2014 College Preview: Big West

BA breaks down the Big West Conference, including our projections for regional teams, player of the year, pitcher of the year and top prospects.

1. Matt Chapman, ss/3b/rhp, CS Fullerton
2. Taylor Sparks, 3b, UC Irvine
3. J.D. Davis, of/rhp, Cal State Fullerton
4. Matt Imhof, lhp, Cal Poly
5. Scott Squier, lhp, Hawaii
6. Nick Torres, of, Cal Poly
7. Reed Reilly, rhp, Cal Poly
8. Joe Chavez, 2b, UC Riverside
9. Richard Prigatano, of, Long Beach State
10. Koby Gauna, rhp, Cal State Fullerton
11. Jimmy Allen, 3b, Cal Poly
12. Tyler Kuresa, 1b, UC Santa Barbara
13. Antonio Gonzales, lhp, UC Riverside
14. Michael Hill, 3b, Long Beach State
15. Zach Varela, rhp, UC Riverside
16. Andrew Rohrbach, rhp, Long Beach State
17. Clay Williamson, of, Cal State Fullerton
18. Connor Spencer, 1b, UC Irvine
19. Kyle Ferramola, rhp, Cal State Northridge
20. Andrew Morales, rhp, UC Irvine
1. Justin Garza, rhp, Cal State Fullerton
2. Dylan Hecht, rhp, UC Santa Barbara
3. Thomas Eshelman, rhp, Cal State Fullerton
4. Jake Jefferies, 2b, Cal State Fullerton
5. Brian Mundell, 1b, Cal Poly

Big West

Baseball Members (First Year): Cal Poly (1997), UC Davis (2008), UC Irvine (2002), UC Riverside (2002), UC Santa Barbara (1970), Cal State Fullerton (1975), Cal State Northridge (2001), Hawaii (2013), Long Beach State (1970).

Checking out: Pacific (to WCC).

Conference Tournament: None.

Team to Beat: Cal State Fullerton.

The Titans have a very deep pitching staff that pounds the strike zone better than any in college baseball and an athletic lineup built around two marquee talents.

Player of the Year: J.D. Davis, of/rhp, Cal State Fullerton.

A proven run producer who hits for average and power, Davis also brings 92-94 mph heat and a good breaking ball to the bullpen.

Pitcher of the Year: Justin Garza, rhp, Cal State Fullerton.

Like rotationmate Thomas Eshelman, Garza is a premier strike-thrower, but he is the more electric of the two, with a 90-94 fastball, plus change and solid cutter.

Freshman of the Year: Phil Bickford, rhp, Cal State Fullerton.

The unsigned No. 10 overall pick in the 2013 draft, Bickford's calling card is his explosive fastball, but he still must refine his secondary stuff.

Top 25 Teams: (4) Cal State Fullerton.

Other Projected Regional Teams

Cal Poly: The Mustangs had their best season in 2013, spending time in the Top 25 and earning a No. 2 seed in the Los Angeles Regional—and several key pieces are back this spring. Ace LHP Matt Imhof has developed an improved changeup to go with his low-90s fastball and quality curve. At the back of the staff, RHP Reed Reilly is a resilient stopper with good command of an 89-93 heater from a deceptive delivery. Mashers Nick Torres and Brian Mundell are back to anchor the middle of the lineup, while CF Jordan Ellis, SS Peter Van Gansen and C Chris Hoo make the middle of the defense strong. Expect 3B Jimmy Allen to put up a big senior year, and juco transfer Zack Zehner to bring additional physicality and speed.

UC Santa Barbara: In coach Andrew Checketts' second season at the helm, UCSB made its first regional since 2001, elevating expectations for this year. The staff returns its top nine pitchers from a year ago, led by wily ace RHP Austin Pettibone, who attacks hitters with a high-80s fastball, good changeup and big slow curve. Sophomores Justin Jacome and Robbie Nesovic join him in a promising rotation, while lightning-armed So. RHP Dylan Hecht—who can run his fastball up to 97—anchors the bullpen. Nesovic doubles as a key run producer in the middle of the lineup, alongside sweet-swinging senior 1B Tyler Kuresa. Cameron Newell and Joey Epperson bring athleticism to the outfield, and So. OF Andrew Calica is an X-factor. He was a big-name recruit who was hampered by a back injury last year but is healthy now.

Taylor Sparks

Taylor Sparks (Photo by Larry Goren)

Notable Storylines: The Big West sent three teams to regionals last year for the first time since 2009, and it appears to have five or six potential postseason contenders heading into 2014. In addition to the three teams that made the NCAA tournament last year, UC Irvine, Long Beach State and maybe UC Riverside should be in the mix. The Anteaters boast a nice group of veteran hitters led by 3B Taylor Sparks, who led Team USA in batting (.396) last summer and has the most raw power in the Big West. But RHP Andrew Morales (10-0, 1.89) is the only proven commodity in a rotation that lacks power arms . . . The Dirtbags should be more potent offensively this year if talented Jr. OF Richard Prigatano can follow up a solid sophomore year with a big junior year and Sr. 3B Michael Hill can stay healthy for a full season. Dynamic Garrett Hampson rates as the league's best freshman position player and could be LBSU's next great shortstop. Long Beach needs answers on the mound, where it hopes LHP Ryan Strufing can bounce back from injury to anchor the rotation . . . Riverside is excited about the four upperclassmen in its rotation. RHPs Zach Varela and Jacob Smigelski can each run their fastballs up to 92 and showed feel for three pitches, while LHP Ben Doucette is an undersized bulldog with his own solid three-pitch mix. The pick to click is Jr. LHP Antonio Gonzales, who can reach 91 from the left side and has flashed a swing-and-miss breaking ball. The Highlanders call Jr. 2B Joe Chavez an "explosive" player with speed and power potential, leading the lineup.