West Coast Conference Preview
Team to Beat: St. Mary’s.
Eric Valenzuela has transformed the Gaels’ since taking over the program in 2014. St. Mary’s reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history in 2016 and has put together three straight winning seasons for the first time since 1981-83. This year, the Gaels may have their best team yet under Valenzuela. St. Mary’s returns the bulk of last year’s team, which went 37-20. The Gaels have their top five hitters back, including second baseman Edward Haus (.335/.398/.520, 6 HR), their leading hitter, and DH/righthander Kevin Milam (.313/.397/.547, 12 HR), who earned All-Freshman honors last season. St. Mary’s will have a new-look rotation, but its weekend trio all have impressive stuff. Righthander Nick Frank made a jump this fall after transferring from junior college and will take over as the team’s Friday starter. Milam (3-1, 2.27, 9 SV) and classmate Ken Waldichuk (3-4, 2.00) will move from the bullpen to the rotation. Their emergence will allow some of the Gaels’ more experienced pitchers to work out of the bullpen, as well as talented freshmen righthanders Michael Hobbs, Carlos Lomeli and Nathan Schneider. St. Mary’s is an experienced, well-balanced team that will be able to thrive against a tough nonconference schedule and in the competitive WCC.
Player of the Year: Kevin Milam, DH/RHP, St. Mary’s.
Milam is coming off an outstanding 2017 that saw him hit .313/.397/.547 with 12 home runs and go 3-1, 2.27 with nine saves on the mound, a season that earned him first-team All-Freshman honors and the WCC freshman of the year award. He followed that up with a solid summer in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League and will be the focal point for the Gaels this spring. He has big power at the plate and can run his fastball up to 93 mph on the mound, and figures to present scouts with a difficult decision in 2019 as they determine whether to draft him as a hitter or a pitcher.
Pitcher of the Year: Nick Sprengel, LHP, San Diego.
Sprengel emerged last spring as the next ace in San Diego’s pipeline. He went 9-1, 3.29 and struck out 86 batters in 82 innings. That performance earned him a spot on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team over the summer and he heads into his junior season as one of the top pitchers on the West Coast. Sprengel’s above-average fastball-slider combination was nearly unhittable out of Team USA’s bullpen over the summer, when opponents were just 2-for-30 against him. His command and changeup still need improvement to allow him to be a starter in the long run, but his presence this spring should give San Diego an edge on Friday nights.
Freshman of the Year: Adam Kerner, C, San Diego.
The Toreros have an impressive history of producing catcher prospects and just saw Riley Adams, last year’s starter, drafted in the third round by the Blue Jays. As Adams moves on to pro ball, Kerner arrives at San Diego, ready to fill his spot in the lineup. Kerner, who ranked No. 388 on the BA500 last spring, is a strong defender thanks to his plus arm strength and excellent athleticism. His defensive skills will help him quickly transition to the college game. He has some power potential, but it may take the righthanded hitter longer to grow into his offensive upside.
Top 25 Teams: None.
Brigham Young last year won the WCC Tournament to advance to regionals for the first time since 2002. From that team, the Cougars will have to replace righthander Maverick Buffo and slugger Colton Shaver, two of their veteran leaders, but they return a strong core. Outfielder Brock Hale hit .395/.481/.672 with 12 home runs last season to win the WCC’s slash-line triple crown. He returns at the heart of BYU’s lineup this season, along with seniors Brennon Anderson (.346/.422/.512) and Nate Favero (.337/.397/.554). Senior lefthander Hayden Rogers (9-2, 3.63) returns to provide a steady hand in the rotation, but the Cougars will need some new arms to step up to join him in the rotation. BYU will again score runs in bunches, and if it finds the answers it needs on the mound, it should once again be in contention for the WCC title.
Pitching has been the strength of the WCC in recent seasons, especially in the last two years when Loyola Marymount’s Cory Abbott, St. Mary’s Corbin Burnes and Pepperdine’s A.J. Puckett all earned All-America honors. Sprengel is ready to pick up that torch this season, but the conference’s hitters are also prepared to make noise in 2018. Milam is the player of the year favorite, but he will face stiff competition from Hale, Loyola Marymount shortstop Niko Decolati and Pepperdine outfielder/righthander Jordan Qsar. Decolati is the WCC’s best position player prospect in this year’s draft and is a career .314 hitter. He hit .320/.426/.432 last season and impressed this summer in the Cape Cod League. Qsar is an impressive athlete with two-way talent who figures to be an integral part of the Waves plans this spring.
Pacific and Santa Clara were both caught up in the ripple effect of longtime Stanford coach Mark Marquess’ decision to retire after last season. Marquess was replaced at Stanford by California coach David Esquer, whose departure led to Pacific coach Mike Neu returning to Berkeley after two seasons in Stockton. In turn, the Tigers hired former Stanford catcher Ryan Garko, who had been managing in the Rockies’ minor league system, to take over the program. Santa Clara, meanwhile, hired Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter as head coach following the resignation of Dan O’Brien after six seasons at the program’s helm. Filter and Garko take over programs that finished last season in the bottom half of the conference, though both inherit highly talented sophomores. Pacific catcher James Free earned All-Freshman honors last season after hitting .343/.407/.652 with 14 home runs. Santa Clara outfielder Andre Nnebe has been compared to Aaron Judge due to his 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame, big raw tools and Northern California background. He hit .293/.339/.372 as a freshman and could be in line for a breakout spring.
Top 10 2018 Draft Prospects
1. Nick Sprengel, LHP, San Diego
2. Niko Decolati, SS, Loyola Marymount
3. Brock Hale, OF, Brigham Young
4. Nick Frank, RHP, St. Mary’s
5. Thomas Ponticelli, RHP, San Francisco
6. Kevin Baker, RHP, Portland
7. Daniel Schneeman, SS, Brigham Young
8. Jordan Qsar, OF/RHP, Pepperdine
9. Billy Wilson, OF, Loyola Marymount
10. John Cresto, 3B, Santa Clara