2021 Big Ten Conference Preview
The Big Ten in recent seasons has made significant strides in competing on a national level. Michigan has taken that effort the furthest, advancing to the College World Series finals in 2019 and in 2020 ascending to No. 1 in the Top 25 for a week.
The Big Ten is flush with talented players and teams again this spring. Pitchers such as Maryland’s Sean Burke, Michigan’s Steven Hajjar and Ohio State’s Seth Lonsway all figure to generate serious draft buzz. There’s enough talent in the conference to, in a normal year, match the conference’s record with five NCAA Tournament teams.
But 2021 is anything but a normal year. While the conference has not formalized its scheduling model for the season, it has decided to only allow conference games, making it the only major conference to do so in baseball. It will likely play four-game series and may scrap the conference tournament, typically held in Omaha, to allow for more regular-season games.
What effect a conference-only schedule will have on the Big Ten’s NCAA Tournament hopes remains to be seen. It will be difficult to compare its teams with others around the country without any non-conference games and any computer metric will be useless without those points of comparison. Perhaps the selection committee will consider that the Big Ten typically produces 3-5 regional teams in a given year and awards it that many bids. But it seems unlikely that, without any non-conference games to prove just how good the teams are, the Big Ten will push the high end of that projection.
Regardless, the talent level in the conference promises to make it an exciting spring. The title race is annually a tight one and it promises to be again in 2021.
Player of the Year: Grant Richardson, OF, Indiana.
Richardson had a strong freshman season in 2019 but was well on his way to a breakout 2020. He hit .424/.453/.797 with five home runs in 14 games. He was leading the Big Ten in home runs, slugging percentage and runs (21) early in the season and gives the Hoosiers an anchor for what has the potential to be a high-powered offense.
Pitcher of the Year: Steven Hajjar, LHP, Michigan.
This is a year for premium pitching in the Big Ten and Hajjar enters the season with the highest profile. The third-year freshman has limited innings under his belt in college because he missed the 2019 season due to a torn ACL, but he was outstanding in the early going in 2020. He has three above-average pitches, and his 6-foot-5 frame makes for a tough at-bat.
Newcomer of the Year: Jason Savacool, RHP, Maryland.
Savacool ranked No. 115 on the 2020 BA 500, making him the top-ranked freshman to this year make it to a Big Ten school. His fastball-slider combination and maturity on the mound give him the chance to step right into a prominent role on what should be a deep pitching staff for the Terrapins.
Predicted Order of Finish (2020 record)
1. Michigan (8-7)
The Wolverines lost four players to the draft and another three as nondrafted free agents following last season, but that doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare in Ann Arbor. Lefthander Steven Hajjar (3-0, 2.70) gives the team an ace at the front of the rotation and there are plenty of options following him in the rotation, including righthander Blake Beers (2-2, 3.13), Michigan’s Sunday starter in 2020. The rotation depth, along with a deep, talented bullpen anchored by lefthander Walker Cleveland (1-0, 2.08) and righthander Willie Weiss (2-2, 2.97, 9 SV in 2019) will keep the Wolverines strong on the mound. The lineup isn’t as experienced, but with talented second-year freshmen Clark Elliott (.245/.369/.340) and Jimmy Obertop (.265/.375/.353) returning and the addition of experienced transfers Griffin Mazur (UC Irvine), Christian Molfetta (Stanford) and Benjamin Sems (Kansas), the Wolverines should have enough offense to back the pitching staff.
2. Indiana (9-6)
The Hoosiers have been one of the Big Ten’s powerhouses for the last decade and the 2019 champions are well positioned to again compete at the top of the conference. As a result of the shortened draft, Indiana now returns several key players it would otherwise have lost. That starts with Richardson (.424/.453/.797, 5 HR) to anchor the lineup, and third baseman Cole Barr (.246/.366/.439) and shortstop Jeremy Houston (.130/.317/.130) on the infield. Indiana will get a boost from a group of transfers, including outfielder Morgan Colopy, a 34th-round draft pick in 2019 who sat out last spring after transferring from Cincinnati. On the mound, Indiana returns starters Gabe Bierman (2-1, 2.45) and Tommy Sommer (2-1, 2.61) as well as veteran relievers Connor Manous (0-0, 0.00, 2 SV) and Braden Scott (0-0, 1.23, 1 SV). The X-factor on the mound is righthander McCade Brown (0-1, 13.50, 1 SV). The third-year sophomore has premium stuff and is coming off a breakout summer in the Kernels Collegiate League, though he has thrown just 6.2 innings in his college career. Brown’s upside is considerable, and he could give the Hoosiers an ace that would stack up well with any of the top pitchers in the conference. Indiana has enough talent on its roster to contend for another conference title, but Brown’s continued development could put the Hoosiers over the top.
3. Maryland (10-5)
Maryland has recruited at a high level over the past few years, including a Top 25 class in 2019. Those efforts have led to an impressive accumulation of talent in College Park, led by righthander Sean Burke (2-0, 1.99). The third-year freshman hasn’t had the opportunity to pitch much for the Terrapins because Tommy John surgery kept him out for 2019, his first season on campus. He was off to an excellent start in 2020 and with him at the front of the rotation over a full season, the Terrapins will stack up well against any team in the conference. With a strong complement of young, exciting arms joining him in the rotation, including righthanders Sam Bello (0-0, 1.35), Nick Dean (1-1, 3.98), Savacool and Connor Staine (0-1, 2.61), Maryland has significant upside on the mound. Offensively, veteran sluggers Randy Bednar (.387/.459/.581, 5 SB) and Maxwell Costes (.432/.620/.750, 4 HR) anchor the lineup. If second-year freshmen outfielders Tucker Flint (.186/.462/.233) and Bobby Zmarzlak (.185/.405/.444, 2 HR) take a step forward, Maryland will have a deep, powerful lineup. The Terrapins have what it takes to challenge for the conference title and could return to regionals for the first time since 2015.
4. Ohio State (6-8)
Ohio State last year was ranked in the Preseason Top 25 coming off a Big Ten Tournament title and returning its entire rotation. The Buckeyes stumbled out of the gate going 6-8, including a loud sweep at the hands of Georgia Tech. That’s not out of the ordinary for a Big Ten team that had yet to play a home game and Ohio State may have turned its season around had it not been halted. Now, the Buckeyes will look to get back to the NCAA Tournament in 2021, again led by their rotation. Lonsway (1-2, 3.00) is back after unexpectedly going undrafted. He has an excellent four-pitch mix but questions about his control remain. If he’s able to answer them, it would be a boon both for his draft stock and the Buckeyes. Righthander Garrett Burhenn (2-2, 8.02), lefthander Griffan Smith (0-1, 2.76) and Jack Neely, a powerful junior college transfer, follow Lonsway in a rotation that has the upside to be the Big Ten’s best. They also have a big arm at the back of the bullpen in righthander T.J. Brock (0-0, 6.48), who is primed for a breakout spring. Offensively, Ohio State must find a way to replace Dillon Dingler, who was drafted 38th overall. Fifth-year players Conner Pohl (.245/.362/.388) and Brent Todys (.256/.441/.279) lead the returners in the lineup. Shortstop Zach Dezenzo (.189/.267/.264) and second-year freshman second baseman Nate Karaffa (.196/.268/.275) return as well and give Ohio State some upside. The Buckeyes’ upside gives them a chance to play deep into the postseason if they put it all together.
5. Illinois (8-5)
The Illini last season were replacing several key contributors both on the mound and in the lineup from their 2019 regionals team. They got strong contributions from their sophomore class, which arrived in Champaign ranked as the No. 24 recruiting class. That group, now third-year players, has the potential to take the Illini back to the NCAA Tournament. Shortstop Branden Comia (.426/.526/.702) and outfielder Danny Doligale (.316/.422/.395, 6 SB) lead the lineup and do a good job of putting the barrel on the ball. If Illinois gets a boost from catcher Jacob Campbell (.200/.349/.229), already a standout defender, taking a step forward offensively or outfielder Cam McDonald (.149/.200/.191) returning to his 2019 form, it has the makings of a solid lineup. On the mound, Illinois must replace both ace Ty Weber and closer Garret Acton, who are now in professional baseball. Righthanders Andrew Hoffman, a junior college transfer, and Aidan Maldonado (1-2, 5.82) have big upside and powerful stuff, while lefthanders Cole Kirschsieper (3-0, 1.35) and Nathan Lavender (1-2, 4.08 in 2019) strengthen the staff. If Illinois can sort out its bullpen without Acton, it has what it needs to make another run at regionals.
6. Minnesota (8-10)
The Golden Gophers have finished in the top half of the Big Ten standings all but three times this century, making them one of the most consistently competitive teams in the conference. They are facing some challenging losses in 2021 and will have to account for them to again compete for the championship. Ace Max Meyer was drafted third overall by the Marlins and Minnesota must also replace infielder Jordan Kozicky and righthander Sam Thoresen. The good news is that in righthander J.P. Massey (1-1, 4.66), Minnesota has one of the Big Ten’s hardest throwers and a breakout candidate to replace Meyer at the front of the rotation. Minnesota has more high-upside options for the rotation, including lefthander Jack Liffrig, who missed last season due to Tommy John surgery, second-year freshman righthander Trent Schoeberl (2-0, 2.75) and veteran righthanders Drake Davis (1-0, 10.54) and Patrick Fredrickson (0-2, 11.08). If the Gophers can find the right combination of starters from that group, their rotation will stack up well in the Big Ten. Offensively, Minnesota is led by second baseman Zack Raabe (.463/.526/.612), who was an All-America candidate in 2020. It also returns third baseman Jack Wassel (.364/.475/.591) and outfielders Easton Bertrand (.302/.400/.605) and Andrew Wilhite (.320/.443/.340), forming a solid core. Slugger/righthander Sam Ireland (.303/.361/.424) could fill a number of roles for the Gophers and figures to make an impact somewhere in the lineup. Minnesota enters the season with some question marks, but coach John Anderson should be able to find the answers on his roster.
7. Nebraska (7-8)
The Huskers last year got off to a slow start against a challenging schedule in Will Bolt’s first season as head coach of his alma mater. They were turning a corner when the season was halted and will look to build on that momentum in 2021. Nebraska has bulked up its pitching depth with a group of transfers, including righthanders Chance Hroch (New Mexico State) and Cam Wynne (Texas A&M). Hroch will join lefthander Cade Povich (1-2, 5.06) in the rotation, while Wynne will anchor the bullpen as a closer with a good fastball-slider combination. After posting a 5.94 team ERA in 2020, the Huskers will need the newcomers to make an immediate impact. Nebraska also has some key newcomers offensively. Outfielder Logan Foster is eligible after sitting out last season while transferring from Texas A&M and brings some pop to the lineup, while freshmen infielders Max Anderson and Brice Matthews have impact potential. One key for the Huskers will be shortstop/righthander Spencer Schwellenbach (.295/.386/.377), who was voted a Preseason All-American as a two-way player. He’ll be a key to the infield and lineup, while also using his powerful arm on the mound, where he hasn’t had a chance to contribute yet in college. If the newcomers click, Nebraska could take a big step forward in 2021.
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8. Iowa (10-5)
The Hawkeyes were off to a solid start in 2020 and most of their roster returns in 2021. With so much talent back, the Hawkeyes could put together their best season since 2015, when they finished second in the regular season, won 41 games and the conference tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament. If Iowa is to do that, it must fill the holes left by losing righthander Grant Judkins as a nondrafted free agent and lefthander Jack Dreyer to Tommy John surgery. Righthander Duncan Davitt (0-1, 4.50) is the lone starting pitcher back with the Hawkeyes. Lefthander Trenton Wallace (1-0, 1.59) and righthanders Drew Irvine (1-2, 4.50) and Hunter Lee (1-0, 1.00) are all in the mix in the rotation, while sixth-year senior closer Grant Leonard (1-1, 5.68, 4 SV) gives the Hawkeyes an experienced arm at the back of the bullpen. Offensively, Iowa returns nine of its 10 players who got at least 20 at-bats in 2020. Chief among that group is fourth-year junior slugger Izaya Fullard (.400/.449/.583), who led the team in most offensive categories. Another hitter to watch is second-year freshman first baseman Peyton Williams (.298/.388/.509). With its experience and depth around the diamond, Iowa will make for a tough matchup this spring.
9. Rutgers (6-9)
In Steve Owens’ first season as head coach, Rutgers took some steps forward. The Scarlet Knights will need to take some more to advance to the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since joining the conference. Like in 2020, Rutgers stands out the most on the mound. Ace lefthander Harry Rutkowski (1-2, 2.74) is back to lead the pitching staff. With graduate transfers Brent Teller (Sacred Heart) and Ben Wereski (Columbia) behind him in the rotation, the Knights will have plenty of experience, though will still need to prove themselves in Big Ten play. Offensively, Rutgers returns center fielder Richie Schiekofer (.375/.478/.607) and third baseman Tim Dezzi (.313/.377/.396), its leading hitters from 2020. Rutgers will lean on its experience around the diamond in 2021.
10. Michigan State (9-6)
The Spartans benefited from the shortened MLB draft and extra year of eligibility in a big way, as ace Mason Erla (2-0, 1.04) returns to front the rotation again and outfielders Bailey Peterson (.441/.528/.542, 8 SB) and Bryce Kelley (.400/.486/.417, 8 SB) return after leading the team in hitting in 2020. The Spartans also get back veteran lefthander Jarret Olson (1-1, 2.02) and hard-throwing righthander Adam Berghorst (0-1, 1.17), who also plays on the football team. If Michigan State can get a couple players to step up around that core, it has a chance to make a jump in the Big Ten. Those players might come from a group of transfers the Spartans brought in over the summer, including righthanders Jordan Beatson and Dominic Pianto, who both left Furman after the program was eliminated, and shortstop Trent Farquhar, who left Bowling Green State in similar circumstances (though the program was later saved). Their experience should help them play right away in East Lansing.
11. Northwestern (6-7)
The Wildcats have made some strong strides under coach Spencer Allen, including last year winning a series at South Carolina. Northwestern will look to build further on its success in 2021 thanks to a deeper and better pitching staff than normal. Starters Mike Doherty (1-0, 0.86) and Tyler Uberstine (2-0, 2.86) return at the front of the rotation and lefthander Sam Lawrence (1-1, 0.00) is back as a shutdown reliever. Second-year freshmen righthanders Jack Dyke (1-0, 5.14) and Coby Moe (1-0, 4.05) bring a strong, physical presence to the pitching staff and could take on bigger roles this spring. Shortstop Shawn Goosenberg (.444/.500/.704) and outfielder Leo Kaplan (.324/.375/.351) are back to lead the Wildcats offensively. And with Goosenberg, center fielder David Dunn (.214/.254/.339) and catcher Michael Trautwein (.180/.293/.340) all back, they’ll have experience up the middle of the diamond. Northwestern doesn’t have the premium pro prospects that some of its peers do, but there’s enough talent and experience on the roster to put together a solid season.
12. Purdue (7-7)
The Boilermakers were up and down in Greg Goff’s first season as head coach, finishing the season at 7-7. Despite losing a few key relievers, including closer Bo Hofstra, Purdue will have a deep pitching staff. Righthanders Jett Jackson (1-0, 1.89) and Trent Johnson (1-1, 3.68) return to the rotation, coming off strong seasons. Lefthander Calvin Schapira, a junior college transfer who began his career at Southern California, joins the group and has the talent to move right to the front of the rotation. Second baseman Evan Albrecht (.364/.442/.432), Purdue’s leading hitter in 2020, is back to lead the lineup, joined by veteran outfielders Skyler Hunter (.315/.391/.407) and Ben Nisle (.320/.433/.440). Like Schapira joining the rotation, Purdue has several junior college transfers joining the mix and how quickly they adjust in West Lafayette will determine how far the Boilermakers go.
13. Penn State (10-5)
The Nittany Lions ran out to a 10-5 start in 2020 but the season was halted before they could prove themselves in conference play. They were a younger team in 2020 and therefore bring back the bulk of that group, giving coach Rob Cooper a lot of depth to work with. Penn State is led by fifth-year senior second baseman Gavin Homer (.400/.500/.689, 8 SB), who led the team in hitting in 2020 and brings above-average speed to the top of the lineup. The Nittany Lions were getting strong contributions from a pair of freshmen, center fielder Johnny Piacentino (.400/.511/.686, 4 SB) and catcher Matt Wood (.314/.407/.333), who will look to build on that success in their second year. On the mound, Penn State returns veteran righthanders both in the rotation—Bailey Dees (1-2, 1.88) and Conor Larkin (1-0, 1.69)—and the bullpen—Jared Freilich (2-0, 1.42) and Mason Mellott (2-1, 2.25). Penn State has run out to good records in each of the last two seasons. The challenge now will be to carry that momentum into Big Ten play.
Top 20 2021 Prospects
- Steven Hajjar, LHP, Michigan
- Seth Lonsway, LHP, Ohio State
- Sean Burke, RHP, Maryland
- JP Massey, RHP, Minnesota
- Garrett Burhenn, RHP, Ohio State
- McCade Brown, RHP, Indiana
- Mason Erla, RHP, Michigan State
- Grant Richardson, OF, Indiana
- T.J. Brock, RHP, Ohio State
- Aidan Maldonado, RHP, Illinois
- Cameron Weston, RHP, Michigan
- Cade Povich, LHP, Nebraska
- Jacob Campbell, C, Illinois
- Maxwell Costes, 1B, Maryland
- Spencer Schwellenbach, SS/RHP, Nebraska
- Jack Neely, RHP, Ohio State
- Branden Comia, SS, Illinois
- Zack Raabe, INF, Minnesota
- Jimmy Obertop, C, Michigan
- Andrew Hoffmann, RHP, Illinois
Top 10 2022 Prospects
- Bobby Zmarzlak, OF, Maryland
- Morgan Colopy, OF, Indiana
- Adam Berghorst, RHP, Michigan State
- Jayson Hoopes, RHP, Rutgers
- Sam Ireland, 1B/RHP, Minnesota
- Peyton Williams, 1B, Iowa
- Connor Staine, RHP, Maryland
- Evan Sleight, OF, Rutgers
- Leighton Banjoff, OF, Nebraska
- Jett Jackson, RHP, Purdue
Top Incoming Draft Prospects
- Jason Savacool, RHP, Maryland
- George Klassen, RHP, Minnesota
- Ryan Lasko, OF, Rutgers
- Jack Neely, RHP, Ohio State
- Andrew Hoffman, RHP, Illinois
- Logan Wood, LHP, Michigan
- Cam Wynne, Nebraska
- Max Anderson, INF, Nebraska
- Tyson James, RHP, Iowa
- Jayson Hoopes, RHP, Rutgers
Best Pure Hitter: Zack Raabe, Minnesota
Best Power Hitter: Maxwell Costes, Maryland
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Brent Todys, Ohio State
Best Athlete: Adam Berghorst, Michigan State
Fastest Runner: Bryce Kelley, Michigan State
Best Baserunner: Gavin Homer, Penn State
Best Defensive Catcher: Michael Trautwein, Northwestern
Best Defensive Infielder: Braden Comia, Illinois
Best Infield Arm: Spencer Schwellenbach,
Best Defensive Outfielder: Skyler Hunter, Purdue
Best Outfield Arm: Grant Richardson, Indiana
Best Fastball: TJ Brock, Ohio State
Best Breaking Ball: Seth Lonsway, Ohio State
Best Changeup: Gabe Bierman, Indiana
Best Control: Mason Erla, Michigan State