2020 Southland Conference College Baseball Preview
The Southland standings at the end of the 2019 season looked quite familiar. Usual suspects Sam Houston State and Southeastern Louisiana finished one and two at the top for the third time in four seasons and the middle of the pack was tightly bunched.
Ten of the league’s 13 teams finished with between 13 and 19 wins in conference play, one year after nine teams had between 13 and 18. There’s also little denying that the teams that have most often finished near the bottom of the standings in recent years have shown improvement, which has helped turn the league into something of a gauntlet from week to week and makes the race to qualify for the conference tournament very interesting.
That competitiveness, however, has not translated into more at-large bids, at least not lately, as 2019 was the second straight year the conference produced just one NCAA Tournament bid.
Frankly, that level of parity might actually be hurting its chances of getting multiple teams into regionals. If teams with RPIs of 150 or worse are finishing close to .500 in league play, it is potentially doing a number to those teams trying to preserve their RPI for at-large purposes.
It’s too early to classify this as any sort of troubling trend to follow for the league, and perhaps it’s simply the cost of doing business as a 13-team conference, but it’s something the Southland will look to reverse.
It very well could do so in 2020, when it will have candidates, namely McNeese State and Sam Houston State, that have the talent and schedule to build at-large resumes.
Player of the Year: Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State
Cowser came into the 2019 season as the most highly-touted freshman in the Southland, and he absolutely lived up to those expectations, hitting .361/.450/.602 on the way to earning Southland hitter of the year honors and a place on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. He comes into his sophomore year as a third-team Preseason All-American, and already, he’s considered an elite prospect for the 2021 draft. There is a lot of time between now and then, but Cowser has a real shot to be the Bearkats’ first first-round draft pick since Glenn Wilson went 18th overall in 1980 and the Southland’s highest draft pick since Stephen F. Austin shortstop Hunter Dozier went eighth overall in 2013. Simply put, Cowser is one of the best players in college baseball and the type of talent that can really do the heavy lifting to get a team into the postseason.
Pitcher of the Year: Noah Cameron, LHP, Central Arkansas
Like Cowser, Cameron was a freshman sensation a season ago, going 6-2, 2.95 with 91 strikeouts and 19 walks in 94.2 innings of work as part of a Central Arkansas pitching staff that was the best in the conference. Now, with the departure of righthander Cody Davenport, whose 365.1 career innings are a program record, Cameron is set to lead the Bears’ rotation on what should again be a pitching-centric team.
Freshman of the Year: Cameron Meeks, RHP, McNeese State
A member of the BA 500 prospect list heading into the 2019 draft, Meeks passed on beginning his pro career and arrived on campus this fall as the Cowboys’ top recruit. A talented returning pitching staff means that Meeks will have to battle for innings, but he has the talent to earn his fair share. A local hero who came one hit away from throwing a perfect game for Lake Charles’ own Sam Houston High in the Louisiana 5A state semifinals, Meeks came out of high school with a fastball that sat 89-93 mph and a breaking ball that should be a weapon within the Southland.
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Predicted Order of Finish (2019 record)
1. McNeese State (35-26, 16-14)
After winning the Southland Tournament to advance to regionals last season, its first since 2003, McNeese State returns a veteran club with uncommon balance. The weekend rotation is largely unproven at McNeese, but the ceiling is high. Lefthander Will Dion (5-0, 1.98) will look to transition from dominant relief arm to Friday starter. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, he might not look the part of a prototypical Friday guy on a regional-caliber team, but his results a season ago and his competitive nature suggest that it’s a role he can take on. Grad transfer righthander Kale Breaux, previously of Mississippi State, is projected to slot in behind Dion, with junior college transfer righthander Cameron Foster and Meeks also in the mix. Brad Kincaid (3-1, 4.06), who held hitters to a .179 opponent average in 2019, also projects as an important piece in the bullpen who could flourish if he is able to cut down on his walks after issuing 36 free passes (with eight hit batters) in 44.1 innings.
There’s not nearly as much projection involved when you look at the McNeese lineup, which returns its top four hitters for average in first baseman Jake Dickerson (.313/.416/.413), second baseman Nate Fisbeck (.304/.378/.541), right fielder Clayton Rasbeary (.304/.401/.507) and center fielder Payton Harden (.294/.387/.339). With 22 home runs between them, Fisbeck and Rasbeary provide pop in the lineup, while Dickerson and Harden, with 11 and 16 stolen bases, respectively, provide some base stealing ability. Shortstop Reid Bourque (.222/.304/.287), a plus defender who stole 22 bases in 2019, will bring some speed to the lineup as well. There is athleticism all over the field, which should make defense a strength for the Cowboys that serves as icing on the cake. It may not have any of the very best draft-eligible prospects in the conference or anyone with stats from last year that jump off the page nationally, but McNeese State has a quality collection of talent that should make it the favorite in the Southland.
2. Sam Houston State (31-25, 20-10)
The Bearkats are entering a new era in 2020, as assistant coach Jay Sirianni takes over as head coach after Matt Deggs departed in the offseason to take the same position at Louisiana-Lafayette. That said, they also return some high-end talent from a team that spent 2019 winning its third Southland regular season title in four seasons. That group starts with Cowser, the most talented player in the conference and one of the best in the country, but extends to players like first baseman Jack Rogers (.304/.377/.541), who could be poised for a breakout season as a prospect in 2020, and likely designated hitter Gavin Johnson (.291/.328/.456). There is also hope that junior college transfer Blake Faecher, previously of Louisiana, and freshman Clayton Chadwick will make instant impacts in the outfield. The SHSU coaching staff believes the latter has the talent to give the program back-to-back conference hitter of the year winners after Cowser won it last season.
On the mound, righthander Tyler Davis, a junior college transfer who was previously at Wichita State, projects to lead the rotation. Two seasons ago, he had a 3.66 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 51.2 innings on a Shockers team that won 35 games. Lefthander Dominic Robinson (3-1, 4.33) came on late last season and will look to ride that momentum into becoming a solid starting option behind Davis. Cole Wesneski (1-2, 3.56), the brother of 2019 sixth-round pick Hayden Wesneski, will likely pitch in a number of roles depending on the team’s need. Two big X-factors for the pitching staff are lefthander Matt Dillard (1-1, 8.04) and righthander Landon Ausley (1-2, 10.80). Both have immense talent. Dillard was a Brewers draftee out of high school who struggled as a freshman last season. Ausley features a fastball at 96-97 mph with a slider he can use as a putaway pitch, and he put up a 2.53 ERA as a freshman. But he suffered through a trying 2019 season that saw him battle control issues. If those two can harness their stuff and be more consistent, it will really raise the ceiling for what the Bearkats can accomplish in 2020.
3. Southeastern Louisiana (33-27, 19-11)
The Lions may not have a trademark result like the super regional appearance that Sam Houston State made in 2017, but they have been just as consistent, and perhaps more so. They haven’t finished lower than in a tie for second place in the league standings since 2014, which makes them the only program in the league that can say that. The talent is there to finish in one of the top two spots again, but with just nine returning lettermen from last season, there are some questions to answer along the way. Perhaps the biggest one is what can be expected from a rotation that is now without Corey Gaconi and Mason Knopp. Lefthander Trey Shaffer (2-3, 6.11) and righthanders Will Warren (3-7, 6.72) and Justin Simanek (1-1, 6.14) all have experience in the program, but for the Lions to thrive, they’ll all have to show improvement. The stuff is certainly there for them to do so. All three can run their fastballs into the low 90s, with Simanek touching 94 mph, and Shaffer and Warren boast four-pitch repertoires. Jared Biddy and Bryce Tassin were both effective out of the bullpen last year, but now, those innings will be turned over to some new faces, including junior college transfer Landon Clifton and freshman Dalton Rogers.
Last season, the Lions struggled offensively, hitting .246 as a team, but the returning pieces they have in the lineup are quality. Outfielder Preston Faulkner (.273/.360/.488) is back after leading the team in doubles (17) and home runs (11) in 2019. Center fielder Nick Ray (.238/.356/.405) shows some pop and flashes speed and a good arm defensively, and while third baseman Trey Harrington (.242/.295/.335) has something to prove at the plate, he’s a plus defender with a big arm at the hot corner. There is also a lot of optimism about the newcomers, including junior college transfers in outfielder Brandon Hale and second baseman Tyler Finke, both of whom look to bring a dangerous combination of power and speed. There was a lot of turnover on this roster after last season, but Southeastern Louisiana always finds its way to the top tier of the league and it’s safe to assume that will be the case again.
4. Central Arkansas (32-27, 19-11)
In recent years, the Bears have been a model of consistency within the league. They’ve never won the Southland regular season title (although they did win the conference tournament in 2013), but once they got it going as full-time members in the league, they’ve also never really bottomed out. Since the 2012 season, they’ve never finished higher than third (which happened last season), but they’ve never finished lower than seventh, either. Last season, that unprecedented third-place finish came thanks to an outstanding pitching staff that led the conference in ERA with a 3.50 mark. Despite the loss of the program’s all time innings leader, Cody Davenport, pitching should lead the way again. That starts with the sophomore lefthander Cameron, who gave Davenport an outstanding running mate in the rotation a year ago, but also extends to junior righthander Gavin Stone (1.52, 6 SV), who dominated in a relief role in 2019, striking out 58 in 47.1 innings of work and limiting opponents to a .241 average.
Offensively, the Bears might not be a juggernaut, but there is potential there, what with catcher/infielder Beau Orlando (.290/.419/.383) and outfielder Josh Ragan (.277/.344/.427) on the roster again in 2020. There is a perception around the league that head coach Allen Gum gets the most out of his roster year after year, and the results bear that out. Every single year, UCA finishes in the top tier of the Southland and qualifies for the conference tournament, and 2020 should be no different.
5. Incarnate Word (37-22, 18-12)
In two seasons under Pat Hallmark, the Cardinals engineered the most impressive turnaround in the conference, going from 20 wins the season before he arrived to 29 and 37 in 2018 and 2019. Now, with Hallmark departing to be the head coach at crosstown foe Texas-San Antonio, former Houston assistant Ryan Shotzberger will look to keep momentum in UIW’s corner. The program suffered significant personnel losses after last season, and that might make depth a bit of a question mark, but there is still enough top-end talent present to allow the 2020 team to stay competitive in the top half of the league. Offensively, first baseman Ryan Flores (.335/.355/.608), second baseman Sean Arnold (.325/.425/.495), designated hitter Lee Thomas (.280/.345/.533) and outfielder Ridge Rogers (.275/.374/.342) create a foundation of experienced impact bats, and outfielders Landon Etzel and Drew Minter, who transferred from Houston, are expected to contribute right away.
On the mound, the loss of Bernie Martinez is a huge one because the pitcher was an established workhorse in both a starting and bullpen role at various points, but a rotation fronted by righthanders Luke Taggart (7-5, 3.68) and Andrew Morgan (5-0, 2.23) looks like a good start in mitigating his departure. Last season, UIW mixed and matched on the pitching staff. Taggart led the team in innings pitched, but he had more relief appearances (11) than starts (8). Martinez was second behind Taggart in innings pitched, but he only started three games all season, and eight different pitchers started at least three games. Perhaps that versatility pays off in 2020 among the returning pitchers. If everyone has experience serving in different roles, it could make it easier on the coaching staff to experiment until they find the right combinations.
6. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (31-26, 14-16)
The Islanders bring back an experienced roster looking to lead the team to its highest finish in the Southland since it finished fourth in 2014. The lineup, in particular, should be extremely experienced, with as many as seven seniors fighting to earn regular playing time. The combination of right fielder Itchy Burts (.356/.412/.494) and left fielder Mike Williams (.283/.335/.395) will make the offense go. Both had draft interest after last season but made it through undrafted and will now look to cap their careers with huge seasons. Defensively, the Islanders will potentially be as good as any team in the conference up the middle with the presence of second baseman Steven Rivera-Chijin (.241/.327/.277), shortstop Cole Fluta (.287/.368/.330), who also exceeded expectations last season with the bat, and junior college transfer center fielder Tristan Welch, a toolsy player who will cover a ton of ground.
On the mound, lefthander John Gaddis (4-4, 3.08) will go into the season as the Friday starter. Last year, he pitched well in a relief role before starting some games on Fridays down the stretch. His low-90s fastball and big breaking ball will also make him a highly-scouted player by the time the draft rolls around again. Righthander Leo Perez (2-3, 5.53) will slot in on Saturdays after starting 12 games last year. The Sunday starter role is a little up in the air, but the name to watch is righthander Hayden Thomas. The draft-eligible sophomore spent most of his summer in the Coastal Plain League, where he struck out 50 in 44 innings of work, but late in the campaign, he got a cup of coffee in the Cape Cod League, throwing 4.1 scoreless innings in his one start. With a fastball that has been clocked in the mid 90s and a plus slider, Thomas has the stuff to be a real weapon in the rotation and to be a name mentioned a lot leading up to the draft. In the bullpen, look for righthander David Worrell (2-1, 5.34) to reprise his role as an important piece at the back of games. Overall, the talent is in place for Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to make a move up the standings.
7. New Orleans (29-26, 13-17)
Blake Dean has brought consistency to the New Orleans program. Coming off of four straight seasons of no more than 15 wins, Dean took over for the 2016 season and has led the Privateers to an average of 30 wins in four seasons. That consistency should continue in 2020. Most of last year’s starting lineup returns, including last season’s top hitter in Gaige Howard (.330/.432/.414), outfielder Luther Woullard (.288/.377/.412), outfielder Pearce Howard (.277/.357/.413) and shortstop Darren Willis (.276/.359/.391). Second baseman Salo Iza (.224/.355/.380) will be an interesting player to watch. A good defender at his position, the UNO coaches believe he’s a much better hitter than his batting average shows, and data backs that up. Last season, Iza got on base at a solid clip, showed some power with ten doubles and six homers and had a batting average on balls in play of just .252. With a little more batted ball luck in 2020, his batting average should be more in line with his talent level.
New Orleans lost its two best pitchers from last season, the relief ace duo of Reeves Martin and Matthew Oset, and finding new bullpen arms to fill those voids will be a challenge. Lefty Brandon Mitchell (3-4, 5.31), who started 10 games last season, is a candidate to take on some of those innings, as is junior college transfer lefthander Matt Delcambre. The rotation looks solid. Righthander Chris Turpin (5-5, 4.54) is back after serving as UNO’s most durable starter last year, and so is righty Bailey Holstein (2-2, 5.11), who threw 56.1 innings in a swingman role. What has the potential to take the rotation to another level is the addition of righthander Eric Orze, who missed all of last season in his recovery from two separate cancer diagnoses. Now healthy, he is not only slotted in as the team’s Friday starter, but with a four-pitch mix that features a fastball from 90-94 mph, a putaway slider and splitter and a curveball, he is an intriguing prospect as well. If bullpen roles are solidified early on and Orze helps raise the ceiling of the rotation, New Orleans has the talent to overachieve this projection.
8. Nicholls State (27-28, 13-17)
The Colonels return a veteran team in 2020, including several pitchers from a staff that had a 3.53 ERA last season, good for second in the conference. Lefty Shane Mejia (4-2, 3.51) will take over the Friday role after earning a reputation as a strike thrower and competitor as a freshman last season. Last year’s Friday starter, senior Trever Kilcrease (3-5, 4.25), figures to slot in behind Mejia with his fastball that sits 88-92 mph. Nick Heckman (1-1, 2.52) has the edge on filling out the rotation after doing some starting in the midweek in 2019. Junior college transfer lefthander Joe Taylor, who began his career at Kennesaw State, and righthander Brandon Andrews (1-2, 3.24) are two arms to watch in the bullpen. None of these pitchers have electric stuff in a traditional sense, but just about all of them have a proven track record of success at Nicholls, and more than that, this is a program that seems to get the absolute most out of its pitchers year after year.
A lot of experience returns in the lineup as well, highlighted by outfielder Dane Simon (.288/.397/.382), whose 16 stolen bases led the team in 2019; catcher Chris Sandberg (.267/.361/.313), who is a solid defender behind the plate; and power-hitting first baseman Adam Tarver (.258/.351/.416). Breakout candidates include athletic outfielder Xane Washington, who hit .277/.344/.377 in 2018 before missing all of last year due to injury, and outfielder Austin France (.242/.349/.320), a good athlete in his own right who could handle center field if not for Washington. Run prevention will again be a strength for the Colonels, and that should put them back in the race to quality for the conference tournament.
9. Northwestern State (30-25, 15-15)
Two years ago, the Demons were in a regional, and last season, they returned enough pieces, particularly on the mound, to remain competitive. Coming into this season, they turn over a lot of innings on the mound and have a lot of open competition for positions in the field. One sure thing on the mound is junior college transfer Logan Hofmann leading the rotation. After getting drafted in the 35th round by the Cardinals last June and then turning in an all-star season in the Cape Cod League, the righty arrived to fanfare this fall. With a fastball that sits 90-93 mph and a wipeout slider, Hofmann clearly has the goods to be a workhorse in 2020. Peyton Graham (1-0, 5.88), who could see significant innings in a number of roles, will also be an important piece of the puzzle. Offensively, senior outfielder Tyler Smith (.269/.376/.497), who has come into his own by cutting down on strikeouts while maintaining his power production, will be a catalyst, as will sophomore outfielder Jeffrey Elkins (.284/.370/.447) and senior outfielder Lenni Kunert (.296/.368/.421), who might see most of his at-bats at designated hitter.
10. Lamar (18-36, 9-21)
After back-to-back seasons with fewer than 20 wins overall, the first time the program has suffered that fate since 1990-1991, the Cardinals will look to bounce back with an experienced lineup that should be able to keep the team in just about every game. The headliners offensively are second baseman J.C. Correa (.332/.381/.529), the younger brother of Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, and third baseman Anthony Quirion (.289/.340/.492). Outfielder Avery George (.323/.389/.341), a plus runner, will also be a spark plug at the top of the order. Cole Coker (.284/.356/.389) is a player to watch as well. As a four-year starter who goes into the season with more than 150 games played to his name, Coker will want to end his career on a high note. On the mound, the Cardinals will turn to an all-junior college transfer rotation of Zach Bravo, Trevin Michael and Austin Faith. Obviously, that trio is short on experience, but it’s long on arm talent, what with all three of them possessing fastballs that can run into the mid 90s.
11. Houston Baptist (18-35, 10-20)
A senior-heavy lineup should create optimism that HBU will be able to show improvement over its 2019 season, which was the program’s worst season since 2009, just its second year in Division I. Those seniors include outfielder Brandon Bena (.313/.372/.453), outfielder Ryne Edmondson (.284/.376/.348), first baseman Johnny Gonzales (.280/.355/.469), third baseman Trent Franson (.280/.343/.349), outfielder Cal Clark (.266/.355/.339) and outfielder Chase Talbot (.250/.332/.409). There is much more turnover on the mound, where top starting pitchers Brady Batten and Zach Carter, plus bullpen workhorses J.T. Newton and Daniel Endsley, are gone. However, coach Jared Moon and his staff, which includes two coaches with plenty of pitching coach experience in Xavier Hernandez and Russell Stockton, have historically done a very good job of bringing fresh arms to campus, particularly from the junior college ranks, to step into big roles right away.
12. Stephen F. Austin (25-33, 16-14)
The pitching staff, led by one of the best arms in the conference in Alex Palmer, helped the Lumberjacks to a seven-win improvement in conference play in 2019, jumping them from 12th to sixth in the standings. With the departure of Palmer, plus key bullpen arm Jesus Gamez, there is some rebuilding to do on the mound, but with relievers Jeremy Rodriguez (1.80, 5 SV) and Austin Roth (0-0, 3.13) back on the roster, there are some pitchers who can serve as the foundation of a rebuilt staff. With SFA’s pitching set to perhaps take a step back, it will need to get much more from its offense, which hit .222/.306/.291 as a team in 2019. With only senior infielder Sean Moore (.245/.381/.307) back among the team’s top five hitters from last year, this stands to be the Lumberjacks’ biggest challenge.
13. Abilene Christian (26-26, 13-17)
Under first-year head coach Rick McCarty, ACU last year enjoyed its best season since making the jump to Division I. With just six returning lettermen on the roster, the Wildcats will have to get immediate contributions from a number of new faces if they are going to put together a similar performance in 2020. Top returners include outfielder Colton Eager (.300/.359/.369) and second baseman Ryne Randle (.255/.312/.315). Junior college transfer center fielder Nico Limoncelli should step in right away and give the Wildcats a stolen base threat at the top of the order. Right fielder Jojo Craig, a junior college transfer, should provide some pop in the middle of the order and a strong arm at his position. On the mound, senior righthander Spencer Chirpich (7-4, 4.62) will be a steadying force at the front of a rotation that could also feature junior college transfers in lefty Nate Hawkins and righty Austin Ruesch, along with freshman righthander Tyler Morgan.
Top 2020 Draft Prospects
- Landon Ausley, RHP, Sam Houston State
- Gavin Stone, RHP, Central Arkansas
- Luke Taggart, RHP, Incarnate Word
- John Gaddis, LHP, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
- Jack Rogers, 1B, Sam Houston State
- Drew Minter, OF, Incarnate Word
- Logan Hofmann, RHP, Northwestern State
- Trey Shaffer, LHP, Southeastern Louisiana
- Hayden Thomas, RHP, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
- Xane Washington, OF, Nicholls State