Pac-10/National Baseball Preview

With the start of preseason practice just weeks away and the regular season beginning shortly after that, we're getting a head start on our comprehensive baseball coverage. Included in this detailed preview is a look at each team in the Pac-10 and where we've projected them to finish this season. Also, check out the preseason edition of the "Super Sixteen" national ranking.

PAC-10 CONFERENCE - projected order of finish

1. Stanford Cardinal (46-14, 16-8, 1st, Regionals)

It's certainly no surprise to see the Cardinal at or near the top of the Pac-10.  Despite losing six of their starting position players from last season's 46-14 ballclub, Stanford is once again expected to contend for the conference title and a berth in the College World Series.  Leading the way are a pair of preseason All-Americans in 2B Jed Lowrie (.399-17-68) and 1B John Mayberry, Jr. (.333-16-62).  Lowrie is coming off a 2004 season in which he was named Pac-10 Player of the Year while Mayberry, Jr. could potentially be taken in the first half of the first round of this year's amateur draft.  There are plenty of holes to fill in the lineup for this year's Stanford team (gone are the likes of Danny Putnam, Donny Lucy, and Sam Fuld), however Coach Marquess always seems to find capable hitters and building a team around Lowrie and Mayberry, arguably the top 1-2 hitting combo in the country, is a good way to start.

Pitching should be the strength of this year's Stanford team.  All four starting pitchers return led by juniors Mark Romanczuk (11-3, 4.31) and Jeff Gilmore (10-2, 4.43).  In fact, outside of ace closer David O'Hagan, basically the entire pitching staff remains intact - and this was a staff that led the conference in ERA last season.  Watch for a quartet of sophomores in Greg Reynolds, Blake Holler, Matt Leva, and Jeff Stimpson to really burst onto the scene this year.

2. Washington Huskies (39-20-1, 15-9, 2nd, Regionals)

This could be the year the Huskies really break out on the national stage.  They've got it all - experienced and talented hitters and a starting rotation that should rank as one of the best in the country.  Pitching-wise, it all starts with super-sophomore Tim Lincecum (10-3, 3.53).  Lincecum struck out a whopping 161 batters last season in earning Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year honors.  #2 starter Kyle Parker (4-3, 3.84) also returns and is primed for a huge year.  UW's top two relievers from last season's NCAA Tournament team have both moved on, but the rest of the bullpen remains intact.

At the plate, six of their nine starting position players return led by a trio of hitters who reached double figures in home runs last season.  SS/CF Brent Lillibridge (.317-11-36) is an exciting leadoff hitter while OF Zach Clem (.336-13-47) and 1B Kyle Larsen (.344-11-55) should do their share of damage in the middle of the order.  Expect plenty of firepower from the Huskies offense this season while they should be nearly unbeatable on Friday nights with Lincecum at the helm.

3. Arizona State Sun Devils (41-18, 13-11, 4th, Regionals)

At this point, it's probably a coin flip between the Cardinal, Huskies, and Sun Devils for the favorite in the Pac-10.  ASU, like Stanford and Washington, looks to have the bats and the arms to challenge for the conference title and make a run at Omaha.  Six offensive starters return led by Team USA star OF Travis Buck (.373-9-58).  Buck had a spectacular sophomore campaign last season and should be one of the top outfielders in the country.  Talented catcher Tuffy Gosewisch (.342-2-49) and emerging star in center fielder Colin Curtis (.300-5-36) will carry a lot of the load offensively.  Meanwhile, Head Coach Pat Murphy has to be thrilled to have OF/1B/3B Jeff Larish (.308-7-41) back for his senior season.  Statistically speaking, Larish may have been the best hitter in the country as a sophomore (.372-18-95), but a down year last spring dropped his draft stock and thus he's back in Tempe.  If Larish comes close to his 2003 form, watch out, the Devils likely will finish better than third in the conference.  The Sun Devils will have to deal with the loss of All-American shortstop Dustin Pedroia who has moved on to professional baseball.

Ace starter Jason Urquidez (12-3, 3.41) returns for his senior season.  Urquidez was one of the top pitchers in the conference last year and should lead a talented ASU pitching staff.  Erik Averill (4-4, 5.19) was one of the top pitchers in the conference as a freshman in 2003 and will try to bounce back.  Meanwhile, fireballing relievers Zechry Zinicola (4-2, 3.36, 8 SV) and Pat Bresnehan (3-2, 4.79) should wreak havoc in the conference - potentially as starters.

4. Arizona Wildcats (36-27-1, 12-12, 5th, College World Series)

I have the Wildcats a tick below the above threesome, but make no mistake, there are plenty of quality parts remaining from last season's surprise CWS team to make a return trip to Omaha.  Hitting should again be the strength for Arizona with seven of their ten regular starting position players returning including the 1-through-4 hitters in the lineup.  It all starts with possibly the top leadoff hitter in the conference in junior center fielder Trevor Crowe (.350-5-33, 26 SB) while 1B Jordan Brown (.306-13-57), SS Jason Donald (.322-9-45), and OF Jeff Van Houten (.319-3-40) will produce plenty in the middle portion of the order.  Van Houten was an All-American in 2003 when he hit .413.

Last season's ace starter Koley Kolberg is now a pro and his loss will be felt.  However, last year's #2 starter John Meloan returns (10-0, 4.66) and should become the lead man on the hill for Arizona.  Most of the bullpen is also back, but pitching was the definite weak link for the Wildcats last year (big dropoff after Kolberg and Meloan) and it remains to be seen if Arizona will have the arms to contend seriously on the national level.

5. USC Trojans (24-32, 10-14, T6th)

It's now been two seasons since the Trojans have qualified for the NCAA Tournament and on paper, 2005 is hardly a slam dunk for a return to "The Dance."  USC finished last year with an overall record of 24-32, however they do return plenty of star power from that struggling ballclub.  Offensively, leading the way is catcher Jeff Clement (.293-10-43).  Clement had a "down year" by his standards last season after a freshman campaign in which he clubbed 21 homers.  A return to the '03 version of Clement is a must for USC if they wish to get back to the postseason.  Slugging first baseman Joey Metropoulos is now in professional baseball, but five other starters return led by 2B Blake Sharpe (.316-2-28), 3B Billy Hart (.367-2-29), and CF Daniel Perales (.286-2-34).

On the mound, USC may feature the most dominant starting pitcher in the league in sophomore Ian Kennedy.  Kennedy was spectacular at times last season in positing a 7-2 record with a 2.91 ERA and 120 strike outs in 92 2/3 innings.  He'll once again lead the SC staff while last year's #2 man Bret Butler (4-3, 5.61) also returns.  There are plenty of returning arms for the Trojans this season, but the pitching staff struggled mightily at times last year so we'll see if any improvement has been made.  This USC team could really go either way this season, but they definitely look to be a far cry from their past CWS ballclubs of the 90's and early 00's.

6. UCLA Bruins (35-29, 14-10, 3rd, Regionals)

A new era of UCLA baseball begins this season with first-year head coach John Savage at the helm.  Savage takes over for Gary Adams who retired after 30, by and large, mediocre seasons.  Savage has already made his mark recruiting-wise and should have the Bruins in the top half of the conference before too long (USC hasn't been the same since Savage left as their pitching coach three years ago).  In the short term, however, it could be a bit of a struggle for UCLA.  Only three offensive starters return as nearly all of the firepower that helped last season's Bruin team to the NCAA Tournament has moved on.  Catcher Chris Denove (.291-8-47) and 1B Brett McMillan (.254-6-38) are the top returning hitters.  UCLA will also have to replace all three starting pitchers which unfortunately for them includes ten-game winner Casey Janssen.  If Savage is able to get this UCLA team into the postseason, it could be scary once all of his players are in the program and he's established himself in Westwood.

7. California Golden Bears (25-31, 9-15, T8th)

California sputtered to a 25-31 record last season and will have an uphill climb to make the NCAA Tournament in 2005 based on all the talent they lost - primarily with their hitting.  Six key offensive starters have either graduated or been drafted from last year's team.  Their top three returning hitters are 1B Allen Craig (.285-6-21), DH James Holder (.273-6-22) and catcher Garrett Bussiere (.307-5-21) - and Bussiere was only a part-time player last season.  On the mound, there are a pair of proven starting pitchers back in the Blue and Gold led by Adam Gold (6-7, 4.47) and Mike Padgett (5-5, 4.74), but massive improvement from these two and/or other hurlers on the staff will be needed if the Bears are to move into the top half of the conference.  Former Cardinal player and assistant coach David Esquer is definitely feeling the heat in Berkeley.

8. Oregon State Beavers (31-22, 10-14, T6th)

The Beavers went 31-22 last year in just missing the NCAA Tournament.  There is talent on this team, but the strength of the Pac-10 this season could push the Beavers down into the lower third of the conference.  Eight of their 12 regular starters return at the plate led by emerging star Jacoby Ellsbury (.352-3-20) out in center field.  3B Shea McFeely (.294-5-38) and OF Mike Lissman (.349-8-34) are other top hitters back with the Beavers in 2005.  Last season's #1 starter Jake Postlewait, who went 11-3, has graduated.  OSU's other two starters are back led by sophomore, and potential superstar, Dallas Buck (3-6, 5.06).  Nearly all of Oregon State's bullpen though has moved on so the Beavers could be hurting for depth.

9. Washington State Cougars (29-26, 9-15, T8th)

Don Marbut begins his first season as the head coach up in Pullman.  Marbut will have to deal with an all-new starting rotation as the three hurlers who formed last season's trio have all either graduated or been drafted.  Sophomore Wayne Daman, with his 43 2/3 innings pitched last season (4.74 ERA) is the most experience returning pitcher.  Six offensive starters are back led by OF Jay Miller (.355-2-42) and OF Kaeo Rubin (.341-5-36).  Star first baseman Grant Richardson has taken his .311 batting average and 13 home runs to professional baseball.

The Pac-10 may be the top conference in all of college baseball this season.  They are certainly right there with the SEC for the top billing, at least on paper.  Four teams look to have squads that can legitimately call Omaha a goal at this point in the season.  Stanford with all of their returning pitching plus the dynamic duo at the plate.  Not to mention the fact they've been to the College World Series six times in the last eight seasons.  Washington really came on during the second half of last season and they return plenty of firepower both at the plate and on the mound.  Arizona State always has talent and this year is no different.  Head coach Pat Murphy has often underachieved when it comes to the big prize of qualifying for the CWS, but it looks like he'll get another great shot in '05.  Meanwhile, Andy Lopez continues to make great strides down in Tucson.  Despite finishing fifth in the conference last year, the Wildcats got hot at the right time and found themselves in Omaha come June.  It's another talented team in 2005 for Lopez to work with. 

An interesting note with these four teams is the amount of quality starting pitching each has back.  Stanford and Washington both with their entire starting rotations remaining intact (and UW's ace was the Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year last spring as a freshman).  Arizona State has their ace pitcher back despite being drafted last June.  And that pitcher went 12-3.  Meanwhile Arizona did lose their ace, but their #2 starter and his perfect 10-0 record from a year ago is back to lead the staff.  As noted above, I wouldn't put USC in the upper part of the conference, but they may have the best pitcher in the entire conference going for them every Friday night (Kennedy).  Suffice it to say, the Pac-10 is loaded with quality starting pitching this season which makes the conference a major player on the national scene.

The next four teams all have major question marks to answer if they are to reach the NCAA Tournament this season.  It's hard to imagine USC not making the tournament for a third consecutive season, but with their always difficult non-conference schedule plus the strength of the top half of the conference they will definitely have their hands full.  Cal, UCLA, and Oregon State all have talent in some places, but more questions than answers.  Meanwhile, it could be another long (and cold) spring up in Pullman.

The Bootleg's Preseason All-Conference Team

Hitters (AVG-HR-RBI)
C - Jeff Clement (USC, Jr.): .293-10-43
1B - John Mayberry, Jr. (Stanford, Jr.): .333-16-62
2B - Jed Lowrie (Stanford, Jr.): .399-17-68
3B - Billy Hart (USC, Jr.): .367-2-29
SS - Jason Donald (Arizona, So.): .322-9-45
OF - Travis Buck (Arizona State, Jr.): .373-9-58
OF - Trevor Crowe (Arizona, Jr.): .350-5-33 (26 SB)
OF - Zach Clem (Washington, Jr.): .336-13-47
Util. - Brent Lillibridge (Washington, Jr.): .317-11-36

Pitchers (W-L, ERA, IP, SO)
SP - Tim Lincecum (Washington, So.): 10-3, 3.53, 112.1, 161
SP - Jason Urquidez (Arizona State, Sr.): 12-3, 3.41, 97.2, 94
SP - Ian Kennedy (USC, So.): 7-2, 2.91, 92.2, 120
SP - Mark Romanczuk (Stanford, Jr.): 11-3, 4.31, 108.2, 94
SP - Jeff Gilmore (Stanford, Jr.): 10-2, 4.43, 107.2, 77
SP - John Meloan (Arizona, Jr.): 10-0, 4.66, 92.2, 77

"SUPER SIXTEEN" - The Bootleg's preseason national top 16 teams in the country

1. Texas Longhorns (58-15, 2nd place at CWS)

Under Augie Garrido, the Longhorns have firmly reestablished themselves as one of the elite teams in college baseball (national champs in 2002, 3rd place in Omaha in 2003, 2nd place in 2004).  2005 should be no different.  Some of the stars from last season's Texas ballclub that went 58-15 have moved on (pitchers J.P. Howell and Huston Street, first baseman Curtis Thigpen), but don't feel sorry for the Horns - they are loaded at the plate and on the mound.  Eight of their 12 regular position player starters return led by catcher Taylor Teagarden (.273-10-51), 2B Seth Johnston (.296-7-41), and OF Carson Kainer (.335-3-24).  And watch for center fielder Drew Stubbs (.301-8-47) to really build on his solid freshman campaign and become one of the top outfielders in the country.  Meanwhile, on the mound just one starting pitcher is back but it's a good one in Sam LeCure (9-3, 2.34).  Basically the entire bullpen returns and certainly a couple of those arms are fully capable of becoming solid, if not spectacular starters.  J. Brent Cox (6-2, 2.12) will be one of the top closers in the game if he doesn't move into the rotation.  Texas' freshman class has been rated #1 in the country.

2. Miami Hurricanes (50-13, Tied for 5th place at CWS)

The Hurricanes are coming off another CWS appearance and once again should have one of the more talented teams in the country.  Ace starter Cesar Carrillo (12-0, 2.69) returns to anchor the rotation.  #3 starter Brandon Camardese (6-3, 4.20) is also back plus numerous key relievers.  At the plate, just four starters return but they're some good ones.  SS/3B Ryan Braun (.335-10-45), the 2003 Baseball America Freshman of the Year, leads an always dangerous Miami offense.  OF Jon Jay (.368-6-56), 3B/1B Gaby Sanchez (.316-7-47), and SS Roger Tomas (.339-0-16) also are back.  The Canes should benefit from the return of center fielder Danny Figueroa who missed all of 2004 after hitting .325 in '03.  Three double-digit home run players have moved on, but Miami will always find offense and having Carillo lead their rotation makes them a contender on the national level.  This is Miami's first season in the ACC.

3. Cal State Fullerton Titans (47-22, National Champions)

The defending champs will again be fielding a strong team.  Cal State Fullerton will miss their two superstars from last year's championship run in Johnny Bench winner Kurt Suzuki and ace pitcher Jason Windsor, but just about everyone else is back.  Nine of their 11 regular starting position players return in 2005 led by OF Danny Dorn (.318-4-59), DH/C Felipe Garcia (.353-6-50), and 2B Justin Turner (.304-0-34).  Meanwhile, the one starting pitcher back for Fullerton is coming off a summer in which he was Team USA's ace hurler.  Ricky Romero (14-4, 3.37) should be one of the top pitchers in the country this season, without a doubt.  The entire bullpen returns so the Titans shouldn't be at a shortage of quality arms.  From Stanford's perspective, the Cardinal will definitely be tested early having to face both Fullerton and Texas on the road during the first month of the season.

4. Stanford Cardinal (46-14, Regionals)

see above

5. South Carolina Gamecocks (53-17, Tied for 3rd place at CWS)

The Gamecocks have qualified for the College World Series three consecutive seasons and based on who they have coming back, a fourth straight trip in '05 is not out of the question.  Star catcher Landon Powell (19 HR's) graduated, but five starters do return including three players who reached double figures in home runs in 2004.  Leading the way is 1B/3B Steve Pearce (.346-21-70) while outfielders Brendan Winn (.305-19-69) and Michael Campbell (.312-14-52) should also each supply plenty of firepower.  Two premier starting pitchers in Matt Campbell and Billy Buckner - who were both drafted early on the first day last June - have moved on, but Aaron Rawl (13-4, 4.28) is back to lead the rotation.  Ace closer Chad Blackwell (who saved 20 games last season) is now in pro ball, but all other key relievers from last season return.  Gamecocks look to be the preseason favorite in the SEC.

6. LSU Tigers (46-19, Tied for 7th place at CWS)

LSU won five national championships from 1991 through 2000, but has yet to win in Omaha since that 2000 run.  That included another quick two-and-out appearance last June.  Their two star outfielders (J.C. Holt and Jon Zeringue) are now in professional baseball, but six offensive starters are back to lead what should be an impressive LSU offense.  OF Ryan Patterson (.341-14-67), C Matt Liuzza (.328-9-45), and SS Blake Gill (.343-5-42) lead the returnees at the plate for the Tigers.  Meanwhile, plenty of talented arms return for LSU to make another run at Omaha.  Five different pitchers spent time in the starting rotation last season (for a combined record of 37-16) and four of them are back in 2005.  Experienced lefty Lane Mestepey (7-4, 3.51) should be a top pitcher in the SEC while Clay Dirks (8-2, 3.43), Justin Meier (6-2, 3.84), and Jason Determann (6-5, 4.14) give LSU a very top-heavy pitching staff.

7. Washington Huskies (39-20-1, Regionals)

see above

8. Arizona State Sun Devils (41-18, Regionals)

see above

9. Tulane Green Wave (41-21, Super Regionals)

The Green Wave will likely be a trendy preseason pick to get to Omaha.  All three starting pitchers return from a team that reached the super regionals last season.  Brian Bogusevic (9-6, 4.19) is their top returning pitcher while he also does some hitting as Tulane's clean-up man (.339-10-68).  Seven of their starting position players are back led by Bogusevic, OF Matt Barket (.370-8-52), and C Greg Dini (.354-11-51).  Tulane also made a huge acquisition during the offseason nabbing star two-way player Micah Owings who transferred from Georgia Tech.  With the Yellow Jackets last season, Owings hit .318 with 15 home runs while also posting a 9-3 record and a 3.89 ERA as GT's #1 starter.  The Green Wave are the favorite in Conference USA.

10. Georgia Bulldogs (45-23, Tied for 3rd place at CWS)

The Bulldogs really came on during the second half of the year last season becoming one of the top teams in the SEC and eventually reaching the College World Series where they finished tied for third.  Georgia's top two starters plus their ace closer are back as the Bulldogs will look to challenge South Carolina in the SEC East.  Sean Ruthven (7-2, 3.41) and Michael Hyle (8-2, 2.99) should again lead the rotation while Will Startup (7-2, 2.22, 12 SV) enters the season as one of the top closers in college baseball.  Georgia didn't have an overwhelming offense last year, but enough talent returns for them to contend in the SEC.  Six starters are back with 1B Josh Morris (.319-16-71) and OF Bobby Felmy (.300-9-47) at the forefront of the offense.

11. Mississippi Rebels (39-21, Regionals)

Ole Miss has traditionally underachieved in the SEC, but there should be no excuses this season as the Rebels look to become one of the top teams in the West division.  The entire starting rotation returns from a team that finished 39-21 last season.  Mark Holliman (9-3, 3.05) is the top returning starter on the mound while Stephen Head brings an exciting element to the table.  Head can start, but spent most of the year as the team's closer last season (6-3, 2.82, 5 SV).  He also can hit as the Rebels' #3 man in their lineup (.346-13-53).  Five other offensive starters are back with 1B Brian Pettway (.305-6-31), and OF Alex Presley (.311-6-32), in addition to Head, leading the way.

12. Arizona Wildcats (36-27-1, Tied for 5th place at CWS)

see above

13. Florida Gators (43-22, Super Regionals)

The Gators went 43-22 last year reaching the super regional round and look again to field one of the better teams in the SEC.  Seven of their ten regular starting position players are back led by DH Matt LaPorta (.285-14-37), OF Jeff Corsaletti (.323-5-43), and 2B Adam Davis (.320-6-24).  The Gators have a very talented lineup that should score plenty of runs this season.  On the mound, they'll have to deal with the loss of their ace pitcher Justin Hoyman who went a remarkable 11-2 last season.  Their other two starters are back, however, with Connor Falkenbach (10-7, 3.34) leading the way.

14. Texas A&M Aggies (42-22, Super Regionals)

The Texas Longhorns are the easy favorites in the Big 12 this season with the Aggies, at least on paper, looking like a distant second.  A&M had a successful 2004 season that saw them win 42 games and reach the super regionals.  Six hitting starters are back.  The Aggies didn't have a particularly powerful offense last season, but they scored enough with strong starting pitching.  At the plate, SS Cliff Pennington (.339-5-35), 3B Austin Boggs (.331-5-52), and 1B Coby Mavroulis (.321-3-47) are the top returning hitters.  A&M had a lethal 1-2 punch in their starting rotation last year in Zach Jackson (10-7, 3.58) and Jason Meyer (8-2, 2.89).  Jackson is now a pro, but Meyer is back to lead the pitching staff.  Closer Blake Rampy (2-2, 1.55, 4 SV) also returns.

15. North Carolina Tar Heels (43-21, Regionals)

The Tar Heels are hoping this will be the year they break through on the national scene.  A couple of dynamic sophomore starting pitchers are their best hope to reach that high level.  Daniel Bard (8-4, 3.88) was their ace last season and is back to again lead the way.  Meanwhile, Andrew Miller (6-3, 2.93) ended the year as the #3 starter and along with Bard, are considered two of the very best sophomore pitching prospects in the country.  Most of bullpen graduated, so Bard and Miller will have to carry a heavy load.  At the plate, UNC's big three hitters in the middle of their order who combined for 43 homers have all moved on.  However, the other six starters are back led by OF Chase Younts (.311-4-21), SS Greg Mangum (308-2-24), and DH Matt Ellington (.306-2-27).  The Tar Heels should benefit from some traditionally stronger teams in the ACC (Florida State, Georgia Tech) not being their usual self, however UNC definitely looks to be a step behind conference favorite Miami.

16. Long Beach State 49ers (40-21, Super Regionals)

The Dirtbags upset Stanford in the regionals last season, before being upset themselves by Arizona in the supers.  Golden Spikes winner Jered Weaver was a first round draft pick, but last year's #2 starter Cesar Ramos (12-4, 2.29) is back to anchor the rotation.  All of the key relievers return as well led by closer Neil Jamison (3-5, 4.35, 12 SV).  Meanwhile at the plate, five offensive starters are back with shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (.317-7-44) again expected to lead the offense.  Ramos will be an outstanding starting pitcher again for the Dirtbags, but numerous other players are going to have to step up for Long Beach to overtake Fullerton in the Big West.

Others to consider (in alphabetical order): Arkansas, Notre Dame, Rice, Vanderbilt.

It's an SEC and Pac-10 dominated preseason "Super Sixteen."  The SEC had four teams in Omaha last year and it's certainly not outside the realm of possibility for a repeat performance in 2005.  The Pac-10 is very top heavy this season with the four above teams fielding very solid, potentially College World Series-caliber ballclubs.  It remains to be seen though if the Pac-10 (and west coast in general) is given a fair shake by the NCAA selection committee.  The ACC obviously benefits from having perennial power Miami join the conference.  However, the conference again doesn't look to be in the same company as the SEC and Pac-10.  Same goes for the Big 12 - a strong conference with a very good team at the top, but not at the same level as the "big two." 

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