• The Big West had its worst season in the 64-team era last year, sending only one team to regionals for the first time since the field expanded in 1999. As recently as 2007 and '08, the Big West sent four teams to regionals, and it is reasonable to expect the league to bounce back somewhat in 2013, with a solid chance to produce three NCAA tournament teams, and an outside shot at four. Cal State Fullerton looks like the clear favorite once again, and UC Irvine figures to be its top challenger, though the Anteaters stumbled to a fourth-place finish a year ago. Irvine's strength is the league's most experienced pitching staff, anchored by Jr. RHP Andrew Thurman (8-3, 2.66), who used his good command of an average fastball and plus changeup to throw a no-hitter against Long Beach State last year, a week after taking a no-hitter into the ninth against Fullerton. Fourth-year Jr. RHPs Evan Brock and Kyle Hooper bring physicality and plenty more experience to starting roles, and Jr. LHP Matt Whitehouse—who was limited to three starts by injury last year, like Hooper—is a fourth steady vet. The 'Eaters aren't blessed with overpowering arms, but they are well stocked with tenacious strike-throwers—a good recipe for success in the West, or anywhere else in the BBCOR era. Yet another player who redshirted last year, fifth-year Sr. C Ronnie Shaeffer, is back to lead the offense as well as the defense, but the lineup around him is filled with question marks. UCI needs talented So. 3B Taylor Sparks (.202/.277/.363) to improve his contact rate in order to make better use of his plus power potential. And the Anteaters expect big things from multi-talented Jr. CF Dominique Taylor, a junior-college transfer.
• Coach Troy Buckley inherited a Long Beach State team that went 7-17 to finish in the Big West basement in 2010, guided it to a .500 record in conference play in his first season in 2011, then led it to a 15-9 showing last year, keeping the Dirtbags in contention for the league title until the final weekend. LBSU looks poised to take another step forward this spring, now that Buckley and his staff have a chance to bring in two solid recruiting classes. A pair of quality junior-college transfers—Jr. RHPs Shane Carle and Ryan Millison—figure to hold down the first two spots in the weekend rotation. Carle ranks as one of the Big West's top prospects after showing a 92-93 mph fastball with sink, a swing-and-miss slider and feel for a changeup this fall. The pitching staff has more depth than it has in years, and the Dirtbags also have high hopes for angular So. LHP Nick Sabo, Jr. RHP Jon Maciel and highly touted Fr. RHP David Hill. The Dirtbags have plenty of versatile position players who can slide around to get the best combination into the lineup. The centerpiece of the offense should be So. OF Richard Prigatano (.278/.335/.329), a physical righthanded hitter who looks primed for a huge year after a star turn in the Northwoods League. Expect big steps forward also from Jr. 2B Jeff McNeil (.258/.333/.304) and Jr. SS Michael Hill (.140/.232/.180).
• Cal Poly made a strong run at a regional last year, finishing a game out of first place and racking up 36 wins overall. But the Mustangs must replace their best offensive player in Mitch Haniger, a Brewers' supplemental first-round pick, and a standout senior shortstop in Mike Miller. Jr. CF David Armendariz (.312/.366/.450) and Jr. 3B Jimmy Allen (.345/.372/.507) should be able to anchor the offense, but much depends on whether Fr. Peter Van Gansen can handle shortstop. The pitching staff is thin, but it does have a steady senior at the front in RHP Joey Wagman (9-3, 2.33) and a power-armed junior at the back in RHP Chase Johnson (3-4, 3.34, 8 saves), though the latter showed pedestrian stuff this fall while working to improve his command. The breakout candidate is So. LHP Matt Imhof (1-0, 3.04), a projectable southpaw with good feel for his curveball and change.
• UC Santa Barbara could make a run at regionals after bringing in the nation's No. 12 recruiting class in coach Andrew Checketts' second year. The Gauchos expect the centerpiece of that class, Fr. CF Andrew Calica, to play every day and make an immediate impact on both sides of the ball. Another freshman, RHP Dylan Hecht, has a chance to anchor the bullpen thanks to a 92-94 mph fastball and good slider. UCSB's best all-around player is second-team preseason All-American Brandon Trinkwon (.347/.460/.490), who made a name for himself with a stellar summer in the Cape Cod League. The Gauchos also have a nice group of emerging sophomores in LHP Andrew Vasquez (6-3, 1.93), two-way talent Greg Mahle (.347/.411/.349; 3-4, 3.88) and 1B Tyler Kuresa. If the newcomers mature quickly and mesh with the returnees, Santa Barbara could leap into Big West prominence ahead of schedule.
• Hawaii joins the Big West this year, and the Rainbows already have realized major gains on the recruiting trail from their switch, culminating in a stellar haul in the early signing period this past November. In the short term, the Rainbows have the pitching to compete in this league, but the lineup is largely unproven. An all-southpaw weekend rotation of Jarrett Alexander (7-6, 2.88), Scott Squier (3-4, 3.50) and Andrew Jones (a transfer from Grayson County, Texas, CC) should help Hawaii weather a rigorous schedule, which includes four-game series against Oregon, Rice, Gonzaga and Wichita State before conference play begins. If the Rainbows hold their own against that slate, they will be strong enough in the Ratings Percentage Index to make a run at a regional.