As the collegiate winter season winds down, the spring season is heating up with baseball ready to step up front and center.
The start of the season has seen Tennessee rise to the top of the rankings, with Arkansas living up to preseason expectations and sitting just behind the Vols. Texas Tech has had its share of early season excitement, while Texas State is off to the best start in program history.
To catch you up on what you may have missed and get you geared up for the second half of the season, we asked ESPN college baseball experts Mike Rooney, Chris Burke and Ryan McGee for their impressions of what they’ve seen so far. Additionally, MLB insider Kiley McDaniel breaks down the top collegiate prospects for this year’s draft.
Who has been the top breakout player so far this season?
Mike Rooney: Sonny DiChiara hit 41 home runs in his three seasons (including 2020) at Samford. When he transferred to Auburn, the colorful right-handed hitter arrived with a large physique (6-foot-1, 263 pounds) and an even bigger personality. He is leading the SEC in all three slash categories (.461 / .616 / .921). And his walk-up song is the best in all of baseball: Louis Prima’s “C’e La Luna Mezz’o Mare.”
Chris Burke: Tennessee right-hander Chase Burns. Throwing on Friday nights as a true freshman is very rare in college baseball, so someone who gets that chance has to be a very rare talent. It turns out Burns is exactly that. He is 5-0 with an 0.80 ERA, with 45 strikeouts and only 16 hits allowed in 33 innings. He has pitched against two No. 1 teams (Texas, Ole Miss) and has thrown 12 innings with 21 K’s, allowing just one run in each start. Pretty impressive, especially for a true freshman.
Ryan McGee: At Tennessee, they require freshmen to live on campus. Drew Beam is going to need to annex his suitemates’ room to store all of his awards.
Who has been the best player in the country?
Rooney: Jake Gelof used to be known as Zach Gelof’s younger brother. He is now an early favorite to win the Golden Spikes Award. Gelof broke out during Virginia’s 2021 run to Omaha. It turns out that wasn’t a fluke. The third baseman plays with big talent and a free spirit, and Virginia looks like a World Series team once again.
Burke: I agree. Last year Gelof was a freshman finding his way on a team that made an incredible run to Omaha. This year he is the driving force behind an offensive juggernaut that is looking like a national title contender. Coming off a modest freshman campaign when he hit .252 with 4 homers and 15 RBIs, he has gone off to the tune of .456 / 13/46 with an OPS of more than 1,700. It will be tough to keep this pace up through the rigors of conference play, but as of now they have been the nation’s best player.
McGee: I normally try not to completely fall in love with guys who are posting ridiculous stats during the first half of the season that contains so many nonconference games, but at .439-14-51 Jake Gelof of Virginia is producing better numbers than Jeff Bezos. Oh, and his team is pretty good, too.
What team has been the most pleasant surprise?
Rooney: Texas State won a series at Arizona and split its midweek series with Texas. The Bobcats won’t win any recruiting battles against the blue bloods of college baseball, but they can absolutely play with them. Their lineup consists of six fifth-year seniors and relievers Triston Dixon and Tristan Stivors dominate the end of the game. Old guys with skill for the win.
Burke: Louisville. I picked the Cardinals to be the surprise team in 2022, and they have not been disappointed. Sitting at 19-5 and 6-0 in the ACC, Louisville is right back in the center of the college baseball world. Led by one of the best offenses in the country, Dan McDonnell’s club can score in bunches. With third baseman Ben Metzinger and shortstop Christian Knapczyk leading the way, there is power, speed and depth in this lineup. And now that Jared Poland and Michael Prosecky have stabilized the pitching staff, Louisville looks for boys to make another run to Omaha.
McGee: I see you, Texas State, making a run at your first NCAA tourney in more than a decade. And you, UCLA, smoking Oregon and climbing up through the rankings that we all left you out of in the preseason.
Who is your World Series champion pick?
Rooney: I will stay with Arkansas. The Razorbacks have won a ton of games despite their power numbers being down significantly since last year. Maybe that will change as the weather turns? Regardless, Dave Van Horn has a rotation he can trust, three solid relievers for the end of the game, and a team that plays elite defense.
Burke: Tennessee. Go ahead and throw all the “homer” hate my way, but it’s hard to not see Tennessee as the most complete team in the country. The Vols have a deep lineup and lead the SEC in OPS and homers by a wide margin, while also sporting a pitching staff that leads in ERA. The impressive part is that the position player group has the depth to withstand injuries and the staff is still awaiting the debut of its most talented returning pitcher, Blade Tidwell (a projected first-round draft pick). My preseason pick was in Arkansas, and they have not been disappointed, but as things stand today, Tennessee has to be the betting favorite to be the last team standing.
McGee: I’ll stick with my preseason pick of Texas. Don’t be fooled by their March scuffles. This is about how you’re playing in June. Back in February, I saw both Duke and UNC play basketball and was like, “These dudes are lost.” A little more than a month later, they were squaring off in the Final Four.
What team is the most fun to watch?
Rooney: Tennessee plays with a swagger reminiscent of the Miami Hurricanes’ football teams of the 1980s. In addition to the showmanship, the Vols lead the nation in home runs by a Grand Canyon-sized margin. The rotation has been dominant and the bullpen is full of trusted veterans. They also have a right-hander who has been clocked up to 104 mph in Ben Joyce. And don’t get me started on Mike Honcho.
Burke: See my previous answer!
McGee: It’s got to be Tennessee, and that’s not just because all of my old college roommates keep texting me every single time the Vols do something awesome, which feels like all the time. Every year there is a team that makes an early exit from Omaha looking angry and miserable, but then rolls into the following season with a chip on their shoulder and the momentum of a truck without brakes. Tennessee is No. 1, shows no signs of slowing down and looks like they are having more fun than anyone else in the game.
What’s your favorite moment of the season?
Rooney: Tommy White of NC State is a burly right-handed hitter reminiscent of college baseball icons Pete Incaviglia and Bob Horner. The true freshman announced his presence with authority by hitting three home runs in his first college game. He hit two more in that series against Evansville, for a total of five round-trippers in his first weekend of college baseball. Welcome to the party Tommy Tanks.
Kurt Wilson catches Texas’ pitcher sleeping as he steals home to win the game for Texas Tech in the 10th inning.
Burke: The Texas-Texas Tech series. The Red Raiders opened the Big 12 play with the Longhorns in town and won the first two games in memorable fashion. Tech had a walk-off steal of home to win Game 1, then an extra-inning grand slam to win Game 2, both by senior Kurt Wilson. It doesn’t get much more memorable than that. The Longhorns got some revenge in the final with a blowout 12-1 win, but the damage had been done. The teams were so chirpy all weekend that they didn’t even shake hands at the end of the series. There is no love lost between these programs, but it certainly makes for some highly dramatic action.
McGee: Two weeks ago, Kentucky’s Jase Felker got his first start of the season, a last-minute add to the lineup on a Sunday against Georgia. He responded with this stat line: 5-for-6 with a double, two runs scored and an RBI. In the stands were his parents, from Princeton, Kentucky, where hundreds of people were left without homes and another 74 were killed by a devastating wave of tornadoes. Princeton needed something to lift their spirits. Jase Felker has been that something.
Kiley McDaniel’s draft prospects
The top of the 2022 MLB draft right now is dominated by high school players with Druw Jones and Termarr Johnson leading the way. Just behind them is a glut of college position players, with scouts shuffling their order almost every week. I think college hitters may represent 15 of the top 30 picks in the draft. Here are some of the candidates, broken into three groups by type:
Brooks Lee, Cal Poly
Cade Doughty, LSU
Zach dating in Neto, Campbell
Robert Moore, Arkansas
Colby Halter, Florida
Jordan Sprinkle, UC Santa Barbara
Peyton Graham, Oklahoma
Alex Freeland, UCF
Carter Young, Vanderbilt
Lee is the best hitter in this group and has a long track record of success back to high school, though he may not be a long-term shortstop. Sprinkle and Young are the only true shortstop types, and both have questions about their offensive impact. There isn’t a slam dunk prospect here, but a lot of well-rounded ones.
Probable corner outfielders
Jacob Berry, LSU
Sterlin Thompson, Florida
Gavin Cross, Virginia Tech
Dylan Beavers, Cal
Chase DeLauter, James Madison
Jordan Beck, Tennessee
Spencer Jones, Vanderbilt
Cayden Wallace, Arkansas
If the draft were held today, I think this whole group would be picked in the top 30, and all but one or two in the top 20. They are largely producing at the highest levels while showing contact and power. Berry and Wallace have both been adequate at the third base, but I think this whole group settles in the left or right field over the long term. Jones and Beck have the most raw power, with potential 30-homer type juice in the big leagues.
Jace Jung, Texas Tech
Kevin Parada, Georgia Tech
Logan Tanner, Mississippi
Brock Jones, Stanford
Daniel Susac, Arizona
Jud Fabian, Florida
Drew Gilbert, Tennessee
This group is mostly catchers and center fielders, other than Jung, who would seem to be somewhat positionless in pro ball. Maybe his best fit is as a shift-aided second baseman is his best fit? Parada and Tanner are catchers having great springs, while Gilbert has been on the rise as a center fielder but his upside is limited by his size.