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SEC Baseball Preview 2014: Can Alabama Grow Into the SEC West Race?

The Tide hangs around the edge of the Top 25 after losing two of its best players. But with a bit of improvement from its starters, this could be the year for Alabama to make its move on the diamond

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Preseason Rankings | Baseball America: 21; USA Today: ORV

Last Season | The Tide started out the season with some short-sighted analysts saying that a trip to the NCAA tournament was a stretch; after a decent run into the SEC tournament in Hoover, Alabama was basically a lock for the national playoff. And the Crimson Tide were in a good spot in the Tallahassee Regional until a meltdown by the team's closer cost them a chance to move on. Alabama went 35-28 overall and 14-15 in the SEC -- nothing spectacular, but probably a bit better than you would think by looking at the roster before the season. Thing is, this team really wasn't that good at anything. The Tide ranked 13th in the SEC in OPS, beating out only Missouri, and the pitching staff ranked 10th in both ERA and opponents' batting average. They did tie for third in the league in fielding percentage and shut down opponents' running game, allowing just 48.8 percent of attempted stolen bases, so there are some low-tech indications that the defense was good. But that's about it.

Who's Gone in 2014 | Well, for one, Brett Booth -- the starting catcher who is largely responsible for the stranglehold on opposing baserunners. Booth was also the only regular starter to bat higher than .287 (Booth hit .290) and one of just two to club more than five home runs (he had six). He led all regular starters in on-base percentage and was third in both slugging percentage and total bases. That's a lot to lose for a team that was already as light-hitting as Alabama. In fact, in losing Booth and Kenny Roberts, Alabama watched 42.3 percent of its home runs in 2013 walk out of the locker room.

Who's Back in 2014 | A good portion of the rest of the team. Ray Castillo is virtually guaranteed not to have another late-game meltdown, since he'll be starting for the Tide this year. (Though if Alabama's bullpen falters, Castillo is a perfect candidate for the Matt Price Scenario -- starting out in the rotation only to return to the closer's role to help the team.) Austen Smith, who led regular starters in slugging percentage and home runs (seven), returns to anchor the starting line-up. Ben Moore, who led the team in total and stolen bases, returns for his junior season. The danger for opponents is that this team continues to grow from last season, which could set them up for a run at division front-runners Mississippi State and LSU.

Prognosis | The polls are probably about right on this one: Best to take a wait-and-see approach while putting the Tide at a fringe-y Top 25 position. Alabama does draw both South Carolina and Florida out of the East, and has to travel to Columbia for the series against the Gamecocks; a 1-5 or 2-4 record in those game could be all it takes to keep them from breaking into the upper tier of West contenders. But the room for this team to improve is is there, and even moving into the upper half of the division would be visible improvement for Mitch Gaspard's program. This would be a good year for the Tide to do it.