Joe Cox | 1 month ago
With the coronation of Ole Miss, college baseball is over. Kind of. Really, it’s never over. The end of one season just turns the page to the next one. And while Rebels fans are thrilled to continue celebrating the 2022 CWS title, 13 other SEC fan bases might just be ready to move on to 2023. With those fans in mind, here are 10 (admittedly) way-too-early questions about the 2023 season.
1. How will success change the Rebels?
If Ole Miss wonders how quickly the transition from penthouse to outhouse can go, they need only check in with their in-state brethren from Starkville who won the 2021 College World Series and missed out on postseason play in 2022. The Rebels should have a brighter outlook than the Bulldogs did, however. Ole Miss will lose Tim Elko and a few other key contributors to graduation and/or the MLB Draft, but the cupboard will be far from bare. It’ll be exciting to see Hunter Elliott spend an entire season as the Rebels’ ace. Anchor shortstop Jacob Gonzalez, who already is showing up as a potential top-10 pick in the 2023 draft, will be back as well. But Ole Miss will have to transition to having a bulls-eye on their back. Speaking of which …
2. How will UT handle this long offseason?
Tennessee’s 2022 season was like a dream until it turned into a Super Regional nightmare. The hardest situation to face in sports may be an early exit like this when there are no actual structural problems.
The temptation for leaders is to create a problem and enact some overly drastic measure to “solve” it. Tony Vitello should be able to avoid that temptation, but a program that was already playing with a chip on its shoulder will probably have a collective 2×4 on its shoulder come next spring.
3. Who will be the next SEC surprise team?
For 2 consecutive years now, the SEC has snuck a winner into the CWS while its best team in the country flamed out in the Super Regional level. It’s also worth noting that neither Mississippi State nor Ole Miss had a prior CWS title. Now 8 SEC teams have won a CWS title (including Mizzou, which won the 1953 crown. Speaking of teams that won titles before joining the SEC, add Oklahoma and Texas to that list. The Longhorns have won 6 CWS crowns, the Sooners 2).
Following first-time winners Mississippi State and Ole Miss, who would best fit the no-previous-title/under-the-radar tag? Arkansas nearly pulled it off in 2022, and they’ll certainly be high on the list of SEC sleepers for next year. Of course, Texas A&M gets kudos for making the semifinals in the first year under Jim Schlossnagle. So start with those 2.
4. What will Sonny D. do?
Sonny DiChiara was more than just a fun story. He quite literally was one of the biggest transfers in college baseball in 2022.
He dominated SEC pitching just like he dominated Southern Conference pitching at Samford, becoming Auburn’s 3rd consensus All-American in the process.
DiChiara led the SEC in hitting (.383), slugging (.777) and on-base percentage (.549). He hit 22 home runs — 1 shy of Auburn’s single-season record.
He’s a senior, but because of the free COVID season, he is eligible to return in 2023.
Will he? The draft will tell all. DiChiara is a DH. His bat obviously plays, but it will be interesting to see how much value MLB teams place in an older, one-dimensional type of slugger. He turns 23 in August. Maybe that’s why DiChiara didn’t show up on MLB.com’s ranking of the top 200 draft prospects, although he does appear on other rankings.
If he spurns pro ball and returns for a super senior season, Auburn will be a threat to make it back to Omaha.
5. Tommy Tanks headlines portal-king LSU’s transfer class
Sure, LSU had a good season. But missing out on Omaha hurts the postseason mojo … unless you’re the portal-owning Tigers. Slugging phenom Tommy “Tanks” White, who set an NCAA freshman record with 27 home runs, is the biggest star of LSU’s transfer haul. Likewise for promising Vandy pitcher Christian Little. Let’s not forget the addition of pitching coach Wes Johnson from the Minnesota Twins. LSU’s off-season message is pretty clearly, “Forget us at your own peril.”
6. Is Vandy OK?
Speaking of Vandy, the Commodores had a disappointing season, finishing in the middle of the SEC standings and bowing out early in the NCAA Tournament. Can the Vandy Boys rebound? Of course. One recent domino dropping was the announcement that Indiana high school phenom Andrew Dutkanych would rather pitch in Nashville than in the professional ranks, as he’s enrolled at Vandy and is turning down the MLB Draft. Outfielder/pitcher Maxwell Clark is another Vandy commit, and he’s a potential-program changer. Vandy has a great class coming in (PerfectGame.com ranks it No. 1 in the nation) and will return plenty of talent. They’ll be fine.
Druw Jones, son of former Atlanta Braves superstar Andruw Jones, also is committed to Vandy, but nobody expects him to don one of the ‘Dores’ many uniform combos. Jones is the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB Draft.
7. Does Mike Bianco help the struggling coaches of the SEC?
Ole Miss was patient with Mike Bianco. 22 years after he was hired, presto, a national title. Does that help the Kentuckys and South Carolinas of the world? Probably. Going into the offseason, it’s plausible that we see either no SEC coaching changes this offseason or only coaching changes based on lateral moves within the coaching tree.
The fact that Bianco was a long-time guy helps, but the fact that he won the national title from the 9th-place slot in the regular-season SEC standings helps too. Who’s to say that Kentucky’s Nick Mingione wasn’t a bad early offseason loss away from his own improbable NCAA run?
8. Who gets left behind in the SEC?
This is the multi-million dollar question. It’s worth noting that PerfectGame’s top 18 2023 recruiting classes include no fewer than 12 SEC teams. The only ones not on that list are Kentucky and Missouri, and honestly, those 2 teams are facing the steepest odds moving ahead. The Tigers showed steady improvement from a season ago, but between the geographical limitations on their recruiting, their recent struggles, and the wealth of momentum in the league, those 2 teams in particular could be swallowed up in an uber-competitive SEC.
9. Will 2023 look radically different?
Going out on an early limb here and saying, yes. The SEC had a ton of pitching depth entering 2022, but one injury after another really threatened that advantage. So teams went to younger pitchers sooner than they otherwise would … and got plenty of results. Chase Burns, Hunter Elliott, Carter Holton, and so many others stepped up in a hurry.
Heck, Ole Miss started Elliott in Game 2 of the clinching sweep against Oklahoma, and he was fantastic. Fellow freshman Mason Nichols struck out 5 Sooners in a key relief role to fuel the Game 1 win. Those guys will be back and unless they all break down in the offseason, the SEC will be much more pitching-heavy in 2023 than in 2022.
10. Will the SEC win it again next year?
Of course. Not unlike football, a non-SEC school winning the title feels unbelievable until somebody shows otherwise.
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Joe Cox is a columnist for Saturday Down South. He has also written or assisted in writing five books, and his most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games), is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers. The Los Angeles Dodgers are No. 1 in the MLB power rankings, finishing the regular season with the best record in baseball, the highest-scoring lineup in MLB and the lowest ERA (2.93).