The Seven College Baseball Teams You Need to Know

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen/USA TODAY NETWORK

If you’re cursing the obstinance of winter, wishing for baseball to return in earnest, you’re in luck. The Division I college baseball season starts today. The real sickos among you already knew this, and have no doubt been studying Jac Caglianone’s Trackman data exhaustively since Thanksgiving. But if you’re new to the college game, you might not know where to start.

A proper exhaustive college baseball preview takes half a dozen writers weeks to compile. As one guy with less than 4,000 words to work with, I’ve chosen to highlight seven teams I believe will be interesting and/or important to the coming season. I expect all seven to make the NCAA tournament, and my national championship pick is among them, but this is not a College World Series preview or an ordered ranking.

Instead, I tried to add in a little variety, in terms of quality, region, and conference. Most of these teams are interesting because I don’t know exactly how good they’ll be. But I’ll be going out of my way to track them throughout the spring, because I believe they’ll each have an outsize impact on the college baseball landscape. Here they are, in no particular order.

Wake Forest
Wake was the no. 1 overall seed in last year’s NCAA tournament, and played eventual national champion LSU about as close as possible before bowing out in the semifinal. The two teams split their first two meetings, culminating in a winner-take-all matchup with a trip to the final on the line, with eventual no. 1 overall pick Paul Skenes on the mound for LSU and no. 8 overall pick Rhett Lowder on the mound for Wake. It was one of the best games of the year anywhere, and stayed scoreless into the 11th inning.

This was basically the coequal best team in the country last year, and even after having 10 players get drafted, including two in the first round, I think the Demon Deacons are going to be even better in 2024. First baseman Nick Kurtz (.353/.527/.784 last year) is a potential no. 1 overall pick, and outfielder Seaver King, who made the collegiate national team last summer despite playing in Division II, is one of the top transfer bats in the class. Most college baseball publications have Kurtz and at least one of Wake’s pitchers listed as preseason first-team All-Americans.

And that pitching staff is the key. Wake has ascended from ACC mediocrity into national power status on the strength of a state-of-the-art pitching development lab. Every generation has a private school that dominates college baseball because it learned how to grow first-round pitchers on trees. Wake is to Zoomers what Vanderbilt was to younger Millennials, Rice was to Xennials, and Stanford was to Gen-X.

This year’s rotation is experienced — all three projected weekend starters are juniors — and deep. Lefty Josh Hartle has the best track record and excellent command (a 2.81 ERA and 140 strikeouts against 24 walks in 102 1/3 innings in 2023), but the two guys behind him are absolutely electric. Chase Burns was one of the top freshman pitchers in the country in 2022 at Tennessee and just transferred in, while Michael Massey, in his second year at Wake after spending his first year at Tulane, is developing his pure fastball/slider power game into a more well-rounded approach in his first year in the rotation. Both Burns and Massey are exciting, high-energy pitchers who pitch like they’ve had seven cups of coffee.

Even a college baseball season is long and unpredictable, so it’s unlikely that Wake dominates wire-to-wire the way it looks like it can, but this is where the conversation starts.

Key Player: Chase Burns, RHP, Jr.
Burns is my favorite player in college baseball right now. He’s one of the hardest throwers in the game already, topping out at 101 mph, and as good as Tennessee is at developing pitchers, a change of scenery might do just as much good for Burns as it did for Skenes last year. And I use the Skenes comparison advisedly: Burns is already a projected first-rounder, and a more refined, consistent junior season could send him to the very top of the draft. In his last two preseason outings, Burns totaled 20 strikeouts, three hits, and two walks over 10 straight scoreless innings. Buckle up.

Since the Big Ten’s last expansion a decade ago, the conference has been consistently strong, but the team on top changes every couple years. Michigan, Indiana, Maryland, Ohio State, Illinois — they’ve all been up and down, up and down, depending on the season. Iowa has been something like the third- or fourth-best team in the conference basically the whole time, but has yet to have its own breakout season.

Current head coach Rick Heller went 10-14 in-conference in his first season, 2014, and hasn’t had a losing conference record since. The Hawkeyes have made the NCAA tournament three times, but have never advanced beyond the regional round. They won the conference tournament in 2017 and finished fourth or better in each of the past three seasons, but their last regular season conference title came in 1990. And even in a conference that’s produced plenty of major league All-Stars (Kyle Schwarber, Brandon Lowe, Jake Cronenworth), Heller’s Iowa players have a combined nine games of major league experience. Only one of them has been drafted in the first four rounds.

That’ll change this year, because Iowa is loaded, especially on the pitching side. Marcus Morgan and Brody Brecht allowed 5.2 and 4.3 H/9 last year, respectively. JUCO transfer Sam Hart will lead a strong bullpen as well. They’ll be tested early, too, because Iowa plays a rough non-conference schedule, with games against Auburn, Virginia, Ole Miss, and Georgia in the first month of the season.

Key Player: Brody Brecht, RHP, Jr.
Brecht throws just as hard as Burns, topping out at 102 mph in a preseason intra-squad game this spring. He’s an elite athlete for a pitcher at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, and he only decided to play baseball full-time last year. Before that, he moonlighted as a wide receiver on the Hawkeyes football team. First-round pitching prospect by day, playing in Brian Ferentz’s offense by night — Brecht must hate scoring more than any man alive.

The key for Brecht? Not allowing free bases. He allowed only 37 hits last year, just two of them home runs, but he walked 61 batters in 77 innings. (I should probably mention that Morgan also walked 51 in 65 1/3 innings, giving Iowa the distinction of having two weekend starters with an ERA under 4.00 but a BB/9 ratio of 7.0 or more.) Nobody cares how fast you throw ball four, I remember reading somewhere.

Oregon State
West coast college baseball is in a bit of a down period, with the Beavers standing out as one of few exceptions. For the past decade, they’ve been the most successful team in the Pac-12, but because baseball does not drive the economic engine of college athletics, they’re going to get orphaned next year. Unlike most would-be Ruppert Mundys, Oregon State can hang with anyone, and if they set out to win the whole [expletive] thing in the final year of the Pac-12, they have a good chance of pulling it off.

The rotation is still a bit of a question mark — Friday night starter Aiden May is on his third school in as many seasons — but the infield should be exceptional. Trent Caraway should be one of the top freshman hitters in the country; he comes to Corvallis having just broken his high school’s single-season hits record. That ordinarily wouldn’t mean much, but Caraway went to JSerra Catholic, which is one of those California private high schools that churns out so many ballplayers even I’ve heard of it. The last guy to hold that record was Royce Lewis. And I’ll just skip ahead to the main attraction.

Key Player: Travis Bazzana, 2B, Jr.
Yes, he’s just as Australian as his name suggests. Last season, the left-handed-hitting Bazzana put up a .374/.500/.622 line with 34 extra-base hits and 36 steals in 61 games for the Beavers. Then he went to the Cape and hit .375/.456/.581 with 14 stolen bases in 33 games.

The fact that Bazzana is getting top-five draft buzz should tell you everything you need to know. It’s not every day a college second baseman goes that high. In fact, the last full-time college second baseman to get picked that high was an Oregon State player, Nick Madrigal, in 2018. That year, Oregon State won the national championship — the last non-SEC team to do so — with a roster that included Adley Rutschman and Steven Kwan in addition to Madrigal and two more first-round position players.

When it comes to college baseball, I’m an extreme SEC chauvinist; if the rest of the country disappeared I don’t think we’d notice. It happens every year in the College World Series anyway.

But SEC teams have three major systemic advantages: Geographical proximity to recruiting hotbeds, a conference that puts more than half its teams into the NCAA tournament every year, and weather and facilities that allow them to play almost all of their non-conference games at home.

Teams that enjoy none of those advantages have an impossible road to hoe. It’s hard to recruit top players, much less keep them out of the transfer portal. The schedule might be easier, but in a one- or two-bid league, every minor slip-up can be punished with an early offseason. And these teams spend the first six weeks of the season flying all over the country in search of playable baseball weather.

There are plenty of small-conference cold-weather schools that overcome these challenges to build consistent winners, and every few years one of them not only makes a regional but jumps up and bites a blue blood program once there.

The team best positioned to do that this year is Northeastern, which went 44-16 last year, good enough to earn an at-large bid out of the CAA. Head coach Mike Glavine was a hot candidate to take over at Boston College last offseason after BC lost its own head coach, Mike Gambino, to Penn State. But Glavine is a Northeastern baseball lifer. He played there in the 1990s, and he’s coached there, first as an assistant and now as head coach, since 2007. (In a ranking of current Division I head coaches by the quality of their brothers’ major league careers, Oklahoma State head coach Josh Holliday comes in second and Wright State’s Alex Sogard is third.)

Because winters in Boston are a frozen hellscape of clouds and sleet, Northeastern is going to play its first 12 games on the road. The Huskies have a game against the Red Sox before they have a game at their own park. Their first weekend series at home starts on March 29. And the CAA is going to be tougher than ever this year. Not only will the Huskies have to contend with defending conference tournament champion UNC-Wilmington, as well as College of Charleston and Elon, but Campbell is joining the conference this year.

A virtual nonentity elsewhere in college sports, Campbell is one of the best mid-major programs in the country, a persistent thorn in the side of ACC and SEC teams both in midweek nonconference play and in regionals.

Northeastern won’t have it easy, but if the Huskies can survive this gauntlet and make it to regionals, they’ll be the no. 3 seed nobody wants to face.

Key Player: Mike Sirota, OF, Jr.
Getting a 16th-round draftee to college in the CAA is no small feat. Keeping him there when the likes of LSU and Tennessee are prowling through the transfer portal every summer is even harder. Sirota — not to be confused with current White Sox pitcher Michael Soroka, former White Sox pitcher Mike Sirotka, former no. 4 overall pick Mike Stodolka, Cardinals outfielder Michael Siani, or the 1979 new wave bop “My Sharona” — is going to be Northeastern’s first first-round pick since Adam Ottavino in 2006. He might end up being the school’s highest-drafted player ever, a distinction currently held by Carlos Pena, the 10th overall pick in 1998.

Sirota is a well-rounded center fielder with nothing but average-or-better tools and plus speed. He’s hit .300/.400/.500 or better in both of his college seasons so far; last year he hit .346/.472/.678 with 18 homers and 19 stolen bases in 55 games. Being the standout player on a team like Northeastern can come with a lot of pressure, but Sirota’s ability to perform against any competition is one of the keys to the Huskies’ optimistic outlook for this season.

South Carolina
I don’t expect the Gamecocks to come particularly close to winning the SEC. But this is a pivotal season for a program that used to be one of the best in the country and has spent the past decade wandering around trying to get back to the top of the mountain. From 2010 to 2012, South Carolina rewrote the NCAA tournament record book, but the 2012 championship series loss to Arizona was the team’s last trip to Omaha. Since 2017, five other SEC teams have won national titles. Nine have made it to the College World Series — 11, if you count Texas and Oklahoma.

Last season was South Carolina’s best under current head coach Mark Kingston. The Gamecocks swept eventual national runner-up Florida and should’ve swept national champion LSU. (South Carolina beat Skenes but blew a 7-3 eighth-inning lead in Game 2 of a weather-truncated series.) A dominant regional win presaged a tough super regional loss to the Gators, but the scariest parts of a great lineup are coming back.

The two tentpoles in the lineup are a pair of All-Americans, junior catcher Cole Messina and sophomore outfielder Ethan Petry. They’re joined by senior first baseman Gavin Casas, who’s just as big as his older brother, Red Sox slugger Triston. The younger Casas hit 19 home runs last year.

The biggest question mark — the thing that’ll determine whether the Gamecocks remain a second-tier SEC team or if they can compete with the likes of Florida, LSU, and Tennessee — is an inexperienced pitching staff. This team is going to mash; if they can get outs as well, this season could end in Omaha.

Key Player: Ethan Petry, OF, So.
Most college players are due for some kind of growth. Even bat-first position players — Wyatt Langford was a late bloomer, for instance. Not so much with Petry. He wasn’t a nailed-on starter upon arriving on campus, and he finished his freshman season before his 19th birthday, but he did nothing but crush SEC pitching. Petry hit .376/.471/.733 with 23 home runs in 63 games as a freshman. He’s already 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, so he’s not going to grow into a new position. He’s not going to find better competition to play against. But he can’t go into the draft until 2025, so I guess he’s just going to hang around Columbia and drive in 75 runs a year for the next two seasons.

I’m pushing the boat out a little here, singling out a team that isn’t even the consensus pick to win a conference that only put one team in the NCAA tournament last season. (Big West coaches voted UC-Santa Barbara as the favorite over Irvine, 9-2.)

The current iteration of Irvine’s baseball program only dates to 2002, but the Eaters became a national power quickly, with two College World Series appearances in the program’s first 13 seasons. But since the last trip to Omaha in 2014, Irvine has only made the NCAA tournament once, despite a couple near-misses.

The Big West will be stronger than it’s been in years, so if Irvine repeats its performance from last season (38-17 overall, 19-11 in-conference, 10-3 against Power Five-conference competition), it should end up on the right side of the bubble this time.

The Eaters interest me because, in this era of impact freshmen and constant transfers, they’re returning every single player who took an at-bat in 2023. That includes Caden Kendle, the only college player who was picked in the first 10 rounds of the draft last year and didn’t sign. Why do we care that Irvine is bringing the whole lineup back? Well, because it was very good last year. I don’t know why, but for some reason every college coach who goes west of the Rockies immediately turns into John McGraw and wants nothing but small ball. And sure enough, UC-Irvine has a very grinder-y offense. Only two players hit double-digit home runs in 2023 (11 apiece), and the Eaters laid down 46 sacrifice bunts in 55 games, which was the 13th-highest total in Division I.

But they get on base. UCI was ninth nationally in OBP, in large part because Anteater players were hit by 133 pitches, the third-highest total in the country. And it’s not just one or two players carrying a lineup of easy outs. Last year, 12 UCI hitters took at least 20 at-bats. The lowest OBP of the entire group was .384, by shortstop Dub Gleed. Seven of the 11 hitters had an OBP of .410 or better.

The end of the Pac-12 is going to be a major turning point for college baseball on the Pacific coast — for so long the sport’s cultural center. Especially because I suspect that the diaspora will have a harder time in the Big Ten, Big 12, and ACC than most people expect. The performance of the Big West’s top programs, like Irvine, will be a major determining factor in whether that regional history is preserved or destroyed. No pressure, kids.

Key Player: Anthony Martinez, 1B, So.
As a freshman, Martinez led the Eaters in hits, batting average, OBP, SLG, home runs, doubles, and total bases. He hit .394/.471/.619, had 30 extra-base hits against only 27 strikeouts, and — contrary to the expectations of the West Coast Offense — didn’t drop a single sacrifice bunt. The strength of the Irvine offense is its depth, but Martinez is the closest thing UCI has to a player you have to pitch around.

A hitter like this has to combine exceptional hand-eye coordination and physical strength. College baseball bios are usually a repository for trivia and fun facts, but Martinez’s might contain the key to his success. Where did he get his bat-to-ball skills? Well, according to his bio, his hobbies include juggling and magic. And his power? Pupusas are Martinez’s favorite food. Gotta let the big dog eat.

Louisiana State
I’m just going to go ahead and stipulate that this could’ve been Florida or Arkansas. The Tennessee-Vanderbilt rivalry is turning into one of the most heated in college baseball, and should only become more so now that Vandy might possibly be figuring out how to use NIL money. Despite losing Burns in the transfer portal, Tennessee struck back with a transfer class that includes Cannon Peebles, one of the top catchers (and names) in the country.

By and large, the best teams in the SEC are the best teams in the country. D1Baseball has six SEC teams in its preseason top 10; Baseball America has five in the top 10 and seven in the top 12. If I were making a list of the seven best teams in the country, it’d be very SEC-heavy, but I’m trying to get some variety in. Don’t worry, Florida and Arkansas and Texas A&M are all going to get their fair share of attention.

So why single out LSU? Well, they’re the defending national champion. If you watched any college baseball last year, you probably know what Tommy White and Thatcher Hurd are all about. But the Tigers lost the top two picks in the draft, plus three other key players in the top 100 picks. Superstar pitching coach Wes Johnson took the head coaching job at Georgia. So what is head coach Jay Johnson going to do about it?

Basically the same thing all over again. To replace Johnson: Nate Yeskie, one of the top pitching coaches in college baseball. This is the second time Johnson has poached Yeskie; the two spent a season together at Arizona in 2021. And then Johnson went back to the transfer portal, where he picked up Skenes, White, and Hurd a year ago.

This transfer class isn’t quite as good as last year’s, which is like saying the 1999 Yankees weren’t as good as the 114-win team from the year before. But Johnson came away with two-thirds of his starting rotation: UCLA transfer Gage Jump (another JSerra alum) and Alabama transfer Luke Holman. LSU profited so much through the transfer portal that two of my favorite high school hitters in last year’s draft class — shortstop Steven Milam and first baseman/outfielder Ashton Larson — will both probably start the year on the bench.

Even at a school as well-resourced as LSU, it takes some doing to make it to Omaha two years in a row. Much less win the national title. Much less after turning over the roster twice in 18 months. LSU should be one of the best teams in the country, but it’ll take a while before we know for sure.

Key Player: Luke Holman, RHP, Jr.
Holman, ironically, is best known as the Alabama ace whose back injury led to him being scratched from a start against LSU last spring. This kicked off a Coen Brothers-type farce that ended the career of Bama head coach Brad Bohanon. All three of LSU’s projected weekend starters are candidates to go somewhere on the first day of the draft, with Holman probably being the least exciting of this group. Hurd has better stuff, while Jump can hit 95 from the left side, and from a funky over-the-top delivery with a short arm swing that allows him to hide the ball well.

But what LSU needs is reliable pitching. Needed it last year too, to be honest, and got away with not having very much of it. Skenes papered over a lot of cracks. Holman has already been a Friday night starter in the SEC, and he’s logged nearly as many college innings as his two rotation-mates put together. With White anchoring the lineup, LSU is going to score plenty. But nobody scores enough runs to make it to Omaha without solid starting pitching.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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2 months ago

This is a rare Baumann article without a pun title because college baseball is the only thing he takes seriously