Feb. 16-18 Weekend Preview

Webb's Words: Hoosier look to leave their mark in Big Ten history

(Photo courtesy Indiana Athletics)

Chris Webb-

The 2018 season marks my tenth year covering Big Ten baseball, 14th overall attending Big Ten games. Since 2005, when I was a freshman at Ohio State, I guess you can say I've seen quite a bit of Big Ten baseball. To sum up how much Big Ten baseball I've seen, there's been 21 different coaches lead a Big Ten program since 2009, with the latest being Maryland's Rob Vaughn.

I've seen stadiums transformed, like Michigan's Ray Fisher Stadium and Minnesota's Siebert Field. Incredible stadiums constructed in Purdue's Alexander Field and Indiana's Bart Kaufman Field. The conference has grown by 30% with Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers joining the conference. The conference tournament is no longer on the campus of the conference champion, in fact the conference set an NCAA record with an attendance of 19,965 for the 2014 Big Ten Tournament title game. The winner, Indiana, became the first Big Ten national seeds, then the conference needed one year for its second national seed in the form of Illinois. Oh and a program reached the College World Series ending the conference's 30-year drought.

The too long; don't read version: Big Ten baseball has experienced quite the transformation since 2009.

Now, about that College World Series team...

It was 2008 when Indiana showed signs of becoming a budding program. The Hoosiers reached the Big Ten Tournament in Tracy Smith's third season, ending the regular season sixth in the conference standings after four consecutive last place finishes. Just one year later, the Hoosiers put the end to another postseason drought, extending their season by a weekend. Winning the 2009 Big Ten Tournament, the Hoosiers were in the NCAA Tournament for just the third time in the program's history, the first time since 1996.

Following the 2009 season, do you know how many years it would take for Indiana to rack up three more NCAA Tournament appearances? Six years. By the eighth season, Indiana had played in a regional for the fourth time since the 2009 breakthrough. Oh, and it was Indiana, in 2013, who became the Big Ten's first team to play in Omaha since Michigan in 1984.

The 2013-14 Indiana teams will go down as one of the best dynasties in Big Ten baseball history. Don't forget, the 2012 club finished second in the conference, only one game behind Purdue, or it would have been three straight Big Ten titles, a feat that's been accomplished only by Michigan (2006-08), Ohio State (1993-95), Illinois (1906-08) and the University of Chicago, yes they fielded a mighty Big Ten program winning the conference 1896-99.

At the end of the 2014 season, Smith became the head coach at Arizona State, the program saw the graduation of Dustin DeMuth and Joey DeNato after the respective third baseman and pitcher re-wrote the IU record book, and the drafting of Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis, the famed Bash Brothers who were the respective first and second round draft picks of the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

If there was to be an end to Indiana's reign as the dominant Big Ten program, it was to happen with the historical turnover.

But it didn't.

From the second Smith left Bloomington for Tempe, Indiana administrators knew who they waited to take over the program. They didn't have to go far, barely reaching across the Ohio River, to name Louisville assistant Chris Lemonis as the program's new head coach. Though once-a-generation talent had moved to the professional ranks and the architect of the program relocated out west, Indiana didn't miss a beat. In Lemonis' first year, Indiana became the first Big Ten program since Michigan in 2005-08 to reach three straight NCAA Tournaments, appearing in the 2015 Nashville Regional.

Indiana did return to the pack in 2016, although they still finished in a tie for third in the conference, missing the NCAA Tournament. But now the Hoosiers are again coming off of an NCAA Tournament appearance after participating in the Lexington Regional as the No 2 seed.

With a core of players led by Matt Lloyd, Luke Miller, Logan Sowers and Jonathan Stievers, Indiana returns much of its 2017 club and enter the 2018 season as the conference favorite in the eyes of coaches and media alike. Named the coaches' preseason favorite, Indiana has preseason rankings of No. 19 by Baseball America, No. 24 by the NCBWA, and earned the 27th-most points in the USA Today/Coaches preseason poll. It's expected Indiana will again be back in the field of 64, if not hosting if they finish the season near the position Baseball America penciled them in.

If that were to happen Indiana will join exclusive company. The Big Ten programs that have played in five NCAA Tournament in six years are the who's who of dominant eras in Big Ten baseball history. Minnesota reached six regionals in seven years between 1998-2004. Ohio State appeared in six regionals in seven years between 1992-1997. Michigan made seven straight NCAA Tournament appearance between 1983-87. No other programs as Big Ten members will have enjoyed the level of sustain success as Indiana will have.

It may be easier in today's game for such runs of success to take place, and we may see continued runs of NCAA Tournament trips occur regularly, after all the Big Ten has placed 13 teams in the NCAA Tournament over the last three seasons, one more than the combined total of the seven years prior. Even so, if the season unfolds as many expect, what Indiana will have accomplished. It will be a run of sustained success between two coaches, a program lifted by generational talent, but kept at a high standard with an entirely new cast of characters, a program elevated to a level of national esteem.

From someone who's seen a little bit of Big Ten baseball, Indiana and the conference are in a new day, with no signs of going back.

 

New look Huskers ready to reign

(Photo courtesy Indiana Athletics)

Blake Dowson-

The expectations have changed in the Big Ten Conference. Although there were no teams in super regionals in 2017, a record number of teams from the conference made the NCAA Tournament. Recruiting has ramped up, bringing in more talent. Athletic departments are putting more money into baseball programs. There’s momentum here.

But it can’t stop at just getting teams into the NCAA Tournament. The next step is the supers, and ultimately the College World Series.

The two Big Ten team closest to the home of the College World Series, Nebraska, took a step forward last season as the conference champions, reaching the NCAA Tournament for a third time in four years. In a sport where your best talent typically leaves each year and in a conference that makes it difficult to reload each year, Nebraska’s Darin Erstad has work to do in 2018 with a new look squad.

“I don’t roll seasons over,” Erstad said at Nebraska’s media day. “It’s a whole new set of circumstances coming into this year.”

Erstad is tasked with replacing All-American Jake Meyers and Derek Burkamper in the Husker rotation, two who combined to eat up over 150 innings for the Huskers last season. But Erstad isn't without a pitcher coming off of an impressive 2017 season. Senior right-hander Luis Alvarado is back in Lincoln after being drafted in the 13th round last year after a solid year as Nebraska’s closer. He’ll be stretched out after totaling 15.1 innings last year, taking the ball on opening day as Nebraska's Friday night starter. Jake McSteen will be the Saturday starter after being leaned on heavily out of the bullpen last year, nearly reaching 40 innings. Nate Fisher and Creighton transfer Matt Warren will fill out the rotation.

Of Alvarado starting, Erstad said they would adjust as they go.

“You’re going to be patient,” the seventh-year head coach said. “And looking long term as far as building their pitch counts up…I’m sure there will be some bumps there. We want our best arm going out there right out of the gate and let him do his thing.”

Nebraska starts this season without the services of Ben Miller, Meyers, and Jake Schleppenbach, respective multi-year starters at first base, center fielder and second base. Those three combined to make 163 starts and over 600 at-bats.

Luckily, two-time first-team All Big Ten selection Scott Schreiber is back for his senior season. Schreiber hit .330 last year with 55 RBI. His production will be key in Nebraska building on last season’s success, along with All-Big Ten players Angelo Altavilla and Jake Hohensee.

Altavilla, Alvarado, Hohensee, and  Schreiber, along with the likes of third baseman Luke Roskam and left fielder Mojo Hagge gives Erstad a collection of players who have enjoyed success in college baseball. But with sizable holes to fill and expandad roles for many, what we will learn in the coming month is which newcomers will make an impact and who is ready to embrace a bigger role for the reining Big Ten champions, what kind of team Nebraska will be in 2018.

“I think they’re going to be annoying to face,” Erstad said. “We’ve got a bunch of grinders. They’ve had a taste of winning and they want more.”

What to watch for this weekend

Who plays?

Inclement weather saw flights cancelled throughout the Midwest on Thursday, leaving Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern stranded at airports, scrambling for last minute options for travel options and potential new weekend opponents on the eve of the college baseball season. For teams who have reached their destination, weather doesn't look favorable in the southeast, with Maryland's series at Tennessee potential impacted, although Minnesota with a weekend in Georgia against Georgia Tech, Kennesaw State and Georgia State look safe for now. It's the return of the college baseball season, and the return of schedule uncertainty.

Who takes the field for Michigan?

Weather won't be a factor for Michigan when they take the field in Port St. Luice for four games against Army. But there is mystery around the Wolverines this weekend with it being up in the air as to who will start for Erik Bakich. After 11 players were picked in the MLB Draft, Michigan experienced quite the turnover from its Chapel Hill Regional team. Michigan's game notes this week lists five potential starters for the four games, and two options at every position in the field. Illness and injuries have played a role in some of the uncertainty for Michigan, but for Bakich, who likes the depth of the team, it may take a week or two to figure out who gives Michigan the best shot to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years.

Can Feltner become Ohio State's ace?

Ohio State has high expectations for junior right-handed pitcher Ryan Feltner. The Buckeye staff will give the highly-touted prospect, who held a 0.00 ERA as a closer in the Cape Cod League to earn an all-star nod, every chance to show he can succeed as a starter. So far in his career, the result have been unever as a Buckeye, holding a 5.14 ERA over 131.1 innings. To rebound from a 10th-place finish a year ago, Ohio State needs Feltner to harness his stuff, he has a four-pitch arsenal which includes as fastball that can reach 99, and be the pitcher who enters the season as one of the Big Ten's top prospects. If Feltner can be the aces Greg Beals and company hopes he can, Ohio State has the bullpen depth and experience in the weekend rotation to be a contender if the offense takes a step forward.

(Photo courtesy Rutgers Athletics)

Burke Granger & Chris Webb-

A two-sport athlete, Jawuan Harris shines on both the gridiron and the diamond for Rutgers.

As a freshman, he led the Scarlet Knights in receiving, hauling in 39 passes for 481 yards and three scores before transitioning to safety last season. He enters the spring as one of the more intriguing MLB Draft prospects in the conference.

"He's an unique athlete that you typically don't see in college," said a long-time National League scout. "The athleticism can take over the game and match up with anyone in the country."

At 5’9” and 190 pounds, Harris has a compact frame with an athletic, well-proportioned build that offers minimal projection. Though he’s on the smaller end of the scale, Harris displayed power last spring when he led the team in home runs with eight. There is some swing and miss to Harris’ game that he needs to tighten up, evidenced by his career 26.2% strikeout rate.

"The swing-and-miss will cut down with reps," said the scout, noting he believes Harris has the athleticism and aptitude to make the appropriate adjustments.

"He hasn't committed to baseball full-time ever in his, it's exciting to think of the possibilities."

Harris does well to mitigate that deficiency by taking more than his fair share of walks, drawing a free pass 12.74% of the time where he can get on base and showcase his carrying tool. A disruptive and efficient base stealer, Harris has utilized his top of the scale speed to steal 60 bases over the past two seasons while being caught just 14 times.

"It's elite speed," said the vertran scout. "He profiles at center field with the speed, it's a matter of if he's a top-of-the-order bat, by cutting down-on-the-swing and miss."

Harris will attempt to set the table for Rutgers this weekend against what could be his toughest competition of the year in Miami as the Hurricanes are expected to have one of the best pitching staff’s in the ACC.

10 Innings' Scouting Grade

Hit- 35/50

Power- 45/50

Run- 80/80

Throw- 50/50

Field- 55/70

Each week 10 Innings will have a coach step into the batter's box for a round of rapid-fire questions. First up is Penn State pitching coach Josh Newman.

A former All-Big Ten selection at Ohio State, Newman appeared in 14 MLB games between the 2007-08 seasons as a Colorado Rockie and Kansas City Royal, before returning to Ohio State as a volunteer assistant from 2011-13. Now, the ex-big leaguer is looking to help the Nittany Lions find the glory he experienced in Columbus as part of three NCAA Tournament teams.

Now that you're back in the Big Ten, what's the biggest difference since your days on the bump at Ohio State?

I have always held this baseball conference to high regard (this is my 8th year in this conference — four as a player and this will be four now as a coach) but it is now deeper than ever. The Big Ten has evolved into one of the premier baseball conferences in the country.

When Coach Cooper approached you over the summer, what stuck out about the opportunity to be on staff at Penn State?

I have always admired the body of work Coach Cooper has accomplished throughout his coaching career. Coach Cooper exemplifies everything I strive to be — both professionally and personally. His passion for the game and leadership qualities are infectious. The opportunity to join his staff and to do it at such an elite institution like Penn State, is a dream come true to my family and I.

What have you taken from your MLB experience that you've tried to have your pitchers learn from?

This game is extremely difficult. It will humble you in a heartbeat. However, I want our guys to respect that part of it but also I want them to enjoy their time here at Penn State and beyond. There have been so many incredible people that have helped me along my journey in this game and I owe to those people to continue to pay it forward.

The keys to Nittany Lion success on the mound in 2018 are...?

We must take care of today. Today is the most important thing that matters. These guys have fully embraced the expectations of excellence and have made tremendous strides thus far. We must continue to grow every single day.

Three words you want to have your pitching staff describe as?

Prove them wrong!

By the numbers

Last NCAA Tournament appearance

Illinois: 2015

Indiana: 2017

Iowa: 2017

Maryland: 2017

Michigan: 2017

Michigan State: 2012

Minnesota: 2016

Nebraska: 2017

Northwestern: 1957

Ohio State: 2016

Penn State: 2000

Purdue: 2012

Rutgers: 2007

10secondary

Draft picks opt for school

While a handful of draft picks decided to pass on the college experience and sign a professional contract, more top preps decided to attend school, put off professional overtures for now.

In addition to 12 incoming freshman who spurned the pro ranks, five players chose to return to a Big Ten diamond and help their teams pursue another regional bid, while a drafted JUCO transfer hopes to lead his team back to the field of 64.

Here’s a rundown of those who said thanks, but no thanks to MLB teams, and quick hits on the most noteworthy additions or returns to Big Ten teams.

Indiana

Jr. 3B Luke Miller, 31st Round- Minnesota Twins

Indiana third baseman Luke Miller was a draft-eligible sophomore in 2017 and his power made him a popular name on preseason top prospect list. Miller did hit 10 home runs, but scouts were concerned with Miller’s ability to routinely tap into it. The swing-and-miss concerns, likely coupled with requiring a large signing bonus to buyout his remaining two years of eligibility, a potential top 10 round prospect fell until the 31st round. Miller’s return, as well as those of seniors Matt Lloyd and Logan Sowers, gives Chris Lemonis a potent middle of the order, ready to take aim at the program’s fifth regional in six years.

Iowa

Jr. RHP Brady Schnauel, 20th Round- Philadelphia Phillies

After Rick Heller lost ace Nick Gallagher to the pros, a 16th-round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians, though recovering from a partial UCL tear, junior right-handed pitcher CJ Eldred, Iowa’s 2016 Friday starter, signed with the Kansas City Royals as a minor league free agent. Getting right-hander Brady Schnauel to campus helps soften the blow of a depleted weekend rotation as the Big Ten Tournament champions looked to build off of their Houston Regional appearance. Schnaeul heads to Iowa City after being drafted following each of his first two seasons at Parkland College.

Maryland

Jr. OF Marty Costes, 25th Round- Houston Astros

Fr. OF/LHP Randy Bednar, 27th Round- Atlanta Braves

Fr. C Justin Vought, 31st Round- Kansas City Royals

Jr. RHP Ryan Selmer, 31st Round- Seattle Mariners

Fr. RHP Mark DiLuia, 38th Round- Twins

Maryland outfielder Marty Costes was another draft-eligible sophomore on scouts radars, finding a place inside Baseball America’s final top 200 draft prospects. Like Miller, Costes’ power is the tool which draws attention, tying for Maryland’s team lead with 13 home runs in 2017. There is also some swing-and-miss tendency to Costes, 47 strikeouts in 239 at-bats, but Costes’ greatest prospecting concern is the most measurable of measurables: his stature. Costes checks in at only 5’9, a red flag to some evaluators. But Costes’ production dramatically increased between his freshman and sophomore seasons and another season similar to 2017’s .322/.429/.548 will surely see him picked high enough to bring his time in College Park to an end. When that time comes, Maryland will be in a good position to continue their recent success, led by a trio of draft picks who made it to campus this season, joined by do-everything pitcher Ryan Selmer, who can be in the weekend rotation, long relief or back of the bullpen.

Michigan

Fr. C Joe Donovan, 33rd Round- Chicago Cubs

Fr. RHP Jeff Criswell, 35th Round- Detroit Tigers

Fr. OF Jesse Franklin, 37th Round- Mariners

Fr. LHP Angelo Smith, 40th Round- Chicago White Sox

Michigan set a program record with 11 draft picks in June’s draft. The most draft picks of any college program, it’s evident Erik Bakich and staff are recruiting in a manner which will lead to Big Ten championships. But it was bittersweet for Bakich as Michigan will have such an extremer roster turnover after their second regional appearance in three years. On top of losing 11 draft picks, two signed high school recruits opted for profession baseball, Cody Bolton and Jason Pineda, But Michigan’s efforts to reload will be helped by four drafted preps who chose Ann Arbor as their next destination, headlined by hard-throwing right-hander Jeff Criswell and fleet-footed outfielder Jesse Franklin, the latter turned down a reported $1.3-million signing bonus. Joe Donovan is a versatile player, who can catch, play third or first, while Angelo Smith is an athletic southpaw with good feel.

Michigan State

Fr. RHP Jesse Heikkinen, 36th Round- Tigers

Minnesota

Fr. RHP Max Meyer, 34th Round- Twins

Nebraska

Sr. RHP/OF Luis Alvarado, 13th Round- Mariners

Sr. 1B/OF Scott Schreiber, 26th Round- Tampa Bay Rays

Nebraska lost its top recruit to the pros when Los Angeles Angels fourth-round draft pick John Swanda signed for $625,000. Darin Erstad will be without the services of the talented right-hander, but he will have another year with his right-handed closer, Luis Alvarado, as well as his fellow outfielder, Scott Schreiber. In his first year on the mound, Alvarado shined at the back of the Husker bullpen, recording 10 saves in 15.2 innings and pitching to the tune of a 1.72 ERA. At the plate, Alvarado batted .283 with 12 doubles, blossoming as Nebraska’s left fielder. One of a few right field options, Schreiber batted .330 with 15 doubles and seven home runs, a year after hitting .325 with 16 home runs. The returning duo will help the reigning Big Ten champs ease the lost of Swanda and center fielder/left-handed pitcher Jake Meyers, who was draft three picks before Alvarado and signed with the Houston Astros.

Ohio State

Fr. LHP Seth Lonsway, 19th Round- Cincinnati Reds

The highest-ranked Big Ten recruit, checking in at #127 on Baseball America‘s BA 500, left-handed pitcher Seth Lonsway gives Ohio State the potential ace it missed in 2017, following three years of Tanner Tully solidifying the Friday night role. Lonsway shot up draft boards a month out from the draft and had several teams viewing him as a potential third-round pick. But with his commitment to Ohio State and the bonus it would take to pry him away, Lonsway fell to the 20th round, and the Cincinnati Reds were unable to meet his demands. From Celina, Ohio, the Buckeyes secured the state’s top player to lead a strong recruiting haul as they look to rebound from the program’s worst season in 30 years. Lonsway’s fastball runs between 90-94 MPH, while offering a change-up and curveball.

Purdue

Fr. LHP Hayden Wynja, 30th Round- Braves

Rutgers

Fr. LHP Harry Rutkowski, 28th Round- Reds

Five signees opt for pro baseball

As students across the country return to college campuses, it is time to turn the attention to the 2018 season. Already several programs around the Big Ten have held team meetings, setting expectations, goals and plans for the upcoming year.

Before 10 Innings shifts gears to the 2018 season, here’s a look at the players Big Ten programs lost to the professional ranks, a group of five players who signed a National Letter of Intent, but were drafted and signed, opting not to embark on the road to Omaha.

RHP Cody Bolton- Michigan

From Tracy, Calif., Bolton ranked as the 414th best prospect in the Baseball America BA 500. But according to evaluators throughout Northern California, the ranking may be a bit conservative as Bolton was viewed as pitcher capable of stepping into Michigan’s weekend rotation, powered by a mid-90s fastball. Perfect Game ranked Bolton as the 118th overall high school prospect, a position more in line with his sixth-round selection of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bolton signed for $300,000, the assigned slot value for his selection as pick 178 was $255,900.

RHP Xavier Moore- Ohio State

The Wolverines arch-rivals, the Buckeyes of Ohio State, also lost a talented right-handed pitcher to the pro ranks. Though not in the BA 500, Xavier Moore was long on scout’s radar, possessing a fastball which could touch 93-94 MPH from a loose arm on an athletic body. The Rangers nabbed the right-hander from Amherst Steele in Northeast Ohio in the 16th round, and signed him with a bonus of $125,000.

1B Jason Pineda- Michigan

Michigan has appeared in two regionals in three years on the strength of coast-to-coast recruiting. From upstate New York native Drew Lugbauer to Will Tribucher from Southern California, Michigan casts the conference’s widest recruiting net. Unfortunately the 2017 class saw draft loses from the east and west coasts, with first baseman Jason Pineda signing with the San Diego Padres. The National League West club picked Pineda, ranked #465 in the BA 500, in the 17th round and signed him for $125,000.

3B Davis Schneider- Rutgers

Checking in at $463 on the BA 500, Davis Schneider scooted up scout’s follow lists after being named the MVP of Perfect Game’s World Wood Bat Association World Championship, viewed by many as the premier scouting showcase on the amateur circuit, for tournament champion Dirtbags baseball, based in North Carolina. It appeared Rutgers would land an impact player at the hot corner, but the Blue Jays picked the Berlin, New Jersey native in the 28th round and signed him for a bonus of $50,000.

RHP John Swanda- Nebraska

The first Big Ten recruit drafted, John Swanda, was the first to sign. From Des Moines’ Roosevelt High, the right-handed pitcher was set to cross the Missouri River and pitch for Darin Erstad. But the skipper’s former Major League club kept that from happening. The Angels drafted Swanda in the fourth round and with a signing bonus of $625,000, $161,100 above the assigned slot for pick 115, brought him into its farm system. Perfect Game ranked Swanda as the 243rd overall high school prospect, Iowa’s top prep, while the BA 500 penciled in the right-hander at #398.

The Prospect Junkie: Q&A with Mike Rooney

In this week’s edition of The Prospect Junkie, I spent some time chatting with ESPN College Baseball Analyst Mike Rooney as he provided perspective on the strength of the Big Ten Conference, and thoughts on some of the prospects within. In addition to providing in-game commentary on ESPN throughout the season, Rooney provides insight as a writer for Perfect Game.

BG: Which Big Ten teams have you had a chance to see thus far this season?

I’ve seen Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State, and then I watched recently caught one of the Michigan State and South Carolina games last weekend on the Watch ESPN App. I also feel like I have a good feel for Maryland because I covered their Regional in 2015 when they upset UCLA, and I also sat on them for a series against Cal State Fullerton last year which was a very good series for them.  I feel like I know their roster pretty well.

BG: What are your general thoughts on the strength of those teams?

Michigan looked really good, they stack up with anyone, anywhere. I loved everything about Michigan. I loved their style of play. I loved that they had seniors in center field, at shortstop, and at catcher. I love that they’ve got a little mojo. They were in the Regional a couple years ago and then they faltered last year so I actually like that they have a little scar from last year. So Michigan I think is a threat anywhere or anytime, I love that club.

I had really high hopes for Nebraska, and I feel like I just didn’t see them well. I’m sure with any of the Big Ten teams, you need to temper yourself when you see them in February and early March. I think that league is notorious for clubs playing differently at the end of the year. I think for Nebraska in particular, their older guys weren’t going yet. The junior year is a tough year for a college player and I think a couple of their guys were pressing a little bit, but there was a lot to like. I saw Luensmann struggle, but I still wrote him up as a heck of a prospect. There’s still a lot to like, he just performed poorly. I love Jake Meyers as a college player, [Scott] Schreiber is a monster and I saw Angelo Altavilla was tremendous all weekend. Mojo Hagge is a really good college player; he disrupts the game.  I just saw them on what will ultimately end up being one of their worst weekends all year.

I think for Nebraska in particular, their older guys weren’t going yet. The junior year is a tough year for a college player and I think a couple of their guys were pressing a little bit, but there was a lot to like. I saw Luensmann struggle, but I still wrote him up as a heck of a prospect. There’s still a lot to like, he just performed poorly. I love Jake Meyers as a college player, [Scott] Schreiber is a monster and I saw Angelo Altavilla was tremendous all weekend. Mojo Hagge is a really good college player; he disrupts the game.  I just saw them on what will ultimately end up being one of their worst weekends all year.

BG: Ohio State’s Tre’ Gantt got off to a hot start, in particular in the Big Ten PAC-12 Challenge. Tell me what you saw out of him.

He was good in that weekend. He’s a left-hander who has a feel for his game and a very handsy swing, which I like.  He used the entire field and ran well. I understand he hasn’t played a ton of baseball, but he’s very intriguing. He moves well and has a good feel for how to play the game. He wasn’t really tested in CF in the games that I saw, but he’s definitely a name that you write down because’s he’s left-handed, and he can really run.

BG: Indiana has one of the better pro prospects in the conference in outfielder Logan Sowers. Did he make an impression on you?

Yeah, he was really interesting because while he didn’t play great, he so strong. He was stiffer than I anticipated, but he ran into two breaking balls. They play that tournament in Surprise (Ariz.) which is a Spring Training park that is massive in order to showcase outfield range. He hit a double in the gap and another ball to the base of the wall in centerfield. He was a little nicked up and limping around, but he was very intriguing to me. He’ll play every day and he’ll accumulate stats because he’s so physical. His physical presence is large. He was very competent in the outfield, but I felt like he was not 100%. I’m curious how he will handle real good velocity because he’s not rifling the bat through the zone. But boy, he’s super strong; crazy strong! Even when he’s hitting .167, he gets your attention because the two balls he hit were the loudest contact of the day so even his bad day is enticing.

He was a little nicked up and limping around, but he was very intriguing to me. He’ll play every day and he’ll accumulate stats because he’s so physical. His physical presence is large. He was very competent in the outfield, but I felt like he was not 100%. I’m curious how he will handle real good velocity because he’s not rifling the bat through the zone. But boy, he’s super strong; crazy strong! Even when he’s hitting .167, he gets your attention because the two balls he hit were the loudest contact of the day so even his bad day is enticing.

I’m curious how he will handle real good velocity because he’s not rifling the bat through the zone. But boy, he’s super strong; crazy strong! Even when he’s hitting .167, he gets your attention because the two balls he hit were the loudest contact of the day so even his bad day is enticing.

BG: The Big Ten may not have a top 10 overall talent like Tyler Jay or Kyle Schwarber this year, but Kevin Smith of Maryland might be the best bet at a first-rounder. What are your impressions of him?

I came out of that Regional in 2015 as the president of the Kevin Smith fan club. UCLA was the #1 overall seed, and this kid as a true freshman was so good. He handled every play, the game never sped up on him. And he had some really good at-bats, I think they hit him second in the order, so it was disappointing to see him have such a rough sophomore year.

When I saw him last year, you could tell he was trying to do too much. I was encouraged to hear about the summer. He’s off to a really rough start, and he’s not the first junior in the history of college baseball to have a rough time with the pressures of the draft year. Especially for a kid like him whose tools aren’t that loud but you start getting first round noise around you, I think that would be tough to reconcile mentally. I see he has 17 punch-outs in 14 games. Unless I’m whiffing on this, he’s a way better hitter than that. So to me, that screams that he’s trying to do too much. The things that I like about him is that he’s instinctual, he wore out

The things that I like about him is that he’s instinctual, he wore out right-center field, and he‘s a good baserunner. Also, really good pitching didn’t seem to phase him.

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