SEC West Preview: More misery from the SEC

After taking an extensive look at South Carolina's competition in the deep and talented SEC-Eastern Division last week, GamecockAnthem.com baseball columnist Roger A. Olivieri previews the rugged SEC-West in his latest piece. Read inside for full story.



Aside from the SEC Eastern division and the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference, you'd be hard pressed to find a more daunting collection of teams than the SEC West.

Let's talk pro baseball for a minute. Remember when the ball skipped through Billy Buckner's wickets? Of course you do. Game Seven, Red Sox are one strike away from winning the title and then – BOOM! Ray Knight scores, "Met's win!"

Surprisingly, that's not how it happened at all. Many real baseball fans have no idea the Buckner error took place in Game 6. The Mets still had to win another game before popping open the bubbly.

Why such a phenomenon? After all, this most memorable moment is incorrectly memorized most of the time. The media influence leads most to believe Buckner lost the Series. We were all made to believe it. Sure, the error was one of the more costly in Major League history, but incorrectly remembered for the most part.

The same media influence, on a much smaller scale, takes place in the SEC's Western Division. Everyone remembers Kentucky, of all teams, holding up their Conference trophy. What most forgot is that they shared their title with Alabama.

Further, most don't know that neither team won the Conference Tournament. That honor went to another Western Division team – Ole Miss.

Currently, the West has only one first team All-American (Ole Miss SS Zack Cozart, Jr.), one second team selection (Arkansas P Nick Schmidt) and one representative on the third team (LSU P Charlie Furbush). On the national circuit, per Collegiate Baseball, the West boasts two ranked clubs in Arkansas and Ole Miss with Alabama not far behind.

Not on par with their Eastern counterpart, the West is still full of blue chip prospects in the field and on the mound.


ARKANSAS


PITCHING: Headed by consensus All-American LHP Nick Schmidt and All-American RHP candidate Shuan Seibert (4-0 2.79 ERA in 2006), the staff has all the makings of something special in 2007.

JUCO All American RHP Jess Todd will contend for a weekend start, joined by fellow RHP Duke Welker and freshman lefty Dallas Keuchel.

Another JUCO, Travis Hill, looks to be the ninth inning stopper.

OFFENSE: They should be a bit more relaxed with a much improved Razorback staff. Arkansas 1B/3B Danny Hamblin returns, probably on the other side of the diamond this year. Playing 1B to compensate for a shoulder injury in 2006, he's healthy enough to move back over to 3B. Hamblin smacked 17 HR last year with 68 RBI and 15 steals. He only hit .289, but was "Mr. Showstopper" when Arkansas needed a big hit last year. Of Hamblin's 68 RBI, a whopping 30 of them came with two outs. He hit .444 with the bases loaded.

Jake Dugger, hit .317 with 12 HR and 44 RBI last year. A senior, all he wants to do is go home this year. Home, for Dugger, is Omaha, Nebraska. A Freshman All-American in 2004, a 2nd team All-American in 2006 and a possible 2007 All American, his presence in the lineup alongside Hamblin creates a ferocious problem.

Can they realistically threaten the Gamecocks?

These guys can threaten anyone they want to. They are right there in talent with South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Grade: A+


OLE MISS


PITCHING: To most college sport fans, the phrase "returning starters" is like a fresh summer breeze. It stops time, makes you realize the beautiful things in life, and never lets you down. Ole Miss returns their entire starting rotation from the 2006 Conference Tournament Championship team. Ridiculously, Ole Miss returns 76% of their 2006 innings pitched and 36 of the staff's 44 victories.

Will Kline (5-2, 3 Saves), Brett Bukvich (6-6) and Lance Lynn (7-3, 1 Save) make up the starting rotation who ripped through the SEC Tournament before finally losing in the Super Regional.

OFFENSE: Everything here starts with Junior All-Everything SS Zack Cozart. Not only did he hit .338 with 10 HR and 64 RBI, but Coach Mike Bianco calls Cozart, "the best defensive shortstop I've ever coached."

The Ole Miss middle infield may be the best in the country. As if 1st team All American SS Cozart isn't enough, Junior leadoff man Justin Henry plays second base. Henry hit .332 last year with 18 steals and 65 runs scored.

The friendly faces stop there. Converted OF Cody Overbeck moves to 3B this season, while somewhat limited LF Logan Power gets the nod in CF. The losses of Alex Pressley and Mark Wright from a year ago could be costly.

While the staff returns 76% of their 2006 IP, the offense only returns 40% of their 2006 runs scored.

Can they realistically threaten the Gamecocks?

If "pitching and defense win titles" then the Rebels can beat anyone at any time. Their defense has been ranked in the top 15 for three consecutive years. With Cozart and Henry up the middle, they should remain formidable to say the least.

Grade: B+


ALABAMA


The defending co-SEC champions lost three of their top five pitchers. They are left having to replace the top starter, closer and mid-week starter. On offense, five of nine return to the Crimson Tide line-up. Most noticeable losses include 3B Matt Downs (.298, 7HR, 62 RBI), C Kody Valverde (.347, 12 HR, 59 RBI) and Wade LeBlanc (11-1, 2.92 ERA, 128 K in 129.1 IP).

PITCHING: Replacing Wade LeBlanc presents an almost impossible chore. He anchored the rotation while giving the bullpen some quality rest. Usually throwing deep into games, his starts were viewed as not only wins, but important days for bullpen arms to recuperate. Adding Jake McCarter (transferred to Texas) and David Robertson (drafted – 18th round, NYY) to those leaving town and Alabama has an all-out crisis on its hands.

The chore begins with Freshman All-American Tommy Hunter. At 10-3 last season, with a 3.30 ERA, Hunter needs to step it up a level and take on the forefront of a rotation on the rebuild. Behind Hunter, is senior Bernard Robert. Mediocre at best, Robert can be counted on for 100 innings. After that, the rotation begins to take on a "wait and see approach" with Miers Quigley, Casey Kebodeaux, and potential closer Josh Copeland in line to become factors.

As big a hit they took from graduation, transfers and the MLB draft, things could turn out alright. The staff is deep and equally as talented.

OFFENSE: Leadoff hitter Emeel Salem returns for his fourth year in CF. Hitting .356 last season and one of only two starters to play all 65 games, a lot of the offensive responsibility falls on his shoulders. Also returning for his fourth year, the other 65 game starter, is senior SS Greg Paiml. Paiml is noted for his work with the leather more than any hitting prowess, but nonetheless, he's a three year letterman coming off of his best year yet in 2006.

Sophomore Kent Matthes showed improvement over the summer when he won the Florida Colligate Summer League MVP. So far, he's started 2007 off in impressive fashion to the surprise of no one around the program. Freshman sensation Jake Smith and a host of others lead the way to try and fill in the gaps.

Can they realistically threaten the Gamecocks?

Not this year. They stand to surprise though if we look beyond the key losses. There staff remains deep and they have a veteran shortstop and centerfielder/ leadoff man – key elements to any offense/defense.

Grade: B


AUBURN


Things are looking up at Auburn once again. Having not made an appearance in the post season since 2003, this young, but balanced team, will shock someone in the division and could sneak as high as third in the standings.

PITCHING: Auburn returns seven pitchers in 2007 while only losing three. The pertinent arms remain in place. The weekend rotation is comprised of two sophomores righties, Bryan Woodall and Paul Burnside, while sophomore LHP Evan Crawford will look to go on Sundays. Though lacking experience, all three starters have shown filthy "stuff," while wreaking potential. More potential comes from freshman Austin Hubbard who throws two different breaking balls and a competent fastball.

The bullpen, led by sophomore RHP Luke Grienke, may be the strength of the team. A freshman All American, Grienke led the team in saves, while also hitting .322. He is joined by Johnny Thompson, a senior who pitched 39.1 innings in 2006 with a 2.95 ERA and 37 K's.

Senior RHP Chris Dennis, though roughed up in 2006 has gotten beyond arm troubles which limited him to one appearance a week last season after missing all of 2005. It's the Chris Dennis from 2004, the Auburn faithful hope to see again. In his last healthy season, Dennis led the team with a 2.61 ERA in 22 appearances. His K:BB ratio was an awesome 43:6 that year in 38 innings of work.

OFFENSE: The offense goes through the Tigers sophomore LF Mike Bianucci. As a freshman, he led the team in hitting at .359 and slugging percentage at .564. Earning Freshman All American honors, Bianucci's continued improvement is key.

Though the Tigers seem flush with stud sophomores, Junior catcher Josh Donaldson is improving with age. Though his sophomore season seemed a letdown, Donaldson took over behind the plate for the first time after spending 2005 at the "hot corner." So far this season, Donaldson is out of the gates quickly, hitting .538 with 3 HR and 11 RBI before the weekend series against UNC Greensboro. He's already nabbed a Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week award on the young season.

Baseball America's 48th best freshman in the nation, Ross Smith, roams RF at Samford Stadium and already leads the team in doubles. He can run, hit for average and has decent pop.

Can they realistically threaten the Gamecocks?

This year? No. Next year? This squad has potential to be a force in 2008. This season may suffer from moments exploited by youth, but it will also have moments drenched in potential. These Tigers will be fun to watch, but not quite there… yet.

Grade: B-


MISSISSIPPI STATE


Finishing 9th overall and 5th in the SEC West last season, the Bulldogs bring back more than their share of starters.

PITCHING: RHP Matt Lea (5-1, 2.01) suffered biceps tendinitis ending his freshman season after seven quality starts. Having Lea healthy for the 2007 season is almost a necessity.

LHP Justin Pigott went 7-1 with a 1.66 ERA, but even more impressive was his command. In 65 innings, Pigott walked only four batters while striking out 41, thus leading to his team high three complete games. By the end of 2006, Pigott had earned himself a spot in the rotation and aims to continue his trend of effective starts in 2007.

Strikeout artists, Jesse Carver and Mitch Moreland, look to play a role as well. Compiling only 17 appearances and 24.1 IP, they both show promise.

OFFENSE: Senior 2B Jeffrey Rea returns after an awesome junior season. A first team All SEC performer, he hit .408 in conference play, banging out 53 hits while scoring 30 runs in 29 league games. Overall, he hit .372 on the year and swiped 14 bags. Also considered the top defensive 2B in the conference, Rea is the team leader both on the field and in the clubhouse.

Edward Easley, a junior C/3B, hit .336 last season but showed little pop. His versatility offers an integral element to the offense. He's picked off 17 runners from behind the plate in his career at MSU while compiling a career .317 BA.

The reason aforementioned Mitch Moreland won't receive as many innings on the mound rests in his ability with a bat in his hands. In line for plenty of time at 1B, Moreland came on towards the end of last season. He finished the year hitting .319 with time in RF and DH.

Can they realistically threaten the Gamecocks?

Can they beat the Gamecocks? Sure, this is the SEC and MSU is an average/quality team. Can they threaten to end the Gamecocks quest for a title? In the long run, no they cannot. They lack the punch of the upper echelon teams, but with six LHP and some serious potential on the staff, they could improve upon their awful conference record of 12-17 in 2006.

GRADE: C+


LOUISIANA STATE


It's scary how quickly a metropolis can crumble when it's King steps away. So goes the greatness that once was the mighty LSU baseball program.

OFFENSE: To say LSU lost "a lot" would be incorrect. After all, they didn't have much to begin with. They return only four positional players this year, one of which lost his job to true freshman 1B Steve Ochinko.

One side of the LSU infield actually looks decent. With SS Michael Hollander, a 2006 member of the 2nd team all-SEC squad, and the former slugging 2B J.T. Wise moving over to 3B – things appear on the rise. On the contrary, the other side of the infield is a true freshman at 1B (Ochinko) and Chris Jackson, the punter/kicker from the football team, at 2B who hasn't played baseball in two years. Enough said.

PITCHING: Things don't get much better here. After LHP Charlie Furbush, the Tigers have a group of pitchers offering bleak returns. Even Furbush comes with question marks. Last year, at Saint Joseph's (Maine), he had great numbers (10-1, 2.89, 115:22 K:BB in 74.2 IP) and was named the NCAA Division III New England Pitcher of the Year.

Whenever I repeat "NCAA Division III New England Pitcher of the Year," I can hear echoes of an old woman as she glances into a haze from her rocker, "That's nice, dear…" Though the awards and accolades are nice, this is the SEC.

Can they realistically threaten the Gamecocks?

It would be a minor miracle.

GRADE: D

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