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Aaron Fitt | D1Baseball.com | November 7, 2019

The 16 best college baseball players since 1999

College World Series memorable moments

Twenty years ago, the landscape of college baseball changed dramatically and irrevocably — for the better. In many ways it has been a golden age for the game, but who are the best college players of what you could call either the 64-Team Era or the Super Regional Era?

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Beginning with the 1999 season, two seismic shifts occurred simultaneously to usher in college baseball’s modern age: the implementation of new bat standards that ended the “Gorilla Ball” era, and the expansion of the NCAA tournament from 48 teams to 64.

Southern California’s 21-14 win over Arizona State in the 1998 College World Series championship game punctuated a decade of offensive insanity fueled by super-charged metal bats. Starting in 1999, bats that performed more like wood became the standard, reining in the out-of-control offense that had threatened college baseball’s legitimacy in the eyes of many fans.

Although offensive production has ebbed and flowed over the last 20 years, the most important change was the elimination of the so-called “minus-five” bat, which meant that you could have a difference of 5 between the length of a bat (in inches) and its weight (in ounces).

The NCAA has tweaked bat standards and ball specifications a few times since then — most notably with the advent of the BBCOR standard in 2011, which made metal bats perform even more like wood and greatly cut down on gamesmanship that had made it possible to alter the performance of the previous generation of metal bats. The change initially decimated offense, but the switch to flat-seamed baseballs in 2015 brought the home run back. As a result, college baseball is in a good state of balance now.

Perhaps even more important was the switch to the 64-team NCAA tournament field. Instead of eight double-elimination regionals composed of six teams apiece, the tournament switched in 1999 to 16 regionals of four teams apiece, with winners advancing to the best-of-three super regional round, and then to Omaha. The new format was a smash hit, and it set the stage for enormous growth in the popularity of the sport.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Super Regional Era, we put together a team recognizing the best players at each position over the last two decades. This was more an art than a science, and reasonable minds will inevitably differ on these choices, but we did our best to consider a player’s legacy, peak value, total career value, postseason performance and the context of the conference, ballpark and years in which the player competed.

Without further ado, our picks for the best college players of the 64-Team/Super Regional Era:

Catcher | Buster Posey, Florida State (2006-08)

After spending his freshman year at shortstop, Posey became a superstar behind the plate over his final two seasons, winning national player of the year honors in 2008, when he put together one of the greatest individual seasons ever: .463/.566/.879 with 26 home runs, 21 doubles and 93 RBIs. For good measure, he also notched six saves and a 1.17 ERA out of the FSU bullpen as the Seminoles made it to Omaha.

In 2008 FSU's Posey was king of the diamond

Posey hit .346 or better in all three of his college seasons, with a .900 or better OPS each year — and that 1.445 OPS as a junior leaps off the page, especially for a catcher who moonlighted as a closer. The San Francisco Giants made him the fifth overall pick in the 2008 draft, and he went on to professional stardom as well. He’s in his 11th year as the Giants’ catcher; he has three World Series rings, one National League MVP, a Gold Glove, four Silver Sluggers and six All-Star Game selections.

HONORABLE MENTION

  • Adley Rutschman, Oregon State
  • Matt Wieters, Georgia Tech
  • Ryan Garko, Stanford
  • Landon Powell, South Carolina
  • Mike Zunino, Florida
  • Kyle Schwarber, Indiana
  • Kurt Suzuki, Cal State Fullerton
  • Yasmani Grandal, Miami

First Base | Dustin Ackley, North Carolina (2007-09)

A three-time All-American and one of the best college hitters ever, Ackley hit .402 in 2007 to win Freshman of the Year, then .417 in each of his final two seasons, while leading the Tar Heels to three straight College World Series appearances. His power numbers also spiked in 2009, when he bashed 22 homers and 18 doubles. His CWS legacy earns him the nod over Florida slugger Matt LaPorta: Ackley remains tied with South Carolina’s Christian Walker for most career CWS hits (28).

UNC'S ALL-TIME LINEUP: Ackley leads the Starting 9 of Tar Heel greats

The Seattle Mariners made Ackley the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, but he never hit as a professional the way he did in college. He last played in the major leagues in 2016, with the Yankees. He hooked back on with the Mariners last winter, but the team released him during spring training.

HONORABLE MENTION

  • Matt LaPorta, Florida
  • Andrew Vaughn, California
  • Justin Smoak, South Carolina
  • Yonder Alonso, Miami
  • Christian Walker, South Carolina

Second Base | Rickie Weeks, Southern (2001-03)

Weeks remains the all-time Division I batting champion, with a career average of .465 over the course of three seasons, capped by a ridiculous .500/.619/.987 junior year in 2003. He’s also the Division I record holder for career slugging percentage (.927). He also hit 50 career home runs and stole bases at a mind-bogglingly efficient clip (65 steals in 66 career attempts).

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Weeks’ level of competition at Southern wasn’t of the same caliber of some of the other players on the list, but he produced against everyone. His tools and production prompted the Milwaukee Brewers to make him the No. 2 overall pick in 2003. He played 14 years in the big leagues and piled up more than 1,000 career hits, though his career average was .246.

HONORABLE MENTION

  • Chase Utley, UCLA
  • Marshall McDougall, Florida State
  • Nick Madrigal, Oregon State

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Shortstop | Khalil Greene, Clemson (1999-2002)

A four-year stalwart for the Tigers, Greene’s two best years were 2000, when he posted a 1.002 OPS, and 2002 (1.429), and he helped lead Clemson to Omaha in both seasons. He took home the Golden Spikes Award and was the consensus national player of the year in 2002 after his absurd senior year, when he hit .470/.552/.877 with 27 home runs and 91 RBIs, while also stealing 17 bases in 18 tries.

CLEMSON STARTING 9: Greene heads up the Tigers all-time lineup

That peak value is unmatched by any shortstop in the 64-team era, but Greene was a good performer his entire career — he still slashed .303/.403/.544 with 12 long balls in a “down year” as a junior. Falling to the 14th round of the 2001 draft, Greene took it as an affront and used it as motivation for his 2002 performance. Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, who was a Clemson assistant at the time, called it “the most phenomenal college baseball year I have ever seen in my entire life.”

Greene jumped up to the 13th overall pick in 2002, and he quickly reached the big leagues with the Padres. Trades to the Cardinals and Rangers seemed to short-circuit his career, however, and he soon withdrew from baseball entirely. Greene was always a singular individual, and Gene Sapakoff, longtime columnist for The Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.), did a great job of summing up Greene’s path in a 2017 column.

Honorable Mention

  • Chris Burke, Tennessee
  • Stephen Drew, Florida State
  • Dustin Pedroia, Arizona State
  • Alex Bregman, LSU
  • Darwin Barney, Oregon State
  • Gordon Beckham, Georgia
  • Dansby Swanson, Vanderbilt
  • Trea Turner, NC State

Third Base | Kris Bryant, San Diego (2011-13)

Third base is a loaded position. Bryant gets the nod, but you could make arguments for almost everyone in the Honorable Mention category.

In 2013 San Diego's Kris Bryant was baseball's best

Bryant grew up in Las Vegas and competed with and against Bryce Harper as a youth player. He lacked Harper’s profile coming out of high school and was an 18th-round pick in 2010, when Harper went No. 1. So he headed to San Diego, where he became an immediate star as a high-profile freshman. Bryant batted .365/.482/.599 with nine homers and 18 stolen bases, then built on that by batting .366/.483/.671 with 14 homers as a sophomore.

Bryant’s junior season was one of the great individual seasons of the 21st century, and he batted .329/.493/.820 with 31 home runs — a record for the BBCOR bat standard. He won the Golden Spikes Award in 2013, and the Cubs made him the second overall pick in the draft. He was in the big leagues by 2015 and already has 120 career home runs.

HONORABLE MENTION

  • Anthony Rendon, Rice
  • Alex Gordon, Nebraska
  • Mark Teixeira, Georgia Tech
  • Pedro Alvarez, Vanderbilt
  • Ryan Braun, Miami
  • Brett Wallace, Arizona State
  • Colin Moran, North Carolina

Centerfield | George Springer, Connecticut (2009-11)

One of the best power-speed threats of this era, Springer mashed 46 homers and stole 76 bases in 88 attempts during his brilliant three-year college career at UConn. A late-round pick in the 2008 draft, Springer passed on pro ball, went to college and helped elevate the UConn program. The Huskies ended a 16-year postseason drought in 2010 and then made a super regional in 2011.

The Astros made Springer the No. 11 overall pick in 2011, and he went on to become a major league all-star in Houston. He got to the big leagues in 2014 and was the World Series MVP in 2017, when the Astros won the title.

HONORABLE MENTION

  • Jacoby Ellsbury, Oregon State
  • Jake Mangum, Mississippi State
  • Shane Robinson, Florida State
  • Jackie Bradley Jr., South Carolina
  • Andrew Benintendi, Arkansas
  • Tyler Holt, Florida State
  • Steve Stanley, Notre Dame
How Mississippi State's Jake Mangum became 'the Mayor' of Starkville

Corner Outfield | Seth Beer, Clemson (2016-18) and Preston Tucker, Florida (2009-12)

Beer was an instant star upon enrolling a year early at Clemson, hitting .369/.535/.700 (1.235 OPS) with 18 homers and 70 RBIs as a freshman in 2016. That proved to be his best season, but he followed with two more years of big-time power production, posting a 1.084 OPS as a sophomore and 1.089 as a junior, while finishing his three-year career with 56 home runs and 177 RBIs. The Astros made him a first-round pick last year, and he already has 25 home runs in the minor leagues.

Tucker provided four years of very good production for Florida and was a key part of three straight Omaha teams from 2010-12. He never earned first-team All-America honors, but he was a rock-solid star his entire career, finishing with a career line of .329/.412/.576, 57 home runs, 258 RBIs and a 127-107 BB-K mark. He gets bonus points for those three CWS appearances, though Florida didn’t break through and win a title until 2017.

The Astros made Tucker a seventh-round pick in 2012, and he reached the big leagues by 2015. He never established himself as an everyday player, however, and bounced to the Braves, Reds and White Sox organizations. The White Sox released him in May.

HONORABLE MENTION

  • Carlos Quentin, Stanford
  • Gabe Gross, Auburn
  • John-Ford Griffin, Florida State
  • Michael Conforto, Oregon State
  • Brent Rooker, Mississippi State
  • Kyle Lewis, Mercer
  • Joe Borchard, Stanford

Utility |Brendan McKay, Louisville (2015-17)

The best two-way player of the 64-team era — and one of the greatest of all time — McKay won the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award in all three of his college seasons. He established himself as a standout hitter and pitcher from the beginning of his career at Louisville and finished with a pitching line of 32-10, 2.23 with 391 strikeouts and 111 walks in 314 innings, and a batting line of .328/.430/.536.

McKay won the Golden Spikes Award and was the D1Baseball College Player of the Year in 2017 after hitting 18 home runs and going 11-3, 2.56 as a junior, leading the Cardinals to Omaha. He became Louisville’s highest-drafted player ever when he went fourth overall to the Rays in the 2017 draft. The Rays have continued to develop him as a two-way player, though he has had more success as a pitcher so far.

HONORABLE MENTION:

  • A.J. Reed, Kentucky
  • Stephen Head, Ole Miss
  • Danny Hultzen, Virginia
  • Jason Jennings, Baylor
  • Will Craig, Wake Forest
  • Joe Savery, Rice
  • Micah Owings, Georgia Tech/Tulane
  • Marco Gonzales, Gonzaga

Starting Pitchers:

Trevor Bauer, UCLA (2009-11)

An early enrollee at UCLA during the winter of 2008-09, Bauer formed a potent one-two combo with Gerrit Cole at UCLA. The pair of aces got the Bruins to the College World Series in 2010, their third trip ever and first since 1997. Cole was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, and Bauer went third to the Diamondbacks, but Bauer clearly had the better college career.

Bauer hit the ground running as a freshman, going 9-3, 2.99 in 105 innings. He led the nation with 165 strikeouts as a sophomore in 2010, when he went 12-3, 3.02 and not only helped the Bruins get their first-ever CWS win, but also led the team to the CWS Finals. He made the leap to superstardom as a junior, going 13-2, 1.25 with 203 strikeouts (13th-most ever) and 36 walks in 136 innings. He also allowed just 4.81 hits per nine innings, the 12th-best single-season mark in history.

Bauer won the Golden Spikes Award in 2011, and after Arizona drafted him he reached the big leagues by 2012. He went to the Indians in a trade after the 2012 season, however, and established himself as a standout starter in Cleveland.

Thomas Eshelman, Cal State Fullerton (2013-15)

Eshelman can make a strong case as the greatest strike-thrower in college baseball history. He set a Division I record for fewest walks per nine innings as a freshman, when he posted an 83-3 K-BB mark in 115.2 innings, while going 12-3, 1.48. The next two years brought similar results: Eshelman went 8-3, 1.89 with a 99-8 K-BB in 123.2 innings as a sophomore, and 8-5, 1.58 with a 139-7 K-BB in 137 innings as a junior, when he helped the Titans get to Omaha for the first time in six years.

Eshelman led the nation in K-BB ratio in each of his three seasons, and ranked in the top 10 in WHIP three years in a row. Overall, his career line was 28-11, 1.65 with 321 strikeouts and just 18 walks in 376.1 innings. There will never be another Thomas Eshelman.

Michael Roth, South Carolina (2009-12)

Roth began his career at South Carolina as a situational lefty, until he was pressed into duty as an emergency starter in a College World Series elimination game against rival Clemson as a sophomore in 2010. He threw a two-hit shutout against the Tigers, and his Omaha legend was born as South Carolina enjoyed the most successful period in program history.

While leading South Carolina to back-to-back national titles and a runner-up appearance, Roth posted a 1.17 ERA in 38.1 innings, the second-lowest CWS ERA of any pitcher with more than 30 innings. But he also became a bona fide All-America ace, going 14-3, 1.06 as a junior and 9-1, 2.43 as a senior.

Stephen Strasburg, San Diego State (2007-09)

In 2009 Stephen Strasburg dominated college baseball

After starring at the back of the Aztecs bullpen as a freshman, Strasburg moved into the rotation as a sophomore and posted two of the most dominant seasons by any pitcher in this era. He went 8-3, 1.57 with a 133-16 K-BB mark as a sophomore in 2008, then posted a historic junior campaign, going 13-1, 1.32 with an insane 195-19 K-BB mark in 109 innings. He led San Diego State to its first regional since 1991 and won the Golden Spikes Award. One of the most celebrated prospects in draft history, he went No. 1 overall to the Nationals in the 2009 draft and went on to become a major league all-star.

Jered Weaver, Long Beach State (2002-04)

Like Strasburg, Weaver emerged as a superstar as a sophomore. He went 14-4, 1.96 with 144 strikeouts and 20 walks in 133 innings for Long Beach State in 2003. And like Strasburg, Weaver managed to elevate his game to a historic level as a junior, going 15-1, 1.63 with 213 strikeouts (sixth-most ever in a Division I season) against just 21 walks in 144 innings. That performance earned him the 2004 Golden Spikes Award and made him a first-round pick of the Angels, setting the stage for a long big league career.

HONORABLE MENTION

  • Mark Prior, Southern California
  • Shane Komine, Nebraska
  • Jason Windsor, Cal State Fullerton
  • Luke Hochevar, Tennessee
  • David Price, Vanderbilt
  • Chris Sale, Florida Gulf Coast
  • Aaron Nola, LSU
  • Tim Lincecum, Washington
  • Preston Morrison, TCU
  • Carlos Rodon, NC State
  • Andrew Miller, North Carolina
  • Mike Leake, Arizona State
  • Jeff Niemann, Rice
  • Wade Townsend, Rice
  • Jonah Nickerson, Oregon State
  • Logan Shore, Florida
  • Alex Faedo, Florida
  • Adam Plutko, UCLA
  • Cesar Carrillo, Miami

Relief pitchers:

David Berg, UCLA (2012-15)

A walk-on sidearmer who became perhaps the best closer in the history of college baseball, Berg is one of the great rags to riches stories in the 64-team era. He was a rubber-armed bullpen workhorse who tied the single-season appearances record (50) as a freshman set-up man in 2012. Then he broke the record with 51 appearances a year later, when he posted a 0.92 ERA and a 78-11 K-BB mark in 78 innings, along with a Division I record 24 saves to help lead UCLA to its first national championship.

Berg appeared in all five of UCLA’s games in Omaha that year, posting a 1.35 ERA and three saves. He set a UCLA record with a 0.68 ERA as a senior in 2015, while pitching 66.2 innings over 43 appearances. Berg finished his career 22-6 and set school records for ERA (1.11), and saves (49). He also owns the Division I record with 175 appearances in four seasons.

Huston Street, Texas (2002-04)

Another of the college game’s all-time great closers, Street was a dominant performer for three seasons at Texas, but he really cemented his legacy as a gamer in Omaha. He finished all four Texas CWS victories as a freshman in 2002 to lead the Longhorns to the national title, allowing just one run on two hits in 6.1 combined innings. Street worked 2.2 innings without allowing an earned run over two appearances in the 2003 CWS, then posted a 2.35 ERA in 7.2 innings over four Omaha appearances in 2004, helping the Longhorns get back to the Finals.

For his career, Street finished 18-3, 1.31 with 41 saves and a 177-35 K-BB mark in 178 innings over 105 appearances. He added to his legacy with similarly heroic work for USA Baseball’s college national team in the summer of 2003, making 14 appearances without allowing an earned run. He had seven saves as well as 33 strikeouts against four walks in 29 innings.

The Athletics made him the 40th overall pick in the 2004 draft, and unlike many college relievers, Street actually replicated his success in the major leagues. He was the 2005 AL Rookie of the Year and a two-time all-star. He played a total of 13 years with four different teams, making 668 appearances and earning 324 saves.

HONORABLE MENTION:

  • Matt Price, South Carolina
  • Kevin Gunderson, Oregon State

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Division I
College World Series
June 13-23/24, 2020
TD Ameritrade Park | Omaha, NE

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