2015 College Conference Preview: Big Ten

Ryan Boldt

Ryan Boldt (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

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

Baseball Members (First Year): Illinois (1896), Indiana (1906), Iowa (1906), Maryland (2015), Michigan (1896), Michigan State (1950), Minnesota (1906), Nebraska (2012), Northwestern (1898), Ohio State (1913), Penn State (1992), Purdue (1906), Rutgers (2015).
Checking out: None.
Preseason Ranked Teams: Maryland (No. 16)
Team to Beat: Maryland. The Terrapins won a regional at South Carolina in their last season as an ACC member last year and enter the Big Ten with their highest preseason ranking ever. Sophomore righthander Mike Shawaryn has proved a difference-making recruit and has a long winning track record, from high school and American Legion ball and now to college.
Other Regional Teams: Nebraska. Coach Darin Erstad has infused the Huskers program with energy, athleticism and a strong assistant coaching staff of former Cal State Fullerton stalwarts in former Titans ace Ted Silva, the pitching coach, and former Titans assistant coach Mike Kirby. The Huskers play aggressively offensively but could use a power spike somewhere in the lineup; Sophomore outfielder Ryan Boldt is the most likely candidate. Silva's staff is a mix of strike-throwers such as senior righthander Chance Sinclair (9-1, 2.15, 101 IP/52 SO) and senior lefthander Kyle Kubat (5-2, 4.55) with power options such as sophomore lefthander Max Knutson, who can pitch in the low 90s, and junior righty Colton Howell, who has hit 95 mph but remains raw.
Illinois. The Illini boast a power 1-2 lefthanded punch that few teams nationally can match. Junior Tyler Jay (4-1, 1.94, 10 saves, 47 SO/42 IP) gets more attention as the relief ace who pitched for USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team, but junior Kevin Duchene (4-1, 1.80) has ace potential if he can remain healthy all season. He missed time in 2014 with a forearm strain but returns to front a strong rotation. Senior outfielders Will Krug (.307/.360/.391, 20 SB) and Casey Fletcher (.308/.385/.450) provide a spark offensively for a veteran club.
Michigan. The Wolverines get the nod for a fourth Big Ten regional club, which would be a first for the league. Coach Erik Bakich, in his third year with the Wolverines, has proved he can recruit--several of his key recruits helped Maryland, his previous employer, reach regional play last year--and he has talent on this year's Michigan team. Two Wolverines, junior shortstop Travis Maezes (.302/.413/.459, 19 SB) and righthander/first baseman Jacob Croneworth (.268/.391/.366, 19 SB; 2-3, 1.75, 12 saves) earned preseason All-America honors and head up a veteran club with versatility, athleticism and solid team speed.
Player of the Year: Ryan Boldt, of, Nebraska. The sophomore looks like he's over the knee injury that sidelined him during his high school senior year and is coming off a boffo summer in the Northwoods League, showing power/speed tools. They showed up last spring with six triples, which tied for the conference lead.
Pitcher of the Year: Tyler Jay, lhp, Illinois. Whether he starts or relieves (or a little bit of both), Jay will continue to be a force for the Illini, with the quickest arm in the Midwest, producing premium stuff. He regularly reached 96 mph from the left side with USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team last summer and racked up 10 saves a year ago.
Freshman of the Year: Logan Sowers, of, Indiana: An unsigned 31st-round pick of the Padres in 2014, Sowers brings physicality and power to the Hoosiers' outfield after being the Indiana state high school player of the year.
Big Ten Storylines: The conference has several interesting big league progeny, none more intriguing than speedy Michigan State outfielder Cam Gibson, whose father Kirk played football and baseball for the Spartans. Like his old man, Cam Gibson can fly, with sub-6.5-second times over 60 yards, and the Spartans figure to be stout again on the mound after ranking second in the league in ERA last season. Other Big Ten players with MLB ties include Illinois outfielder Casey Fletcher (son of Darrin); Indiana outfielder Austin Cangelosi (son of John); Rutgers righthander Max Herrmann (brother of Frank); and Northwestern junior righthander Matt Portland, whose cousin Phil Hughes is coming off a strong year with the Twins . . . Rutgers joins the league after a year in the American Athletic Conference and is expecting big things from sophomore second baseman/righthander Gaby Rosa (6-3, 2.91), who focused on pitching as a freshman but adds middle infield duties this season . . . Penn State, which used to be the league's new kid before the recent additions of Maryland, Nebraska and Rutgers, lacks power arms in coach Rob Cooper's second year. Cooper hopes lefthander Taylor Lehman, an unsigned 34th-round pick of the Marlins last year, can step into the Friday role as a freshman. The Nittany Lions have won just 32 games overall the last two seasons and haven't won 40 since their 2000 super regional team . . . Minnesota pitching coach Todd Oakes had a second bout with leukemia in the offseason, which is in remission for a second time but which has taken its toll. Former Gophers closer Scott Matyas, who set the school's appearances record from 2008-2011, is working as interim pitching coach until Oakes can return.
Tournament: Eight teams, double-elimination, May 20-24, Target Field, Minneapolis.

1. Tyler Jay, lhp Illinois
2. Alex Robinson, lhp Maryland
3. Kevin Duchene, lhp Illinois
4. Blake Hickman, rhp Iowa
5. Jacob Drossner, lhp Maryland
6. Cam Gibson, of Michigan State
7. Travis Maezes, ss Michigan
8. Jacob Croneworth, rhp Michigan
9. Dalton Sawyer, lhp Minnesota
10. Scott Effross, rhp Indiana
11. Evan Hill, lhp Michigan
12. Kevin Mooney, rhp Maryland
13. Jose Cuas, 3b Maryland
14. Lance Thonvold, rhp Minnesota
15. Christian Morris, rhp Indiana