Change is good. And good change is even better.
For the past few years I have started my Big West preview in this forum with “C’mon Big West, ya gotta get better.” And now, I can proudly say, it has happened. In spades too.
By mid-March of last year the Big West had made some real big ripples in college baseball for the first time in quite a while. UC Santa Barbara was thought to have a rebuilding year but started out 13-2, including a sweep at Oregon State. Long Beach State was limping from a 2019 team that went 14-41 but stunned the baseball world with series wins over Mississippi State and Wake Forest. CSUN, thought to be long dormant, got out to a 10-5 start. UC Irvine had a lot to reload from a 37-win team in 2019, yet the Anteaters can brag about a sweep at Rice, a series win over Sacramento State and a win over USC. Hawaii had some big moments in 2020, racing out to an 11-6 mark and coming inches from winning a series at Vanderbilt and going 3-1 vs. Oregon. Hell, even UC Riverside and UC Davis jumped out to 9-7 starts.
There was all this momentum in what was going to be a turnaround season for the BWC. And then the pandemic hit.
Well, now we’ve got a whole new Big West starting up in 2021. It’s a new leaf to turn for the once proud conference that could be back on the national stage again. But the changes don’t stop with just the on-field success. There will also be a pair of new programs joining the Big West in former D2 national power UC San Diego and former WAC member CSU Bakersfield. As of press time, it appeared as if many members of this conference were going to attempt to play normal schedules, except for Long Beach and CSUN, who had originally announced they were set to play conference games only. We’ll see if they change their course as the season gets closer and the rest of the Big West agrees to play nonconference weekends.
Either way, this is a conference worth watching in 2021.
*Teams are listed in order of projected finish
|UC Santa Barbara||13-2|
|Long Beach State||10-5|
|Cal State Fullerton||4-12|
|Cal State Northridge||10-5|
|*UC San Diego||17-4|
*Record as a Division II member
Projected regional Teams (2): UC Santa Barbara, Long Beach State
Player of the year: Denzel Clarke, OF, Cal State Northridge
Pitcher of the year: Michael McGreevy, RHP, UC Santa Barbara
Freshman of the year: Anthony Mata, SS, UC Riverside
Projected regional teams
Long Beach State
The turnaround at Long Beach State has to be one of the biggest stories in all of college baseball. As mentioned in the opening, the Dirtbags finished the 2019 season with a putrid 14-41 mark, which led to the ouster of the very likable Troy Buckley. Then, after hiring up-and-coming Eric Valenzuela, the program took off. In the 2020 short season the Dirtbags made national headlines by taking series wins over Mississippi State, Wake Forest and Cal. They finished 10-5 overall and at No. 16 in the final D1baseball rankings.
It would’ve been great to see how their 2020 season would’ve ended up, but of course we will never know. But the best part about this is nearly everyone returns for the Dirtbags this season and they still have that dirt-under-the-nails mentality that is tough to beat. Granted, losing Friday ace Adam Seminaris and top hitter Leonard Jones will be a setback, but this team was far from just being about one pitcher or one hitter.
The pitching staff returned to Dirtbag form in 2020 with a team ERA of 2.38 (12th in the country and second behind UCSB in the Big West), and a 4.03 strikeout-to-walk ratio (eighth in the country). The two remaining starting weekend pitchers are RHP Luis Ramirez (2-0, 2.73) and LHP Alfredo Ruiz (3-1, 1.80), who are both described as having “electric” arms with low-90s fastballs. Ramirez was named a Freshman All-American and possesses a solid changeup and slider. Valenzuela says Ruiz, last year’s Saturday starter, uses his very advanced changeup to help him work deep into games. Both are projected to be top 10 round draftees this coming June and next June, respectively.
The projected third starter looks to be 3YR sophomore Basilio Pacheco, who spent 2020 recovering from Tommy John surgery. In 2019 he made 10 appearances as a freshman and went 1-4, 5.03. He is also a former draft pick of the Brewers coming out of high school and held his opposing batters to a .221 average, so there is a lot of upside to this dude.
The bullpen will feature a ton of usable arms, led by RHP Devereaux Harrison (0-1, 1.32), who is a mid-90s power arm, a future draftee-to-be and will spend this coming summer playing in the prestigious Cape Cod League. The closer role could be saved for RHP Matt Fields (1-0, 1.50), a 4Yr junior who sports a three-pitch mix and has a 89-91 fastball. Also look for junior college transfer Jack Noble, a former Oregon commit who ended up at Orange Coast College. Fields hits the low 90s and can throw three pitches consistently for strikes.
The Beach hit just .248 as a team in those 15 games, but coach Valenzuela states, “I love our offense. The batting average from last year doesn’t show the success we actually had. The pitching and competition we played against obviously had a lot to do with it.” But you can’t put any of the blame on OF Connor Kokx, who hit a hearty .400 and is “the heart and soul of this team and one of the best center fielders in the country” according to Valenzuela. He’ll be joined in the lineup by DH Aidan Malm (.306), who is a big time power threat and also has the speed to be a force on the basepaths as well. OF Calvin Estrada is another experienced leader who hit .290 last season, has good speed and is slated to return to his leadoff spot in the order. Middle infielders Riki DeSa (.235) and Tyler Porter (.171) did not post very good offensive numbers but the coaching staff loves their potential, competitiveness and their typical Dirtbag-like defense. They both have some power potential (DeSa is the only returnee who hit a home run last season) and cannon arms in the infield. They’ll throw to 1B Chase Luttrell, who hit .370 in 12 games (seven of them starts) and is also a potential top 15 round draft prospect. The coaches like his left-handed power at the dish and think of him as a complete hitter.
Keep an eye on
After a 37-17 season in 2019, UC Irvine dipped a little in 2020, ending the truncated season at 8-7. The Anteaters experienced a lot of peaks and valleys in those 15 games, including a weekend sweep of Rice and a series win over Sacramento State, along with a handful of ugly losses.
But the 2021 season will offer some upside, particularly in their Friday/Saturday combo on weekends that will give their opponents fits. Right-handers Trenton Denholm (2-2, 2.28) and Peter Van Loon (2-0, 2.78) give head coach Ben Orloff and his staff what they think will be one of the best one-two punches in the country. Denholm was named the Big West Pitcher of the Year in 2019, pitched for Team USA that summer and was on the Golden Spikes Award Watch list in 2020, so his quality is unquestioned. At 6-foot-5, 225, Van Loon is a low-90s big thumper who was starting to dominate as the 2020 season was shut down. He held opposing batters to a .159 average.
But don’t just stop there with the ‘Eaters pitching staff. Pitching coach Daniel Bibona thinks the top six pitchers are complete studs that give them a chance to win each time out. So also keep an eye on LHPs Nick Pinto (1-2, 4.91), Troy Wentworth (0-0, 14.40) and a trio of dominant relievers in LHP John Vergara (0-1, 2.89, 3 saves) RHP Josh Ibarra (1-0, 2.03) and LHP Dylan Riddle (0-0, 2.00). Wentworth made the biggest strides since the off-season began. Being a 6’4 lefty, he runs his speedball up in the 89-90mph range and has good movement. If he can avoid the injury bug he should be a key part in the mound corps.
Coach Orloff says of his top arms, “In a normal year there is no way would have gotten all of those guys back to campus because of the draft. They all made big strides over the break and performed well in the fall.”
Be it good news or bad, the Anteaters had 15 players with five or more starts in the field during last spring’s 15 game season. So there will be plenty of experienced players to cover the dirt and the meadow for the upcoming season. The coaching staff is confident in the gloves of catcher Jacob Castro (.304), 2B Riley Kasper (.260), SS Taishi Nakawake (.195) and OFs Jake Palmer (.368), Mike Peabody (.246, but hit .312 in 2019) and Nathan Church (.204). The coaches are particularly geeked about this outfield crew they have, calling them “all really good, complete players.” Church in particular was noted for the big jump he made from last spring and through the fall and is considered a favorite for the three-hole position in the batting order. Speaking of, obviously, looking at some of these batting averages, the offense will need to make a significant step up in 2021 if the Anteaters are to become contenders again in the Big West and on the national stage. UCI hit just .251 as a team in 2020.
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Aw man. If there was one team that REALLY did not want the 2020 season to end, it has to be those wild Islanders of the Pacific. Yep, head coach Mike Trapasso and his Hawaii Rainbows were feeling like the 2020 season was going to be a turnaround season. The Men from Manoa were 11-6 and came this close to taking a series from defending national champion Vanderbilt on the road and took three of four from Oregon before the season got shut down.
Coach Trap said, “That Vanderbilt series established a confidence that when we play well, we know we can play with anyone in the country. We had a two-run lead in the 11th inning of the rubber game but couldn’t quite close it out. Our guys were angry about not winning that series.”
For 2021 the Rainbows return their entire batting order and fielding unit intact, along with their weekend rotation. The biggest question mark will come from the bullpen, where three of their best relievers were taken by pro ball. The coaching staff points to leadership, maturity and intelligence as the strengths of this club.
It all starts with junior shortstop Kole Kaler (.407) and sophomore OF Scotty Scott who are the top returning hitters and an energetic pair of personalities that give this team a jolt of electricity. But a trio of players who have been in the program for five years could be the real key to the season. 3B Dustin Demeter (.236), OF Adam Fogel (.229) and 1B Alex Baeza (.241) didn’t post the best numbers last season but all of them battled through some injury problems that belied their talents. Demeter is a power-packed left-handed bat who can go gap to gap and started last season with a jog-off two-run home run in game one vs. Hawaii-Hilo. He also led the team with 13 walks. Left-fielder Fogel is a former Freshman All American who, like Demeter, missed 2019 due to injury and still wasn’t quite 100% last season. He’s got plus tools across the board and swift feet to run down line-drives in the meadow. Baeza is another left-handed power stick who will hit in the middle of the order and plays a pretty stout first base as well.
As mentioned, the entire weekend rotation returns in RHPs Aaron Davenport (4-0, 2.15) and Logan Pouelsen (0-2, 6.48) plus LHP Brandon Ross (1-0, 1.35). Davenport was the Friday starter and is considered a solid draft prospect with a 90-93mph fastball with elite spin rate. Ross is one of the few lefties on the Rainbow roster and can fling it up to 89-to-92 with a lot of movement. He also held opposing hitters to a sickly .133 average. Pouelsen is a fifth-year senior who has yet to tap into his extensive potential. He’s a big-bodied power pitcher who can hit 93-94 on occasion with command of four pitches, but has gone just 6-7, 4.97 over his UofH career. He has also hit .255 with five home runs at the plate over the years.
Part of the rebuilt bullpen will feature RHP Cade Halemanu (1-0, 1.35), a solid, low-90s fireballer who the staff thinks really made a big jump in the off-season and is primed for a breakout year. Another arm to watch is Li’l Pontes (1-0, 5.68), who we talked about in last year’s Big West preview as being a possible breakout pitcher and certain All Name Team member. Also, LHP Tai Atkins (0-1, 6.10) had one bad outing a year ago that inflated his numbers a little bit, but he is considered a top 10 round prospect for the 2022 draft.
Coach Trapasso also admitted in our Fall Ball feature that had the draft not been cut to just five rounds, he would’ve lost a handful of recruits. Catcher Nainoa Cardinez, 2B Kenji Suzuki, DH Safea Villaruz-Mauai and junior college transfer Jacob Hymel (former LSU commit who touches 90-93 on the mound) were all projected to be high-profile studs but instead of riding rickety old busses in the minor leagues this year they chose to spend some time in paradise with attractive coeds and playing some big time baseball. Good choice guys.
Cal State Fullerton
If you felt a tremor underfoot or had a shudder go through your body or it seems like the Earth was just slightly off its axis, don’t freak out. It was just Cal State Fullerton finishing a baseball season with a losing record. This year? Eesh, who knows. Things could go many different directions, be it a Big West title or a finish in the bottom third of the standings. A lot depends on the amount of inner fight these guys got because all the tools are there.
Yes, the 2020 season has a wicked-huge giant asterisk assigned to it. So take that Titan season with a sizable grain of salt. How do I figure things are going to be better for 2021? Because the always brutally-honest Rick Vanderhook told me in the fall that he “really likes this team.” Do you know how often coach Hook says something that? Think the moon turning blue.
The optimism for this year is — as always — centered around pitching and defense. The Titans have both qualities in spades. Staff aces Tanner Bibee (1-3, 2.73) and Kyle Luckham (2-0, 2.52) will be two of the better pitchers in the country and give the Fighting Elephants a chance to win every Friday and Saturday. Bibee has been quite a story in the off-season, packing on some muscle and having his fastball tick up to 95 in the fall. This will be his third year of being a Friday starter for Fullerton and he has improved all his arsenal of pitches, including a 78-81 curveball, an 81-84 slider and an 80-83 changeup. And of course, his inner competitive streak is one of his better variables when he’s on the mound. Coach Vanderhook says Luckham has the stuff and mentality to be a Friday night starter in the Big West and had his speedball rising up to 93-94 with good movement this past fall and began to get further command of his changeup as well. Luckham had a 20-to-4 K-to-BB ratio and also was a DH in the batting order a couple times last spring.
A pair of pitchers who missed 2020 will return and play big roles this year in LHP Timothy Josten, who was 3-4, 4.14 in 19 appearances in 2019 but also “one of the biggest surprises of the fall,” and RHP Gavin Kennedy, who has had such bad luck he has missed both of the last two seasons. The coaching staff thinks Kennedy could develop into a top five-round draftee for 2022 if he maintains his work ethic and keeps improving.
The remainder of the pitching staff features a deep lot of quality arms. Keep an eye on talents like RHP Matthew Sanchez (0-0, 3.52, .079 OBA), LHP Peyton Jones (0-1. 5.50), LHP Titus Groeneweg (0-1, 5.40), RHP Michael Weisberg (0-0, 5.40) and former weekend starter Michael Knorr, who went 3-4, 5.50 in 11 starts in 2019 but had a disastrous 2020 season that he should make amends for this year. Beyond that, one of the more intriguing players to watch this year could be RHP/3B Cameron Repetti, who was 0-0, 3.00, .230 OBA on the mound and hit .231 at the dish. The staff also pointed out the big jump he made this off-season and in the fall.
Those arms will be throwing to a trio of hyper-talented catchers who will be hard to keep off the field in 2021. Kameron Guangorena hit just .109 in the shortened season but the coaches glossed on about the marked improvement he showed in the fall and could be a potential All Big West performer behind the dish. But there has been talk of moving Guangorena around to the outfield or DH, not because his catching skills are lacking. No, actually it’s because the emergence of both Austin Schell (.261 in 12 starts) and Cole Urman (DNP) at the backstop position has given the staff confidence in all of their abilities.
In the field, shortstop Zach Lew was the only Titan to hit .300-plus last year, topping out at .339. But his glovework in the dirt has been a calming force for the coaching staff. A typical Titan dirty-uniformer he could play three different positions on the diamond and not skip a beat. Oregon State transfer Jake Harvey (.255 at OSU) has been a big hit for this program and should team with Lew to give the Titans that usual rock-solid double-play combo they are used to having. The coaches are waiting for the highly-talented outfield duo of Jackson Lyon (.267) and Jason Brandow (.133) to play up to their potential. Lyon ended up being the best hitter on the team this past fall and the hope is that he can carry that over to the spring season. Brandow is one of those SEC-types body-wise and if he gets it clicking he can be an All Big West performer as well. At DH, Miguel Ortiz was second-best on the team in 2020 with a .281 average and brings another thunderstick to the middle of the order with some gap power.
Although the Titans incoming class wasn’t highly decorated, you can’t tell that to Coach Vanderhook and Co. Nathan Nankil is an uber-talent in the outfield at 6’4, 210” and will battle with fleet-o-foot junior college transfer Deylan Pigford (Midland TX Junior College) for the centerfield spot, though both will figure into prominent roles at some point. And had the draft not been shortened to five rounds, the coaches think Brendan Bobo, a big-stick 6’3, 240-pounder who can play third or first, would never have made it to school. In that same vein, strapping 6’6” RHP Christian Rodriguez was one of the best high school pitchers in the country to end up making it onto a college campus.
The rest of the pack
You gotta love what Larry Lee has done with the Cal Poly baseball program. Since 2012 the Mustangs have averaged 34 wins, which is certainly a level above what that school had produced in the decades prior to that. This year, the program will feature the completed expansion of Baggett Stadium and the addition of the impeccable new Dignity Health Clubhouse down the third base line, which has all the whistles and bells for the players and coaches. Ya’ know, one of those shiny things that attracts recruits and shows you care about the sport at that school. So bully for the ‘Stangs and their future.
On the field the Mustangs had a tough 2020, but it also should be noted that their five wins included Ws over defending national champion Vanderbilt, defending national runner-up Michigan, Baylor and UConn. Ain’t no way another five-win program out there has more impressive wins that that, so this points to a better 2021 for the Green and Gold. Though the pitching staff is a bit on the young side, there is plenty of talent to take on Big West bats. Staff ace Taylor Dollard was picked in the fifth round of the MLB draft last June but two other weekend starters return to their post in RHP Drew Thorpe (1-1, 3.21) and LHP Andrew Alvarez (0-1, 3.63). Thorpe doesn’t beat himself, posting a stellar 31-to-7 K-to-BB ratio and Alvarez gave up just five extra base hits in his 22.1 innings of work last spring. They’ll also get back righties Bryan Woo (1-3, 3.57) and Kyle Scott (1-1, 2.08), a pair of 3YR sophomores who made seven appearances last spring. And although he had 0-1, 11.23 numbers last spring, RHP Dylan Villalobos appears to have made a big jump from last March to this preseason and could be a big contributor out of the ‘pen. Keep an eye on Darren Nelson, a strapping 6’8”, 240-pound RHP who was felled by Tommy John surgery last spring. If he can make it back with his mid-90s heat and hulking presence that will be a huge boost to the potency of this team. Again, that is “If.”
Coach Lee’s own son, Brooks, will be the bellcow for this team in 2021, after sitting out most of 2020 with a back injury. He only got two at-bats last season, but did end up hitting .345 up in the Northwoods League this past summer. The coaching staff projects the star shortstop to be a first round draft pick in June of 2022 so it will be interesting to see how Brooks adjusts to the D1 level with an injury-free season.
Elsewhere, stalwarts like catcher Myles Emmerson (.317), OF Cole Cabrera (.274-2-8) and 1B/3B Tate Samuelson (.254, 10RBI) will be the upperclassmen leaders that are part of seven starters returning to the lineup. But keep in mind that the Mustangs hit an anemic .231 as a team last year (again, versus a tough schedule), so their lead-by-example bats will need to hope their hitting is indeed contagious.
The newest Mustangs will make up a huge part of this 2021 season, perhaps more than any other group of newbies in all of the Big West. The biggest influx will be three transfers from Boise State, which unfortunately disbanded its program after just bringing it back for the first time since 1980. But the Broncos loss will be the Mustangs gain. OF Reagan Doss hit .333 with two home runs for Boise last spring and could find a home in right field to take advantage of his big-time arm. In contention at the first base position will be BSU transfer Joe Yorke, who hit .275 last spring. Finally, watch for LHP Travis Weston, who spent last spring as Boise’s Friday night starter, going 1-2, 5.06. But this past summer he really blossomed, gaining 43 strikeouts and issuing just five walks in 36 innings in the Northwoods League. True frosh Bryce Warrecker is also worth keeping tabs on. I saw the towering 6’8” RHP play for the Santa Barbara Foresters this past summer against college-aged competition and he more than held his own, going 3-0, 0.36 with 39 Ks in just 26 innings on the mound and also hit .300 as a DH.
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Cal State Northridge
One of the better feel-good stories of the short 2020 season had to be the fact that CSUN actually raced out to a fairly impressive 10-5 record and looked to be heading back to relevance for the first time in a long time. Of course the architect of that resurgence was Dave Serrano, a veteran of the SoCal coaching circles. Serrano inherited a team that had not experienced a winning season since 2016 and had not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2002. Obviously a trip to the NCAAs didn’t happen for anybody, but the winning mark has lit a fire under the Matadors heading into 2021.
Coach Serrano appreciated the “buy-in” his players had to the new staff last season and loved the culture they created and always did things “the right way.” He points to the experience of his team and some of the lead-by-example upperclassmen as a big reason this team will be competitive once again this season, even without the help of a fall practice session.
Get this, of the 10 players who made most of the starts in the field, seven of them will be fifth-year seniors. Not lyin’. The feature guy will be centerfielder Denzel Clarke, who hit .400 with three home runs and got plunked six times last season. He is a true five-tool player with 6.5 speed and posted a .530 on-base percentage. He’ll be joined in the outfield by projected leadoff hitter Robert Bullard (.310), who can cover some ground in the grass, and Kai Moody, who only hit .180 last year but is lauded for his tough, gritty play and fought some bumps and bruises last year.
The infield is open to some competition before the season begins, but the catcher and second base spots are locked in with the hyper-experienced Sean Skelly (.296) as a block behind the dish and the emerging talent of 2YR frosh Mason Le (.262), who the staff lauds for his high baseball I.Q. and his above-average speed. There are plenty of experienced options for the other infield spots, but look for Carlos Arellano (.298), Jose Ruiz (.260) and Brandon Bohning to figure prominently. Bohning missed the 2020 season but started at second as a freshman and moved over to shortstop as a sophomore. He flashes a great glove on the diamond but has hit just .248 in his Matador career.
The pitch staff is not littered with a ton of mid-90s flamethrowers but they did hold opponents to a .250 average and posted a team ERA of 3.42 last season. That may not be Earth-shattering but consider the corresponding 2019 numbers were .293 and 4.95.
The staff ace is certainly an MLB draft prospect in the form of RHP Blake Sodersten, who went 2-1, 4.32 last season and held opponents to a .209 average. The projected top five-round draftee-to-be is a low-90s flinger who shows good command and can drop his slider at 83mph. Needless to say, Friday’s with Sodersten are completely winnable, no matter who they match up with. Sidearmer Blaine Traxel (2-1, 3.58) threw the most innings of any Mats pitcher and relies on his multiple arm slots and deception. RHP Gavin Lizik (1-1, 3.86) came to campus last year and immediately took over a weekend spot in the rotation despite being a rail-thin, yet confident, freshman. His fastball tips into the upper 80s, but that should improve as he packs on some muscle. Also keep an eye on two-way threat Jayson Newman as he is one of the more interesting players to watch for 2021. In 2019 he was hitting .404 through the first 16 games of the season and had also accrued three appearances on the mound, flashing his 93-94mph fireball, before being shelved by an arm injury. Last year he hit .333 and made three appearances on the mound.
A couple newbies will make a big impact in the bullpen in the form of junior college transfer LHP Justin Henry (81 Ks in 60 innings at Fresno City College) and true frosh RHP Hayden Cody, a well-put together 6’2, 195-pound flinger who could take over the fourth starter role on the bump.
UC San Diego
Let’s lay out the welcome mat for one of the two new members of the Big West Conference in UC San Diego. The Tritons (cool nickname, right?) will be an interesting team to watch, since they were one of the traditional powers at the D2 level and now we’ll get to see how they size up to D1 competition. They ended 2020 with a 17-4 mark in D2 play and ranked as the No. 1 team in the country by Collegiate Baseball when the season ended. And it wasn’t just last year. Under the direction of head coach Eric Newman, the Tritons had reached the D2 NCAA Tournament five times and advanced to the eight team D2 College World Series three times. This is NOT a program that will struggle for years at the D1 level waiting to get its sea legs. (And yes, that pun was intended).
Sure they played at a lower level but UCSD was dominant in their 21 games of 2020. The Tritons hit .306 as a team and had an ERA of 2.86. Seven players hit .303-plus last year and six of them are back, led by SS Ryan McNally (.407, .541 OB%, slick-fielding glove) and OF Anthony Lucchetti (.400, 13 BBs, 3 HBPs, .506 OB%). McNally’s double-play combo mate will once again be 2B Michael Fuhrman, who hit .345 and was a perfect 6-for-6 in stolen bases and 3B Everett Lau, who was merely seventh on the team in hitting last year but still posted a solid .303 average. They’ll throw to 1B Blake Baumgartner, who is the kind of player a coach loves having on the team. Baumgartner hit .343 with three home runs and 15 RBI, but also led the team with 21 walks a year ago. He has been in the program for five years now and is a team captain.
A couple of four-year transfers will give the Tritons a real boost this season. Joining Baumgartner in the middle of the order will be Arizona transfer Tate Soderstrom, a strapping lefty who has “light tower power” according to the coaching staff and is slated to man the right field meadow. Also, the squad got a real boost when the well-traveled Paul Gozzo enrolled and looks to be the starting catcher for 2021. Gozzo began his career at Tulane, hitting .242 as a freshman starter. He then went to UConn for two years, hitting .282 in 2019 and was voted a team captain for the shortened 2020 season. He also spent the summer of 2019 playing in the Cape Cod League, so his talent potential is high.
How good is this offense? Consider that Devon Hawks led the team with 21 RBI last year but in our preseason questionnaire, he wasn’t even listed as a starter. To be fair, he’ll still get plenty of playing time in 2021. Also watch for CF Brandon Stewart, who hit just .275 a year ago but his speed is legit, posting a perfect 14-for-14 in stolen bases last year.
The entire pitching staff from a year ago comes back to campus and coach Newman says that the depth of the mound corps will be the strength of the team. The expected rotation of RHPs Cameron Leonard (3-0, 2.30), Brandon Weed (4-0, 2.17) and Noah Conlon (0-1, 3.00) can all fling it into the low-90s and feature a three-pitch mix with command. LHP Chris Gilmartin (3-0, 4.70) was the third weekend starter last year and should figure into the rotation or mid-week at the least this time around. He is also one of the few left-handed pitchers on the staff.
The bullpen was pretty stout a year ago and will be a difference-maker for this team. RHPs Luke Mattson and Michael Mitchell are flashy relievers who can hit the low-90s and mid-90s respectively. Mattson (4-0, 0.78) is a fifth-year senior and this will be his third season in the program from the junior college ranks. Mitchell had an impressive 2020, making seven appearances, earning four saves without issuing a single walk and striking out 15 batters in 12 innings. So it goes without saying that the Tritons have the potential to compete in the Big West right away, no doubt.
Another program that really hated to see the 2020 season come to an abrupt end was UC Davis. The Aggies finished with a 9-7 record, which is nearly half the victory totals that they had in both 2018 and 2019. It also marked the first winning season for the Ags since 2015. Coach Matt Vaughn is a UCD “lifer” being a former player and longtime assistant before becoming head coach at his alma mater in 2012. He thinks this year’s pitching staff could be one of the best he’s had with the heavy amount of experience coming back. As a unit they held opposing bats to a .242 average, but they definitely need to cut down on the free passes, notching a Big West high 76 base on balls through the 16 games.
The three most-used pitchers on the staff from last year are expected to be the weekend rotation of RHPs Brett Erwin (2-0, 2.14), Nate Freeman (0-2, 3.66) and Jake Spillane (2-2, 3.81), who all posted pretty good numbers. Relievers Nick Johnson (1-0, 0.73, 2 saves, .146 OBA) and Steven Ouellette (did not pitch in 2020, but went 2-3, 2.79 in 22 appearances in 2019) are both solid lock-down bullpenners to lead the relief corps.
Believe it or not the Aggies had the best offense in the Big West last season, hitting .289 as a unit. They’ll have to carry on without shortstop Tanner Murray, who was taken in the fourth round of the shortened MLB draft last June. But returning 1B Spencer Gedestad led the Big West in hitting with a .417 average and 2B Jalen Smith (.290) is expected to be a possible top 10 round draftee this coming summer, giving them a pair of talented bats to build around. Also coming back to the order will be senior power-bat Alejandro Lara, who hit .283 and tied for the team lead in RBI (9) and walks (10). Also, Michael Campagna is a talent to watch, having hit .367 and tying for the team-high in RBI (9), despite starting just seven games as a true freshman.
Strange times have come to UC Riverside. Prior to last year the Highlanders have not had a winning record since 2013, and not since 2010 in Big West play. Then, in November, out of the blue, head coach and famous UCR alum Troy Percival resigned in order to help his son Cole with his big league dreams in the Dodgers organization. Now, associate head coach Justin Johnson will take over in the interim.
Again, it is worth pointing out that the Blue & Gold did have a winning mark in the shortened season. And on top of that many of the culprits return to the fore this year, buoying hopes for continued success.
Though they’ll move on without Cole Percival as their Friday horse, coach Johnson says this year’s squad will have the most depth of any Highlander team in the last six years. The pitching staff will be a strength, after allowing opponents to hit .322 off them in 2019, they held opposing bats to a .235 batting average last year. This time around they will be led by new ace Zach Jacobs (2-2 2.57), who threw a complete-game two-hitter to beat LMU last spring. Abbott Haffar (0-1, 6.48) didn’t have great numbers last year but did post 4-3, 4.35 numbers in the 2019 full season so he’s got potential for much better. The Highlanders do have the luxury of a deep bullpen headed up by RHPs Riley Ohl (0-1, 2.89) and Andre Granillo (2-1, 2.84, 3 saves), a pair of low-90s hurlers who are strike throwers and fearless.
Centerfielder Travis Bohall (.344) led the Big West in stolen bases last season, going 7-for-9, and will be joined by DH/C Jacob Shanks (.324) who is a premier athlete, power-shot OF Cole Pofek (.258, 3 HRs) and two-way talent Nate Webb (.260), who will play third base and has 90-plus power on the mound in relief.
Incoming true frosh SS Anthony Mata could be a Freshman of the Year candidate in the Big West with his rangy 6’2, 170-pound frame. Keep an eye on freshman catcher Mason Grace, who is also in the 6’2, 170-pound range but possesses a strong arm and could make a big impact right out of the gate, especially if he packs on some muscle.
The other newbie to the Big West will be CSU Bakersfield, who move over to the BWC after being a member of the WAC for the past eight years. The program has only been in existence since 2009 (thank you Coach Bill Kernen) but the Roadrunners have already produced 20 MLB draft picks. Last year, they got out to a pretty good 4-3 start which included series wins over Washington State and San Francisco, before tanking in six of their final seven games.
Coach Jeremy Beard likes the looks of this year’s ‘Runners, especially the depth and quality of his mound corps, which will be the strength of this team. For all intents and purposes the Runners mostly used seven pitchers last season and all seven of them return, led by weekend starters Ethan Skuija (2-1, 3.20) Davonte Butler (2-2. 4.12) and Aaron Charles (0-1, 4.50), all right-handers. Skuija is hard-throwing big body who has the potential to be a top 15-round draft pick this coming June and had a banner year in the Expedition League last summer. Butler is one of those “keep ‘em off-balance” types with a great changeup and pitch mix.
The four other most-used arms are bullpen mates RHP Noah Cordova (0-0, 2.08, 2 saves, .103 OBA), LHP Kellen O’Connor (1-1, 2.53), RHP Jaykob Acosta (0-2, 3.46) and RHP Roman Angelo (0-2, 5.91, .238 OBA).
Oh, and another very big acquisition during the offseason came in the form of Missouri transfer RHP Arthur Joven, a former Boston Red Sox draftee who went 3-1, 4.33 in 43.2 innings for the Tigers back in 2019. Joven is pegged for a weekend starting role for Bakersfield and if he cuts down on the walks, he’ll be a big hit in his old hometown.
CSUB hit just .239 as a team last season but three of the returnees to the batting order hit .300-plus, so there is some ability there. 2B Daniel Carrizosa (.343) is a standout glove in the field and has gap-to-gap power at the dish. 1B Tyler Jorgensen (.315) was an All-WAC selection in both 2019 and 2020 and can also play third as well. Right fielder Nick Grossman is another 5Yr Senior who hit .304 last season, while leading the team in walks with nine. Beyond those three, centerfielder Jacen Roberson only hit .233 last year but is a true five-tool talent who has battled injuries in the last two seasons. He also spent the 2019 summer playing in the Cape Cod League. If he can stay out of the M*A*S*H unit and play up to his potential it could be a real difference-maker for this program.
Finally, be on the watch for freshman infielder Jashia Morrissey, who was the sixth-rated shortstop in the state of California his senior year of high school. He sat out 2020 due to injury but will man the hot corner this season.