2020 Western Athletic Conference College Baseball Preview
The Western Athletic Conference gave us one of the tightest regular season title races in 2019. New Mexico State, Cal Baptist and Texas-Rio Grande Valley tied for first place at 19-8, with Sacramento State and Grand Canyon just one game back.
Those standings reflect the current state of the conference, which features a very clear top tier of teams that continue to compete at the top of the league year after year.
There is also no clear marquee team in the league. Sacramento State gets to more regionals than anyone, but they’ve won the regular season title just once since joining the league. Grand Canyon probably has the highest ceiling of any program in the WAC, but it has yet to parlay that into a regional appearance. Coach Brian Green turned New Mexico State into a winner, and they have the undisputed best player in the league in Nick Gonzales, but will that level of success continue now that Green has left for Washington State?
In the long term, you have to imagine that will sort itself out and some program will emerge as the class of the WAC. But in 2020, all signs point to another extremely competitive race between a number of teams.
Player of the Year: Nick Gonzales, 2B, New Mexico State.
In a matter of three years, Gonzales has gone from walk-on at NMSU, to bona fide stat monster in the high altitude of Las Cruces, to Cape Cod League star, and come June, he’s expected to be a first-round pick. The unanimous Preseason All-American hit .432/.532/.773 last season, but it was his summer on the Cape, where he hit .351 with seven home runs, that really turned heads and proved that he was not just the latest in a long line of players who put up gaudy numbers at New Mexico State, but rather, an elite hitting talent that MLB teams could feel comfortable selecting early in the draft.
Pitcher of the Year: Kade Mechals, RHP, Grand Canyon.
A first team all-WAC performer last season, Mechals went 11-1, 2.16 and set a number of historic marks along the way. His ERA was the best in GCU’s Division I history, and his .193 opponent batting average was the best in the conference. His 11 wins were good for a tie atop the national leaderboard at the end of the regular season and were the most for any Grand Canyon pitcher since 1991. His 100 strikeouts were second in the conference and marked the first time a pitcher in the program had cracked a triple-digit strikeout total since 2004. In 2020, he’ll lead what should be a very good Grand Canyon rotation and push for the program’s first postseason appearance since coming back up from Division II.
Freshman of the Year: Eli Saul, RHP, Sacramento State.
A BA 500 prospect heading into the 2019 draft who was selected in the 29th round, Saul passed on the chance to begin his pro career to attend Sacramento State. The British Columbia native took off in his development late in his high school career, taking his velocity from the high 80s to as high as 94 mph. He’ll get a shot at sticking in the weekend rotation right away, and the presence of a couple of veteran arms in front of him should give him plenty of rope and allow him to grow into the role.
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Predicted Order of Finish (2019 record)
1. Sacramento State (40-25, 18-9)
The Hornets might not have won a regular season title since 2014, but that has mattered little on their way to becoming the most consistent program in the conference and one of the most consistent in the state of California. Their three regional trips in six seasons, including one in 2019, are the most among WAC teams in that span, and a streak of eight straight 30-win seasons is the longest such streak in the state. A ninth-straight 30-win season is well within reach in 2020, led by an outstanding pitching staff. Back in the rotation are righthanders Parker Brahms (4-4, 4.70) and Scott Randall (8-2, 2.59), and Saul joining their ranks raises the ceiling for this group. Righthander Stone Churby (4.11, 46 IP) and lefthander Brady Rodriguez (4.42, 53 IP) will lead the bullpen and look like obvious candidates to fill the versatile roles vacated by Austin Roberts and Tanner Dalton, who did a bit of everything last season.
Sac State was fairly light offensively last season, hitting .235 as a team, but the coaching staff is optimistic that there will be marked improvement there in 2020. Certainly, the return of the team’s four best power bats in left fielder Matt Smith (.311/.378/.478, 7 HR), catcher Dawsen Bacho (.263/.348/.432, 8 HR), third baseman Steven Moretto (.216/.307/.388, 9 HR) and first baseman Martin Vincelli-Simard (.216/.295/.351, 7 HR) is a reason for them to feel good about what they have. That quartet combined for 31 of 38 total home runs a season ago. Junior shortstop Keith Torres (.237/.372/.303) is also back after leading the team in doubles last season with 14. Factor in senior second baseman Ryan Walstad (.247/.400/.318) and sophomore center fielder Trevor Doyle (.206/.313/.297), and Sacramento State returns eight regulars. The only new face is junior college transfer right fielder Chris Gonzalez. A regional team boasting high-end pitching talent that also brings back just about everyone in the lineup sounds like a recipe for the Hornets to compete for yet another postseason berth.
2. Grand Canyon (36-24, 18-9)
The Lopes come into the season with very realistic hopes of getting into their first regional since moving to Division I prior to the 2014 season. If they pull that off, it will likely be on the back of what should be an outstanding starting rotation made up of Mechals, righthander Pierson Ohl (7-5, 3.45) and lefthander Jack Schneider (3-2, 2.83). Those were three of the four top pitchers for GCU last year in terms of ERA, and the fourth of that group is righthander Coen Wynne (3.00, 36 IP), who will slide into the closer’s role. Also back is last year’s primary closer, righty Cole Hoskins (3.79, 5 SV), and key setup man Zach Barnes (3.48, 33.2 IP), giving coach Andy Stankiewicz and his staff a wealth of options on the mound. The offense is going to have to be rebuilt, what with the departures of top hitters Quin Cotton, Kona Quiggle, Pikai Winchester, Preston Pavlica, Tyler Wyatt and Austin Bull. First baseman Cuba Bess (.341/.476/.632, 11 HR) is a nice foundation around which to build out the lineup, but there’s no getting around the fact that GCU will need returning players to step up into bigger roles this season or have newcomers become instant contributors. Returners who stand out as ready to take on more include center fielder Brock Burton (.278/.339/.435) and shortstop Jonny Weaver (.268/.377/.339). One player that would be easy to overlook is catcher David Avitia (.198/.330/.335) given his offensive numbers, but he makes up for being light with the bat with his defensive ability. He threw out 18 of 36 attempted base stealers last season. Grand Canyon will have to prove that their offense can at least be serviceable in 2020, but with their pitching staff, it won’t need to be much better than that for this team to compete at the top of the conference.
3. New Mexico State (38-17, 19-8)
Under first-year coach Mike Kirby, who comes to Las Cruces after a stint as an assistant under Darin Erstad at Nebraska, the Aggies will look to send Gonzales, soon to be the most decorated player in program history, out in style with another regionals appearance. The second baseman is clearly the focal point of the offense, but he’ll get significant help from first baseman Tristan Peterson (.400/.510/.769, 20 HR), who isn’t the prospect Gonzales is, but is the traditional masher we’re used to seeing in this program. Shortstop Kevin Jimenez (.327/.472/.408) had a nice season in a part-time role last year and will be looking for more in 2020. The same can be said of right fielder Noah Haupt (.279/.343/.459). Redshirt-senior catcher Jason Bush (.224/.388/.316) brings a lot of experience to his role behind the plate. Pitching in the offensive atmosphere in Las Cruces is not an easy thing to pull off, but NMSU returns a couple of guys who navigated it well last season in Friday starter Chance Hroch (10-1, 2.74) and projected closer Aldo Fernandez (4.43, 40.2 IP). The key will be what they can expect to get from everyone else. Lefthander Alex Pinedo is one pitcher to watch in this regard. He missed last season due to injury, but two years ago, he went 5-3, 3.34 in 20 appearances, which included 11 starts. Going into this season, he is penciled into the Saturday starter slot. The Sunday spot projects to go to righthander Chris Jefferson (7.41, 34 IP), who started six games in 2019. There are plenty of questions heading into the season, but this is a group of players used to winning games in a big way, and even under a new head coach, it seems a safe bet that it will be the case again this time around.
4. California Baptist (35-20, 19-8)
Any concerns about Cal Baptist’s ability to compete at the Division I level were assuaged early on last season, when the Lancers got off to a torrid 9-0 start and then carried that momentum all the way through to a share of the regular season crown. The program still isn’t eligible to compete in the postseason, but you can bet they’ll be a pest for the rest of the WAC again. CBU was more of a pitching-focused outfit in 2019, but that might have to flip out of necessity in 2020 as the pitching staff re-shuffles. Lefthander Chris Burica (5-2, 4.84) will lead the rotation after working his way into starts in conference play late in the season. Freshman righthander Christian Culpepper will come out of the gate throwing on Saturdays, with converted reliever Bryan Pope (6.59, 13.2 IP) rounding out the group. In the bullpen, righthanders Matt Amrhein (3.43, 6 SV) and Jorge Valerio (5.17, 47 IP) bring experience to their roles. Amrhein served as a co-closer a season ago, while Valerio began the year as a starter before settling into a spot in the bullpen midway through the season. Despite the loss of top hitter Luke Navigato, top home run hitter Ryan Mota and Andrew Bash, who clubbed 12 homers, a veteran lineup is still in place with the return of left fielder Chad Castillo (.335/.385/.423), first baseman John Glenn (.314/.364/.476), second baseman Nick Plaia (.278/.357/.341) and catcher Rory Smith (.257/.381/.291). Third baseman Jeff Bruyntjens (.297/.387/.391) stands out as a player ready to make a jump. His numbers were quite good in a 64 at-bat sample as a freshman. Having a standout season in year one at the Division I level is one thing. Continuing to build on that in years two, three and four, when the program still won’t be able to compete in the postseason, is another. But at least on paper ahead of year two, CBU doesn’t appear to be fading into the background.
5. Texas-Rio Grande Valley (34-21, 19-8)
The Vaqueros enjoyed an incredible turnaround in year two of the Derek Matlock era, going from 8-16 in WAC play in 2018 to 19-8 in 2019. It was also the highest winning percentage the program has enjoyed in conference play since it went 13-5 in the American South Conference in 1991. At the very least, the talent back in the lineup suggests that it could be more than just a one-year success story. Leading the way on offense will be senior catcher Conrado Diaz (.319/.434/.386), senior shortstop Andy Atwood (.303/.406/.412), senior third baseman Christian Sepulveda (.274/.381/.463, 9 HR), senior center fielder Coleman Grubbs (.269/.343/.343) and senior left fielder Elijah Alexander (.220/.380/.325). Also back are first baseman Jacob Flores (.244/.298/.321) and DH Aaron Galvan (.234/.400/.285), who didn’t quite get full-time at-bats a year ago. There’s much less certainty on the mound. Righthander Max Balderrama (5.34, 32 IP) is the most effective returning arm in the bullpen, but nearly every other key contributor is gone, and that will be the biggest challenge for Matlock and his staff. With a veteran lineup, the floor is pretty high for UTRGV. How high their ceiling is has everything to do with how a rebuilt pitching staff looks as the season goes on.
6. Seattle (13-39, 8-19)
A young Redhawks team finished in a tie for eighth place last season, their worst season since finishing ninth in 2013, which also happened to be their first season as a member of the league. With more experience under their belts this time around, a bounce back season should be in store. The lineup returns impact bats in left fielder Kyle Sherick (.310/.355/.450), second baseman Austin Lively (.298/.381/.426), shortstop Connor O’Brien (.278/.341/.321), third baseman Julian Kodama (.267/.316/.362), right fielder Chase Wells (.257/.324/.347) and catcher Justin Mazzone (.230/.343/.351), who tied with Sherick for the team lead in homers with five. The fact that four projected starters, including Sherick and Kodama, are sophomores really hammers home how young Seattle was last season. Converted reliever Ethan Christianson (9.85, 24.2 IP) is the projected Friday starter, but there is more experience behind him in lefty Jarrod Billig (4-4, 4.43) and righthander Josh Thompson (1-6, 6.30), who started a combined 16 games in 2019. Righthander Tyler Yeh (5.59, 66 IP) split his time between starting and relieving last season, but is projected to settle into the bullpen this season, alongside fellow righthander Alex Jemal (7.27, 43.1 IP). A step forward for a more experienced Seattle club should be expected. How well the pitching staff develops will determine how big of a step that ends up being.
7. Cal State Bakersfield (24-35, 12-15)
The Roadrunners continue to look to replicate the success they had early on as members of the WAC, when they finished over .500 in conference play in four of their first five seasons before coming in under .500 in each of the last two. To do so in 2020, they’ll have to overcome significant personnel losses in the lineup and on the mound. Among pitchers, they lost their two best full-time starting pitchers, but there is still reason for optimism about that unit, which finished in the top half of the league in ERA last year. The most effective returning arm is sophomore righthander Roman Angelo (3.66, 64 IP) who can be used as a long reliever or in a starting role. Among pitchers who primarily came out of the bullpen, senior righthander Noah Cordova (3.75, 36 IP), redshirt-junior righthander Kenny Johnson (5.86, 27.2 IP) and junior righthander Davonte Butler (5.93, 41 IP) are the best of the bunch of those on the roster once again. Also back is junior righthander Ethan Skulja (2-7, 6.33), who started 12 games. The top offensive catalysts look to be senior infielder Tyler Jorgensen (.323/.391/.411) and junior infielder Evan Berkey (.249/.323/.296, 13 SB), but with four of the top five hitters gone, others will have to step up.
8. Utah Valley (15-41, 9-18)
The offense was ahead of the pitching for the Wolverines in 2019 and that looks to be the case again in 2020 with the return of outfielder Alexander Marco (.297/.424/.450), the team’s leader in doubles (13) and home runs (6), infielder Mick Madsen (.292/.357/.371) and catcher Drew Sims (.246/.326/.316). First baseman Pacen Hayes (.207/.307/.380) also showed promise, hitting five home runs in just 121 at-bats. If he can make more consistent contact, that power could come in handy for UVU. On the mound, all three members of the weekend rotation are gone, and that might make it a tough chore to lower a 7.45 team ERA, which was second-worst in the WAC. Among the most effective arms back in the fold are righthanders Jesse Schmit (5.64, 30.1 IP) and Romeo Carrillo (7.59, 21.1 IP). It wasn’t that long ago that Utah Valley finished third in conference and won the league’s automatic bid back in 2016, but 2020 looks like another rebuilding year in Orem.
9. Northern Colorado (12-35, 8-19)
A 7.54 team ERA, last in the WAC, was the primary reason the Bears struggled to a ninth-place finish last season, but with some of their best pitchers back, there is reason to believe that this unit will be improved. Top reliever Sam Colehower (2.16, 16.2 IP) is back on the roster, as is righthander Isaac Bracken (2-5, 5.32), UNC’s best starter. Righthanders Sam Wyatt (5.52, 29.1 IP), Billy Moreland (7.50, 24 IP) and Connor Anderson (1-9, 7.96) bring back a wealth of experience. In the lineup, infielder Sam Leach (.311/.396/.451), utility player Jake Gitter (.310/.441/.535), whose 15 doubles and five homers led the team, and outfielder Matt Burkart (.256/.316/.390) will make the offense go. With three of the top five hitters back in the fold, improvement on the pitching staff holds the key to Northern Colorado showing improvement in the standings.
10. Chicago State (10-41, 5-22)
If Chicago State is going to make a move to avoid finishing the WAC cellar in 2020, its pitching staff will lead the way. Returning to campus are top starting pitchers in righthanders Dylan Cumming (2-3, 4.76) and Brett Gregory (2-8, 6.63), along with bullpen arms Joe Baier (5.40, 13.1 IP) and Calvin Peacock (6.92, 13 IP). The lineup is a little shorter on returning experience and that could portend more struggles for a group that hit .229 collectively last season. The top returning regulars are Gabriel Coburn (.262/.306/.322), Andy Gaytan (.241/.284/.325) and Patrick Arndt (.231/.316/.308).
Top 2020 Draft Prospects
1. Nick Gonzales, 2B, New Mexico State
2. Stone Churby, RHP, Sacramento State
3. Scott Randall, RHP, Sacramento State
4. Kade Mechals, RHP, Grand Canyon
5. Parker Brahms, RHP, Sacramento State
6. Tristan Peterson, 1B, New Mexico State
7. Steven Moretto, 3B, Sacramento State
8. Cuba Bess, 1B, Grand Canyon
9. Dawsen Bacho, C, Sacramento State
10. Andy Atwood, SS, Texas-Rio Grande Valley