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Big 12 Conference Preview

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Steven Gingery (Photo by John Williamson)

Team to Beat: Texas Tech.

Led by one of the top starting pitching duos in the country in Preseason All-American lefthander Steven Gingery (10-1, 1.58) and righthander Davis Martin (4-2, 3.07), the Red Raiders will look to win their third straight Big 12 Conference title in 2018, just one year after earning a national seed for the second consecutive season. Texas Tech has some holes to fill in its lineup after the departure of veterans such as Big 12 player of the year Hunter Hargrove and Tanner Gardner. But the return of All-Freshmen Grant Little (.335/.405/.476) and Josh Jung (.306/.395/.485) ensures it will still have plenty of offensive firepower.

Player of the Year: Luken Baker, 1B, Texas Christian.

One of the most recognizable players in all of college baseball, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Baker returns for his junior year as the anchor of the Horned Frogs lineup. Now fully healthy after a left arm injury prematurely ended his sophomore season, Baker's light-tower power and advanced feel for the strike zone makes him one of the premier hitters in the country and a potential top-50 draft pick this June.

Pitcher of the Year: Steven Gingery, LHP, Texas Tech.

The Big 12 pitcher of the year in 2017, Gingery will look to make it two straight award-winning seasons in 2018. As a sophomore, Gingery went 10-1, 1.58, while also striking out 107 batters in 91 innings. Opponents hit just .186 off the tough lefthander, who enters his junior season ranked No. 49 on BA's Top 200 Draft Prospects list.

Freshman of the Year: Adam Oviedo, SS, Texas Christian.

The most highly-regarded 2017 draft prospect to make his way to a Big 12 campus, Oviedo was ranked No. 133 in last year's BA 500. Now, Oviedo will get a chance to prove the hype was legitimate, as the Alvarado, Texas, native is expected to take over the starting shortstop job for the Horned Frogs. Already shown to have above-average bat speed and power in high school, Oviedo will now look to prove he has the defensive ability to excel at one of the most vital positions for one of the nation's top teams.

Top 25 Teams: Texas Tech (5), Texas Christian (7), Texas (14).

Other Projected Regional Teams

Oklahoma: A new era is upon the Oklahoma baseball program, as first-year head coach Skip Johnson takes over following a one-year stint as the Sooners pitching coach. Johnson's familiarity with his pitching staff should pay dividends this season, as Oklahoma returns a quartet of right-handed starters in Jake Irvin, Devon Perez, Dylan Grove and Austin Hansen who combined for 38 starts and more than 200 innings a season ago. The loss of closer J.B. Olson leaves a potential question mark at the back-end of the Sooners bullpen, where sophomore lefthander Braidyn Fink (1-1, 7.23) and junior right Connor Berry (3-0, 1.93) will be expected to take on increased roles. Offensively, Oklahoma returns several veteran bats, including Preseason All-American outfielder Steele Walker, a potential first-round pick who has the ability to hit for both average and power. The Sooners also welcome a pair of freshmen in Cade Cavalli and Tyler Hardman, both of whom ranked in last year's BA 500 and should provide some much-needed raw power into the lineup. Oklahoma is looking for its first back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances since the program went to six straight postseasons from 2008-13.

Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lost their top two hitters from a season ago in outfielder Garrett McCain (.388/.491/.549) and third baseman Garrett Benge (.304/.437/.533), but coach Josh Holliday's team should still be in contention for the program's sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Oklahoma State is led by junior catcher Colin Simpson, who hit a team-high 11 home runs in 2017 and provides a veteran presence behind the plate. Simpson will be in charge of handling a pitching staff that includes junior lefthander Carson Teel (5-4, 3.06) and sophomore righty Jonathan Heasley (2-4, 3.55). Heasley, a draft-eligible sophomore, is primed for a breakout spring in the Cowboys' rotation, while Teel will pitch significant innings either in the rotation or at the back of the bullpen. Freshman righthander Brett Standlee impressed the coaching staff with his competitiveness and three-pitch mix in the fall, which could quickly put him in the mix for a key role, while highly-regarded freshman lefty Mitchell Stone could gain some early experience as a midweek starter before potentially taking on a larger role as the season ages.

West Virginia: Returning the vast majority of a team that advanced to a regional final against Wake Forest in 2017, the Mountaineers were in serious contention to enter the season ranked in the Top 25. West Virginia is led by talented two-way player Braden Zarbnisky, who paced the team in hitting (.336/.417/.384) while also going 6-2, 2.75 as a key cog out of the Mountaineers' bullpen a season ago. Although no returning player hit more than five home runs for West Virginia, the Mountaineers return a bevy of team speed. Sophomore centerfielder Brandon White (.277/.360/.327) is considered an above-average defender up the middle and his speed, which helped him to 13 stolen bases as a freshman, should play nicely at the top of the West Virginia lineup. Senior righthander B.J. Myers (5-5, 4.52) returns and provides a steady, experienced hand for the staff. Sophomore righthander Alek Manoah (1-1, 3.07), who stands 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, is ready to take a step forward and could take on the Friday night role for the Mountaineers Manoah's progression, along with the performance of fellow sophomore righthander Isaiah Kearns (5-0, 4.75), will go a long way in determining the ceiling for this year's West Virginia club, which should be strong defensively.

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St. Louis Cardinals 2018 MLB Draft Grades

St. Louis Cardinals first rounder Nolan Gorman shows plus-plus power, Luken Baker can mash and more superlatives.

Notable Storylines:

The Big 12 continued to cement itself as one of the country's premier baseball conferences in 2017, when the nine-team league finished the year with the No. 1 conference RPI and had a combined non-conference winning percentage north of 70 percent. In the end, seven of the nine Big 12 teams earned a bid to last year's NCAA Tournament, which was easily the highest percentage of any conference and came just one year after the league sent three teams to the College World Series in 2016. The high-quality play should continue this season, as TCU seeks its fifth straight trip to Omaha and Texas Tech is among the favorites for a third College World Series appearance in the last five years. The Big 12's ability to once again send more than two-thirds on its members to the postseason will likely ride on Oklahoma, Baylor, West Virginia, Texas and Kansas - five teams that were separated by just 1.5 games in last year's conference standings.

Baylor started the season strong last year, only to lose its final six games - including all four postseason games in the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments - by a combined 33 runs. The Bears hit .295 as a team a season ago, which was good enough for second in the Big 12, and were led by Preseason All-American catcher Shea Langeliers (.313/.388/.540), who had a breakout freshman season. Baylor's pitching staff, which ended the year with a 4.52 ERA and .276 opponent's batting average, returns several quality arms, including closer Troy Montemayor (3-1, 2.10), who could help the Bears to its second straight NCAA Tournament in coach Steve Rodriguez' third year in charge.

The vibe around the Kansas baseball program has many believing this is the most talented and experienced group 16th-year head coach Rich Price has had since at least 2014, when the Jayhawks last went to the NCAA Tournament. Outfielder Brendt Citta sat out last season after transferring from San Jose State and stood out this fall. Projected to start in right field, Citta flashed plus power and above-average arm strength in the offseason and could anchor Kansas' lineup. On the mound, the Jayhawks have as many as 14 pitchers who could potentially hit 90 mph with their fastballs, including righthander Jackson Goddard (5-4, 4.29). Goddard, who enters the season ranked No. 106 on BA's Top 200 draft prospects list, can touch 96 mph and has proven he can throw four different pitches for strikes. His development gives the Jayhawks a premier starter at the front of its rotation. Righthander Ryan Zeferjahn (4-5, 6.19) had a rough freshman year as a starter, but seemed to find himself over the summer as a reliever in the Cape Cod League, where he saved six games and struck out 20 batters in 15 innings. If he can repeat that performance this spring, his power arm would be a big asset at the end of games.

Kansas State finished 2017 with a 29-26 record, which was its first winning season since 2013. The Wildcats return 17 players from last year's team, led by sophomores Will Brennan (.350/.453/.388) and Cameron Thompson (.318/.409/.418), both of whom finished among the Big 12's top 10 in batting average in 2017. Kansas State must improve on the mound, where they finished with a conference-worst 5.08 ERA last year. The Wildcats return 11 pitchers in total, including Friday night righthander Justin Heskett, who went 5-3, 4.80 in 75 innings after transferring from Fresno City (Calif.) JC.

2018 Top 20 Prospects 
1. Steele Walker, OF, Oklahoma 
2. Luken Baker, 1B, Texas Christian 
3. Steven Gingery, LHP, Texas Tech 
4. Nolan Kingham, RHP, Texas 
5. Sean Wymer, RHP, Texas Christian 
6. Davis Martin, RHP, Texas Tech 
7. Jackson Goddard, RHP, Kansas 
8. Jake Irvin, RHP, Oklahoma 
9. Jonathan Heasley, RHP, Oklahoma State 
10. Durbin Feltman, RHP, Texas Christian 
11. Josh Watson, OF, Texas Christian 
12. Chase Shugart, RHP, Texas 
13. Dominic DeRenzo, C/OF, Oklahoma 
14. Blair Henley, RHP, Texas 
15. Cody Farhat, OF, Texas Tech 
16. Jared Janczak, RHP, Texas Christian 
17. Carson Teel, LHP, Oklahoma State 
18. Colin Simpson, C, Oklahoma State 
19. Johnny Rizer, OF, Texas Christian 
20. Brendt Citta, OF, Kansas

2019 Top 10 Prospects 
1. Nick Lodolo, LHP, Texas Christian 
2. Shea Langeliers, C, Baylor 
3. Ryan Zeferjahn, RHP, Kansas 
4. Jensen Elliott, RHP Oklahoma State 
5. Alex Manoah, RHP, West Virginia 
6. John McMillion, RHP/OF, Texas Tech 
7. Charles King, RHP, Texas Christian 
8. David Hamilton, SS, Texas 
9. Cade Cabbiness, OF, Oklahoma State 
10. Davis Wendzel, INF, Baylor

Top Newcomers 
1. Adam Oviedo, SS, Texas Christian 
2. Mitchell Stone, LHP, Oklahoma State 
3. Cade Cavalli, INF/RHP, Oklahoma 
4. Tyler Hardman, INF, Oklahoma 
5. Russell Smith, LHP, Texas Christian 
6. Brett Standlee, RHP, Oklahoma State 
7. Johnny Rizer, OF, Texas Christian 
8. Brendt Citta, OF, Kansas 
9. Caleb Sloan, RHP, Texas Christian 
10. Byrce Verplank, RHP, Texas

Best Tools
Best Pure Hitter: Steele Walker, OF, Oklahoma 
Best Raw Power: Luken Baker, 1B, Texas Christian 
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Luken Baker, 1B, Texas Christian 
Best Athlete: Steele Walker, OF, Oklahoma 
Fastest Runner: David Hamilton, SS, Texas 
Best Baserunner: David Hamilton, SS, Texas 
Best Defensive C: Shea Langliers, C, Baylor 
Best Defensive Infielder: David Hamilton, SS, Texas 
Best Infield Arm: Josh Jung, 3B, Texas Tech 
Best Defensive Outfielder: Brandon White, OF, West Virginia 
Best Outfield Arm: Steele Walker, OF, Oklahoma 
Best Fastball: Nolan Kingham, RHP, Texas 
Best Breaking Ball: Jared Janczak, RHP, Texas Christian 
Best Changeup: Steven Gingery, LHP, Texas Tech 
Best Control: Steven Gingery, LHP, Texas Tech

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