2022 Big West Preview

Image credit: Cal Poly SS Brooks Lee (Photo courtesy of Cal Poly)

After being just a one-bid league in both 2018 and 2019, the Big West took a step back toward being one of the premier college baseball conferences in 2021. Even in a year when multiple teams in the conference were limited to conference-only schedules by university policy, the Big West returned to multi-bid status and both UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara reached regional finals.

The conference is poised to build on that momentum in 2022. Both UCI and UCSB again look to be formidable and Long Beach State, which finished third in the standings in 2021, can compete for the title. Both the first- and second-team shortstops on the Preseason All-America team, as voted on by MLB scouting departments, play in the Big West and the conference figures to produce a first round position player for the first time since 2017 (Keston Hiura).

After last season expanding conference series to four games to play a total of 40 Big West games, the schedule is back to normal in 2022. The return to normalcy comes at a perfect time, as the Big West is sure to find itself in the spotlight all spring.

Award Picks

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

Lee is one of the best players in the country and a projected top-10 pick who stands out for his hittability and all-around game. He last season hit .342/.384/.626 with 27 doubles and 10 home runs in his first full season of college, earning freshman of the year and co-player of the year honors from the Big West (he shared the player of the year award with UC Irvine’s Mike Peabody). Now, Lee enters 2022 with high expectations as he tries to lead the Mustangs to the NCAA Tournament and become just the second first-round pick in program history (John Orton, 1987).

Pitcher of the Year: Michael Frias, RHP, UC Irvine

The Big West typically stands out for its pitching and 2022 looks to be no exception. Several pitchers have a reasonable claim to being the preseason favorite for the award, but Frias gets the nod as he comes off an impressive season. He went 9-2, 3.36 with 91 strikeouts in 85.2 innings. He isn’t the most overpowering pitcher in the league, but has good feel on the mound and is ready to lead the Anteaters rotation.

Freshman of the Year: Eddie Saldivar, 2B, Long Beach State

Saldivar stands out for his pure lefthanded hittability and drew consideration as a Day 2 draft pick last year, but instead headlined a strong recruiting class for the Dirtbags. He’ll step into the lineup as their everyday second baseman. His advanced approach at the plate and above-average speed give him a chance to make an impact at the top of the order.

Projected Standings (2021 record)

1. UC Irvine (43-18, 32-8)

UCI last season won the Big West title for just the second time in program history and for the first time since 2009. That team largely returns intact for 2022. Outfielder Nathan Church (.369/.424/.583), the team’s leading hitter in 2021, is back to anchor the lineup. He’s one of several regulars returning for the Anteaters. They figure to be improved defensively, thanks in part to a strong middle of catcher Thomas McCaffrey (.356/.449/.446), shortstop Taishi Nakawake (.261/.352/.312)—the 2021 co-Big West Defensive Player of the Year—and center fielder Luke Spillane (.306/.385/.428). That defense will only further bolster UCI’s pitching staff that last year ranked No. 24 in the nation in ERA (3.80) and returns starters Michael Frias (9-2, 3.36) and Nick Pinto (7-4, 3.43) as well as key relievers Jacob King (3-1, 1.98) and Gordon Ingebritson (6-1, 3.40). With Church anchoring the lineup and a strong, experienced group leading the pitching staff, there’s plenty of reason to be bullish on UCI in 2022. To reach its ceiling and return to the College World Series for the first time since 2014, it will need to develop depth around its standouts.

2. Long Beach State (28-15, 26-14)

University policy last season limited Beach to a conference-only schedule (though a non-conference series was added mid-year) and despite having to start their season against conference foes already in midseason form, the Dirtbags finished third in the Big West and put together a resume worthy of a regionals bid. They were ultimately left out but are now an impressive 38-20 through two pandemic-impacted seasons under coach Eric Valenzuela. With a normal 2022 on tap, the Dirtbags are aiming for their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2017.

Beach stands out on the mound, even after losing starters Jonathan Lavallee and Alfredo Ruiz in the draft. Righthanders Luis Ramirez (4-4, 4.27) and Jack Noble (3-2, 2.79) return to the rotation. Ramirez has been a starter the last two years and has the stuff and makeup to now lead the rotation. The group will get a boost from redshirt freshman righthander Juaron Watts-Brown, who has a big arm but missed last season while he recovered from an injury he suffered while playing football his senior year of high school. Closer Deveraux Harrison (3-1, 1.57, 10 SV) returns and gives the Dirtbags the best reliever in the conference. Offensively, they must replace leading hitter Connor Kokx and leading home run hitter Calvin Estrada. First baseman Jonathon Long (.341/.410/.591) is coming off a strong freshman season and will now lead the lineup along with outfielder Chase Luttrell (.316/.347/.520, 8 HR). Beach will need some young hitters like freshman Eddie Saldivar and redshirt freshman third baseman Rocco Peppi to step up and round out the lineup. But because the Dirtbags have perhaps the deepest pitching staff in the Big West, they won’t need their offense to carry the load.  

3. UC Santa Barbara (41-20, 29-11)

The Gauchos last season finished as runners-up to UCI, three games behind in the standings. They earned an NCAA Tournament bid and reached the Tucson Regional final, falling to host Arizona. Now, UCSB has its sights set on a third straight regionals bid—something the program has never done before. The good news for UCSB is that shortstop Jordan Sprinkle (.353/.402/.536, 7 HR, 26 SB) is a foundational piece. He was voted a second-team Preseason All-American by MLB scouting departments (behind only Cal Poly’s Brooks Lee) and provides an anchor in both the lineup and infield. Around him in the lineup, UCSB returns second baseman Jason Willow (.282/.332/.441, 16 SB) and outfielders Zach Rodriguez (.348/.412/.511) and Broc Mortensen (.296/.409/.582, 15 HR). The Gauchos averaged more than seven runs per game in 2021 and should have a high-powered offense again with that core.

UCSB will need its offense to step up after losing top starting pitchers Michael McGreevy and Rodney Boone. Sophomore righthander Cory Lewis (7-4, 3.38), who had a strong freshman year in the rotation, will take over as the team’s No. 1 starter. Lefthander Carter Benbrook (7-1, 3.02, 5 SV) was the Gauchos’ top reliever in 2021 and will pitch in a key role this spring, either again as the relief ace or in the rotation. Junior college transfer Mike Gutierrez also figures to step into a prominent role. If UCSB is able to find the right combination on the mound, there’s plenty of upside to make another regionals appearance—and more.

4. Cal Poly (31-25, 21-19)

The Mustangs in recent seasons have consistently competed at the top of the Big West but haven’t broken through for a regionals bid since 2014. With shortstop Brooks Lee (.342/.384/.626, 10 HR), the son of coach Larry Lee, at the heart of the order, Cal Poly has a chance to return to the postseason this year. Also returning to the lineup are veterans Matt Lopez (.341/.455/.422) and Tate Samuelson (.275/.369/.441, 6 HR). On the mound, the Mustangs return righthander Drew Thorpe (6-6, 3.79) and lefthander Travis Weston (5-6, 3.28), their top two starters. Thorpe has high-end upside and spent the summer with Team USA, along with Lee. Righthander Kyle Scott (2-2, 3.91, 7 SV) is back to anchor the bullpen and the Mustangs have solid depth around that trio. Cal Poly has the talent necessary for a regionals bid, but in a competitive Big West, it will be critical to get off to a good start in non-conference play to build a case for an at-large bid.

5. Cal State Northridge (21-19)

Like Long Beach State, CSUN was limited to a conference-only schedule by university policy. And, like the Dirtbags, the Matadors acquitted themselves well in difficult circumstances, tying for fourth place in the conference standings. CSUN will be pushing to take another step forward in a more normal 2022—one that takes on added meaning as coach Dave Serrano announced last month this will be his final season before retiring.

If CSUN is to send Serrano out with a flourish, it will do it with a combination of veterans and an excellent group of newcomers. Fourth-year righthanders Blake Sodersten (3-2, 4.02) and Blaine Traxel (5-1, 3.78) return to lead the rotation. Righthander Lucas Braun, a transfer from San Diego, adds intriguing upside to the group and is coming off a solid summer in the Northwoods League. Offensively, CSUN must replace leading power threats Denzel Clarke and Jayson Newman, but gets back leading hitter Kai Moody (.393/.459/.486, 10 SB). Freshman shortstop Ali Camarillo, one of the top recruits in the Big West, and outfielder Andrew Sojka, a junior college transfer, are among the newcomers who will be counted on offensively. If Serrano is able to successfully blend the experience and youth on the roster, CSUN can put together a strong spring.

6. Hawaii (24-26, 16-24)

For the first time in 20 years, Hawaii has a new coach. After last season, Mike Trapasso’s contract was not renewed, and Rich Hill was hired away from San Diego to take over the program. Much else around the program will be new as well. The Rainbow Warriors’ top two hitters both transferred to SEC schools—Adam Fogel to Kentucky and Kole Kaler to Texas A&M—and top starter Aaron Davenport was drafted in the sixth round. Hawaii hit the transfer portal hard itself and newcomers like shortstop Kyson Donahue (Arizona) and righthander Andy Archer (Georgia Tech) will be counted on in big roles. Among returners, outfielder Scotty Scott (.297/.435/.372), righthander Cade Halemanu (5-2, 3.60) and lefthander Austin Teixeira (3-2, 4.06) will be key for the Rainbow Warriors. Getting catcher Dallas Duarte, who was limited to 10 games last season by injury, back will be crucial as well. Hawaii has yet to find its footing in the Big West and has not finished better than fifth place in eight seasons in the league. A rebuild is likely to take some time.

7. Cal State Fullerton (20-35, 13-23)

After missing the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1985-86, Fullerton made a coaching change. Rick Vanderhook retired after 10 years as head coach and two College World Series appearances and Jason Dietrich was hired to take over the powerhouse. The respected pitching coach came to Fullerton from East Carolina, where he spent the last two seasons, but he previously spent four seasons as the Titans pitching coach and five seasons at UC Irvine, giving him plenty of Big West experience.

Dietrich’s first order of business will be to rebuild a pitching staff that posted a 6.01 team ERA a year ago and lost its top two starters—Tanner Bibee as a fifth-round draft pick and Kyle Luckham as a transfer to Arizona State. In fact, the Titans lost their top five pitchers from 2021 by innings pitched, leaving righthanders Cameron Repetti (4-2, 4.50, 5 SV) and Michael Weisberg (2-1, 6.03) as their top returners. Offensively, Fullerton returns leading hitter Caden Connor (.325/.417/.387), catcher Cole Urman (.275/.331/.310) and third baseman Zach Lew (.284/.369/.361). That group gives the Titans a solid core to build around and the makings of a solid defense. Fullerton isn’t as talented as it’s used to being and went 51-73 over the last three years. Expecting the Titans to immediately bounce back under Dietrich is unfair, but they should be able to improve on last year’s ninth-place finish.

8. UC San Diego (24-28, 21-19)

The Tritons last season made their Division I debut and handled their maiden voyage in the Big West with aplomb. They finished tied for fourth, ahead of the likes of Cal State Fullerton and Hawaii, and will now look to build on that first season—though they are not yet postseason eligible. UCSD this season welcomes back leading hitters Michael Fuhrman (.352/.457/.488, 10 SB) and Anthony Lucchetti (.312/.399/.465). With top starters Cameron Leonard and Brandon Weed now gone, UCSD will need a reset on the mound, but it does bring back lefthander Izaak Martinez (3-1, 2.83) and righthander Michael Mitchell (4-1, 3.00, 5 SV), who last season helped anchor the bullpen. The Tritons have a large group of newcomers and will look to them to help the program build on its Division I debut.

9. Cal State Bakersfield (20-23, 17-19)

CSUB last season made its debut in the Big West, as it moved from the Western Athletic Conference. After a solid seventh-place finish last season, the Roadrunners have had significant roster turnover, but brought in a strong crop of newcomers. CSUB will have a new-look lineup after losing outfielder Jacen Roberson in the draft, as well as leading hitters Tyler Jorgensen and Evan Berkey. Junior college transfers James Bell and Evan Rice will give the lineup a boost, while redshirt freshman Andrew Allanson and Andrew Miller, an Oregon transfer, have breakout potential. On the mound, starters Roman Angelo and Aaron Charles are gone, as is top reliever Jack Lee. Righthander Jaykob Acosta (0-0, 5.93, 2 SV) has the stuff to step into the rotation, while righthanders Davonte Butler (1-1, 4.76) and Cody Tucker (2-4, 6.30) provide good experience. If the Roadrunners take advantage of their opportunities, they have some real upside.

10. UC Riverside (15-36, 12-28)

After an unsettling offseason ahead of the 2021 season—UCR very publicly debated whether it would remain a Division I athletic department and coach Troy Percival resigned after fall ball—the Highlanders pushed through a challenging season that saw them lose their final 13 conference games. UCR will hope that with a more normal offseason—the Division I debate was settled and Justin Johnson, who served on an interim basis in 2021, was elevated to the full-time position—it can bounce back in 2022. The best on-field news for the Highlanders is the return of leading hitter Nathan Webb (.324/.400/.524, 9 HR), who will see time at DH, third base and in the outfield. Outfielder Dylan Orick (.307/.357/.487, 17 2B) and shortstop Anthony Mata (.273/.328/.315) also return, forming a solid core in the lineup. On the mound, UCR last season posted a 7.38 team ERA and improving that mark will be critical to the team taking a step forward. Top starter Zach Jacobs (1-6, 5.18) returns, with righthanders Joey Magrisi (Cal State Northridge), Caleb Turner (junior college) and Corbin Baker (freshmen) all newcomers to watch.

11. UC Davis (14-43, 8-32)

The Aggies are coming off a dismal season that saw them finish last in the Big West and post their worst record since 2009. Things got much worse for UCD in July, when the program was suspended and the coaching staff was placed on administrative leave while the university investigated the program due to allegations of misconduct. The investigation wasn’t resolved until November, when the university found evidence that for years rookies in the program were subjected to hazing rituals that included binge drinking and strippers. Coach Matt Vaughn resigned as a result of the investigation. UCD opened a coaching search and hired Tommy Nicholson, who was an assistant coach at Stanford and previously worked at Sacramento State and Texas. Taking over a team in the situation he did will make for a massive challenge in 2022. While hiring a coach as well respected as Nicholson speaks well to the future of the Aggies, an instant turnaround won’t be in the offing.

Top 10 2022 Draft Prospects

1. Brooks Lee, SS, Cal Poly
2. Jordan Sprinkle, SS, UC Santa Barbara
3. Devereaux Harrison, RHP, Long Beach State
4. Drew Thorpe, RHP, Cal Poly
5. Luis Ramirez, RHP, Long Beach State
6. Nathan Church, OF, UC Irvine
7. Connor McGuire, 3B, UC Irvine
8. Chase Luttrell, 1B/OF, Long Beach State
9. Kyle Scott, RHP, Cal Poly
10. Marques Johnson, RHP, Long Beach State

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