This marks the first installment of The Hardball Times’ 2005 NCAA Baseball coverage. We’d like to kick things off by naming our 2005 Preseason All-America Team, which was selected by me (Craig Burley) along with the input of the rest of the crew at THT (at least, those who follow college baseball). For those of you who missed it, the current Hardball Times Baseball Annual has a lengthy section on College Baseball in 2004, including a statistical ranking of the Top 50 teams, hitters, and pitchers. We also named THT’s 2004 College Player of the Year. Or rather, College Players of the Year, as the honor went to battery-mates Kurt Suzuki and Jason Windsor from the NCAA champions, Cal State Fullerton.
This coming year, I am hoping to bring expanded coverage of college baseball to THT, including regular in-season updates of our new and unique THT ranking system for college teams. We’ll also be looking more at the events, games, and players as things happen through the season, which starts in earnest next month.
So allow me to introduce the hitters from our first All-America team.
Catcher – Taylor Teagarden, Texas
Long regarded as a standout defensive catcher in the making, Taylor Teagarden is poised for a breakout year following the graduation of Curtis Thigpen, the Blue Jays’ second-round draftee who shared the backstop duties with Teagarden for last season’s Longhorns. Teagarden hit .273/.393/.462 during Texas’s tough schedule last year, showing impressive patience and good power. Defensively, Teagarden is widely regarded as having all the tools and he played well behind the plate for Team USA during the summer.
Teagarden was a very close selection over Schuyler Williamson of Army and Jeff Clement of USC. Clement was Teagarden’s teammate on Team USA and had a nearly identical 2004 in terms of offensive productivity. Williamson was slightly ahead of both Teagarden and Clement with the bat in 2004, but while he has a strong throwing arm and tremendous leadership skills, his occasional defensive lapses mean that the well-regarded Teagarden beats him out.
First Baseman – Mike Costanzo, Coastal Carolina
The 2004 MVP of the Big South conference, Costanzo finished at #8 in last year’s THT Hitters Rankings after hitting .359/.459/.740 for the Chanticleers. One of the leading power hitters in the nation, Costanzo didn’t just fill up on creampuffs; Coastal Carolina play a pretty tough schedule in a pretty tough park, but Costanzo’s 21 homers put him in the top five in the NCAA. Costanzo is also a third baseman and a prominent pitcher for Coastal Carolina, going 7-4 and striking out 57 in 66.2 innings. He continued to show power in the Cape Cod League, finishing fourth in the league in home runs and turning it up in the playoffs. Costanzo’s nearest competition for the nomination was Stanford’s John Mayberry, Jr., who is a well-regarded prospect but has not outperformed Costanzo to date.
Second Baseman – Jed Lowrie, Stanford
Ranking just barely second to Alex Gordon as THT’s preseason favorite for National Player of the Year is Jed Lowrie of Stanford, a second baseman who finished all the way up at #3 in last year’s THT Hitters Rankings before having a disappointing summer for Team USA where he hit just .230/.342/.410, far off the pace of that team’s best players. Still, the impact of his 2004 season cannot be denied; a terrific season from a sophomore and the best hitting season of all non-draft-eligible players. Lowrie is a smart, gritty player who can play shortstop as well but is generally regarded to be a second baseman in the long term. Second base is one of the strongest positions in the NCAA this year; Warner Jones of Vanderbilt was #17 on the THT Hitters Ranking last year and Pitt’s Jim Negrych just missed the Top 100 and is a promising player.
Third Baseman – Alex Gordon, Nebraska
THT’s preseason pick for Player of the Year is Alex Gordon of Nebraska, a very fine third baseman with a tremendous bat. Gordon finished at #5 in last year’s THT Hitters Rankings, belting the ball at a .365/.493/.754 clip for the Cornhuskers. He continued to impress this summer with Team USA, hitting .388/.494/.642 in 24 games, and while he played at first base instead of his usual third, he played well there by all accounts. Gordon is a five-tool and seven-skill player who has a terrific batting eye and hits for prodigious power. Gordon should be a Top 10 pick in the 2005 MLB Draft, barring a very disappointing season, and could go #1 overall.
Yes, the fact I am picking Gordon as the #1 college player means I am agreeing with Baseball America about something. It had to happen one day.
Shortstop – Brent Lillibridge, Washington
The toughest position to pick a preseason All-America was at shortstop. The general consensus is that Troy Tulowitzki of Long Beach State and Tyler Greene of Georgia Tech are the premier shortstops in the country, and both are fine defensive shortstops (Greene’s superior speed afoot putting him ahead of Tulowitzki on that score). Tulowitzki played well for Team USA over the summer, improving his hitting somewhat from the 2004 regular season. Greene was named a top prospect in the Cape Cod League, and showed once again what he could do with the bat after an extremely disappointing season for the Yellow Jackets.
Ultimately, though, neither Tulowitzki nor Greene is of the same caliber hitter as Brent Lillibridge of the Washington Huskies. Lillibridge has smacked the cover off the ball for two years running, with last year’s .317/.428/.522 numbers (good for a #92 ranking on the THT Hitters Ranking) actually a drop-off from his tremendous power performance as a freshman, where he slugged .699 and represented Team USA in the Pan Am Games in centerfield. Lillibridge has good speed and instincts as well, swiping 18 of 20 bases in 2004. He did not play full-time at shortstop in 2004, and his future may be in centerfield, but by all accounts he handles the position adequately. While not necessarily the same caliber of pro prospect as Tulowitzki or Greene, look for Lillibridge to outperform both this coming year.
Outfield – Brad Corley, Mississippi State
Corley, who is an outfielder, team captain, and occasional pitcher for the Bulldogs, raked his way to a .380/.442/.678 season in 2004 (and made seven scoreless appearances on the mound for good measure). Corley is not a particularly patient hitter; his 17 walks and 44 strikeouts indicate a swing-first mentality, but it’s impossible to argue with the results as he finished at #12 in the 2004 THT Hitters Ranking, cranking 19 homers despite a big pitcher’s park (Noble Field is a very tough home run park) and a tough SEC schedule. Corley plays right field and he’s no speed merchant; his value lies in the lightning bat. He was named First Team All-America last year by Baseball America and I would expect that to continue.
Outfield – Chris Rahl, William and Mary
The top outfielder in the NCAA is Chris Rahl of William and Mary. Rahl wore out the pitchers in the Colonial Athletic Association with a .389/.462/.764 pace last season and finished 9th in THT’s Hitters Ranking. Rahl was the CAA’s Player of the Year, the first time ever that a sophomore had won that honor. Like Brad Corley, Rahl is a rightfielder whose offensive game slants toward the home run and away from the base on balls. Unlike Corley, Rahl is a terrific base stealer, with 42 thefts last season in just 54 games, and a 91% success rate.
Outfield – Travis Buck, Arizona State
Travis Buck of Arizona State is the third outfielder on our team, though several others might have been chosen in his stead, most notably Chad Huffman of TCU, Dan Carte of Winthrop and Drew Stubbs of Texas. Buck, though, is my pick to outshine these others. Despite playing in the shadow of top pro prospect (and 2004 bust) Jeff Larish, Buck hit .373/.486/.573, good for 68th on the THT Hitters Ranking, and demonstrated good plate discipline. Buck played right field with the Sun Devils and subsequently with Team USA, where he surpassed all expectations, destroying enemy pitching for a .412 average and .512 OBP. The summer performance erased any doubts about his performances as being aided by Arizona’s fine hitting environment. He’s for real, and he’ll show it in 2004.
Utility – Stephen Head, First Baseman & LH Pitcher, Mississippi
Our utility player is Stephen Head of Mississippi, a player so talented that he finished in the top 100 of the THT Rankings for both hitters (62nd) and pitchers (84th). Head is a fine defensive first baseman for Ole Miss, but those are the least of his talents. Head could easily make All-America teams at first base on the strength of his bat; he hit .346/.419/.583 last year, numbers that are deceptively low since they were compiled in a very tough hitting environment against superb SEC competition. On the mound, he is mostly a reliever but made eight starts last year (after making 4 in 2003) and therefore is beginning to see more action in the rotation. Head’s strikeout numbers were good but not outstanding, but his 2.82 ERA was sparkling, even if it was more than double his 1.40 from 2003.
Next week, we’ll review the pitchers and our small group of honorable mentions, each of whom it was a wrench to leave off this list.