The strengths of the Rice Owls baseball team this season will be defense, pitching and speed, according to the preseason scouting reports by Baseball America.
The publication’s annual rankings were released this morning with the Owls coming in at No. 18. Baseball America gave the team an overall grade of 55 on an 80-point scale. Teams with a 55 are considered slightly above-average – a threat to win a conference title and perhaps reach the College World Series in Omaha.
UNC is ranked No. 1 followed by SEC schools Vanderbilt and Arkansas. Louisville and Mississippi State round out the top five. Rice’s first opponent, Stanford was picked 9th. The only other Conference USA team in the ranking was No. 23 Southern Mississippi.
Rice has made the top 25 list of most preseason polls, though the Owls are generally picked in the final ten spots on those rankings. They were No. 20 in Collegiate Baseball Magazine.
Ironically Rice ended last year ranked No. 18 by Baseball America. The Owls were 41-19 in 2012, but did not advance past a home regional.
For its scouting report, Baseball American analyzed seven different categories for each team and assigned a numerical grade. The highest grade for Rice came on defense.
“Rice should be rock-solid in the middle infield, as (Ford) Stainback and (Christian) Stringer are instinctive defenders with sure hands and accurate arms. Likewise, (Shane) Hoelscher has become an excellent third baseman, and (Connor) Teykl’s soft hands should make him a quality first baseman. (Leon) Byrd’s range, aggressiveness and arm strength give him a chance to be a premier defensive center fielder. (Michael) Ratterree has improved his arm in right, and (Keenan) Cook is sound in left. The strong-armed (Hunter) Kopycinski and savvy senior Geoff Perrott form a good duo behind the plate.”
Rice’s speed, starting pitching and bullpen were also considered above average.
“(John) Simms is a quality bullpen anchor who attacks hitters with an 88-92 fastball, a sharp slider and solid change, though the Owls have a few lingering health concerns after his stuff declined in the Cape League. If he’s back to full strength, he’ll form a fearsome late-innings duo with sophomore RHP Zech Lemond, who can reach the low-90s and has developed a major weapon in a new spike curveball.”
The weakest area rated was power. Ratterree’s six home runs last season are the most of any returning Owls player. The article notes Ratterree has worked with Lance Berkman this fall to become a more aggressive hitter.
Even with all the past success, Baseball America thinks Rice may be able to sneak up on a few teams nationally.
“Rice will never be overlooked in Conference USA, which it has dominated for years, but maybe lowered national expectations will work to the Owls’ benefit and help them snap their four-year CWS drought.”
For all the grades and complete rankings, check out the full article.
Rice opens the 2013 season with a weekend series against Stanford Feb. 15-17.