Team to Beat: Cal State Fullerton.
After winning back-to-back Big West titles, Fullerton was unseated by archrival Long Beach State last season. But the Titans got revenge in the NCAA Tournament, upsetting the Dirtbags in super regionals and advancing to the College World Series for the second time in three years. Fullerton must replace some key pieces from last year’s team, as starting pitchers John Gavin and Connor Seabold, outfielder Scott Hurst and shortstop Timmy Richards have all moved on. But the Titans are ready to reload and reclaim their place atop the conference standings. Righthander Colton Eastman (2-0, 2.14) may have been the Titans’ most talented pitcher last season but was limited to 33.2 innings by an elbow injury. Now back to full health, he is ready to front the rotation, with righthander Andrew Quezada, a junior college transfer, following and closer Brett Conine (0-1, 1.39, 15 SV) anchoring the bullpen. Fullerton also gets outfielder Ruben Cardenas back from a back injury that limited him last season to 16 games. He has an exciting blend of power and speed in his game and will hit in the middle of the Titans’ lineup. Sahid Valenzuela (.314/.366/.377) will look to build on a solid freshman season as he moves from second base to shortstop to replace Richards. Fullerton, as usual, is built around its strong pitching and defense, but should have enough offense to make another deep NCAA Tournament run.
Player of the Year: Alex McKenna, OF, Cal Poly.
McKenna earned all-conference honors last year as a sophomore after hitting .360/.424/.487 with five home runs and 13 stolen bases, all team bests. He continued to hit over the summer in the Cape Cod League, where he was named an all-star and hit .298/.346/.403. McKenna is regarded as one of the best hitters on the West Coast as enters his junior season looking to help the Mustangs return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.
Pitcher of the Year: Colton Eastman, RHP, Cal State Fullerton.
Eastman earned All-Freshman honors in 2016 after going 8-3, 2.24 with 100 strikeouts in 100.2 innings. After an injury sidelined him for three months last season, he now will take over as the Titans’ ace. He attacks hitters with a strong fastball-curveball combination and pounds the strike zone. Eastman’s presence at the front of the rotation will make Fullerton tough to beat on Friday nights.
Freshman of the Year: Jack Dashwood, LHP, UC Santa Barbara.
Dashwood was the top-ranked player in UCSB’s 19th-ranked 2016 recruiting class but missed all of last season while he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Now healthy, he figures to slide into the Gauchos’ rotation as a redshirt freshman. Dashwood is reminiscent of former UCSB lefthander Justin Jacome, but Dashwood gets more swings and misses than Jacome did at the same stage of his development. Dashwood throws plenty of strikes with his upper-80s to low-90s fastball and mixes in an above-average changeup and a curveball. He is well polished and should be able to quickly get up to speed for UCSB.
Top 25 Team: Cal State Fullerton (11).
Other Regional Team: UC Santa Barbara. The Gauchos are looking to bounce back from a dismal 2017 season in which they went 24-32 after entering the season ranked No. XX following their 2016 CWS appearance. Injuries and inexperience were stumbling blocks last year for UCSB and it will try to avoid succumbing to similar obstacles this season. Righthander Noah Davis (7-4, 4.63) has taken a step forward and is ready to lead the rotation, followed by Dashwood, who missed last season due to Tommy John surgery. The Gauchos have hauled in back-to-back Top 25 recruiting classes, which have stocked their pitching staff with exciting arms. Sophomores Ben Brecht and Chris Lincoln will figure in to the mix and righthanders Shea Barry and Steven Ledesma return in the bullpen after both making a team-high 23 appearances last season. UCSB may have also unearthed a gem in converted catcher Chris Troye who has quickly taken to pitching and can run his fastball up to 97 mph. UCSB must account for the loss of first baseman Austin Bush, who hit 20 home runs last year, but has a more athletic team this year. Sophomore Armani Smith (.285/.328/.397) will move to first base this season and could be primed to take a step forward after a solid freshman season. UCSB will also welcome back shortstop Clay Fisher, one of the best defenders in the country, who was sidelined almost all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He likely won’t be ready to play the field until the start of conference season, but his return will help anchor the lineup and defense. If UCSB can put last season behind it, the Gauchos have the talent to challenge for first place.
Long Beach State last season went 42-20-1 and won its first Big West title since 2008, before its phenomenal season came to an end with a super-regional loss at home to archrival Cal State Fullerton. The Dirtbags have some big holes to fill from last year’s team including first-team All-American catcher David Banuelos, ace Darren McCaughan and leading hitter Ramsey Romano. Long Beach will need some new stars to emerge, but it does have some key returners to build around. Its double-play combination of shortstop Laine Huffman (.294/.372/.369) and second baseman Jarren Duran (.308/.375/.393, 19 SB) returns, which helps solidify both the defense and the top of the order. Closer Chris Rivera (1-2, 2.60, 13) is back in the bullpen and senior righthander John Sheaks (8-4, 4.09) provides an experienced hand in the rotation. The Dirtbags have a deep bullpen and the talent to fill in around that core, but it may take them some time to find the right combination. Long Beach won’t be able to ease into it, however. It plays one of the most aggressive nonconference schedules in the country and will have to get up to speed quickly.
Cal Poly went 16-8 in the Big West last year to edge Fullerton by a game for second place. But the Mustangs missed the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row because they went 28-28 overall, torpedoed by a dreadful start to the season. With McKenna in center field, Kyle Marinconz (.273/.328/.400) back at shortstop and catcher Nick Meyer (.255/.316/.330), who played for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team over the summer, back behind the plate, Cal Poly is strong up the middle. The Mustangs will have a new look on the mound after losing starters Spencer Howard and Erich Uelmen, who were both drafted in the first four rounds. Seniors Michael Clark (5-0, 2.59, 11 SV) and Trent Shelton (1-1, 2.30) will give the staff experience as the Mustangs break in some of their newer arms. If Cal Poly can get off to a better start to the season against what will again be a tough schedule, it will play a factor down the stretch in the Big West race.
UC Irvine will miss All-American Keston Hiura in its lineup this season but will be eager to put a disappointing 2017 behind it. The Anteaters finished seventh in the Big West and went 23-33, just their second sub-.500 season since the program was reinstated in 2002. Sophomore Christian Koss will move to shortstop this spring and will be expected to take a large step forward offensively following a strong summer in the Cape Cod League. He hit just .180/.259/.221 as a freshman for the Anteaters but hit .309/.404/.383 with wood over the summer. He’ll be one of several young players UCI will be counting on to help them get back on track this spring.
Top 20 2018 Draft Prospects
1. Colton Eastman, RHP, Cal State Fullerton
2. Alex McKenna, OF, Cal Poly
3. Noah Davis, RHP, UC Santa Barbara
4. Nick Meyer, C, Cal Poly
5. Andrew Quezada, RHP, Cal State Fullerton
6. Brett Conine, RHP, Cal State Fullerton
7. Ruben Cardenas, OF, Cal State Fullerton
8. Clay Fisher, SS, UC Santa Barbara
9. Jarren Duran, 2B, Long Beach State
10. Hazahel Quijada, LHP, UC Riverside
11. Elijah Villalobos, RHP, Long Beach State
12. Blake Workman, RHP, Cal State Fullerton
13. Tommy Jew, OF, UC Santa Barbara
14. Laine Huffman, SS, Long Beach State
15. Clayton Andrews, OF/RHP, Long Beach State
16. Kyle Marinconcz, SS, Cal Poly
17. Chris Rivera, RHP, Long Beach State
18. Trenton Toplikar, RHP, UC Riverside
19. Trevor Casanova, C, Cal State Northridge
20. Kekai Rios, C, Hawaii
Top 10 2019 Draft Prospects
1. Christian Koss, SS, UC Irvine
2. Jack Dashwood, LHP, UC Santa Barbara
3. Armani Smith, 1B/OF, UC Santa Barbara
4. Chris Lincoln, RHP, UC Santa Barbara
5. Ben Brecht, LHP, UC Santa Barbara
6. Sahid Valenzuela, SS, Cal State Fullerton
7. Cooper Cannon, 1B/RHP, UC Riverside
8. Andre Pallante, RHP, UC Irvine
9. Dustin Detmer, INF, Hawaii
10. Zak Baayoun, LHP, Long Beach State
Top 10 Newcomers
1. Andrew Quezada, RHP, Cal State Fullerton
2. Jason Willow, 3B, UC Santa Barbara
3. Trenton Denholm, RHP, UC Irvine
4. Cole Percival, RHP, UC Riverside
5. Ben Fariss, RHP, UC Santa Barbara
6. Clayton Andrews, OF/RHP, Long Beach State
7. Jorge Arellano, LHP, UC Santa Barbara
8. Dean Miller, OF, UC Riverside
9. Darren Nelson, RHP/1B, Cal Poly
10. Steven Rivas, OF, Long Beach State
Best Pure Hitter: Alex McKenna, Cal Poly
Best Power Hitter: Conner Cannon, UC Riverside
Best Strike-zone Discipline: Eric Ramirez, Hawaii
Best Athlete: Jarren Duran, Long Beach State
Fastest Runner: Jarren Duran, Long Beach State
Best Baserunner: Jarren Duran, Long Beach State
Best Defensive Catcher: Nick Meyer, Cal Poly
Best Defensive Infielder: Clay Fisher, UC Santa Barbara
Best Infield Arm: Kyle Marinconz, Cal Poly
Best Defensive Outfielder: Clayton Andrews, Long Beach State
Best Outfield Arm: Alex McKenna, Cal Poly
Best Fastball: Noah Davis, UC Santa Barbara
Best Breaking Ball: Brett Conine, Cal State Fullerton
Best Changeup: Colton Eastman, Cal State Fullerton
Best Control: Andrew Quezada, Cal State Fullerton