2019 Mid-American Conference College Baseball Preview

Image credit: Kent State infielder/righthander Pavin Parks (Courtesy of Kent State Athletics)

Projected Standings
(2018 records)

East Division
1. Kent State (39-18, 19-8)
2. Miami (34-20, 17-10)
3. Ohio (20-32, 9-18)
4. Bowling Green (11-39, 6-19)

West Division
1. Ball State (32-26, 17-10)
2. Central Michigan (27-30-1, 15-11)
3. Western Michigan (23-25, 12-12)
4. Toledo (21-32, 14-13)
5. Eastern Michigan (20-33, 14-13)
6. Northern Illinois (18-36, 9-18)

Team to Beat: Kent State

The Golden Flashes have won either the MAC regular season or tournament title 17 times in the 21st century. They’re coming off a double last year, as they returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014, a significant drought by their standards. Kent State lost a lot from that team, including starting pitchers Joey Murray and Eli Kraus, closer Colin Romel and five regulars from its lineup. But is this going to be one of the few years that Kent State is dethroned in the MAC? It won’t be easy. The Golden Flashes have reloaded and will again be tough to beat. Senior lefthander Connor Wollersheim (5-2, 4.02) and junior righthander John Matthews (1-1, 2.51) will move from the bullpen to the rotation, and senior infielder/righthander Pavin Parks, coming off a strong summer on the mound in the Cape Cod League, will take over at the back of the bullpen. Even with Matthews and Wollersheim moving to the rotation, the bullpen still looks to be a strength for the Golden Flashes, thanks in part to exciting freshmen righthanders Collin Matthews and Max Rippl. Parks (.285/.458/.520, 7 HR) and senior catcher Pete Schuler (.272/.363/.447) will anchor the lineup. Outfielders Nick Elsen (.353/.429/.553) and Greg Lewendowski (.272/.358/.354) played well as freshmen and will now be asked to take on bigger roles as sophomores. Kent State will be more athletic this spring, and 16 of its 18 position players have average-or-better times in the 60-yard dash. There’s still power in the lineup, but the Golden Flashes will have the ability to put pressure on teams on the bases. It may take some time for the young Flashes to round into form, but they are still going to be a dangerous team.

Player of the Year: Rudy Rott, 1B, Ohio

Rott was named 2018 MAC player of the year after hitting .355/.440/.654 with 15 home runs, leading the Bobcats in nearly every offensive category and leading the MAC in home runs and hits (76). He also was named to the all-MAC defensive team after making only two errors. The 6-foot, 212-pound lefthanded hitter is now back for his senior season and will again anchor Ohio’s lineup.

Pitcher of the Year: John Baker, RHP, Ball State

Baker put together an impressive sophomore season, going 5-5, 3.68 with 118 strikeouts and 33 walks in 95.1 innings. He carried that momentum into the summer in the Cape Cod League, where he went 3-2, 2.38 with 31 strikeouts and just two walks in 34 innings. Baker doesn’t have the biggest arm on the Cardinals’ staff, but he’s a solid prospect and his combination of control and pitchability make for a tough matchup.

Freshman of the Year: Drew Szczepaniak, LHP, Western Michigan

Western Michigan will this season have a new-look pitching staff after losing four of the five pitchers who last season threw the most innings on its staff. Its recruiting class has some exciting freshmen arms, including Szczepaniak and righthander Brady Miller. Szczepaniak, listed at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, gets the nod here. He’s projectable and has the potential for some big gains over the next three years, but what he is now is still pretty good. He attacks hitters with a fastball that typically sits in the upper 80s and mixes in a good changeup and curveball, an arsenal that should quickly earn him innings.  

Top 25 Teams: None

Notable Storylines

Ball State enters the season as the favorite in the West Division and in the best position to take down Kent State. The Cardinals have the makings of a formidable pitching staff led by Baker. Sophomore Kyle Nicolas (2-4, 5.21) had control problems as a freshman, but the 6-foot-3, 205-pound righthander has a fastball that gets up to 97 mph, and he could develop into a premier prospect in the 2020 draft class. Righthander Drey Jameson (7-2, 3.88), a draft-eligible sophomore, runs his fastball up to 96 mph and is coming off a Freshman All-American season that saw him strike out 97 batters in 72 innings. He could slot into the rotation or take on a role as a bullpen ace if junior lefthander Mike Pachmayer (0-1, 3.95), who throws in the low 90s, makes a jump and can hold down a rotation spot. Coach Rich Maloney has several more big arms at his disposal, including junior righthander Nolan Gazouski (303, 3.00, 61 SO, 42 IP) and redshirt fresman Chayce McDermott, who is coming off Tommy John surgery. The question mark for Ball State is in the lineup. The Cardinals must replace seniors Jeff Riedel and Colin Brockhouse, their two best run producers a year ago. Sophomore shortstop Noah Powell (.319/.402/.473) and senior catcher Chase Sebby (.293/.441/.395) give Ball State experienced players up the middle. The Cardinals will look for junior college transfer Ross Messina to step in at third base and redshirt senior Griffin Hulecki (.295/.405/377) to deliver a big year in right field. If the Cardinals’ lineup takes a step forward, they will be a dangerous team.

Miami last season finished second to Kent State in the East Division and produced a trio of draft picks. Those losses hurt, but the RedHawks have positioned themselves well to remain competitive in the MAC. Miami must replace catcher Hayden Senger and slugger Ross Haffey, two of its top hitters, but return junior infielders Will Vogelgesang (.322/.416/.411) and Landon Stephens (.298/.358/.498, 7 HR). On the mound, top arms Gus Graham and Zach Spears are gone. Miami has done a good job of developing pitching in recent years, however, and righthanders Andy Almquist (4-0, 5.26, 6 SV), Cole Gnetz (3-0, 5.59, 37 SO, 19.1 IP) and Spencer Mraz (4-4, 4.23) are promising and offer a lot of experience.

Steve Jaska last June retired as Central Michigan’s head coach after 16 seasons. He led his alma mater to a 507-421-2 record and three MAC titles. Jordan Bischel was hired away from Northwood (Mich.), a Division II program, to take over at Central Michigan and inherits a solid team. Zach Heeke (.346/.520/.425) and Griffin Lockwood-Powell (.311/.432/.425), the Chippewas’ two leading hitters last season, are back in the lineup. They’ll have to sort out pitching staff, but the Chippewas have a number of intriguing pitchers to work with.

Top 10 2019 Draft Prospects

1. John Baker, RHP, Ball State
2. Drey Jameson, RHP, Ball State
3. John Matthews, RHP, Kent State
4. Michael Pachmayer, LHP, Ball State
5. Connor Wollersheim, LHP, Kent State
6. Zack Kohn, RHP, Central Michigan
7. Pavin Parks, RHP/2B, Kent State
8. Nolan Gazouski, RHP, Ball State
9. Jake Wilson, OF, Bowling Green
10. Rudy Rott, 1B, Ohio

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