Mountain West Preview

Rickey Tyler Thomas (Photo by USA Baseball)

SEE ALSO: College Preview Index

Members: Air Force, Fresno State, Nevada, Nevada-Las Vegas, New Mexico, San Diego State, San Jose State.

Tournament: Four teams, double-elimination, May 24-28 hosted by regular-season champion.

Team to Beat: New Mexico. The Lobos can always be counted on to put up prolific offensive numbers, but head coach Ray Birmingham believes this squad could have “by far” the best pitching staff of his 10 years in Albuquerque. Junior righthander Tyler Stevens (8-4, 4.11) fronts the rotation, pitching off a low 90s fastball and a quality changeup, joined by crafty lefthander Carson Schneider (9-4, 4.68). Texas Tech transfer righthander Johnathon Tripp adds a power arm, as does promising freshman Justin Slaten. Two-way standout Luis Gonzalez (3-1, 5.51; .381/.470/.575), a third team Preseason All-American, has a 94 mph fastball and should also take on a larger role on the mound this spring. The lineup will be typically stout, despite losing two of its top three hitters. The Lobos return the reigning conference player of the year in third baseman Carl Stajduhar (.331/.411/.623, 18 HR), and they’ll also get back their best contact hitter in outfielder Danny Collier, who was the 2014 Mountain West freshman of the year but missed most of last season with a shoulder injury.

2017 Top 10 Prospects
1. Ricky Tyler Thomas, lhp, Fresno State
2. Luis Gonzalez, of/lhp, New Mexico
3. Rickey Ramirez, rhp, Fresno State
4. Carl Stajduhar, 3b, New Mexico
5. Payton Squier, c, UNLV
6. Alan Trejo, 2b, San Diego State
7. Jordan Pearce, 3b, Nevada
8. Tyler Stevens, rhp, New Mexico
9. Mike Echavia, 1b, Nevada
10. Tyler Jones, of, Air Force

Player of the Year: Carl Stajduhar, 3b, New Mexico. Stajduhar hit 18 homers a season ago, and Birmingham believes he could top the 20-homer mark in 2017. But he’s also become a more complete hitter, showing improved plate discipline to go with his all-fields pop.

Pitcher of the Year: Ricky Tyler Thomas, lhp, Fresno State. Thomas thrives off his plus changeup and led the MWC in strikeouts last season. He returns to the front of Fresno’s rotation after a strong summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, looking to lead the Bulldogs to regionals for the first time in his career.

Freshman of the Year: Avery Tuck, of, San Diego State. Tuck struggled with consistency at times in high school, part of the reason he fell to the 26th round of the draft, but all the tools are there and he has a projectable 6-foot-5 build to go with them. He’ll be a critical piece for the Aztecs as they look to rebound from a disappointing 2016 season.

Notable Storylines: Fresno State hasn’t been to regionals since 2012, the program’s longest drought since the 1970s. The Bulldogs won the Mountain West’s regular season title a season ago but went home quietly with a two-and-out showing in the conference tournament. Leaving that bitter taste behind, they should be right back in the mix in 2017. They have to replace a few key pieces off what was the league’s best pitching staff last year, but they still have Thomas to lead the rotation as well as every key position player returning, led by outfielder Jake Stone (.312/.384/.472)—one of five seniors in the everyday lineup—and power-hitting junior first baseman Aaron Arruda (.320/.406/.567, 11 HR) . . . After back-to-back 40-win seasons in 2014 and ‘15, San Diego State struggled to replace several key veterans and crashed hard in 2016, going just 21-38, the worst season in terms of winning percentage (.356) in program history. A strong recruiting class led by Tuck and strong-armed righthander Jorge Fernandez, a junior college transfer, should help them get back on their feet, as well as the return of shortstop Danny Sheehan, their best all-around hitter, who comes back after redshirting last year. If junior outfielder Chase Calabuig can return to the form that saw him be a major sparkplug for their lineup in 2015 before enduring a down sophomore year, the Aztecs lineup would be even more dangerous. . . Nevada largely overachieved in its first season under head coach T.J. Bruce last year, going 20-10 in league play to tie New Mexico for second place after being picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches’ poll. As they look to build on that momentum, the Wolf Pack will lean on what should be a strong lineup despite the loss of top hitter T.J. Friedl. Outfielder Cole Krzmarzick (.368/.426/.479), shortstop Justin Bridgman (.351/.398/.417) and third baseman Jordan Pearce (.332/.391/.522) will be the veteran anchors, joined by powerful freshman outfielder Otis Statum (No. 344 on last year’s BA 500). The key will be whether their young arms come along after losing experienced starters Christian Stolo and Trenton Brooks . . . San Jose State made the league’s lone coaching change, bringing in Jason Hawkins to replace the fired Dave Nakama. Hawkins has a strong track record as an assistant, having helped build winners at UC Santa Barbara and Utah, where he was an assistant coach with the Pacific-12 Conference championship-winning team in 2016, and he’ll have his work cut out trying to jump start a program that’s had only one winning season since 2010 and is coming off three straight last-place finishes.

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