The 40th Southeastern Conference tournament begins Tuesday, and the professional baseball talent evaluators rejoice.
As usual, the field this season is defined almost as much by its individual talent as it is the quality of the teams — six of which were ranked in the final Baseball America top 25.
There are flame-throwing pitchers, like Florida’s Alex Faedo, Missouri’s Tanner Houck and Vanderbilt’s Kyle Wright, all expected to be among the first 15 players taken in June’s Major League Baseball draft.
There are the muscle men like Mississippi State’s Brent Rooker and LSU’s Greg Deichmann, both of whom rank among the nation’s best power hitters with 20 and 17 home runs.
There are also the next-wave players, like super Texas A&M freshman Braden Shewmake and Florida pitcher Brady Singer, both of whom will likely wind up high draft picks when eligible.
Those are just a few of many who will soon be embarking on a professional baseball career. The SEC is one of the most talent-rich leagues in college baseball, evidenced by the 14 SEC players selected on the first day of last year’s draft.
All that talent usually adds up to some pretty solid baseball.
Last year’s SEC tournament featured seven teams that would host regional tournaments, including four national seeds. Both of those were record figures.
This year figures to be much of the same. The two top seeds, Florida and LSU, enter the tournament as two of the hottest teams in the country, with both winning 11 of their past 12 conference games.
Kentucky, the No. 3 seed, possesses one of the most dangerous lineups in all of college baseball. The Wildcats led the SEC in hitting (.323), slugging (.506), on base percentage (.424), runs scored (430), hits (396), doubles (136), and, for good measure, sacrifice bunts (46).
The only major category Kentucky didn’t dominate was home runs. That belonged to No. 4 seed Arkansas, which clubbed 70 of them.
Arkansas is the only team in the tournament with three players that have hit double-digit homers, and five Arkansas players have hit at least eight.
The tournament is using the same format it has used since 2013, with a 12-team field and a rotating elimination system.
Tuesday will feature four single elimination games between the eight lowest seeds. Wednesday through Friday will be the double elimination portion of the tournament, trimming the field down to four teams.
The tournament will return to single elimination for the semifinals, regardless of the team’s record at that point in the tournament. LSU, in 2015, was bounced in the tournament semifinals despite being undefeated at that point.
The championship will be decided at 2 p.m. Sunday. For the eight teams competing Tuesday, they are gunning to be the first under the new format to reach Sunday’s championship game.
Each champion since 2013 has enjoyed the benefit of a first-round bye — the lowest seeded teams to even reach the championship game since 2013 were the 2015 and 2016 Florida Gators, both times as four seeds.
But that’s not to say the bottom eight seeds haven’t had a chance. The 2014 semifinals included a No. 7 and a No. 9 seed, while No. 7 Ole Miss and No. 5 LSU advanced to the same stage last season.
Looking at this year’s field, each of the bottom eight seeds has incentive to go on a run.
Mississippi State, the No. 5 seed, is probably on the wrong side of the bubble to be a regional host in next week’s NCAA tournament. The same goes for No. 6 seed Vanderbilt, though the Commodores probably would need to either make it to Sunday or win the tournament outright.
The Nos. 7-11 seeds, Texas A&M, Auburn, Ole Miss, Missouri and South Carolina all could use a strong week to solidify their status as NCAA tournament teams to varying degrees. A one-and-done week would likely leave each nervous heading into the NCAA tournament selection show.
The bottom seed Georgia, needs to win the tournament or its season is likely done.
LSU will send freshman right-hander Todd Peterson to the mound for its SEC tournament opener…