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The March to Omaha: 2017 Season Preview

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Spring is coming.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Vanderbilt vs Virginia
Do we return to Omaha in ‘17?
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s not pretend all has been right with the world since the college baseball season ended. Every celebrity is dead. Everyone you know has lost their house to flood, tornados, or sink holes. You wake up every morning screaming in existential terror about the Emoluments Clause, the Logan Act, and/or Derek Mason’s contract extension. You are currently being poisoned by Vladimir Putin. Matthew Fisher Davis is pouting. Grizzly bears are stalking our schoolchildren. Nordstrom is dropping Ivanka’s clothes. Your mom just got deported. Cats and dogs are living together. Mass hysteria.

In short, you are a pent up ball of rage who wants to set the world on fire.

This Friday, though. This Friday, baseball season is back.

So what should we expect? Let’s start with the good…

I. The Lineup Will Be As Strong As it was in 2007

As long as we don’t feature a 1-9 of nothing but Ro Coleman, the 2017 lineup looks to be as good as it’s ever been in Nashville. Likely batting 3rd is All-American CF, and #1 in our hearts, Jeren “The Wisconsin Kid” Kendall. His .332/.396/.568 slash last year shot him into star status, but, remember that most cold-weather kids experience a steep learning curve, as they have not had as much ABs as their southern counterparts. In other words, there is a good chance what we’ve seen so far has been a relatively green Jeren Kendall, and this is the year he puts it all together. I expect a similar BA, but should we see better plate discipline, and a marked power surge, look out. Kendall is not just playing to get this team to Omaha, but to follow in the footsteps of David Price and Dansby Swanson as Vanderbilt’s 3rd ever 1-1.

Setting the table for Kendall are a pair of uber-talented sophomores who will likely split time at 2B and DH—Alonzo “Zo Fast” Jones (.285/.371/.418) and Ethan “Chili P” Paul (.305/.406/.485). Expect both in the lineup daily. Protecting him at the clean-up spot should be fellow sophomore Julian “Chinfante” Infante and his Bruce Campbell-esque Boom Stick (.259/.333/.541).

Jason “The Rain” Delay (.248/.296/.336) turned down a six figure signing bonus from the San Francisco Gigantes to be the guy who catches the final pitch in Omaha. In addition to being the coach on the field, Delay has always had more in his bat than the stats show. If he becomes more consistent, he can move us from a great lineup to a dominant one.

Spots 6-9 in the lineup are more fluid at the moment, but expect Connor “The Emperor of Defense” Kaiser to get the lion’s share of starts at SS, Will “Youth Hockey” Toffey to man the hot corner, and some combination of Walker Grisanti, J.J. Bleday, Ro Coleman, and Stephen Scott in the outfield.

II. Expect Breakout Seasons From the Entire Infield

Speaking of the players setting up and protecting Kendall in the line-up, Jones, Paul, and Infante all have a chance to make the jump from precocious youngster to legitimate stardom in their sophomore years. Infante can hit 500 foot moonshots at will, but must work on pitch selection and patience at the plate. Jones should expect to challenge Kendall for the stolen base title (if he can get on base enough). Paul has the best hit tool on the team, and should only improve at the plate as he gets stronger.

Beyond those three, there are two defensive stalwarts who have a chance for breakout or bounce back seasons. First, Will “Youth Hockey” Toffey (.227/.387/.266) had a sophomore slump that oddly sapped of all his power in 2016. The hope coming into last year was that Toffey would build off his impressive Freshman All-American season, but baseball is a cruel mistress. Still, we know there is magic in that glove, and the potential for magic in the bat. I say he bounces back to, say, a .285/.400/.485 slash with double digit HRs.

Sophomore glove-wizard SS Connor Kaiser (.261/.362/.311) got better at the plate as the season progressed. While you should not expect him to suddenly morph into Dansby Swanson at the plate, at the 8 or 9 hole, he won’t have to. As long as he works counts, fouls off pitches on the corners, lays down bunts, and gets on base at a .350-400 clip, he can serve as the 9 hole “second lead-off hitter” this lineup needs. You all know what he can do in the field.

III. Kyle “The Movement” Wright and Patrick “Mad Dog” Raby Will Anchor the Rotation

Our Friday starter is an All-American (8-4, 3.09 ERA) expected to go in the first handful of picks in the 2017 MLB draft, and the Mad Dog (7-1, 2.61 ERA) will get the better of most of his day 2 counterparts. Only LSU has a potentially better 1-2 punch than we will.

However… this team is not without question marks.

IV. Who Will Be the Sunday Starter?

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In short, I don’t know. Competing for the spot will likely be junior RHP Matthew Ruppenthal “And his Magic Curvenball” (5-1, 2.33 ERA), sophomore RHP Chandler “Day Man” Day (2-1 4.26 ERA), and sophomore RHP Maddux “Raise Your Congers” Conger (0-0, 0.79 ERA). All are big righties with impressive heater/curve combos, but Corbs must decide whether he wants to use Ruppenthal to close, where his 12-6 power hammer curve would work best, or to eat innings on Sundays.

Junior RHP Colin Snider (4-0, 2.57 ERA) may get a shot at the rotation, as well, but is more likely to see time as the closer or set-up man in the pen.

V. What About All Those Freshman Lefties?

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I honestly don’t know, but all I keep hearing is they are not exactly ready for prime time. Obviously, this can change as the season progresses.

VI. Who Will Be our Back-Up Catcher?

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Right now, freshman Ty Duvall is the future, but is still recovering from injury. As such, Corbs is scrambling, and giving everyone a tryout at the plate. Currently listed as catchers on the roster are two former pitchers (junior Joey Abraham and sophomore Justin Wilson) and one of the guys competing for the LF job (sophomore Stephen Scott). With Hot Karl Ellison transferring to Lane College, will Jason Delay catch every day?

VII. Who will bookend Jeren Kendall in the OF?

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Though I have called for trying Alonzo Jones out there, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. It looks like it will come down to Walker Grisanti, Stephen Scott, Ro Coleman, and J.J. Bleday. Ro Coleman clearly has naked pictures of Coach Corbin, so he’ll somehow get the lions’ share of PT in LF. He just better not lead off.

We do not have answers to these questions yet, and may not until we begin SEC play.

What are your thoughts? Have you booked your hotel in Omaha yet?