SEC Baseball Preview

Is there another College World Series title team waiting to step up in the SEC? Scout.com contributors pick Florida.

Editor's Note: The SEC is the strongest conference in college baseball. Hawgs Illustrated's partners on the Internet at Scout.com helped compile this look at the SEC season.

It was South Carolina in 2010 and LSU in 2009. If the publishers of Scout Media affiliated magazines and Internet sites are correct, Florida will carry the banner of the Southeastern Conference as the league attempts to produce a third consecutive champion of the College World Series.

Florida wasn't a runaway choice to win the SEC Eastern Division, but had more first place votes than South Carolina. Florida and South Carolina were the only teams picked to win the overall championship.

LSU was a close winner over Ole Miss to take the Western Division championship in 2011.

In the East, there were clear distinctions. Between them, Florida and South Carolina got every first place vote, and the Gators and Gamecocks consistently were followed in the balloting by Vanderbilt. Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee were grouped closely at the bottom of the division.

It was not so easy for the writers to pick the Western Division. Five teams — all but Mississippi State — received first place votes. Alabama was voted all the way from first to worst. The final predictions were:

East —1. Florida, 2. South Carolina, 3. Vanderbilt, 4. Georgia, 5. Kentucky, 6. Tennessee.
West — 1. LSU, 2. Ole Miss, 3. Arkansas, 4. (tie) Alabama and Auburn, 6. Mississippi State.

WESTERN DIVISION

ALABAMA

By Kirk McNair, BAMA Magazine

Last year Alabama started strong and finished strong, but was so-so in the middle. Alabama won 16 of its first 17 games and 13 of its last 17 in 2010.

In fact, Bama almost didn't make the SEC Tournament. In order to play for the league championship, Alabama had to win two of three games against Ole Miss and sweep Tennessee in the final two series.

In the SEC Tournament, Alabama won three straight games and made it to the finals. Bama was selected for the NCAA Tournament for the 21st time. The Tide won the regional by defeating NCAA No. 8 seed Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and Bama came within one pitch of defeating Clemson at Clemson for the opportunity to go to the College World Series.

But in the world of college athletics, that was the 2010 team and this is the 2011 team. Second year Coach Mitch Gaspard led Alabama to a 42-25 record and top 20 ranking in his first season replacing Jim Wells. The Tide was 15-15 in SEC play.

There will be some familiar faces in the Alabama lineup this year, but there will also be a number of newcomers in key positions. Most notably, Alabama must replace its entire infield save catcher.

One of two big freshmen, Patrick McGavin (6-3, 210) or Austen Smith (6-4, 230) will be at first base, where Clay Jones had a .313 batting average and 17 home runs, 14 doubles last year.

For the past three years, Alabama has had all-star players at third base (Jake Smith), shortstop (Josh Rutledge), and second base (Ross Wilson). This year Bama will move Brett Booth, a former catcher and outfielder, to third base. He worked there all fall and Gaspard feels he will be adequate. Booth is backed by James Tullidge. Junior college transfer Jared Reaves takes over at shortstop and Josh Sanders, a senior transfer, will be at second base. Freshman Kevin Gifford will back up at both short and second.

With all three starters returning, the outfield is a strength for the Tide, particularly with All-America Taylor Dugas in center field. Last year Dugas batted .395, was walked 59 times, and was hit by pitch 11 times for an on-base percentage of .525. He scored 70 runs. He will be flanked by returning left fielder Jon Kelton and right fielder Andrew Miller.

One of the best stories of Alabama baseball is that David Kindred will return as a designated hitter prospect. Kindred batted .314 last year, then missed the post season when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. While Bama played in the NCAA Tournament, Kindred had surgery. He is now cancer free and expected to play this spring.

In baseball at all levels, it is pitching, and Bama returns two of its weekend starters. Jimmy Nelson and his 9-3 record are gone, but the Tide returns Nathan Kilcrease (8-3 with 2.85 earned run average, 82 strikeouts and 21 bases on balls) and Adam Morgan (7-5). Tucker Hawley has some starting experience and was good down the stretch in 2010 and could get a weekend starting job.

Taylor Wolfe (3-2) got the start in some key post season games last year. Gaspard was impressed in the fall by freshman Cary Baxter, junior college transfer Nathan Kennedy, and senior transfer Jason Zylstra, and said that returning pitchers Trey Pilkington and Brett Whitaker showed improvement.


ARKANSAS

By Matt Jones, Hawgs Illustrated

Dave Van Horn loves a good challenge and the ninth-year Arkansas head coach has one this season.

The Razorbacks must replace 17 departed players from a year ago, including a first round selection (Zack Cox), two second round selections (Brett Eibner and Drew Smyly), and a fifth-rounder (Andy Wilkins) in the MLB Draft. The group helped Arkansas win a combined 84 games the last two seasons — the most during a two-year span in school history — and advance to two NCAA Super Regionals and the College World Series in 2009.

While an abundance of talent is gone, Arkansas returns several starters from last season and welcomes a top 10 recruiting class to campus, according to Baseball America.

The team's unquestioned leader is catcher James McCann, who earned captain status as a sophomore last year. The Santa Barbara, Calif., native is a third-year starter at the position and Van Horn believes he is one of the best defensive catchers in the country.

Arkansas is also strong in its middle infield. Bo Bigham, a junior, returns for his third season as the starter at second base, while redshirt junior TIm Carver begins his second season as the team's starting shortstop.

Matt Reynolds, who split time with Carver at shortstop last season, will have the tall task of replacing Cox at third base. The sophomore should be ready for the challenge after gaining 25 pounds over the offseason and healing from a shin injury that forced him to miss considerable playing time a year ago.

There is no clear-cut favorite for the team's starting first baseman. Van Horn said he was happy with freshman Dominic Ficociello's defense there in the fall and the offense of senior Kyle Robinson and junior college transfer Sam Bates.

Jarrod McKinney, an outfielder who tore his ACL a year ago, practiced at first base during the fall and could see playing time there in the spring.

In the outfield, redshirt junior Collin Kuhn turned down a 15th-round offer by the Detroit Tigers to return to school. Kuhn had a breakout season last year, with 16 home runs and 52 RBI, and earned most valuable player honors at the NCAA Fayetteville Regional. Kuhn will replace Eibner in center field.

Jacob Morris, a transfer from Arizona State, is one of the team's fastest runners and should be in the mix to start at one of the two corner outfield positions. McKinney, Matt Vinson, Franco Broyles, and Kyle Atkins are all possibilities to start in the outfield.

On the mound, Arkansas is minus all three starting weekend pitchers from the end of last season — Smyly, Mike Bolsinger and T.J. Forrest.

D.J. Baxendale will likely be the Friday night starter when the season begins. The sophomore was a part-time starter last season, while also earning seven saves out of the bullpen. He pitched 5 1/3 innings of scoreless relief in Game 2 of the Tempe Super Regional last June.

Van Horn has been happy with the progression of left-hander Geoffrey Davenport, who could start opening weekend. Left-handers Randall Fant and Cade Lynch, and right-handed freshman Brandon Moore are all possibilities to start on the mound. Ryne Stanek, a third round selection in last summer's draft, could figure into the starting lineup or could become the team's second freshman closer in as many seasons.


AUBURN

By Matt Jones, Hawgs Illustrated

While football might be king, baseball is holding its own at Auburn.

Momentum is strong on the plains following one of the best seasons in school history in 2010.

Auburn won its first SEC West title in 15 years, made the SEC Tournament for the first time since 2003, and hosted the fourth regional in school history.

The Tigers had a school-record nine players taken in the first 30 rounds of the MLB Draft last summer, including fourth-round picks Hunter Morris and Trent Mummey.

Third-year Tigers coach John Pawlowski was rewarded for the improvement with a contract extension through 2015 and he doesn't expect things to slow down this year.

"We lost a large number of our offense last year with guys like Brian Fletcher, Hunter Morris, Ryan Jenkins and Trent Mummey, but that's the nature of what we do," Pawlowski said. "In order for us to be successful the other guys will have to step up. We'll have some new faces in the line-up and some guys returning that we think can be an impact."

While a good chunk of the offense is gone, the Tigers still return seven position players who started at least 33 games a season ago. The infield is especially strong with the return of catcher Tony Caldwell, first baseman Kevin Patterson, second baseman Casey McElroy and third baseman Dan Gamache. The quartet combined to hit 43 of the team's NCAA-leading 131 home runs last season and added 154 RBIs.

Freshman Tyler Dial could push Gamache for playing time at third, while fellow freshman Zach Alvord is a candidate to play either of the two middle infield positions.

In the outfield, Justin Fradejas is one of the team's leaders. The senior had three home runs and 33 RBIs last season and is expected to start in center field. Creede Simpson (5 HRs, 31 RBIs) will start in right field.

"I think there are enough returning players and you have to have some experience coming back because this league is so tough," Pawlowski said. "I think we've got some."

Senior utility man Justin Bryant and freshman Jay Gonzalez will compete for the starting spot in left.

On the mound, the Tigers lost a pair of weekend starters in Cole Nelson and Grant Dayton, but return left-hander Cory Luckie. The junior started 18 games a year ago, going 6-4 with a 5.91 earned run average.

"He ate up some innings for us last year," Pawlowski said. "He just knows how to pitch. Slade Smith, a sophomore right-hander, will also likely figure into the starting rotation. Smith started six games last season, going 4-0 with a 4.65 ERA.

A pair of junior college transfer right-handers could round out the rotation. Andrew Morris (Gulf Coast Community College) and Will Irvin (Itawamba Community College) each have great credentials, Pawlowski said.

Finding a replacement for departed closer Austin Hubbard (10 saves) will be key. Ethan Wallen, Bradley Hendrix and Justin Bryant are all candidates out of the bullpen.


LSU

By Hunt Palmer, TigerSportsDigest.com
The names that carried Coach Paul Mainieri's LSU Tigers to a pair of College World Series births and a National Championship are largely gone. The 2011 season begins without Blake Dean, Micah Gibbs, Leon Landry, Paul Bertuccini, and Anthony Ranaudo.

Junior center fielder Mikie Mahtook returns as the Tigers top position player. Mahtook is a five-tool player who projects as a high-round draft pick after the 2011 season. He batted .335 a season ago and belted 14 home runs, second most on the team. He also stole 22 bases to lead the Tigers.

Also returning to the outfield is senior left fielder Trey Watkins. Watkins batted leadoff for the Tigers for the first 25 games of the 2010 season before dislocating his elbow diving for a fly ball. He returned late in the season and hit the game-winning double with two outs in the ninth inning to lift the Tigers over UC-Irvine in Game 1 of the Regional. The speedy Watkins will bat leadoff.

The right field spot was up for grabs going into the spring. The likely candidate to nab the job is junior college transfer Raph Rhymes. Rhymes was the 2010 Division II National Player of the Year at LSU-Eunice. He batted an eye-popping .483 with 12 home runs and 98 runs batted in.

Sophomore Mason Katz is also in the running. Katz started eight games in 2010 and batted .314. The odd man out in right field will get the first look at designated hitter.

In the infield, it starts up the middle. Shortstop Austin Nola and second baseman Tyler Hanover return to form one of the better combinations in the SEC, both at the plate and in the field. Both players started every game for LSU in 2010, and the juniors will be called upon to anchor an infield that will be breaking in new corner infielders for the second year in a row.

Newcomer JaCoby Jones is expected to step in at third base, a position that plagued LSU the majority of 2010. LSU tried Wet Delatte, Beau Didier, Grant Dozar, and ultimately settled on Alex Edward at third base last year. Jones, the all-time hits leader in Mississippi high school history, was a 19th round selection of the Astros. He is 6-foot-3 and weighs 200 pounds. He is a phenomenal athlete with gap-to-gap power.

Jones will be asked to hit in the middle of order and solidify a position that was a problem last season.

At first base, Edward will make the move across the diamond. As a freshman, Edward became a starter in the latter half of the year. He started 23 games and hit .314 with a pair of home runs, one of which came in regional play.

Possibly the biggest hole Mainieri must fill is behind the plate. Micah Gibbs, a three-year starter, was the team's most valuable player in 2010. The switch hitting catcher batted over .400 most of the season and finished at a robust .388 with 10 long balls.

Freshman Tyler Ross enters the spring as the starting catcher. Ross is 6-3 and weighs 220 pounds. He is got a compact swing and can hit to all fields. The youngster impressed the coaches in the fall and has all of the tools to be the next great Tiger backstop.

Mainieri's biggest concern is on the mound. Ace Anthony Ranaudo injured himself in his first start and never returned to form last season. The Red Sox took the tall righty with the 39th pick in the 2010 draft. Incoming freshman Zach Lee arrived on campus but bolted for the professional ranks at the last minute, leaving Mainieri with a vacancy atop his rotation.

To add injury to insult, left-hander Jordan Rittiner and right-hander Joey Bourgeois both underwent Tommy John surgery and will miss the season. Chris Matulis and Mitch Mormann left the program, leaving Mainieri with a lack of arms at his disposal.

Freshman Kevin Gausman is the jewel of the nation's No. 2 signing class according to Baseball America. The tall righty was the Dodgers 6th round selection. He'll join junior college transfer Tyler Jones (21st round White Sox) as the new faces in the projected weekend rotation.

Both have fastballs that can reach 92-94 miles per hour. Senior Ben Alsup is in line to be the third weekend arm. Alsup threw the ball exceptionally well at the end of last season.

He's not overpowering, but the right hander changes speeds well and has a calm demeanor on the hill.

Matty Ott returns as the closer after a disappointing sophomore campaign given the impact his first year out of high school when he saved a school record 16 games, striking out 69 against only six walks. Last season his ERA ballooned to 6.38. If LSU's bullpen is going to hold up this season, Ott will need a return to form.


OLE MISS

By Jeff Roberson, Ole Miss Spirit

Since Mike Bianco became head coach in 2001, Ole Miss has participated in nine NCAA Regionals, hosting five, and advanced to four Super Regionals, hosting three.

The 2010 Rebels were an NCAA Tournament team and played in the Charlottesville Regional but failed to advance. As for 2011, Bianco said he likes what he sees throughout the squad.

"As far as pitching goes, the guys we thought needed to pitch well did,  he said of the fall practice sessions," he said. "Offensively it is a little harder to judge with the new bat, and one of our best hitters was not out there this fall, Matt Snyder (recovering from shoulder surgery). I like this club offensively. We don't necessarily have tremendous depth, but we have more depth than last year."

One of the reasons for the improved depth was the addition of new players. With the transfers and the freshmen, there are more new guys than old ones. Some 18 veterans welcomed 20 newcomers. The roster has to be 35 by first pitch in mid-February.

For starters, Bianco liked what he saw on the mound. The Rebels don't return an ace  of the staff, which is unusual for a program that has done so the past several seasons.

"When you return a Drew Pomeranz (drafted in June as the 5th overall player by the Indians), there's that comfort of knowing, ‘Hey I've got that guy on Friday,'"  Bianco said. "This year, that isn't the case.

"We return Jake Morgan who is a year removed from arm surgery. We return Brett Huber. Then we return some guys who didn't have their best years last spring, like David Goforth and Matt Tracy and Trent Rothlin. All of them pitched much better (in the fall) than they pitched last fall or last spring."

Statistically, Matt Crouse led the way. The junior left-hander posted impressive numbers, with a 0.95 ERA in 19 innings pitched, allowing just two runs on nine hits with 25 strikeouts and only two walks.

Two freshmen pitchers, Mike Mayers and Bobby Wahl, were among the fall's best as well. Ole Miss entered the fall looking for a third baseman. The likely frontrunner to replace Zach Miller is freshman Preston Overbey. But there are four players in the mix at third, shortstop, and second.

"Preston Overbey, (freshman) Austin Anderson, (junior) Blake Newalu, and (returning sophomore) Alex Yarbrough are there,"  Bianco said. "Defensively (freshman) Gabe Woods has to play better and he realizes that. He had a good fall offensively, but defensively he has to be a little stronger."


MISSISSIPPI STATE

By Gene Swindoll, GenesPage.com
Mississippi State baseball appears to be on the rise again after a three-season slump that has seen the Bulldogs have three losing seasons in a row.

With two outstanding recruiting classes during the past two years, third-year Coach John Cohen should see the fruits of labor beginning with the 2011 season.

A strength of the team should be the pitching staff, which will be led by a sophomore and junior. Behind them are several talented youngsters as well as a few junior college transfers.

Chris Stratton, a hard-throwing (90-92 mph) sophomore right-handed pitcher from Tupelo, is coming off a season that saw him go 5-3 with a 5.29 earned run average and 76 strikeouts in 78 innings. He is expected to be MSU's Friday night starter in SEC action.

Junior right-hand pitcher Devin Jones (2-4, 8.16 ERA), whose fastball tops out at 95 miles per hour, is expected to be moved to an SEC weekend rotation starting spot after working in relief last season. He will either be the Saturday or Sunday starter.

Two lefties are expected to compete for the final spot in the SEC weekend starting rotation. Junior Nick Routt, who battled arm issues last season after a standout freshman season that saw him go 5-3 with a 4.15 earned run average, appears to be healthy again, which could give him a leg up on the other candidate. The second lefty is sophomore Chad Girodo (2-3, 7.40 ERA). Chad, more of a control pitcher last season, added several miles per hour to his fastball and topped out at 90-91 mph during the fall with deception in his delivery.

Other pitchers expected to contribute significant innings during the 2011 season are junior Caleb Reed, sophomores Kendall Graveman and C.C. Watson, and true freshmen C.T. Bradford (88-90 mph fastball), Evan Mitchell (91-92 mph fastball), and Hunter Renfroe (during the fall Hunter had control issues but showed a low to mid-90s fastball at times). Graveman and Mitchell could figure in as the fifth starter and in long relief, while Watson should be a reliever. If completely healthy from their Tommy John surgeries, look for junior college transfer Tim Statz and redshirt junior Michael Dixon (low to mid-90s fastball) to be in the mix. Statz figures in more as a starter and Dixon as a late inning reliever.

Don't be surprised to see Bradford compete for closer duties based on his pitching performance during the fall scrimmages. He showed excellent control of an 88-91 mph fastball and an outstanding changeup.

Catching should be a strong point with two senior catchers returning, Wes Thigpen (.225, 4 home runs, 17 RBI) and Cody Freeman (.301, 3 home runs, 26 RBI). Both are solid defensively with Thigpen having the stronger arm. Also figuring in the mix will be Hunter Renfroe as well as junior college transfer Brett Bozeman.

The infield should be solid offensively and defensively with the return of seniors Nick Vickerson (.328, 8 HR, 27 RBI) at third and Jonathan Ogden (.207, 6, 28) at short, and sophomore Sam Frost (.248, 8, 13) at second. According to Cohen, Ogden made huge strides offensively since last season. Also returning after sitting out last season due to an injury is redshirt senior Jarrod Parks. He can play either first or third.

Also competing for playing time in the infield will be true freshmen Adam Frazier, Demarcus Henderson, Daryl Norris, Taylor Stark and Garrett Pitts.

The deepest part of the ball club is the outfield thanks to the return of Jaron Shepherd (.250, 1, 34, outstanding defender), Ryan Collins (.271, 0, 22), a healthy Brent Brownlee, who missed almost all of the 2010 season, and Trey Johnson (.279, 0, 3). Also in the mix will be newcomers C.T. Bradford, junior college transfer David Bishop (led the team in home runs during the fall scrimmages), and true freshman Cody Abraham.

Based on his fall play, don't be surprised if Bradford earns a starting spot early in the season. A former Mr. Baseball in Florida, Bradford was one of the best hitters during the fall and showed an outstanding arm and exceptional defensive ability in the outfield.

EASTERN DIVISION

FLORIDA

By Cody Jones, Fightin' Gators

In three years as the Gators' head coach, Kevin O'Sullivan has built one of the deepest pitching staffs in America.

Florida returns their top four starting pitchers from last season. Junior Alex Panteliodis (11-3, 3.51 ERA) was the ace last season. Florida made a run to the College World Series last year, even though two of their weekend starters were freshmen. Right-hander Hudson Randall (8-4, 3.24) and left-hander Brian Johnson (6-4, 4.03) were respectively first and third on the team in starts last season. Randall led the conference during league games with a 2.63 ERA.

Redshirt junior Tommy Toledo (3-2, 4.39) also returns after missing two months last season when he broke his nose and suffered multiple facial fractures after taking a line drive off the face.

With all the starting pitching returning, the Gators got another boost after the MLB Draft. Karsten Whitson was the No. 9 overall picked by the San Diego Padres, but he turned down a reported $2.1 million to come to campus. His mid-90s fastball and low-80s slider have the freshman pushing for a spot in the weekend rotation when the season starts.

The Gators have a hole at closer after left-hander Kevin Chapman was taken in the 4th round by the Kansas City Royals. The front-runners to replace him are sophomore Steven Rodriguez (2-0, 2.57) or Nick Maronde (2-0, 6.15). Rodriguez's fastball sits around 90 mph, but his cutter makes it difficult for hitters to have solid contact. Maronde walked 24 hitters in 26.1 innings pitched last season, but he also notched 37 strikeouts. His control must improve this offseason for him to win the job.

The Gators also return Anthony DeSclafani (2-3, 7.08), Michael Heller (0-0, 4.15) and Greg Larson (3-1, 5.70) to the bullpen. Freshmen Jonathan Crawford, Daniel Gibson and Keenan Kish will also see time on the mound.

In the field, the Florida coaches have options. It comes down to finding the best offensive lineup that sacrifices the least amount of defense. Preston Tucker (.331, 11 HR, 49 RBI) is expected to move from first base to right field. SEC Freshman of the Year Austin Maddox (.333, 17, 72) struggled in limited playing time at third base last season, but he a full offseason to work at the position has the Florida coaches thinking he can handle it this year.

When he's not pitching, Johnson (.405, 4, 21) will play first base. His emergence in the middle of the order last season jumpstarted the offense and gave Maddox the protection he needed.

Shortstop Nolan Fontana (.287, 3, 23) and second baseman Josh Adams (.224, 9, 42) return to anchor a middle infield that combined for nine errors in 601 chances. Fontana's .437 on-base percentage led last season's starters.

Adams put together a disappointing junior season after being named First Team All- SEC during his freshman and sophomore seasons. He hit .330 and .342 in his first two seasons, and he felt like fall practice got his swing back to where it was early in his career.

Mike Zunino (.267, 9, 41) started 52 games at catcher last season as a freshman. He created a reputation as the clutch hitter on the team, as he won three games with walk off hits. The runs he knocked in from the plate were important, but his defense is the most important thing to this team. He made two errors in 393 chances last season.

The only starter that has to be replaced from last season comes in center field. Matt den Dekker was one of the top defensive center fielders in the country, but he graduated and was selected in the 5th round by the New York Mets. Sophomore Kamm Washington (.308, 1, 6) is expected to take over. He was having a good freshman season before sliding into a wall at Tennessee and tore his hamstring. He was fully recovered before the start of fall practice and is expected to be a starter this season.

Left field is expected to be a platoon situation between right-handed Daniel Pigott (.268, 1, 22) and left-handed Tyler Thompson (.301, 6, 28).

Thompson came on at the end of last season, including a three-home run performance in a win over Florida Atlantic to clinch the Gainesville Regional. Pigott has been inconsistent during his career, but his athleticism makes him a candidate for a breakout season.

Some of the bench players include catcher/first baseman Ben McMahan (.325, 2, 11), third baseman/outfielder Bryson Smith (.255, 3, 22) and infielder Cody Dent (.233, 0, 2). Freshmen third baseman Zack Powers will also see playing time.


GEORGIA

By Dean Legge, Dawg Post

Coach David Perno has seen the good and bad during his 10 years as the head baseball coach at Georgia. He also saw the ugly in 2010. Just two years prior, Perno had guided the Bulldogs to within one game of the national title. But in 2010 the Dawgs suffered one of the worst seasons in Georgia baseball history.

Perno said he tried to use this fall's practices as a way to pivot from the worst season of his career.

"From a standpoint of getting last year off our minds and getting people healthy, we've done that,"  he said. "You've got guys fighting for positions. You don't have it all figured out, but we are closer."

The Georgia head coach, who relied on youth in a big way last season, said that his 2011 team will have depth -— as well as pitching.

"We have some depth this year. We have plenty of pitching,"  he said. "We had some good energy in fall practice. Defensively we have a chance if we can solidify the catching spot. Joey Delmonico has done a good job. We also get Brandon Stephens back. Everywhere else we have a chance to be as good and deep as we ever have been."

Delmonico is the middle son of former Tennessee Coach Rod Delmonico and has transferred into the program to give the Dawgs good depth at catcher. Stephens was an All-America at Lassiter where he batted .350 with seven home runs and 25 RBI for the Trojans.

While figuring out who will line up behind the plate is important, the Bulldogs also hope to improve their hitting at this plate this spring. But the Bulldogs have focused on pitching, which gave them such heartache last year.

Palazzone, who also went to Lassiter and has twice been selected in the Major League Baseball Draft, will be a key to the pitching rotation. He made 16 appearances (13 starts) last season. His best effort last year came at Mississippi State where he allowed only five hits and two runs, and had nine strikeouts over seven innings.

If Palazzone and the rest of the pitchers can duplicate that sort of effort more often the Bulldogs could challenge for the SEC title.


KENTUCKY

By Stephen John, Kentucky Sports Report<
With so much up in the air, it can't be known how good Coach Gary Henderson's Wildcats will be in 2011. One thing sure is that the team will be radically different from a year ago.

When MLB.com announced in June that junior outfielder/first baseman Lance Ray had signed a major-league deal with the Minnesota Twins, the news effectively guaranteed that major changes would occur. Ray, an eighth-round selection, was far and away UK's most consistent hitter. Ray finished the season with a team-high batting average of .356. He had 11 doubles, 10 home runs, 34 RBI and a team-high slugging percentage of .720 in just 41 games and 29 starts.

Henderson's top priority will be to find offense. The loss of Ray s bat was just one of many losses Henderson must fill. The top five hitters from the 2010 season and all gone. Returning for the Cats are outfielder Chad Wright (.316, 37 RBI and 36 runs) and first baseman/pitcher Braden Kapteyn (.294, six home runs and 28 RBI).

The Wildcats recruiting class is heavy with pitchers, so a number of unproven players are going to have to step it up if Kentucky is expected to produce any offense this season.

The good news for Kentucky is that Henderson has brought in a solid core of young talent, nationally ranked as high as 16th in the nation by Collegiate Baseball.

"We are extremely excited about this group of newcomers," Henderson said. "Over the last few years, Kentucky baseball has become a fixture on the national recruiting scene and we continue to bring in some of the top talents in amateur baseball. Brad (Bohannon) and Brian (Green) have done an amazing job in finding the type of well- rounded student-athletes we want to represent UK. We can't wait to get these guys on the field and start getting ready for the 2011 season."

Henderson convinced the top prospects in the state of Kentucky to join the Cats, including Louisville Slugger Kentucky High School Player of the Year, left-handed pitcher Corey Littrell and Kentucky High School Mr. Baseball, J.T. Riddle. UK brings in a total of 17 newcomers, including four of the top seven prospects in the state. In addition to Littrell and Riddle, the crop includes Lexington Christian Academy outfielder Lucas Witt and Tates Creek right-hander Trevor Gott.

"It is very important for us to own the state of Kentucky, to continually get the best players in the state to play at home in Lexington, and we feel like we have done that with this group," Henderson said. "There were lots of talented prospects in Kentucky this season and we are thrilled to give them an opportunity to compete in the best conference in college baseball."

Kentucky expects big things right away from its top recruit, 6-foot-4, 200-pound freshman right-handed pitcher Jonathan Paquet, a native of Ancienne-Lorette, Quebec. UK has had success in its past with Canadian products. A member of the Canadian Junior National Team since 2008, Paquet pitched well in three games at the Word Junior Baseball Championships in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 2010, making three appearances with two starts, striking out 12 in 10.1 innings and charting a 3.48 ERA and a 1-0 record.


SOUTH CAROLINA

By Paul Stewart, GamecockAnthem.com

Rebuilding is never easy. But after winning the national championship last season, South Carolina and Coach Ray Tanner will try to reload as they look for their 11th straight season of 40-plus wins. With a title (as well as a contract extension for Tanner through 2015) taken care of, Gamecocks fans are hoping the success generated by Tanner won't be ending anytime soon.

Tanner's 15th season at the helm for the Gamecocks will be one unlike any other as his team prepares to repeat as College World Series champions.

Last year's team was able to complete a historic run in Rosenblatt Stadium on the strength of its pitching staff, and although some of the names have changed, pitching will again be a strength for the Gamecocks.

Gone are staff stalwarts Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson, but the Gamecocks do return seasoned starters such as Tyler Webb, Nolan Belcher, and Colby Holmes. The quality doesn't end there, with middle relievers Jose Mata and Steven Neff returning after strong performances in 2010. Sunday starter Jay Brown will also have to be replaced after he exhausted his eligibility last year.

Michael Roth, who had two huge pitching performances in Omaha last season, will also return and could either start or continue his work as a left-handed specialist. The late relief may be the most talented section of the pitching staff, with the nearly unhittable Matt Price coming back to pair with Ethan Carter to combine talent with experience.

There will be a new man leading the Gamecocks pitching staff as Jerry Meyers returns to Columbia after a six year run as the head coach at Old Dominion. Meyers previously coached the South Carolina pitchers from 1997-2004 and helped usher in a new era of success during three straight CWS appearances from 2002-04. Mark Calvi departed to accept the head coaching position at South Alabama following last season's title.

USC will also bring back experience in the field, led by second baseman Scott Wingo, who scored the winning run in the CWS while playing stellar defense throughout the season. Third baseman Adrian Morales also returns to help provide a solid backbone on in the field.

The Gamecocks will receive reinforcements in the form of another heralded recruiting class, and may count on young players like shortstop T.J. Costen and first baseman Kyle Martin.


TENNESSEE

By James Bryant, Rocky Top News

Tennessee baseball improved last season, so much so that the Vols were just a few breaks and a little luck from making the SEC Tournament.

While that didn't happen, fourth-year Coach Todd Raleigh saw improvement last spring, including a winning record (30-26). More importantly, he said there was vast improvement during fall baseball.

Consistency, especially on the mound, was one of the key factors that kept the Vols from taking that next step last season.

"We really pitched well this fall,"  said Raleigh. "We will finally have depth at that position as well as at other places on the field."

 One of the Vols' most consistent pitchers was junior lefty Steven Gruver. Raleigh is also pleased with sophomore pitcher Drew Steckenrider. Last spring, Steckenrider was a starter in the outfield and pitched on a limited basis. This spring those roles will be reversed. Redshirt freshman Jon Reed is another reason that Raleigh is happier these days. Add the return of senior Rob Catapano and the addition of Jerrod Peper, and Raleigh has the makings of an all-star pitching cast.

Defense is expected to be another strong suit for the Vols, particularly with most of the infield returning.

The infield has shortstop Zach Osborn with Matt Duffy at third and senior Khayan Norfolk at second. The two biggest changes will be at first base and catcher.


 VANDERBILT

By Don Yates, VandyMania.com

The 2011 Vanderbilt baseball team hopes to improve on the strides made by the 2010 team.

Last season's 46-20 squad advanced to the Tallahassee Super Regional, but lost the series to Florida State. The 2011 Vanderbilt squad returns the majority of its pitching and hitting and looks stronger and more experienced.

On the mound, the Commodores lost their top relief arm in Chase Reid but return the three top starters. Vandy's Friday pitcher will likely again be junior right-hander Sonny Gray. Gray (3.48 ERA), who played for Team USA over the summer, struck out 113 batters last season while walking just 48.

Senior Taylor Hill and junior Jack Armstrong, both righties, will battle it out for the Saturday starting spot.

The 27 walks by Hill (4.46 ERA) were by far the fewest of the three top starters, but the 12 home runs he allowed were by far the most on the team. The 6-foot-7 Armstrong, the son of a major league pitcher, finished the 2010 season strong en route to a 7-4 record (4.71 ERA) that included 50 strikeouts and 39 walks.

Lefty Grayson Garvin (1.25 ERA) could slip into Vanderbilt's starting rotation or he might emerge as the Commodores' top relief arm. Righties Will Clinard, Navery Moore, and Mark Lamm, and lefties Sam Selman and Corey Williams will also vie for innings of work. Incoming freshman left-handed pitcher Kevin Ziomek could also contribute.

Vanderbilt returns the majority of its positional players. Shortstop Brian Harris has graduated but first baseman Aaron Westlake, second baseman Anthony Gomez and third baseman Jason Esposito are all back. Last season Westlake led the team in home runs with 14 and was named to the NCAA Louisville Regional All-Tournament team after hitting .300 with 7 RBIs, two home runs and eight runs scored. Gomez was named a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-America after leading the Commodores in hitting with a .379 average.

Esposito was named to the NCAA Louisville Regional All-Tournament team after hitting .476 (10-for-21) with five RBIs, two doubles and a home run. Junior Riley Reynolds possibly could take over for Harris at shortstop. Reynolds batted .332 and earned All-SEC honors as a freshman two years ago playing at second base. Last season Reynolds struggled through a hitting slump and slipped out of the starting lineup. Reynolds, though, worked hard on his hitting during the off season and had five hits in the Commodores' October series at Texas.

Andrew Giobbi is gone at catcher but senior Curt Casali appears poised to take over at the position. Casali was 7-for-14 in the Super Regional against Florida State and batted .309 for the season.

The Vanderbilt outfield returns intact. Joe Loftus, who batted .277 with 8 home runs, is back at right field. Bryan Johns returns at left field after batting .370 last season. Connor Harrell (.300) and Mike Yastrzemski (.260) each saw starting assignments last season in the outfield and will compete for the third spot.

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