Team to Beat: Alabama State.
The Hornets have developed into one of the SWAC’s powers in recent seasons, first under Mervyl Melendez and now under Jose Vasquez, who was promoted to head coach last year after Melendez left to become head coach at Florida International. Alabama State made its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 2016 in Melendez’s final season and nearly returned in Vasquez’s first year, but were edged by Texas Southern in extra innings in the SWAC Tournament championship game. The Hornets will be eager this season to bounce back from that loss and have the returning talent to do so. Outfielder Gage Cox (.350/.409/.547, 7 HR) is back after leading the Hornets in hitting as a freshman. First baseman Gustavo Rios (.332/.405/.574, 10 HR) and outfielder Joseph Estrada (.276/.421/.553, 11 HR) return for their senior years and bring power to the lineup. Alabama State has more holes to fill on the mound, as closer Austin Bizzle (7-1, 1.95) and ace Tyler Howe (8-4, 3.41), who both earned all-conference honors last season must now be replaced. Alabama State will look for righthander Darrius Wright, a junior college transfer, and senior righthander Darren Kelly to step up on the staff. Wright was one of the prizes of an exciting 2017 recruiting class and throws in the low 90s with a good slider. Senior righthander Chase Laney (2-2, 3.40) provides an experienced hand in the bullpen. Alabama State’s veteran offense should help its pitching staff settle into place over the course of the spring and give it a good chance to capture its second SWAC title in three years.
Player of the Year: Marshawn Taylor, SS, Grambling State.
Taylor last season was named both the conference’s player and newcomer of the year after hitting .402/.477/.471 with 16 stolen bases after transferring from Eastern Illinois. A 35th-round pick out of high school in 2013, Taylor gives the Tigers a speedy hitter at the top of the order and anchors the infield at shortstop.
Pitcher of the Year: Darrien Williams, RHP, Prairie View A&M.
Williams has spent the last two seasons in the Panthers’ rotation and went 4-4, 4.41 last spring with 63 strikeouts in 67.1 innings. He threw a one-hitter last season and Prairie View A&M will be counting on the senior for another solid season.
Freshman of the Year: A.J. Gardner, OF/RHP, Alabama State.
The Hornets brought in a strong 2017 recruiting class that includes some exciting freshmen who should become the program’s core over the next few years. Gardner, who was last year the 20th-ranked draft prospect in Georgia, is listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds and has big raw tools. He is a plus runner who also produces impressive bat speed that portends good raw power. On the mound, he throws his fastball in the low 90s and mixes in a slider.
Jackson State edged Alabama State by a half-game for the SWAC East Division title last year and figures to again push the Hornets. JSU has some key holes to fill, however, as center fielder Bryce Brown was drafted in the 15th round by the Rays and ace Miguel Yrigoyen graduated. Third baseman Jesus Santana and outfielder Lamar Briggs will be relied on heavily in the Tigers lineup this spring.
Texas Southern won last year’s SWAC title, its second in three years, and figures to again be one of the favorites in the West Division. Senior outfielder Olajide Oloruntimilehin is back in the lineup after earning all-conference honors last season and leading the team in home runs (9) and stolen bases (22). Texas Southern will need him and senior righthander Seth Oliver (4-5, 5.25) to step up this spring.
Southern has a new face in its dugout after legendary coach Roger Cador retired last season after 33 years as head coach. The Jaguars hired Kerrick Jackson in July to take over the program. Jackson spent five years as an assistant coach at Missouri and has also worked as a scout. He will be tasked with getting Southern’s storied program back on track after it has struggled under the burden of NCAA sanctions due to subpar Academic Progress Rates. The Jaguars are ineligible for the postseason this year as a result and also face reduced scholarships and practice time. Southern is historically the SWAC’s most successful program, however, and has won 26 conference championships, most recently in 2009.
Top 10 2018 Draft Prospects
1. Marshawn Taylor, SS, Grambling
2. Darrius Wright, RHP, Alabama State
3. Hunter Allen, C, Alabama State
4. Olajide Oloruntimielhin, OF, Texas Southern
5. Yamil Pagan, OF, Alabama State
6. Noel Cheneau, OF, Alabama State
7. Michael Villanueva, RHP, Texas Southern
8. Darrien Williams, RHP, Prairie View A&M
9. Jesus Santana, 3B, Jackson State
10. Joseph Estrada, OF, Alabama State