2021 Mid-American Conference Preview
The Mid-American Conference in 2021 will get plenty of attention from major league scouts and beyond.
Miami (Ohio) righthander Sam Bachman and Ohio lefthander Joe Rock both enter the season as top-100 draft prospects, with Kent State righthander Luke Albright and Ball State righthander Chayce McDermott not far behind. It’s a familiar position for a conference that has been a consistent pipeline for professional talent.
The MAC this offseason has also gone through some significant off-field developments. Bowling Green State in May cut its baseball program before reversing that decision three weeks later following a fundraising effort. In January, just before team practices began, Ohio coach Rob Smith retired after eight seasons.
At the conference level, the MAC has undergone some structural changes to the schedule in light of the pandemic. Teams will play 10 four-game conference series, enabling a full round-robin scheduling format. The conference tournament has been canceled and the regular-season champion will be awarded the conference’s automatic bid, a significant change for a conference that has seen its regular-season champion advance to the NCAA Tournament just five times this century.
Across the conference, there is plenty to follow this spring.
Will Central Michigan maintain its momentum?
The Chippewas in 2019 put together one of the best seasons in program history, winning 47 games and both the regular season and MAC Tournament title. With most of that team back again in 2020, it carried the momentum forward and started the season 11-6. CMU again returns most of the team in 2021, though it must now replace shortstop Zavier Warren, who was drafted in the third round.
Warren’s loss is significant—he was the most important position player in the conference—but with so much talent and experience returning, there’s no reason for CMU to take a step back. Fourth-year junior catcher Griffin Lockwood-Powell (.297/.451/.375) is a force in the heart of the order and will again lead the lineup. Second-year freshman second baseman Zach Lechnir (.350/.451/.533, 2 HR) and fifth-year senior first baseman Zach Heeke (.296/.393/.310) give the lineup more firepower. If Justin Simpson, a junior college transfer, can be a reliable defender while replacing Warren at shortstop, the Chippewas’ lineup will be in good shape.
On the mound, fourth-year junior righthander Jordan Patty (3-0, 0.72) returns to lead the rotation with his solid sinker-slider combination and feel for the zone. Third-year sophomore righthander Ian Leatherman (1-0, 2.63, 2 SV) has perhaps the best stuff on the team and will move from the bullpen to the rotation. If he takes to his new role, CMU would have a dynamic 1-2 punch, with fifth-year junior righthander Grant Frazer (1-1, 1.88) anchoring the bullpen.
With Warren no longer in Mount Pleasant, CMU doesn’t have as much star power as some of the other teams in the conference. But with its experience and solid all-around talent, it will be a factor in the conference race.
Can Kent State reclaim the title?
Kent State won either the regular season or MAC Tournament title in 17 of the last 20 seasons and advanced to the College World Series in 2012, establishing itself as the conference’s powerhouse. But Central Michigan knocked the Golden Flashes off their perch in 2019 and the 2020 season was canceled before they could reclaim it.
Now, in 2020, Kent State will look to return to the top of the conference. It won’t be easy—CMU remains strong, as do Ball State and Miami (Ohio), who sandwiched third-place Kent State in the standings—but the Golden Flashes have the talent to make another run.
They are led by third-year sophomore righthander Luke Albright (2-2, 1.90), the latest in a long line of Kent State aces. Listed at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, his fastball gets into the mid 90s and he mixes in a powerful curveball and good changeup. If he can refine his strike-throwing ability, he’ll take off not only at the front of the rotation, but also as a draft prospect.
Following Albright in the rotation are lefthander Collin Romel (1-1, 1.86) and righthander Ryan Lane (2-1, 2.31), both of whom are fourth-year sophomores that offer plenty of experience. Third-year sophomore righthander Max Rippl (1-0, 2.70) and fourth-year junior lefthander Jack Zimmerman (0-0, 0.00) also bring experience and could pitch in a variety of roles. Second-year freshman righthander Richie Dell is primed to take a step forward after striking out eight in five scoreless innings last year.
Kent State returns much of its lineup, including fifth-year junior outfielder Ben Carew (.377/.468/.528, 4 SB). He had a breakout 2019 season and hit .406/.474/.525 with 24 stolen bases to win the MAC batting title and become the first Golden Flash to hit .400 since 2001. He was again Kent State’s leading hitter in 2020 and will anchor the lineup this spring.
The Golden Flashes also bring back fourth-year junior catcher Michael Turner (.259/.359/.333), third-year sophomore slugger Justin Kirby (9 HR in 2019) and third-year sophomore outfielder Cam Touchette (.345/.445/.429 in 2019; injured most of 2020). That makes for a solid core to build around, particularly with Kent State’s typically strong pitching and defense.
Kent State is not a runaway favorite in the MAC. But with a budding star on the mound and solid depth around the diamond, it will be in the mix at the top of the standings in 2021.
After producing top-two round picks in back-to-back years, what’s next for Ball State?
In the last two years, Ball State has produced a pair of stars on the mound in righthanders Drey Jameson and Kyle Nicolas. Jameson was drafted 34th overall in 2019 by the D-backs, while Nicolas went 61st overall last June to the Marlins. Both rank among the 10 highest drafted Cardinals ever.
The good news for Ball State is that it still has an impressive pitching staff. Fifth-year senior righthander John Baker (1-2, 2.42) is back to lead the staff, having thrown 250 career innings. He doesn’t have the stuff of Jameson or Nicolas, but he’s proven himself in the MAC and will go down as one of the most accomplished pitchers in program history. He has a chance this season to set Ball State’s career record for wins, innings pitched and starts.
Fourth-year sophomore righthander Chayce McDermott (0-1, 5.02) is the next in the pipeline of hard-throwing Cardinals. Listed at 6-foot-3, 197 pounds, he runs his fastball into the mid 90s and is primed for a breakout year.
With a 1-2 punch of Baker and McDermott, Ball State will be strong on the mound again, particularly if the likes of third-year sophomore righthanders Andre Orselli (0-2, 2.79) and Ty Weatherly (1-1, 4.91) take a step forward.
Offensively, Ball State returns eight regulars in its lineup, including fifth-year senior catcher Chase Sebby (.260/.367/.400), the 2019 MAC defensive player of the year. Fourth-year junior second baseman Noah Navarro (.377/.441/.547, 7 SB) returns after leading the team in hitting and with fellow veterans like outfielders Ross Messina (.215/.303/.338) and Nick Powell (.355/.459/.516) and first baseman Trenton Quartermaine (.360/.421/.420) also back, the Cardinals have the makings of a solid lineup.
Ball State is a little under the radar entering 2021, as other teams have bigger prospects or more hype. But the Cardinals this spring will be in the mix at the top of the conference again.
Can Sam Bachman lead Miami to the top?
Miami hasn’t had a player drafted in the top 100 picks since 2006, when righthander Matt Long went 73rd overall to the White Sox and Keith Weiser was taken five picks later by the Rockies. That streak looks likely to end in July, as third-year sophomore righthander Sam Bachman enters the season as the No. 54 draft prospect.
Bachman (1-2, 3.42) has a strong 6-foot-1, 235-pound frame and has long piqued scouts’ interest while also building a strong track record with the RedHawks. This season he’ll front what is expected to be a solid pitching staff with fellow starters Tyler Bosma (1-1, 4.82) and Kenten Egbert (0-2, 14.40) also returning. They also will add experienced lefthander Kevin Napoleon, after he sat out the 2020 season while transferring from Butler.
Offensively, Miami will have to replace a couple of its top hitters, as sluggers Charlie Harrigan and Landon Stephens have moved on. But the RedHawks do welcome back fifth-year senior infielder Will Vogelgesang (.340/.439/.660, 4 HR) and fourth-year junior center fielder Cristian Tejada (.291/.355/.436). They added fourth-year junior Nick Neibauer (Bowling Green State) as a transfer, giving them an experienced, steady hand behind the plate. Outfielder Mac Hippenhammer transferred and is continuing to play both football and baseball, as he did at Penn State. He’s a bit of a wild card, but brings an exciting tool set to the RedHawks.
On paper, Miami isn’t as deep as the likes of Kent State, Central Michigan and Ball State. But with Bachman anchoring the rotation, the RedHawks will have a key advantage. He can take them a long way but will need some help if they are to win their first conference title since 2005.
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What’s next for Bowling Green State after a tumultuous offseason?
No team in the country went through more during the offseason than BGSU, which in May eliminated its program, effective immediately, only to reverse that decision three weeks later after alumni and donors committed $1.5 million over the next three years. Following that decision, Danny Schmitz retired from coaching after 30 years as the Falcons’ head coach and moved into an advisory role within the athletic department and Kyle Hallock was promoted to head coach.
During the three-week period when the program’s future was in doubt, many players entered the transfer portal. Some like Niebauer and infielder Trent Farquhar (Michigan State), quickly found new homes and transferred, leaving some important holes on the roster.
Now, BGSU will begin a new season as it looks to bounce back from a 2-11 season. Third-year sophomore righthander Tyler Hays (0-2, 1.66) is back to lead the pitching staff. The Falcons have an experienced group on the mound, with righthander Andrew Abramhamowicz (1-2, 7.16), lefthander Nathan Lohmeier (0-0, 6.75) and righthander Jeremy Spezia (0-1, 9.82) all entering their fourth-year of college baseball.
Offensively, BGSU must replace leading hitter Jake Wilson, who transferred to Liberty before the program was cut. The Falcons added a couple transfers of their own—outfielders Andy Gaytan (Chicago State) and Jared Johnson (Coastal Carolina)—and return sluggers Adam Furnas (.261/.346/.391) and Kyle Gurney (.245/.362/.367).
The Falcons have a long way to go to get back in the mix with the MAC’s best. But with a new, more stable foundation, they’ll now have time to get there.
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