North Carolina should return to Omaha in 2007

Spring training is seven months away. Can't wait? Baseball America has you covered with a 2007 college baseball preview.

Updated: June 27, 2006, 1:10 PM ET
By Will Kimmey | Baseball America

Oregon State just won the College World Series, and we're already counting down the days until spring training. So here are eight teams we think will end the 2007 season in Omaha. A year ago, we predicted four of the eight teams that made it to the CWS (Rice, Clemson, Oregon State and Cal State Fullerton) and got gun shy about adding Georgia Tech or North Carolina to the list because it looked like too many clubs from one conference. Four ACC teams made it this year. Oh, and here are the misses, in case you were wondering: Texas, Florida, Florida State and Nebraska.

Josh Horton
AP Photo/Rob CarrJosh Horton returns to a lead a stocked and experienced North Carolina lineup that is looking to make a return appearance to the College World Series.
Plenty of factors can change between now and when these clubs take the field in February (such as unexpected professional signings, transfers and injuries). Even last year's list looked different in our preseason Top 25, which included six of this year's CWS teams in the top eight.

But this is just for fun, right? Go ahead and print it, save it and grade it in a year. The teams are listed alphabetically.

Top picks Jon Jay and Chris Perez leave holes in the No. 3 spot and closer role, but nearly everyone else that helped this upstart reach Omaha a year ahead of schedule will be back and gunning for a return. Scott Maine and Danny Gil were draft eligible, but should return to the rotation unless their strong postseason performances generated late professional interest. The same holds true for third baseman Danny Valencia, a 19th-round pick of the Twins, who could return to the middle of the order behind speedy slasher Jemile Weeks and before powerful Dennis Raben, who launched two moon shots in Omaha. Shortstop Mark Sobolewski could round out the middle infield as a freshman after sliding to the Astros in the 20th round.

North Carolina
First-rounders Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard leave as juniors and national ERA leader Jonathan Hovis comes out of the bullpen, but every other prominent player on this CWS finalist will be back, including every position player who started a game this season. Shortstop Josh Horton will again flirt with .400 (and the draft's first round), while Jay Cox, Chad Flack and Tim Federowicz continue providing thunder to a team that led the NCAA Tournament in homers and slugging. Cox, a junior, was drafted late enough that he'll return to campus, as will right-hander Robert Woodard, the team's No. 2 starter. Freshman Luke Putkonen or junior Matt Danford could help flesh out a rotation that might need a contribution from signees Alex White or Matt Petition. Andrew Carignan returns as closer.

No pitching staff struck out more batters than Rice's in 2006. Eddie Degerman and Bryce Cox leave after ringing up a ton of those K's, but the rotation should still feature two power left-handers, if Joe Savery puts his tendinitis behind him and closer Cole St. Clair makes the expected move from the bullpen. Bobby Bell and Will McDaniel both return to a pitching staff that will again be flush with quality arms. The lineup loses Josh Rodriguez and Greg Buchanan, but the first four hitters will still look fearsome with Tyler Henley, Brian Friday, Savery and Aaron Luna, who is fresh off setting a school record with 16 homers as a freshman.

South Carolina
Pitching struggles hampered South Carolina for much of 2006, and it still fell only a game shy of Omaha. Don't worry about that next year as right-handers Wynn Pelzer, Mike Cisco and Harris Honeycutt already look like one of the best rotations in the SEC. Justin Smoak was one of the nation's best freshmen, and he and classmates Andrew Crisp, Reese Havens and James Darnell only should find more success as sophomores. Add to that the return of thumpers Robbie Grinestaff and Phil Disher, who will be back to power an offense that again will offer the potential to homer in five consecutive at-bats.

College World Series coverage
For complete College World Series coverage, check out the College World Series index.

Sometimes the Jimmys and Joes mean more than the X's and O's, and Texas has all kinds of talent -- plus that Augie Garrido fellow who knows a little something about getting the best out of a team. Drew Stubbs and Kyle McCulloch will be missed, but the outfield can remain potent with full seasons out of Jordan Danks and Kyle Russell. Nick Peoples could move back to center field as a junior while manning the leadoff spot. Bradley Suttle and Preston Clark will keep UT strong up the middle as sophomores. Texas should get bounce-back junior years from Adrian Alaniz and Kenn Kasparek while Austin Wood, Kyle Walker and Riley Boening grow into more vital performers.

UCLA Bruins
The Bruins went from 15 wins in 2005 to 33 in 2006 behind a precocious crop of freshmen that included shortstop Brandon Crawford and third baseman Jermaine Curtis. Expect catcher Ryan Babineau and outfielder/left-hander Tim Murphy to display marked improvement as sophomores after heating up late in their first seasons. Dave Huff is gone after transferring in to solidify the rotation, but coach John Savage might have another move like that up his sleeve. Plus, right-hander Tyson Brummett returns as a senior, closer Brant Rustich could come back as a junior after a medical redshirt (if he doesn't sign as a 13th-round pick of the Indians). And UCLA has signed two of the top pitching recruits on the West Coast in Charles Brewer and Gavin Brooks.

Vanderbilt closely resembles North Carolina at this point last year. It returns a potential No. 1 overall pick to front the rotation as a junior in left-hander David Price. His 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings led a staff that finished second to Rice in strikeouts. Everyone else on the staff -- aside from Matt Buschmann -- returns, and freshmen Nick Christiani, Casey Jacobsen and Josh Zeid should mature and find more prominent roles. Freshman of the Year Pedro Alvarez brings his 22 homers back to a lineup that will feature eight holdovers, including shortstop Ryan Flaherty and his team-best .339 average.

Jemile Weeks
AP Photo/Eric FrancisJemile Weeks and Miami got to Omaha a year ahead of schedule. Imagine how dangerous they'll be in 2007.
Left-hander/first baseman Sean Doolittle was the ACC Player of the Year as a sophomore, and he'll battle Wichita State's Damon Sublett for the honor of being the nation's top two-way player in their junior seasons. Jacob Thompson returns to join him in the rotation after a strong freshman showing. They combined for 21 wins a year ago, and their ERAs don't equal 5.00 if you add them together. The base hit Brandons (Marsh and Guyer) return to the middle of the order for the Cavaliers, and the defense should again be one of the nation's best and most efficient. That was a bold statement this season given that freshmen David Adams, Greg Miclat and Jeremy Farrell joined Doolittle around the horn, and each should improve in both phases of the game in their second season.

Editor's note: has a partnership with Baseball America, which will provide weekly updates, analysis and notebooks on college baseball.