2014 College Preview: Horizon League

BA breaks down the Horizon League, including our projections for regional teams, player of the year, pitcher of the year and top prospects.

1. Jake Paulson, rhp, Oakland
2. Sam Koenig, 3b, UW-Milwaukee
3. Travis Hissong, rhp, Wright State
4. Gunnar Eastman, rhp, UW-Milwaukee
5. Tomas Michelson, rhp, Illinois-Chicago
5. Robby Sexton, lhp, Wright State (2015)
7. Nic Manuppelli, rhp, Youngstown State
8. Mitch Ghelfi, c, UW-Milwaukee
9. Luke Meeteer, of, UW-Milwaukee
10. Joe Perricone, rhp, Illinois-Chicago

Horizon League

Baseball Members (First Year): Illinois-Chicago (1994), Oakland (2014), Valparaiso (2008), Wright State (1994), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (1994), Youngstown State (2002).

Checking out: None.

Conference Tournament: Six teams, double-elimination. May 21-24 at UW-Milwaukee.

Team to Beat: Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The Panthers went 14-7 in Horizon play to cruise to the regular-season title last year and return most of their key everyday players, though they must replace their top two starting pitchers and their closer. Mike Porcaro and Mitch Ghelfi (a first-team freshman All-American last year) lead a deep, veteran lineup. Sr. 3B Sam Koenig is the pick to click; at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, he has prototypical size, intriguing raw power potential, a rifle arm and above-average speed, but an inconsistent bat path has held him back in the past. Closer candidate RHP Gunnar Eastman is another X-factor after showing 95 mph heat and a tight overhand breaking ball this fall, when his command took a step forward. UWM will count on crafty Sr. LHP Tyler Thicke to take over the Friday starter spot.

Player of the Year: Mike Porcaro, 2b, Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The reigning Horizon player of the year and batting champion (.364), Porcaro is a baseball rat with outstanding instincts and sure hands at second base.

Pitcher of the Year: Tomas Michelson, rhp, Illinois-Chicago.

Michelson's calling card is the tremendous life on his fastball, which ranges from 86-92 and induces groundball outs by the bushel.

Freshman of the Year: Mickey McDonald, ss, Illinois-Chicago.

A switch-hitter with a smooth swing from the left side and more pop from the right, McDonald has a lean, athletic 6-foot-3 frame and a solid arm at short.

Mike Porcaro

Mike Porcaro

Notable Storylines: The Horizon League race is likely to come down to offense-minded Milwaukee and pitching-rich Illinois-Chicago. Michelson and Mike McKinley form a solid duo atop the UIC rotation, and So. RHP Joe Perricone—who transferred from Coastal Carolina after having Tommy John surgery—has shown 88-92 velocity and a solid slider, making him a closer candidate. The Flames have athleticism all over the field and expect to steal more bases than they usually do, but they need some run producers to emerge—perhaps Jr. DH Jeff Boehm, a transfer from Kentucky. Adding to UIC's excitement about the 2014 season, the program will be opening Curtis Granderson Stadium, a $10 to $11 million project . . . Oakland moves from the Summit League into the Horizon, which makes more geographic sense. The Golden Grizzlies should be competitive thanks to a veteran weekend rotation of Jason Hager, Tim Koons and Jake Paulson. A 6-foot-7 righty whose velocity jumped into the 90-94 range this fall, Paulson has emerged as an intriguing draft prospect, but his feel for pitching must continue to progress . . . Two of the league's most successful coaches left for greener pastures last summer, as Valparaiso's Tracy Woodson left for Richmond, and Wright State's Rob Cooper headed to Penn State. Both schools promoted talented assistants to the head job, as Brian Schmack takes over at Valpo, and Greg Lovelady slides into the lead job at WSU. The Raiders should be in the thick of the Horizon race thanks to an experienced pitching staff, led by Jr. RHP Travis Hissong, who showed 91-94 heat as the closer last year and moves into the Friday starter spot this year . . . Valpo, which caught fire down the stretch last year to break a 44-year regional drought last year, has a solid senior ace in Cole Webb and the league's best closer in Sr. RHP Karch Kowalczyk (1.73 ERA, 12 saves last year). Kowalczyk also should see much more playing time at DH. Athletic Sr. OF Chris Manning (.304/.379/.410) leads a lineup that could feature seven upperclassmen, though just three of them were everyday players last year.