Big Ten Conference Preview

Kevin Smith (Photo by Carl Kline)

SEE ALSO: College Preview Index

Members: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers.

Best Pure Hitter: Nick Dunn, Maryland
Best Raw Power: Scott Schreiber, Nebraska
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Ako Thomas, Michigan
Best Athlete: Jawuan Harris, Rutgers
Fastest Runner: Jawuan Harris, Rutgers
Best Baserunner: Jawuan Harris, Rutgers
Best Defensive C: Matt Byars, Michigan State
Catcher/Best Arm: Nick Dalesandro, Purdue
Best Defensive 1B: Kevin Biondic, Maryland
Best Defensive 2B: Tony Butler, Indiana
Best Defensive 3B: Micah Coffey, Minnesota
Best Defensive SS: Kevin Smith, Maryland
Infielder/Best Arm: Luke Miller, Indiana
Best Defensive OF: Craig Dedelow, Indiana
Outfielder/Best Arm: Luis Alvarado, Nebraska
Best Fastball: Brian Shaffer, Maryland
Best Breaking Ball: Nick Gallagher, Iowa
Best Changeup: Oliver Jaskie, Michigan
Best Control: Taylor Bloom, Maryland

Team to Beat: Maryland. After back-to-back super regional appearances in 2014 and ’15, Maryland fielded a roster with 14 freshmen last season and its youth showed at times. The Terrapins finished the year 30-27 and tied for sixth in the Big Ten. This year, however, Maryland is more experienced and many of its young players are coming off breakout summers, including shortstop Kevin Smith and second baseman Nick Dunn, who both stood out in the Cape Cod League. It has depth in its lineup and especially its pitching staff, where righthanders Brian Shaffer and Taylor Bloom return to lead the rotation. While Maryland has been successful since moving to the Big Ten for the 2015 season, it hasn’t captured a conference title yet. The Terrapins will aim to change that this spring.

Player of the Year: Kevin Smith, ss, Maryland. Voted a first-team Preseason All-American by MLB scouting directors, Smith (.259/.308/.409, 8 HR) is hoping to capitalize on the momentum he built over the summer in Cape Cod. He hit .301/.348/.427 this summer and was named playoff MVP. Smith is a solid defender with the offensive skillset to play his way into the first round this June.

Pitcher of the Year: Brian Shaffer, rhp, Maryland. Following Mike Shawaryn, who left Maryland with the program’s career wins and strikeout records, won’t be easy, but Shaffer (8-3, 2.60) is up to the task. The junior has pitched well in big games already in his career and will now take over as the Terrapins’ ace. He controls his low-90s fastball well and keeps hitters off balance with his changeup and slider.

Freshman of the Year: Paul Tillotson, rhp, Nebraska. Ranked No. 396 on the BA 500, Tillotson adds another impressive arm to the Huskers’ staff. Listed at 6-foot-1, 213 pounds, he is a physical righthander who controls his low-90s fastball well, and mixes in a changeup and curveball. He is advanced enough to quickly compete for a spot in Nebraska’s rotation.

Top 25 Teams: Maryland (24).

Other Projected Regional Teams: Nebraska. The Huskers made a late charge last year in the Big Ten, and finished a half-game out of first place in the regular season. Nebraska got an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, their second in three years, but went two-and-out in the Clemson Regional. The Huskers are well-positioned for a return to regionals this season with a deep, talented pitching staff and their top-three hitters returning. Scott Schreiber (.325/.391/.629, 16 HR) suffered a late-season injury, which hampered Nebraska’s offense in the postseason. But the junior returns healthy and will move from first base to right field this spring. Junior outfielder/lefthander Jake Meyers led the team in both hitting (.326) and ERA (1.42) last season, and will hold down a rotation spot in addition to patrolling center field. In addition to Meyers, the Huskers have plenty of options on the mound with Matt Waldron (7-3, 2.87), Derek Burkamper (6-3, 3.09) and closer Chad Luensmann (13 SV, 1.18 ERA) all returning. Tillotson and lefthander Connor Curry are both ready to contribute as freshmen, giving head coach Darin Erstad two more quality options. With 14 upperclassmen on the roster, Nebraska has the experience and talent to push for its first-ever Big Ten championship.

Notable Storylines: Minnesota edged Nebraska last season to win the regular-season championship for the first time since 2010. The Golden Gophers must replace four drafted players from that team, including catcher Austin Athmann, the team’s leading hitter, and outfielder/righthander Matt Fielder, the conference player of the year. Outfielders Alex Boxwell (.327/.379/.464) and Ben Mezzenga (.130/.259/.130) are positioned to take on more prominent roles after putting together solid summers in the Northwoods League. On the mound, junior lefthander Lucas Gilbreath (3-2, 1.36) moves to the front of the rotation after pitching out of the pen for the first two years of his career. . . Indiana overcame a poor start last season to make a push for the conference championship, finishing 1.5 games behind Minnesota. But it was unable to rebuild its RPI after a 3-7 start, and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012. The Hoosiers will have a new look to their pitching staff after losing their entire rotation and top two relievers. Indian has the talent to make up for those losses, but will need some of its young pitchers to make the most of the opportunity. Offensively, outfielder Logan Sowers (.273/.377/.466, 8 HR) and sophomore third baseman Luke Miller (.284/.352/.368) have the potential to anchor a more experienced lineup, which may need to carry a bigger load this spring. . . Michigan ranked No. 38 in the RPI on Selection Monday, but got left out of the NCAA tournament after closing the season on a 2-9 skid, which included five losses to archrival Ohio State. Thanks to a deep pitching staff led by junior lefthander Oliver Jaskie (7-3, 3.19) and junior closer Bryan Pall (4 SV, 2.81 ERA), the Wolverines have the talent to bounce back this season. Sophomores Ako Thomas (.258/.387/.290) and Jonathan Englemann (.257/.308/.321) are poised to take a step forward offensively, bolstering a lineup that will also benefit from the addition of outfielder Miles Lewis, a transfer from North Dakota. . . Ohio State won the Big Ten Tournament last season and made its first appearance in regionals since 2009. From that team, the Buckeyes must replace their top four hitters, including All-American outfielder Ronnie Dawson, and starting pitchers John Havird and Tanner Tully. Because of the significant turnover, Ohio State dipped into the junior college ranks in this year’s recruiting class and will look to some of the newcomers to fill some of the holes in its lineup. The Buckeyes have more returners on the mound from a staff that ranked third in the Big Ten in ERA last season (3.35). Righthanders Ryan Feltner (3-4, 4.06) and Adam Niemeyer (4-2, 4.31) give Ohio State experience in the rotation, and if righthander Yianni Pavlopoulos (14 SV, 3.03 ERA) can successful make the transition from closing to starting, the Buckeyes will again be tough to beat on weekends. . . Purdue was the lone team in the conference to make a coaching change last season, as Doug Schreiber stepped down following his 18th season as head coach of his alma mater. Mark Wasikowski was hired from Oregon, where he had been an assistant coach since 2011, to take the program’s helm. Wasikowski will be tasked with guiding the Boilermakers as they try to rebound from a 10-44 season, their worst since 1975.

Tournament: Eight teams, May 24-28 at Kaufman Field in Bloomington, Ind.

2017 Top 20 Prospects 2018 Top 10 Prospects Top Freshmen
1. Kevin Smith, ss, Maryland 1. Nick Dunn, 2b, Maryland 1. Paul Tilotson, rhp, Nebraska
2. Logan Sowers, of, Indiana 2. Chad Luensmann, rhp, Nebraska 2. Tyler Blohm, lhp, Maryland
3. Luke Miller, 3b, Indiana 3. Jawuan Harris, of, Rutgers 3. Karl Kauffmann, rhp, Michigan
4. Scott Schreiber, of/1b, Nebraska 4. Jonathan Engelmann, of, Michigan 4. Jack Eagan, lhp, Indiana
5. Brian Shaffer, rhp, Maryland 5. Marty Costes, of, Maryland 5. Mike Mokma, rhp, Michigan State
6. Oliver Jaskie, lhp, Michigan 6. Luke Shilling, rhp, Illinois 6. Cameron Beauchamp, lhp, Indiana
7. Lucas Gilbreath, lhp, Minnesota 7. Jonathan Stiever, rhp, Indiana 7. Dante Biasi, rhp, Penn State
8. Luis Alvarado, of/rhp, Nebraska 8. Jesse Wilkening, c, Nebraska 8. Grant Judkins, rhp/1b, Iowa
9. Mike Rescigno, rhp, Maryland 9. Robert Neustrom, of, Iowa 9. Christian Bullock, of, Michigan
10. Alex Troop, lhp/1b, Michigan State 10. Ako Thomas, 2b, Michigan 10. Mike Massey, 2b, Illinois
11. Sal Biasi, rhp, Penn State    
12. Brandon Hughes, of, Michigan State    
13. Drew Lugbauer, 1b/c, Michigan    
14. Bryan Pall, rhp, Michigan    
15. Nick Gallagher, rhp, Iowa    
16. Matt Byars, c, Michigan State    
17. Jake Hohensee, rhp, Nebraska    
18. Craig Dedelow, of, Indiana    
19. Tre’ Gantt, of, Ohio State    
20. Laren Eustace, of, Indiana    

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