As the baseball season creeps up on us, it is time for another five-part season preview, which will take us all the way up to February 15th when the Bruins take on Minnesota at Jackie Robinson Stadium. To get ready, we started with a general 2012 review and 2013 preview in Part 1. Part 2 took a look at the pitchers and Part 3 was about the position players. Part 4 previewed the Pac-12 and Part 5 is a look at the country and where UCLA fits in the national scene.
It's easy to get caught up in Friday night starters or big, powerful offenses. They are the ones on the marquee and they ones who will be taken in the first round of the MLB Draft. They are also hugely important to any team, but this season, the trend around the country is relief pitching.
Look up and down the best teams in the nation and you will find good bullpens everywhere. That doesn't mean that the teams have good closers either. They have deep bullpens, which can get them from the sixth inning to the end of the game if need be, an asset that ranks right up there with a dominant starter. After all, there's nothing quite like getting to play a six-inning game.
So it is no surprise that the best teams in the country have arms on the back end of games. They always do. It's just accentuated a bit this season, which is why my eight for Omaha are eight teams wil great relief pitching.
- North Carolina
- Oregon St.
- NC State
Apologies to the eight teams I have just cursed. There is a reason I take UCLA out of consideration for my Omaha picks each season.
North Carolina is considered by most to be the best team in the country thanks to a weekend rotation that is made up of three pitchers who all had a sub-2.00 ERA last year. They have depth in the bullpen, too, and their solid offense from a year ago should be excellent this year with some experienced and a fully healthy Colin Moran. But the Tar Heels will be challenged in the ACC from their rivals from right dow Tobacco Road, NC State. Carlos Rodon was arguably the best pitcher in the country a year ago as a freshman and leads a very deep Wolfpack team into this season. Georgia Tech should also make some noise in the ACC with a typically strong ooffense led by Brandon Thomas and the super powerful Daniel Palka. The only question is whether they have any pitching beyond Buck Farmer. Florida St. may also be able to compete, too, if their overhauled offense can match their solid pitching, which is led by Brandon Liebrandt and Mike Compton.
The SEC is stacked once again, led by Arkansas, who have the nation's best bullpen. They have a devastating closer in Barrett Astin, two excellent right-handed set-up men and three left-handed options. It's enviable depth and goes with Ryne Stanek, one of the nation's best starters and a very godo Saturday man in Randall Fant. Vanderbilt will challenge Arkansas, though. They went with a bunch of young players last year and got off to a slow start, but really turned it on late as their guys matured and have a balanced lineup to go with a strong rotation and excellent bullpen. Mississippi St. has their best team in years thanks to a very deep and experienced lineup and a great bullpen that includes Jonathan Holder, one of the nation's best closers. The only question is whether their rotation can step up with Chris Stratton gone. As always, South Carolina and LSU are in the mix, but both have some turnover and will need some time to make the pieces fit. Once they do, look out. Kentucky their best team in years, maybe ever, and plenty of experience so they are a threat, while Ole Miss can make a run if they get some offense to match their pitching. Florida's chances to return to Omaha depend on the health of Karsten Whitson.
As is often the case in the Big 12, when Texas is down, the conference is down and the Longhorns are down this year. They don't even look like a top 25 team, making TCU the conference favorite. The Horned Frogs should be excellent on the mound and defensively, but have questions offensively. There is talent there, with the powerful Kevin Cron, but he's going to need help. Oklahoma should push TCU in the conference with a pitching staff led by Dillon Overton. Their starters can stand with anyone in the country, but the don't have much to offer at the plate and aren't particularly deep in the bullpen. After those two, there is Texas, or maybe Baylor who can challenge for the conference crown, but not much else and even the Longhorns and Bears are stretching it. This is a major down year for the Big 12.
Up north in the cold weather states, there isn't anything to speak of. Nebraska should keep making strides in Darin Erstad's second season, but the conference doesn't have much. The Big East is worth taking a look at, though. Louisville is one of the best teams in the country with a ton of experience, a legit ace in Chad Green, a flame throwing closer in Nick Burdi and a deep offense with speed led by Nick Ratajczak. The Cardinals aren't alone, though. Notre Dame returns seven of their top eight pitchers from last year and six positions players as Mik Aoki gets that program back on track, while St. John's has some bats and can return to the postseason if they can sort out their pitching staff.
As per usual, Rice are the favorites to win Conference USA and for good reason. They hosted a Regional last year and their ace, Austin Kubitza, their closer, John Simms, and some experienced hitters, led by Christian Stringer, are all back. The question is whether some of their highly touted freshmen can step up and make them a Omaha contender again. Southern Miss will make things tough on the Owls, though. The Golden Eagles brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the country a year ago and threw them into the fire. That made for some growing pains, but should pay off this year when every pitcher is back and teams with an offense that can go 10 or even 11 deep.
Out west, New Mexico might be the best team not in the Pac-12. They have a great offense, which gets an added boost from the altitude at home, and is a nightmare for opposing pitches. D.J. Peterson might be the best hitter in the country after hitting .419 with 17 homers and 78 RBI this year and he's joined by the excellent Mitch Garver and Ryan Padilla too. The only question is whether they can pitch, but even if they struggle on the mound, the Mountain West should be theirs.
There is a clear favorite in the Big West, too, where Cal St. Fullerton should reign supreme. Michael Lorenzen will hit .300 and be a RBI machine in the middle of the order while doubling as the Titans' closer. Grahamm Wiest proved last year he has the stuff and makeup to get the job done on the weekends, but freshmen Justin Garza and Thomas Eshelman will join him in the rotation, making things tricky. Still, UC Irvine is the only team that can challenge them thanks to a good pitching staff led by Andrew Thurman. The offense will probably keep the Anteaters from nipping the Titans, but it should be good enough to get them back in a Regional.
In the West Coast Conference, San Diego are heavy favorites thanks to Kris Bryant. He hit .366 with 14 homers and walked more times than he struck out last year and should do the same again this year, but he's not alone. They have eight players back from last year when they hit .307 as a team so Bryant has plenty of help. If Michael Wagner can make the transition from ace closer to Friday night starter, then along with Dylan Covey and Max MacNabb, the Toreros will have a team that can make some noise in the postseason. Gonzaga could make some noise too, though. They were jobbed last year when they didn't get a Regional berth, but have Marco Gonzalez back, who hit .325 a year ago while also serving as the team's ace, going 8-2 with a 1.55 ERA. He's as good of a two-way player as they come and they have the best freshman class in the conference.
It should be a good year in college baseball. There isn't a dominant, great, overwhelming team this year. There are a lot of good teams, but pretty much everyone has a question or a hole. The national title really is up for grabs, but 20 weeks from now we'll be in Omaha getting ready to crown a national champion. And it all gets underway in three...two...one.