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There isn’t a clear-cut front-runner in the Big Ten, which didn’t land a team in the D1Baseball Preseason Top 25. But that doesn’t mean the conference lacks contenders — the issue is, there are so many viable contenders that handicapping the race can almost feel like a crapshoot. Michigan still has pieces left from its 2019 CWS Finals run along with enough emerging talent to make a run at the conference crown. Indiana is loaded with pitching and a few impact position players, making the Hoosiers the other most obvious contender. But Maryland, Ohio State, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska all have the look of bona fide regional teams as well. This race figures to be a punishing free-for-all.

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The big X-factor for the Big Ten is how its modified schedule will affect its postseason chances with the selection committee. With the pandemic, Big Ten teams will play just 44 games instead of the normal 56, and they will be restricted to conference-only games. That could potentially hinder the Big Ten’s chances to get more than three teams into regionals, if the conference heavyweights beat up on each other and all finish closer to .500 overall than they normally might. It will be interesting to monitor.

Projected standings

*Teams are listed in order of projected finish

Team 2020 Record
Michigan 8-7
Indiana 9-6
Maryland 10-5
Ohio State 6-8
Iowa 10-5
Illinois 8-5
Minnesota 8-10
Nebraska 7-8
Purdue 7-7
Rutgers 6-9
Michigan State 9-6
Northwestern 6-7
Penn State 10-5

Projected regional teams (4): Michigan, Indiana, Maryland, Ohio State
Player of the year: Maxwell Costes, 1B, Maryland
Pitcher of the year: Steven Hajjar, LHP, Michigan
Freshman of the year: Ryan Lasko, RF, Rutgers

Project regional teams

Michigan

Head coach: Erik Bakich
2019 record: 50-22 (16-7)
2020 record: 8-7 (0-0)

Strengths: Even after turning over the entire weekend rotation from the 2019 national runner-up season, the Wolverines return considerable depth in the pitching staff. An infusion of grad transfers affords Michigan the opportunity to retool rather than rebuild.  

Question marks: The departed trio of Jordan Nwogu, Jack Blomgren and Joe Donovan accounted for 40% of the team’s total bases last season, requiring Bakich to get creative in replacing their offensive production. 

Star power: Our conference Pitcher of the year pick, Steven Hajjar was tabbed as the No. 16 draft prospect in college baseball in our preseason rankings. Rotation-mates Cameron Weston (1-0, 0.90) and Blake Beers (2-2, 3.13) are draft prospects in their own right, and Jimmy Obertop is an impact bat in the middle of the order who will split time behind the dish, at first base and designated hitter.

Glue guys: Armed with a mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider, Willie Weiss is a stabilizing force in the back of the bullpen after logging nine saves in 2019. Second baseman Riley Bertram knocked in a team best 10 runs last season, and Ted Burton is back to man the hot corner after logging 11 starts there as a freshman last season. Clark Elliott has feel for the strike zone and disruptive speed on the bases.  

Pick to click: A quick twitch athlete with game changing speed, center fielder Christian Bullock slashed .268/.385/.407 during the special 2019 season and will be leaned on as an ignitor at the top of one of the more potent offenses in the Big Ten. 

Top newcomer: After a decorated collegiate career at Kansas, grad transfer Ben Sems will slide into the shortstop role to give the Wolverines a battle tested leader up the middle. The sweet swinging former Jayhawk has a discerning eye at the plate, excellent first step quickness, and soft hands. 

Outlook: Equipped with a renowned rotation and torrent of bullpen arms with big game experience, the Wolverines can hang their hat on having one of the deepest pitching staffs in the conference. Moreover, the replenished position player group is comprised of veterans at key spots up in the lineup. In short, the Michigan has the pieces to remain competitive at a national championship level. 

Michigan Athletics
Michigan’s Steven Hajjar pitches against Pepperdine in 2020.

Indiana

Head coach: Jeff Mercer
2019 record: 37-23 (17-7)
2020 record: 9-6 (0-0)

Strengths: Grant Richardson, Cole Barr and Drew Ashley headline an experienced nucleus in what should be among the most dangerous lineups in the Big Ten.  

Question marks: Tasked with turning over the whole rotation from the 2019 Big Ten Championship team, the Hoosiers need their young staff to pitch to their potential.  

Star power: Richardson was superlative to commence last season, slashing .424/.453/.797 with five home runs through 15 games. A cerebral hitter and tireless worker, the third-year sophomore has average or better tools across the board.  

Glue guys: Gabe Bierman (2-1, 2.45) and Tommy Sommer (2-1, 2.61) have been consistently productive throughout their respective collegiate careers. Bierman elicits ground balls with heavy sinkers in the 90-to-93 mph range and has advanced feel for a changeup thrown with arm-side fade. A 6-foot-4 lefty with a four-pitch mix, Sommer held hitters to a .177 batting average against last season. Working primarily out of the pen, Connor Manous has an ERA of just 2.58 over 47 career appearances. A glove-first backstop with advanced catch and throw skills, Collin Hopkins gets high marks for his ability to manage a pitching staff. A contributor on both sides of the ball, Grant Macciocchi is poised to see significant time at shortstop while also being called upon as a late-inning reliever. 

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Pick to click: Despite being one of the most talented pitchers in the conference, McCade Brown has a bloated 14.86 ERA and has logged just six and two-thirds collegiate innings. After a strong fall, the coaching staff is enthused that Brown is ready for his loud metrics to translate into games that count. At his best, the 6-foot-6 righty effortlessly produces mid-90s octane, and pairs it with two high spin breaking pitches.

Top newcomer: Transfer Morgan Colopy (University of Cincinnati) was 34th round pick out of Centerville (OH) in 2019. Lauded has having the best raw power in the team, the right fielder has plus bat speed, an all fields approach and a strong arm. 

Outlook: Top to bottom, the Hoosiers are one of the more balanced teams in Big Ten and finished in the top half of the conference in both hitting and pitching last season despite the toughest schedule in the Big Ten. A master motivator, Mercer is a rising star in the collegiate coaching ranks who can be counted on to get the most out of his players. 

Maryland

Head coach: Rob Vaughn
2019 record: 29-29 (12-12)
2020 record: 10-5 (0-0)

Strengths: Maryland has some serious star power in both their everyday lineup and their pitching staff. Their projected Nos. 1-3 hitters — Chris Alleyne, Randy Bednar and Maxwell Costes — are all proven and productive players while Sean Burke is one of the Big Ten’s top prospects with the results to match.

Question marks: Although the team does have exciting players at the top of their lineup and among their weekend starters, the lower half of the Terps’ lineup, the team’s bullpen and overall pitching depth is in question.

Star power: Look no further than Alleyne (.333/.413/.500), Bednar (.387/.459/.581) and Costes (.432/.620/.750), who will hit one, two and three in the everyday lineup. Sean Burke, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound right hander, went 2-0, 1.99 with 35 strikeouts and 11 walks in 22 2/3 innings with the stuff to match. Closer Sam Bello also hurls mid-90s heat.

Glue guys: Shortstop Benjamin Cowles is a solid all-around player across the board. Second-year freshmen right-handers Nick Dean and Connor Staine will follow Burke in the starting rotation after enjoying productive, albeit abbreviated, true freshman seasons. Side-arming right-hander Elliot Zoellner has been effective bridging the gap from the starters to Bello.

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Pick to click: Designated hitter Bobby Zmarzlak was one of the team’s prized recruits a year ago, and despite hitting .185 in 10 games, three of his five hits went for extra bases (one double, two homers). He’s expected to take a big step forward.

Top newcomer: Jason Savacool is projected to be the team’s fourth starter, which could effectively be on Sundays considering the Big Ten is expected to play four-game weekends. Matt Shaw, who could start at third base from day one, looked good in the fall and has an athletic toolset.

Outlook: Coach Vaughn is focused on guiding Maryland to the postseason for the first time since being at the helm of the program, and overall the Terps might have the most talent on their roster since they lost to Virginia in back-to-back super regionals in 2014 and 2015. With a diverse lineup full of incredibly patient and keen-eyed hitters, scoring runs shouldn’t be a problem for what could be the conference’s most dangerous lineup. The starting staff could also be one of the Big Ten’s best, particularly if Sean Burke establishes himself as one of the nation’s best draft prospects.

Ohio State

Head coach: Greg Beals
2019 record: 36-27 (12-12)
2020 record: 6-8 (0-0)

Strengths: Retaining the entirety of the rotation from the 2019 regional team and a talent laden bullpen, the Buckeyes may have the deepest pitching staff in the conference.  

Question marks: Gone are 2019 standout Dominic Canzone and 2020 second rounder (Tigers) Dillon Dingler, both of whom represented such vital pieces of to this lineup in recent years. As such, the offensive identify of this club remains one of the bigger unknowns heading into the 2021 campaign.  

Star power: Seth Lonsway is back following a season in which he led the nation in strikeouts-per-nine (21.0) after punching out an absurd 42 hitters in just 18 innings. 

Glue guys: The Friday starter since stepping foot on campus, unflappable righty Garrett Burhenn excels at sequencing his four-pitch mix and his velocity reportedly jumped this fall. Griffan Smith is a veteran lefty with a bulldog mentality. He locates to both sides of the plate and led the team in innings (96.2) and starts (17) in 2019. A significant piece since his freshman year, Bayden Root will once again be called upon to get big outs out of the pen. At 6-foot-5 and 225-pounds, Connor Pohl is an imposing presence in the box and can pick it around the bag at first base. Zach Dezenzo is a big and physical shortstop at 6-foot-4, 225-pounds with raw power to match. 

Pick to click: After sitting in the low-90s last season, TJ Brock’s stuff has ticked upward across the board this fall. The right hander now sits 97-to-98 mph in short stints and features a biting high 80s slider with two-plane break. He’ll be called upon in high leverage situations this spring, potentially earning save opportunities.  

Top newcomer: Jack Neely comes to Columbus via Iowa Western CC, with prior layovers at the University of Texas and San Jacinto. A prototypical power pitcher, 6-foot-9 right hander is can run his fastball up to 97 mph and he’ll show hitters in curveball with 11-to-5 break to go with a serviceable changeup. Toolsy freshman center fielder Kade Kern is slated to play a significant role right out of the gate.  

Outlook: Riding the star power and depth of the pitching staff, the Buckeyes should contend for a regional if they’re able to get league average production from the offense, with a chance to be special if the bats perform at the upper end of their potential range of outcomes. 

Keep an eye on

Iowa 

Head coach: Rick Heller
2019 record: 31-24 (12-12)
2020 record: 10-5 (0-0)

Strengths: Team leaders Ben Norman (center field), Austin Martin (catcher) and Grant Leonard (closer) are fifth- and sixth-year seniors with years of experience. In fact, the entire lineup has significant experience and the pitching staff is deep with reliable options.

Question marks: With Grant Judkins beginning his pro career and Jack Dreyer out for the year due to injury, fourth-year sophomore Duncan Davitt is the only returning weekend starter. Projected staff ace Trenton Wallace did start eight games a freshman in 2018 and three as a sophomore, but pitched exclusively out of the bullpen in 2020.

Star power: Wallace is a left hander that peaks in the low-90s with a good four-pitch mix. He will also start in right field and hit in the middle of the lineup as one of the team’s more polished hitters. At 6-foot-5, 250-pounds, Peyton Williams has prodigious power and blasted 13 home runs in 33 games last summer in the Northwoods League. Fourth-year sophomore Ben Probst throws low- to mid-90s gas with a nasty slider.

Glue guys: Norman had a huge fall and could be poised for a big spring. Dylan Nedved hit .308 as the team’s starting shortstop and also had a 1.35 ERA in five relief appearances. Izaya Fullard can play both second and third base and hit .400/.449/.583 through 15 games last year. Left fielder Zeb Adreon (.333) and third baseman Matthew Sosa (.316) also hit on the sunny side of .300.

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Pick to click: With 62 career innings and 72 career at-bats, Wallace doesn’t have a ton of accolades to point to, but given his projected role and expected impact he could be one of the most productive two-way players in the nation.

Top newcomer: Freshman outfielder Keaton Anthony is an intriguing 6-foot-4 athlete that really stung the ball hard during fall practices. He’ll battle for playing time despite the team’s depth and experience among their position player group. Fellow freshman Andy Nelson could do the same as a super utility option.

Outlook: Iowa appeared destined for the postseason in 2020 and continue to have that kind of overall roster makeup heading into 2021. The lineup is as deep and talented as it has ever been and the pitching offers plenty of promise. If a few pitchers fall into place in the weekend rotation the Hawkeyes could be headed to their first regional, and Big Ten championship, since 2017. 

Illinois

Head coach: Dan Hartleb
2019 record: 36-21 (15-9)
2020 record: 8-5 (0-0)

Strengths: No team in the Big Ten uses the pitching and defense formula as well as Illinois, and with a deep staff with plenty of options and a proven defense up the middle, that will once define this team. 

Question marks: Through 13 games in the shortened 2020 season, Illinois had only five home runs and a .330 slugging percentage. A power source or two will need to step forward and one could be junior college transfer Ryan Hampe.

Star power: Shortstop Branden Comia was just getting started in 2020, hitting .426/.526/.702 with seven extra-base hits through 13 games. He’ll be one of the Big Ten’s biggest stars. The team’s projected Nos. 2 and 3 starters, right-handers Andrew Hoffmann and Aidan Maldonado, throw in the low- to mid-90s with good projectability.

Glue guys: Left-handed ace Cole Kirschsieper is a second-year freshman and opened his collegiate career with wins over West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Elon. Third-year sophomore Ty Rybarczyk is the Swiss Army knife of the staff and could fill a valuable swing role. Fellow third-year sophomore and catcher Jacob Campbell is a defensive stalwart who has worked hard to improve his offensive game.

Pick to click: Center fielder Taylor Jackson will lead off while providing excellent defense highlighted by his range. He slashed .296/.350/.370 last year before raising those numbers to .329/.366/.404 while swinging a wood bat in the Northwoods League over the summer.

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Top newcomer: Hoffmann and Hampe both starred at John A. Logan College at the junior college level last season with Hoffmann posting a 2.08 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 26 innings and Hampe slashing .413/.482/.640. Hoffmann also twirls a high-spin rate breaking ball and was named the team’s most outstanding pitcher in fall ball. 

Outlook: With a staff of Kirschsieper, Hoffmann and Maldonado, and a defense led by Comia, Jackson and Campbell, Illinois will keep themselves in every single ballgame. They have a deep bullpen as well as 3-4 true freshman arms they’re excited about with a nice balance between right handers and left handers. How the offense comes together will dictate how far this team goes in 2021 as Kellen Sarver, Brody Harding, Jackson Raper, Cam McDonald and Danny Doligale — in addition to Comia, Campbell, Jackson and Hampe — could all step forward this season.

Minnesota

Head coach: John Anderson
2019 record: 29-27 (15-9)
2020 record: 8-10 (0-0)

Strengths: Eight of the nine regulars from the starting lineup return to the Gophers in 2021 for a squad that hit .284 a year ago. Projected starters JP Massey, Trent Schoeberl, Drake Davis and Patrick Fredrickson combined for 11 starts in 18 games.

Question marks: Considering the team ERA a year ago was 6.54 and departed ace Max Meyer — the No. 3 overall pick in last summer’s draft — had a 1.95 ERA, there’s considerable need for improvement on the staff.

Star power: Third-year sophomore right-hander JP Massey is as projectable as they come with a high-waisted, broad shouldered and still-projectable 6-foot-5, 205-pound build. He throws in the low- to mid-90s and everything about him keeps trending upward.

Glue guys: Second baseman Zack Raabe (.463/.526/.612) led the nation in hits last year, third baseman Jack Wassel (.364/.475/.591) enjoyed his best season and center fielder Easton Bertrand continued to get better in all phases. Right-hander Trent Schoeberl went 2-0, 2.75 as a freshman and left-hander Bubba Horton is a key bullpen arm.

Pick to click: Sam Ireland is a physical two-way talent with exciting power potential who is expected to play in right field, at first base and as the team’s designated hitter while also providing meaningful innings out of the bullpen.

Top newcomer: Left-hander Jack Liffrig had Tommy John surgery after transferring from Utah and would have pitched in 2020 had the season progressed. He looked strong in the fall and is expected to be the Saturday starter. Freshman right-hander George Klassen has the team’s best pure stuff but it remains to be seen how many opportunities he’ll have.

Outlook: Minnesota always seems to have one of the Big Ten’s best lineups and this year will be no different. There’s talent on the pitching staff but uncertainty how it’s all going to shake out. If Massey takes another big step forward, Liffrig proves to be healthy and Schoeberl continues to progress, the weekend staff could be a plus. The icing on the cake would be a return to form by Patrick Fredrickson, the 2018 Big Ten Pitcher and Freshman of the Year who hasn’t been the same since but has returned to the sinker/slider profile that made him successful.

Nebraska

Head coach: Will Bolt
2019 record: 32-24 (15-9)
2020 record: 7-8 (0-0)

Strengths: As a team, the Huskers slashed .281/.375/.432 in 2020 and have the most athletic and versatile starting lineup in the Big Ten. There’s some exciting upside on the pitching staff as well.

Question marks: Outside of transfer Chance Hroch, one of the team’s projected weekend starters, there is uncertainty on the pitching staff based on role and past results.

Star power: Those familiar with the program agree that shortstop and right-handed pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach is poised for a big, breakout season. He’ll hit near the top of the order, captain the infield defense and bring mid-90s heat out of the bullpen late in ballgames. Left-handed starter Cade Povich and right-handers Colby Gomes and Cam Wynne have exciting arm strength.

Glue guys: Both Leighton Banjoff and Cam Chick can play multiple positions and are among the team’s more productive hitters. Outfielder Logan Foster hit .285/.357/.464 in three years at Texas A&M. Jaxon Hallmark, who is expected to play center field more regularly after being the team’s everyday second baseman, is also an effective option out of the bullpen with a low-90s fastball. Hroch went 10-1, 2.74 in 2019 at New Mexico State. Max Schreiber is a reliable and frequently turned-to option out of the ‘pen.

Pick to click: Schwellenbach was a prized recruit coming out of high school and hasn’t been healthy enough to pitch at the college level. He’s armed with a mid-90s fastball and nasty breaking ball in addition to being a high-level all-around athlete that impacts the game in a variety of ways.

Top newcomer: Omaha native Max Anderson was so impressive in the fall that Coach Bolt expects him to earn regular playing time. He can play pretty much anywhere on the field but will open his college career at third base.

Outlook: Nebraska should boast one of the league’s better starting lineups one through nine and scoring runs won’t be an issue. Preventing them will be the primary question, but they’re encouraged by the development of Povich, Shay Schanaman and Koty Frank when it comes to their starting staff, a unit that will be anchored by Hroch, whose track record of success is unquestioned. A bullpen consisting of live arms including Schwellenbach, Hallmark, Schreiber, Gomes and Wynne could be formidable, but again, that unit needs to prove their effectiveness in game action.

The rest of the pack

Purdue

Head coach: Greg Goff
2019 record: 20-34 (7-16)
2020 record: 7-7 (0-0)

Strengths: Catcher Zac Fascia and center fielder Skyler Hunter are the unquestioned leaders of the team at key positions. The entire lineup has experience and there are some intriguing, high-powered arms on the pitching staff.

Question marks: For as much experience as they have in their starting lineup, they’re lacking a big bopper that is tough to pitch around in tight situations. Similarly, the pitching staff holds promise but lacks experience.

Star power: The focus on Purdue entering the 2021 season will be on its projected ace, Calvin Schapira, and Calvin Starnes, both of whom performed at the junior college level in 2020. Schapira, a left hander, is at his best pounding the strike zone with an upper-80s to low-90s fastball that peaks higher and a low-80s slider. Starnes, a right hander, brings pure gas, frequently touching the mid-90s.

Glue guys: Fascia is a strong-armed, left-handed hitting catcher. Hunter does is all from the leadoff spot and can really fly in the outfield. Left fielder Ben Nisle was one of the team’s best hitters during their magical 2018 run. Third baseman Kyle LaPlante and second baseman Evan Albrecht both have track records of success. Right-handers Trent Johnson and Jett Jackson pitched in the weekend rotation a year ago with strong performance numbers.

Pick to click: Shortstop Justin Walker began his career at Indiana and sat out last year after transferring. He’s a switch-hitter and a gifted defender with improving offensive talents.

Top newcomer: Looking past the additions of Schapira and Starnes to the pitching staff, Walker and Oklahoma State transfer Cam Thompson could have a similar impact on offense. Among the freshmen, both right-hander Logan Danzeisen and left-hander Joe Whitman could make immediate, regular contributions. One other junior college transfer, Nolan Daniel, is the team’s projected closer.

Outlook: It’s hard to get a feel for what direction the program will take given the number of new faces. The Boilermakers look solid on both offense and defense with an athletic and experienced position player group. Much of the same is true on the pitching side of things, which was the team’s strength during the shortened 2020 season. If Schapira in particular is as good as he was at the junior college level — where he went 4-1, 0.49 with 56 strikeouts and just 12 walks issued in 36 2/3 innings — this team could compete for the Big Ten title.

Rutgers

Head coach: Steve Owens
2019 record: 20-31 (9-14)
2020 record: 6-9 (0-0)

Strengths: During a normal year there’s no way Rutgers’ left-handed ace Harry Rutkowski makes it back to campus. They also welcomed back their top hitter, left-handed hitting center fielder Richie Schiekofer.

Question marks: As soon as last season came to a close the coaching staff began identifying transfer candidates to bolster the roster and be more competitive, however, it remains to be seen if they have the talent level to win series more consistently.

Star power: Rutkowski is 6-foot-2, 230-pounds and throws four different pitches for strikes, including an upper-80s to low-90s fastball. Schiekofer was a promising recruit that began his career at Maryland before transferring to Rutgers, sitting out the 2019 season as a result.

Glue guys: Leadoff hitting left fielder Mike Nyisztor, first baseman Chris Brito and third baseman Tim Dezzi are all multiple year starters. Shortstop Danny DiGeorgio provides a steady glove, and bat, at a key position. A second big-bodied left-hander starter, Tevin Murray, also returns to the weekend staff. Parker Scott, Kyle Muller and Eric Reardon will all get a lot of looks out of the bullpen.

Pick to click: A 6-foot-7, 230-pound left hander, projected closer Brian Fitzpatrick saw action in three games during his freshman season in 2019 before injury shut him down. He looked good in fall ball with a low-90s fastball, a good changeup and a sharp breaking ball.

Top newcomer: The Rutgers coaching staff hit the transfer portal and junior college ranks hard to focus on strengthening the pitching staff. Ben Wereski (Columbia), Brent Teller (Sacred Heart), Jayson Hoopes (Virginia), Nate McLain (Lackawanna) and Dale Stanavich (Herkimer) are all going to be in the mix for important innings. Hard hitting freshman outfielder Ryan Lasko could put up big numbers as the team’s everyday right fielder.

Outlook: Coach Owens and his staff have already changed the culture at Rutgers, even if it takes a few years for their recruiting efforts to truly take hold on the overall success of the program. The pitching staff has intriguing talent complemented by newfound depth which should make Rutgers a more competitive program from the beginning of the season to the end. The lineup also has a few intriguing pieces and solid role players who get the job done.

Michigan State

Head coach: Jake Boss
2019 record: 20-34 (8-15)
2020 record: 9-6 (0-0)

Strengths: The Spartans prioritize applying pressure on the bases, and they have enough speed on the roster to do just that. Outfielder Bryce Kelley has 72 career stolen bases, seven shy of the school record. Additionally, second baseman Bailey Peterson swiped eight bags in just 15 games last season.  

Question marks: Though they have some capable thumpers on the roster, the Spartans hit just four home runs last season. Catcher Adam Proctor led the club in home runs in 2019 with nine and puts on light tower power displays in batting practice, but it needs to show up in game action more consistently. 

Star power: If it weren’t for the shortened draft last spring, there’s no chance Mason Erla (2-0, 1.04) would have made it back to East Lansing after four dominant starts for the green and white. Working from a lower slot, the 6-foot-4 right hander used a mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider to strikeout 42 hitters compared to just six walks in 26 innings last spring.   

Glue guys: Peterson was off to a torrid start last season, slashing .441/.528/.542 when play was halted. Utilizing a smooth left-handed stroke, Peter Ahn was slugging .571 and led the team with 15 RBIs. An elbow injury caused Jarret Olson (1-1, 2.02) to sit out this fall, but Boss is expecting to have him back before opening day. He’s a competitor on the mound and can throw three pitches for strikes. 

Pick to click: Highly regarded out of high school, Zaid Walker was drafted in 2018 (Reds – 36th round). After two solid but unspectacular seasons in East Lansing, the right fielder will be leaned on as a middle of the order run producer after driving the ball with more consistency of late.   

Top newcomer: Boss lauded the play of Mitch Jebb this fall, as the dynamic freshman earned the nod as the Spartan’s starting shortstop. A contact-oriented hitter and a pest on the bases, he’s also the presumptive leadoff hitter. 

Outlook: Prior to 2018, Boss had accounted for eight consecutive winning seasons and will look to return the Spartans to prominence in 2021. If Erla comes out and shoves again, Olson is his reliable healthy self and the Kelley/Peterson combination continue to be disruptive forces on the base paths, the Spartans should be a Big Ten Tournament team.

Northwestern

Head coach: Spencer Allen
2019 record: 24-27 (11-13)
2020 record: 6-7 (0-0)

Strengths: The Wildcats’ 1-2 punch at the top of their weekend rotation, Mike Doherty and Tyler Uberstine, can compete opposite any other Friday and Saturday starter in Big Ten play. Positionally, they’re strong up the middle with Shawn Goosenberg at shortstop, David Dunn in center field and Michael Trautwein behind the plate.

Question marks: Northwestern lacks a defined, impact bat and that limits their overall offensive profile.

Star power: Uberstine has taken an interesting development path and is now throwing in the low- to mid-90s with improving secondaries. Trautwein is an advanced defensive catcher that can really shut down the opposing run game, and he offers some pop in his left-handed swing. Goosenberg is a good all-around athlete with impact speed, and he’s the team’s best hitter.

Glue guys: Doherty sits in the upper-80s to low-90s with his power sinker, throws strikes and competes. Projected Sunday starter Ryan Bader was effective in a swing role in 2019. Left-hander Sam Lawrence has a 4.11 ERA in 105 innings pitched in his career at Northwestern and will close in 2020. Dunn, Leo Kaplan and Casey O’Laughlin all have considerable experience and should help anchor the lineup.

Pick to click: Uberstine went 2-0, 2.86 in 2020 but didn’t get a chance to show what he’s capable of over a full season. If Northwestern competes in 2021 it could very well be due to the development of middle-of-the-order hitters Anthony Calarco and Stephen Hrustich.

Top newcomer: Freshman right-hander David Utagawa opened eyes in the fall by throwing heaving 94 mph fastballs. Freshmen infielders Jay Beshears and Vince Bianchina earned spring opportunities with strong fall performances.

Outlook: The presence of Doherty and Uberstine makes Northwestern dangerous, with enough depth to keep them in plenty of ballgames. Being on the winning side of those games will come down to the effectiveness of the offense. There’s enough experience playing key positions all around the diamond, and should 1-2 players step forward with career years, Northwestern could surprise some people much like they did in 2017 when they fell just short of a Big Ten Conference Tournament championship.

Penn State

Head coach: Rob Cooper
2019 record: 22-27 (4-18)
2020 record: 10-5 (0-0)

Strengths: With an accomplished rotation and deep bullpen, the Diamond Lions can pitch with any team in the conference. As a staff, they finished in the top 20 nationally in several key categories last season including ERA (2.16), WHIP (1.01), and Strikeout-to-Walk Ratio (3.63). 

Question marks: Penn State struggled with the defensive facet of the game last season, committing 25 errors in the truncated season and finishing with a team fielding percentage of .953 which was last in the Big Ten.  

Star power: At 6-foot-8 and 250-pounds, Bailey Dees is an imposing figure on the mound with a fastball to match. The big right hander started hot last season, pitching to a 1.88 ERA, 0.87 WHIP and holding hitters to a .149 batting average. Quick-armed Connor Larkin was also terrific last season, using a mid-90s heater, a downer curveball and a late fading straight change to punch out 28 hitters in 21.2 innings. 

Glue guys: Gavin Homer got off to an incredible start last season, slashing .400/.500/.689 and swiping eight bags in eight tries. Johnny Piacentino (.400/.511/.686) had no trouble adjusting to the college game as a true freshman and has a penchant for getting on base thanks to an advanced feel for the strike zone. Matt Wood is a quiet receiver behind the dish with uncommon athleticism for the position. Curtis Robison is an impact bat and he earns high marks for his work ethic and leadership skills. 

Pick to click: Third baseman Justin Williams has a cannon for an arm, with easy carry across the diamond. Moreover, he has plus power potential and will be leaned on as a run producer in the middle of this lineup.

Top newcomer: Freshman middle infielder Jay Harry is a dynamic player with an appealing mix of speed and power. Additionally, his quickness is an asset defensively where he shows above average range to either side.   

Outlook: While the Nittany Lions started hot last year, they didn’t make it to conference play where they’ve struggled tremendously in recent years, winning just 11 league games since the 2016 season. With the Big Ten committed to a conference only schedule as of this writing, this talented pitching staff needs to prove they can get it done against a higher level of competition for this team to be successful in 2021. Furthermore, COVID restrictions provided limited opportunities for live reps this fall, which could lead to a stunted start compared to their peers. 

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