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2021 Big West Conference Preview

The Big West received just one bid in the last two NCAA Tournaments but in 2020 seemed to be bouncing back and returning to its usual status in the college baseball power structure. Both Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara were off to strong starts that likely would have paid off on Selection Monday.

This year, the Big West looks to be even stronger. UCSB enters the season ranked in the Top 25 and is a clear favorite, but at least half the conference has a realistic chance of making the NCAA Tournament and it promises to be a close race throughout the standings.

The Big West this year also has two new teams. UC San Diego is reclassifying from Division II and Cal State Bakersfield moves from the WAC. Those moves bring the total number of teams in the conference to 11.

The Big West this season expanded its conference schedule to 40 games—10 four-game series. As always, it will not hold a conference tournament.

Player of the Year: Brooks Lee, SS, Cal Poly

Lee, the son of Cal Poly coach Larry Lee, is clearly the most talented player in the conference and a potential top-10 pick in the 2022 draft. He missed the start of last season due to a hamstring injury he suffered during fall practice and was just returning to action when the pandemic struck. Lee has an excellent feel at the plate and is an advanced defender, making for an impressive all-around skill set.

Pitcher of the Year: Trenton Denholm, RHP, UC Irvine

Denholm was the pick for this award last year and after he opted to return to UCI for a fourth season due in part to the shortened draft, he’s the pick again. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff but has an advanced feel for pitching and control and is difficult to square up. For his career with the Anteaters, Denholm is 15-14, 2.96 with 166 strikeouts and 55 walks and a 1.07 WHIP in 198 innings. He also excelled in the Cape Cod League, where he did not allow an earned run in 31.2 innings over two summers.

Newcomer of the Year: Christian Rodriguez, RHP, Cal State Fullerton

In Rodriguez, Fullerton may have landed the next great pitcher in its pipeline. Listed at 6-foot-6, 185 pounds, he’s got considerable upside and a powerful right arm. Even if his stuff doesn’t make a jump this year, he has plenty of experience pitching at the highest levels of high school baseball, which will translate well to college.

Predicted Order of Finish (2020 record)

1. UC Santa Barbara (13-2)

The Gauchos were off to an outstanding start in 2020 and were on an eight-game winning streak—including a win against UCLA and a sweep at Oregon State—when the season was halted. They return that entire team, including a rotation that has the potential to be among the best in the country. Righthander Michael McGreevy (2-0, 0.99) and lefthanders Rodney Boone (2-1, 2.53) and Zach Torra (3-0, 0.36) will give the Gauchos the upper hand on any weekend. With key relievers Connor Dand (0-0, 1.23, 2 SV) and Conner Roberts (4-1, 2.04) also returning and powerful righthander Christopher Troye (2-1, 4.42 in 2019) back after missing 2020 due to injury, there’s plenty of depth throughout the staff. UCSB’s lineup isn’t as potent as its pitching staff, but it has several veterans in the mix and will be solid. Second baseman Marcos Castanon (.288/.354/.525, 4 HR) was the team’s leading hitter in 2020 and is a power threat. Fifth-year senior shortstop McClain O’Connor (.238/.324/.381) may be the best defender in the conference and has more offensive upside than he showed in 2020. UCSB’s pitching and defense set it apart, but its offense shouldn’t be overlooked.

2. Long Beach State (10-5)

The Dirtbags were one of 2020’s biggest surprises, as they started the season with series wins against California, Wake Forest, Mississippi State and Xavier. That pushed them into the Top 25 in Eric Valenzuela’s first season as head coach. Even after losing ace Adam Seminaris and slugger LJ Jones in the draft, Long Beach should be well positioned to build on that momentum. Unfortunately for the Dirtbags, however, little is as it should be in 2021. Due to local restrictions, they did not have fall ball and this spring will be limited to a conference-only schedule. No fall ball leaves questions about what how quickly the team will be able to gel and how much it has developed, while no non-conference games gives Long Beach just a narrow path to the postseason. It will have to put together a strong Big West season—something the talent on its roster will be capable of.

Second-year freshman righthander Luis Ramirez (2-0, 2.73) has dynamic stuff and can move to the front of the rotation to replace Seminaris. Lefthander Alfredo Ruiz (3-1, 1.80) is back to reprise his role as the No. 2 starter and his fastball-changeup combination is an effective one in the role.  There’s plenty of depth behind them from a pitching staff that posted a 2.38 team ERA and held opponents to a line of .198/.257/.273 in 2020. Pitching and defense will, as usual, carry Long Beach in 2021, but it will need to find someone to replace Jones’ thump. Second-year freshman outfielder Connor Kokx (.400/.491/.511), the Dirtbags’ leading hitter, returns, as do fifth-year seniors Calvin Estrada (.290/.362/.387) and Aidan Malm (.306/.500/.389). There’s a lot to like about the Dirtbags, but they’re going to have to hit the ground running this spring to live up to their potential.

3. Cal Poly (5-11)

The Mustangs in recent seasons have made a habit of starting slowly against a punishing non-conference schedule before turning their season around in Big West play and finishing near the top of the standings. So, last season’s poor start, especially considering that Cal Poly was without shortstop Brooks Lee for all but a pair of pinch-hitting appearances, doesn’t raise significant alarm. A more pressing concern in 2021 is that the Mustangs must fill holes left by ace Taylor Dollard and veteran outfielders Bradlee Beesley and Elijah Greene all moving on to professional baseball. Getting a healthy Lee in the lineup and at shortstop is a significant lift as he has the upside to be one of the best players not only in the conference, but throughout college baseball. Cal Poly returns fifth-year senior catcher Myles Emmerson (.317/.380/.365), its leading hitter in 2020, and fourth-year junior infielder Tate Samuelson (.254/.311/.254), who will move from first base back to third this spring. Without Dollard at the front of the rotation, the Mustangs will turn to second-year freshman righthander Drew Thorpe (1-1, 3.21) to lead the way. He was an important recruit a year ago and performed well as a freshman but will now be asked to take another step forward as a Friday starter. Throughout the team, Cal Poly is relying on its second-year freshmen and a group of newcomers that includes several transfers from Boise State, which this summer eliminated its program. There are more experienced teams in the Big West, but Cal Poly remains one of the most talented.

4. Cal State Northridge (10-5)

CSUN impressed in its first season under coach Dave Serrano (a former Baseball America analyst). That early success gives the Matadors momentum going into 2021 and they enter the season with high hopes. Outfielder Denzel Clarke (.400/.529/.775, 3 HR, 5 SB) is a bonafide star who can impact the game both with his bat and plus speed. Sixth-year seniors Jayson Newman (.333/.375/.529) and Sean Skelly (.296/.424/.481) bring plenty of veteran presence to the lineup, as well as two powerful bats. Serrano has had a lot of success coaching pitching throughout his career and the Matadors impressed on the mound in 2020. They now return starters Blake Sodersten (2-1, 4.32) and Blaine Traxel (2-1, 3.58), as well as closer Blake Schriever (1-0, 0.82, 4 SV). CSUN doesn’t have an overpowering pitching staff, but it does a good job of throwing strikes—it averaged less than 3 walks per nine innings in 2020—and compete well. With a lot of veterans around the diamond and improved depth, CSUN is ready to impress in 2021.

5. Cal State Fullerton (4-12)

The Titans in 2019 missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991. It was a tough blow for one of college baseball’s most storied programs and a staff shakeup followed, with Rick Vanderhook bringing in a new set of assistants. The early returns in 2020 were disappointing, however, as Fullerton lost nine of its last 10 games. A slow start for the Titans is not unusual, however, and they did so against typically challenging competition. But without a conference season to get back on track, the result is back-to-back disappointing seasons following a super regional appearance in 2018. That downturn adds some urgency to the season for a program that is used to competing for College World Series appearances. The good news for Fullerton is that it has a strong 1-2 punch atop its rotation in righthanders Tanner Bibee (1-3, 2.73) and Kyle Luckham (2-0, 2.52). Bibee, a fourth-year junior, would not be back if not for the shortened draft and is now showing improved velocity, as he ran his fastball up to 95 mph in the fall. Finding some depth behind that pair will be important, as the rest of the Titans combined for a 6.16 ERA, and adding freshman righthander Christian Rodriguez should help. Similarly, Fullerton will need some hitters to step up around third-year sophomore infielder Zach Lew (.339/.453/.419), its leading hitter in 2020. Catcher Kameron Guangorena (.109/.190/.109) has long impressed scouts and is a solid defender but will need to show something offensively to be drafted well in July. Freshman outfielder Nate Nankil will get a chance to quickly get in the lineup thanks to his offensive potential. You can never count Fullerton out, but it enters 2021 in the unfamiliar position of having to prove itself within the Big West.

6. Hawaii (9-5)

The Warriors were picking up momentum as the season came to an end in 2020, having pushed Vanderbilt to the brink in a series in Nashville and gone 5-3 against Oregon and Washington State. The bulk of that team now returns in 2021, albeit without three of its best relievers, who all moved on to professional baseball. Hawaii will this spring be led offensively by shortstop Kole Kaler (.407/.486/.661, 4 SB) and outfielder Scotty Scott (.321/.433/.411, 4 SB). Freshman outfielder Safea Villaruz-Mauai adds a powerful lefthanded bat to the lineup and the Warriors could get another boost if fifth-year outfielder Adam Fogel (.229/.310/.250) recaptures the form he showed early in his career, before a shoulder injury that has limited him the last two years. On the mound, Hawaii returns its rotation of Aaron Davenport (4-0, 2.15), Brandon Ross (1-0, 1.35) and Logan Pouelsen (0-2, 6.48). Cade Halemanu (1-0, 1.35) will likely move from the bullpen to the rotation, to round it out. Hawaii needs to find some new reliable relievers and will turn to righthander Jacob Hymel, a junior college transfer, and lefthander Tai Atkins (0-1, 6.10), whose low slot makes for tough at bats.

7. UC Irvine (8-7)

The Anteaters last season faced a difficult rebuild and were off to a solid start against a difficult schedule. They got a lift when ace Trenton Denholm (2-2, 2.28) did not get picked in the five-round draft and opted to instead return for his fourth season at UCI. The righthander leads a strong pitching staff that will match up well throughout the Big West. Denholm and classmate Peter Van Loon (2-0, 2.78) give the Anteaters a good 1-2 punch at the front of the rotation. With veteran relievers John Vergar (0-1, 2.89, 3 SV) and Josh Ibarra (1-0, 2.03, 1 SV) back as well, UCI has a strong core to its pitching staff. The Anteaters hadn’t settled into a regular lineup by the time last season was halted, as 15 different players started at least five games. They’ll have plenty of options again this year and do return outfielder Jake Palmer (.368/.479/.456, 4 SB), who led the team in batting. Like many teams in the conference, UCI will lean on its pitching staff. But it has the offensive upside to compete for the conference title.

8. UC San Diego (first year in Division I)

The Tritons are beginning their transition to Division I after spending the last two decades in Division II. They finished as Division II College World Series runners-up in 2010 and 2017 and advanced to the last three CWS. UCSD has also done a good job of producing pro talent, including infielder Shay Whitcomb, who last year was drafted in the fifth round. While college baseball in recent seasons has seen some teams make smooth transitions to the Division I ranks and compete for conference titles right away (Cal Baptist won a share of the 2019 WAC regular season title), UCSD is jumping into the deep end in the Big West. The Division I competition won’t be new to several players on the Tritons roster, however. They have transfers from the likes of Arizona, Auburn and Connecticut who figure to play important roles in 2021. Outfielder Anthony Lucchetti (.400/.506/.543) returns after leading the team in OPS, and along with infielders Blake Baumgartner (.343/.515/.514, 3 HR) and Everett Lau (.303/.419/.421), leads what should be a solid lineup. On the mound, starters Brandon Weed (4-0, 2.17) and Cameron Leonard (3-0, 2.30) return, along with key relievers Luke Mattison (4-0, 0.78, 1 SV) and Michael Mitchell (2-0, 0.75, 4 SV). While some adjustment will undoubtedly be necessary for the Tritons, they have the talent to be competitive with much of their new conference.

9. UC Davis (9-7)

The Aggies won three of their first four series, including beating Utah twice on Opening Weekend, and looked to be taking a step forward after averaging 19 wins a season from 2016-19. They’ve lost some key contributors from that season, however, starting with shortstop Tanner Murray and catcher Logan Denholm, and replacing them will be critical to building on their momentum from 2020. Third-year sophomore Jalen Smith (.290/.383/.348) will slide from second base to shortstop to replace Murray, who became the program’s highest drafted player in more than a decade when the Rays picked him 125th overall, and second-year freshman Michael Campagna (.367/.429/.533) will take over behind the plate. While they have big roles to play defensively, they’ll get some help in the lineup with fifth-year senior slugger Spencer Gedestad (.417/.463/.517) returning after leading the team in hitting. Davis returns its entire rotation of righthanders Brett Erwin (2-0, 2.14), Nolan Meredith (1-1, 2.95) and Jake Spilane (2-2, 3.81). With fourth-year junior closer Nick Johnson (1-0, 0.73, 2 SV) returning as well, the Aggies have plenty of experience back on the mound. That should help the new-look lineup settle into shape and keep them in the mix throughout the season.

Horton, Cade 2 (Courtesy Of Oklahoma)

2022 MLB Draft: Oklahoma RHP Cade Horton Uses College World Series To Rocket Up Draft Boards

In a draft class that has been decimated on the college side (and has started losing pitchers on the prep side as well), Horton is potentially filling a demographic vacuum ahead of the July draft.

10. Cal State Bakersfield (5-9)

Bakersfield joins the Big West after seven seasons in the WAC. As a Southern California program, the Roadrunners are a good geographic fit for the Big West, but it will be a step up in competition for a team that has had a winning record just once in the last five years. It starts on the mound for Bakersfield, which returns starters Ethan Skuija (2-1, 3.20), Roman Angelo (0-2, 5.90) and Davonte Butler (2-2, 4.12) and added lefthander Arthur Joven as a transfer from Missouri. Skuija and Joven are both fifth-year seniors with a lot of college experience, as is closer Noah Cordova (0-0, 2.08, 2 SV). Infielder Daniel Carrizosa (.343/.410/.429) and outfielder Nick Grossman (.304/.431/.370) are steady hitters who bring experience to the lineup. Bakersfield will need to find a spark in the lineup after losing Damien Henderson, who led the team in OPS, to professional baseball. Center fielder Jacen Roberson (.233/.353/.302, 5 SB) has the tools to be that kind of player, if he can put it all together.

11. UC Riverside (9-7)

It has been a trying year for UCR as the university as a whole grapples with whether it will continue to sponsor Division I sports. That uncertainty led to the resignations of both athletic director Tamica Smith Jones, who took a new job at Kennesaw State, and baseball coach Troy Percival. But the Highlanders are carrying forward in 2021 under interim head coach Justin Johnson, who has been on staff for six seasons. Not only just they replace Percival as head coach, they are also now without Cole Percival, his son who fronted the rotation before signing a nondrafted free agent deal. Veteran outfielders Travis Bohall (.344/.438/.459, 7 SB) and Cole Pofek (.258/.333/.468, 3 HR) are back to anchor the offense. Second-year freshman Zach Jacobs (2-2, 2.57), who stands out most for his competitiveness and strike throwing, will lead the rotation and closer Andre Granillo (2-1, 2.84, 3 SV) is back to lock down the bullpen with his fastball-slider combination.

Top 10 2021 Draft Prospects

  1. Trenton Denholm, RHP, UC Irvine
  2. Michael McGreevy, RHP, UC Santa Barbara
  3. Rodney Boone, LHP, UC Santa Barbara
  4. Tanner Bibee, RHP, Cal State Fullerton
  5. Denzel Clarke, OF, Cal State Northridge
  6. Zachary Torra, LHP, UC Santa Barbara
  7. Kameron Guangorena, C, Cal State Fullerton
  8. Connor Kokx, OF, Long Beach State
  9. Kyle Luckham, RHP, Cal State Fullerton
  10. Alfredo Ruiz, LHP, Long Beach State
  11. Andrew Alvarez, LHP, Cal Poly
  12. Christopher Troye, RHP, UC Santa Barbara
  13. Andre Granillo, RHP, UC Riverside
  14. Jacen Roberson, OF, Cal State Bakersfield
  15. Kole Kaler, SS, Hawaii
  16. McLain O’Connor, SS, UC Santa Barbara
  17. Jason Willow, OF, UC Santa Barbara
  18. Tate Samuelson, 3B, Cal Poly
  19. Scotty Scott, OF, Hawaii

Top 2022 Draft Prospects

  1. Brooks Lee, SS, Cal Poly
  2. Luis Ramirez, RHP, Long Beach State
  3. Drew Thorpe, RHP, Cal Poly
  4. Connor McGuire, INF, UC Irvine
  5. Devereaux Harrison, RHP, Long Beach State

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