2018 Conference Previews: Mountain West

Mountain West

Team to Beat: San Diego State.

There’s no denying the Aztecs have to replace a lot of production from last year’s 42-win team, including shortstop Danny Sheehan (.344/.430/.504), who was the co-player of the year in the Mountain West, and lefthander Brett Seeburger (10-3, 4.53), the league’s pitcher of the year. Those two losses, combined with the departures of three everyday position players in second baseman Alan Trejo (.332/.402/.440), outfielder Tyler Adkison (.337/.445/.648) and third baseman Andrew Brown (.332/.372/.438), means San Diego State will be trying to replace four of its top five hitters and its top pitcher from a season ago.

The Aztecs should be just fine, however, thanks to the return of senior outfielder-turned-shortstop David Hensley, who was the team’s best hitter a season ago, and senior leftfielder Chase Calabuig (.305/.385/.469), who has the chance to be San Diego State’s best all-around player this season. Junior catcher Dean Nevarez (.301/.363/.521), as well as first baseman Jordan Verdon (.301/.386/.428) and designated hitter Chad Bible (.318/.375/.409), should provide the Aztecs with some much-needed power in the middle of their lineup. Bible returns to the San Diego State lineup healthy in 2018 after making a full recovery from a cancer diagnosis discovered last year.

Defensively, Hensley displayed soft hands and a strong arm at his new shortstop position in the fall, while second baseman Jacob Maekawa and centerfielder Julian Escobedo give San Diego State two more potential plus defenders up the middle. On the mound, the Aztecs will likely turn to sophomore Logan Boyer (1-0, 1.46) on Friday nights after the righthander impressed in the Alaska League this summer and then continued his strong performance in the fall. Boyer, who had his freshman season cut short because of an oblique injury, was ranked as the No. 4 prospect in Alaska. Behind Boyer, the Aztecs have several options to fill out their rotation, including rigthhander Garrett Hill, who transferred from Santa Rosa (Calif.) JC, and righty Harrison Pyatt, who impressed with his command of four pitches and an effective cutter in the preseason. Senior righthander Jorge Fernandez gives San Diego State and coach Mark Martinez a power arm at the back of the bullpen, with a fastball that can reach the mid-90s and an above-average slider.

Player of the Year: Jared Mang, OF, New Mexico.

The only underclassman selected to last year’s all-Mountain West first team, Mang returns for his junior season at New Mexico after hitting a team-best .373 with a 1.006 OPS a year ago. Mang followed up his impressive sophomore season with similar results in last summer’s Texas Collegiate League, hitting .349/.471/.490 with more than twice as many walks (30) than strikeouts (14) in 149 at-bats. A 5-foot-10, 210-pound righthanded hitter, Mang ranked as the No. 8 prospect in the TCL and was lauded for his consistency and approach at the plate, though his long-term defensive position remains in question. Regardless of where he plays, Mang should continue to produce as a top-flight hitter in the Mountain West.

Pitcher of the Year: Edgar Gonzalez, RHP, Fresno State.

Gonzalez made just seven starts for the Bulldogs a year ago, instead spending the majority of his sophomore season serving as the team’s closer. And although his results were promising in the bullpen, it appears likely that Gonzalez will begin the upcoming season as Fresno State’s Friday night starter. The righthander pitches with a low-90s fastball, but it is his three above-average offspeed pitches that should play well in a starting role as he looks to navigate through lineups multiple times. Commanding all four of his pitches will be the key for Gonzalez, who walked 41 batters in 72.2 innings a season ago but also averaged nearly a strikeout per inning.

Freshman of the Year: Casey Schmitt, 3B, San Diego State.

Ranked No. 335 in last year’s BA 500, the 6-foot, 190-pound Schmitt arrives on San Diego State’s campus with plenty of talent and high expectations. Likely to begin the season as the Aztecs’ starting third baseman, Schmitt showed above-average arm strength and power potential as a senior at Eastlake High in Chula Vista, Calif. The San Diego State coaching staff has been impressed with Schmitt’s defensive ability at the hot corner, while also complementing his arm strength, which could help him see time on the mound coming out of the Aztecs’ bullpen in 2018. San Diego State could end up having several candidates for this award, as righthander Daniel Ritcheson ranked No. 187 on last year’s BA 500 and outfielder Sean Ross impressed coaches during the preseason with his five-tool potential after being drafted by the Blue Jays in the 40th round of the 2017 Draft.

Notable Storylines:

Fresno State was a game away from earning a berth into the NCAA Tournament a year ago, but instead lost to San Diego State 5-3 in the Mountain West Tournament championship game. Now, after being so close last year, the Bulldogs will hit a reset button of sorts after losing nine contributors from last year’s team to the draft, including six hitters and lefthander Ricky Tyler Thomas, the Cubs’ seventh-round pick. That isn’t to say the cupboard is bare for coach Mike Batesole, however, as the trio of catcher Carter Bins (.291/.392/.453), shortstop Korby Batesole (.310/.346/.472), and centerfielder Zach Ashford (.316/.398/.424) gives the Bulldogs three impact players at key up-the-middle positions in 2018. The emergence of righthander Edgar Gonzalez on Friday nights will go a long way in determining how the Bulldogs deal with the loses of Thomas, fellow lefthander Fred Schlichtholz and righthander Rickey Ramirez. Sophomore righthanders Ryan Jensen and Davis Moore will also need to take a step forward for Fresno State to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.

Despite the fact that it was San Diego State and Fresno State that played for the Mountain West conference tournament title, it was actually New Mexico that had the highest regular-season winning percentage in 2017 with a 19-9-1 conference record. The Lobos return projected preseason Mountain West layer of the year Jared Mang, but behind him coach Ray Birmingham lost his next four best hitters from a season ago, including White Sox third-round pick Luis Gonzalez. Infielders Hayden Schilling (.317/.415/.422) and Beau Capanna (.299/.386/.378) represent the top returning hitters in support of Mang and will likely need to produce at an even higher clip in 2018 to keep the Lobos at the top of the Mountain West standings.

Less than a month before the regular season was scheduled to begin, San Jose State placed second-year head coach Jason Hawkins on administrative leave and announced that Brad Sanfilippo, a former San Jose State assistant coach in 2013 and 2014, was hired as the interim head baseball coach. While the San Jose State administration never confirmed a reason for Hawkins’ placement on administrative leave, it wasn’t the only coaching upheaval the Spartans had this offseason. Former San Jose State pitching coach Dean Stiles, who was with the team last season after being hired in August 2016, took a job with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization to be a minor-league pitching coach with the Rookie-level Ogden Raptors in the Pioneer League. The Spartans are left in a tough situation as they try to improve on their 19-35-1 record last year and sixth place finish in the Mountain West.

Conference Tournament: Four teams, double-elimination, May 24-27 at Tony Gwynn Stadium in San Diego.

2018 Top 10 Prospects
1. Edgar Gonzalez, RHP, Fresno State
2. Christian Tripp, RHP, New Mexico
3. Jared Mang, OF, New Mexico
4. Jordan Verdon, 1B, San Diego State
5. Kyle Isbel, OF, Nevada-Las Vegas
6. Chase Calabuig, OF, San Diego State
7. Dean Nevarez, C, San Diego State
8. Nick Ames, 1B, Nevada-Las Vegas
9. Weston Hatten, OF, Nevada
10. Mark Nowaczewski, RHP, Nevada

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