Spring training is on hold with Major League Baseball embroiled in a labor dispute with its players, but that doesn't mean the sounds of bat hitting ball and ball hitting glove are silent everywhere.
The college baseball season kicks off in earnest this weekend, with Division 1 programs opening a season that will conclude in late June with the College World Series at Omaha, Nebraska. Mississippi State took home the crown last season and the defending champion Bulldogs are again among the top teams in the country. Could we see back-to-back champs?
To get you ready for the season, we asked ESPN college baseball analysts Chris Burke, Kyle Peterson and Mike Rooney and reporter Ryan McGee for their takes on the 2022 campaign, including the biggest storylines, players to watch, sleeper teams and their picks for who will win it all.
What is college baseball's biggest storyline for 2022?
Chris Burke: Can Jay Johnson immediately restore LSU baseball back to national prominence? The Tigers have stumbled the last few years relative to their standards, with coach Paul Mainieri stepping down and the reins of the LSU program being handed to Johnson. Johnson, who is fresh off a College World Series appearance with the Arizona Wildcats, seems to have immediately reenergized the fan base and upgraded the roster by adding national freshman of the year Jacob Barry (who played for Johnson at Arizona) to go with potential All-Americans Dylan Crews and Trey Morgan. The Tigers definitely have question marks on the mound, but the lineup is national-championship caliber, setting the stage for what should be a fascinating first year for Johnson in Baton Rouge.
Ryan McGee: Getting back to normal. After having its collective hearts ripped out by the pandemic just as the 2020 season was getting ramped up, college baseball found itself in that weird tweener transition zone of 2021. It landed right smack in the timeline between a world with and without a COVID-19 vaccine, not to mention bloated super-senior rosters in a sport that is still hamstrung by that silly allotment of 11.7 scholarships. It all peaked (or valleyed) with the NC State mess in Omaha, when the Wolfpack were pulled from their winner-take-all bracket final in the wee hours of the morning due to COVID protocols. So, yeah, baseball gods please give us a 2022 season that doesn't feel like one big trip to the doctor.
Mike Rooney: So many storylines, who can pick just one?
Can anyone unseat the SEC? The conference has placed six (out of a possible eight) teams in the last four College World Series finals. SEC teams have won three of the four titles -- and six of the top nine teams in the preseason are from the league.
Expect a big year of offense. The college crop of hitters is really talented, while the pitchers are much less proven.
And will it be chalk or long shots in 2022? The 2021 season was bound to be full of surprises, but who knew we'd get as many as we did? Kevin Kopps of Arkansas went from having an 8.18 ERA in 2020 to winning the Golden Spikes Award in 2021. Stanford was picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12, and the Cardinal went to Omaha. Notre Dame was an afterthought in the preseason, and the Irish won the ACC by 4.5 games. And the Fairfield Stags didn't lose their first game until May 2. The MAAC champs finished the year 39-5 and earned the league's first-ever at-large NCAA bid. Will the favorites strike back this season?
Kyle Peterson: Coaching changes at perennial powers. I can't remember this many historically strong programs changing coaches in one season. Arizona, Arizona State, Cal State Fullerton, LSU, Rice, TCU and Texas A&M all have new head coaches. There is some serious Omaha history in those brands. There are some former players in the mix of coaching changes (Chip Hale and Willie Bloomquist) and a couple of coaches who moved from one school on that list to another (Jim Schlossnagle and Jay Johnson). I'm intrigued to see the storylines unfold at all of these great programs.
Who is your preseason pick for player of the year?
Burke: Brock Jones, Stanford. Jones made a name for himself last June, leading the Cardinal to the College World Series for the first time since 2008. Bursting with charisma and athleticism, this young slugger has a chance to be a top-10 pick in this year's MLB draft. Coming off a season in which he hit 18 home runs, had an OPS over 1.000 and stole 14 bases, he is a legitimate 20/20 threat this season. Look for Stanford to have another monster year and Jones to lead the way.
McGee: Logan Tanner, Mississippi State. The Bulldogs catcher will be the heart and soul of the defending national champion and once again the anchor of a loaded pitching staff. He can rake, has a 16-inch battleship cannon for an arm (he used to be a pitcher), he's a projected first-round draft pick and he'll get plenty of TV exposure. All of that will add up very nicely for Tanner when it comes to awards voting in June.
Rooney: Brooks Lee, Cal Poly. He is a switch-hitting shortstop who could go in the first 10 picks of the draft and had 27 doubles in 2021. He also is the son of Mustangs skipper Larry Lee.
Peterson: Enrique Bradfield Jr., Vanderbilt. He was the most dynamic player in the country last season as a freshman and I expect the skill set to only mature with age. Bradfield is one of the fastest players in the country, an elite defender in center field and he changes the game every time he's on the basepaths. He's a must-watch player for me anytime he walks on the field.
Who is an under-the-radar player fans need to know?
Burke: Luke Hancock, Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are coming off their first national championship, and there is talk of a repeat performance in Starkville. With the team ranked in the top five to start the season, there are plenty of reasons to think this club can go back to back. Landon Sims is one of the most talented pitchers in the country, and catcher Logan Tanner is a potential big leaguer. With that kind of star power, it's easy to overlook Hancock, but make no mistake, he is one of the toughest outs in college baseball. Coming off a season in which he drove in 62 runs and hit 10 home runs, he was one of the toughest hitters to strike out in the country (17K's in almost 300 plate appearances), and he has a knack for delivering in key situations. For Mississippi State to repeat, it will need a big year out of its veteran first baseman.
McGee: Brooks Lee, Cal Poly. To hardcore college baseball people, Lee broke out long ago. But I would argue that to most fans around the nation, he is still under the radar. That won't last long. I'd heard so much about Lee for so long, but hadn't seen him in person until I was covering the US Olympic team last summer and saw Lee on USA Baseball's collegiate squad. From the moment he walked onto the field, he had my eye and kept it. He's a classic coach's kid (Mustangs head coach Larry Lee is his dad) in that he's the headiest guy on the field, and that is apparent immediately. I badly wanted to have him as my player of the year pick, but it's hard for someone in the Big West to overcome the constant exposure the guys in the bigger conferences get via TV and hosting regionals. (So I'll let Mike have that pick!)
Rooney: Nolan McLean, Oklahoma State. The sophomore third baseman also could also serve as the Cowboys' closer. He came to Stillwater on a football scholarship as a quarterback and has a middle-of-the-order bat with a QB's swagger -- and a big arm.
Peterson: Alan Roden, Creighton. It's surprising to me that Roden is still playing in college. He had an outstanding 2021 in a tough ballpark for hitters but still went undrafted. It looks like he will move to first base this year and maybe he gets lost in the shuffle a little in the Big East, but Roden can really hit and he leads a Creighton team that could surprise some people this year.
Who is a potential sleeper team to keep an eye on?
Burke: Louisville. How can a program that has been to Omaha five times in the past 15 years be a sleeper team? Well, based on the preseason polls, the Cardinals aren't getting a lot of respect. Coming off their first missed NCAA tournament since 2011, the Cardinals have a bunch of questions to answer this year. They lost the No. 1 pick in the MLB draft in Henry Davis and return a pitching staff that largely underperformed last season. However, Dan McDonnell is a master motivator, and something tells me he has circled the wagons and will have his club ready to reassert itself. Expect Levi Usher to have a huge bounce-back season and Dalton Rushing to be a breakout star. I'd be very surprised if Louisville baseball isn't back in a big way this year.
McGee: Louisiana Tech. No one has ever had a rougher two years than these guys, who had their stadium destroyed by a tornado in 2019 and their season shut down with everyone else's in 2020. They rebounded with a regional appearance in 2021 and this season all three of their weekend pitchers are back, anchored by C-USA preseason pitcher of the year Jonathan Fincher.
Rooney: Long Beach State. The Dirtbags won 15 of their last 17 games in 2021, and although they got off to a slow start, they nearly made the NCAA tournament anyway. This club has pitching for days, including one of the nation's best closers in Harrison Devereaux. Deeper sleeper: Iowa. Rick Heller's club is strong on the mound and the Hawkeyes always seem to produce offense. In a fairly wide-open Big Ten, this could be the year for Iowa.
Peterson: Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles are loaded offensively with guys who made a run in the Oxford Regional last year. Reed Trimble is really the only key contributor from last season's lineup to move on. They get two starters back on the mound and have some power arms who could emerge. Southern Miss is always a team that no one wants to play in the postseason, and that likely will be the case in Omaha this year, too.
Who is your pick to win the College World Series?
Burke: Arkansas. I'm not sure this is the best reasoning, but what the heck. There seems to be a trend in college baseball that the team that's supposed to win it all ends up closing the deal and taking the title the following season. Think about Vanderbilt in 2014, Virginia in 2015 and Oregon State in 2018. All those teams were ranked No. 1 for long periods of time the year before they eventually won the CWS. Arkansas is coming off a stinging defeat at the hands of NC State in Game 3 of their super regional, so the Razorbacks feel like a team with unfinished business. There are questions with their pitching staff, but I trust Dave Van Horn and that uber-talented roster to have the answers all season long and be ready to roll come tournament time. Something tells me Arkansas figures out a way to get its first national championship this year.
McGee: Texas. Yeah, the Horns lost Ty Madden to the big leagues, but they have no holes on their roster. And -- quick reminder -- they pushed eventual CWS champ Mississippi State to the brink of elimination last June. I like so many SEC teams, especially Vanderbilt and Arkansas, but when Ivan Melendez decided to return for one more year in Austin, that put this pick over the top for me.
Rooney: Arkansas has the most talented roster in the country. The program has some momentum but the team also will play with a chip on their shoulder this year. The position player group may be the best combination of offense and defense in the country.
Peterson: Texas. The Longhorns have it all this year. Power and experience in the starting rotation and a veteran offense that made a run to Omaha last year. Ivan Melendez can mash and the experience behind the plate with Silas Ardoin is huge for me. Ardoin can really catch and handle a pitching staff, which he showed last year, but I expect the bat to come on more this year. Trey Faltine is a rock at shortstop and Tanner Witt will move into the rotation to start the season. An early season trip to South Carolina should be a great test. I don't see many holes here and the Horns have a great chance to bring home the school's seventh national title.