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Crystal Ballin’: Eight For Omaha In 2021

Analysis


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Every year after the College World Series, we break out our crystal balls and take a stab at predicting the following year’s eight for Omaha.

Now that we’re a week beyond when the 2020 CWS would have ended, and the dust has settled from the draft, let’s take a look ahead.

Below, national writers Aaron Fitt, Kendall Rogers and Eric Sorenson make their early picks for the 2021 CWS with analysis behind the selections.

 

Kendall Rogers’ Eight For Omaha

Arkansas

The Hogs are just like Texas Tech, they’ll just reload once again in 2021. From an offensive standpoint, there’s no doubt the Razorbacks will miss the hard-hitting bat of outfielder Heston Kjerstad, who was a top-five pick to the Orioles. However, a majority of the offensive lineup is back with budding sophomore Christian Franklin leading the way, while Braydon Webb, electric freshman Robert Moore, Matt Goodheart and Jacob Nesbit are all back in the saddle. Most importantly, the Hogs also welcome back talented backstop and slugger Casey Opitz. Getting his leadership back for another season is massive. The Hogs also added Eastern Kentucky slugger AJ Lewis to the mix. Lewis, a graduate transfer who will be immediately eligible, will provide an offensive/power punch. Look for Matt Hobbs to have yet another talented pitching staff, too. Arkansas welcomes back Caleb Bolden, Zebulon Vermillion, hard-throwing freshman Peyton Pallette, live-armed Elijah Trest, Caden Monke and hard-throwing Jacob Burton. Meanwhile, three guys with significant starting experience are back — Connor Noland, Patrick Wicklander and Kole Ramage. Lastly, the Hogs have an experienced two-way talent in Houston graduate transfer Lael Lockhart coming in. Lockhart should provide some offensive punch, while also giving the Razorbacks a quality lefthanded arm.

Florida

Some teams escaped the Major League Baseball draft in good shape. Others such as Florida escaped the draft in terrific shape. The Gators entered the draft expecting to lose righthanded pitchers Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich for the 2021 campaign. However, much to their surprise, Mace and Leftwich went undrafted and decided to return to Gainesville. The return of the two ultra-talented righties gives the Gators one of the nation’s premier one-two punches, while UF also returns a premier young arm in Hunter Barco. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of premium arms with Brandon Sproat, Ben Specht, Christian Scott, David Luethje and Nick Pogue. The Gators also will be strong from an offensive standpoint with potential 1-1 pick and electric outfielder Jud Fabian leading the charge, while Jacob Young, who was leading the team with a .450 average in 2020, is back, and Nathan Hickey, Josh Rivera and Kendrick Calilao also are back. UF finished the 2020 season No. 1 in the country. It will likely begin the ’21 season in the same spot while ushering in a new stadium.

Louisville

The 2020 campaign truly could’ve been Louisville’s year with an abundance of talent and one of the nation’s best pitchers in Friday starter Reid Detmers. Not getting to go an entire season with a junior Detmers was a disappointment, but the Cardinals are ready to turn the page with another talented club. Luke Smith decided to return for another season and gives the Cards a fiery spark plug type in the weekend rotation, while righthander Jack Perkins is ready to blossom. Perkins has been tearing it up at the Grand Park Summer League with a fastball in the 92-95 range. He’s expected to be a mainstay in the weekend rotation, while others such as Kerry Wright, Jared Poland and Carter Lohman have a chance to have dominant campaigns. The Cards also will be solid offensively yet again. They welcome back a terrific player in Alex Binelas, while Levi Usher, Henry Davis, Luke Brown, Lucas Dunn and Dalton Rushing are back for another season. U of L has a solid nucleus both on the mound and at the plate, and should be in Omaha yet again.

Ole Miss

My final three teams in the mix for the eighth spot were the Rebels, Texas and LSU. It was an extremely tight race between the three, but I gave the slightest of nods to the Rebels. Sure, the Rebels are going to be without hard-hitting Tyler Keenan and electric shortstop Anthony Servideo. But the 2020 club was one that experienced a wealth of success early in the season, and that should propel them to even greater heights in 2021. Ole Miss’ greatest strength will be on the mound where cold as ice Doug Nikhazy returns to lead the weekend rotation. Gunnar Hoglund and Derek Diamond are both back after each making four starts this past season, while the bullpen is in strong shape with the return of Taylor Broadway, Braden Forsyth and Austin Miller, among others. The pieces are there for Carl Lafferty and Mike Bianco to have a premier pitching staff. The offense should be fine without Keenan and Servideo, too. Sure, they might not have quite as much power, but the foundation is solid with the return of Hayden Leatherwood, Tim Elko, Peyton Chatagnier, Hayden Dunhurst, Cael Baker and Kevin Graham. Graham and Baker are strong candidates to have breakout campaigns, much like Elko did in 2020 with a .354 average and three home runs at season’s end.

TCU

The coronavirus pandemic ended the 2020 college baseball season, but there are plenty of programs who benefitted from it, including TCU. One of the interesting things about the season shutdown is the fact that every senior regained a year of eligibility. And the Horned Frogs are huge beneficiaries with a whopping eight returning seniors in 2021. That’s huge in a sport like ours. The Frogs welcome back leading hitters Gray Rodgers, Gene Wood, Hunter Wolfe, Tommy Sacco, Zach Humphreys and Conner Shepherd, while plenty of others such as Porter Brown, Phillip Sikes and Austin Henry have impressive potential, particularly Brown. That’s just an abundance of riches for the Frogs, both from a potential production and experience standpoint. The Frogs also welcome back several quality arms. Hard-throwing righthander Johnny Ray decided to return for another season, experienced Charles King is back for another season and the Frogs have high hopes for power arms Marcelo Perez and Riley Cornelio. Other key returning arms include Haylen Green, Austin Krob, Drew Hill, Harrison Beethe and Russell Smith. As if those returning players both at the plate and on the mound aren’t enough, the Frogs expect contributions from several talented newcomers, including righthanders Cam Brown and Storm Hierholzer, while outfielder Eljiah Nunez has a chance to make a quick impact. Junior college transfer hitters Ethan English and Josh Fitzgerald also have some upside. The Frogs have experience, experience and more experience.

Texas Tech

Wash, rinse and repeat, nothing will change for the Red Raiders in 2021. They’ll be in Omaha yet again barring a big surprise. The Red Raiders, the clear-cut favorite to win the Big 12 next spring, will be loaded offensively. Tech will have to replace consistent middle infielder Brian Klein, who signed as an undrafted free agent last week, but otherwise returns every key hitter from last year’s club. Kurt Wilson, Cal Conley, Dylan Neuse, Cole Stilwell, Nate Rombach, Max Marusak, Dru Baker and Jace Jung are all back for another season. Rombach and Jung were supremely talented young players last season, while Conley was a spark plug and Neuse was poised to have a monster season. Tech also is in good shape on the mound even without guys like John McMillon. Micah Dallas returns for another season likely will anchor the weekend rotation, while the options after him are endless despite the loss of talented righthanders Bryce Bonnin and Clayton Beeter. Key returning arms include Andrew Devine, Hunter Dobbins, Connor Queen, Jacob Brustoski, Mason Montgomery, Ryan Sublette and Austin Becker, while the Raiders also will welcome a premium junior college transfer in Texas A&M kickback righty Brandon Birdsell, who has a big-time arm with a fastball in the 92-96 mph range. The behemoth of the South Plains won’t press off the accelerator in ’21.

UCLA

John Savage’s Bruins were off to an outstanding start in 2020 and certainly would’ve been in the national title mix at the end of the season. However, we all know what happened next. Though the Bruins lost outstanding outfielder Garrett Mitchell and outstanding closer Holden Powell to the draft, they have a plethora of reasons to be excited about the 2021 campaign. UCLA should have a solid offensive foundation with leading hitter Matt McClain as the spark plug. Mikey Perez, JT Schwartz, Pat Caulfield, Jake Moberg, Michael Curialle, Noah Cardenas and Kyle Cuellar also are back. That’s a very, very strong foundation from an offensive standpoint. UCLA is loaded on the mound, too. Zach Pettway, Jesse Bergin and Nick Nastrini will headline the weekend rotation and give the Bruins some serious experience, while Michael Townsend, Jake Saum and Jared Karros are back as well. UCLA also expects instant impacts from righthander Max Rajcic and talented third baseman Kyle Karros. The West Coast looks somewhat limited on paper with fall workouts nearing, but UCLA looks terrific, as does Pac 12 counterpart Arizona, among a couple of others.

Vanderbilt

The Commodores might have lost Mason Hickman, Jake Eder, Ty Duvall, Harrison Ray, Austin Martin and Tyler Brown to the MLB draft, but they’re still in very good shape, particularly on the mound. The Commodores could very well have the nation’s premier one-two punch in righthanders Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter. Kumar needs no introduction in this paragraph, while Leiter was going to be an absolute treat to watch in Southeastern Conference play before the season was canceled. The outstanding righty had tallied in 1.72 ERA in 15.2 innings, along with 22 strikeouts during the shortened season. Those two will be a handful for any opposing team, while Ethan Smith will round out the rotation. That’s an incredible foundation to start with for the Commodores, along with the return of guys like Michael Doolin and Thomas Schultz. Clearly, they will have some work to do offensively with the departures of Martin, Duvall and Ray, but there’s potential. Spencer Jones has a potential premium bat, Carter Young and Parker Noland are young talents and Isaiah Thomas showed us a little something when he won the Hawaii series for the Commodores during the shortened 2020 campaign. Vandy has question marks at the plate, but the pitching will be so electric … will it even matter?


Aaron Fitt’s Eight For Omaha

Florida

This one’s a no-brainer. The Gators are the clear front-runner for the national title heading into 2021, especially after shockingly getting junior weekend starters Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich back for another year, as neither was picked in the five-round draft. Florida already had a dynamite young core in place, led by center fielder Jud Fabian (the top-ranked position player for the 2021 draft), versatile on-base machine Jacob Young, first baseman Kendrick Calilao, premier lefthander Hunter Barco, shortstop Josh Rivera, catcher Nathan Hickey and flame-throwing righties Ben Specht, Brandon Sproat, David Luethje and Nick Pogue. But the shortened draft made this roster even more loaded by directing Mace, Leftwich and draft-eligible sophomore righty Christian Scott all back to campus for another year, when all of them would have surely moved on to pro ball in a normal year. The rich get richer, indeed.

Louisville

The Cardinals will miss departed first-rounders Reid Detmers and Bobby Miller plus fifth-rounder Zach Britton and nondrafted free agents Danny Oriente and Justin Lavey. Still, there’s a lot to like about Louisville’s returning roster, as usual. It starts with the return of slugger Alex Binelas and versatile spark plug Lucas Dunn, who were sidelined with broken hamate bones this spring. Dynamic outfielders Levi Usher (a rising star) and Luke Brown will be back to provide premium athleticism, and Henry Davis will be one of the nation’s best catchers. Also expect big things in Year Two from first baseman Dalton Rushing, whose power potential is exciting. On the mound, Louisville scored a big coup when the talented Luke Smith went unselected in the shortened five-round draft, sending him back to campus to step into the Friday starter role. Likewise, invaluable bullpen southpaw Adam Elliott will be back as a fifth-year senior to provide stability in the late innings. The return of flame-thrower Jack Perkins from injury will make a huge difference; between Perkins and fellow righties Jared Poland, Ryan Hawks and Kerry Wright, plus talented lefties Michael Prosecky, Carter Lohman and Kellan Tulio, the Cards are well stocked with breakout candidates on the mound.

LSU

The Tigers do have some key pieces to replace after losing ace Cole Henry and hitting machine Daniel Cabrera to the draft plus Saul Garza and Zack Mathis as nondrafted free agents. But LSU’s returning pitching is simply too good to fail. The shortened draft meant Devin Fontenot — one of the country’s best closers — will be back for another year instead of heading to pro ball as he would have in another year. Jaden Hill is a rising superstar, Landon Marceaux is a proven commodity in the rotation, and the return of AJ Labas for another year was another unexpected boost. Veterans like Matthew Beck and Ma’Khail Hilliard will also return to provide stability in the bullpen. The Tigers have more questions to answer in the lineup, where they didn’t really gel in 2020 before the season was canceled, but I still believe in the potential of returnees like Cade Doughty, Gavin Dugas, Mitchell Sanford, Maurice Hampton Jr., Hayden Travinski and Alex Milazzo, all of whom should make big steps forward next year. And speed merchant Giovanni DiGiacomo plus slugger Cade Beloso should be able to serve as pillars of a lineup that figures to be considerably more potent next year than it was this spring, now that the talented young players have had another year to add strength and hone their skills.

Texas Tech

The Red Raiders will remain the team to beat in the Big 12 until somebody knocks them off their pedestal. Tech lost four key pieces to pro ball (fireballers Clayton Beeter, Bryce Bonnin and John McMillon plus hitting machine Brian Klein), but its roster remains stacked as usual. Cal Conley, Dylan Neuse, Nate Rombach, Cole Stilwell, Max Marusak, Dru Baker and Jace Jung will return to give Tech a deep and varied lineup with the speed, power and versatility to give opponents nightmares. And the Red Raiders will have no shortage of firepower on the mound either, led by Mason Montgomery, Micah Dallas, Jakob Brustoski, Ryan Sublette, Austin Becker, Connor Queen and Kurt Wilson. It will be business as usual in Lubbock.

UCLA

The Bruins looked even better than expected in 2020, emerging as a legitimate national title contender during their robust first month before the season was canceled. And though they lost preseason All-Americans Garrett Mitchell and Holden Powell to the draft, the Bruins return a host of talented and accomplished players in 2021. Shortstop Matt McLain harnessed the raw ability that made him a first-round pick out of high school, and he’ll be back to anchor an athletic and balanced lineup that also includes emerging talents JT Schwartz, Jake Moberg, Pat Caulfield and Michael Curriale. Getting back ace Zach Pettway for another year thanks to the shortened draft was a boon for UCLA, making up for the loss of some key recruits to the draft. Pettway, Nick Nastrini and Jesse Bergin will all return to give UCLA one of the nation’s best weekend rotations, while Kyle Mora and Michael Townsend will be back to anchor a stellar bullpen once again.

Vanderbilt

The Commodores look like Florida’s biggest challenger for preseason No. 1 next year. Even after losing All-Americans Austin Martin, Tyler Brown and Mason Hickman plus power lefty Jake Eder to the draft, Vandy returns an abundance of talent, as always. Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter should form the best one-two pitching punch in America, and they have a legitimate shot to be the top two picks in the 2021 draft. Look for big Year Two jumps from projectable righties Sam Hlibocki, Michael Doolin and Thomas Schultz, and expect a monster year from fireballer Ethan Smith. That gives Vandy the foundation for one of college baseball’s very best pitching staffs. The lineup won’t have as much proven star power as it has featured in years past, but players like Spencer Jones, Carter Young, Parker Noland and Isaiah Thomas all have star potential, and another loaded recruiting class led by Enrique Bradfield Jr. will keep this roster deep and versatile.

Virginia

It’s taken the Cavaliers a few years to build their roster back up to Omaha-caliber, but they took a big step forward in 2020 (ending the season in the Top 25), and the shortened five-round draft ensured that just about every key piece will be back in 2021. In a normal year, UVA would almost certainly have lost pitchers Andrew Abbott and Kyle Whitten (two pillars of what should be an elite bullpen) plus power-armed starter Griff McGarry to the draft, and possibly also lineup mainstays Brendan Rivoli and Alex Tappen. Instead, all of those players will be back in the fold. McGarry succeeded this spring despite continuing to struggle with his walk rate, because he allowed just five hits in 20 innings; he’ll likely team with Mike Vasil and the nation’s No. 1 ranked freshman prospect (Nate Savino, who enrolled early in January and was just finding his footing when the season was canceled) to form a very good weekend rotation. Five-tool center fielder Chris Newell has superstar potential in the heart of the lineup, and so does third baseman Zack Gelof. Max Cotier and Nic Kent form a slick middle-infield duo, and Logan Michaels is a rock behind the plate. This should be Virginia’s best club since its 2015 national title run.

Wake Forest

I was all-in on Wake Forest heading into 2020, and though the Deacs got off to a slow start, I’m convinced they would have gotten hot and lived up to their preseason No. 18 billing. When the season was canceled, it felt like Wake Forest had been robbed of its window to make an Omaha run — but the shortened five-round draft served to extend that window for another year. Sluggers Chris Lanzilli, Bobby Seymour and Shane Muntz all would have headed to pro ball in a normal year, but instead all of them went undrafted and will be back to anchor a lineup that should be terrifying in 2021. Talented junior Michael Ludowig is also back, and high-level rising third-year players Brendan Tinsman and Michael Turconi are emerging stars, making this one of the deepest lineups in the country. And even without departed first-round ace Jared Shuster, Wake Forest will be very deep on the mound once again. That shortened draft ensured juniors William Fleming and Antonio Menendez will be back on campus another year, joining flame-thrower Ryan Cusick, veteran lefty Tyler Witt and emerging star Shane Smith on what should an excellent staff.


Eric Sorenson’s Eight For Omaha

Florida

Let me give you a little inside info on the workings of D1baseball. When we fill out our “Eight For Omaha” pieces it’s not like we’re all sitting around in a board room discussing each team as a group. So I don’t know who Aaron and Kendall are going to select until I see the article on the
site. But I’m pretty sure that my compadres will include the Gators. I’m pretty sure they
mentioned how getting undrafted pitchers Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich back for another
season is a big reason. And I’m also pretty sure they threw out sophomore studs like OF Jud
Fabian, 1B Kendrick Calilao, RHP Ben Specht and OF Jacob Young as additional big pieces to
this team. And I’m pretty sure they made mention of freshmen who were already creating a buzz
in LHP Hunter Barco, LHP Ryan Cabarcas and RHP Tyler Nesbitt. Man, this team is STACKED
for next year.

Vanderbilt

Although VU got off to a choppy 13-5 record this season, cannon arms like Kumar Rocker,
Ethan Smith and Jack Leiter will dominate 2021 and give the Vandy Whistler a good chance to
annoy the crap out of us for two weeks in Omaha. You also have a good chance of hearing
Rocker and Leiter have their names called very early at the MLB Draft next June. The
Commodores will have to carry on without leaders like Austin Martin, Ty Duvall and Harrison
Ray, but there is a ton of freshman talent that barely got their feet wet this past season and are
ready to emerge. Get this, eight of the returning freshman and sophomore pitchers had ERAs
below 2.70. Tim Corbin knows how to get to Omaha, especially when he’s got an insane
amount of talent on the mound.

UCLA

Call me crazy but when the MLB draft came along and four of UCLA’s prized high school
commits were picked, I bet there was a small voice in Bruin head coach John Savage’s head
that said, “Well… good. There is too much talent on my roster and only nine positions on the
field.” The Bruins will be yoked with ability again. The rotation of Zach Pettway, Nick Nastrini
and Jesse Bergin is better than any team not named Vanderbilt and helped the Boys of
Westwood to a 1.88 ERA, third in the NCAA. Also, the offense hit an un-Bruin-like .308 in their
13-2 start this year, so look for a more offensive team in 2021, even though Garrett Mitchell has
moved on to the MLB. They also get injured shortstop Kevin Kendall back to pair with 2B Matt
McClain, a former first-round draft pick. Oh, and seven of the incoming freshmen are Area Code
Games alums. Gah! What a glut.

TCU

It’s “back to the teens” for the Horned Frogs. You see, in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, the Purple
Gang made themselves regulars at the CWS each June, a feat that is hard to pull off. Coach
Schloss and his staff did a good job of mending a bunch of new faces (12 regulars were either
JCers, four-year transfers or freshmen) with some key veterans to put up an impressive 11-4
mark, which included a win over UCLA in the final weekend of the short season. As of now,
everyone will return for 2021, including the rotation of Johnny Ray, Russell Smith and Charles
King (who would also make an imposing front line in basketball, standing 6’3, 6’9 and 6’5
respectively). Toad to Omaha, indeed.

East Carolina

Yep, I’m calling my shot now. After 30 painful campaigns where they made the NCAA
Tournament but came up short in making it to Omaha, the Pirates of the Carolinians will finally push their way through. It’s true. Sure they’ll miss two-way star Alec Burleson, but five regulars hit .300-plus in the shortened season, led by second baseman Connor Norby’s .403. The top six ERAs on the stat sheet threw 2.70 or better as well. In fact, the Pirates ranked eighth nationally in batting average (.317), 54th in ERA (3.12) and No. 1 in fielding (.990, 6 errors). So they may not have a team stacked with big league talent, but this is one solid team. Can’t wait to see ‘em
make it happen.

Texas

Don’t call it a comeback… Wait, forget that, now that I think of it you MUST call this a
comeback. After all the Longhorns finished in last place in the Big 12 in 2019. Yes, dead last.
And this was after sweeping LSU earlier in that season. But the Longhorns went 14-3 to start
2020 and certainly had the look of a team that was starting to reach its potential. Now they’ll
have to fulfill that promise over the course of a full season. Hell, the Burnt Orange is the only
team in the country to have six prospects in the top 80 of D1baseball’s top college prospects list
and five of those are pitchers. So if RHP Ty Madden (No. 19 prospect), LHP Pete Hansen (No.
28), Andre Duplantier (No. 61), RHP Mason Bryant (No. 65) and RHP Kolby Kubichek (No. 80)
take to the mound comfortably in 2021, I’m thinking UT makes it triumphant return to Omaha.

Arizona

They hashtag themselves as #MLBTrainingGround. Austin Wells and Matthew Dyer look to
continue that trend after getting selected in the virtual 2020 MLB draft. Beyond that, the Desert Cats are still loaded for a great 2021. For this past short season, coach Jay Johnson and his staff mostly used eight pitchers, all of which will return and seven of which had ERAs below 3.32 and opponents hit just .212 off of them. Three fielders are in D1baseball’s top 150 prospects for 2021 in the form of OF Ryan Holgate, 1B Dayton Dooney and 3B Tony Bullard. Also, add to that
the 11th-ranked recruiting class that is coming in, which features seven players who played in
the Area Code Games. While rivals Arizona State will be hard to overlook again, the Cats are
proving they are also building something big here in the desert southwest.

Ole Miss

Man, this was a hard list to pare down. Though I gave long looks at NC State,
Virginia, Texas Tech, Louisville, Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Long Beach State and UC Santa
Barbara, this last slot for Omaha has got to go to the Rebels. Too much talent. Too much of a
hot start. Too much to overlook, for sure. Coach Bianco will lose his top two hitters in Tyler
Keenan and Anthony Servideo, but still gets back 25 home runs and 23 doubles from this
season (in just 17 games. Yikes). And did you see the pitching this team has? That rotation of
Gunnar Hoglund, Doug Nikhazy and Derek Diamond, all of which had an ERA below 3.49, will
be bolstered by Braden Forsyth, who was an emerging star, picking up five saves in 2020. Hey,
the other good news? The state flag is about to be changed so the Rebs can play at home on
their way to Omaha.

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