THE SKINNY: The Gators might have been the most talented team in the country last year, and return a huge chunk of that team for 2012, including potential first-rounder Mike Zunino.
2. SOUTH CAROLINA
THE SKINNY: Although the Gamecocks lost five members from their 2011 lineup, this is a team that still has a veteran core group that has been part of back-to-back National Championship teams.
THE SKINNY: If Florida isn’t the most talented team in the country, Stanford is.
THE SKINNY: One of the most well-rounded teams in the country that boasts pitching and defensive and offensive talent.
THE SKINNY: UNC is an experienced group with great intangibles, and it will get on base just as well as most offenses in the country.
FIVE TO KEEP AN EYE ON
THE SKINNY: The Tigers won’t smash the ball all over the yard like usual, but they’ve got one of the better one-two punches on the mound of any team in the country.
THE SKINNY: Strong defense, good starting pitching and one of the nation’s best bullpens.
THE SKINNY: Injuries have taken their toll already, but the Horns will once again pitch as well as any team in the country with an offense that should be improved.
4. TEXAS A&M
THE SKINNY: Great speed and great starting pitching make this team one to keep an eye on.
THE SKINNY: Offense will be fine, but can the outstanding, young talent on the mound replace the losses of two All-Americans?
FIVE TEAMS UNDER THE RADAR
THE SKINNY: It’s rare for the Rebels to miss the postseason like the team did last season, and the talent is there for a much-improved 2012.
2. CAL STATE FULLERTON
THE SKINNY: Titans, under the radar? Well, yes. Cal State Fullerton has a new coach, lots of pitching question marks, but returns an offense that can drive pitchers insane with its execution.
3. OREGON STATE
THE SKINNY: If the young pitchers meet their potential, this team could be one of the last ones standing. That’s a big if for the Beavers.
4. FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL
THE SKINNY: FIU will smack the ball around the yard about as well as any team, but can it pitch at all?
5. ST. JOHN’S
THE SKINNY: You can stay in any game if you can pitch, and the Red Storm can definitely compete on the mound.
FIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR CANDIDATES
1. MIKE ZUNINO, FLORIDA
THE SKINNY: Zunino, who hit .371/.442/.674 last year with 19 homers, could be the first catcher taken in this year’s MLB Draft.
2. MARK APPEL, STANFORD
THE SKINNY: There is a strong possibility Appel will be the first player selected in this summer’s professional draft.
3. MICHAEL ROTH, SOUTH CAROLINA
THE SKINNY: His stuff doesn’t necessarily wow the scouts, but this southpaw posted a 1.06 ERA last year as the ace of a back-to-back National Title team.
4. COLIN MORAN, NORTH CAROLINA
THE SKINNY: The sophomore hit .371 last year as a true freshman in the middle of the UNC lineup.
5. JAMES RAMSEY, FLORIDA STATE
THE SKINNY: Ramsey made multiple All-American lists last season, and should put up some of the most impressive offensive numbers in the country, thanks to his swing at the plate. He never gets cheated in the box.
FIVE TEAMS THAT WILL BOUNCE BACK
1. GEORGIA TECH
THE SKINNY: Surely, the Yellow Jackets won’t get bounced in a regional they host again…right?
THE SKINNY: After finishing just one game above .500 in 2011, Georgia is poised to possibly be one of the stronger teams in the SEC.
THE SKINNY: It’s not often that the Tigers miss the NCAA tournament. They’ll be back.
THE SKINNY: This team is too talented not to be a postseason participant for the second straight year.
THE SKINNY: After being one of the hottest teams in the country down the stretch, the Tigers fizzled in regional play.
FIVE FRESHMEN TO WATCH
1. TYLER BEEDE, VANDERBILT
THE SKINNY: Selected as a first-round pick out of high school, this hard-throwing right-hander chose college instead.
2. WAYNE TAYLOR, STANFORD
THE SKINNY: Should start immediately at catcher for arguably the top team in the country.
3. BILLY FLAMION, OREGON
THE SKINNY: Regarded as one of the elite, two-way prospects in the country, Flamion did not sign.
4. PARKER FRENCH, TEXAS
THE SKINNY: A right-hander with a low 90s fastball with great late action, and two other strong pitches that can be thrown as strikes. Of Texas’ outstanding freshman crop of arms, French could be the most ready to contribute.
5. HUNTER COLE, GEORGIA
THE SKINNY: This versatile and immensely talented player should hit in the middle of Georgia’s lineup from day one.
WHAT DOES TEXAS HAVE TO ANSWER?
1. WILL THE OFFENSE IMPROVE?
The moment a vast majority of Longhorn fans talk about Augie Garrido’s recent teams, they immediately bring up that the groups have been offensively challenged. Last year, the Horns hit .269/.369/.372 with just 17 home runs. This year, Garrido says the team has hit better in preseason camp than any of his teams the previous three seasons. He normally doesn’t fib, either. The power will once again be way down (it doesn’t help that Texas plays its games in a massive pitcher’s park), but Texas should be a slightly improved group offensively.
2. REPLACING WALLA
One of the reasons why the Horns were hitting so much better than the previous seasons in preseason camp was because junior Cohl Walla was smashing the ball at the top of the lineup. Unfortunately for Texas, Walla collided with a teammate in the practice and the result was a torn ACL, which means the talented outfielder is done for the year. Now, Texas not only has to replace his bat at the top of the order, but also his outstanding defense in centerfield. Of the available players, look for Texas to either give Mark Payton a try there with freshman Collin Shaw sliding into right, or true freshman Taylor Stell, a 6-foot-4-inch rangy outfielder that might be the fastest player on the team, could push to take the position. Also, don’t rule out veteran Tim Maitland.
3. NO JUNGMANN, NO STAFFORD, NO GREEN
Taylor Jungmann, who was selected in the first round by the Milwaukee Brewers, left Texas as one of the most decorated pitchers the program has produced. Cole Green might not have left with as many accolades, but the right-hander was a four-year contributor that pitched in as many big games as anyone. And as if the news about Walla being out for the year wasn’t enough, senior Sam Stafford will need surgery, which puts him out for the year as well. Now, the Horns have to replace those three arms and their leadership with younger, less battle-tested pitchers. The good news is that UT Pitching Coach Skip Johnson might have signed his most talented group of arms since he’s been at Texas, and that’s saying something.
4. CAN SUMMERS HANDLE SHORTSTOP?
There might not be a better defensive shortstop in Texas than Brandon Loy for a long, long time. The moment he was selected by the Tigers in the fifth-round, Loy, a three-year starter at Texas, became the best defensive shortstop in the Detroit system. Oh, and he also hit .342/.419/.461 last year. Now, sophomore Christian Summers is the heavy favorite to take the vacated spot. The 6-foot-3-inch shortstop that hits from the left side of the plate has all the high-level tools to go with outstanding athleticism, but can he make the routine play at shortstop consistently enough to remain there? We’ll see.
5. GREEN LIGHT ON THE BASES
What could really help Texas’ productivity offensively is being much more aggressive on the bases in 2012. During the 2011 season, the Horns attempted just 96 steals. That’s not a low number, but it’s not a high one either, especially with a team that possessed a lot of quickness. At times last season, Garrido alluded to the team not mastering the small ball offense, which prevented Texas from being as aggressive as it would have liked on the bases. If UT’s skipper likes what he sees from the offensive execution early (Texas routinely failed on bunt attempts and got picked off during the first month of last season), then expect the Horns to use their speed to their advantage. This can be a team that steals 100 bags.