Team to Beat: Kent State.
Since the Golden Flashes' nine-year streak of winning either the regular-season or conference tournament title was snapped in 2015, they have reasserted themselves at the top of the Mid-American Conference and claimed the last two regular season titles. But Kent State has been tripped up in the MAC Tournament in each of the last two years and has not reached regionals since 2014, coach Jeff Duncan's first year at the program's helm. That three-year drought is Kent State's longest in the 21st century and it will be eager to snap it this spring. The Golden Flashes are well positioned to do so, combining a deep, talented pitching staff with an experienced lineup that returns nearly every starter from a team that ranked second in the conference in hitting (.293). But, as it usually does at Kent State, it all starts on the mound. Junior righthander Joey Murray (6-1, 1.80), the 2017 MAC pitcher of the year, and senior lefthander Eli Kraus (8-3, 2.69), a two-time all-MAC honoree, return at the front of the rotation. The Golden Flashes have plenty of options to turn to behind their twin aces and the bullpen will be well stocked with power arms including righthanders Robert Zeigler (2-0, 2.56, 5 SV) and Austin Havekost (2-2, 5.34). Offensively, Kent State returns seven starters and could have five seniors in its everyday lineup. Center fielder Mason Mamarella (.330/.441/.405, 18 SB) will be counted on at the top of the order. If the Golden Flashes can put it all together on Memorial Day weekend this year and get back to the NCAA Tournament, they have a team that would be dangerous in a regional.
Player of the Year: Daniel Robinson, OF, Central Michigan.
Robinson has started nearly every game of his career at Central Michigan and is coming off a breakout sophomore season in which he hit .305/.389/.362 and led the MAC in runs (54) and stolen bases (22). Listed at 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, Robinson is an above-average runner and has some raw power but hasn't tapped into it much yet. If he can get to it this spring, he could take another step forward and turn himself into a very intriguing draft prospect. But even if he continues to rely on his speed and ability to make consistent contact, he will be the catalyst to the Chippewas' lineup.
Pitcher of the Year: Joey Murray, RHP, Kent State.
Murray moved into the Kent State rotation last season as a sophomore and had a breakout campaign. He led the conference with 110 strikeouts in just 75 innings, a total that ranks fifth in program history. Now, Murray will look to take another step forward as a junior. He averaged about 5.1 innings per start last season and will want to pitch deeper into games more consistently. As he prepares for the draft in June, he also will be looking to impress scouts after a pedestrian summer in the Cape Cod League, where his stuff was down. If he can find his magic again this spring, he could be the latest Kent State pitcher to be drafted in the top five rounds.
Freshman of the Year: Kyle Nicolas, RHP, Ball State.
The Cardinals landed a strong recruiting class, headlined by Nicolas and righthander/outfielder Drey Jameson. Nicolas, listed at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, won state titles in both basketball and baseball last season at Massillon (Ohio) Jackson High and now looks to be ready to step into Ball State's rotation. He throws his fastball in the low 90s and mixes in a big curveball. His size, stuff and athleticism give him a chance to develop into a solid prospect during his college career.
Top 25 Teams: None.
First-Year Coaches Steve Holm, Jordan Bischel On Different Paths To Success
Central Michigan's Jordan Bischel and Illinois State's Steve Holm share similarities as first-year head coaches but took different routes to reach this point.
Ball State has won at least 30 games for five straight seasons since coach Rich Maloney returned to Muncie in 2013. The Cardinals have their sights set on another season of at least 30 wins, but enter the year undergoing some transition after losing several key seniors from last year's team. Ball State still has plenty of talent but will need some younger and more inexperienced players to step into bigger roles this spring. Sophomore righthander John Baker (5-2, 4.28) will take over as Friday night starter and the Cardinals have solid options behind him and Nicolas. Colin Brockhouse, who was drafted as a pitcher in each of the last two years, is back for his senior season, but will now focus on hitting and playing the outfield. He is an above-average runner and has a plus arm, and if he can get on track at the plate, would give Ball State a dynamic player in the heart of the order. Freshman Drey Jameson has the tool to make an immediate impact both as an outfielder (he's a plus runner) and on the mound, either as a starter or a reliever. The Cardinals may need a few weekends to find their best alignment, but they should have found their stride by the time they open MAC play against the Golden Flashes in what could be the conference's most compelling series this spring.
The conference is down a member this spring for the second time in three years. Buffalo eliminated its baseball program following last season, two years after Akron made the same cut. The Zips this summer announced their program will return in 2020, but, for now, the conference is down to 10 baseball members. Eastern Michigan got a late shakeup when coach Mark Van Ameyde resigned in December to become Michigan State's pitching coach, the job he held before taking over the Eagles' program in 2014. Eric Roof was promoted to interim head coach and former Michigan State righthander A.J. Achter, who pitched parts of three seasons in the big leagues, was hired as pitching coach. The Eagles finished third in the MAC West last season and made a run to the MAC Tournament championship game, before losing to Ohio. The Eagles lost some key players, including righthander Sam Delaplane, the first player to be drafted from EMU since 2012, but remain deep on the mound. Offensively, the Eagles will be leaning on shortstop Max Schuemann (.246/.404/.348), who has the best tools on the team and could be primed for a breakout junior season.
Top 10 2018 Draft Prospects
1. Joey Murray, RHP, Kent State
2. Daniel Robinson, OF, Central Michigan
3. Dazon Cole, RHP/OF, Central Michigan
4. Connor Smith, SS, Western Michigan
5. Ross Adolph, OF, Toledo
6. Colin Brockhouse, OF/RHP, Ball State
7. Eli Kraus, LHP, Kent State
8. Zach Spears, LHP, Miami
9. Mason Mamarella, OF, Kent State
10. Max Schuemann, SS, Eastern Michigan