April 11, 2007

Every other week, Bryan Smith will check in with a look at the college baseball landscape.

1. Vanderbilt (29-5) -- At the beginning of the season I thought Vandy would be defined by its stars: David Price on the mound, Pedro Alvarez in the middle, Casey Weathers at the end. However, coach Tim Corbin has shown that the 'Dores mix role players with stars as well as any team in the nation.

2. Florida State (32-4) -- The Seminoles have so many weapons on offense, ignited by Tony Thomas Jr. and Mark Hallberg, but paced by Buster Posey and Brandon Reichert. The pitching staff will need to find an identity as the ACC season wears down, but Bryan Henry is a dependable ace.

3. South Carolina (26-7) -- Once the future of this program, Nick Fuller and Lonnie Chisenhall's dismissal from the USC leaves a now-or-never feel to the team. Arik Hempy's return has added depth to an impressive pitching staff, and the offense has the firepower to beat any pitcher.

4. North Carolina (30-5) -- No Andrew Miller, no Daniel Bard, no problem. Despite losing two first-round pitchers from last year's second-ranked club, the Tar Heels have two freshman leading the charge this season. 1B Dustin Ackley is hitting .481, and Alex White is besting Bard's Saturday ERA.

5. Texas (28-10) -- Things will be shaky in the regionals and super regionals as the team tries to find enough pitching to win, but expect another trip to Omaha. Kyle Russell has become the nation's most dangerous hitter, and you can't pitch around him because he's surrounded by all-conference talent.

6. Virginia (30-6) -- As Sean Doolittle has struggled to find the form of his sophomore ACC Player of the Year season, sophomore Jacob Thompson has picked up the slack on Friday nights: 8-0, 1.49 ERA. The team also returns 3B Jeremy Farrell soon, creating the nation's most complete infield.

7. Pepperdine (26-10) -- The best team on the West Coast, the Waves are excelling on speed (35 steals in 34 games) and pitching (3.05 team ERA). One of the nation's deepest pitching staffs will provide such an asset in May and June, and Adrian Ortiz has become NCAA's most pesky leadoff man, hitting .438.

8. Oregon State (26-7) -- While the 2006 champions probably don't have the firepower to repeat, the Beavers will be vindicated if they can return to Omaha for the third straight season. If they do, Mike Stutes and Joe Paterson will have to be spectacular, and catcher Mitch Canham must continue to boost his stock.

Four that just missed: Arizona State, Rice, Texas A&M, Wichita State.

This section will highlight four 2007 draft-eligible college players who have recently made waves in draft circles.

Bull: Kyle Russell, OF, Texas. Eligible for the draft thanks to a birthday just days from the cutoff, Russell has helium that no other player in the country can match. Over the weekend Russell hit his 20th home run of the season, tying the Texas school record. The outfielder is more athletic than most power hitters, and while his swing has a couple holes, his power will land him in the first round.

Bear: Blair Erickson, RP, UC Irvine. Still a good weekend away from breaking the NCAA career saves record, Erickson has not capitalized on a return for his senior season quite like Florida 1B Matt LaPorta. A projected 2006 first rounder, Erickson has allowed three earned runs in his last three outings, walking three and allowing four hits during his slump. His control problems could cost him any semblance of a bonus in June.

Bull: Harris Honeycutt, SP, South Carolina. It's a good season to be a right-handed pitcher with a pulse in college baseball, as righty starters represent the weakness of the 2007 draft. Honeycutt, like Mississippi's Will Kline and Pepperdine's Barry Enright, is having a career season and will find a spot in the first three rounds. A week after going toe-to-toe with the draft's top talent, David Price, Honeycutt struck out 11 Florida hitters in six innings on Friday.

Bear: Nolan Gallagher, SP, Stanford. Opposite of Honeycutt are players such as Gallagher and Boston College's Terry Doyle, right-handers failing to capitalize on a weak market. Gallagher did not make it out of the third inning in his start last Friday, pushing his ERA north of seven. A team will take a chance on the right arm that impressed in the Cape, but Gallagher is struggling to find the strike zone and will need to be overhauled in pro baseball.

Under the coaching of Jim Schlossnagle, now in his fourth season, Texas Christian has become the class of the Mountain West Conference and one of the state's most dangerous programs. The school's three winningest seasons have all been in Schlossnagle's tenure, and this season, at 23-9, TCU looks primed for another run. The Horned Frogs have dealt with numerous injuries, losing No. 2 pitcher Seth Garrison, third baseman Matt Carpenter and infielder Corey Steglich, among others. Before a weekend trip to Las Vegas, where Schlossnagle returns to the UNLV program he once guided, the coach talked about a new-look offense, a problematic pitching staff and a pair of All-Americans.

Creating offense without Chad Huffman:

"I think last year we relied on him an awful lot, and he certainly performed with that All-American season. We knew in his absence that no one person would pick that up, so we would have to try to spread it across the board. I think we've done that, and really, I think our offense is overperforming in a sense. Keith Conlon is having a career year, we have Austin Adams, Steven Trout, and Corey Steglich was playing great before getting hurt. I think we've absorbed that."

Where the problems have lied:

"It's the pitching we thought was so deep, we thought it was as deep as we've ever had, and without that we're scrambling. Luckily at the end of games we've had Sam Demel, who is as good as any closer in the country. I certainly don't want to think where we'd be without Sam at this point."

The process of mixing four transfers into the pitching staff:

"I think they've been adequate, but I say that because we had high expectations: low threes in ERA, high strikeouts and low walks. Chris Johnson has been decent this year, he has a good record, but I think he's still developing into a Division I baseball player. When he pitches, the end result is usually a positive one, but getting there is a little shaky. Chance Corgan has been solid, and we like him a lot, but we really had high expectations. We need these guys to go deep in games more, because our middle relief is being taxed right now."

On Jake Arrieta's regression from an All-America sophomore season:

"Jake's best attribute is that he always wants to get better. He's a team guy, and he works off his rear end at getting better, possibly to the point where it hurts him. I think he's tinkered a bit with success this year, but he should be on the way back, he looked very good in his last outing. It's just that the control hasn't been nearly what it was last year, but I'm proud of how he's pitched under the expectations this year. Listen, if Jake's my biggest concern, we're doing great."

Bryan Smith, co-founder of Baseball Analysts, is a freelance writer with work appearing at The Hardball Times, BaseballProspectus.com and Baseball America. Feel free to e-mail Bryan here.

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