2021 Pac-12 Conference Preview

Image credit: (Photo courtesy UCLA)

Going into last season, the Pac-12 had a clear favorite in Arizona State, a couple of other teams ranked in the Top 25 and then a lot of question marks beyond that. 

That analysis turned out to have underrated UCLA, but it is a similar story entering 2021, with the Bruins now playing the role of favorite. There are once again a couple of other teams ranked in the preseason, and once again, there are a lot of questions about the rest of the league and how it will shake out. 

Arizona could assert itself as a title challenger. The Wildcats have been accumulating talent at an impressive rate the last couple of years. Arizona State, which lost a ton of production on offense, but returns a talented pitching staff mostly intact, could also play that role. Or maybe Washington, a steady contender in the conference that seems to get the most out of its team more often than not, makes a jump. 

One other storyline to watch is which rebuilding teams make the biggest leap in 2021. Stanford and California are talented, but both were off to slow starts in 2020. Southern California appeared to show positive momentum last season, but the season was canceled before it was able to prove it in Pac-12 play. Oregon State was as up and down as any team in the league. That’s to say nothing of teams undergoing more involved rebuilds like Oregon and Washington State. 

How many of those teams show marked improvement this season will have a lot to do with how many teams the Pac-12 can expect to have in the postseason. 

Preseason Awards

Player of the Year: Matt McLain, SS, UCLA

McLain, a third-year sophomore, used the 2020 season to bounce back from a difficult freshman campaign. He moved from the outfield, where he was pressed into duty in 2019, back to his natural shortstop position, and production at the plate followed. He finished the season hitting .397/.422/.621 with increased power, and he was clearly the focal point of the Bruins offense. McLain can do a little bit of everything, including hitting for average and power, playing a solid shortstop and stealing some bases here and there. That will make him a catalyst once again for UCLA in 2021 and a first-round pick come June. 

Pitcher of the Year: Zach Pettway, RHP, UCLA

There are pitchers in the Pac-12 with better stuff, but few, if any, have been steadier over the last three seasons than Pettway. A fourth-year junior righthander, Pettway is 13-6 in his career with a 3.44 ERA and 167 strikeouts compared to just 42 walks in 185.2 innings, and his 2020 season was tracking to be his best yet. At the time the season was canceled, he had a 1.05 ERA and a 29-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25.2 innings. Expect more of the same in 2021, with Pettway piling up innings and outs for the Bruins, using deception and command more than stuff as UCLA tries to work its way back to the College World Series. 

Newcomer of the Year: Daniel Susac, C, Arizona

Replacing Austin Wells behind the plate in Tucson is no easy task, much less for a freshman, but the Wildcats are confident that Susac, the younger brother of big leaguer Andrew Susac, has what it takes to step into the role right away. Offensively, he has plus raw power that should turn into power production once his feet are wet at this level of college baseball. Defensively, his biggest tool is his arm strength, and that will force Pac-12 base runners to think twice before trying to run on the Wildcats. Arizona welcomed in an excellent recruiting class this fall, and Susac could be the star of it in year one. 

Predicted Order of Finish (2020 record)

1. UCLA (13-2)

UCLA should pick up where it left off in 2020 and be a national title contender in 2021. Pitching is typically the Bruins’ bread and butter and that shouldn’t change this year with the return of weekend starters in fourth-year junior righthander Zach Pettway (3-0, 1.05) and third-year sophomore righthanders Nick Nastrini (2-1, 4.60) and Jesse Bergin (4-0, 1.27). But UCLA coach John Savage is also quick to say that those three won’t be handed those roles, and look for a younger, more unproven group to push them, led by second-year freshman righthander Jared Karros (2-0, 3.86). The bullpen should once again be a strength, even after the departure of Holden Powell, with fifth-year senior righthander Kyle Mora (0.96, 9.1 IP) and fourth-year junior righthander Michael Townsend (0.00, 12 IP) back in the fold, as well as third-year sophomore righthander Sean Mullen (0.93, 9.2 IP), who could close games or be in the competition for a spot in the weekend rotation.  

With depth on the mound like that, the UCLA offense might not have to do very much heavy lifting, but it will be capable of doing so if called upon. Third-year sophomore shortstop Matt McLain (.397/.422/.621) arrived as a star in 2020 and should be one of the most dynamic players in college baseball this season. Second-year freshman first baseman JT Schwartz (.328/.380/.391) was an impact hitter right away last season and could be ready for his next step into stardom. The same can be said for fellow second-year freshman Michael Curialle (.325/.357/.525), who could see time at second base, third base, center field or right field. Mikey Perez (.333/.476/.455) might not garner much attention on a team full of prospects, but the third-year sophomore infielder is a key piece of the puzzle as a player who can provide solid defense at any infield position and who hit well last year. And as a cherry on top, the Bruins boast arguably the best defensive catcher in the country in third-year sophomore Noah Cardenas. Depth will be up across college baseball this season, but UCLA’s depth is on another level.

2. Arizona (10-5)

It should be no surprise that Arizona is expected to have a standout offense again in 2021. Third-year sophomore right fielder Ryan Holgate (.377/.459/.547) was in the middle of a breakout season in 2020 and could be one of the best power bats in the country this season. He’ll be one-third of an outfield that should be one of the best in the sport alongside center fielder Donta’ Williams (.348/.527/.500), who is an elite defender and a dynamic offensive player, and left fielder Mac Bingham (.361/.478/.500). The biggest hole to fill in the lineup is that of catcher Austin Wells, but Arizona thinks it has a ready-made replacement in freshman Daniel Susac, who offers both a powerful bat and arm.  

While the lineup may stand out, the pitching staff has potential to make the Wildcats a well-rounded outfit. Lefthander Chase Silseth, a junior college transfer, is expected to step right into the Friday spot in the rotation with a fastball that touches the high 90s. He’s likely to be joined in the rotation by fourth-year junior lefthander Garrett Irvin (4-0, 3.18) and second-year freshman righthander Chandler Murphy (2-0, 2.70), who were both solid for the Wildcats in their debut seasons. It speaks to the improvement in depth on the staff that third-year sophomore righthander Quinn Flanagan (1-2, 3.32) was the team’s most effective starter as recently as 2019 and now he’ll be in a real battle to earn innings in that role. If this ends up being as well-rounded a team as it looks on paper, the ceiling is Omaha.

3. Arizona State (13-4)

The Sun Devils suffered heavy personnel losses, particularly in the lineup, from a team that could have won a national title in 2020 had the season played out, but they brought in a talented recruiting class and return enough to compete at the top of the Pac-12 again. This time around, the pitching staff might lead the way. Second-year freshman lefthander Cooper Benson (1-1, 3.60), fourth-year junior righthander Boyd Vander Kooi (2-0, 0.70), third-year sophomore lefthander Erik Tolman (1-1, 2.50) and third-year sophomore righthander Tyler Thornton (2-0, 3.38) give Arizona State four quality starting pitching options, and fourth-year junior lefthander Justin Fall (1-0, 5.68) is slated to move to the back end of the bullpen, where his stuff, including a fastball that reaches the mid 90s, will play up. 

Offensively, ASU won’t have quite as much thunder as it did last season, but there is still upside with a group that should be very athletic. Fourth-year junior shortstop Drew Swift (.365/.403/.460) is a plus defender and an accomplished hitter who was ASU’s best player in fall practice. Xavier transfer Allbry Major was one of the most talented players in the Big East and has the talent to be one of the best in the Pac-12 if he puts it all together. Junior college transfer center fielder Joe Lampe has the tools to be a plus defensive player and a catalyst on the bases. But that’s not to say that this team won’t have some pop, because it’s expected to be provided by fourth-year junior left fielder Hunter Jump (.317/.386/.524) and freshman first baseman Jack Moss, the highest-ranked recruit in ASU’s most recent class. How well the middle-of-the-order centerpieces develop will have a lot to do with where the Sun Devils finish in 2021. 

4. Stanford (5-11)

Stanford had a tough season in 2020 with a young but extremely talented team. There was reason for optimism that the Cardinal would start to turn it around as its young players got their feet under them, but now, perhaps that turnaround begins in 2021 instead. There is experienced talent returning on the mound, where fourth-year junior righthander Brendan Beck (0-3, 2.82), third-year sophomore righthander Alex Williams (2-1, 0.51) and fourth-year junior lefthander Jacob Palisch (5-2, 4.79 in 2019) are back in the fold. 

In the lineup, versatile fourth-year junior Tim Tawa (.213/.238/.295) provides veteran leadership and he’ll look to bounce back from a slow start last season. But improvement for an offense that hit .207/.277/.280 in 2020 will have to start with breakout stars from Stanford’s last two standout recruiting classes, which could include second-year freshman outfielder Brock Jones (.228/.323/.316), second-year freshman catcher/infielder Kody Huff (.160/.276/.160), second year freshman first baseman/outfielder Henry Gargus (12 AB) and true freshman infielder Drew Bowser, one of the top prospects to end up on a college campus this cycle. Quality pitching should keep Stanford’s floor fairly high in 2021, but improvement on offense holds the key to the Cardinal getting back to the top tier of the Pac-12.

5. Washington (9-6)

Washington will be in good shape on the mound, even after the loss of Stevie Emanuels to professional baseball, if a starting rotation of fourth-year junior righthanders Jack Enger (2-1, 1.88) and Logan Gerling (0-1, 3.06) and third-year sophomore righthander David Rhodes (1-2, 5.52) pitch like it did last year, or in the case of Rhodes, pitches a bit more like he did in 2019, when he had a 4.84 ERA in 67 innings. Second-year freshman righthander Nate Weeldreyer (3.00, 6 IP), a top recruit in the 2019 class, could also be ready to step up into a bigger role, and junior college transfer lefthander/outfielder Tyson Guerrero, with a fastball that reaches the mid 90s, should have an instant impact either in a starting role or at the back end of the bullpen. 

The bigger question for the Huskies is the lineup after they hit .229 as a team last year, but fourth-year junior outfielder Braiden Ward (.283/.377/.367, 10 SB), one of the fastest runners in the country, will wreak havoc on the bases, third-year sophomore second baseman Noah Hsue (.375/.444/.417) is coming off of a really nice season at the plate and true freshman third baseman Cole Fontenelle, the top recruit in their most recent class, has a chance to bring some thunder to the middle of the order right away. Veterans like fourth-year junior catcher Michael Petrie (.270/.357/.405), fourth-year junior outfielder Christian Jones (.265/.395/.353) and fifth-year senior shortstop Ramon Bramasco (.196/.275/.217) also bring a ton of experience to the table. 



6. Oregon State (5-9)

A 5-9 record in 2020, albeit mostly against quality competition, made it hard to know what to make of the Beavers in their first year under Mitch Canham, and now that uncertainty rolls over into 2021. There is upside on the mound, where OSU will be looking for fourth-year sophomore righthander Kevin Abel to return to his 2018 form after missing just about all of the last two seasons. If he can return to anything close to that, it raises the ceiling on what Oregon State can be—though Abel’s return comes just in time to replace breakout star Christian Chamberlain. Behind him, second-year freshman lefthander Cooper Hjerpe (5.25, 12 IP), who struck out more than a batter an inning last season and has a fastball that reaches the mid 90s, will look to move from closing games to starting them. The presence of those two makes third-year sophomore righthander Jake Pfennigs (2-2, 3.57) a likely third starter, and that means the Beavers are in a pretty good place in the rotation. They also get back fifth-year senior lefthander Jake Mulholland (13.50, 8.2 IP), whose struggles last season are not indicative of how good a pitcher he is. 

The lineup will be filled with familiar faces like fourth-year junior catcher Troy Claunch (.244/.306/.489), fourth-year junior second baseman Ryan Ober (.238/.298/.262), third-year sophomore third baseman Jake Dukart (.323/.580/.419), fifth-year senior shortstop Andy Armstrong (.321/.373/.453) and fourth-year junior right fielder Kyler McMahan (.439/.492/.544), so the offensive attack will be solid at a bare minimum. With a good pitching staff, being solid very well could be enough. Being anything more than that offensively would likely require someone to step up and become a true masher in the middle of the order. 

7. Southern California (10-5)

USC’s position player group should spark a lot of optimism about how good the Trojans can be in 2021. Third-year sophomore first baseman Clay Owens (.346/.400/.577), fourth-year junior shortstop Ben Ramirez (.310/.375/.552), second-year freshman center fielder Rhylan Thomas (.356/.412/.422) and fourth-year junior Jamal O’Guinn (.378/.533/.511), who projects to move from third base to right field, were all huge parts of USC’s early success in 2020 and could give the team one of the deepest lineups in the Pac-12 this coming season. Additional upside comes from a pair of young shortstops in second-year freshman Tyresse Turner (.257/.372/.371) and true freshman D’Andre Smith, the latter of whom was one of the top recruits to make it campus in the Pac-12 this year. Both will battle for time in the middle infield. Another freshman shortstop, Nate Clow, could also be in the mix at third base. 

After last season, USC lost its two most accomplished starting pitchers in Kyle Hurt and John Beller, but a one-two punch of fourth-year junior lefthander Isaac Esqueda (0-1, 1.20) and fourth-year sophomore lefthander Alex Cornwell (2-1, 3.66) will be more than competitive, and fourth-year junior lefthander Brian Gursky (1-1, 0.00) looks ready for a spot in the rotation after serving as the midweek starter last season. You can also look for freshman righthander Jaden Agassi, son of tennis legends Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, to earn starting assignments in his first year. Somewhat quietly, second-year freshman righthander Ethan Hoopingarner (0.79, 11.1 IP) was lights out in relief last season, and he’s expected to take over the closer’s role moving forward. 

8. California (5-11)

There is a reasonable chance that California greatly outperforms this relatively modest prediction, and a lot of that hope is tied up in a weekend rotation featuring third-year sophomore righthanders Grant Holman (1-3, 3.28) and Sean Sullivan (0-1, 1.59), both of whom have the talent to be among the best starters in the Pac-12 and high draft picks in 2021. Holman works with a fastball that sits in the mid 90s at its best and was Cal’s most effective full-time starter a year ago. Sullivan had a breakout summer on the Cape in 2019 using a four-pitch mix that includes a fastball in the low 90s and a quality slider but who also logged just 5.2 innings in 2020. Third-year sophomore righthander Sam Stoutenborough (0-2, 4.95) is a solid third starter who has been a big part of the pitching staff each of the last two years. The bullpen should also be solid with third-year sophomore Ian Villers (1.17, 7.2 IP) and second-year freshman Joseph King (1.59, 11.1 IP) reprising their roles. Villers, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound righthander, can run his fastball into the high 90s, while the fellow righthander King has plenty of stuff as well, with a fastball that can reach the mid 90s. 

Holman, a two-way player, will also see time at first base or DH when he isn’t pitching after hitting .250/.324/.333 last year, and he’ll help lead a lineup that also features proven contributors in fourth-year junior second baseman Darren Baker (.286/.366/.333) and fourth-year junior third baseman Quentin Selma (.293/.411/.414). The return of fourth-year sophomore shortstop Sam Wezniak is huge for the Bears. He hit .259/.342/.456 with 10 home runs in 2019 before missing all of last season due to injury. He’ll bring a steady hand to an important defensive position and some pop to the lineup. 

9. Oregon (8-7)

Coach Mark Wasikowski and his staff are currently in year two of a rebuild at Oregon that may not bear its sweetest fruit until a few years down the road, but the staff seemed to have hit on some things last season that bode well for success in 2021. One was the emergence of Kenyon Yovan as one of the best power bats in the Pac-12 after his value for the Ducks had come mostly on the mound prior to 2020. The fifth-year junior hit .429/.566/.714 last season and is back to hold the DH role. Also back in the lineup are fifth-year senior first baseman Gabe Matthews (.339/.500/.518), who is also a plus defender, and third-year sophomore Aaron Zavala (.418/.493/.491), who has good positional versatility and will likely find a home in right field. The Ducks will next look for a continued breakthrough from a guy like second-year freshman catcher Jack Scanlon (.293/.400/.488) or a star turn from second-year freshman center fielder Anthony Hall (.250/.346/.432). 

For the Ducks to be more competitive in the Pac-12 this coming season, they will need fourth-year junior lefthander Robert Ahlstrom (2-1, 6.08) and fourth-year junior righthander Cullen Kafka (0-1, 4.91), who are slated to be the team’s Friday and Saturday starters, to be more consistent than they were early in 2020. With fourth-year junior righthander Hunter Breault (0.00, 9.2 IP), whose fastball sits in the mid 90s, and fourth-year junior lefthander Kolby Somers (0.00, 8 IP) back in the fold, the bullpen could be a strength. 

10. Washington State (9-7)

It was only 16 games, but it was clear in that limited window that Washington State was a much-improved team in Brian Green’s first season as head coach, and the 2021 season should provide a better glimpse of just how far along the Cougars are in the rebuilding process. Certainly, an offense led by third-year sophomore first baseman Kyle Manzardo (.435/.500/.694), fourth-year junior left fielder Justin Van De Brake (.333/.420/.456), fourth-year sophomore catcher Jake Meyer (.314/.447/.343), fourth-year junior third baseman Jack Smith (.308/.446/.423), fourth-year junior right fielder Collin Montez (.283/.419/.533) and New Mexico State graduate transfer DH Tristan Peterson, who hit .400 with 20 home runs in 2019, will be able to keep WSU in games. True freshman center fielder Keith Jones should also provide some pop in the order and freshman shortstop Kyle Russell, a top-200 prospect for the 2020 draft who ended up in Pullman, is a slick fielder who should be able to handle the position from day one. 

There’s more uncertainty on the pitching staff, especially after veteran A.J. Block signed with the Royals in the offseason, but the return of third-year sophomore righthander Zane Mills (3-0, 1.44) to his role on Friday nights will help mitigate Block’s departure. To fill out the rotation, WSU will likely turn to third-year sophomore righthander Brandon White (5.79, 4.2 IP), whose fastball touched the upper 90s in the fall, and junior college transfer righthander William Sierra. Highly-regarded freshman righthander Duke Brotherton could also push his way into the starting mix. 

11. Utah (6-7, 0-0)

Utah’s strength should be on the mound in 2021, with the return of three veteran starting pitchers to the rotation in fourth-year junior righthander Justin Kelly (0-2, 2.66), third-year sophomore righthander David Watson (1-1, 4.50) and sixth-year senior lefthander Kyle Robeniol (0-1, 5.79), plus fifth-year senior lefthander Riley Pierce (1-1, 4.50), who is the favorite to be the fourth starter in the pecking order. Look for Houston graduate transfer Brayson Hurdsman (4.85, 13 IP) to close out games after making 62 appearances over the last four years. The top pitching prospect on the roster is likely second-year freshman righthander Randon Hostert, who was a 15th-round draft pick coming out of high school. But he had Tommy John surgery and missed all of last season, so Utah will likely bring him back slowly and carefully, leaving his role and impact for 2021 up in the air. 

The Utes lost two of their better bats after last season as catcher Zack Moeller moved on after graduating and center field Briley Knight transferred, but they do return a good number of veteran pieces. That includes fourth-year junior left fielder Vinny Zavolta (.400/.571/.720), third-year sophomore first baseman Jayden Kiernan (.314/.435/.373) and fourth-year junior shortstop Rykker Tom (.226/.351/.226), who was a .289 career hitter before getting off to a sluggish start in 2020. Also among the experienced options in the lineup is center fielder Jaylon McLaughlin, a graduate transfer from Nevada. McLaughlin’s breakout season in Reno came in 2019, when he hit .339/.385/.456 with 25 stolen bases. 



Top 2021 Draft Prospects

  1. Matt McLain, SS, UCLA
  2. Kevin Abel, RHP, Oregon State
  3. Noah Cardenas, C, UCLA
  4. Sean Sullivan, RHP, California
  5. Tyler Thornton, RHP, Arizona State
  6. Nick Nastrini, RHP, UCLA
  7. Jamal O’Guinn, 3B/OF, Southern California
  8. JT Schwartz, 1B, UCLA
  9. Ryan Holgate, OF, Arizona
  10. Jacob Palisch, LHP, Stanford
  11. Mac Bingham, OF, Arizona
  12. Darren Baker, 2B, California
  13. Justin Fall, LHP, Arizona State
  14. Jesse Bergin, RHP, UCLA
  15. Grant Holman, RHP, California
  16. Jack Filby, INF/RHP, UCLA
  17. Zach Pettway, RHP, UCLA
  18. Braiden Ward, OF, Washington
  19. Donta’ Williams, OF, Arizona
  20. Chase Silseth, RHP, Arizona

Top 2022 Draft Prospects

  1. Michael Curialle, SS/OF, UCLA
  2. Max Rajcic, RHP, UCLA
  3. Daniel Susac, C, Arizona
  4. D’Andre Smith, SS, Southern California
  5. Randon Hostert, RHP, Utah
  6. Jacob Berry, 3B, Arizona
  7. Ethan Long, 3B/RHP, Arizona State
  8. Carson Wells, OF, Southern California
  9. Kody Huff, SS/C, Stanford
  10. Aaron Roberts, RHP, California

Top Incoming Draft Prospects

  1. Chase Davis, OF, Arizona
  2. Drew Bowser, SS, Stanford
  3. Daniel Susac, C, Arizona
  4. Chase Silseth, RHP, Arizona
  5. D’Andre Smith, SS, Southern California
  6. Max Rajcic, RHP, UCLA
  7. Ryan Bruno, LHP, Stanford
  8. Kyle Russell, SS, Washington State
  9. Jacob Berry, 3B, Arizona
  10. Cole Fontenelle, 3B, Washington

Best Tools

Best Pure Hitter: Matt McLain, UCLA
Best Power HItter: Ryan Holgate, Arizona
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Donta’ Williams, Arizona
Best Athlete: Brock Jones, Stanford
Fastest Runner: Braiden Ward, Washington
Best Baserunner: Darren Baker, California
Best Defensive Catcher: Noah Cardenas, UCLA
Best Defensive Infielder: Drew Swift, Arizona State
Best Infield Arm: Ben Ramirez, Southern California
Best Defensive Outfielder: Donta’ Williams, Arizona
Best Outfield Arm: Donta’ Williams, Arizona
Best Fastball: Chase Silseth, Arizona
Best Breaking Ball: Kevin Abel, Oregon State
Best Changeup: Zach Pettway, UCLA
Best Control: Zach Pettway, UCLA


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