2020 Mid-American Conference College Baseball Preview
The MAC produced an exciting 2019 season from start to finish. On Opening Day, Ball State righthander Drey Jameson threw six no-hit innings against Stanford. The conference season ended with Central Michigan winning the MAC Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995. The Chippewas then upset Miami in the opening game of the Starkville Regional.
In between those two landmarks was a full season for the conference. Jameson went on to set the conference record for strikeouts (146) and was drafted 34th overall. CMU’s breakout season came in coach Jordan Bischel’s first season at the program’s helm. Kent State, long the MAC’s powerhouse, didn’t claim either the regular season or conference championship for just the second time in 14 years. Ohio slugger Rudy Rott won his second straight player of the year award.
The 2020 season is shaping up to be exciting as well. CMU returns a wealth of talent looking to repeat as champions. Ball State has another promising flamethrower in righthander Kyle Nicolas. Kent State is beginning what it hopes to be a climb back to the top. Akron’s program is back in action just four years after it was eliminated. Toledo coach Rob Reinstetle is starting his first season at the program’s helm.
Across the conference, there is plenty to follow this spring.
Player of the Year: Zavier Warren, SS, Central Michigan.
Warren has started nearly every game since he arrived at CMU and put together an exciting overall season in 2019. He hit .369/.502/.578 with eight home runs and 14 stolen bases and led the MAC in on-base percentage, runs (73), doubles (23) and walks (54). He capitalized on that momentum with a strong showing in the Cape Cod League. Warren’s play on all stages has made him the MAC’s best prospect and a potential top-three rounds pick. He has good athleticism and defensive versatility to go with a disciplined offensive approach.
Pitcher of the Year: John Baker, RHP, Ball State.
Baker was the pick last preseason as well after he went 5-5, 3.68 as a sophomore and excelled in the Cape Cod League. He missed the start of last spring due to injury and then was overshadowed by Jameson. He bounced back to go 7-2, 2.13, however, and is 17-9, 3.36 with 270 strikeouts in 228 innings for his career. The senior doesn’t have the biggest arm in the conference – teammate Kyle Nicolas is the bigger prospect – but Baker has proven he knows what it takes to be successful. One more big year from Baker at the front of Ball State’s rotation would be a fitting end to his college career.
Freshman of the Year: Cameron Wagoner, RHP, Eastern Michigan.
Wagoner last year was drafted in the 22nd round by the Rangers and now comes to EMU as one of the best recruits in program history. Listed at 6-foot-5, 187 pounds, he has a long, projectable frame but already can run his fastball up to 94 mph and shows a promising breaking ball. Wagoner needs to improve his control and show more consistency, but his stuff should play right away for EMU.
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Predicted Order of Finish (2019 record)
1. Central Michigan (47-14, 22-5)
The Chippewas last season emerged as the class of the MAC as they rolled to the title in coach Jordan Bischel’s first season in Mount Pleasant. They won all but one conference series and finished the season on a 17-game winning streak in conference play. CMU swept through the MAC Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995 and upset Miami to open the Starkville Regional. It brings back the bulk of that team and enters the season as the conference favorite. Shortstop Zavier Warren (.369/.502/.578, 8 HR, 14 SB) is coming off an outstanding 2019, both for CMU and in the Cape Cod League. Along with Warren, center fielder Zach Giles (.351/.447/.430, 20 SB), first baseman Zach Heeke (.311/.437/.377) and catcher Griffin Lockwood-Powell (.341/.449/.580, 11 HR) are back to form the core of a potent lineup. The Chippewas will need some more inexperienced players to step up to fill a couple gaps and outfielders Garrett Navarra (.281/.408/.351) and Chase Rollin (.256/.386/.286, 12 SB) could be the ones to do it. On the mound, CMU must replace ace Pat Leatherman, but still has plenty of arms back. Senior righthander Cameron Brown (10-1, 3.20) and junior righthander Jordan Patty (4-3, 3.42) give the Chippewas a pair of experienced starters and returning relievers like Grant Frazer (1-0, 2.75) and Ryan Palmblad (4-0, 3.25) give the staff depth. The pieces are all there for another big season in Mount Pleasant but managing expectations – and, for some players, draft talk—will add a new challenge for Bischel and the Chippewas this spring.
2. Ball State (38-19, 20-5)
The Cardinals last year were a step behind the Chippewas, costing them the hardware. Ball State went 1-4 against Central Michigan, a mark that left them one game behind in the standings and included two losses in the MAC Tournament, the last defeat coming in the championship game. The Cardinals are again the Chippewas’ biggest challengers and have a team talented enough to unseat the reigning champions, even after losing righthander Drey Jameson in the draft. Ball State’s rotation of righthanders Baker, Kyle Nicolas (2-2, 6.02) and Chayce McDermott (4-1, 3.64) is the best in the conference and has serious upside. Baker has the most experience and has been consistent for the Cardinals. Nicolas is the MAC’s best pitching prospect and while he’s struggled with control over the first two years of his career, he turned a corner over the summer in the Cape Cod League. If he can carry that over to the spring as a starter, he will take off. McDermott has dealt with some injuries but has good stuff and is a strong athlete. Seniors Ross Messina (.316/.380/.547, 22 2B, 8 HR) and Aaron Simpson (.321/.413/.502, 14 SB) are back to lead the offense. With its frontline pitching, Ball State has the potential to give opponents fits this spring.
3. Kent State (30-24, 17-8)
Last year, for just the second time in 14 years, Kent State did not win either the regular season or conference tournament title and its 30 wins were its lowest total since 1998. But the Golden Flashes won’t be down for long. They were bit hard by the injury bug, especially on the mound, and a healthier 2020 would go a long way to getting them back to their familiar position as the MAC’s powerhouse. Pitching has powered Kent State’s dominance over the last two decades, but this year’s team may stand out more offensively. The lineup is led by outfielders Ben Carew (.406/.474/.525, 24 SB), Justin Kirby (.313/.398/.619, 9 HR, 9 SB) and Cam Touchette (.345/.445/.429, 19 SB). Catcher Michael Turner (.369/.448/.539) is back behind the plate, giving the Golden Flashes some experience up the middle. Kent State lacked a true ace last season, an unusual occurrence for a program that in recent seasons has produced stars such as Andrew Chafin, Eric Lauer and Joey Murray. The return to health of lefthanders Ryan Kircher and Collin Romel and Jack Zimmerman and righthander Ryan Lane, who all missed significant time due to injuries in 2019, would be a significant boost for the Golden Flashes. One or more of them bouncing back to join the likes of senior righthander Zach Schultz (2-4, 2.68) as a reliable piece of the staff will be crucial. Veterans of the conference know not to count out Kent State, but the Golden Flashes will have more to prove than usual in 2020.
4. Miami (Ohio) (37-19, 15-11)
The RedHawks lost a lot on the mound from last year’s team, including three of their starters and their four most reliable relievers. But sophomore righthander Sam Bachman (7-1, 3.93) is back to lead the rotation and has the stuff to be a contender for MAC Pitcher of the Year. Miami has done a good job of developing pitching in recent years and it’ll need to do so again this year to fill the holes around Bachman. Offensively, Miami is in better shape. It returns its top five hitters from last season, a group headlined by do-it-all infielder Landon Stephens (.310/.407/.555, 9 HR, 12 SB). Miami’s going to need improvement from a defense that posted a .961 team fielding percentage to help backstop an inexperienced pitching staff. But with Bachman and a veteran offense leading the way, there are some strong building blocks for coach Danny Hayden.
5. Northern Illinois (20-36, 14-12)
The Huskies may have one of the oldest rosters in the country with 24 players entering at least their third year of college baseball and only three freshmen. NIU returns eight of the 10 players who last season had more than 50 at bats, including outfielders Brendan Joyce (.298/.419/.377) and Nick Drobushevich (.285/.351/.360, 15 SB). On the mound, NIU has even more coming back. All but two of the 15 pitchers who recorded an out for the Huskies last spring are back, led by starters lefthander Erik Hedmark (3-7, 4.92) and righthander Michael Lasiewicz (6-4, 3.94). Having so much returning experience should be a significant boost for the Huskies, who could put together their best season since winning 30 games in 2011.
6. Ohio (20-34, 12-14)
The Bobcats have a big hole to fill in their lineup as they must replace back-to-back MAC Player of the Year Rudy Rott. The slugger led the team in nearly every offensive category and finding a way to account for the loss of his production will not be easy. Ohio’s strength should be in run prevention, although offensively they’ll need to figure some things out. The Bobcats have veterans up the middle, starting with senior catcher Tanner Piechnick (.163/.245/.378, 6 HR) and junior center fielder Sebastian Falk (.202/.279/.298). On the mound, Ohio returns six of the eight pitchers who threw more than 20 innings last season, including righthanders Edward Kutt (3-5, 3.64) and Jack Liberatore (8-5, 3.61) and lefthander Brett Manis (1-1, 3.00, 7 SV). With so much depth returning on the mound, the Bobcats should be able to stay competitive while they work out their new-look offense.
7. Western Michigan (18-31, 11-13)
The Broncos will draw plenty of attention this spring thanks to junior outfielder Blake Dunn, who is among the favorites to win the MAC Player of the Year award and one of the top prospects in the conference. Last season he hit .374/.467/.521 with five home runs and 30 stolen bases, leading the team in nearly every significant offensive stat. He’s coming off a solid showing in the Cape Cod League and gives coach Billy Gernon a cornerstone to build the lineup around. With Dunn at the heart of the offense, WMU should be able to put up runs, but it’ll need to improve on the mound after posting a 6.28 team ERA in 2019. Righthander Brady Miller (5-2, 3.15) last year emerged as the team’s best pitcher as a freshman and is back to lead the rotation. The Broncos will need to find some pieces to fill in behind him to push back into the top half of the conference.
8. Eastern Michigan (11-43-1, 6-21)
The Eagles struggled through an awful 11-43-1 2019 season and their .209 winning percentage was the worst in program history. That dismal overall mark included an 11-game losing streak, though they did win six MAC games. EMU will be improved in 2020 but how fast it can climb out of that hole depends on how much its pitching is improved this season. The return of fifth-year senior righthander Davis Feldman, who missed 2019 and all but four starts in 2018 due to Tommy John surgery, and the addition of well-regarded freshman righthander Cameron Wagoner, who ranked No. 442 on the 2019 BA 500 among all draft-eligible players, should help in that regard. Both could slot right into the rotation and junior lefthander Scott Granzotto (3-6, 3.88) proved to be a capable starter last year. Offensively, EMU lost third baseman Zachary Owings, its leading hitter from 2019, but senior catcher Nick Jones (.275/.341/.317) and senior outfielder Jeff Timko (.292/.382/.451, 9 SB) give the team some experience back in the lineup. With 22 players on the roster who are entering at least their third season of college baseball, the Eagles should be in position to take a step forward in 2020.
9. Bowling Green (16-33, 8-18)
The Falcons have endured a tough run over the last four seasons and have not reached the 20-win mark since 2015. They brought in a large freshman class this fall to combine with a large sophomore class, which will make for a new young core for BG. The Falcons have some significant losses to account for offensively, but they do return senior outfielder Jake Wilson (.303/.360/.404, 12 SB). On the mound, righthanders Andrew Abrahamowicz (2-5, 3.11), Tyler Hays (2-6, 5.10) and Jeremy Spezia (0-2, 3.57, 6 SV) give the Falcons some experienced arms to build around. With so many newcomers in the fold, things this spring will look different at BG. How quickly those young players come along will determine how good this team can be.
10. Akron (N/A)
Akron eliminated its program following the 2015 season, but it wasn’t long before the school reversed its decision. In the fall of 2017, Akron announced plans to reinstate the program and, now, the Zips are back. Former MLB all-star Chris Sabo is leading the program after four years as coach at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. For their first team back, the Zips recruited junior colleges heavily and have a roster that’s primarily juniors. Akron focused on building talent up the middle and second baseman Brad Goulet and center fielder Brenton Phillips have the best overall toolsets in the lineup. How much depth the Zips have been able to accumulate on the mound will go a long way to determining how successful they can be this season. Righthander Taed Heydinger will lead the staff and Akron has some big, projectable pitchers—like righthander Brady Mehl—who could make a jump this spring. If they do, the Zips could make a splashier return to the diamond than expected.
11. Toledo (17-36, 4-21)
For the first time in a long time, the Rockets will have a new look in the dugout in 2020. Rob Reinstetle takes over the program from Cory Mee, who stepped down after 16 years as Toledo’s head coach. Mee’s staff had been together for 11 years, the longest continuity of any coaching staff in the MAC. Now, however, Reinstetle will try to get Toledo moving forward after a difficult 2019 season. Sophomore infielder Darryn Davis and junior outfielder John Servello, the 2018 MAC Freshman of the Year, return this spring to lead the offense. The Rockets’ most pressing concern is on the mound after they posted a 6.61 team ERA. Senior righthanders Layne Schnitz-Paxton (2-6, 4.26) and Doug Smith (3-5, 6.50) were both regulars in the rotation last season and return, as does senior righthander Nate Haugh (2-5, 5.18, 5 SV). To make a move out of the cellar, Toledo is going to have to tighten up its run prevention.
Top 2020 Draft Prospects
- Zavier Warren, SS, Central Michigan
- Blake Dunn, OF, Western Michigan
- Kyle Nicolas, RHP, Ball State
- John Baker, RHP, Ball State
- Chayce McDermott, RHP, Ball State
- Griffin Lockwood-Powell, C, Central Michigan
- Collin Romel, LHP, Kent State
- Logan Buczkowski, RHP, Central Michigan
- Michael Turner, C, Kent State
- Davis Feldman, RHP, Eastern Michigan