The 2013 college baseball season is just over a month away with opening day scheduled for February 15. After discussing the top incoming freshmen in my most recent college baseball preview, it’s now time to take a look at the best returning sophomores. This is an extremely talented class, headlined by some great pitching, as well as some outstanding outfield prospects. Here are the top returning sophomores to keep an eye on this season, as well as for the 2014 MLB draft:
Carlos Rodon, LHP, North Carolina State
If Rodon was eligible for the 2013 MLB draft, he would be the top overall pick. The 6’-3”, 235-pound southpaw put together one of the most brilliant freshman seasons ever, going 9-0 with a 1.57 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 135 K/41 BB over 114.2 innings for the Wolfpack last season. He ranked fourth nationally in ERA and third in strikeouts. He also held opponents to a .176 batting average. He was a finalist for the Golden Spikes award, the consensus National Freshman of the Year and first team All-American. He features a mid-90s fastball that can touch 99 mph. He also mixes in a power slider, a lethal 88-91 mph cutter, an above-average curveball and an ever-developing change-up. His ability to throw any of his pitches, at any time, keeps hitters baffled at the plate.
Michael Conforto, OF, Oregon State
Established himself as one of the premiere hitters in the country, regardless of class last season. Over 58 games, the 6’-1″, 200-pound left-hander hit .349 with 14 doubles, 13 home runs, 76 RBI and a slash line of .438/.601/1.039. He drew 24 walks to 37 strikeouts, showing a good approach at the plate. His 76 RBI led the Pac-12 and also set an Oregon State record. Was named to every freshman All-American team and was a second-team Baseball America All-American. Knocked in 15 runs over a five-game stretch and 30 over a 15-game span. Was a member of 2012 Collegiate Team USA, knocking in 12 runs over 16 games with two home runs and seven walks.
Derek Fisher, OF, Virginia
Fisher, a 6’-3”, 210-pound left-hander, hit .288 over 56 games with 11 doubles, eight triples, seven home runs and knocked in 50 runs for the Cavaliers last season. He was a consensus freshman All-American and tied a Virginia season record for triples. Went 4-for-6 with two doubles, a triple, home run and seven RBI against Towson on March 28. Was named Freshman All-American by Louisville Slugger and NCBWA.
Tyler Beede, RHP, Vanderbilt
Beede is a 6’-4” flamethrower who gave Vandy fans glimpses of the stud he going to be for them. While his overall numbers — 1-5, 4.52 ERA — don’t jump out at you, he was much better once he became a starter. Over one four-game stretch, he had a 2.25 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 26 K/6 BB in 24 innings. Armed with a mid-90s fastball, he struck out 68 batters over 71.2 innings, good for an 8.6 K/9 ratio. He also features a deceptive change-up with great sink and an above-average curveball. Should be one of the best pitchers in the country this season and one of the top players selected in the 2014 draft.
Andrew Vasquez, LHP, UC Santa Barbara
At 6’-6” and 200 pounds, the left-hander established himself as one of the best strikeout pitchers in the nation as a freshman. His 10.6 K/9 ratio was among the leaders and he became the first freshman UC Santa Barbara pitcher to record 100 strikeouts since Barry Zito. Over 12 starts, he went 6-3 with a 1.93 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and 104 K/63 BB over 88.2 innings. Opponents hit just .176 against him but his 6.4 BB/9 innings show a much needed area of improvement. If he can harness his control issues over the next two seasons, Vasquez will be one the first pitchers taken off the board in 2014.
Trea Turner, 3B, North Carolina State
Turner was successful on his first 29 stolen base attempts en route to leading the nation with 57 in 61 chances. The 6’-1”, 175-pound right-hander hit .336 with 13 doubles, two triples, five home runs, 43 RBI and drew 41 walks for a .432 OBP. He only struck out 38 times over 63 games, showing an advanced approach at the plate to go along with his great speed on the base paths. Had a 10-game stretch in which he went 24-for-44 (.546) with 13 runs, four doubles, 12 RBI, eight walks, 12 stolen bases and a 1.305 OPS. An electric player who you should definitely check out this season.
Travis Radke, LHP, Portland
A 6’-4”, 200-pound left-hander, Radke was named the West Coast Conference Player of the Year as a freshman by going 7-4 with a 2.09 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 85 K/29 BB over 86 innings. He also held opponents to a .197 batting average. He was named the WCC Player of the Month for March after going 4-1 with a 0.93 ERA and 29 strikeouts over 29 innings, allowing just 12 hits. Radke features a fastball that sits around 88-90 mph, a mid-70s curveball and a developing change-up. He commands all three and has great mound presence and feel for pitching.
Benton Moss, RHP, North Carolina
An extremely hard throwing right-hander, Moss was among the freshmen leaders in the nation with a 9.5 K/9 ratio. Over 16 starts, he went 7-2 with a 1.94 ERA and held opponents to a .219 batting average. Had a season high 10 strikeouts in six innings against Maryland on March 18. During a three-game stretch between April 1-April 15, he struck out 27 batters over 17.1 innings. Named Freshman All-American by Louisville Slugger and NCBWA.
Austin Cousino, OF, Kentucky
Cousino, a 5’-11” 180-pound left-hander, does just about everything well on the baseball field. Over 62 games, he hit .319 with 20 doubles, nine home runs, 41 RBI and stole 15 bases in 16 attempts. He drew 26 walks to just 39 strikeouts, showing a very good approach at the plate and had a slash line of .408/.515/.923. He started off his college career with a 14-game hitting streak, recorded a hit in 30 of his first 37 games and reached base safely in 59 of 62 games. He hit four home runs and drove in 10 runs over a five-game stretch between March 25-April 1. He was the first Wildcat to be named SEC Freshman of the Year. Defensively, he is a stud in centerfield. He set a Wildcat record by recording 142 putouts in centerfield and paced the team with eight outfield assists. His speed, range and instincts will allow him to remain at the position at the next level.
Aaron Nola, RHP, LSU
An incredible control pitcher, Nola went 7-4 with a 3.66 ERA and 83 K/7 BB over 83.2 innings as a freshman. Threw 62/78 pitches for strikes against Tulane in his second start, allowing no runs on three hits over eight innings with six strikeouts to no walks. The 6’-1”, 175-pound right-hander features a low-90s fastball with heavy sink and an above-average change-up to complement his heater.
Sam Travis, 1B, Indiana
Was named the Big-10 Freshman of the Year after hitting .319 over 60 games with 17 doubles, nine home runs, 50 RBI and a slash line of .397/.509/.906. The 6’-0”, 200-pound right-hander reached base in his first 30 games, including a 17-game hitting streak. During a five-game stretch between March 30-April 6, he hit .421 with three home runs and drove in 13 runs. He drew 29 walks to just 35 strikeouts, showing a great approach at the plate for a power hitter.
Preston Morrison, RHP, TCU
Morrison became the first player in Mountain West Conference history to be named both pitcher of the year, as well as freshman of the year. The 6’-2” right-hander went 9-2 with a 2.08 ERA and 72 K/12 BB over 112.2 innings, showing great command of his pitches. He also ranked fourth in the nation in WHIP with a 0.89 mark. His fastball may only top out at 85-87 mph, but it is the way he works the strike zone, mixing up his pitches and going after hitters, that makes him so good. His fastball also has some heavy sink to it, often inducing ground ball after ground ball.
Andrew Daniel, SS, San Diego
One of the better offensive shortstops in the nation, Daniel hit .339 over 56 games as a freshman with 18 doubles, four home runs and 45 RBI. He drew 16 walks to 49 strikeouts, showing needed improvement in his approach at the plate. He recorded a hit in 29 of his first 36 games, including 18 multi-hit games. Went 19-for-37 (.514) over an eight-game hitting streak with five doubles and nine RBI. Committed 26 errors on the season (.891 FP), so his defense needs some obvious refining.
Ryan Padilla, OF, New Mexico
At 6’-4” and 220 pounds, Padilla has the size to be a big-time power hitter at the next level. Over 56 games last season, he hit .353 with 19 doubles, five home runs and drove in 49 runs. The right-hander showed up in the fall of 2011 with a lot of flaws to his swing. After putting in a ton of work with coach Ray Birmingham, he ended the year as one of the best-hitting freshmen in the nation.
Jose Trevino, 3B, Oral Roberts
Trevino, a 5’-11”, 200-pound right-hander, hit .317 over 63 games last season with 18 doubles, three triples, 13 home runs and drove in 57 runs. He has very good bat speed and can crush the ball to all fields — he set a Texas state record by smashing 25 home runs his senior season at John Paul II HS. He only drew 17 walks as a freshman, but he also only struck out 34 times, showing an aggressive approach at the plate. He also can play at catcher if needed, but his future appears to be at the hot corner where his power and strong arm will play well.
Mark Zagunis, C, Virginia Tech
Earned Second-Team SEC honors after hitting .344 with 13 doubles, five home runs, 34 RBI with a slash line of .430/.513/.943 over 49 games. The 6’-1”, 200-pound right-hander has very good speed for a catcher, going 17-for-22 in stolen base attempts. Drew 21 walks to just 25 strikeouts, showing an advanced approach at the plate. He batted all over the lineup for the Hokies and may end up in a corner outfield spot due to his base running abilities and strong arm.
Others to watch: Rhys Hoskins (Sacramento State), Michael Katz (William & Mary), Chase Griffin (Georgia Southern), Jordan Montgomery (South Carolina), Brandon Leibrandt (Florida State)
Feel free to follow me on Twitter at @DanMKirby for draft updates and prospect news!