miller) and one of the top in the 2007 draft.
No conference in college baseball will be as fun to watch this year as the ACC. Here's my preview of what you can be looking for in 2006...
Players to Watch
Note: This list is derived from players who appeared on first, second or third All-American teams by either Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball or the NCBWA.
Wes Hodges - 3B - Georgia Tech
Shane Robinson - OF - Florida State
Daniel Bard - SP - North Carolina
Andrew Miller - SP - North Carolina
Matt Antonelli - 3B - Wake Forest
Jon Jay - OF - Miami
Matt Wieters - C/P - Georgia Tech
Andrew Brackman - SP - NC State
Aaron Bates - 1B - NC State
Sean Doolittle - 1B/P - Virginia
Taylor Harbin - 2B - Clemson
Blake Wood - P - Georgia Tech
Tyler Chambliss - RP - Florida State
A fantastic list of players, as half of these players will be first round draft picks. Notably, of course, the two North Carolina aces will be top ten picks in the draft, with Miller possibly going at the top. I also love the likes of Wes Hodges, Shane Robinson and Matt Antonelli, all of whom should be top-two round selections.
Hodges is an extremely consistent player with the potential to be one of the conference's most dangerous offensive talents, along with the less athletic talents like Jon Jay and Aaron Bates. Robinson and Antonelli are the opposites, two players more well-known for their athleticism than polish. Robinson was up for the Golden Spikes last year, and Antonelli is my favorite player in the conference.
The top players in the conference for the 2007 draft will be battling for tops in their respective positions. Brackman is a super-athletic player with fantastic stuff that should be among the first of the pitchers drafted. Doolittle was a great high school talent that opted for college, and now remains just behind Joe Savery in the best utility talent race. And finally, Wieters is pretty much as good of a catcher as you will find.
Two very good players not on the above list are Chris Perez from Miami, a first-round talent relief pitcher from Miami, and Josh Horton, North Carolina's #3 sophomore hitter.
News Kids on the Block - Best Freshman
Note: This list is derived from players in the SEC that were in Perfect Game USA's top 100 high school players last June. If interested, e-mail me and I'll send you the top 1000.
Drew Taylor - LHP - NC State
Marcus Jones - OF - Nc State
Jemile Weeks - 2B - Miami
Dennis Raben - 1B - Miami
David Adams - 2B/3B - Virginia
Nate Frieman - LHP - Duke
Luke Murton - OF - Georgia Tech
Buster Posey - SS/RHP - Florida State
Depending on who you talk to, the class of the conference is either Adams or Posey. Adams should do wonders in replacing Ryan Zimmermann, while Posey is the type of raw talent that could become a #1 overall pick in a few years. In case you were wondering, there are ties to Major League players in Jemile Weeks (Rickie) and Luke Murton (Matt). Neither player is better than there brother was, but both have the potential to be great players by 2008.
Three At the Top
My pick to win the ACC, while not the consensus among most polls, is the NORTH CAROLINA Tar Heels. The team had high expectations last year following good freshman seasons from Miller and Bard. However, with five freshman getting significant time in the field, the product yielded a lot of errors and inconsistent hitting. Miller and Bard were solid, but they saw Robert Woodard pass both of them. This year, however, the team is a year older and should be tighter all around. To go along with the best weekend rotation in baseball, the Tar Heels have a lot of good sophomore offensive talent led by the consistent Horton and the powerful Seth Williams. If all the five-star talents on this team play well, a trip to Omaha is in the cards.
College baseball is essentially a three-year sport. The first season is an introduction, the second season gets a player acclimated, and the third year is his send off. Some coaches get lucky to have a few good seniors lead his team. The GEORGIA TECH baseball team will have a host of them this season, making them among the favorites in the division. While Wieters and Hodges anchor this team, it will be the likes of Steven Blackwood, Mike Trapani and Jeff Kindel that lead this team into the postseason. Throw in a pair of good starters in Blake Wood and Tim Gustafson and you have a solid team.
Solid is the way to define the CLEMSON baseball team. While the team doesn't have any real stars, it will be a mix of a lot of good players that give them team legs. Taylor Harbin is the best player on a good offense, and should be among the best second baseman in the NCAA. The pitching staff is the strength, however, led behind returnee Jason Berken. If this weekend rotation performs like it can, then Clemson has a chance to go far. I don't like them enough to put them at the top of any rankings, but this team does have outside Omaha potential.
Other Postseason Possibilities
My favorite team outside the big three is the NC STATE WOLFPACK, mostly due to the high-end talent of the top. Such discourse obviously starts with Andrew Brackman, the Wolfpack basketball player and 6-10 ace. The other great player on the team is Aaron Bates, one of the three most powerful hitters in college baseball. Possibly joining Bates in DH duties will be the nation's best transfer, Jon Still of Stetson University. This team has high-end talent all over the place, and while they don't have the depth of a team like Florida State, they could be one of the ACC's best surprises.
This is a down year for the FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES. Much of last year's team is gone except Robinson, who started the year off in a big way, and should again be among the Golden Spikes finalists. Robinson will be helped by an extremely young team featuring the likes of Posey heavily. I don't think much of this team to make a postseason splash, but given the right junior leadership (Robinson, Chambliss, Henry), then they could certainly make a run.
The other three teams in the division aren't quite at the caliber of NC or Florida State. Virginia was sort of the surprise last year, led by top five selection Ryan Zimmermann. The team will be a year early in 2006, led by the likes of David Adams and Sean Doolittle. The same is true for Miami, which aren't offering Jay or Perez a great supporting cast. Finally, I do like Wake Forest to surprise some people, but that may be more a result of my liking for Matt Antonelli than anything else.
Bottom of the Barrel
Like usual, it's foolish to expect much from Duke or Virginia Tech, two teams far from competing in such a deep conference. For Duke fans, I really just suggest you go out and support the recruitment of Frieman. Maryland is another traditionally poor program, and they could battle the rest for 12th place honors in 2006. The number nine team is Boston College, coming off the school's best year ever. BC graduated much of their talent, however, and as a result will struggle in their first year in the ACC.