Image credit: Dominic Hamel (Courtesy of Dallas Baptist)
As has often been the case since it joined the Missouri Valley Conference in 2013, Dallas Baptist will go into the season as the favorite to win the conference title. And in that time, it has mostly made good on those lofty predictions, as it has been to the postseason every year since joining the league.
What has also been increasingly common in recent years is the MVC putting itself in position to get a second team into the postseason, and in its best years, it has gotten three teams. What changes, though, is which teams end up in the mix alongside the Patriots.
Just since DBU joined the conference, Bradley, Illinois State, Indiana State and Missouri State have all taken turns in that role, with MSU even overtaking the top spot in the conference in 2017 and 2018. Going into this season, there are cases to be made for several teams competing with DBU at the top of the league and fighting for a postseason spot, and that should once again make the MVC one of the most compelling mid-major conferences in the sport.
Conference play is normally a true round-robin in the eight-team MVC, and that will once again be the case this season, but series in 2021 will be four games rather than three for a total of 28 league contests. The top six teams in the standings will advance to the conference tournament.
Player of the Year: Dakota Kotowski, OF, Missouri State
Kotowski, a third-year sophomore, has been productive from the moment he arrived on the Missouri State campus. In 2019, he was the MVC freshman of the year and a first team all-conference honoree after hitting .288/.381/.576 with 12 home runs. He was off to a solid start in 2020 as well, hitting .266/.338/.500 with three homers. A solidly-built 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Kotowski is an intriguing prospect for the 2021 draft, but before that, he’s tasked with being the centerpiece of the Bears’ lineup.
Pitcher of the Year: Dominic Hamel, RHP, Dallas Baptist
With two starting pitchers gone heading into the 2020 season, Dallas Baptist asked Hamel, then a junior college transfer, to step into the rotation right away. Any doubts about his ability to do so evaporated once he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against North Carolina the second weekend of the season. His season overall was a bit up and down, as he ended it with a 4.58 ERA, but he has the stuff, including a fastball that sits in the mid 90s and two different quality breaking balls, to be the best starter in the MVC and a high draft pick this July.
Newcomer of the Year: Mason Burns, RHP, Illinois State
Burns, a freshman righthander from just down the road at Normal Community High, really impressed the Illinois State coaching staff quickly after arriving. His fastball consistently sat 90-95 mph all throughout fall practice, helping to earn him the No. 2 starter role behind veteran lefthander Colton Johnson.
Predicted Order of Finish (2020 record)
1. Dallas Baptist (12-4)
DBU always seems to have a well-rounded team that matches a deep, versatile lineup with a pitching staff full of big arms. That should be the case again in 2021. Even with the loss of shortstop Jimmy Glowenke, who was drafted 68th overall last June, the Patriots’ lineup has serious length to it and is more talented than a .257 team average last season would likely lead you to believe. Second-year freshman second baseman Jeffrey David (.351/.367/.526) and fourth-year junior shortstop Blayne Jones (.286/.357/.619) are dynamic athletes who bring a lot to the table. David could also see time at second base, third base and in the outfield. Jones is a standout shortstop who has mostly played other positions in his career in deference to Glowenke, and he packs some punch with his bat. Third-year freshman right fielder Ryan Wrobleski (.271/.327/.563) is a breakout player to watch this season. A good athlete in his own right with a rifle arm to match, he will also see some time as a catcher in a platoon with fifth-year senior Christian Boulware (.219/.308/.313). Getting a big year out of fourth-year junior first baseman Dan Pruitt (.163/.294/.372) could help take the lineup to the next level. He struggled in his first season after transferring from the junior college ranks, but has big-time power.
The rotation will be led by Hamel (2-0, 4.58), a physical pitcher whose fastball will sit in the mid 90s. He’ll be followed by fifth-year junior righthander Ray Gaither (0-1, 3.98), a veteran who has been effective when he’s been healthy for the Patriots, third-year sophomore righthander Chandler Arnold (1-1, 4.82) and junior college transfer Rhett Kouba. That unit will look to be more consistent than the rotation was last year, when Gaither was the best of the bunch. The bullpen, which is moving on without second-round pick Burl Carraway, will be anchored by third-year sophomore righthander Luke Trahan (3.18, 5.2 IP) and fifth-year senior righthander Kragen Kechely (1.42, 12.2 IP), who has appeared in 80 games in his DBU career. The Patriots were in the process of finding and developing new starring players in 2020 after losing a lot of talent at the end of the 2019 season. That process will now continue into 2021, but they still have more than enough talent to be considered favorites.
2. Illinois State (7-9)
Illinois State returns one of the most experienced teams in college baseball, the core of which made it to a regional final in 2019, and that should help it compete with Dallas Baptist for the MVC title this season. A lot of that experience is concentrated in the lineup, headlined by third-year sophomore left fielder Gunner Peterson (.364/.462/.636), fourth-year junior shortstop Aidan Huggins (.327/.404/.367), a solid defender who has made strides with the bat, fourth-year junior right fielder Jeremy Gaines (.314/.405/.543), fifth-year senior DH Jordan Libman (.281/.379/.368), fourth-year sophomore first baseman Jake McCaw (.268/.313/.512), who has tantalizing power potential, and fifth-year senior center fielder Joe Butler (.242/.309/.435), who can play just about every position on the field. Breakout candidates include third-year sophomore catcher Hayden Jones, a transfer from Mississippi State who has a plus arm behind the plate and plus power with the bat in his hand, and second-year freshman third baseman Ryan Cermak (.208/.296/.396), the most promising position player recruit in the 2019 class.
The rotation will be led by fifth-year senior lefthander Colton Johnson (2-2, 3.60), who had his chance to leave for professional baseball after the season but chose to return. Last season, his fastball was up to 96 mph with a low-80s breaking ball. He’s seen it all in his ISU career and won’t flinch in any environment. The second spot will be filled by one of the pleasant surprises of fall ball, freshman righthander Mason Burns, whose fastball was up to 95 mph after getting to campus. Third-year freshman lefthander Sean Sinisko (1-1, 3.80) will be in the third slot after starting on the weekend last season, followed by fourth-year junior righthander Jack Anderson (0-0, 7.84). Third-year sophomore righthander Derek Salata (0.00, 10.1 IP) will close games. He was excellent last season, and the staff was impressed with the way he clearly separated himself as the team’s closer in the fall. ISU’s experience might catch your eye first, but don’t sleep on the high-end talent it has, some of which is still pretty young. Look for the Redbirds to give DBU a real run at the top of the conference.
3. Missouri State (9-8)
It has been a couple of years since Missouri State was clearly among the best teams in the MVC. An injury-ravaged Bears team finished 20-36 overall and 10-11 in league play in 2019, and the 2020 team was off to an uneven 9-8 start. But when evaluating this season’s group, the impressive collection of talent that coach Keith Guttin and his staff have on their hands suggests that a bounceback season could be in store. A lot of that talent is on the pitching staff. The rotation will be fronted by fifth-year senior righthander Logan Wiley (2-1, 3.09), who has been a steadying force on the staff for each of the last three years and is going into his third year as the Bears’ No. 1 starter. After Wiley, the talent starts to get mixed with some uncertainty. Fourth-year sophomore righthander Ty Buckner follows, and while he was a key piece of a very good MSU team in 2018, he hasn’t pitched since then due to injury. Similarly, third-year sophomore lefthander Ben Cruikshank, one of the best prospects in the MVC, didn’t pitch at all last season. The ceiling for Buckner and Cruikshank is extremely high, but you just don’t know what to expect. The fourth spot projects to go to second-year freshman righthander Hayden Minton (1-2, 3.48), who did a really nice job as a first-year player in the rotation in 2020.
The biggest talent in the lineup is third-year sophomore right fielder Dakota Kotowski (.266/.338/.500), a top-notch prospect for the draft and arguably the most proven slugger in the MSU order. The only reason he’s not definitely the most proven slugger is the presence of sixth-year senior first baseman Ben Whetstone (.242/.351/.468), who has 19 career homers and therefore has a claim to that honor. Second-year freshman Drake Baldwin (.295/.377/.426), a catcher who will DH, returns after he ended up as MSU’s top hitter in 2020. Baldwin is at DH In deference to sixth-year senior catcher Logan Geha (.220/.360/.439), a strong defensive backstop who has played in 149 games in his career. Fifth-year senior center fielder Jack Duffy (.212/.333/.288) joins the likes of Whetstone and Geha as veteran leaders and will look to put up numbers like he did in 2019, when he hit .305/.392/.426. If the pitching staff stays healthy and reaches its potential and the lineup proves to be deeper than it was last season, the Bears are a dark horse candidate to compete for the league title.
4. Indiana State (8-6)
The Sycamores were in the middle of a rebuilding season in 2020 after much of its excellent 2019 regional team graduated or moved on to the pro ranks. In 2021 we’ll see how far along they were in that process and if this season is more of a continuation of the rebuild or a season when this group is ready to compete at the top of the league. Indiana State certainly looks ready to be among the MVC’s best on the mound, even after the loss of Collin Liberatore, with the return of fourth-year sophomore lefthander Tristan Weaver (1-1, 1.85), fifth-year junior righthander Connor Cline (1-1, 3.18) and second-year freshman lefthander Cam Edmonson (2-1, 1.96) in the rotation. The fourth spot is still up for grabs, but what is much more certain is who will be closing out wins. That will be the combination of fifth-year senior righthander Zach Frey (0.00, 7.1 IP) and fifth-year senior lefthander Tyler Grauer (1.59, 11.1 IP), who has saved 17 games in the last three seasons.
The lineup last season featured a lot of newcomers and returning players taking on bigger roles. Several shined in a big way and will be looking to do more in 2021. Chief among that group is fifth-year junior shortstop Jordan Schaffer (.339/.406/.375) and fourth-year junior first baseman Brian Fuentes (.263/.354/.404). Fifth-year senior catcher Max Wright, who projects to DH, will also be a key piece of the puzzle. He was limited to just four games a season ago, but he enjoyed a breakout season in 2019, hitting .296/.380/.394. How well this lineup supports a pitching staff relatively well-stocked with proven players holds the key to ISU making a push this season.
5. Southern Illinois (12-6)
The Salukis, under second-year coach Lance Rhodes, will be eager to prove that their quick start last season was no fluke. The lineup, after hitting .288 as a team last season, is in good shape, with a solid list of players who are both experienced and coming off of good seasons in 2020. That includes fifth-year senior third baseman Ian Walters (.411/.516/.562), a potential MVC player of the year candidate, fifth-year senior catcher Austin Ulick (.362/.444/.468), fifth-year senior shortstop Nick Neville (.347/.432/.514) and fifth-year senior first baseman Philip Archer (.344/.430/.500). On the mound, SIU will look to some newcomers. Junior college transfer righthander Ben Chapman will front the rotation. He works with a fastball from 88-92 mph and a good changeup. Graduate transfer Gage O’Brien from Campbellsville (Ky.), an NAIA school, will be the No. 2 starter. He’s a sturdy 6-foot-4 and 225-pound righthander with a fastball that sits 90-94 mph with a big-breaking curveball. Lefthander Braden Babcock, another junior college transfer, will hold the third spot. He works with a fastball mostly in the high 80s with a swing-and-miss changeup. The final spot in the four-man rotation projects to go to fifth-year senior lefthander Brad Harrison (0-0, 3.00), who has thrown 171.2 innings in his SIU career. Fourth-year junior righthander Trey McDaniel (3.63, 17.1 IP) and third-year sophomore righthander Matthew Steidl (1.71, 21 IP) were both very good in multi-inning relief roles last season, so more of the same should be expected this season.
6. Bradley (4-6)
If things come together, Bradley could field a team in 2021 that shows impressive balance. In the lineup, its in an enviable position by virtue of being able to build around a proven player like fifth-year senior outfielder Dan Bolt (.357/.449/.881), one of the handful of best position players in the conference. There is potential for the lineup to have good depth as well, with the likes of third-year sophomore first baseman Connor O’Brien (.286/.375/.571), fourth-year junior catcher Keaton Rice (.275/.396/.475) and fifth-year senior third baseman Brendan Dougherty (.268/.400/.390) back in the fold. On the mound, returning starters like fourth-year junior lefthander Brooks Gosswein (1-2, 5.94), fourth-year junior righthander Matt Hamilton (1-2, 6.00) and fourth-year junior righthander Nick King (2-0, 8.71), plus a key reliever in fifth-year junior righthander Theron Denlinger (10.38, 4.1 IP) give the Braves a talented and experienced pitching staff, but they all really struggled last season, and that was a theme overall, as the team ERA was an even 7.00. Second-year freshman righthander Taylor Catton (1.86, 9.2 IP) was a bright spot, however, as the only Bradley pitcher with an ERA under 4.00, and having him back can only help that unit improve overall.
7. Evansville (5-11)
The Purple Aces will be extremely competitive on the mound, where they return all three top starters from a year ago in fifth-year junior righthander Jake McMahill (0-0, 3.24), fifth-year senior lefthander Nathan Croner (1-1, 3.26) and third-year sophomore righthander Shane Gray (1-1, 3.57). Third-year sophomore lefthander Michael Parks (10.80, 10 IP) is a bounceback candidate to watch. He had two poor outings last season that really torpedoed his ERA, but he came on late, and in 2019, he had a 4.04 ERA in 49 innings as the team’s co-closer. There are more questions to be asked in the lineup, but at the very least, Evansville knows it has a true centerpiece in fourth-year junior first baseman Tanner Craig (.345/.479/.759), who has been a run producer all three years on campus. Fourth-year junior Mason Brinkley (.359/.457/.410), who can play all over but saw most of his time in left field last season, should also be a spark plug in the order. He has a nose for getting on base and can make some things happen on the bases with his speed. A huge key for the Evansville lineup is sixth-year senior Troy Beilsmith (.135/.333/.250). In 2018, he led the team in hitting with a .335 average and slugged a team-leading 18 doubles and seven home runs. In 2019, his average slipped to .242, and in 2020, he was off to a very slow start. At his best, he can be one of the most dynamic offensive players in the MVC.
8. Valparaiso (2-14)
While Valpo appears to at least have the pieces on the mound to be very competitive from a run prevention standpoint this season, the coaching staff views this as the first year in a two to three year process of building around the young talent on the roster. Fifth-year senior Easton Rhodehouse (3.45, 15.2 IP) will be an important piece for this season. The versatile righthander worked as an opener last season, starting six games. A dogged competitor with a fastball from 88-91 mph and a lot of innings under his belt, he’ll now move back into a traditional relief role. The rotation will begin with second-year freshman righthander Trent Turzenski (2.84, 19 IP), who will be transitioning from a role as a multi-inning reliever. He’s a physical presence at 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds and uses a sinking fastball from 90-94 mph. The No. 2 starter is Collin Fields (0-4, 9.00), a third-year sophomore righthander who didn’t have a ton of success last season but who has a big arm with a high-spin fastball from 90-93 mph and an above-average breaking ball. With a breakthrough season, his prospect status could really rise. Second-year freshman righthander Ryan Mintz (7.64, 17.2 IP) will hold the third spot in the rotation, with the fourth spot still open. The lineup will look to improve upon a .207 team batting average last season, and the return of fifth-year senior right fielder Riley Dent (.311/.417/.410) and third-year sophomore shortstop Damon Jorgensen (.264/.350/.340) will help in that regard. Steps forward for second-year freshman first baseman Kyle Schmack (.147/.231/.235), the son of coach Brian Schmack, and second-year freshman second baseman Nolan Tucker (.196/.358/.294) would be huge for the offense. Schmack has potential to be a run producer in the middle of the order, while Tucker’s penchant for working walks and his hard-nosed approach make him a decent fit to be a leadoff-type hitter.
Top 2021 Draft Prospects
- Ryan Wrobleski, C, Dallas Baptist
- Ben Cruikshank, LHP, Missouri State
- Dominic Hamel, RHP, Dallas Baptist
- Hayden Jones, C, Illinois State
- Dakota Kotowski, OF, Missouri State
- Jared Viertel, RHP, Missouri State
- Brooks Gosswein, LHP, Bradley
- Colton Johnson, LHP, Illinois State
- Ray Gaither, RHP, Dallas Baptist
- Gunner Peterson, OF, Illinois State