Preseason unit ranks: Corner infielders and outfielders

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 corners of the diamond and in the outfielder, based on who is coming back and has previously shown they have what it takes to compete at the Big Ten levels.

Corner infielders & DH

Minnesota

A potent offense led Minnesota to its first Big Ten championship and NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010. While graduation or the MLB Draft forced the departure of three of the top four hitters from a .322 batting team, the Gophers return two key players at the corners and a breakout candidate at DH. Junior third baseman Micah Coffey has Big Ten Player of the Year Potential, coming off of a sophomore campaign where he filled up Gopher stat sheets. Coffey batted .333 with 13 doubles, three triples and seven home runs, tying for the team-lead with 42 RBI. Defensively, Coffey committed only six errors in 154 chances, providing a solid glove at the hot corner. Across the diamond, classmate Toby Hanson looks to build off of a season where he batted .301 over 40 games, hitting five home runs. In the DH spot, sophomore Cole McDevitt put up big numbers in limited opportunities for the Big Ten champs. Appearing in 12 games, making four starts, McDevitt collected nine hits in 22 at-bats for a .409 average, two of which were home runs. The trio provides a power-packed core that John Anderson can build around.

Michigan

The Wolverines return every starter around the diamond, but the two on the corner will flip-flop position. A summer injury will force junior Jake Bivens to move from third base to first base, changing spots with classmate Drew Lugbauer. Regardless of where on the diamond the two suit up, opposing pitchers need to proceed with caution when facing both. Bivens, the 2015 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, has shown an ability to hit from his first day in Maize and Blue. Batting .319 as a freshman, Bivens bumped his average to .356 in 2016 and contributed 13 stolen bases in 19 attempts. Lugbauer saw a noteworthy increase in offensive production from year one to year two himself. After posting a line .211/.281/.300 in 2015, as a sophomore, Lugbauer’s respective batting average, on-base and slugging percentages made him a force in Michigan’s lineup. On the strength of 15 doubles, seven home runs and 30 walks, Lugbauer batted .294 with a .389 on-base percentage and .483 slugging clip.

Michigan State

Michigan State sophomore third baseman Marty Bechina did a bit of everything for the Spartans last year. A good athlete, Bechina moved to center field when injuries depleted the Michigan State outfield. Bechina also showed flashes of being an impact player at the plate. Starting out hot, Bechina carried a .326 average through March 31, before finishing his first season in East Lansing with a solid .260 average., with 11 doubles and two home runs. Back to his natural third base in 2017, Bechina will be depended upon to be a big bat for Jake Boss. At first base, sophomore Alex Troop will be in the infield, when not the Spartans’ Friday night ace. Troop batted .372 with six doubles in 2016, before a broken thumb ended his season in early March. Troops’ injury allowed Zack McGuire to step in and receive playing time, give MSU a quality option at first when Troop is on the mound, or at DH. McGuire batted .250 over 76 at-bats, dialing up seven doubles and a pair of home runs to help produce a .739 OPS as a sophomore.

Honorable Mention: Indiana

A draft-eligible sophomore, Baseball America has tabbed third baseman Luke Miller as one of the Big Ten’s top five prospects. Taking on a new position, a high school outfielder, Miller handled the hot corner well, while batting .284 with 11 doubles. At first base, senior Austin Cangelosi looks to rebound after a down campaign. Cangelosi batted .219 with six doubles and four home runs after carrying a .246 clip in 2015, with eight doubles, three triples and three home runs. IU has four capable outfielders in Craig Dedelow, Laren Eustace, Alex Krupa and Logan Sowers, with the odd man out likely being the DH.

 

Outfielders

Indiana

Four capable guys for three spots gives Indiana the Big Ten’s best outfield. Sowers, a junior, has as much power potential as any player in the conference. Sowers connected for eight home runs in 2016, while being limited to 44 games due to injury. Later in the year, Sowers battled a banged up shoulder, contributing to a season-ending average of .273, which was as high as .337 in late April. Sowers has a big arm and runs well, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound mulit-tooled athlete. Dedelow led IU in batting as a junior in 2016, finishing year three in Bloomington with a .302 average. Dedelow’s 16 doubles also paced the club, a part of 23 extra-base hits with two triples and five home runs. Dedelow and Sowers can be as good of an offensive 1-2 punch in the conference. Krupa and Eustace don’t have the power of their Hoosier teammates, but both have a glove that can play in any outfield, while being spark plugs to the offense. Krupa, a senior, batted .281 with 14 stolen bases as the IU center fielder, after transferring from Iowa Western. When seeing playing time, Eustace batted .248 with a .746 OPS, steal six bases over 40 games as a sophomore. Eustace had a big summer in the Northwoods League, batting .320 over 63 with the wood bat for the Green Bay Bullfrogs.

Nebraska

Nebraska is right there in touting the Big Ten’s top outfield. Junior Scott Schreiber has All-American potential, slugging a Big Ten-best 16 home runs and posting a 1.020 OPS will do that. Schreiber, a former high school quarterback, was Nebraska’s primary first baseman in 2016, but will slide to right field, with Nebraska expecting Schreiber’s athleticism able to handle the change. Schreiber’s .325 average was bested by junior center fielder Jake Meyer’s .326 mark. Meyers, Nebraska’s Sunday starting pitcher, showed a good blend of speed and pop, recording 12 doubles, six triples and two home runs, with 10 stolen bases. Spending a little time in the infield in 2016, junior Luis Alvarado is back to calling left field is home. Alvarado finished his sophomore season witha  .251 average over 53 games.

Rutgers

Rutgers outfield deep enough that senior Mike Carter can move to first base, after batting .367 over 28 games, without head coach Joe Litterio worrying about a production drop off from his outfield. All eyes will be on sophomore center fielder Jawuan Harris to see what the two-sport standout does in year two. After leading Rutgers football in receiving yards and touchdown receptions, no returning player in NCAA baseball stolen more bases than Harris last season. Leading the Big Ten with 37 swipes, batting .273, Harris providing an immediate impact for the Scarlet Knights. To Harris’ right, senior Tom Marcinczyk led Rutgers with a .446 slugging percentage in 2016, picking up 12 doubles with six triples and four home runs, batting .270, adding 18 stolen bases for good measure. Left field will be manned by sophomore Luke Bowerbank, who comes off a quality rookie season where he batted .301 in 34 games.

Honorable Mention: Minnesota

While sophomore center fielder Ben Mezzenga is primed for a breakout season, the two Gophers around him look to pick up where 2016 left off, when they experienced breakthrough seasons. Junior right fielder Alex Boxwell put together a nice .327/.379/.464 season as he stepped into an everyday role. Boxwell’s 10 doubles were matched by senior Jordan Smith, who carried a .296 average throughout his junior season, adding a pair of triples and three home runs.

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.

 

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