Big West Conference Preview

Connor Seabold (Photo by Matt Brown/Cal State Fullerton)

SEE ALSO: College Preview Index

Members: Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Northridge, Hawaii, Long Beach State, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara.

Team to Beat: Cal State Fullerton. The Big West looks to be particularly deep and strong this season, but Fullerton, winner of five of the last six conference titles, is again the favorite. From last year’s championship team, the Titans return their entire weekend rotation and senior shortstop Timmy Richards (.280/.351/.468, 9 HR, 10 SB), giving them a strong core for 2017. Fullerton’s pitching staff did see some turnover as four relievers were drafted and signed last year, and pitching coach Jason Dietrich was hired away by Oregon. But with starting pitchers Colton Eastman (8-3, 2.24), John Gavin (6-3, 2.09) and Connor Seabold (7-6, 2.48) back, along with a veteran lineup, the path to the conference title will again run through Fullerton.

Best Pure Hitter: Keston Hiura, UC Irvine
Best Raw Power: Austin Bush, UC Santa Barbara
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Eric Ramirez, Hawaii
Best Athlete: Scott Hurst, Cal State Fullerton
Fastest Runner: Jarren Duran, Long Beach State
Best Baserunner: J.J. Muno, UC Santa Barbara
Best Defensive C: Nick Meyer, Cal Poly
Catcher/Best Arm: David Banuelos, Long Beach State
Best Defensive 1B: Eric Ramirez, Hawaii
Best Defensive 2B: Tristan Hildebrandt, Cal State Fullerton
Best Defensive 3B: Taylor Bryant, Cal State Fullerton
Best Defensive SS: Clay Fisher, UC Santa Barbara
Infielder/Best Arm: Clay Fisher, UC Santa Barbara
Best Defensive OF: Mark Contreras, UC Riverside
Outfielder/Best Arm: Scott Hurst, Cal State Fullerton
Best Fastball: Joe Ryan, Cal State Northridge
Best Breaking Ball: Kyle Nelson, UC Santa Barbara
Best Changeup: Colton Eastman, Cal State Fullerton
Best Control: Darren McCaughan, Long Beach State

Player of the Year: Keston Hiura, of, UC Irvine. Coming off a solid summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, Hiura was voted a first-team Preseason All-American by MLB scouting directors. He is the most potent hitter in the conference and batted .358/.436/.539 with seven home runs last season. Hiura’s biggest question mark entering his junior season is his health. He was limited to DH late last season and all summer following an elbow injury. He still has not fully recovered, and could be sidelined to start the spring.

Pitcher of the Year: Connor Seabold, rhp, Cal State Fullerton. As is typical in the Big West, there is no shortage of contenders for this honor. Seabold gets the edge for his veteran experience and stuff. His fastball and curveball are both solid offerings, and the junior also mixes in an above-average splitter. Seabold pounds the strike zone with his whole arsenal, helping him compile a 96-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 83.1 innings last year.

Freshman of the Year: Armani Smith, 2b/of, UC Santa Barbara. A key part if UC Santa Barbara’s 17th-ranked recruiting class, Smith brings athleticism and feel for the game to the lineup. He will likely see more time in left field this spring, but can also play second base and center field. He has a good approach at the plate and the ability to make a lot of contact.

Top 25 Teams: Cal State Fullerton (8), UC Santa Barbara (19), Long Beach State (20).

Other Projected Regional Teams: None.

Notable Storylines: Outside of the conference’s three ranked teams, Cal Poly is best positioned to reach the NCAA Tournament. The Mustangs had a young roster last year and return 22 players from a team that went 32-25 and finished tied for fourth in the conference. Junior starting pitchers Kyle Smith (6-6, 3.64), Erich Uelmen (5-3, 3.68) and Jarred Zill (4-3, 2.79) are all back and will make Cal Poly tough to beat on weekends. Catcher Nick Meyer (.301/.374/.370), the 2016 Big West freshman of the year, second baseman Kyle Marinconz (.284/.347/.360) and outfielder Alex McKenna (.261/.349/.413, team-high 6 HR) were everyday players as freshmen. If the Mustangs can build on their experience, they could return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014. . . Hawaii enters its fifth season in the Big West looking for its first winning record. The Rainbow Warriors have gone 12-12 in conference play in each of the last two years and will look to take a step forward this season with the influx of a large recruiting class heavy on junior college transfers. Lefthander Dominic DeMiero and righthander Jackson Rees are among the new arrivals, and are expected to slot behind returning Friday starter Brendan Hornung (4-7, 3.11) in the rotation. Freshmen two-way players Carter Loewen and Logan Pouelsen both have the ability to make immediate impacts, though Pouelsen will initially be limited to hitting as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Hawaii returns four of its top six hitters from last year, led by sophomore catcher Kekai Rios (.331/.391/.401). But the Rainbow Warriors will need to find some more thump in the lineup after ranking last in the Big West last year in runs (216), slugging percentage (.338) and home runs (6). . . After going 15-40 in 2015, Troy Percival’s first season as head coach, UC Riverside improved to 26-29 last year and tied for fourth in the Big West with Cal Poly and Hawaii. While the Highlanders lost lefthander Austin Sodders and outfielder Vince Fernandez in the top 10 rounds of the draft, they do return nearly every other key contributor. Sophomore outfielder Yeager Taylor (.274/.351/.464) has the tools to take a step forward this season, while senior catcher Casey Worden (.235/.309/.302), redshirt-junior shortstop Colby Schultz (.277/.350/.397) and senior center fielder Mark Contreras (.333/.409/.432, 9 SB) give Riverside experience up the middle.

Tournament: None.

2017 Top 20 Prospects 2018 Top 10 Prospects Top Freshman
1. Keston Hiura, of, UC Irvine 1. Colton Eastman, rhp, Cal State Fullerton 1. Armani Smith, of/2b, UC Santa Barbara
2. Clay Fisher, ss, UC Santa Barbara 2. Noah Davis, rhp, UC Santa Barbara 2. Jack Dashwood, lhp, UC Santa Barbara
3. Connor Seabold, rhp, Cal State Fullerton 3. Ruben Cardenas, of, Cal State Fullerton 3. Ryan Mauch, lhp, Long Beach State
4. Erich Uelmen, rhp, Cal Poly 4. Alex McKenna, of, Cal Poly 4. Chris Lincoln, rhp, UC Santa Barbara
5. Joe Ryan, rhp, Cal State Northridge 5. Nick Meyer, c, Cal Poly 5. Evan Larson, rhp, Cal State Fullerton
6. Kyle Nelson, lhp, UC Santa Barbara 6. Chris Rivera, rhp, Long Beach State 6. Carter Loewen, rhp/1b, Hawaii
7. David Banuelos, c, Long Beach State 7. Hazahel Quijada, lhp, UC Riverside 7. Dustin Demeter, ss, Hawaii
8. Spencer Howard, rhp, Cal Poly 8. Kekai Rios, c, Hawaii 8. Landon Silver, of, UC Santa Barbara
9. Cameron Bishop, lhp, UC Irvine 9. Michael McAdoo, of, UC Santa Barbara 9. Christan Koss, 2b, UC Irvine
10. Scott Hurst, of, Cal State Fullerton 10. Jarren Duran, 2b, Long Beach State 10. Daniel Martinez, rhp/ss, UC Riverside
11. Colton Burns, of, UC Santa Barbara    
12. Darren McCaughan, rhp, Long Beach State    
13. Ryan Lille, rhp, UC Riverside    
14. Timmy Richards, ss, Cal State Fullerton    
15. Austin Bush, 1b, UC Santa Barbara    
16. Brock Lundquist, of, Long Beach State    
17. Joe Record, rhp, UC Santa Barbara    
18. John Gavin, lhp, Cal State Fullerton    
19. Eric Ramirez, 1b, Hawaii    
20. Justin Toerner, of/lhp, Cal State Northridge    

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