2019 Summit League College Baseball Preview
1.Oral Roberts (38-20, 24-6)
2. South Dakota State (18-32, 14-13)
3. Western Illinois (17-31, 14-12)
4. North Dakota State (26-24, 15-13)
5. Nebraska-Omaha (15-35, 10-17)
6. Purdue – Fort Wayne (11-37, 7-23)
Team to Beat: Oral Roberts
Oral Roberts (38-20) lost eight major contributors from last season, including league player of the year Noah Cummings and pitcher of the year Miguel Ausua. Coming into this season, they have 21 players who are new to the program, and yet, the Golden Eagles are still the odds-on favorite to win the Summit League title. In fact, coach Ryan Folmar says that this might actually be the deepest roster he’s had in his time running the program, even if it is an inexperienced group. First baseman Spencer Henson (.364/.433/.541) will be the centerpiece of the ORU offense and the leading candidate to be the league’s player of the year. Catcher Riley Keizor (.293/.416/.441) is also back after being named the Summit League newcomer of the year last season. Outfielder Andrew Pace (.306/.470/.408) is a breakout star to watch after he came on in the second half of last season. Arkansas grad transfer Hunter Wilson could be a catalyst as well. He’ll man a spot in the middle infield, bring a solid bat to the lineup and provide much-needed leadership and experience to a team that will be pretty young. In the weekend rotation, senior righthander Josh McMinn (6-5, 3.86) projects to be one of the league’s very best. Behind him, there are some question marks. Folmar hopes that one of the answers to those questions is junior college transfer righthander Matt Gaskins. At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, he looks the part, and he has two successful seasons at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M JC under his belt. The third spot in the rotation is still up in the air, but a group of freshmen, including righthanders Trey Wolf, Isaac Coffey and Landon Odom, will be in the mix alongside senior righthander Tanner Rogen for those innings. In the bullpen, senior lefthander Colton Larkins will have a vital role, and he could be joined by quite the wild card in Henson, who appeared in 19 games in relief in 2017 before serving nearly exclusively as a hitter last year. This is essentially a completely new team in Tulsa, but if there’s anything we’ve learned from ORU’s dominance in the Summit League for two decades (save for two years spent in the Southland Conference), it’s that you have to trust that they will get things sorted out.
Player of the Year: Spencer Henson, 1B/RHP, Oral Roberts
Even in a lineup full of all-Summit League selections, Henson stood out in the Golden Eagles’ batting order in 2018. With a .364/.433/.541 slash line, he led all ORU players with at least 100 at-bats in all three categories. He also led the league in home runs (10) and RBIs (58). He continued to mash last summer in the Alaska League, hitting .336/.401/.575 with 12 doubles, seven homers and 33 RBIs, all of which were team highs. What should frighten opposing pitchers in the Summit League is that Folmar says Henson is a vastly improved hitter coming out of the fall now that he’s learning how to hit with more leverage and power. What has also changed is that Henson could have a role on the mound, just as he did back in 2017, when he appeared in 19 games as a reliever. The most feared hitter in the conference could quickly become the best two-way player if he can excel in both roles.
Pitcher of the Year: Josh McMinn, RHP, Oral Roberts
In McMinn, the Golden Eagles return one of the most experienced, successful starting pitchers not just in the Summit League, but the entire country. Over three seasons, he has a 21-10 record with a 3.35 ERA. In 231 innings across 56 appearances (33 starts), he’s fanned 199 hitters and walked just 84. It’s not just the statistical totals that make McMinn such a key piece, however. It’s also the big moments he’s experienced with this program. It’s pretty rare in college baseball for a pitcher to have not only been on the roster for three different regional teams, but to have also been a big part of those teams. In the 2017 Fayetteville Regional, McMinn started in the only ORU regional win in those three seasons, a 14-6 victory over in-state foe Oklahoma State. The 6-foot-4 righthander was drafted in the 36th round by the Twins in 2017 as a draft-eligible sophomore, immediately after his best season at ORU, which was a 9-3, 2.47 campaign. He turned down that opportunity, but you have to expect he’ll get his chance at pro baseball again if he has one more season like the previous three in Tulsa.
Freshman of the Year: Nic McCay, RHP, South Dakota State
McCay, a 6-foot, 190-pound righthander from Carlisle, Iowa, will have a chance to shine right away in the Jackrabbits’ rotation. McCay’s stuff is plenty good, particularly for a freshman. He’ll feature a fastball that sits around 90 mph, along with a changeup and curveball that can both get swings and misses. Moving from high school to Division I baseball can be a tough transition that brings with it a lot of pressure, but McCay will have the benefit of being surrounded by an otherwise veteran SDSU pitching staff.
Top 25 Teams: None.
South Dakota State’s Brady Stover (3-2, 4.57) is a name to remember, not only as a potential league pitcher of the year, but also as a high draft pick come June. The junior lefty features a fastball that sits between 89-92 mph, but can touch 94 mph, with a good slider. He has typically been a two-pitch pitcher, but he’s been working on a changeup that he’ll look to mix in this season. Last season, he flashed the ability to dominate with 63 strikeouts in 43 innings. Now, he’ll look to extrapolate that production over the course of a full innings load as SDSU’s Friday starter. Led by Stover, the Jackrabbits (18-32) have the potential for a quality rotation. The Saturday spot will be held by sixth-year senior righthander Ryan Froom, who has a 4.65 career ERA in 42 career appearances (34 starts), but who also missed all of the 2018 season due to injury. He’ll run his fastball between 88-92 mph and keep hitters off-balance with a 12-to-6 curveball and changeup. The third spot will go to McCay. Also in the mix to start some games is senior lefthander Korey Kuhlmann (3-3, 5.49), who pounded the strike zone and walked just six hitters in 39.1 innings last year.
Last season, Western Illinois (17-31, 14-12) finished tied for second in the league with North Dakota State, and despite the loss of two top starting pitchers who are now in pro baseball in Ian Koch and Ryan Dunne, the Leathernecks have the potential to replicate their success in 2019. Offensively, they return key pieces in catcher C.J. Schaeffer (.275/.349/.383), first baseman Bailey Montgomery (.288/.373/.356), and outfielders Steve McShane (.317/.359/.394) and Drue Galassi (.255/.348/.373). The most exciting returner in the lineup, however, is third baseman Deion Thompson. The 6-1 native of Bloomington, Ill., broke out in 2018, hitting .271/.348/.424 with a team-leading nine doubles and six home runs. On the base paths, he was quite efficient, stealing 17 bases in 19 attempts. With a big senior season to cap off his WIU career, he could be a quality senior sign for an MLB franchise. On the mound, the return of righthander Javin Drake (2-6, 3.96) will help mitigate the loss of Koch and Dunne, but behind him, the Leathernecks will be asking lefthander Alex Dorethy (0-3, 3.38) and righthander Austin Emanuel (0-0, 5.40) to step up after serving exclusively as relievers in 2018.
North Dakota State (26-24, 15-13) was dealt a blow with the news that Friday starter Riley Johnson (5-6, 4.57) would miss the entire 2019 season after Tommy John surgery. That makes what should have been a team strength for the Bison a bit of a question mark heading into the season. Senior righthander Jordan Harms (1-1, 5.17) will return from missing significant time with injury in 2018 to serve as the Friday starter. Redshirt junior lefthander Mitch O’Connor (2-4, 5.66) will slot in behind Harms after starting nine games a year ago (after recovering from his own Tommy John surgery) and junior righthander Blake Tritch (0-2, 4.08), who was a standout in the fall for NDSU, will be the third man in the rotation. In the bullpen, the Bison will have the luxury of the presence of two high-end talents in lefthander Parker Harms (2-2, 4.21), the best 2019 pitching prospect on the roster, and righthander Jake Drew (1-0, 4.02), who features a low-90s fastball and a newfound slider that he developed this fall. With the loss of Johnson to injury, and the graduation of Johnson’s rotation-mate Blake Stockert, steady reliever Chris Choles and closer Kevin Folman, who is now in the Chicago White Sox organization, head coach Tod Brown will need each of his weekend starters and established bullpen arms to step up in a big way to keep his team competitive at the top of the Summit League.
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Top 10 Prospects for the 2019 Draft
1. Brady Stover, LHP, South Dakota State
2. Spencer Henson, 1B, Oral Roberts
3. Josh McMinn, RHP, Oral Roberts
4. Deion Thompson, 3B/OF, Western Illinois
5. Steve McShane, OF, Western Illinois
6. Jayse McLean, OF, North Dakota State
7. Parker Harms, LHP, North Dakota State
8. Ryan Froom, RHP, South Dakota State
9. Matt Gaskins, RHP, Oral Roberts
10. Tyler Olmstead, RHP, South Dakota State