SEC East is an NCAA Beast is proud to introduce Roger A. Olivieri as our new baseball columnist. In his debut piece, Olivieri previews the deep and talented SEC-Eastern Division in what is sure to be an exciting and action packed 2007 baseball season. Read inside for full story.

Simply put, an endless list of blue-chip prospects drench this division. With another top notch class of incoming freshmen (11 of the Top 47 incoming freshmen per Baseball America), a talent-rich influx of JUCO players, huge sophomore prospects and a wealth of gifted vets, the SEC East is poised to dominate in 2007. Headed by South Carolina, the rest of the division is not far behind. Tennessee has taken early season lumps thus far, but with two 1st Team All-Americans of their own, they should be fine. Vanderbilt, like Tennessee, is loaded with talent and drooling over visions of Omaha.

Though the hierarchy of power is somewhat evident, the division is so rich on talent, even the worst team could make a run (see Kentucky 2006).

South Carolina Gamecocks

OFFENSE: The offensive weaponry in Columbia only gets stronger in 2007. Freshman 3B/OF Lonnie Chisenhall, an offensive gem, has been called Ray Tanner's best looking hitting recruit ever. That's quite a compliment and quite an addition to the nation's 6th most powerful lineup. Teaming Chisenhall with returning stars Justin Smoak (1B) and Robbie Grinestaff (OF) have Gamecock fans drooling for the 2007 season.

Not only is the juggernaut stacked with power, but it's also balanced. Though Reese Havens had a disappointing season in 2006 (.259), he's shown all the tools to convince the coaching staff it's a case of "when," not "if."

Defensively, the Gamecocks are almost air tight and improving. Ranked fourth in the nation last year, they've added slick fielding 2B Travis Jones from the JUCO ranks.

PITCHING: The pitching mound spelled disaster for the Gamecocks a year ago. The after effects could spill into 2007. When Arik Hempy went down and required Tommy John surgery, the rest of the staff had a HUGE hole to fill. Moving Wynn Pelzer from the closer role to the rotation caused concern regarding the unexpected workload; therefore he took the summer off. Working him and his mid-nineties stuff back into condition will be done cautiously.

With Hempy out until March or April, Tanner will ask Harris Honeycutt (the next Gamecock ace) and Mike Cisco to continue their development – neither overpowering, yet both delivering effective enough breaking balls to ring up the competition in timely situations. Combining to throw 157 IP in 2006, they struck out 141 collectively. Freshmen Nick Fuller and Sam Dyson can also play a role while Division II transfer Jordan Costner aims to be the set-up man for Pelzer. His knuckles nearly touching the mound in a wild delivery, Costner's unorthodox style may perplex an offense even more before having to face Pelzer in the ninth.

Overall, the Gamecocks squad is stacked with a fantastic combination of youth, talent, leadership, arms, defense and experience. Picked to win the SEC by the coaches, the Cocks should be off to Omaha in 2007 with a legitimate eye on the big trophy in the end.


Vanderbilt Commodores

Let's play Word Association for a moment. Ready? Here goes:

Vanderbilt... Go ahead, take a moment. What comes to mind?

Any fairly knowledgeable sports fan will give the same answer: Good school, tough to get into, SEC doormat.

Well, we have news for you. Someone forgot to tell the baseball team.

OFFENSE: With the Gamecocks touting quite an offense, the Commodores refused to be outdone. Sophomore 3B Pedro Alvarez looks to build on a monster 2006 campaign in which he won Freshman of the Year (.329, 22, 64). With the rest of the offense boasting well over .300 potential, opposing pitchers will be hard pressed to pitch around Alvarez. Junior LF Dominic de la Osa, though not as dangerous as Alvarez, is coming off a successful 2006 of his own hitting .319 while swiping 14 bases. Add sophomore SS Ryan Flaherty and his .339 average to the mix and the Commodore potential approaches the proverbial "sky-high" range.

PITCHING: The front of the rotation is scary, to say the least. David Price, the pre-season odds on favorite for National Player of the Year, struck out 12.6 per nine innings last season. Though suffering a rough stretch near the end of the year, the junior LHP found his "stuff" again for Team USA. Named the summer Player of the Year, Price looks to capitalize by leading Vandy to its first trip to Omaha.

The rest of the staff, though experienced, seems human on most days. Through patchwork and growing pains, the staff after Price shakes out as such: Converted OF Casey Weathers, a senior, closes the door with a high-90's fastball while sophomores Nick Christiani, Josh Zeid and Brett Jacobson look to log quality innings as they grow.


They sure can! This isn't your Daddy's Vanderbilt. A much closer gap than most "experts" might realize, the Gamecocks hold a slim advantage due to balance. This is a Top 10 team with possibly the two best players in the country. If Price does what's expected of him and one of the other two starters can pitch well, Vanderbilt is going to win a lot of weekend series this season – no matter who they're playing.


Tennessee Volunteers

OFFENSE: Not to be outdone in the popular game "How Many All Americans Do You Have," the Volunteers tout a sweet-swinging tandem of their own. With junior CF Julio Borbon and junior catcher J.P. Arencibia finishing the year hitting .366 and .352 respectively, sophomore SS Tony Delmonico's .335 average seemed mortal. Delmonico's overall numbers should improve too. After all, you'd be hard pressed to find a better spot in any line up than after Borbon and before Arencibia. Unlike South Carolina or Vanderbilt though, Tennessee is not blessed with balance. Aside from the big-three, they'll be forced to plug in holes with freshmen and JUCO additions.

PITCHING: If the widely held belief "pitching wins championships" is true, then this is where Tennessee is going to get tripped up in the division. James Adkins sensational 2005 campaign seemed like it took a small step back in 2006. With 112 K's in 106 IP, Adkins and his 6'5" 200lb. frame are still feared around the league. Senior Craig Cobb had a solid 2006 but his finesse style doesn't seem as dominant. New-comers Lance McClain and Nick Hernandez may contribute this season, but only by default.


Realistically, with three potential first round picks, they can threaten anyone in the country on any given weekend. The problem with Tennessee is their top heavy proportion of super prospects to young and unknown commodities. Though very good, they're probably a tad too thin to be eating Angus Beef in Omaha this year.


Kentucky Wildcats

It feels weird putting the Wildcats, the 2006 SEC Champs, near the basement (see total SEC wins graph below). After all, they aren't losing a phenomenal amount of players. Their ranking here is more of a testament to the East's power than it is a knock on the reigning champs. Coach Cohen has to be using this as a pre-season motivational speech. No, not the fact that "The Great Me" is picking them to finish fifth, but the idea that everyone is picking them to finish near the cellar. Eerily similar to their 2006 predicted finish, that big SEC trophy proves otherwise. The difference in 2007 though, is the level of respect. See my final thought below.

OFFENSE: This was the conference powerhouse last year. Kentucky averaged over seven runs per game and returns essentially the same line up. Though Ryan Strieby, a big bat in the middle, and John Shelby will be missed the ‘Cats can still bring it. With C Sean Coughlin, LF Collin Cowgill and CF Antone Dejesus getting things started, the rest of the line up will have plenty of opportunities.

The 6'1" 215 lb. Coughlin led SEC catchers with 17 HR last season while also hitting .325. Cowgill hit .380 last season with two outs while becoming a disciplined hitter. His .426 OBP had him finish in the SEC top ten. The 5'9" Lexington, KY native also sports a rifle for an arm. Antone Dejesus had an incredible .462 OBP when leading off an inning last year. Though gifted offensively, Dejesus' most devastating attacks come from CF. Regarded by many as the best defensive OF in college baseball, he's sure to save almost as many runs as he creates.

PITCHING: Control freak, Greg Dombrowski, is also the ace of the staff. He issued 11 walks in 101.2 innings. Statistics like Dombrowski's awesome BB/9 IP ratio can be much better indicators than the over-exaggerated importance of ‘wins' or ERA.

The rest of the staff is inconsistent or inexperienced at best, but a deep crop of freshman RHP should help matters. The freshman RHP trio of Chris Walden, Clint Tilford, and Tyler Henry could be asked to step in immediately.


Of course they can. Look what happened last year when nothing was expected of them. Their Achilles' heel will be dealing with unknowns. Though an explosive offense and stout defense, pitching through rigors of youth will remain problematic enough to hold them back.


Georgia Bulldogs

OFFENSE: Offensively sound, they lack the big ticket punching power of their Eastern brethren. If South Carolina, Vandy and Tennessee were Ali, Frazier and Forman, then Georgia is Hasim Rahman – respected, known ability to deliver the one big punch, but not quite the real deal. Leadoff man Jonathan Wyatt returns after hitting .360 a year ago, but offers nothing of intrigue after that. Returnees Ryan Peisel and Matt Robbins, like Wyatt, seem one dimensional. The pair combined for only four long balls, 69 RBI and eight steals. The most significant threat in their attack comes in the three spot. Sophomore shortstop Gordon Beckham returns after a 12 HR, 54 RBI freshman season. His .280 average and free swinging lack of discipline need to improve, but they should with age.

PITCHING: If Georgia has any chance of repeating 2006 successes, then right-handed closer Joshua Fields needs to be on his game. A 1.80 ERA and 15 saves helped Georgia's 2006 push to Omaha. Showing flashes of brilliance towards the end of the season, he closed out the Gamecocks in the final two games of the Super Regional.

The sophomore trio of Trevor Holder, Stephen Dodson and Nathan Moreau will be counted on this year to step forward. Holder finished off the previous season going 2-0 with a 0.87 ERA in the post-season. Moreau was a member of the Freshman All-American squad, winning SEC Freshman of the week honors after taking a shutout into the ninth against South Carolina. Georgia was 11-1 in his 12 starts last year.


On the right day anything is possible, but overall, they are not the 2006 College World Series team that knocked Carolina out in the Super Regional. More than half the offense is gone as are their three top starters.


Florida Gators

OFFENSE: Matt LaPorta, a senior 1B, blasted his way into the national spotlight as a sophomore. Leading Division I with 26 HR, he seemed well on his way to a tremendous career for the Gators. 2006 was not so friendly however, as the junior slumped to .259 and 14 HR – a far cry from expectations. This could be a huge indicator when trying to describe the Gator's fall from the elite. After all, LaPorta's huge 2005 was a major reason Florida finished as the first runner up in Omaha. Though Baseball America recognizes him as the SEC's Best Raw Power Prospect, LaPorta needs to show more this year.

In all fairness to LaPorta, the Gators lost six players to the pros after their 2005 run, leaving him unprotected in a weak lineup. This season should begin the rebuilding process though as head coach Pat McMahon brought in an incredible recruiting class. A JUCO transfer and a true freshman, Jon Townsend and Cole Figueroa respectively, will make up the middle infield. Townsend was a slick fielding SS at Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, California while Figueroa hit over .500 with 70+ RBI in high school.

Unfortunately though, with new players almost everywhere and 2006 disappointments plugged in around them, 2007 could be a learning experience. There is talent in Gainesville, but it may need a year to blossom.

PITCHING: RHP Bryan Augenstein (9-6, 3.07) remains the ace of the staff. Like the offense, unknowns surround the Gators staff as well. Stephen Locke, a left handed pitcher named to the Collegiate Baseball Freshman All American team in 2005, returns after missing 2006 due to Tommy John surgery. Among a collection of true freshman the Gators will rely on this year is hard throwing RHP Billy Bullock (6'6" 215) who could be the third starter. He's had professional scouts flocking to see him for years.


Though plenty deep and in for a bright future, this Gators squad may be a year or two away from competing again in the SEC East. Ho hum, Florida has to suffer through a tough season as those back-to-back (hoops and football) titles won't help them on the diamond. I'm sure they'll find a way to cope in Gainesville. By the way, the answer is "no." These Gators would have a tough time with just about anyone in the SEC this year – especially the Gamecocks and Commodores.


Final Thoughts

As college baseball fever spreads throughout the nation, the Southeastern part of the country must be recognized. The approach to SEC baseball, and even ACC baseball for that matter, should be viewed like our football teams. Consider this: Steve Spurrier brought in South Carolina's best recruiting class ever. Some experts picked it as high as fifth in the nation. Even ranked at number five nationally, they're arguably third in the SEC East behind Florida and Tennessee. Applying this SEC football mentality to SEC baseball shows why the defending kings of the conference (Kentucky) will be hard pressed to finish higher than fifth in their own division.

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