2014 College Preview: SWAC

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

1. Emmanuel Marrero, ss, Alabama State
2. Richard Gonzalez, c, Alabama State
3. Juan Bueno, ss, Grambling State
4. Lance Jones, of, Southern
5. Rafael Diaz, rhp, Southern
6. Branden Castro, 3b/rhp, Alabama State (2015)
7. Michael Estevez, rhp, Alabama State
8. Jorge Pantoja, rhp, Alabama State (2015)
9. Charles Tillery, of, Jackson State
10. Andre Davis, 1b/of/lhp, Arkansas-Pine Bluff

Southwestern Athletic Conference

Baseball Members (First Year): East Division—Alabama A&M (2000), Alabama State (1982), Alcorn State (1962), Jackson State (1958), Mississippi Valley State (1968). West Division—Arkansas-Pine Bluff (1999), Grambling State (1958), Prairie View A&M (1920), Southern (1934), Texas Southern (1954).

Checking out: None.

Conference Tournament: Eight teams, double-elimination. May 14-18 at Fort Worth, Texas.

Team to Beat: Alabama State.

It should be no surprise that coach Mervyl Melendez—who built Bethune-Cookman into the MEAC juggernaut—has quickly turned Alabama State into a contender. The Hornets won a school-record 32 games in Melendez's second year, two seasons removed from a 14-win campaign. They have the SWAC's most talented roster this year, with five arms who the coaches say can touch 93 mph: Saturday starter Michael Estevez, closer Armando Ruiz, two-way talent Branden Castro and relievers Jorge Pantoja and Dexter Price. And Alabama State should be outstanding up the middle, with defensive standouts behind the plate (Richard Gonzalez), at shortstop (Emmanuel Marrero) and in center field (Richard Amion).

Player of the Year: Isias Alcantar, 2b, Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

The reigning SWAC player of the year, Alcantar (.345/.421/.495, 6 HR) can hit for average and power, and he is a sure-handed infielder despite a thick build.

Pitcher of the Year: T.J. Renda, rhp, Alabama State.

Renda (9-1, 2.19) doesn't overpower with his 86-90 fastball, but his ability to throw three quality pitches for strikes in any count makes him very tough.

Freshman of the Year: Brady May, rhp, Southern.

A projectable 6-foot-4, 205-pound righty, May has flashed 90-92 mph heat and demonstrated good feel for pitching and mound presence.

Kyle Schwartz

Kyle Schwartz

Notable Storylines: Defending SWAC regular-season and tournament champion Jackson State should be Alabama State's primary challenger, as fleet-footed outfielders Charles Tillery and Anedo Knowles return to lead an offense that puts serious pressure on opponents with its speed. Workhorse ace Alexander Juday, who came up huge during the SWAC tournament last year, also returns to anchor the pitching staff . . . Arkansas-Pine Bluff looks like the team to beat in the Western Division. The Golden Lions made a huge jump in coach Carlos James' third year at the helm last spring, vaulting from eight total wins to 21 and finishing just a game out of first in the SWAC West. UAPB returns seven pitchers from a staff that ranked second in the league with a 4.30 ERA, led by Sr. RHP Kyle Schwartz, a bulldog whose mid-to-high 80s fastball plays up because of his good changeup. Juco transfer Andre Davis, the team's top prospect, should bolster the bullpen and give UAPB another dangerous run producer alongside Alcantar in the heart of the order . . . Southern bolstered its depth and upgraded its front-line talent with its coaches call its best recruiting class in years. Juco transfer Lance Jones might be the fastest player in college baseball, a true 80 runner who covers serious ground in center field but must improve at the plate. Another transfer, RHP Rafael Diaz, works downhill at 89-92 and has good feel for a changeup and a promising curveball.