The lockout has officially started to cut into spring training, as pitchers and catchers for all 30 teams were supposed to have reported by this point. The players and owners are set to meet for more negotiations on Thursday, but from the outside it doesn’t appear the two sides are all that close as of yet. Over in Japan and Korea, major leagues with high-quality baseball will get underway. The only issue there for us is that the time difference does not exactly make for an ideal viewing experience.
And so without major-league action, and with the difficulty that comes with watching the various professional leagues in Asia on a regular basis, the best place to turn for competitive baseball for most of us will be at the college level. The good news on that front? Things kick off for NCAA action on Friday, and will continue through the College World Series in June.
Just from the perspective of a baseball fan who wants to watch baseball, this is a good year to get into college baseball. It’s also, of course, never a bad thing to get to know some of the players who will be atop draft boards this summer, assuming of course things get squared away in time for the draft, which we sure hope they do. Boston is not picking at the top of the draft this year, but it’s still worth knowing all sorts of levels of talent in the college ranks. With all of that in mind, here is our OTM college ball preview.
University of Texas
While Vanderbilt is to college baseball what Alabama is to college football as the sport’s ultimate powerhouse, they are not the consensus number one team in college baseball this year. Instead, Texas takes that mantle. They made it to Omaha last year where they lost to the eventual champions Mississippi State, and now come into the season with their most well-regarded roster in over a decade. Texas is deep all-around, and even after losing a first round pick last season in Ty Madden they have a fantastic top three for their weekend rotation in Tanner Witt, Tristan Stevens, and Pete Hansen. That goes along with some high-end talent in their bullpen along with an experienced and deep lineup to boot. They’re the favorites to win the title this year for a reason.
Top Draft-Eligible Hitting Prospects
This is in part based on rankings from Baseball America
Brooks Lee, SS, Cal Poly
We don’t typically think of Cal Poly being the place that is going to produce the top college players in the nation, but the preseason favorite for the Golden Spikes just may be playing there. Lee is an all-around beast and something of an old school middle infielder. You’ll hear about all the intangibles when you read up about him, and even beyond the makeup he has immense talents at the plate. Lee is a switch hitter who is better from the left side but can hold his own on both sides of the plate, and his hit tool is what should carry him. Add to that strong defense at a premium position, and he’s looking likely to go early in this summer’s draft.
Jacob Berry, 3B, LSU
The only thing that may hold Berry down from being the top college hitting prospect this season is his defense. Offensively, there is very little about which we can complain. He’s put up big numbers in his career against high-level competition, and he’s performed well for Team USA as well. Defensively, he’s probably either a first baseman or DH, which puts a ton of pressure on the bat. That said, it’s a special bat and a switch hitting bat at that, and we did recently see Spencer Torkelson go number one overall with a similar profile. If Berry hits his ceiling at the plate, he’ll be in that conversation.
Jace Jung, 2B, Texas Tech
Jung has some familial competition for draft position after his brother Josh went number eight overall in 2019, but Jace has a chance to top that. He’s coming off a big season at the plate for Texas Tech, and plays up the middle. If he repeats that performance, a top five selection is not at all out of the question.
Top Draft-Eligible Pitching Prospects
Landon Sims, RHP, Mississippi State
The righty will be the Friday night starter — this is the spot reserved for the best pitcher on a given college staff — for the defending champion Bulldogs, which on its speaks volumes. Sims is also coming off a season in which he pitched to a 1.44 ERA and 100 strikeouts over 56 innings, albeit in shorter stints. The stuff is absolutely there, and in a draft class that may be relatively short on college pitching heading into the season, Sims might pitch himself into being the top college arm selected this summer.
Hunter Barco, LHP, Florida
Although Vanderbilt is the class of college baseball overall, there is perhaps not a better program in terms of producing major-league pitching than the University of Florida. Barco is another in a line of top pitching prospects coming from the Gators’ program. He’s an experienced pitcher with this being his third year as a member of a top rotation in college baseball, and in his first two years he has a mid-3’s ERA to go with 120 strikeouts over 100 innings.
Carson Whisenhunt, LHP, East Carolina
It’s actually Whisenhunt who was the top pitching spot on the rankings over at D1Baseball in their rankings from last fall, and for good reason. The lefty’s workload was a little short last season due to some injury issues, which is worth monitoring this year, but the stuff is very much there as he struck out well over a batter per inning when he was available, and did the same for Team USA as well. East Carolina starts the season as a top 25 squad, and Whisenhunt is a big reason why.
Top New England Teams
It’s a shame we’re not going to get a Red Sox-Northeastern game this year, because this is the best team they’ve fielded in quite some time. They have a couple of top-tier starters we’re going to talk about in a minute, and that should carry them through their conference play and perhaps into a surprise run in the College World Series. They start the season off with some tough matchups against Clemson and NC State, but if they hold their own they’ll be off to the races in conference play.
The alma mater of Matt Barnes is looking like a top team, though their best player will not be playing for them this season. (Again, more on him soon.) Still, UConn has made three straight tournaments and seven of the last 11, so the expectation in Storrs is to make it into postseason play. Their lineup will be led by a pair of transfers to help make up for some talent lost after last season, but they are set up to be preseason favorites in the Big East.
Top New England Players
Sebastian Keane, RHP, Northeastern
This name may sound familiar to some Red Sox fans, and not just because he’s pictured at the top of this post. Keane as an 11th round pick by the Red Sox back in 2019 out of North Andover, but opted to go to school. Since that time, he’s become one of the more exciting pitchers in this year’s draft class. In fact, Baseball America has the Huskie ranked just outside the top 100 college prospects heading into the season.
Cam Schlittler, RHP, Northeastern
Each of the top two pitching prospects playing college ball in New England this summer are from Northeastern, and it’s actually Schlittler who is more highly ranked on BA, actually coming inside the top 100. He’s coming off an absurd year with a sub-2.00 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning, and a repeat performance will only move him further up draft boards.
Luke Gold, 2B, Boston College
It’s looking like it might be a down year for the Eagles in Chestnut Hill, but they do still have a top prospect in Luke Gold, who should be drafted later this summer. In fact, among these three top New England names, he’s the highest ranked on BA. He was nearly as productive last season as eventual first round pick Sal Frelick, and now he’s out of that shadow and can make his own name for himself.
Reggie Crawford, 1B/LHP, UConn
We’d be remiss if we did not mention Crawford at all, though he unfortunately won’t be playing college ball this year. He was expected to be one of the top draft picks this year, and still may be, but unfortunately had to undergo Tommy John surgery last fall and will sit out all season to prep for the draft. He’s a true two-way player, though, and with the Red Sox picking in the latter half of the first round and having three second round picks, maybe they can take a chance on the local talent.