The Prospect Junkie: Who I’m watching

There’s no denying that the Big Ten Conference is gaining respect in the collegiate baseball world. From 2010-2014, the conference earned no more than two bids into the NCAA Tournament each season before peaking with a whopping five bids in 2015 followed by three more in 2016.

The Big Ten has deeper program talent and more parity from top to bottom than it has for years, as the eight bids notched by the conference over the past two seasons were earned by eight different teams.

Whether that program depth within the conference translates into individual prospect talent is another question.  While there doesn’t appear to be a Kyle Schwarber or Tyler Jay in the Big Ten this season, both of whom were drafted in the top 10 overall picks in 2014 and 2015 respectively, there are still noteworthy players.

We’re taking the opportunity to highlight a few of the top prospects in the Big Ten that I’ll be watching closely this spring in preparation for June’s MLB Draft.

Kevin Smith, SS, Maryland

Not only did Smith go undrafted out of Columbia High School in East Greenbush, New York, he was barely recruited, with Maryland being his one and only DI scholarship offer.

If he was unknown prior to stepping onto campus, Smith made people take notice by starting 65 games in his freshman season for a Maryland team that would eventually make it’s second consecutive trip to the Super Regional round. A glove-first shortstop, Smith also produced a serviceable .259/.308/.407 slash line, with eight home runs as a sophomore before taking a step forward in the Cape Cod League.

Using wood bats last summer, Smith hit .301/.348/.427 with five home runs including the playoffs. Decorated with several preseason All-American accolades, Smith offers the best chance at a first round selection for the Big Ten due to his likelihood to stick at shortstop paired with an above-average power profile.

Brian Shaffer, RHP, Maryland

Shaffer has some pretty large shoes to fill as the ace of the Maryland staff. Mike Shawaryn started 48 games over three seasons for the Terrapins, winning 30 games and logging over 300 innings before the Red Sox him in the 5th round of the MLB Draft last summer.

Shaffer was no slouch last season, even stepping in for a struggling Shawaryn in the Friday night role for a brief period in route to an 8-3, 2.60 ERA 0.88 WHIP season. Shaffer has excellent control, walking just 1.13 batters per nine innings last season and 1.20 for his career.

Like Smith, Shaffer went undrafted out of high school but that will change in June. Standing 6’5” and 200 pounds, Shaffer worked at 92-94 mph last season at his best. The prototypical pitcher’s frame, velocity, and low walk rate make Shaffer an intriguing prospect to follow for this draft season.

Logan Sowers, OF, Indiana

Sowers has the most distinguished pedigree in this bunch. As a prep standout at McCutcheon HS in Lafayettte, Sowers earned Indiana Mr. Baseball honors in 2014 before being drafted by the Padres in the 31st round that summer.  Following through on his commitment to Indiana, Sowers started all 59 games for the Hoosiers as a freshman, finishing with a slash line of .257/.329/.427 and six

Following through on his commitment to Indiana, Sowers started all 59 games for the Hoosiers as a freshman, finishing with a slash line of .257/.329/.427 and six homeruns which earned him All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors. Sowers improved on his sophomore campaign, and he was named team MVP while hitting .273/.377/.466 and leading the team with eight home runs despite missing three weeks with a shoulder injury.

Perhaps what’s most encouraging sign is that Sowers was able to tap into his plus raw power while improving his strikeout to walk ratio from 3.19 to 1.64 year over year. The last live look I got of Sowers was early in his collegiate career as Cal State Fullerton’s Thomas Eshelman made him look like the raw teenager he was. Eshelman had a tendency to do that. I’m looking forward seeing the continued maturation this season to determine of my eyes corroborate what the numbers are indicating.

 

Five more to watch

Luke Miller, 3B, Indiana*

Scott Schreiber, OF, Nebraska

Drew Lugbauer, C/INF, Michigan

Alex Troop, LHP, Michigan State**

Lucas Gilbreth, LHP, Minnesota

 

*Draft-eligible sophomore

**Redshirt sophomore

Preseason unit ranks: Pitchers and up the middle

Champions aren’t crowned on paper, the games are decided on the field. But such a reality doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to take from stats and rosters and try to determine who is the best before the season starts.

Putting aside new faces and players primed for a breakout, here’s a look at which teams look to be the strongest on the mound and up the middle, based on who is coming back and has previously shown they have what it takes to compete at the Big Ten levels.

Starting pitchers

Maryland

The Terrapins lost all-everything ace Mike Shawaryn to the MLB Draft, a pitcher whose name is littered throughout the program’s record book. But the latter two-thirds of the Maryland rotation returns, providing as enviable and durable of a 1-2 punch as the Big Ten has seen in recent years. Junior right-hander pitcher Brian Shaffer led Maryland with an 8-3 record, tossing a team-best 103.2 innings. Shaffer’s 2.60 ERA only trailed classmate right-handed pitcher Taylor Bloom’s 2.43 mark over 102.1 innings. The two combined for 135 strikeouts and just 22 walks. Regardless of what Maryland gets in relief pitching and run production, Shaffer and Bloom will have Maryland in a position to win every weekend series.

Michigan State

All but three Big Ten teams will need to replace their Friday starter, but none have a candidate ready to step in who put up as impressive numbers in 2016 Michigan State redshirt sophomore Alex Troop, albeit in a short stint. Troop will take over the #1 spot in the MSU rotation after going 3-0 a year ago, sporting a 1.64 ERA. But a broken bone in the southpaw’s left thumb ended his season after 14 strikeouts in 11 innings. Junior right-handed pitcher Ethan Landon will resume his Saturday role, where he put together a very quiet but very strong season. In his first action with the Spartans, the transfer from Kansas State went 8-3 in 15 starts, pitching 85 innings with a 2.75 ERA. Michigan State will round its rotation with junior right-handed pitcher Andrew Gonzalez, he too had a sub-3.00 ERA at 2.84 in 54 innings over 17 appearances.

Michigan

The Wolverines have six viable starting pitchers at their disposal, lead by junior left-handed pitcher Oliver Jaskie. Jaskie shined as a sophomore, going 7-3 with a team-best 3.19 ERA. Though Michigan lost Brett Adcock to the draft and Evan Hill to graduation, two pitchers who combined for 26 starts and 141.2 innings, junior righty Ryan Nutof is an experienced arm who has been in the rotation. Nutof pitched 54 innings in 2016, to the tune of a 3.67 ERA. Michigan’s big junior class continues with Michael Hendrickson who returns from a season-ending injury, after striking out 16 in 10.2 innings.

Honorable Mention: Nebraska

The Cornhuskers return their entire rotation from their 2016 NCAA Regional team, with senior right-hander Derek Burkamper, sophomore right-hander Matt Waldron and junior left-handed Jake Meyers. The trio combined to pitch 196 innings, each with ERAs below 3.10. None of the three have overpowering stuff, respectively K/9 inning totals of 7.07, 6.69 and 4.62, relying on command and inducing weak contact. Due to minor forearm matter, Burkamper will enter the season in the bullpen.

 

Relief pitchers

Michigan State

The loss of an All-American, especially one as dominant as Dakota Mekkes, would normally be a setback to a perceived team strength. While Jake Boss would love another year with Mekkes, Michigan State should be fine. The Spartans likely won’t have a reliever capable of striking out 96 batters in 57 innings, pitch to a 1.74 ERA, they have five returners with sub-3.65 ERAs who were significant contributors. Junior Jake Lowery will be MSU’s swingman, an arm capable of shutting down an opponent or going multiple innings. Lowery had a 2.73 ERA in 26.1 innings in his return from Tommy John surgery. Senior left-hander Joe Mockbee and classmate right-hander Walter Borkovich can be situational arms, 120.1 innings were tossed between them in 2016. All Keegan Baar did as a sophomore was stymie batters to a .212 average in 42.1 innings. While sophomore right-hander Riley McCauley is set to take over the closer’s role for the Spartans, a year after pitching 17 innings with a 1.59 ERA.

Ohio State

The Buckeyes had a high octane offense in 2016, leading the Big Ten in doubles and home runs en route to the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years. Gone are the extra-base machines Jacob Bosiokovic, Ronnie Dawson, Troy Kuhn, Troy Montgomery and Nick Sergakis, as good as Ohio State will rely on its pitching staff in 2017. Junior right-handed pitcher Seth Kinker has the ability to close a game or pitch in extended relief, turned to 38 times out of the bullpen, logging 54.2 innings while holding a 1.65. Closer Yianni Pavlopoulos returns after a 15-save, 3.03-ERA season, though he may be a starting option. If that is the case, Ohio State welcomes the return of senior Jake Post, a right-handed pitcher who missed the 2016 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, a capable closer. Another quality arm the Buckeyes relied heavily on who returns is senior Kyle Michalik. The submariner who tossed 32 innings of 1.69 ERA baseball as a key middle relief option.

Iowa

Rick Heller believes his 2017 Hawkeye team has the deepest pitching corp in his four seasons. Looking at his roster, he has good reason to believe so. Six of Iowa’s top seven relievers return from a team that carried a collective 3.54 ERA. Sophomore Sam Lizarraga is ready for a big time role after holding a .79 ERA in eight outings, pitching 11.1 innings. Another potential super sophomore, Zach Daniels led the Hawkeyes with five saves, toeing the rubber for 18 innings, finishing his freshman year with a 1.50 ERA. Between Daniels and Lizaragga, only seven walks were issued while 27 batters were struck out. Right-handed pitcher Josh Martsching returns for his senior season, ready to build on a strong 2016 where he finished the year with a 2.41 ERA in 18.2 innings. Nick Allgeyer, Ryan Erickson and midweek starter Cole McDonald are three more dependable relief arms, capable of helping the Hawkeyes hold a lead and secure a win.

Honorable Mention: Michigan

As mentioned, Michigan has nearly half-dozen potential options to round out its rotation after Oliver Jaskie takes the Friday role. Those on the outside of the rotation will be a top bullpen option to go with senior right-hander Jackson Lamb and junior right-handed closer Bryan Pall. Pall returns after saving four games in 2016, using a fastball-slider combination to strikeout 33 batters in 32 innings and finish the season with a 2.81 ERA.

 

Up the middle (Catcher, second base, shortstop)

Maryland

Maryland is home to the Big Ten’s top professional prospect for the 2016 MLB Draft in junior shortstop Kevin Smith. Though his spring numbers weren’t eye-popping, a .259 average with eight home runs, Smith went to the Cape and batted .301, being named an All-Star while showing scouts the ability to stick defensively at shortstop at the next level, and a belief that better days are ahead with the bat. Smith’s double play partner, sophomore Nick Dunn, needed only one college season to show he has a capable bat. Dunn led the Terrapins with a .300 average and 16 doubles in 2016, before he too was named a Cape Cod All-Star. Maryland struggled to receive consistency behind the plate a year ago, but both players who saw time, senior Nick Cieri and junior Justin Morris are back, looking to build upon a season where they allowed 56 stolen bases in 68 attempts, while respectively batting .256 and .194.

Michigan

The depth of Michigan’s pitching staff is complimented with the return of catcher Harrison Wenson. A 39th-round flier by the Pittsburgh Pirates in June’s draft, Wenson opted to return for his senior year. In Wenson, Michigan has a durable catcher, a tough-nosed player as Wenson battled wrist and thumb injury throughout the 2016 season, still starting all 57 games. Wenson batted .289 on the year but did allow 16 passed balls. Behind the Michigan starter on the mound, both middle infielders return. Senior shortstop Michael Brdar is a steady glove, making the routine plays while sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas is a superb athlete, capable of making the spectacular play. Brdar a JUCO transfer, Thomas a freshman, both were serviceable with the bat in their first season of Big Ten play, respective .250 and .258 average, but will be asked of a bit more as Michigan looks to win its first Big Ten championship since 2008.

Michigan State

Like Michigan, Michigan State saw its catcher turn down a professional opportunity to return to school. Senior Matt Byars blossomed in 2016, becoming a premier two-way catcher. At the plate, Byars, a 24th-round pick of the Minnesota Twins, batted .284 with 16 doubles and four home runs. Behind the dish, the Spartan committed only two errors with six passed balls. Throwing out a runner 12 times, Byars has senior Dan Durkin on the receiving end of throws at second base. Durkin batted .324 while starting all 56 games for MSU, posting a .963 fielding percentage. Michigan State will potentially platoon at shortstop until either Kory Young or Royce Ando asserts himself over the other. Young’s .224 average bettered Ando’s .197 clip, but Ando did collect three triples and is a player capable of making the WOW play look routine.

Honorable Mention: Indiana

Ryan Fineman turned in a strong debut season for a freshman catcher. Starting 50 games, Fineman batted .268 with eight doubles and three home runs. A good debut season at the plate, Fineman was better with the glove and arm. Committing just four errors with six passed balls, Fineman also showed an ability to control the opposition’s running game, throwing out 41% of would-be base stealers. Senior second baseman Tony Butler did not commit an error in 203 chances, though his .221 average made him one-dimensional. IU struggled to find either a bat or defensive wizard at shortstop, opening the door for highly-touted freshman Jeremy Houston to make an impact from the start.

 

Five primed for breakout seasons

The Big Ten has produced a first-round pick each of the last three seasons, with Kyle Schwarber, Tyler Jay and Cody Sedlock emerging as one of the country’s top talents. Again, the Big Ten is not short of standout individual talent with Maryland’s Kevin Smith and Nebraska’s Jake Meyers receiving preseason All-American honors.

But beyond those two, there are several players ready to step into greater roles, capable of putting together noteworthy seasons. Here’s a look at five players primed for breakout seasons.

Maryland Soph. OF Marty Costes

It might not be fair to list Maryland sophomore outfielder Marty Costes as a player primed for a breakout season, he did lead Maryland with nine home runs, the most by a Big Ten freshman, after all. But if even gradual improvements are seen across the board, Costes has a chance to be the Big Ten’s Player of the Year and an All-American. Costes batted .260 in his freshman year, collecting 10 doubles with a pair of doubles, to reach 21 extra-base hits. The power, a .216 isolated slugging percentage, wasn’t terribly compromised with outrageous strikeouts, 21% of at-bats ended in strikeouts, while 28 walks spurred Costes to a .363 on-base percentage. During the Big Ten Tournament, Costes said he didn’t have the best approach as a freshman, there were times he’d chase bad pitches. With a year under his belt and better knowledge of the game, a banner year may be on deck.

Ohio State Jr. OF Tre’ Gantt

Tre’ Gantt emerged as a dynamic player for Ohio State in the second-half of the 2015 season. Arriving on campus in time for the winter semester, Gantt wasted no time getting up to speed and making an impact for the Buckeyes, batting .311 as a freshman over 74 at-bats. But Gantt had labrum surgery following the 2015 season and a slow start to his sophomore campaign led to a step backward offensive. Gantt did show a little more pop in year two, after collecting just one double and one triple in 2015, the outfielder picked up eight doubles, but he was unable to consistently reach base, finishing the season with a .255 average and .311 on-base percentage. More than a year removed from the surgery, the Buckeyes expect Gantt to excel in 2017, as a switch from right field to his natural center field position to help. Slated to start on opening day for the first time, with the departures of Ronnie Dawson and Trom Montgomery, the opportunity is there for Gantt to assert himself as the leader of the Buckeye outfield.

Indiana Jr. RHP Brian Hobbie

Since he arrived in Bloomington, Indiana junior right-handed pitcher Brian Hobbie has looked the part of a big-time college pitcher. Standing six-foot-seven, weighing 227 pounds, Hobbie is a physical presence on the mound. Long-limbed, the ball seemingly crosses home plate in no time. Hobbie does possess a low-90s fastball, a heavy offering that can continually induce weak contact, so his pitches have enough giddy-up. Hobbie has shown flashes of brilliance but the Hoosiers are waiting for everything to come together. Sporting a 6.27 ERA over 18.2 innings as a freshman, Hobbie took a step in the right direction as a sophomore, lowering his ERA to 2.08 in 8.2 innings. But after striking out 19 batters against six walks in 2015, Hobbie walked five and struck out three in 2016, contributing to a decrease in usage. Hobbie’s best 2016 effort came in the summer, earning Prospect League Pitcher of the Year honors after holding an 0.82 ERA over 54.2 innings. As Indiana needs to replace its entire rotation, the innings will be there for Hobbie to make an impact.

Minnesota Soph. OF Ben Mezzenga

With Dan Motl batting .336, dialing up 19 doubles and playing superb defense, the opportunities for Ben Mezzenga to make an impact for Minnesota were limited. Making four starts, Mezzenga picked up three hits in 21 at-bats. But don’t think Mezzenga didn’t try his best to leave his mark. Mezzenga stole three bases in three opportunities, to help him score seven runs. In the summer, with a full season of reps, Mezzenga showed why the Gophers are high on him heading into the new season. In 34 games with the Eau Claire Express, Mezzenga batted .321, scored 39 runs, and continued his base stealing prowess, swiping 22 bags. Able to run 60 yards in 6.6 seconds, Mezzenga is viewed as one of the best Minnesota athletes since two-sport standout Eric Decker, with a chance to be an impact the game with the bat, his glove and on the bases.

Illinois Soph. 3B Bren Spillane

Those who cover Midwestern high school baseball saw Illinois’ Bren Spillane as one of the most college-ready players in the high school class of 2015. With an advanced feel for hitting and the ability to hit with power, Spillane was viewed as a player capable of stepping in and contributing from day one for an Illini tweet hit hard that June by the draft. But Spillane suffered a concussion towards the end of his final prep season, and the effects lingered throughout his freshman year. Limited to just two starts and five total games, Spillane went hitless in nine at-bats before Illinois opted to hold him out for the rest of the season. With no symptoms, Spillane looks to have a big second season, this past fall proof of what he’s capable of. In Illinois’ intra-squad Blue and Orange series, Spillane had a three-home run game, a second multi-hit contest and capped the week with two RBI. Dan Hartleb and staff expects Spillane to be a force in the heart of the Illini lineup as the team seeks a fourth regional appearance in seven seasons.

 

Five more to watch

Northwestern Jr. RHP Tommy Bordignon

Penn State Soph. INF Connor Klemann

Purdue Soph. C Nick Dalesandro

Michigan State Jr. FHP Andrew Gonzalez

Michigan Jr. RHP Jayce Vance

10 series that will shape the season

The 2017 season is littered with big series, week after week in the Big Ten. Here is a look at 10 series which will shape the season.

Penn State at TCU, Feb. 17-19

Penn State has improved upon the previous season in each of Rob Cooper’s first three seasons in State College. The Nittany Lions finished the 2016 season with a 28-27 record, above .500 for the first time since 2012, going 12-12 in Big Ten play. Penn State finished in a tie for eighth in the conference, with Illinois and Iowa, but due to tiebreakers was on the outside of the Big Ten Tournament field. Penn State will have an opportunity right out of the gate to put to rest any lingering wishes of last season, opening the 2017 season at consensus #1 TCU. Penn State returns its entire weekend rotation from 2016 and the talent base and depth continues to build for the Nittany Lions. There is no greater opportunity to see how far the program than facing a program which has appeared in three consecutive College World Series. Penn State played TCU tough in a three-game set last year in State College, ultimately being swept. If Penn State can leave Fort Worth with a win, Coop’s crew may be in line for a breakout year.

Maryland at LSU, Feb. 24-26

Maryland’s series at LSU has been circled from the day the respective schedules were put out. Tabbed the Big Ten’s favorite by national media, Maryland’s mettle will be tested early. There is no environment in college baseball like LSU’s Alex Box Stadium, but this is a Maryland team used to unwelcoming settings. It wasn’t long ago the Terrapins were coming off of back-to-back super regional appearances, in fact, that was just last year. With across the board preseason rankings, expectations are again high for Maryland. The meeting with the Tigers will not provide an opportunity to build a strong RPI, but if Maryland performs as many expect, they could be in line for a regional host at year’s end, and an early season win on the road against a top 10 team would be quite the bullet on a resume. The series will also likely have the best pitching matchup of any game involving a Big Ten team this season when Terrapin Brian Shaffer toes the mound opposite LSU’s Alex Lange, both strong draft prospects, to kick the weekend off.

Rutgers at Virginia, Feb. 24-26

Rutgers opens the season at Miami, and 2016 College World Series participant, providing a tough opponent from the start. But it is Rutgers’ second weekend, still against a very good opponent, at Virginia that figures to be a better gauge on what’s in front of the Scarlet Knights in 2017. Joe Litterio’s team now calls the glistening Fred Hill Training Complex home, a fully turfed indoor infield, which allows Rutgers to do everything on a diamond indoor it seeks to do outside. This is quite critical in the preparation for the New Jersey program. Expected to be as game-ready as ever to enter the season, it’s still hard to duplicate the outdoor nature of baseball. With a weekend under their belt, how Rutgers battles Virginia, the 2015 national champions, should show if the team is on an upward trend. Can Rutgers pull the upset and leave Charlottesville with a weekend win? Even grabbing one win will show Rutgers will have a say in how the Big Ten table shakes out.

Michigan at Lipscomb, March 10-12

Michigan’s depth on the mound paired with a few questions in the gives the Wolverines an opportunity to bring the Big Ten championship, and a NCAA regional, to Ann Arbor for the first time since 2008. The Wolverines open March in the four-team Dodgertown Classic field alongside San Diego and hosts UCLA and USC, putting Michigan against top competition early in the season. But the following weekend is one to keep an eye on. In Nashville, Michigan will meet Lipscomb for a three-game series, its first weekend set against a team expected to reach the NCAA Tournament. Not only is Lipscomb viewed by national media as regional-bound, in some corners they’re seen as a College World Series darkhorse. Led by preseason All-American outfielder Michael Gigliotti, Lipscomb swept preseason Atlantic Sun coaches honors. Tabbed as conference favorites, Gigliotti is the ASUN Preseason Player and Defensive Player of the Year, while Brady Puckett earned Preseason Pitcher of the Year.

Michigan State at South Carolina, March 10-12

Michigan State broke a 33-year NCAA Tournament drought in 2012, a year after being conference co-champions with Illinois. For six seasons now, Jake Boss’ team has been a club in the mix for conference championships and NCAA Tournament berths. Unfortunately, Michigan State has yet to duplicate either feat, painstakingly being the first team left out of the 2013 NCAA Tournament and one of the first four out in 2015. But every year, Michigan State attempts to put itself a position to be considered for a tournament berth, seeking out tough competition away from home. From Texas A&M to UCLA and Oregon, there is no place MSU won’t go. This year, they take on Southeastern Conference power South Carolina. Like their in-state rivals in Ann Arbor, the team in East Lansing has a roster strong enough to bring a NCAA Regional to town. Grabbing a road win in Columbia will give MSU the credibility it needs to show they are for real, to get over the hump and return to the NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota at Ohio State, March 24-26

The pre-conference slate is filled with big series from coast to coast, putting teams in position to have a big 2017. The Big Ten season kicks off pitting two teams against each other, looking to continue what was started in 2016. The reigning Big Ten Tournament champions welcome the reigning conference champions for a banner series out of the gate. Due to conference expansion and schedule quarks, Ohio State has not played host to Minnesota since 2012. Two tradition-ladened clubs, it’s mind-blogging five years could pass between the Gophers last trip to Columbus. On paper, both teams lost a lot from 2016 regional clubs, for Minnesota, the Big Ten Player of the Year Matt Fiedler is now in the pro ranks, the same for Ohio State’s Ronnie Dawson, the Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. But enough parts return where a run at another conference crown should not be unexpected, nor a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. Which team can start conference play on the right note will get a shot in the arm in turning a one-year rise into sustain success.

Maryland at Nebraska, April 7-9

In each of the last three seasons, the Big Ten has yet to see the top two finishers square off in a weekend series. The 2016 season ended in high drama with Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio State all with a shot at the conference title, with the four teams squaring off in two series, but the season ended with Minnesota at the top, Nebraska second, one half-game separating the two with a game played between them. Illinois’ historic 21-1 season came without playing second-place Iowa. The 2014 Big Ten Tournament championship game was a sensational spectacle, in part because Indiana and Nebraska, two ranked teams did not play in the regular season. Will this finally end? On the accord on national media, Nebraska is right there with Maryland as the team to beat in the Big Ten. An early April weekend sees the two square off, and it should be a dandy. Maryland’s dynamic pitching duo of Shaffer and Taylor Bloom will go against Nebraska’s big boopers in Scott Schreiber and Ben Miller. Both clubs have talent and experience, both are led by hard-nosed, no-nonsense coaches. With Hawks Field capable of filling up with thousands upon thousands, this will be a must-see series.

Xavier at Indiana, May 5-7

It’s a sneaky good non-conference series, quite the pickup for Indiana in its bye week. And the Hoosier didn’t have to look far for its opponent. While a mid-major, Xavier has a very capable team in 2017, should not be overlooked for a lack of power conference stature. The Musketeers, who may be home to the best pitching prospect in the Midwest in Zac Lowther, are the Big East preseason favorites return several capable players, from its Nashville Regional runners-up team. The Hoosiers will be the third Big Ten team Xavier faces in a weekend series, following Penn State and Ohio State, and, while the results do no count, have left Bloomington with an exhibition victory in each of the last two Autumns. Indiana returns its entire lineup and by May, the completely new rotation should have settled in. Looking to appear in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years, May will be a big month for the Hoosiers hopes, starting with this series against the Queen City club.

Long Beach State at Minnesota, May 12-14

Minnesota will open the season at the Big West’s UC Irvine and will conclude it’s out-of-conference slate by welcoming the Big West’s Long Beach State to Minneapolis in May. Long Beach State enters the season with a national ranking, looking primed to build on its program’s storied history. Minnesota is absent a preseason ranking, but they’ll be looking to do the same, shooting for a Big Ten-best 31st NCAA Tournament appearance. By mid-May, RPI fluctuations will have calmed, teams will have a dozen weekends of showing who they are and what they’re capable of. For Minnesota to have a quality opponent come to town this late in the season is a boon. The Gophers will have the ability to make a final statement on the national landscape and potentially propel itself to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament, for the first time since 2004.

Michigan vs. Michigan State, May 18-20

Oh, what a dandy this could be. When Michigan and Michigan State meet, the two come together for a split-site series, alternating between two home games around one road contest, year after year. Last year, when the teams met in the final weekend of April, more than 7,000 fans came out to watch the rivals square off. That was with overcast skies twice in Ann Arbor and on a gray Saturday in East Lansing, the temperature resting in the upper 40s throughout the weekend. What could the turnout be if the two face off the final weekend of the season, with temperatures climbing into the 70s, as two teams stocked with pitchers and capable bats do battle? The imagination runs wild, what a way to end the season.

 

Hello…and hello, again!

In kicking off a new season, it’s only appropriate to say hello and introduce those who are new to the Big Ten. Here’s a look at transfers new to the Big Ten with the potential to have a big impact with their new clubs. The Big Ten has seen transfers pay immediate dividends over the last five years, with the likes of Indiana’s Caleb Baragar, Michigan’s Cody

Here’s a look at transfers new to the conference with the potential to have a big impact with their new clubs. The Big Ten has seen transfers pay immediate dividends over the past few years, with the likes of Indiana’s Caleb Baragar, Michigan’s Cody Bruder and Michigan State’s Jordan Zimmerman, who will be next?

Also, as we say hello to a few new guys, we re-introduce a few players returning to competition that look to figure prominently into the success of their team.

Welcome to the Big Ten

Iowa 1B Jake Adams

A two-year standout at Des Moines Area Community College, Adams will step into the first base vacancy created with the graduation of Tyler Peyton. While Peyton was a do-it-all, two-way talent, Adams is your prototypical first baseman, a physical presence with big raw power. Earning All-American honors in 2016, Adams batted .360 with 25 home runs and 75 RBI for DMACC, slugging .860 a year after slugging 17 long balls. If Adams can produce just half of his gaudy JUCO power numbers at the Division I level, the 6-for-2, 250-pound Hawkeye will be a force to reckon with.

Iowa C Tyler Cropley

Heading into his fourth season in Iowa City, Rick Heller has relied heavily on the JUCO ranks to deepen the Hawkeye roster in rebuilding the program. Leading Iowa to three consecutive 30-win seasons, Heller has found the right talent to spearhead Iowa’s charge. Like Adams, junior catcher Tyler Cropley is expected to be another instant performer. Cropley transfers in from Iowa Western, where he hit .403 as a sophomore in 2016. The batting line is impressive, but what the Hawkeye staff most raves about is Cropley’s speed and athleticism. Cropley is expected to be the Hawkeyes leadoff batter and is versatile enough to play center field if needed. He’s viewed as the best catcher Heller and staff have had to date.

Michigan OF Miles Lewis

Lewis arrives in Ann Arbor with previous Division I experience, a standout season to boot. Lewis was named the Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year in 2016 but needed a new home when North Dakota cut its baseball program. Receiving interest from across the country, Lewis, a native of Hudson, Wis., opted to return to the Midwest to join the Wolverines. In 45 games for the Fighting Hawks, Lewis batted .360 with five doubles, two triples and three home runs, stealing 20 bases.

Ohio State 2B Noah McGowan

Take a look at Ohio State’s starting second baseman and one may think he belongs on the gridiron, not diamond. A stout six-foot, 210-pound athlete, Noah McGowan’s father did play football at Stanford, but baseball is the choice for the Buckeye. McGowan arrives in Columbus by way of McClennan Community College, one of three Buckeyes from the Texas junior college, along with pitchers Reece Calvert and Dustin Jourdan. Last year, McGowan batted .393 with seven home runs, scoring 43 runs in 43 games for the Highlanders. McGowan looks to be a heart of the lineup threat.

Maryland OF Will Watson

Maryland head coach John Szefc received a good player from LSU-Eunice a year ago in Madison Nickens. Appearing in 56 games, Nickens led Maryland with 40 runs scored, finished second on the team with eight home runs, batting .260 in the process. The Terps hope similar production comes from junior outfielder Will Watson, another product from LSU-Eunice. Watson carried a .312 average next to a .482 on-base percentage and .518 slugging percentage for the junior college in 2016, driving in 40 runs while scoring 57 in 57 games.

Purdue LHP Nick Wojtysiak

An assistant at Oregon, and Arizona before that, Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski knows how to mine the west coast for talent. As he looks to rebuild the Boilermaker program, he brings in Nick Wojtysiak, a native of Arizona, to help bolster Purdue’s bullpen. From Fountain Hills, Ariz., Wojtysiak attended and pitched for Pepperdine in 2015. After totaling four innings in four games, Wojtysiak moved on to pitch Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix for the 2016 season. Now, the southpaw, with a 90-mile-per-hour fastball and slider combination, looks to find a home in West Lafayette.

Welcome back

Michigan LHP Michael Hendrickson

Michael Hendrickson shined bright for Michigan in 2016. But as bright as his season was, it was also short. Starting the season as a long-relief option, before making a March 2 start against San Jose State, Hendrickson pitched 10.2 innings over three games. Scattering three runs for a 2.53 ERA, Hendrickson’s stats continued to stand out with 16 strikeouts next to only two walks. Limiting opponents to a .158 average, Hendrickson’s season ending after his 4.2-inning out against the Trojans, sidelined for the rest of the year with ulnar nerve injury. Reading to return to action, Hendrickson has a chance to emerge from a deep Wolverine pitching staff and take a spot in the Michigan rotation.

Nebraska RHP Jake Hohensee

Jake Hohensee missed all of the 2016 season recovering from offseason Tommy John surgery, but the last time the Husker right-hander saw extended action, he showed what he’s capable of. Making 12 relief appearance in 2015, Hohensee tossed 17.1 innings, conceding just four earned runs for a 2.08 ERA. Hohensee’s team-best ERA stood next to 14 strikeouts and six walks, holding the opposition to a .167 average over 60 at-bats. Hohensee will likely be limited to one outing per weekend, but he can play a big role for the Huskers in being a reliable relieve, capable of shutting down an opponent.

Ohio State RHP Jake Post

Jake Post last saw action for Ohio State in April 2015, providing a strong bullpen option for Greg Beals as the Buckeyes cracked the polls for the first time since 2010. A forearm strain, which ultimately led to Tommy John surgery prior to the 2016 season, sidelined Post for the final month of the season, one where the Buckeyes stumbled and went from potential regional host to outside of the NCAA Tournament. A fifth-year senior whose fastball sits in the low-90s, Post brings leadership and a live arm to the Buckeyes. Carrying a 2.12 ERA over 29.2 innings in 2015, Post holds a career 3.48 ERA in 108.2 innings on the mound, with 89 strikeouts next to 35 walks.

Michigan State LHP/1B Alex Troop

Alex Troop was viewed as a bit of a wunderkind when he arrived in East Lansing, in the fall of 2014. Having speed, power and arm strength, it wasn’t a matter of when Troop would be a force for the Spartans, but where he best fit. Troop pitched in 13 games, making seven starts, while playing 26 games in the field, making 14 starts in the outfield. Overall, the numbers were pedestrian, a 5.27 ERA in 42.2 innings, and a .226 batting average in 53 at-bats, but flashes of promise showed. That promise turned into production in 2016, albeit briefly. In four relief outings, Troop lowered his ERA to 1.64, striking out 14 batters with three walks in 11 innings. At the plate, Troop batted .372 over 12 games, grabbing six doubles and a home run. His season was cut short with a broken scaphoid bone in his left thumb, forcing a cast on his hand until June. No lingering issues, Troop is expected to take the ball on the mound on Friday nights for Michigan State and settle in at first base when not pitching. Troop has the ability to make an impact at the plate, on the mound and in the field, and likely won’t need long to reintroduce himself to college baseball.

 

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