2020 Summit League College Baseball Preview
Change was afoot in the Summit League in 2019. Not including the two years when Oral Roberts was a member of the Southland Conference, someone other than the Golden Eagles ended the regular season atop the standings for the first time since 2010. And for the first time since ORU joined the conference prior to the 1998 season, it failed to win the league’s automatic bid into regionals.
Nebraska-Omaha unseated ORU on both fronts. With a 20-10 mark, the Mavericks won the regular season title and then backed it up with a conference tournament title in what amounted to a road environment in Tulsa.
The Mavs could go back-to-back, but they’re in a three-team race that figures to go down to the wire again. Oral Roberts is well-stocked with talent, including several transfers from major-conference programs, and South Dakota State returns a lot of front-line talent from a team that finished in second place last season.
For years, one had to wonder if there was ever going to be a program capable of consistently challenging Oral Roberts’ dominance in this league. Now, at least for the time being, there are two.
Player of the Year: Isaac Coffey, 1B/RHP, Oral Roberts
Coffey enjoyed a breakout freshman season in Tulsa, hitting .292/.372/.472 with six home runs at the plate and going 3-2, 3.82 on the mound on the way to being named a Freshman All-American. On a team that was looking for some quality behind Spencer Henson in the lineup and Josh McMinn in the rotation, Coffey gave Oral Roberts both and was just what the doctor ordered. In 2020, he’ll once again be a two-way star for the Golden Eagles, serving as a middle-of-the-order bat and the team’s Saturday starter.
Pitcher of the Year: Max Loven, LHP, North Dakota State
In a league heavy on frontline pitching, Loven, just a sophomore, stands above the rest. Last season, he was named the league’s newcomer of the year after going 4-2, 2.74 with 75 strikeouts, just 15 walks and a .240 opponent batting average in 88.2 innings. He also ran through the finish line of the season at a time when most pitchers are wearing down, throwing at least seven innings in each of his last five starts, including back-to-back complete games against Western Illinois and Omaha. This season, he’ll give the Bison a shot every Friday night.
Freshman of the Year: Adam Mazur, RHP, South Dakota State
SDSU had a standout freshman class last season that included two all-Summit League selections in righthander Nic McCay and first baseman Drew Beazley. They’ll try to pull off the trick again this season with Mazur, who is ticketed for a spot in the weekend rotation right away. The 6-foot-3 righthander from Minnesota features a fastball that sits 88-92 mph but has been up to 93 with a slider he can use as a putaway pitch. On paper, he looks like a quality complement to McCay and Tyler Olmstead in the rotation.
Eight For Omaha 2021: Predicting Next Year's College World Series
With no NCAA Tournament this year, we instead turn our attention to selecting the field for Omaha in 2021.
Predicted Order of Finish (2019 record)
1. Oral Roberts (29-26, 17-12)
Finishing in third place last season can’t have sat particularly well with a program not used to taking a back seat to anyone in the Summit League pecking order. Experienced in a lot of key areas and now with an influx of talent via Division I transfers, the Golden Eagles project to restore order in the conference, at least in 2020. The experience comes from players like senior catcher Riley Keizor (.272/.387/.389), senior third baseman Anthony Martinez (.235/.364/.341), who gives ORU a strong defender at the hot corner after he played shortstop a season ago, senior center fielder Blake Hall (.289/.366/.522, 9 HR) and senior right fielder Hunter Swift (.263/.404/.375), who combine to form a quality nucleus of returners alongside Coffey. The lineup is also home to those aforementioned Division I transfers in first baseman Caleb Denny (Arkansas), second baseman Ryan Cash (Oklahoma State), shortstop Adam Oviedo (Texas Christian) and left fielder Jordan Wiley (Louisiana-Lafayette). Oviedo stands out most as a game-changing talent for ORU. A two-year starter at TCU, he plays a very good shortstop and there is optimism that he has added the strength necessary to add more power to his game.
Senior righthander Matt Gaskins (5-5, 5.13) is tasked with leading the rotation into 2020. He had his moments last year, his first out of junior college, but the coaching staff is looking for him to be a bit more consistent this time around. He’ll work with a fastball from 88-92 mph with a good changeup. After Coffey throws on Saturday, the Golden Eagles will turn Sundays over to righthander Tanner Rogen, who has battled injuries during his time in Tulsa but appears healthy and ready to go. Another starting option is sophomore righty Landon Odom (10.13, 13.1 IP), who struggled at times as a freshman but the coaching staff expects to take a jump forward. Projected closer Kaleb McCullough, a junior college transfer righthander, has some of the best stuff on the roster, with a fastball that sits 90-94 mph and a split. Righthander Sam Rainwater (4.79, 41.1 IP) will return to his role in the bullpen after proving reliable as a redshirt freshman in 2019. If the newcomers take to their projected roles quickly, this can be the type of Oral Roberts team that, as has so often happened before, gets to a regional and proves to be a tough out.
2. South Dakota State (28-22, 19-10)
The Jackrabbits improved by ten games overall and made a five-game jump in their Summit League record in 2019, and it’s not out of the question that they make a little more progress in 2020. In terms of top-end talent, SDSU might have the best pitching staff in the conference. Certainly, a Friday-Saturday combination of senior righthander Tyler Olmstead (4-4, 3.30), who has a 3.64 ERA in 175.2 career innings, and sophomore righthander Nic McCay (6-1, 4.08) is firmly in the conversation for the best one-two punch in the league. The third rotation spot projects to go to Mazur, with fellow freshman Rick Atkins, a lefty, also showing early potential to fight his way into the mix. In the bullpen, junior lefthander Bret Barnett (1.31, 7 SV), one of the best arms in the conference, and senior righthander Brett Mogen (1.67, 32.1 IP) is back as well. First baseman Drew Beazley (.275/.420/.443) was an all-Summit League performer last season, as was shortstop Gus Steiger (.324/.372/.449, 18 SB). The best pro prospect on the roster, Steiger is a good athlete who can bring a little bit of pop and speed to the lineup. Productive seniors in left fielder Braeden Brown (.282/.384/.346), who is moving to the outfield from second base, center fielder Landon Badger (.270/.376/.414) and DH Josh Falk (.257/.379/.446, 8 HR), the team’s leading home run hitter last year, give the lineup some depth. Badger will also give the SDSU coaching staff peace of mind as a quality defensive center fielder. The Jackrabbits are a solid, well-rounded, balanced team and it would be a surprise if they aren’t in the mix at the top of the standings come May.
3. Nebraska-Omaha (31-24-1, 20-10)
There probably hasn’t been enough attention paid to what Omaha pulled off in 2019. Not only did it more than double its win total, from 15 to 31, and get to a regional for the first time, it did so while playing its home games at four different locations around Omaha, two of which were high schools. It also had four games outright cancelled and countless others moved - either to a different location or time - due to poor weather. Without staff ace Payton Kinney (11-2, 1.96), who is now the Mavs pitching coach, the degree of difficulty for a repeat goes up, but there are still lots of reasons for optimism. The other two members of the weekend rotation, redshirt junior righthander Joey Machado (6-3, 4.65) and junior lefthander Spencer Koelewyn (4-2, 5.68) are back. In the bullpen, senior righthander Jacob Mohler (6.66, 24.1 IP) looks poised to make a jump. Previously a pitcher who sat 89-91 mph with his fastball, Mohler now consistently sits in the low 90s with the offering and has been up to 96 with it. Junior college transfer Tanner Howe, a sidewinding righthander, is another pitcher to watch in relief. Omaha wasn’t an explosive outfit offensively last season, but there should be optimism that it can at least be as good as it was in 2019 thanks to the return of some of the most dynamic pieces of the lineup. Outfielder Parker Smejkal (.329/.457/.561, 7 HR) and third baseman Breyden Eckhout (.293/.409/.426) will make the offense go after doing so with aplomb last season. Eckhout, combined with returning shortstop Keil Krumwiede (.261/.384/.353), also gives the Mavs a very good left side of the infield defensively. Senior catcher Brett Bonar (.238/.308/.350) is a prototypical team leader behind the plate who also brings some pop to the batter’s box. Among newcomers, Louisiana-Monroe transfer Masen Prososki looks the part of an instant impact player after hitting .306/.444/.366 for the Warhawks in 2019. Simply put, the Mavs have the talent to prove that last season was a reflection of a new reality for the program and not a fluke.
4. North Dakota State (19-24, 15-15)
Count the Bison as another Summit League team looking to lean on its pitching staff to put them in position to compete near the top of the league. In Loven, they have arguably the best starting pitcher in the conference, and behind him, they have a very solid second starting option in sophomore righthander Ben Smith (4-3, 3.26), who, like Loven, stood out right away as a freshman. Projected Sunday starter Riley Johnson missed all of last season due to injury, but back in 2018, he was NDSU’s Friday starter, going 5-6, 4.57. In the bullpen, lefthander Parker Harm (6.75, 26.2 IP) is one of the most electric arms in the league with a good fastball-slider combination. He struck out 38 and held opponents to a .200 batting average last year, but also struggled with control and walked 37. Righthander Jake Drew (4.74, 24.2 IP) also returns as a solid bullpen piece. Most of the top bats from last season are back, which suggests that unit could be better than last year, when it hit .243. Third baseman Charley Hesse (.299/.420/.374), right fielder Jack Simonsen (.280/.381/.336), first baseman Brock Anderson (.277/.437/.340), second baseman Peter Brookshaw (.266/.375/.349) and left fielder Jake Malec (.263/.389/.308) are all back in the fold. But shortstop Bennett Hostetler (.250/.342/.413) could be the most dynamic of them all. A strong defender, Hostetler also led the team in homers a season ago. If multiple returning players in the lineup make jumps in 2020, North Dakota State has the pitching to compete with the top three teams in this league.
5. Western Illinois (22-31, 16-14)
Western Illinois had one of the last head coaching jobs open this offseason, with new coach Andy Pascoe, formerly a member of Dave Schrage’s staff at Butler, named to the position in mid-September. In his first year on the job, he’ll have some impressive individual talents to work with. On the mound, righthander Javin Drake (7-6, 4.37) continues the trend in the Summit League in 2020 of teams having a Friday night ace they can bank on. The senior will come into the season with 204 career strikeouts in 208.2 innings. Junior lefthander Jace Warkentien (3-4, 4.41) will look to step into the rotation full-time after serving as a valuable swingman last season. Righthander Justin Foy (5.17, 38.1 IP) will look to make the opposite transition, going from swingman to full-time reliever. If he can harness his stuff and cut down on walks, Foy has the arm to be one of the best relievers in the conference. Offensively, right fielder Drue Galassi (.298/.379/.527, 10 HR, 14 SB) will be the primary catalyst after he did just about everything for the Leathernecks last season. Senior shortstop Kevin Raisbeck (.291/.395/.341, 10 SB) will look to set the table and put runners on in front of Galassi in the order. In a highly-competitive Summit League, it will be tough for WIU to break into the top tier in 2020, but the talent is there to be a real pest in conference play.
6. Purdue-Fort Wayne (7-45, 2-28)
Purdue-Fort Wayne made an inspired hire in filling its head coaching vacancy this offseason, bringing in former Purdue skipper Doug Schreiber, who won nearly 500 games in his time in West Lafayette and led the Boilermakers to a Big Ten title in 2012. At least initially, he’ll be taking on a significant rebuilding project in this, the Mastodons final season in the Summit League before moving to the Horizon League next season. Projected DH Garrett Mohler (.285/.360/.464) will look to lead the offense after pacing the team in batting average, slugging percentage and home runs (with six) last season. First baseman Andrew Lawvere (.226/.367/.380) also showed some pop with five home runs and he led the squad in on-base percentage. To make strides this season, a 10.12 team ERA will simply have to come down, and a starting rotation of senior righthander Cameron Boyd (0-12, 8.95), senior righthander Chase Phelps (1-8, 8.59) and senior righthander Tyler Kissinger (8.37, 43 IP) will have experience on its side in an attempt to do so. They were three of the team’s top four pitchers in terms of innings a season ago. In the long term, Schreiber seems like a good fit to lead Purdue-Fort Wayne in the right direction. For 2020, while there might be strides made to that end, the record might still reflect a fair amount of struggle.
Top 2020 Draft Prospects
- Adam Oviedo, SS, Oral Roberts
- Kaleb McCullough, RHP, Oral Roberts
- Gus Steiger, SS, South Dakota State
- Bret Barnett, LHP, South Dakota State
- Justin Foy, RHP, Western Illinois
- Javin Drake, RHP, Western Illinois
- Jacob Mohler, RHP, Nebraska-Omaha
- Parker Harm, LHP, North Dakota State
- Drue Galassi, OF, Western Illinois
- Spencer Koelewyn, LHP, Nebraska-Omaha