UCLA headlines teams on the cusp

Follow Kendall Rogers on Twitter at @ysportsncaabb.

UCLA players may as well hang out in a science lab after their baseball practices are finished. After all, the Bruins should be used to being near a microscope by now.

The Bruins have entered the past two seasons with incredibly high hopes. And in both instances, the Bruins have ended the season on a negative note.

Two seasons ago, the Bruins fell short in the Fullerton Regional and finished the campaign with a 33-27 record. Last season, though, the Bruins took a step back by not reaching an NCAA regional and finishing the season with a 27-29 record.

As difficult as the past two seasons have been for the Bruins to endure, they know their time eventually will come. Always being under the microscope never gets easier, though.

Perhaps the time to finally move forward is this season.

“We have a very good pitching staff and good team defense, and I’m a strong believer that Omaha and championship teams are made from those two things,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “Offensively, we don’t have an order set in stone, but I really think we’re going to surprise some people at the plate.”

The Bruins welcome back talented hitters Justin Uribe and Blair Dunlap, but need several hitters to rise to the occasion this season. The pitching staff is on the other end of the spectrum with the return of weekend starters Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole.

UCLA is on the cusp of the top 25. The microscope is on its offense.

Ten teams to watch

UCLA

The Bruins are a tough team to figure out. There’s a chance this club will be very good. There also is a chance they struggle. The pitching staff is in fantastic shape with weekend starters Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Rob Rasmussen leading the way. However, it’s also safe to say the offense is a huge question mark. The Bruins finished last season with just a .285 batting average and return just two hitters – Blair Dunlap and Justin Uribe – that batted .300 or better last season. UCLA has something to prove at the plate before earning a top-25 ranking. This team will be fun to watch if the offense rises to the occasion.

Vanderbilt

The Commodores are in the same situation as UCLA but reversed. The ‘Dores welcome back what should be one of the SEC’s better offensive lineups with the return of Aaron Westlake, Curt Casali, Riley Reynolds and Brian Harris. However, the pitching staff is a question mark entering the season. Vandy expects Sonny Gray to be a front-line starter as the staff ace while Taylor Hill assumes the No. 2 spot in the weekend rotation after having a 5.05 ERA in 41 innings last season. There also is No. 3 starter Jack Armstrong, who only made six appearances as a pitcher last season. The Commodores will be a top-25 club if the weekend rotation pans out.

Southern Mississippi

The Golden Eagles hope to make a second consecutive trip to the College World Series this season. The Eagles surprised the college baseball community last season by winning the Gainesville Super Regional to advance to Omaha. This season, though, the Eagles must deal with being one of the hunted. They welcome back a decent offensive lineup with the return of Travis Graves, Adam Doleac, Taylor Walker, BA Vollmuth, Joey Archer and Kameron Brunty. However, the pitching staff is a concern. The Eagles have one of the best in the business in ace pitcher Todd McInnis. However, the rest of the rotation is a question mark with No. 2 starter Scott Copeland coming off a season where he had a 6.41 ERA. Other potential starters, Jeff Stanley and Seth Hester, ended last season with ERAs of 4.23 and 7.12, respectively. USM will make much noise if the pitching staff rises to the occasion.

Texas A&M

Before last season, the Aggies made two-straight trips to an NCAA super regional. Now, after failing to meet expectations and get to Omaha last season, the Aggies hope to quietly rise up the ranks. The Aggies suffered some tough offensive losses during the offseason, but are hopeful several newcomers will step up this spring. Also, they welcome back a solid offensive nucleus in Joe Patterson, Caleb Shofner, Adam Smith and Brodie Greene. The Aggies weren’t good with runners in scoring position last season. That must change this season. The pitching staff has some question marks, but Barret Loux has a wealth of potential. Also, Ross Hales, who rehabbed an injury during the offseason, is making significant progress and will be back and healthy sooner than expected. It’s all about putting the pieces together for the Aggies.

Alabama

The Mitch Gaspard era at Alabama begins this season. The Crimson Tide was known for its offense the past few seasons. The offense once again is a strength this season, too, with the return of Jake Smith, Ross Wilson, Taylor Dugas and Josh Rutledge. That’s four talented hitters from a lineup that finished last season with a .330 batting average. The pitching staff is the biggest question mark facing the Crimson Tide. UA ended last season with an unimpressive 5.13 ERA and needs seasoned pitchers Adam Morgan and Jimmy Nelson to rise to the occasion this season. The Crimson Tide will be lethal if the pitching staff holds its end of the bargain.

Wichita State

It will be business as usual in the Missouri Valley title race for the Shockers. However, they have some work to do to make a statement on the national stage. The pitching staff once again is in fine shape. Starting pitchers Tim Kelley, Jordan Cooper and Charlie Lowell formulate one of the nation’s best weekend rotations. Also, closer Chance Sossamon limited opposing teams to a .240 batting average in 28 innings last season. The offense is the question entering the season. The Shockers welcome back just one hitter – Clint McKeever – that finished last season with a batting average better than .300. That must change to take a step forward this season.

Minnesota

The Golden Gophers made another regional appearance last season and could be even better this season. The Gophers will be in great shape this season if the rest of the weekend rotation outside of Seth Rosin rises to the occasion. The bullpen is loaded and the offense welcomes back six hitters that earned significant playing time last season. The list includes talented hitters AJ Pettersen, Michael Kvasnicka and Justin Gominsky. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Gophers are ranked at the end of the season.

Middle Tennessee State

There’s no question the Blue Raiders have some holes to fill at the plate after losing Rawley Bishop and Nathan Hines, but still is in good shape at the plate with the return of two-way star Bryce Brentz and Tyler Burnett. The pitching staff is the question mark. The Blue Raiders welcome back staff ace Kenneth Roberts and are moving Brentz from the weekend rotation to closer. That certainly could bode well for the Blue Raiders given Brentz’s talent, but that also could mean the Raiders don’t have many reliable relievers. MTSU will be a fringe top-25 team if the pitching staff steps up.

Stanford

The Cardinal hopes to return to the postseason this season. They reached the CWS two seasons ago but took a step back last season with a 30-25 record. Now, they hope to move forward without a few key cogs including Brent Milleville, Joey August and Toby Gerhart. The pitching staff isn’t in perfect shape, but the Cardinal is expected to have a solid weekend rotation with Brett Mooneyham and Jordan Pries as the headliners. The bullpen, though, is filled with uncertainty. There’s plenty of talent on the mound to be just fine, but the offense is a concern after finishing last season with a .279 batting average. Also consider Stanford only welcomes back two hitters – Colin Walsh and Kellen Killsgaard – that batted .300 or better last season.

Cal Poly

The Mustangs took a step forward last season with a regional berth, but would love nothing more than to make a super regional or have a June trip to Omaha this season. Cal Poly’s chances of making a bigger statement once again hinge on the pitching staff. The Mustangs welcome back several talented hitters from a lineup that ended last season with a .325 batting average. The pitching staff, though, leaves something to be desired after compiling a 5.95 ERA last season. As always seems to be the case, the Mustangs will have an excellent team if the pitching staff rises to the occasion. If not, the Mustangs will be a regional No. 3 seed with not enough pitching to advance.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Feb 2, 2010