For years, the SEC has had to deal with the claim that the conference is overrated. Some criticize the RPI, others the selection committee. However, the conference has a history of success in the College World Series, thanks especially to an LSU dynasty about a decade ago.
Nowadays the conference has even more parity, as teams just beat up on each other within conference play. Last year, the SEC offered strong teams, strong players and strong fan bases. The best prospects from the south continually stay within the SEC, and there isn't an easy win within the conference. Overrated? Not so much.
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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.
James Adkins - LHP - Tennessee
J.P. Arencibia - C - Tennessee
Chris Coghlan - 3B - Mississippi
Adam Davis - 2B/SS - Florida
Clay Dirks - LHP - LSU
Brian Jeroloman - C - Florida
Matt LaPorta - 1B - Florida
Wade LeBlanc - LHP - Alabama
Darren O'Day - RP - Florida
David Price - LHP - Vanderbilt
John Shelby - 2B - Kentucky
Jon Willard - - South Carolina
Mark Wright - - Mississippi
Of this group, LaPorta is assured to be a first round pick this June, and Arencibia and Price will be the same in 2007. In fact, it wouldn't be a shock to see all three become top ten overall picks. After LaPorta, the 2007 class has a lot of fringe first rounders that should be off the board at the end of the third: Coghlan, Davis, Jeroloman, LeBlanc, Shelby. Of the group, I like Coghlan the best, though a catching-starved system (maybe the Cubs?) would love a defender and patient hitter like Jeroloman.
One player not on this list to watch is Brooks Brown, one of the many closers that looked very good in the Cape Cod League. He'll be closing games for the Georgia Bulldogs this season, and should be the Georgia player attracting the most scouts. Finally, my favorite player on this list is James Adkins, who excelled in the CWS last year as the Saturday starter behind Luke Hochevar. While the Golden Spikes finalist is gone, Adkins should go to the next level with his great curveball. He'll be a good first round pick in 2007, I guarantee it.
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.
Jarred Bogany - OF - LSU
Justin Bristow - SS/RHP - Auburn
Diallo Fon - OF - Vanderbilt
Reese Havens - SS - South Carolina
Robert Lara - RHP - LSU
Matt Lea - RHP/IF - Mississippi State
Josh Lindblom - RHP - Tennessee
Miers Quigley - LHP - Alabama
Cody Satterwhite - RHP - Mississippi
Iain Sebastian - RHP - Georgia
Justin Smoak - 1B - South Carolina
Josh Zeid - RHP - Vanderbilt
The highest ranked player on this list is Justin Bristow, who was the 15th ranked prep player a year ago. A weak Auburn team will be ready to have Bristow play two ways, though word is he has more potential up the middle. My two picks for success are Justin Smoak and Miers Quigley. Smoak had as much power as any high school player, and Quigley will thrive when learning a few southpaw nuances from Wade LeBlanc.
According to Baseball America, Vanderbilt had the best recruiting class in the nation a year ago. Diallo Fon will start in the outfield this season, and you can expect Pedro Alvarez to be on the hot corner. With David Price as a sophomore and a bunch of good, young Freshman, the Commodores should be the SEC team to watch in 2007. However, this year they will likely remain on the fringe of postseason play or not: much like last season.
Class of the SEC - Florida
Depending on the source, it's pretty consensus that Florida enters the season as a top five overall team, and the team to beat in the SEC. The Gators earned this tough label last June, when the team lost to Texas in the finals at Omaha. Much of the offense from that team is back, with only place-setter Jeff Corsaletti moving onto the next level.
If anything, the Gator offense will be full of star power in 2006. LaPorta obviously is the team's best player, and is the most dangerous hitter in the country. While his strikeout rates are among the highest of any projected first round pick, no one has an Isolated Slugging near LaPorta, who was over .300 last season. After a good summer with Team USA, where he continued to show prodigious power, a .700 slugging percentage is not out of the question.
Joining LaPorta in the heart of the order will be second baseman Adam Davis and catcher Brian Jeroloman. Davis is one of the most fun players to watch in college baseball, because he literally does everything well. In a battle with Josh Rodriguez (Rice) and Jason Donald (Arizona) for the number two middle infielder in the country (behind Evan Longoria) should give Davis some added incentive this season. At the plate, Jeroloman succeeds most at one thing: drawing walks. As a result, he's almost a lock for a .400 OBP this season. His defense behind the plate has been lauded since he was a freshman, which helps make up for any lack of power he has.
Other than Corsaletti, the Gators only other position player lost is shortstop Justin Tordi. In his spot could be Clayton Pisani, one of the club's best recruits last year. Pisani plays great defense up the middle, and is probably a better bet to succeed than the likes of Bryson Barber. However, the club has enough offensive depth to deal with shortstop becoming a black hole. Brian Leclerc is the other name that will help give the Gators four of the best hitters in the country.
Florida's weakness, however, will be their pitching staff, putting much more pressure on the offense to succeed. The club lost their top two starters from 2005 in Bryan Bass and Alan Horne. This year, it will be up to Bryan Ball and Stephen Locke to lead this pitching staff. A sleeper is Christian Madson, a player who has struggled with injuries for two seasons now after looking great as a freshman. Speaking of freshman, the staff could get very positive contributions from Chas Spottswood (#126 by PG) and 6-8 Mark McClure, who could be college baseball's next Ryan Doherty.
With Connor Falkenbach having left, the closing duties are all up to Darren O'Day now. He's the right man for the job, though I really question whoever put him on an All-American team ahead of the likes of Brown. Besides O'Day, look for good bullpen work from Steven Porter, Michael Branham and Josh Edmondson.
The Gators are in danger of losing much of their offense in 2007, and are thus putting an emphasis on this season to be the year. However, while their offense might take them as far as Omaha, it will be the pitching staff that leads to the club's inevitable loss.
Southern Depth - Others in top 25
Note: These are the other 6 teams that are commonly ranked by the sources I've already hit on. Their placement below is my subjective opinion.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost their best player from last season to the draft in Brad Corley. Very little else is gone from a team that went 42-22 last year. The team returns every other starting player this season, including the likes of Thomas Berkery and Brad Jones. After a great job in a small role last season, look for big things from senior Joseph Hunter. The pitching staff should be much improved in 2006, despite the losses of Todd Doolittle and Alan Johnson from the rotation. One of the spots will be filled by sophomore John Lalor, who pitched well in the Cape after an admirable Freshman season. The final starting spot should be a battle between Josh Johnson and star recruit Matt Lea. With success on the pitching staff, this club undoubtedly has Omaha potential.
LSU: This club is the opposite of experienced teams like Florida and MSU. Gone from the 2005 version of this club are its top four hitters: Nick Stavinoha, Ryan Patterson, Clay Harris and Blake Gill. This puts a considerable onus on Chris Jackson and Jordan Mayer, the two sophomores on the infield corners. Not surprisingly, given the success this program has perenially on the recruiting front, much of the offense will be made of some of the nation's better freshman. Jarred Bogany and Jason Ogata are assured full-time positions, while you'll also see the likes of J.T. Wise and Robert Lara compete for spots. I'm also a bit confused how the Tigers plan to prevent runs in 2006 with everyone but Clay Dirks seemingly gone from the staff. This team is simply a year away from contention, just like we'll be saying about Florida in another year or two.
Arkansas: A very young team in 2005, patient Razorback fans will be rewarded in 2006 with a very good season. After a pretty lackluster recruiting class -- no one in the PG top 500 -- the club has no real holes that can't be replaced in 2006. The losses of Scott Hode and Clay Goodwin will be managed by what was a very deep bench last year. The rotation returns all four of its starters, most noteworthy being sophomore ace Nick Schmidt. On offense, look for another big season from first baseman Danny Hamblin, who had 30 extra-base hits in 220 at-bats last season. I like this team to surprise in 2006 after a merely mediocre conference performance last year.
Tennessee: Gone is Luke Hochevar and his 2.26 ERA. Chase Headley and his .530 OBP have moved onto professional baseball. Eli Iorg was drafted after posting a .667 slugging. That's a lot right there. Still, somehow, star power remains in this program. In the 2007 draft, the Vols should have two of the top fifteen picks in Adkins and Arencibia, the latter could be a top five pick. Also remaining on the team are such players as Sean Watson and Kelly Edmundson, both of whom will have a great effect on the UT program. Finally, look out for Josh Lindblom to complete a good Volunteer weekend rotation that will lead this team pretty far. However, it seems to me that they are a bad pitching performance or a slump away from falling apart, and as a result, a year from contention.
South Carolina: What jumps out when looking at the Carolina roster is the freshman set to make an impact. Smoak has double-digit home run potential, and Reese Havens has all the makings of a future first-rounder up the middle. Heck, I could see both Will Atwood and James Darnell making significant contributions. All these freshman will undoubtedly create quite the offense, giving senior Michael Campbell and junior Jon Willard some protection in the middle of the order. However, a lot of runs might not be enough in some games as the Gamecocks have a very inexperienced pitching staff with their top three starters all graduating. The weekend rotation will be featuring three guys who did not hit the 30 inning mark last year, which isn't a good sign. As a result, you can bet that South Carolina will go as far as their offense, and especially those stud freshman, take them.
Mississippi: Brian Pettway and Stephen Head hit a lot of home runs last year, 39 to be exact. Both are now in farm systems. However, the Ole Miss offense will survive. Mark Wright remains after hitting 13 home runs as a sophomore, and of course, the club has Coghlan. Chris does it all at third base, and it would not be a surprise to see his OBP around .500 in 2006. The rotation also saw some big exits, as the top five starters and nearly 500 strikeouts leave the program. Therefore, it's likely that by the end of the season, freshman Cody Satterwhite (my SEC FOY pick) will be the club's Friday Night pitcher. It's hard to go far like that, but with this experienced offense, I wouldn't bet against it.
A Trio of Potentials
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Vanderbilt, Georgia or Alabama in the field of 64 at season's end. In fact, Baseball America thinks that both latter teams will be in postseason play. 'Bama is the opposite of a lot of the teams we've been looking at: most of their offense has graduated. However, the team has a pitching staff that could lead them to quite a few wins. After a great Cape performance, Wade LeBlanc leads the way, and as mentioned, should help in making a star out of Miers Quigley. Like South Carolina, Alabama will go as far as their recruiting class takes them.
Georgia has a very experienced team with much of their offense back. This will be the strength of the Bulldogs team, and it will lead an inexperienced pitching staff. Besides Brooks Brown in the bullpen, the team is another depending on a lot of unproven starting pitchers. This should allow freshman Iain Sebastian to make a pretty big impact. Over in Vanderbilt, patience is the motto amongst their fans. After a super strong recruiting class, the team will be hot and cold in 2006, with just an outside chance at postseason play. In 2007, however, they will be among the top two or three programs in the SEC, with the foundation laid to continue to be a powerhouse.
At the Bottom of the East and West
It's going to be a rough year for Auburn fans, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Like Vandy, the Tigers will be starting a few freshman this year, and their play dictates Auburn's future. Bristow has the potential to be a star, as do newcomers Luke Greinke (Zack's brother) and Mike Bianucci in the infield. Look out for this team in 2008.
As for Kentucky, I suggest fans go out just to watch John Shelby. The end.