College baseball preview: The storylines, teams and players to watch in 2024

College baseball preview: The storylines, teams and players to watch in 2024

The college baseball season gets underway Friday with games across ESPN platforms. No. 1 Wake Forest will open its season against Fordham at 5 p.m. ET (ACCNX) and reigning champion LSU, ranked No. 4 to start the season, will play VMI at 3 p.m. ET (SEC Network+).

Our college baseball experts couldn’t be more excited for 2024. They break down the season’s most important storylines, teams and players to watch, plus give their early Men’s College World Series predictions.

What are you most excited for this season?

Ryan McGee: Continuing the national conversation and the buzz about college baseball that we all experienced last June. To me, the keyword in that last sentence is “national.” When I started constructing my preseason top 25 over the past couple of weeks, I realized that it really is a national list. Teams from every corner of the nation, all with a legit chance to be in Omaha this summer. I love dynasties and powerhouses and all of that, but this sport is at its best when every corner of the map has a vested interest. This year feels like it could really be one of those seasons.

Chris Burke: I’m fired up to see some of the old faces in new places this year. Say what you want to about the portal, but it is here and has completely changed college sports. Three of the best players in the portal last year, Paul Skenes, Thatcher Hurd and Tommy White, were centerpieces on LSU’s run to the title, and this year’s premier crop could do the same. So keep a close eye on preseason No. 1 Wake Forest and its star transfers, Chase Burns and Seaver King. These two dudes could be the keys to the Deacs making a run at the Men’s College World Series.

Mike Rooney: I’m excited to see if anyone can wrestle the national championship trophy away from the SEC! This league has won five of the past six titles, including four in a row. The SEC teams are seemingly built for Omaha, and their performances both in getting to and excelling at the Men’s College World Series have been next level. Wake Forest traded punches with the powers of the league in the offseason, as did TCU. But the reality is that those five previously mentioned national titles were secured by five different programs. This league is no one-trick pony.

Which teams should we be watching?

McGee: I suppose it feels lazy to say Wake Forest because it’s the team at the top of almost everyone’s preseason rankings. But I am always fascinated with programs and teams that are tasked with the burden of coming off a soul-crushing ending to the previous season. What do you do with that? Is it the grudge that gets you over the hump? Or is it the menace that you just can’t shake? The Demon Deacons lost the greatest college baseball game I have ever witnessed, their elimination game against LSU in the MCWS semifinals. How they rebound from that, good or bad, will be the story of this season.

Burke: The list of teams to watch heading into the start of the season reads as a who’s who in college baseball over the past five years. Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, LSU, Vandy and Texas A&M highlight a loaded SEC group. TCU appears to be the class of the Big 12 and is riding high off the heels of a fantastic Omaha run in ’23. Wake and Clemson return some real firepower, and both look like legit MCWS contenders from the ACC. Oregon State looks like the best team out West as it combines talented veterans with an elite recruiting class that has created a lot of excitement about its chances to make a deep tournament run.

Rooney: The top of the rankings is full of familiar faces. Can Wake Forest sustain this level of success? Who is the best team in the SEC? LSU, Florida and Arkansas feel like Tier 1. Is this the year that Tennessee or Arkansas wins a national championship? Is Iowa ready to host in the postseason and work its way to Omaha? Can UCSB and UC Irvine reestablish the Big West as a national player in college baseball? Northeastern returns a cadre of talented returners from a 45-win team … are the Huskies for real? Will Oregon State make people pay for leaving the Beavers behind during the latest version of conference realignment?

Which under-the-radar team should we keep tabs on?

McGee: If you are a hardcore college baseball fan, then Northeastern isn’t under the radar. But to the national audience, the Huskies out of the Colonial aren’t exactly Wake and LSU. Their season starts on the road for a solid month, beginning with a trip to Arizona. They return all but two starters, loaded up on transfers from lower divisions and have five hitters returning who hit 10 or more homers one year ago. Center fielder Mike Sirotka is the real deal. These guys will vanish into the CAA calendar during the spring, but expect to see them making noise when the tourney begins this summer.

Burke: Florida State. Watch out for a bounce-back season from the Seminoles. After missing the tournament for the first time in 44 years and finishing last in the ACC, the Noles look like they are ready to emerge as a contender again. Led by an offense that will feature returning stars 1B James Tibbs and the toolsy 3B Cam Smith, this team could reemerge as a threat quickly. Coach Link Jarrett has won everywhere he’s been, and I expect he will have this group ready to bounce back in ’24.

Rooney: UC Irvine returns every single at-bat from the 2023 season. Every single one. The Eaters were snubbed by the NCAA selection committee last season despite their 8-1 record versus the Pac-12 and 19-6 road record. That club was both a top-30 offense and a top-30 pitching staff. Two of their headliners both hit from the left side: slugger Anthony Martinez and fire starter Jo Oyama. Speaking of southpaws, ace Nick Pinto leads Division I baseball with 46 career starts. Finally, shortstop Woody Hadeen is back (missed 2023 due to injury) and he is a top-five-round talent.

Which players do we need to be watching?

McGee: I mean, Florida’s Jac Caglianone and LSU’s Tommy White … duh, right? But I believe it would also behoove you to keep your eyes pointed toward another corner of the SEC where maybe you haven’t looked in a while. South Carolina hasn’t been to Omaha since 2012, but down in Columbia, South Carolina, the Gamecocks are about to return to national prominence, thanks to Cole Messina behind the plate and Ethan Perry in the outfield.

Burke: The players to watch in ’24 are a group of must-see talents. The biggest star of the bunch, Caglianone, has some of the best raw tools the college game has seen. Last year, he led the country in homers (33) and has a fastball that touches 100 mph. He is truly must-see TV. As much as Cags steals the headlines, the group of players behind him on the list could actually be safer bets to be MLB stars. West Virginia SS JJ Wetherholt is the best hitter in the country, Oregon State’s Travis Bazzana is the reigning Cape Cod League MVP and Wake Forest’s Chase Burns (RHP) has some of the nastiest swing-and-miss stuff the college game has to offer. Oh yeah, and Tommy White aka Tommy Tanks, has posted two of the best seasons ever to start a career, and watching him cap off his legendary career this year will be a story worth following. So many great players this year, but that is my short list of must follows.

Rooney: One fun theme to follow will be two-sport athletes who have decided to focus on baseball in 2024. Brody Brecht (Iowa), Jay Woolfolk (Virginia) and Will Taylor (Clemson) all turned in their football scholarships last summer so that they could participate in fall baseball. Brecht and Woolfolk are right-handers with significant MLB draft profiles. Brecht had been a wide receiver whereas Woolfolk was a quarterback. Taylor was a wide receiver and kick returner for the Tigers, and he is an outfielder and middle-of-the-order bat in baseball. One more name for good measure: USC center fielder Austin Overn played wide receiver for the Trojans in the fall of 2022, but he is solely focused on the diamond now.

Are there any standout freshmen or transfers you’re interested in?

McGee: If you stood in the center of the Arkansas clubhouse and swung a fungo bat in any direction you would hit at least two or three wildly talented freshmen, but the guy I can’t wait to see is lefty hurler Hunter Dietz. Dude is 6-foot-6, 230 pounds and is one of those guys who is 19 years old but already looks like a CEO with like three kids and a mortgage.

Burke: One of the best things about the MLB shrinking its draft from 50 rounds to 20 is that the college game has seen an increase in older players staying four to five years and blue-chip recruits making their way to campus. This year, there are a number of high-profile freshmen who for one reason or another slipped through the draft and find themselves in primary roles in college baseball. UCLA has always recruited at a high level, but this year’s class may be as talented as any in the John Savage era. The headliner of the class is Roch Cholowsky, one of the highest-ranked high school position players to make it to campus, he was also a big-time high school quarterback. Likely to play 3B for the Bruins this year, Cholowsky is the most anticipated freshman on campus in Westwood since Matt McLain.

Rooney: When it comes to impact transfers and freshmen, I’ll stick on the left side of the infield. Wehiwa Aloy (Arkansas) starred for Sacramento State as a true freshman in 2023. The Hawaii native slugged 34 extra-base hits as a college baseball rookie, including 14 home runs. The 6-1, 195-pounder has thunder in his hands, and he will be the Razorbacks starting shortstop. Oregon State freshman Trent Caraway was a star shortstop in Southern California, and he will play third base for Beavers. Caraway’s calling cards are his tremendous bat speed and a style that would best be described as playing with his hair on fire.

Give us your way-too-early MCWS prediction — can it even top how great it was last season?

McGee: Every year when I walk through the Omaha Baseball Village next to the ballpark, there’s a map of the United States that shows the eight MCWS teams and how far they are from Omaha. Every year of recent memory that map has been overloaded in the southeast with one lone school west of the Mississippi River. This year I think that balances out. I still expect to see an SEC or ACC school dogpiling at the end, but I also expect them to have to get through a much more evenly spread out United Nation of College Baseball map to get there.

Burke: My waaaaay too early MCWS prediction is that it’s hard to predict a scenario where the Demon Deacons aren’t one of the last two standing for the MCWS finals. It’s a long season but Wake Forest, similar to LSU last year, feels like its talent is built to withstand the journey. But as they say … we shall see!

Rooney: Similar to 2018, Oregon State will take on an SEC program for the national title. The Beavers are loaded, entering the season with a very experienced roster. This squad includes a national player of the year candidate in Australian second baseman Travis Bazzana. It is also a roster that has no glaring weakness. And Oregon State is playing with an extra-healthy chip on its shoulder after being left homeless in the musical chairs of conference realignment. This team is talented and experienced, and it is on a mission. The SEC will have a team in the finals … because of course they will.

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