Previewing The NAIA Landscape In 2020
No. 1 Tennessee Wesleyan University (56-10): The reigning national champion returns six of nine starters from the lineup, including 2019 NAIA World Series MVP Bryce Giles (.387 in 2019). This potent group features plenty of experience to keep the Bulldogs in the mix at a championship level. Returning catcher Shamoy Christopher hit .309 with nine home runs and 41 RBI and newcomer Gary Mattis (.360) led all of JUCO with 64 stolen bases last season.
The big question for the Bulldogs will be on the mound after the 1-2 punch of Cole Bellair and Jack Granath graduated. Coach Billy Berry brought in a stellar recruiting class of mainly pitchers, including two JUCO stud lefthanders in Motlow State's Kobe Foster and Yavapai College’s Tyler Smith.
Foster (75 IP, 1.19 ERA, 109 K) looks to be the ace on the mound; he brings a three-pitch mix with an above-average breaking ball that he consistently throws for a strike.
“He attacks hitters which is evident by a guy who averaged over 100 strikeouts the last two seasons,” Berry said.
The Bulldogs need Foster and the eight new arms to be a force as TWU replaces over 350 innings worth of production.
No. 2, University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (49-12): If you’re not familiar with the NAIA landscape you’ve likely done a double-take on the name 'Science and Arts of Oklahoma.' Coach Mike Ross has built something special at USAO and the Drovers have ended their season at the NAIA World Series three of the last four years. This season looks to be no different. USAO returns all three starters from the nation’s best rotation a year ago, including 2019 NAIA Pitcher of the Year Colton Williams (16-0, 1.33 ERA, 136 K), sophomore sensation righthander Matt Merrill (11-3, 2.50 ERA, 129 K), and lefthander Jean Muntaner (13-1, 2.86 ERA, 98 K).
The Drovers graduated their entire infield but return all three starting outfielders from last season’s team that hit for an average of .338. Preseason All-American Luis Pelayo (.393, 8 HR, 64 RBI), Ian Laureano (.364, 5 HR, 45 RBI) and Cristian Laboy (.287, 12 HR, 46 RBI) set the tone for this offense.
No. 3 Southeastern (Fla.) University (53-12): The Fire has been the nation’s top team of late and has down the top spot in the Coaches' Poll the bulk of the past two years.
The offensive losses are heavy as graduates Manuel Mesa, Dan Valerio, and Dominic Anagnos all hit well over .340 in 2019. But SEU and coach Adrian Dinkle have a good mix of recruits and returning players to contend again in 2020.
One key addition for the Fire is the return of first basemen Nick Bottari after hitting cleanup on the Fire’s 2018 national championship team. The biggest newcomer is Middle Georgia State transfer and 2019 Southern States Athletics Conference Player of the Year Zach Cornell. Cornell hit .421 last season with 12 home runs and 61 RBIs.
Two big fixtures on the mound for SEU will be New Mexico Junior College transfer Brayan Garcia (3.49 ERA in 38 IP) and Duke transfer Al Pesto. Both hit high velocity marks this fall with Garcia topping out at 96 mph on his fastball and Pesto at 97 mph. Both of these pitchers looked like NAIA draft picks by the end of the fall.
No. 4 Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.) University (47-17): Freed-Hardeman is coming off-back-to-back NAIA World Series appearances with a great opportunity to make it three straight. FHU returns 22 players including its entire rotation from 2019, which accounted for nearly 300 innings between the three weekend starters. The Lions also get back righthander Connor Creasy, who went 9-0 last season and had an NAIA World Series win in 2018.
Head Coach Jonathan Estes returns a huge bat in All-American first basemen Josh Sears. Sears in just two seasons has hit for a .369 average, 42 home runs, and 147 RBI. The Lions bring back six of nine hitters from the lineup of a very successful team the last few years, once again making them a national title contender.
No. 5, Oklahoma City University (46-14): Oklahoma City has been a mainstay of NAIA Baseball, reaching the NAIA World Series 16 times. Coach Denney Crabaugh is one win short of 1500 for his career entering the 2020 season, and he hopes to achieve that in the season opener against York College, a squad that upset them in the Opening Round last May.
Tyler Williams (.408, 19 HR and 79 RBI), the No. 5 NAIA draft prospect, is back and ready to put up monster numbers once again. A name to watch for OCU is Kentucky transfer Dalton Reed. The Oklahoma native started 49 games for UK and hopes to make an early impact back home.
The Stars lost ace Bryce Milligan, who finished 11-2 with a stellar 1.94 ERA last season, but return quality arms in righthander Brandon Goldston and lefthander Jake Patterson.
Look for OCU to be even more potent offensively than last season (.326 as a team in 2019) as the team competes at a high level again.
No. 6, St. Thomas (Fla.) University (49-15): For the second time in school history, St. Thomas University finished as national runner-up at the World Series. Coach Jorge Perez and the Bobcats take on another tough slate playing in the formidable Sun Conference and matching up against NCAA Division 1 powerhouse LSU this season at Alex Box Stadium.
The Bobcats lost their top two pitchers from a year ago in righthanders Orlando Rodriguez and Ian Exposito. They will turn to Chris Coipel and newcomer Robert Touron at the front end of the rotation this spring. The Bobcats will be without a chunk of power in the lineup from 2019, but they return star third basemen Alejandro Rivero, who hit 15 HR with 65 RBI last season. Coach Perez always has a talented group and aims once again to have its team find its way back to Lewiston, Idaho for the NAIA World Series.
No. 7, Faulkner (Ala.) University (49-12): We have a saying here at NAIA Ball: “Death, Taxes, and Faulkner to the World Series.” The Eagles have made the long trek to Lewiston a remarkable seven years in a row. Even though coach Patrick McCarthy is replacing his top hitter and pitcher from a season ago in Max Guzman and lefty Evan Gillespie, the Eagles don’t rebuild, they simply reload.
Righthander Antonio Frias is back to lead the rotation after striking out 102 batters in 85 innings last season. Catcher Johnathan Villa (.340, 14 2B) is one of the NAIA’s top returning backstops and will lead the lineup along with second basemen Hagen Holmstead, who returns after hitting .345 with 11 doubles. They will get some help from juco transfer Shawn Ross (.422, 9 HR), who is a potential draft pick by season's end. Another newcomer to watch is Bubba Sangster, who possesses heavy offensive power.
No. 8 Georgia Gwinnett (48-13): Jeremy Sheetinger becomes the second skipper in Grizzlies' history and takes over the reins of a program that’s reached the World Series three times in its seven-year history.
The Grizzlies feature one of the nation’s best rotations in lefthander Hunter Peck (12-0) and righthanders Hunter Caudelle (2.44 ERA) and Hunter Dollander (42 K). All three starters have experience on the big stage in the NAIA World Series.
Preseason All-American catcher Gabe Austin (.367) is back to headline the lineup after a monster performance at the NAIA World Series last May. Outfielders Nick Barnes (12 HR) and Cord Johnson (.360) add experience to a lineup of newcomers. Bryan College transfer and top-five NAIA draft prospect Gabe Howell (.325, 13 2B, 9 HR) is a major addition for the Grizzlies.
No. 9, Cumberlands (Ky.) University (46-10): The Patriots have been on the verge of winning an Opening Round the last few years, and while this past season's win-loss record may not be as impressive as the last few, the uptick in competition should prepare coach Brad Shelton’s team for a run to Lewiston.
Outfielder Bryan Leef is a star in the middle of the lineup and hit .393 with 20 home runs and 61 RBI last season. Middle infielders Kevin Rolon and Pedro Nazario both return after hitting .360 and .338, respectively, a year ago.
Another strength for this club is the depth of the pitching staff with so many quality arms. All-Mid South Conference second-team selection Colton Easterwood will lead the rotation and righthander Nathan Geissler and lefthander Thomas Guttierez are both expected to contribute a lot of innings this season.
No. 10, Oklahoma Wesleyan University (45-11): The Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament champion Eagles finished one game short of the NAIA World Series last May, falling to Freed-Hardeman to end their run.
Annually one of the best offensive programs in all of college baseball, OKWU ranked top-five nationally once again in runs scored (9.7), slugging percentage (.547), and home runs (1.54) per game last season. The trend should continue in 2020 as the Eagles return one of the nation’s top overall players in All-American outfielder Drenis Ozuna. Ozuna hit .437 with 22 HR and 78 RBI in 2019. Also returning is powerful designated hitter Danny Perez (.299, 11 2B, 10 HR).
On the mound, first-team all-KCAC selection righthander Michael Anderson (3.39 ERA) leads the staff after pitching 106 innings a year ago.
No. 11, Indiana Tech University (42-16): Kip McWilliams’ squad made a special run to Lewiston last season in its first NAIA World Series trip since 2003. The losses from last year's team are certainly with tough, with Glen McClain, a two-time first-team All- American graduating. Corner infielder Branson Dossen and righthander Nate McBroom.
On the plus side, Indiana Tech returns six position players and four key pitchers. On the mound, lefthander Charles Dunavan (79 IP, 2.51 ERA, 96K) and lefthander Landon Bloir (38 IP, 1.17 ERA) will lead the way. Offensively, the team will turn to infielder Jake DeFries (.367, 43 RBI) and outfielder Jacob Alvidrez (.317, 30 RBI). The Warriors also bring in 11 newcomers to help the team in 2020.
Coach McWilliams set up a competitive non-conference schedule; the team faces off against numerous postseason teams from 2019 including Tennessee Wesleyan, Georgia Gwinnett, Cumberlands, Rio Grande (Ohio), and British Columbia.
No. 12, Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) College (35-15-1): First year head coach Jake Taylor’s team went 1-2 at the NAIA World Series a season ago as the automatic qualifier. LCSC will have some holes to fill with righthanders Tyler Burch and Tanner Simpson and offensive leaders Darren Trainor and Kyle Callahan all having graduated.
Fortunately for LC, they recruit as well as anyone in the country. The Warriors should actually be better offensively this season. Returning starters Zach Needham (.255, 10 HR) and A.J. Davis (.326) will be a big part of that. Center fielder Dalton Harum is a promising NCAA Division I transfer from the Virginia Tech. Fellow newcomer Aidan Nagle was the MVP of the Virginia League and should be the everyday starter in right field.
On the mound, righthander Matt Driver (1.47 WHIP) and lefthander Luke Tedrick will carry a lot of the early-season pitching load. The Warriors will be able to space some of those innings out and get everyone experience as the year goes on.
No. 13, LSU-Shreveport (La.) (47-13): The Pilots have a change at head coach with mainstay Brent Lavallee takeing a position with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Pilots subsequently hired Brad Neffendorf as the new head man in Shreveport. Neffendorf spent the last four years as the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Tennessee Wesleyan.
LSU-Shreveport returns 22 players from a team that won 47 games last season, including the key bats of Payton Robertson (.387, 18 2B, 37 SB), Austin McNicholas (.361, 20 2B), and Taylor Fajardo (.325, 12 HR). While Neffendorf is still learning the ropes of the team late in the offseason, he has more than enough talent and returning experience to make the Pilots a team to watch at the national level.
No. 14, Central Methodist (Mo.) University (35-16): Eagles head coach Nate Breland has a strong ace on the mound in preseason All- American righthander Mason Schwellenbach (8-0, 2.47 ERA, 107 K), who will be expected to step up for losses in the rotation of righthander Peyton Long and lefthander Kyle Fulton. Central Methodist also returns five all-conference hitters including team home run and RBI leader Z Westley (.303, 11 HR, 49 RBI).
CMU fell one game short of playing for an opportunity to go to the NAIA World Series last season and Breland expects to be better offensively in 2020 with a more complete pitching staff. Newcomer Kenny Otero and Schwellenbach will lead the team as two-way players this season. CMU will be looking to retain a top spot in the Heart of America Athletic Conference this season.
No. 15, Texas Wesleyan University (46-16): Texas Wesleyan returns five hitters from last year’s lineup, including the catching duo of Michael Davila (.386, 16 2B, 5 HR) and Tanner Amaral (.316, 14 2B, 5 HR). The Rams return seven pitchers on the staff from last season but lose three key pieces in Houston Glad, Cameron Vige, and NAIA All-American Parker Robinson.
Lefthander Jesse Ramirez (51 IP, 1.89 ERA, 71 K) brings back the most experience on the mound. The team will look to some new faces for help, such as righthander Gabriel Sequeria (3.70 ERA, 55K) and Jalen Evans (7-1, 51K).
Texas Wesleyan returns a total of 15 players from last year’s team, giving head coach Robert Garza has a nice mix of returning and incoming talent to work with this season. It will be interesting to see if the Rams can break into the field of 10 at Lewiston.
NAIA Player of the Year: Zach Cornell, OF, Southeastern University: (.421 AVG, 85 H, 64 R, 12 HR, 61 RBI, .538 OBP in 2019 at Middle Georgia State)
NAIA Pitcher of the Year: Colton Williams, RHP, University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma: (16-0, 1.33 ERA, 16 GS, 7 CG, 3 SO, 108.2 IP, 25 BB, 136K, .186 opponent average in 2019)
Top 20 2020 Draft Prospects:
1. Brayan Garcia, RHP, Southeastern (Fla.) University: Garcia, standing at 6-foot-4, will be the ace for Southeastern this year. Garcia has a fastball that will reach 96 mph and sit in the low-to-mid 90s consistently. He also has the ability to throw a good slider in his mix.
2. Tyler Williams, OF, Oklahoma City University: The 6-foot-3 Arizona State transfer is one of the best hitters in the NAIA. Williams was a consensus high school All- American and at one point the No. 1 prospect in the state of Arizona. He hit .408 last season with 19 home runs and 79 RBI. His highlight performance was a four-homer eight-RBI game against Mid-America Christian University last year.
3. Gabe Howell, IF, Georgia Gwinnett: Howell shows a great mix of ability to hit for average and power and shows speed as the shortstop for GGC. Last season at Bryan College, Howell hit .325 with 9 home runs 42 RBI, and 16 stolen bases.
4. Zach Cornell, OF, Southeastern: Cornell has a big physical lefthanded bat with plus power and the ability to hit to all fields with great bat speed. The 6-foot-2 outfielder has an ability to run for his size and plays his position well. His biggest strength is his offensive capability.
5. Al Pesto, RHP, Southeastern: Pesto, a transfer from Duke, has shown the ability for high 90s velocity flashing at 97 mph on multiple occasions from the right side. He also shows an ability to command his secondary pitches.
6. Colton Williams, LHP, University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma: Williams, the reigning NAIA pitcher of the year, will sit at 88-90 with his fastball. He’s coming off a 1.33 ERA season in 108.2 IP with a nation leading 136 strikeouts.
7. Bailey Reid, RHP, Westmont (Calif.) College: The nation’s top returning closer didn’t allow an earned run in eight saves last season. His fastball will sit at 93-94 mph, and he kept hitters to a .053 opponent average last season.
8. Merfy Andrew, RHP, St. Thomas (Fla.) University: It’s undetermined if Andrew will start or come out of the bullpen for STU. Andrew will sit consistently at 96-97 mph on his fastball with a slider that will land in the upper 80s.
9. Dion Henderson, LHP, Madonna (Mich.) University: The 6-foot-3 lefthander will sit 88-90 mph with the ability to reach 93 mph on his fastball. Henderson is able to consistently throw his off-speed pitches for strikes, and is a pitcher expected to increase his velocity as the season goes on.
10. Robert Touron, RHP, St. Thomas: Touron will anchor the Bobcat rotation. He has plus secondary pitches and a fastball that will run into the low 90s.
11. Dailin Lee, OF, Hope International (Calif.) University
12. Josh Sears, 1B, Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.) University
13. Mason Schwellenbach, RHP, Central Methodist (Mo.) University
14. Antonio Frias, LHP, Faulkner (Ala.) University
15. Shawn Ross, SS, Faulkner
16. Gunner Halter, IF, Oklahoma City
17. Dillon Plew, 2B/3B, Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) College
18. Drenis Ozuna, OF, Oklahoma Wesleyan University
19. Taylor Fajardo, OF, LSU-Shreveport (La.)
20. Jonathan Villa, C, Faulkner
Robby Gutierrez and Cody Butler cover NAIA baseball. They produce the NAIA ball podcast and can be found at https://twitter.com/NAIABall.