2020 Big West College Baseball Preview
The Big West sent a team to the College World series for four straight years from 2014-17. During that run, three different programs hosted a regional. In many ways, it was business as usual for a conference that is used to punching above its weight.
But the last two years have been tough on the conference and it has been a one-bid league both times. Cal State Fullerton nearly made a run to the College World Series in 2018, but last year missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly 30 years. Long Beach State, the conference’s other traditional standard bearer, has fallen on hard times since it won the conference in 2017 and advanced to super regionals, last season bottoming out with a last-place finish and a mid-season firing. UC Santa Barbara at times looked like it might host a regional last season but fell short and then made a quick postseason exit, going 0-2 in the Stanford Regional.
Collectively, the conference is searching for the reset button. That should make for a wide-open conference race this spring but whether any team can this season break into the national picture remains to be seen.
At the very least, the pitching will be good in the Big West with the likes of Cal State Fullerton’s Tanner Bibee, UC Santa Barbara’s Rodney Boone, UC Irvine’s Trenton Denholm, Cal Poly’s Taylor Dollard and UC Riverside’s Cole Percival leading the way.
Some things truly never change.
Player of the Year: Tanner Murray, SS, UC Davis.
If the conference title race is an open door, the player of the year chase is a wide-open fence gate. With no clear-cut favorite, the nod goes to Murray, who could be the first position player drafted this June from the conference. He last spring hit .364/.416/.503 with 12 stolen bases and spent the summer in the Cape Cod League. He’s a solid defender and this spring will be the focal point of the Aggies’ lineup.
Pitcher of the Year: Trenton Denholm, RHP, UC Irvine.
In a conference that’s rich in pitching, Denholm stands out. He last spring went 9-4, 1.81 with 93 strikeouts and 20 walks in 99.2 innings and led the nation with a 0.81 WHIP. He’s also been outstanding in the Cape Cod League and over the last two summers did not allow an earned run in 31.2 innings. Denholm doesn’t have overpower stuff but has an advanced feel for pitching and control and is difficult to square up.
Freshman of the Year: Brooks Lee, SS, Cal Poly.
Lee, the son of Cal Poly coach Larry Lee, is clearly the most-talented freshman in the conference and one of the most-talented freshmen in the country. He was the fourth-highest ranked player in the class of 2019 to make it to campus, trailing only Jack Leiter (Vanderbilt), Hunter Barco (Florida) and Maurice Hampton (Louisiana State). He isn’t a shoo-in for this award, however, because he is recovering from a knee injury that he suffered during fall practice that is expected to keep him out for the first six weeks of the season. That timeline puts him back in time for the start of Big West play at the beginning of April. Lee was seen as the best pure hitter in Southern California last year and is an advanced defender who will have no trouble manning shortstop in college.
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Projected standings (2019 records)
1. Cal State Fullerton (27-26, 13-11)
Last year, for the first time since 1991, the Titans missed the NCAA Tournament. It was a tough blow for one of college baseball’s most historically successful programs and led to some big changes at Fullerton. Coach Rick Vanderhook remade his coaching staff as he enters his ninth season at the program’s helm, hiring Sergio Brown (recruiting coordinator), Andy Jenkins (volunteer assistant) and Dan Ricabal (pitching coach), all of whom have long track records of success as coaches. Fullerton also brought in a 15-man recruiting class and the newcomers will get a chance to contribute right away. Sophomore catcher Kameron Guangorena (.261/.325/.341) gives the Titans an experienced hand behind the plate and senior first baseman Isaiah Garcia (.323/.394/.437) was last year one of the team’s best hitters. If sophomores Jason Brandow (.256/.316/.422) and Zach Lew (.313/.448/.458) are able to take on larger roles and freshmen like Caden Connor and JJ Cruz are ready to contribute right away, the lineup will have solid depth. Junior righthander Tanner Bibee (5-7, 4.33) gives the Titans a leader at the front of the rotation, while sophomores Michael Knorr (4-4, 5.90), Kyle Luckham (4-6, 5.37), Joe Magrisi (1-3, 4.64) and Michael Weisberg (1-1, 6.50, 6 SV) all have the stuff to take a big step forward. They’ll need to, as the Titans last season did not pitch to a level they’re accustomed to. If they’re able to do so and the newcomers, both on the coaching staff and on the team, provide the anticipated impact, Fullerton can quickly bounce back to set its sights on another title.
2. UC Santa Barbara (45-11, 19-5)
The Gauchos last season won their first Big West title since 1986 and did so in style, winning 45 games (the second most wins in program history) and sweeping five of their eight conference series. It wasn’t quite enough to host a regional, however, and their season ended with a disappointing 0-2 showing in the Stanford Regional. Ten players were drafted off that team and they all signed, including catcher Eric Yang, the Big West player of the year, leaving several holes on the roster. But UCSB has recruited well under coach Andrew Checketts and still has plenty of talent on hand. Junior outfielder Jason Willow (.267/.378/.392) is one of the best prospects in the conference and could be in line for a breakout this spring. Junior second baseman Marcos Castanon (.324/.358/.459) and senior shortstop McClain O’Connor (.325/.393/.503, 13 SB), who played hurt much of last season, form a strong double-play combination. The Gauchos also added Bryce Willits, whose powerful lefthanded bat will play in the heart of the order, as a transfer from Saint Mary’s. UCSB’s strength will be on the mound. Lefthander Rodney Boone (8-0, 2.78) and righthander Michael McGreevy (5-1, 1.94, 6 SV) both earned Freshman All-America honors a season ago and are back to anchor the pitching staff. If they can get some help from newcomers like freshmen Carter Benbrook and Alex Schrier and junior college transfer Zach Torra, all of whom have the stuff to take on important roles right away, the Gauchos will again have one of the better staff’s in the Big West. Despite all the losses in the draft, UCSB should be able to quickly reload and remain in title contention.
3. Cal Poly (28-28, 17-7)
The Mustangs have finished second in the Big West for three straight seasons but that hasn’t been enough to get them back to the NCAA Tournament, which they last reached in 2014 when they won the Big West and hosted regionals. This year’s team has a chance to break through after returning nearly its entire lineup and adding the conference’s best recruiting class, headlined by freshman shortstop Brooks Lee, the son of coach Larry Lee. Brooks Lee was expected to step right into the lineup but suffered a knee injury in the fall that will sideline him for the first six weeks of the season. But Cal Poly returns senior outfielder Bradlee Beasley (.283/.351/.374, 8 SB) and junior first baseman Tate Samuelson (.298/.388/.395), and gets back redshirt-junior outfielder Scott Ogrin, who missed last season due to injury. Overall, the Mustangs should have a better, deeper lineup. Cal Poly isn’t as experienced on the mound and must replace ace Bobby Ay and closer Michael Clark. Junior righthander Taylor Dollard (5-0, 2.89, 4 SV) is the team’s top pitcher and will move to the front of the rotation after last season pitching out of the bullpen. He’s coming off an impressive summer in the Cape Cod League and has good stuff to go with above-average control, which should play well in the rotation. He’ll need some help behind him and Cal Poly is hoping juniors Andrew Alvarez (1-3, 5.10) and Darren Nelson (2-5, 4.99), who both have starting experience, can take a step forward. Part of the reason Cal Poly hasn’t been able to convert strong Big West finishes into regionals appearances has been its subpar nonconference play. It faces another tough slate this spring and missing Brooks Lee for that part of the schedule only increases the difficulty. It does get series against Baylor, Brigham Young, No. 8 Michigan, No. 19 Oklahoma and San Diego State all at home, however, and if it makes the most of those opportunities, Cal Poly can return to regionals.
4. UC Irvine (37-17, 17-7)
The Anteaters last season fell just shy of an NCAA Tournament bid in Ben Orloff’s first season as head coach. UCI finished tied for second in the standings with Cal Poly, just two games behind UC Santa Barbara, and had a solid overall resume, but were as negatively affect as anyone by the Big West’s down season and finished outside the top 50 in RPI. Now, the Anteaters must replace leading hitter Brandon Lewis, shortstop Christian Koss, starters Tanner Brubaker and Andrew Pallante and closer Taylor Rashi. Rebuilding from that is a difficult task, but the Anteaters have a legitimate ace in junior righthander Trenton Denholm and two strong building blocks offensively in junior outfielders Jake Palmer (.307/.460/.359) and Mike Peabody (.312/.434/.416). To support them, UCI will need some lesser experienced players to step up and will also lean on its large group of newcomers. Among the new faces, junior righthanders Josh Ibarra and Peter Van Loon, both junior college transfers, have the stuff to step into key roles on the pitching staff. Van Loon, listed at 6-foot-5, will likely slot behind Denholm in the rotation and Ibarra, who has power stuff, will work at the back of the bullpen. Redshirt-sophomore Jake Cosgrove and Riley Kasper, a junior college transfer, will take over up the middle of the infield. How well all the newcomers and less experienced players settle into their new roles will determine Anteaters’ course this spring.
5. Long Beach State (14-41, 8-16)
Following a tumultuous season that saw Troy Buckley fired in April and ended with the Dirtbags tied for last place in the standings, Long Beach is looking to quickly bounce back. Eric Valenzuela was hired away from Saint Mary’s, where he turned a moribund program into a consistent contender in the West Coast Conference. While little went right last season for the Dirtbags, Valenzuela inherits a talented roster that is just two years removed from winning the Big West and advancing to super regionals. Redshirt-senior first baseman Jacob Hughey (.324/.387/.404), the team’s leading hitter, is back at the heart of the lineup. Outfielders Calvin Estrada (.245/.294/.208) and Chase Luttrell (.247/.305/.320) are coming off tough years at the plate but have the tools to break out in 2020. On the mound, junior lefthander Adam Seminaris (4-9, 3.35) is a reliable Friday starter who isn’t overpowering but stands out for his pitchability and control. Sophomore lefthander Alfredo Ruiz (1-3, 4.05) has bigger stuff and is ready to take a step forward in the rotation. Freshmen righthanders Devereaux Harrision, Luis Ramirez and Jake Rons all figure to make immediate impacts, with Harrison expected to be a two-way contributor, and Ramirez and Rons rotation candidates. There’s simply too much talent on hand for the Dirtbags to be down for long.
6. Cal State Northridge (23-32, 9-15)
The Matadors will have a new look this spring. After last season, they fired Greg Moore, who spent six seasons at the program’s helm. Replacing him is Dave Serrano, who brings a wealth of experience and an impressive resume in the Big West to CSUN. The 2007 Coach of the Year took both Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine to the College World Series. While he didn’t find as much success during his tenure at Tennessee, Serrano (who spent last season as Baseball America’s college analyst) knows what it takes to win in the Big West and should get the Matadors moving in the right direction. How quickly that happens will in large part be determined by a large group of newcomers. The Matadors have 20 players on the roster who have yet to play for the team and several of them will be expected to play important roles in 2020. Senior catcher Sean Skelly (.288/.432/.475, 7 HR) and sophomore outfielder Andrew Lucas (.268/.347/.421) lead the returners in the lineup, while sophomore outfielder Denzel Clarke (.243/.353/.424, 12 SB) has plus speed and the team’s most exciting tools. They will be buttressed by freshman second baseman Mason Le and junior shortstop Carlos Arellano, a junior college transfer. CSUN will need to build pitching depth, but returns sophomore starter Blake Sodersten (2-3, 4.72) and junior closer Blake Schriever (3-5, 3.21, 9 SV) to give the staff some experience.
7. Hawaii (20-30, 8-16)
The Rainbow Warriors have not found their stride since joining the Big West for the 2013 season and have yet to finish better than fifth in the conference standings. If this team is going to be the one that breaks through, it will be thanks to its pitching staff. Hawaii lost relief ace Dylan Thomas, but otherwise returns the bulk of its pitching staff. After moving to the rotation midway through last season, senior righthander Logan Pouelsen (3-3, 4.22) will now lead the group into 2020. Hawaii has good options for the rest of the spots on the weekend with righthanders Aaron Davenport (2-5, 4.68) and Cade Smith (2-2, 4.53) returning and the addition of lefthander Brandon Ross, a junior college transfer. While Thomas is now in pro ball, junior lefthander Jeremy Wu-Yelland (2-4, 4.86) has the stuff to take over at the back of the bullpen and is coming off an impressive summer in the Cape Cod League. Sophomore outfielder Scotty Scott (.291/.381/.360), the 2019 Big West freshman field player of the year, headlines the returners in the lineup. Hawaii also will get a boost from the return of redshirt-junior third baseman Dustin Demeter who missed last season due to a hip injury.
8. UC Davis (19-31, 9-15)
The Aggies in back-to-back seasons have finished conference play with a 9-15 mark and in 2017 went 10-14 in Big West action. To break out of that range, UC Davis must improve its 5.77 team ERA, which ranked eighth in the conference. Junior righthander Brett Erwin (5-5, 3.70) is back to again lead the rotation and senior closer Steve Ouellette (2-3, 2.79, 5 SV) gives the bullpen an experienced hand at the back end of games. Finding that duo some help will be critical and, to that end, sophomore righthanders Nathan Peng (0-0, 2.79) and Jake Spillane (1-3, 6.07) will be asked to take on bigger roles. Davis is in better shape offensively. Junior shortstop Tanner Murray (.364/.416/.503, 12 SB) is back at the heart of everything for the Aggies. Outfielders Alejandro Lara (.312/.426/.449, 10 SB) and Cooper Morrison (.302/.371/.381, 14 SB) and catcher Logan Denholm (.295/.398/.452) are all back as well, giving the lineup a strong, experienced core that should help the newcomers settle in.
9. UC Riverside (20-36, 8-16)
The Highlanders have finished in the Big West cellar in each of the last three seasons. They last season were sunk by the worst pitching staff in the conference, which produced a 6.86 team ERA. To improve in a conference where the best teams are built around pitching, lowering that mark is critical. Riverside will get a boost from the return of redshirt-sophomore righthander Cole Percival, the son of coach and all-star closer Troy Percival. Cole Percival suffered a stress fracture in his elbow and missed all of last season but has a mid-90s fastball and one of the best arms in the conference when he’s healthy. The addition of junior college transfer Jake Lachemann should also help fill out a rotation that does return junior righthander Abbott Haffar (4-3, 4.35). The Highlanders’ offense will take on a different shape in 2020 after losing the powerful bats of Connor Cannon and Dean Miller, who combined for 32 of the team’s 50 home runs. Senior outfielder Travis Bohall (.331/.382/.384, 16 SB) will lead the lineup and his skillset is indicative of what kind of offense Riverside will have this spring. Riverside was bit hard by the injury bug last season, so simply staying healthier would go a long way to helping it make strides in 2020, but the new-look offense and rotation will be areas to watch.
Top 20 2020 Draft Prospects
1. Trenton Denholm, RHP, UC Irvine
2. Tanner Bibee, RHP, Cal State Fullerton
3. Taylor Dollard, RHP, Cal Poly
4. Tanner Murray, SS UC Davis
5. Jeremy Wu-Yelland, LHP, Hawaii
6. Adam Seminaris, LHP, Long Beach State
7. Cole Percival, RHP, UC Riverside
8. Jason Willow, OF, UC Santa Barbara
9. Bradlee Beesley, OF, Cal Poly
10. Tate Samuelson, 3B, Cal Poly
11. McClain O’Connor, SS, UC Santa Barbara
12. Brandon Ross, LHP, Hawaii
13. Michael Weisberg, RHP, Cal State Fullerton
14. Marcos Castanon, 2B, UC Santa Barbara
15. Carlos Arellano, SS, Cal State Northridge
16. Dustin Demeter, 3B, Hawaii
17. Calvin Estrada, OF, Long Beach State
18. Mike Peabody, OF, UC Irvine
19. Isaiah Garcia, 1B, Cal State Fullerton
20. Adam Fogel, OF, Hawaii
Top 10 2021 Prospects
1. Michael McGreevy, RHP, UC Santa Barbara
2. Kameron Guangorena, C, Cal State Fullerton
3. Rodney Boone, LHP, UC Santa Barbara
4. Denzel Clarke, OF, Cal State Northridge
5. Alfredo Ruiz, LHP, Long Beach State
6. Jason Brandow, OF, Cal State Fullerton
7. Bryce Willits, 3B, UC Santa Barbara
8. Zach Lew, SS, Cal State Fullerton
9. Aaron Davenport, RHP, Hawaii
10. Kyle Luckham, RHP, Cal State Fullerton
Top 10 Newcomers
1. Brooks Lee, SS, Cal Poly
2. J.J. Cruz, 2B, Cal State Fullerton
3. Devereaux Harrison, RHP/OF, Long Beach State
4. Zach Torra, LHP, UC Santa Barbara
5. Peter Van Loon, RHP, UC Irvine
6. Luis Ramirez, RHP, Long Beach State
7. Derek True, RHP, Cal Poly
8. Drew Thorpe, RHP, Cal Poly
9. Carter Benbrook, LHP, UC Santa Barbara
10. Mason Le, 2B, Cal State Northridge