For the next edition of conference previews for the 2022 season, we now focus our attention on the ACC. The conference that is coming off N.C. State’s Cinderella run in Omaha that was cut short due to controversy by the NCAA’s Covid-19 protocols. The conference has also had a team in Omaha every year since 2005. Will that continue? Find out below!
The ACC is extremely young this season, so this prediction is very difficult. However, the Florida State Seminoles will win the ACC in 2022.
FSU returns one of the best duos on the mound this year in Carson Montgomery and Parker Messick. Montgomery caught everyone’s eye last year in a mid-week game against Florida where he dominated the Gators in a 10-2 outing. He struck out 9 and has one of the best curveballs college baseball has ever seen. Slowly, Montgomery put himself in a weekend spot towards the end of last year due to his command. Expect him to be a Saturday starter for FSU this year behind Messick. He also has the potential of having the highest swing and miss rate on breaking balls in the ACC. There is also little surprise Montgomery has impressed this fall including a shutout against Troy in 4 innings of work.
Messick is coming off of being the ACC Freshman and Pitcher of the year posting a 3.30 ERA in 90 innings pitched. He also finished the season with a 1-1 record and dominated in the conference. Expect Messick to be the ace on Friday nights and be one of the dominant pitchers in the conference this year. He has the ability to throw all four of his pitches for strikes and a fastball that could be in the 93-94 mph range. This season, Messick could very well lead Florida State to Omaha for the first time since 2019.
To accompany them, the Seminoles have an extremely deep bullpen with nine guys touching the low 90’s in the fall. This list includes impressive freshmen in Connor Whittaker, David Barrett, and Jackson Baumeister. The concerning part is the potential of chemistry issues with the number of transfers Mike Martin Jr. brings in. The loss of arguably one of the best power hitters in college baseball in Matheu Nelson will be a big blow to Florida State. The Seminoles will have to rely on a club that has never played together to get them to Charlotte for the ACC Tournament.
First, the corner infield only returns Tyler Martin who was a mainstay at third last season. Martin is also the son of Mike Martin Jr. who missed the fall with a shoulder injury. He should be good to go by the spring and a reliable guy at the hot corner. He also has speed and can hit to all parts of the field. On the opposite side of the diamond, FSU went out and got a huge grad transfer to come from arch-rival Miami in Alex Toral. He hit 24 home runs in 2019 with the Hurricanes and drove in runs at an impressive clip as well. He could definitely be a big part of the Seminoles trying to replace Nelson’s power in the middle of the order.
Looking at the middle infield, the Seminoles will have a completely new look at short and second. It is expected for Jordan Carrion, a transfer from the Florida Gators, will get the nod to replace De Sades. Carrion only hit .244 for the Gators last year, but had a .955 fielding percentage which is an incredible number for a freshman. He also only saw midweek action for the most part for Florida, but also showed he could hit to all parts of the field. The Seminoles will hope he continues the rich history of very well defensive shortstops in Tallahassee along with being productive on the base paths.
Florida State most likely will rely on another transfer to start at 2nd from Tennessee Tech in Brett Roberts. What is impressive about Roberts is he produced one of the best summers in the Cape Cod League by hitting over .300 with power. That came on the heels of hitting .343 and driving in 39 last year for the Golden Eagles. When looking back at the stats next summer, don’t be surprised if Roberts hit the 20 homer plateau in his 2021 campaign.
Looking at the transfer market this year, FSU probably had the best class in the country overall and got players who can start immediately on the infield. So if you’re an FSU fan this year, expect the infield to be totally different and made of transfers outside of Martin at 3rd.
The outfield on the other hand will have some familiarity by returning Reese Albert and Logan Lacey. Albert is one of the most talented players in the country and an older guy. However, it will be extremely interesting to see how he recovers from a knee injury he suffered last year. If he is at full strength he has the potential to be a 1st Team All-ACC caliber everyday outfielder.
Lacey should be FSU’s center fielder this spring as having one of the most reliable gloves in college baseball last year. He also did this by splitting time between the corner infield and center. He also could be a very good candidate to lead off for the Seminoles along with Isaiah Perry. Perry is one of the most electric base stealers in college baseball, and also can bunt when needed. FSU should be in good shape with them at the top of the order.
In order for Florida State to win the conference, they will also have to bear a brutal ACC schedule in NCSU, Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, and North Carolina to name a few. That is essentially the top half of the conference last season.
If you think it gets any easier in the non-conference, you are mistaken. The Seminoles will have their annual dates with Florida and sneaky UCF in state. Shockingly they also host a monster weekend series against CAL and TCU in Tallahassee early on. These huge series will certainly have the attention of the college baseball world.
With that being said, with the pitching staff Florida State’s club is returning, it could be a special season for Florida State as ACC Champions.
Player of the Year
We are going to have to go up the road to Clemson for this one and Caden Grice. In his rookie campaign for the Tigers, Grice was a Golden Spikes Award Watch List member and an All- American. This is according to D1Baseball and Baseball America. There is little reason to blame them as Grice was terrific and also very versatile in the field.
He reminded Tiger nation of Seth Beer who has not been gone long from Monte’s Lee’s club by hitting .317 with 53 rbi’s and 15 homers. Expect for him to win Player of the Year, but as always the sophomore slump could loom large for Grice. This would also be similar to what happened to Beer after his rookie campaign. If Grice is able to duplicate his power numbers in 2021, do not be surprised to see him selected in the top five in the 2023 MLB Draft.
Freshman of the Year
Duke has one of the best freshmen I have seen in a long time covering college baseball in Alex Mooney. The Michigan product is the real deal because of his absolutely incredible range at short for a freshman.
I was able to get a look at him for the Blue Devil’s fall scrimmage and Mooney particularly stood out for being able to cover 5-6 hole effectively. He was also able to make accurate throws on the run. Mooney looked very comfortable in the box being able to work counts in his favor for a drivable pitch.
Mooney was the #12 overall player in the country coming out of high school and the #1 overall shortstop in his class which makes him one of the highest-rated in Blue Devil history. Chris Pollard has something special in this guy and he could be the best ballplayer to come out of Durham in the last decade for Duke outside of Marcus Stroman.
Most Improved Team
For the most improved team in the ACC, it’s the North Carolina Tar Heels and second-year Head Coach Scott Forbes. First, last season was extremely difficult for the Heels largely because of a huge letdown by the bullpen. Also, UNC also did not have a reliable starter outside of Austin love who was drafted after last season.
On the mound, Carolina returns a much older and improved rotation with Caden O’Brien most likely being the Friday night ace. He will have to improve on 36 innings pitched and a 5.20 ERA. He can execute a pitch when he has to, which will make Forbes trust him early on this season.
Gage Gillian is another Tar Heel who will have to come up big for the Tar Heels. He had the 2nd highest number of innings pitched last year at 50 and a great K percentage. Carolina had a big problem because outside of Love, not a single guy threw over 50 innings.
Gillian posted a 2.34 ERA last year, but has had an impressive scrimmage against Vandy. He will have to step into a weekend role for the Heels to have Omaha hopes.
UNC will also need tremendous improvement out of Nik Pry and Connor Ollio this year as well. As mentioned above, these two will be huge parts of the bullpen with Pry possibly getting a weekend spot for UNC.
Both posted over a 5.00 ERA last season, and were two main stays in the pen for Forbes. If Ollio is able to potentially step into a closing role for the Tar Heels, that is tremendous progress for the program.
What I do love about this Carolina team is on the offensive side of the ball. UNC brings in one of the best recruiting classes in the ACC, with the addictions of Vance Honeycutt and Reece Holbrook. They also went out and got the JUCO National Player of the Year with Alberto Osuno who will immediately step into a DH role for the club.
First off, behind the plate, UNC has one of the most reliable catchers in the ACC in Tomas Frick. Frick hit .257 last year and 16 RBIs, but has one of the most accurate throwdowns in the country and is extremely hard to steal off of. Expect him to be around the 10 homer ballpark and be an All-ACC player this upcoming season with the best pop time in the ACC.
First base has been a tricky situation over the past year with a lot of rotating due to errors. Expect that to continue again this year with Carolina trying a lot of different combinations to figure things out at that position.
Hunter Stokely split time there last year and could receive some reps there again. However, expect them to go the route of Tyler Causey. Causey didn’t get a ton of playing time last year, but will probably start off at 1st. He has started there in the fall and a needed fresh start there from last year.
At 3rd, Clemente Inclan will start for the Heels and needs a much improved 2022. This is due to hitting under the Mendoza line in 2021. However, I like Inlan’s game, as he was the ACC Player of the Week last year. That came after he had 8 rbi’s in 4 games in their sweep of Clemson at the Bosh.
When talking about Carolina’s middle infield, you have to begin with mainstay Danny Serreti at short. Until Mooney at Duke who still has to prove himself, Seretti is the best shortstop in the conference. He hit .249 last year, but his athletic frame, quickness, and power are what makes him elite. Watching him in the fall, he hit a ball into the parking lot during a scrimmage that went 440 feet. He also looked really solid in the field which is a huge plus for scouts.
Second base will be a little interesting with the battle of Colby Wilkerson and Johnny Castagnozzi. Wilkerson is a speedster with a great glove who is a very productive line drive hitter. The only downside to him is he does not have the power or frame to go yard. On the opposite side he is good on bass paths and having at bats that could put him in the top half of the Heels lineup.
Castagnozzi has also gotten some reps at 1st during the fall which is interesting. Needless to say, he most likely won’t fit there for the regular season. He only hit .239 with 4 homers last year, but had a good summer of baseball and is a bat Forbes will want in the lineup in some capacity this spring. What is an attribute for Castagnozzi is he is bigger than Wilkerson and has more power in the gaps.
Switching to the outfield, along with Seretti the most reliable player for Carolina this past spring is Angel Zarate. Zarate hit .324 with 32 RBI’s in his sophomore campaign and will replace Justice Thompson in center who departed to the Reds by way of the draft.
That leads to more outfield spots for UNC to figure out. At left, Carolina will rely on Vance Honeycutt, and Diamond Heel fans can hope his power translates to the Tar Heel program. As mentioned earlier, Honeycutt was a highly rated prospect out of high school from Salisbury, N.C. He can hit for tremendous power which is why he was drafted by the Giants. He is extremely versatile in the field which is why he could play right away in the outfield with Seretti at short. Honeycutt also ran an incredible 6.84 60 yard dash in high school for Slisbury. Which is another reason why Tar Heels fans will love seeing him in the outfield.
UNC can go a bunch of different directions in right depending on who’s hot early in the season. Along with that, Forbes can try some things out in the mid-week slate. He most likely split time between and Patrick Alvarez, Reece Holbrook depending on the opponent.
Holbrook also comes from quite the baseball family. His dad is the head coach at the College of Charleston and his brother is a senior in high school committed to Vanderbilt next season. So needless to say he has quite the backstory for commentators to talk about as well.
Looking at UNC’s schedule, the one thing admirable about Carolina back to the Mike Fox days is the opponents they play. They will have ECU, and Coastal Carolina in a weekend series this year which are huge series. Along with midweek games with the likes of South Carolina in Charlotte, Liberty, Campbell, and UNCW to name a few. Outside of South Carolina, which is a big-time rival, Coastal has a very strong program with a national title. Campbell will also have the best team they have had in years, and Liberty is always in or around the regionals. UNC will play anyone anywhere.
There is a high probability this Carolina team could possibly make it to Omaha, and you will have to keep reading to find out if I think they will. Regardless, this year should be a huge step in the right direction for Scott Forbes who is trying to maintain an elite program in his second season after Mike Fox’s retirement.
A side note worth mentioning, Clemson and Boston College will be much improved teams this year as well. Both of them will most likely make the regionals this year as well, potentially a super. However, because of youth in key positions, I believe Carolina will be the most improved team in the ACC.
Pitcher of the Year
How about a curveball for this selection, no pun intended, and go with Sam Highfill from N.C. State to be the conference pitcher of the year. Highfill was a standout freshman for the Wolfpack last season who worked his way into a Saturday spot behind Reid Johnston. Johnston departed Raleigh by way of the Cleveland Guardians so Highfill will have to step up in a big way.
If you lived in the North Carolina area and were able to get a glimpse of Highfill last year, you were immediately wowed with his 84 strikeouts in 93 innings pitched. Highfill excels in commanding his fastball for a strike. Along with that, he can fool hitters by his breaking ball that works down and away to lefties.
While he impressed throughout the entire season, he caught the media’s eye when he had to play first against Vanderbilt in the CWS. This was due to Covid-19 testing issues between N.C. State and the NCAA where he recorded three hits for the Wolfpack. Remind you they only had 13 available players on the roster. The game before that, he also threw 7.2 scoreless innings against the Commodores to give NCSU a 2-0 start on their side of the bracket.
While Elliot Avent hopefully will not need his bat this year, Highfill has big shoes to fill on Friday nights for the Pack. He will be a key piece in determining if N.C. State can repeat last year’s magical run in Omaha.
The one thing you learn when covering college baseball, the ACC is by far the most unpredictable league in the country. No one would have put money down in Vegas on Link Jarrett’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish winning the regular season. You also would have been crazy to bet on Pittsburgh and VA Tech in the Top 25. You know where this story goes… it happened.
But you clicked on this article for a prediction, so the two teams that were broken down in this preview will be the only two from the ACC to go to the CWS in FSU and UNC. There is no need to dive further into their teams, but I will mention a few others who have a good shot to make College Baseball’s promise land.
Another team to keep an eye on is Louisville. The Cards could possibly be a super-regional team this year and improve on one of Dan McDonald’s worst years he has had in his run with the Cardinals.
Louisville has always had a way of turning the page quickly, and that could very easily be the case again this year. A young, but motivated ball club with a lot to prove could be dangerous for the ACC. No one ever looks forward to playing Louisville at any time of the year.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, one disappointment that will come out of the ACC is Virginia. The Hoos are very highly rated coming into the season, probably in the top 15 in most pools, but the loss of ace Andrew Abbot and most of their lineup will be a set back for the Cavaliers. Brian O’Connor will definitely put a respectable product on the field, but it could be a rebuilding year in Charlottesville.
Final Projected Standings
- Florida State
- North Carolina
- N.C. State
- Georgia Tech
- Boston College
- Notre Dame
- Wake Forest
- Virginia Tech