2023 Big 12 Conference College Baseball Preview

Image credit: Brayden Taylor (Ken Murphy/Four Seam Images)

For the first time since 2009, the Big 12 had a representative in the College World Series finals. It wasn’t preseason favorite Texas or regular season champion Texas Christian, however, it was Oklahoma, which got hot at the right time and went on a tear before getting swept by Mississippi in the championship series.

The conference sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament, placing two in the CWS—the Longhorns joined the Sooners—and the other three reached regional finals. This was no surprise considering the caliber of players competing in the Big 12, with 47 players selected in the MLB draft, the third-most of any league.

That quantity of prospects shattered the conference’s previous 20-round record by nine, with Oklahoma (11 picks), Oklahoma State (nine), and Texas (eight) earning the most selections. Oklahoma’s Cade Horton (seventh overall) and Texas Tech’s Jace Jung (12th) both went in the first round, while four more went in the first 51 picks.

As a result, the league has quite a different look to it in 2023, particularly on pitching staffs. There’s been an influx of talent from recruiting, with four teams in the Top 25 recruiting classes, as well as through the transfer portal. Pair that with a plethora of junior college talent, two new head coaches, and the Big 12 could be quite interesting this season—although the favorite is a familiar face.

Preseason Awards

Player of the Year: Brayden Taylor, 3B, Texas Christian

After a dynamic freshman season in which he earned Big 12 freshman of the year, all the Horned Frogs slugger did for an encore was finish fifth in the conference in on-base percentage (.454), third in OPS (1.030), and fourth in walks (55). Taylor hit .314/.454/.576, clubbed 13 home runs, drove in 50 runs and swiped 10 bases. With a career .450 on-base percentage across 117 games, Taylor is as consistent as they get and his power numbers have stayed steady. He has an exceptional eye at the plate and a consistent approach that generates results. Another year of 200-plus at-bats will have him well on his way to claiming the conference’s top position player award.

Pitcher of the Year: Juaron Watts-Brown, RHP, Oklahoma State

With Texas righthander Tanner Witt expected to be sidelined for much of 2023 following Tommy John surgery, the top arm in the conference is arguably Oklahoma State’s impact transfer of the offseason in Watts-Brown. The righthander out of Long Beach State immediately fills the hole left by Justin Campbell in the Cowboys weekend rotation and will be counted on to lead the staff, even as he makes the transition to the Big 12 and Stillwater. Watts-Brown totaled 111 strikeouts in 73.1 innings for the Dirtbags in 2022, posting a 3.78 ERA and tossing a no-hitter in the process. He impressed on the Cape in the summer with a four-pitch mix and could climb draft boards rapidly with a strong campaign.

Freshman of the Year: Jalin Flores, 3B, Texas

There’s a Texas-sized hole in the Longhorns lineup after departures and Flores, a 6-foot-2 infielder out of San Antonio, is one of several names tasked with filling them. Slotting in at third base to step in for Skyler Messinger, Flores has great bat speed, can hit to all fields and fits in well with Texas’ history of developing hitters. In the last few years, the Longhorns have seen excellent first-year campaigns from Mitchell Daly, Eric Kennedy, Zach Zubia and David Hamilton. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Flores join that group of impact freshman bats for the Longhorns.

Predicted Order of Finish (2022 record)

1. TCU (38-22, 16-8)

In Kirk Saarloos’ first year in charge, the Horned Frogs won the conference regular season crown — not skipping a beat after the departure of Jim Schlossnagle — but exited in regionals. TCU figures to once again challenge for the title, though, with key returnees and a talented group of newcomers that includes a top-15 recruiting class and a top-five crop of transfers. 

While hitting coach Bill Mosiello has moved on to take the reins at Ohio State, TCU still has a tremendous offensive core in Brayden Taylor, Elijah Nunez, David Bishop and Luke Boyers. Taylor (.314/.454/.576) is a likely first-round draft pick, while Nunez (.287/.435/.368) will set the table once again at the top of the lineup. The Horned Frogs added West Virginia’s Austin Davis (.330/.402/.442) to bolster the group and freshman shortstop Anthony Silva seems destined for big things as he fills the hole left by Tommy Sacco. 

Bigger questions loom in the pitching staff. In the offseason, the Horned Frogs lost their weekend rotation—after finishing second in the conference in ERA (4.26)—and will rely primarily on new faces. Cam Brown (5-2, 4.42) is expected to step up as the top starter, while Kansas’ Ryan Vanderhei (5-6, 6.46) and California’s Sam Stoutenborough (2-4, 5.58) are two transfer arms that could eat up innings. Luke Savage (1-1, 2.72) was the team’s top reliever a season ago, but could find himself in a bigger role after a 35-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nearly 40 innings. A fresh face to keep an eye on is freshman Louis Rodriguez, who dazzled in fall camp and impressed as a prep.

2. Oklahoma State (42-22, 15-9)

If you want consistency, look no further than what Josh Holliday has built in Stillwater. Since Holliday took over in 2013, the Cowboys have been in the postseason every year, but enter this year searching for their first CWS appearance since 2016. Oklahoma State has fallen in the regionals in the last two campaigns—despite hosting last year—but has a rebuilt pitching staff and a strong offense that gives it a real chance to host again in 2023. 

It’s a transfer-heavy staff, headlined by Long Beach State’s Juaron Watts-Brown (4-4, 3.68) and BYU’s Janzen Keisel (3-2, 4.27). Watts-Brown has a mid-90s fastball, a plus slider, a changeup and a curveball to mix in. Another transfer, Brian Hendry of St. John’s, was out last year but should factor in alongside junior college arrivals Evan O’Toole and Brant Hogue. There’s quite a few new faces with Justin Campbell, Bryce Osmond and Victor Mederos gone, but if the staff gels, the Cowboys have the offense to make them quite dangerous.

Replacing Jake Thompson, Caeden Trenkle and Griffin Doersching in the lineup is no easy feat, but Oklahoma State has the benefit of returning the bulk of the entire infield, including first baseman David Mendham (.276/.385/.498), second baseman Roc Riggio (.295/.413/.519) and shortstop Marcus Brown (.316/.378/.441). Third baseman Nolan McLean (.285/.397/.595)—who is also a good arm in the back of the bullpen—returns as well, though he is set to move to the outfield. Then, center fielder Zach Ehrhard (.332/.429/.409) returns alongside freshman outfielder Nolan Schubart, Arizona transfer Noah Turley (.226/.333/.409) and junior college addition Tyler Wulfert. It’s quite the group that should produce plenty of runs and benefit defensively from familiarity in the infield. 

3. Texas Tech (39-22, 15-9)

It’s almost a yearly trick at this point for Tim Tadlock and Texas Tech—despite high-profile departures, the Red Raiders find new faces and keep the train rolling. It’s now six straight NCAA Tournament appearances—including three trips to the CWS—for Texas Tech. A similar challenge is in store this year, with the lineup losing Jace Jung, Kurt Wilson, Cole Stilwell, Parker Kelly and Easton Murrell while the rotation departs Big 12 pitcher of the year Brandon Birdsell alongside Andrew Morris and Chase Hampton.

Offensively, Texas Tech returns established catcher Hudson White (.260/.369/.395)—the Big 12 freshman of the year—and outfielders Dillon Carter (.199/.339/.322) and Owen Washburn (.277/.369/.433). Quite a few new faces slot into the lineup after those three. Wofford transfer Nolen Hester (.321/.442/.402) and Oregon State’s Jake Dukart (.262/.368/.418) are two established Division I bats, while freshman Tracer Lopez, Will Burns, redshirt freshman Kevin Bazzell and junior college transfer Austin Green all figure to play a part. Another freshman, outfielder Jeric Curtis, is the top incoming recruit and brings blazing speed.

On the mound, the Red Raiders welcome back quite a few arms despite the need to replace 41 starts. Mason Molina (2-5, 3.90), a sophomore lefthander who split time between the rotation and bullpen a year ago, figures to assume the mantle of staff ace. The bullpen is in good hands with returnees Andrew Devine, Derek Bridges and Josh Sanders—all of whom Tadlock hopes can take a step forward—while last year’s closer, Trendan Parish (2-2, 8.26), has the stuff to be in the weekend mix. How the rotation ultimately is constructed is anyone’s guess, but it figures to be a mix of arms until Tadlock can find his usual magic and put together a talented staff.

4. Texas (47-22, 14-10)

A new lineup. A shuffled coaching staff. An ace on the mend. There’s a lot of things that stacked up for Texas after a run to the CWS and it leaves the Longhorns in an interesting place to open this season. Can Texas break in a new group of position players and find success? Will new assistant coaches—Steve Rodriguez and Woody Williams—fit in well under David Pierce and elevate the team? There are more questions than answers with the Longhorns entering the year, but the talent, as always, is there.

Replacing Player of the Year Ivan Melendez is no small feat, and it surely doesn’t help when Trey Faltine, Skyler Messinger, Douglas Hodo, Murphy Stehly and Silas Ardoin are out the door as well. Returnees Mitchell Daly (.237/.351/.367), Dylan Campbell (.267/.370/.494) and Eric Kennedy (.300/.386/.471) are a strong core to build around, though, and the Longhorns supplemented them in the portal. USC’s Garret Guillemette (.286/.354/.429) slots in behind the plate, while TCU’s Porter Brown (.276/.385/.480) hopes to hit his full potential and Long Beach State’s Tanner Carlson (.345/.397/.466) brings a high-contact, high-average approach. Then, there’s impact freshman Jalin Flores, who slots right in at the hot corner.

Unlike some other teams in the conference, Texas didn’t make a splashy rotation transfer, despite losing two-thirds of its weekend rotation in Pete Hansen and Tristan Stevens. It has the benefit of returning Lucas Gordon (7-2, 3.05), a talented southpaw, and expect to see some combination of Zane Morehouse (3-1, 6.00), Lebarron Johnson (0-1, 3.18), and Andre Duplantier (3-1, 5.93) in the weekend mix. There’s another Southern California transfer in Charlie Hurley (6-2, 4.19) who should make an impact, while the bullpen has promising returning arms like Luke Harrison (0-0, 3.06) and Travis Sthele (3-1, 6.03). Hanging out as a wild card is righthander Tanner Witt, a potential first-round pick who will miss at least the start of the season while he recovers from Tommy John surgery. How soon he can return and what role he would fill once he does get on the mound remains unclear.

5. Oklahoma (45-24, 15-9)

After last year being picked to finish sixth in the Big 12, Oklahoma overcame a slow start to go on a torrid run that culminated in a national runner-up finish. The Sooners won 14 of their last 19 games, posted a 21-12 run from April 10 on, and became the first Big 12 team in the CWS finals since 2009. After coming up just short, though, the Sooners will have quite a new look in 2023. Gone is the three-headed monster of Jake Bennett, David Sandlin and Cade Horton in the rotation—along with talented reliever Trevin Michael—and the offense has quite a few pieces to replace, including Peyton Graham, Tanner Treadaway, Blake Robertson and Jimmy Crooks.

On the mound, head coach Skip Johnson has a plethora of options—newcomers and returnees alike—to try and find a winning formula. The first two arms in the weekend rotation may very well be players with Big 12 experience—Oklahoma State’s Kale Davis (1-1, 4.25) and Texas Tech’s Jamie Hitt (0-2, 7.40). Junior college transfer Will Carsten, freshman Julien Hachem and returnee Braden Carmichael (3-2, 9.00) are all in the mix as well. Lamar transfer Braxton Douthit (7-2, 3.65) seems like a potential Michael replacement by being utilized in a closer or high-leverage role. The dependability of last year’s arms will be missed and could pose quite the problem should they struggle and the lineup doesn’t perform up to par.

That being said, the top of the Sooners’ lineup is poised for a big season. John Spikerman (.317/.434/.450) slides over to center field and will feature next to Kendall Pettis (.259/.449/.400) as a duo that should strike fear in opposing catchers. Second baseman Jackson Nicklaus (.288/.397/.495) and third baseman Wallace Clark (.257/.397/.296) are back, too. Oklahoma will be counting on quite a few new faces, including Sam Houston State  transfer Anthony MacKenzie (.242/.346/.382) and two more junior college transfers—shortstop Dakota Harris and right fielder Bryce Madron. Last year’s lineup was prolific down the stretch and Johnson will hope his team can find a similar stride.

6. West Virginia (33-22, 14-10)

A disappointing 0-2 mark at the Big 12 Tournament was enough to bump the Mountaineers just off the tournament bubble despite a program-record 14 Big 12 wins. Replacing the likes of Victor Scott, Austin Davis and McGwire Holbrook in the lineup as well as key arms Jacob Watters and Trey Braithwaite won’t be easy, but a key offensive core and an exciting freshmen class awaits.

The right side of the infield will feature the combination of first baseman Grant Hussey (.244/.379/.489) and J.J. Wetherholt (.308/.411/.471), a formidable offensive duo, while center fielder Braden Barry (.289/.374/.497) and catcher Dayne Leonard (.331/.426/.451) are strong returnees. Nevada transfer Landon Wallace (.312/.459/.469) could add a spark, while freshman Ellis Garcia figures to man third base. The Mountaineers don’t have as much speed as in years past, but should be strong regardless.

Ben Hampton (8-5, 4.66) stood out on the Cape and assumes the top starter role. There’s a plethora of options for head coach Randy Mazey to choose from to fill out the staff, whether it’s returnees Aidan Major (3-0, 3.49) and Carlson Reed (0-1, 5.13) or newcomers Blaine Traxel (7-4, 3.00), Grant Siegel (7-1, 3.02) and Keegan Allen (0-0, 9.00). Siegel was a dynamic freshman at Tulane, while Traxel is a veteran arm from Cal State Northridge. One name to keep an eye on is freshman Gavin Van Kempen, who stands a towering 6-foot-6 with a mid-90s fastball and arrives after not signing following a 20th-round selection by the Cardinals.

7. Kansas State (29-29, 8-16)

After a 34-win 2021 campaign, the Wildcats took a step backwards last year, winning just a third of their conference games, but ended the year on a high note with wins over West Virginia and Texas Tech in the Big 12 Tournament. Struggles on the mound—a 5.84 team ERA—were hard to overcome and the going doesn’t get easier in 2023. Injuries and significant departures—most notably the rotation of Blake Adams, Connor McCullough and Griffin Hassall—means that the Wildcats will need even more offensively.

Coach Pete Hughes has indicated a different approach to the pitching staff in 2023 which means pitchers could be utilized in different roles and shuffled around. Whether that’ll work in an offense-heavy Big 12 remains to be seen, but Hughes has quite a few interesting arms. Notable returnees include German Fajardo (4-2, 3.91), Tyler Ruhl (5-2, 6.05), and Blake Corsentino (4-5, 4.21). Newcomers include Texas Tech transfer Shay Hartis (1-0, 6.06) and a pair of Division III pitchers in Owen Boerema and Corey Cater. Hartis was used minimally, totaling just 16 innings, but posted a strong 14-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio and could have a breakout year.

Offensively, more is known. The left side of the infield—shortstop Nick Goodwin (.255/.354/.525) and third baseman Kaelen Culpepper (.283/.356/.428)—should be among the league’s best, while outfielder and first baseman Cole Johnson (.292/.355/.469) returns as well. Replacing Dominic Johnson, Justin Mitchell, Dylan Phillips and Josh Nicoloff won’t be easy, but some intriguing players stepping into bigger roles include South Florida transfer Roberto Pena (.237/.431/.487), middle infielder Brady Day (.284/.402/.402) and outfielder Brendan Jones.

8. Kansas (20-35, 4-20)

Ritch Price’s long tenure in Lawrence came to an end after a four-win conference campaign in 2022. The Jayhawks tapped Louisiana State assistant coach Dan Fitzgerald to take the reins, a shrewd choice after Fitzgerald spent nine years in the Dallas Baptist program and aided in building the Patriots into a powerhouse. It’s been eight years since Kansas posted a winning conference record and Fitzgerald’s first task has been to shape the team in his image.

Just 13 players return from last year’s squad—with notable departures including Maui Ahuna (Tennessee) and Tavian Josenberger (Arkansas)—but Fitzgerald and recruiting coordinator Jon Coyne have been busy: Nine freshmen and 17 transfers arrived in Kansas this offseason, meriting a top 25 transfer class ranking. The Jayhawks have completely overhauled their roster and will hope that it can result in the first step of a turnaround.

Established offensive reinforcements arrived in the form of third baseman Michael Brooks (Central Florida) and catcher Cole Elvis (California). High upside transfers include LSU’s Luke Leto and Collier Cranford, both of whom got minimal time in Baton Rouge and followed Fitzgerald to Kansas.  Jackson Cobb—who has stints at Arkansas and Texas Tech—is in his second year in Lawrence and is expected to breakout, while Mike Koszewski is a junior college transfer that has quite a bat. Another potential key bat is Texas Tech’s Sam Hunt, who showed out in 46 at-bats, slashing .348/.475/.457 with the Red Raiders. On the mound, it’s Sam Ireland (4-5, 5.27) and San Diego State’s Hunter Cranton (0-1, 3.86) that headline the group. Ireland, a veteran with 20 career starts for the Golden Gophers, runs his fastball up to 95 mph. 

9. Baylor (26-28, 7-17)

In 2021, Baylor was the last team left out of the NCAA Tournament. It returned the bulk of that team in 2022, but spiraled to a dismal 7-17 mark in conference play. The reasons were myriad: The staff ERA rose by a point and a half, the offense scored a full run fewer per game as it walked less and struck out more, and the team ended the year on a four-game losing streak that saw coach Steve Rodriguez resign. 

Now, a rebuild begins under former Bears assistant Mitch Thompson, who arrives from the junior college ranks after nine years at McLennan (Texas) JC. Thompson spent 18 years at Baylor prior to McLennan, so the Bears went with a familiar face to build a way back to regionals. They could take some lumps early, with offensive stalwarts Jared McKenzie, Kyle Nevin, Jack Pineda and Tre Richardson gone—as well as Tyler Thomas and Will Rigney from the pitching staff.

The biggest returnee is Blake Helton (0-1, 2.61), a righthander who figures to lead the weekend rotation after posting a 2.61 ERA in 20.2 innings a season ago. A few other notable names return to the pitching staff, including Mason Marriott (2-3, 5.96) and Kobe Andrade (3-3, 5.88). Offensively, there are a lot more questions with an almost entirely new starting nine. Transfers from throughout the West—Texas A&M’s Austin Stracener, TCU’s Hunter Teplanszky and New Mexico’s Cole Posey—figure to immediately start and play important roles. Casen Neumann (.292/.409/.431) is the top returning starter, hitting near .300 across 21 games. Like Kansas, Baylor has a lot of pieces to figure out before it looks too far ahead.

TOP 20 2023 Draft Prospects

  1. Brayden Taylor, 3B, Texas Christian
  2. Tanner Witt, RHP, Texas
  3. Marcus Brown, SS, Oklahoma State
  4. Juaron Watts-Brown, RHP, Oklahoma State
  5. Nick Goodwin, SS, Kansas State
  6. Roc Riggio, 2B, Oklahoma State
  7. Nolan McLean, RHP/OF, Oklahoma State
  8. Cam Brown, RHP, Texas Christian
  9. Ben Hampton, LHP, West Virginia
  10. Lucas Gordon, LHP, Texas
  11. Dylan Campbell, OF, Texas
  12. Elijah Nunez, OF, Texas Christian
  13. Ryan Vanderhei, RHP, Texas Christian
  14. Zane Morehouse, RHP, Texas
  15. Charlie Hurley, RHP, Texas
  16. Hunter Hodges, RHP, Texas Christian
  17. Lebarron Johnson, RHP, Texas
  18. Travis Sthele, RHP, Texas
  19. Kale Davis, RHP, Oklahoma
  20. Austin Davis, OF, Texas Christian

TOP 10 2024 Draft Prospects

  1. Mason Molina, LHP, Texas Tech
  2. Jalin Flores, 3B, Texas
  3. Ryan Ure, LHP, Texas Tech
  4. Janzen Keisel, RHP, Oklahoma State
  5. Jackson Nicklaus, 2B, Oklahoma
  6. Kyle Robinson, RHP, Texas Tech
  7. Zach Ehrhard, OF, Oklahoma State
  8. John Spikerman, OF, Oklahoma
  9. Hudson White, C, Texas Tech
  10. JJ Wetherholt, 3B, West Virginia

Top 10 Newcomers

  1. Juaron Watts-Brown, RHP, Oklahoma State
  2. Jalin Flores, 3B, Texas
  3. Ryan Vanderhei, RHP, TCU
  4. Anthony Silva, SS, TCU
  5. Janzen Keisel, RHP, Oklahoma State
  6. Braxton Douthit, RHP, Oklahoma
  7. Charlie Hurley, RHP, Texas
  8. Bryce Madron, OF, Oklahoma
  9. Nolen Hester, OF, Texas Tech
  10. Landon Wallace, OF, West Virginia


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