Longhorns primed for another title run
Texas just won the College World Series, and it makes sense to allow for everyone to reflect on a fun season. But Baseball America always looks ahead, so here's our first take on 2006. Understand that baseball recruiting is the trickiest of any college sport because juniors and incoming freshman can sign professional contracts up until the day their classes start, which can radically alter a team's fortunes. Plus, there's always the revolving door of transfers from four-year and junior colleges that changes everyone's outlook during the summer. Still, here are eight clubs — plus one sleeper — that could end up in Omaha one year from now.
The defending national champions must replace their entire infield, aside from first baseman Chance Wheeless. Closer J. Brent Cox and catcher Taylor Teagarden are headed to professional careers. But the Longhorns return the top four starters from a staff that allowed only seven runs at the CWS and ranked fourth nationally in ERA. Nick Peoples and Drew Stubbs will again set the table, while Preston Clark — a key recruit last year who sat out 2005 while getting his academics in order — should step right in behind the plate. Add power-hitting outfielders Jordan Danks and Kyle Russell, two premium prep draft talents who say they'll opt for college, to the top of a normally deep Texas recruiting haul and Augie Garrido has a great chance to record his first back-to-back national championships.
If Western Athletic Conference player of the year Joe Savery hadn't injured his wrist in the first super regional game against Tulane, Rice might have reached Omaha in 2005. He returns as a sophomore to a team than moves into Conference USA with 10 straight league titles on its resume. Leadoff man Tyler Henley and No. 3 hitter Josh Rodriguez should make sure an offense that improved greatly as the 2005 season progressed continues to roll. The entire infield and top two catchers also return. Savery and Eddie Degerman, a junior drafted in the 41st round, should front another strong rotation.
Coach Jack Leggett flirted with Oklahoma this offseason before deciding to stay at Clemson. Part of the reason may have been the club he'll bring back for 2006. The Tigers were one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's two best teams as the year ended and fell only one game shy of Omaha. Top two starters Stephen Faris and Josh Cribb return to the rotation, while the entire lineup beyond DH Kris Harvey should stay intact. That includes second baseman Taylor Harbin, who cranked 28 doubles; first baseman Andy D'Alessio, who blasted 15 home runs; and center fielder Brad Chalk, who led the team with a .458 on-base percentage.
Florida might have reached the CWS championship series a year early because the 2005 team was packed with sophomores. They should all return as juniors in 2006, led by NCAA home run champ Matt LaPorta. Brian LeClerc and Adam Davis also return after ranking second and third to LaPorta in home runs and RBI. Justin Tordi, who anchors the defense at shortstop, could also come back as a senior after getting drafted in the 41st round. Darren O'Day, Bryan Ball and Stephen Locke all return to the pitching staff with Omaha experience.
5. Oregon State
Oregon State proved a surprise CWS entry after winning the Pacific-10 Conference. The Beavers did it by posting a 3.06 team ERA, and all three starters — Dallas Buck, Jonah Nickerson and Anton Maxwell — along with closer Kevin Gunderson return as juniors. That kind of mound maturity should help offset the loss of first-round pick Jacoby Ellsbury and team leader Andy Jenkins on offense. Every other significant position player returns with the exception of Tyler Graham, so expect the Beavers to keep finding ways to manufacture runs as they did this year.
6. Cal State Fullerton
Fullerton tied a record with 14 drafted players and lost Ricky Romero and Sergio Pedroza, the best pitcher and hitter in the Big West Conference. Five of those draftees — Brett Pill, Danny Dorn, Justin Turner, Blake Davis and John Curtis — should return to their starting positions. Left-hander Ryan Schreppel, a sixth draftee, could also come back after a knee injury caused him to slip to the ninth round. Another starter, Clark Hardman, will be back in center field after missing most of the year with shoulder surgery. Wes Roemer returns to the rotation after a strong freshman year, and closer Vinnie Pestano will be a junior.
On the surface, it appears the draft and graduation would kill any chance this team had of returning to Omaha. But despite losing BA player of the year Alex Gordon, seniors Joe Simokaitis and Curtis Ledbetter and left-handers Zach Kroenke and Brian Duensing, Nebraska should be able to recover. Joba Chamberlain and closer Brett Jensen return to the pitching staff, and so might freshman Johnny Dorn if his elbow injury doesn't require Tommy John surgery. Freshmen Andy Gerch, Ryan Wehrle and Ryan Bohanan all played important roles during the second half of the year and should continue to improve.
8. Florida State
Few thought Florida State could advance to a super regional when 2005 opened because of its lack of experienced players. The Seminoles did anyway behind a strong group of sophomores that included first-team All-America outfielder Shane Robinson, third baseman Ryne Malone, righthander Bryan Henry and closer Tyler Chambliss. FSU must replace left fielder Gibbs Chapman and catcher Aaron Cheesman, but the rest of its everyday players and every important pitcher aside from submarine reliever Kevin Lynch return to a team that won 53 games.
The Waves won the West Coast Conference and came within a game of winning a regional that included Long Beach State and Southern California. Seven starting position players return, led by catcher Chad Tracy (.367-12-61) and second baseman David Uribes (.311, 25 steals). There are plenty of strong, young arms to help offset the losses of right-hander Kea Kometani and closer Steve Kleen, including Barry Enright, who went 10-1 as a freshman. The wild card here is junior left-hander Paul Coleman, who emerged as the team ace. He was a ninth-round pick of the Tigers, but a decision to play one more year could help Pepperdine back to Omaha for the first time since it won the 1992 national title.
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