SEC baseball tournament preview

Vanderbilt battles Mississippi State in the fourth inning during the Southeastern Conference tournament championship at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala., Sunday, May 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
Vanderbilt battles Mississippi State in the fourth inning during the Southeastern Conference tournament championship at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala., Sunday, May 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Powerhouses LSU and Vanderbilt haven’t met. The conference arms race is at a fever pitch. Dreams of Omaha soon will be put to rest. As the SEC descends on Hoover, Ala., for the league tournament, these five storylines bear watching:

1. Finally meeting?

The SEC parrots ad nauseam that its strength lies in parity, but frankly, we know who is elite this season: Vanderbilt and LSU. The Eastern and Western division champions never met, and it seems only sporting to have any duel come on neutral ground at Regions Park. The top-ranked Commodores own the nation’s best RPI, while the second-ranked Tigers are sixth. If Vandy leads a statistical category, LSU is usually a close second or vice versa. Projections include an element of risk, but the paths for each squad are clearly navigable. It’s no longer March, so let’s not root for upsets. Let’s choose resolution instead.

2. Arms race

Tabbing the conference’s Pitcher of the Year is an unenviable task. Watching them take the bump in Hoover? That’s a pleasure. Better still, the bulk of the candidates are on one side of the bracket. No. 6 seed Ole Miss is saving ace Bobby Wahl (9-0, 1.99 ERA for weekend duty. Arkansas plans to trot out junior Ryne Stanek (8-2, 1.54) on Thursday. LSU rested sophomore Aaron Nola (10-0, 1.99) against Ole Miss in its final series of the regular season. Finally, there’s the Vanderbilt tandem of sophomore Tyler Beede (13-0, 1.73) and junior Kevin Ziomek (10-2, 1.99) looming on the other side of the draw.

3. Bubble trouble

There are two groups: fretting and flirting. Kentucky and Texas A&M require help. Auburn and Florida have evidence for optimism. UK, the No. 11 seed, went 5-16 in SEC play after a stellar 6-3 start. The Wildcats are No. 38 in the RPI, but their series loss at Missouri spells likely doom. The ninth-seeded Aggies hurt their odds by losing two of three at Tennessee. With a No. 44 slot in the RPI, a victory over No. 8 seed Florida is imperative. Auburn, the No. 10 seed, was last in the Western Division, but a series victory over Arkansas and a No. 32 RPI are in their favor. Eighth-seeded Florida dropped a series at last-place Georgia, but its No. 23 RPI and 14-16 league record should help.

4. Eager hosts

During the regular season’s final weekend, No. 3 seed Arkansas aspired to host a regional. Dropping a road series at Auburn put a dent in the goal. Arkansas had little room for error with a No. 49 spot in the RPI, offset by a solid SEC record (18-11). To get in the discussion again, the Razorbacks need a run. Mississippi State, the No. 3 seed, can state a further case with a good showing in Hoover after a season-ending series victory over South Carolina.

5. Chalk it up?

The change in the tournament format adds urgency to Tuesday with four elimination games, but can any of those eight teams book an extended stay? Right now, it’s hard to see favorable paths for spoilers such as Mississippi State or South Carolina, who could run into top-seeded Vanderbilt on Thursday. No. 2 LSU is a combined 5-1 against No. 7 seed Alabama and Auburn, and the Tigers won a road series at third-seeded Arkansas in April. The only potential weak spot: No. 3 seed Arkansas. The Razorbacks dropped a series at home against Ole Miss, their potential first tournament matchup.

Five worth the drive: Top 2013 MLB draft prospects in the SEC tournament

A month remains in the season, but for these prospects, it’s likely their last visit to Hoover. These five juniors soon will have a decision to make about whether to return to school after they are selected in the Major League Baseball draft. So enjoy them while you can.

RHP Ryne Stanek

SCHOOL: Arkansas

OUTLOOK: As the headliner of the Razorbacks’ rotation, Stanek entered the season as a potential top-10 selection. Early inconsistency downgraded his stock. His fastball clocks between 92 and 96 mph, but he can tend to leave it up. He has two breaking balls, but ESPN’s Keith Law notes Stanek’s power curve is ahead of his flat slider. “His stuff points to a No. 2 starter ceiling, but he’ll have to learn to pitch off his fastball and emphasize the curveball more once he gets away from Fayetteville,” Law wrote. Stanek (8-2) still sports a 1.54 ERA, second-lowest in the SEC.

PROJECTION: Late first round

OF Hunter Renfroe

SCHOOL: Mississippi State

OUTLOOK: At 6-foot-1 and 216 pounds, Renfroe already is developed enough to play in the upper levels of the minors. The native of Crystal Springs, Miss., is batting .362 and leads the SEC with a .691 slugging percentage. His 15 home runs lead the conference, and his 51 RBIs rank fourth. Law notes his swing is solid, but he can tend to hit off his front foot. There’s also the fact it’s his first truly productive season in college. “Scouts and execs ask why he didn’t hit in his previous first two years,” Law wrote. “In this year’s draft, he’s clearly one of the top five college bats.”

PROJECTION: Mid-first round

RHP Ryan Eades

SCHOOL: LSU

OUTLOOK: Until recently, the Slidell native appeared to be a mid-first-rounder, but a short start against Ole Miss highlighted a concern: durability. Eades’ 86.2 innings rank 11th in the SEC, trailing the 95 thrown by ace Aaron Nola. Still, his 2.70 ERA is among the best in the conference, and his 71 strikeouts rank 15th. His fastball runs to 91 to 94 mph, while Law notes his changeup has “good arm speed and feel” along with a “slurvy” curveball that lacks some consistency. Law wrote that his ceiling is an average major league starter.

PROJECTION: Late first to second round

RHP Bobby Wahl

SCHOOL: Ole Miss

OUTLOOK: The junior is a power pitcher with a fastball topping out at 95 mph, a plus slider and a changeup with some movement. Despite a short outing against LSU, when he lasted just 2.2 innings and gave up six earned runs, Wahl is 9-0 with six no-decisions and a 1.99 ERA that ranks fourth in the SEC. His strikeout total (76) is down by 28 this season, and he’s allowing one more walk per nine innings. Yet he’s holding opponents to a .189 batting average, which ranks third in the conference.

PROJECTION: Second round

LHP Kevin Ziomek

SCHOOL: Vanderbilt

OUTLOOK: He’s among the most reliable starters in college. Ziomek’s 1.99 ERA is fourth in the SEC, and batters are hitting only .182 against him. He leads the conference with 102 strikeouts and is durable at 99.2 innings. Yet an unsual motion might put him on the path to the bullpen in pro ball. Ziomek throws a fastball clipping 92 mph, and an early-count curveball at 76 mph. Law notes he works the inner half with each pitch. “Between that arm action and the lack of a third pitch, I couldn’t project him as a major league starter,” Law wrote.

PROJECTION: Second or third round

NCAA tournament stock market watch

In less than two weeks, NCAA tournament regionals open around the nation, and the SEC — rated the nation’s second-toughest conference — figures to put at least eight schools in the 64-team field. Here’s our evaluation of potential tournament teams:

BUY: Vanderbilt, LSU, South Carolina, Mississippi State

The Commodores and Tigers are both likely top-four national seeds, and they can bank on not leaving their home ballparks until boarding flights to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. The Gamecocks and Bulldogs sit next to each other at Nos. 10 and 11 in the RPI and are squarely in the mix to host a regional. How important would staying put be? The duo is a combined 57-12 at home but just 19-17 on the road. Right now, State appears to have the edge.

HOLD: Arkansas, Ole Miss

This isn’t an attempt to pick on the Razorbacks. Their starting trio of Ryne Stanek, Barrett Astin and Randall Fant has been outstanding, but the Razorbacks saw an already low batting average drop to .261 at Auburn last weekend, and their 100 errors lead the SEC. What happens if its pitching reserves get depleted or wilt? Ole Miss features reliable cogs in catcher Stuart Turner (.377, five HRs, 47 RBIs) and starter Bobby Wahl, but its fate is determined by where it lands as a likely No. 2 regional seed.

SELL: Alabama, Florida

The Crimson Tide excels defensively but doesn’t have enough offense and pitching depth for a run out of the regional round. Florida has some excellent young talent in center fielder Justin Shafer and catcher Taylor Gushue but no elite producers in the middle of its order. The Gators’ pitching staff doesn’t feature a player with an ERA under 3.41 who has made a start.

Tournament teams at a glance

No. 1 Vanderbilt (48-7)

Key players: Tony Kemp, 2B, Jr.; Mike Yastrzemski, RF, Sr.; Connor Harrell, CF, Sr; Tyler Beede, So., SP; Brian Miller, P, So.

QUICKLY: The Commodores’ dominance, evidenced by a record 26 SEC victories, is clear. Vandy clubs foes but can play small ball, too. No team walks, swipes bases or sacrifices runners over more than the ’Dores. Leadoff man Tony Kemp exemplifies this notion, leading the SEC in batting average, runs and stolen bases. Harrell, who paces the SEC in home runs, is the cudgel in the order with 11 home runs and a .585 slugging percentage.

No. 2 LSU (48-8)

Key Players: Mason Katz, 1B, Sr.; Alex Bregman, SS, Fr.; Raph Rhymes, LF, Sr.; Aaron Nola, SP, So.; Chris Cotton, P, Sr.

QUICKLY: The Tigers shadow Vandy in offensive production, with Bregman, Katz and Rhymes as catalysts in the 3-4-5 spots. On the mound, Nola and junior Ryan Eades bolster a staff with a better ERA than Vandy’s.

No. 3 Arkansas (35-19)

Key Players: Brian Anderson, LF, So.; Tyler Spoon, RF, R-Fr.; Matt Vinson, CF, Sr.; Ryne Stanek, SP, Jr.; Colby Suggs, P, Jr.

QUICKLY: Starters Stanek, Randall Fant and Barrett Astin headline the SEC’s best staff. Arkansas bats, which rank 10th or worse in 14 offensive categories, provide withering support, though. Poor fielding, evidenced by the most errors in the SEC, doesn’t aid a potentially middling team made elite by its hurlers.

No. 4 South Carolina (39-16)

Key Players: LB Dantzler, 1B, Sr.; Joey Pankake, SS, So.; Max Schrock, 2B, Fr.; Nolan Belcher, SP, Sr.; Tyler Webb, P, Sr.

QUICKLY: The Gamecocks rank fourth in batting average, on-base percentage, runs and RBIs. Outside of Dantzler (.333, 14 HRs, 47 RBIs), it’s a by-committee approach. Pankake (.314, 10 HRs) chips in, and Schrock has promise as a base stealer. Belcher (7-5, 2.15 ERA) is the ace, and Webb (15 saves) is the SEC’s best closer.

No. 5 Mississippi State (40-16)

Key Players: Hunter Renfroe, RF, Jr.; Adam Frazier, SS, Jr.; C.T. Bradford, CF, Jr.; Kendall Graveman, SP, Sr.; Jonathan Holder, P, So.

QUICKLY: Renfroe, a projected first-round draft pick, is the key cog in Starkville. Frazier is among the SEC leaders in extra-base hits and on-base percentage for a squad that is third in batting average, on-base percentage and runs. Graveman (5-5, 3.00 ERA) leads a respectable staff.

No. 6 Ole Miss (36-20)

Key Players: Stuart Turner, C, Jr.; Andrew Mistone, 3B, Sr.; Preston Overbey, RF, Jr.; Bobby Wahl, SP, Jr.; Brett Huber, P, Sr.

QUICKLY: Similar to its in-state rival, Ole Miss has a stable producer in Turner (.377 average, .538 slugging, five HRs, 47 RBIs). Overbey provides pop with five home runs but is prone to striking out. Wahl, who is 9-0 with a 1.99 ERA, is a workhorse and likely first-round pick but has been scuffed up in his past two starts.

No. 7 Alabama (32-24)

Key Players: Ben Moore, RF/C, So.; Austen Smith, 1B, Jr.; Kyle Overstreet, 2B, Fr.; Charley Sullivan, P, Sr.; Ray Castillo, P, Fr.

QUICKLY: Stellar defense, represented by a .976 fielding percentage and just 54 errors, offsets a Crimson Tide offense ranked 10th or worse in eight categories. Moore (.290, four HRs, 38 RBIs) is Bama’s best option. The pitching is slightly below average, too, with a 3.69 ERA and .260 opponent’s batting average.

No. 8 Florida (29-27)

Key Players: Casey Turgeon, 2B, So.; Harrison Bader, OF, Fr.; Justin Shafer, RF, So.; Jonathon Crawford, SP, Jr.; Johnny Magliozzi, P, So.

QUICKLY: The Gators are laden with youth and elite talent in Shafer (.298 average, .440 slugging, four HRs) and catcher Taylor Gushue (.284, .441, five HRs, 33 RBIs). But UF is 10th in batting average and eighth in runs. Crawford (3-6, 4.03 ERA) reflects a troubled rotation with a 3.89 ERA that allowed the second-most home runs.

No. 9 Texas A&M (30-25)

Key Players: Mikey Reynolds, SS, Sr.; Cole Lankford, 1B, So; Troy Stein, C, Jr.; Daniel Mengden, SP, So.; Jason Jester, P, Jr.

QUICKLY: The Aggies have been able to hit, but scoring runs remains elusive as they rank No. 13 in the SEC. Reynolds is batting .359 in the lead-off spot and has 16 steals. Lankford sports a .348 average and a team-high 32 runs, but from there it’s relatively sparse. Mengden (7-3, 1.92) shows promise, but the staff is ninth in ERA.

No. 10 Auburn (33-22)

Key Players: Garrett Cooper, 1B, Sr.; Derek Tomscha, 3B, Jr.; Cullen Wacker, LF/DH, Sr.; Michael O’Neal, SP, Jr.; Terrance Dedrick, P, Jr.

QUICKLY: The Tigers can struggle to score, but Cooper (.355 average, .543 slugging, seven HRs, 37 RBIs) has knitted together a solid season. O’Neal (8-4, 2.73 ERA) is the only reliable starter. A bubble team, Auburn needs a run to help its cause.

No. 11 Kentucky (30-24)

Key Players: A.J. Reed, DH/1B, So.; Austin Cousino, CF, Fr.; J.T. Riddle, 2B, Jr.; Corey Littrell, SP, Jr.; Trevor Gott, P, Jr.

QUICKLY: Reed (.287, 13 HRs, 51 RBIs) swings a good stick. Cousino has suitable speed, evidenced by 13 stolen bases. But the Wildcats’ pitching (3.60 ERA, .274 opponent’s average, 29 HRs allowed) has been among the worst in the SEC.

No. 12 Missouri (18-31)

Key Players: Dane Opel, RF, Sr.; Keaton Steele, 1B, Jr.; Dylan Kelly, C, Jr.; Rob Zastryzny, SP, Jr.; John Miles, P, So.

QUICKLY: A series victory over Kentucky sneaks Mizzou into the tournament, but the Tigers’ stay should be short. Opel (.298, three HRs, 28 RBIs) and Steele (.281, five HRs, 24 RBIs) are the few strengths of the conference’s worst offense. It’s a testament to Zastryzny (2-9, 3.64) that he has remained a potential choice in the first three rounds of the June draft.