2024 Big West College Baseball Preview


Image credit: Caden Kendle (Photo by Matt Brown/UC Irvine Athletics)

The 2023 season was a complicated one for the Big West. On the one hand, it was highly competitive, and six teams finished within three games of first place. It also produced a first-time champion in UC San Diego, which was in just its third season in the conference.

On the other hand, UC Irvine was arguably the biggest snub in the NCAA Tournament selection process and UC Santa Barbara fell off the NCAA Tournament bubble when it was swept by Hawaii on the final weekend of the regular season. That left the Big West as a one-bid league—and that bid didn’t even go to the league champion because the NCAA prohibits teams moving up from Division II (as UCSD is doing) from appearing in the postseason for the first four years.

The Big West, which sent a team to Omaha in four consecutive years from 2014-17, has now been a one-bid league in four of the last five NCAA Tournaments. The reasons for the conference’s slide are lengthy and both a result of larger trends around college sports and its own shortcomings.   

The Big West looks like it should produce multiple NCAA Tournament teams in 2024. UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara both are talented and ready to contend this spring. Cal State Northridge has been on the upswing and other teams could push into that range. But no matter what RPI or other tournament selection–metrics say, this conference has college baseball very much worth watching. UCSB has one of the better pitching staffs in the country. UCI returns every starter from a lineup that ranked 27th in the nation in scoring—no Big West team has ranked higher since UCSB ranked 13th in 2004. CSUN is coming off its best season since 2002. UCSD will aim for a second surprising spring and a repeat title.

College sports is changing dramatically, but don’t let that distract you from some quality baseball on the West Coast.

Below, find the following as we dive deep into the Big West…

  • Predicted order of finish
  • Player, Pitcher and Freshman of the Year predictions
  • Team-by-team breakdowns
  • Top draft prospects

Predicted Order of Finish (2023 Record)

1. UC Irvine (38-17, 19-11)
2. UC Santa Barbara (35-20, 18-12)
3. Cal State Northridge (34-17, 20-10)
4. Hawaii (29-20, 18-12)
5. UC San Diego (34-18, 21-9)
6. Cal State Fullerton (32-24, 20-10)
7. Cal Poly (21-35, 11-19)
8. Long Beach State (33-22, 17-13)
9. UC Davis (17-37, 7-23)
10. Cal State Bakersfield (18-34, 9-21)
11. UC Riverside (11-41, 5-25)

Player of the Year: Caden Kendle, OF, UC Irvine

The Big West last year named co-players of the year, and both Kendle and Cal State Northridge’s Jakob Simmons return this spring. Kendle gets the nod here to repeat. His return is unexpected, as he was drafted in the 10th round by the Cardinals before deciding to return to school. He last spring hit .335/.434/.535 with 16 doubles, eight home runs and seven stolen bases. In his announcement that he was returning to school, he cited unfinished business and his love for UCI. He’ll be plenty motivated during his senior season.

Pitcher of the Year: Matt Ager, RHP, UC Santa Barbara

Ager last season as a sophomore went 5-4, 3.12 with 115 strikeouts and 26 walks in 92.1 innings. He then spent the summer with Team USA and has emerged as a top-50 draft prospect. He primarily attacks hitters with a fastball-slider combination and looks like the latest high-level pitcher out of UCSB.

Freshman of the Year: Adrian Lopez, SS, Long Beach State

Lopez comes to Long Beach with a strong track record of success and hitting. Listed at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he has a strong build and big arm strength that plays well on the left side of the infield. He has some righthanded power and enough hittability to make a smooth transition to college baseball.

Big West Team-By-Team Breakdowns

1. UC Irvine (38-17, 19-11)

The Anteaters were arguably the biggest snub from last year’s NCAA Tournament, as they were left on the wrong side of the bubble despite a top-50 RPI. They’ll be eager this spring to bounce back from that disappointment and take aim at the Big West title, which they’ve won just twice before (2009, 2021).

UCI’s greatest strength is its offense. The Anteaters return all nine regulars from last season, as well as shortstop Woody Hadeen, who was a starter in 2022 before missing last season due to injury. Led by Kendle (.335/.434/.535) and first baseman Anthony Martinez (.394/.471/.619, 11 HR), the Big West freshman of the year, UCI led the conference in scoring in 2023. Expect more of the same this spring.

The pitching staff is not nearly as settled. Lefthander Nick Pinto (7-2, 5.16) is one of the most experienced pitchers in the country with 46 career starts to his name. Beyond him, however, UCI needs some new pitchers to step up, particularly after losing Finnegan Wall (2-2, 4.35) to injury. Sophomore Riley Kelly (0-1, 13.50) had some of the best stuff of any pitcher from the class of 2022 who made it to campus and could be an X-factor this season. UCI also brought in some impactful newcomers like Ricky Tibbett (San Diego State) and freshman Tim Grack. The talent is there; the Anteaters just have to figure out the right mix on the mound.

2. UC Santa Barbara (35-20, 18-12)

The Gauchos spent most of last season tracking toward a fourth straight regionals appearance, before going 7-8 in May and falling out of the NCAA Tournament race. They now have their eyes on a return to form in 2024 and are led by one of the better rotations in college baseball. Righthander Matt Ager (5-4, 3.12) is back to headline the rotation and projects as a top-50 draft pick. Lefthander Mike Gutierrez (4-2, 1.67) and righthander Ryan Gallagher are back healthy after dealing with injuries in 2023 (Gutierrez missed about six weeks, Gallagher was sidelined all year), while sophomores Tyler Bremer (5-4, 5.37) and Reed Moring (4-1, 5.54) add further depth. Lefthander Hudson Barrett (5-1, 1.92, 6 SV) is a multi-inning threat out of the bullpen.

UCSB has a solid returning core offensively, as it returns six regulars. Outfielders Ivan Brethowr (.314/.410/.564, 10 HR) and Jonah Sebring (.322/.366/.522, 14 SB) and catcher Aaron Parker (.317/.410/.552, 10 HR), led the way for the Gauchos. But after losing the top hitter (Jared Sundstrom) from an offense that averaged 6.4 runs per game, they’ll need some new firepower to step up in 2024.

3. Cal State Northridge (34-17, 20-10)

CSUN was nearly as big a surprise team in 2023 as UC San Diego. Picked to finish seventh in the preseason coach’s poll, the Matadors finished tied with Cal State Fullerton for second place and missed out on the conference’s NCAA Tournament bid only on a tiebreaker, as they lost the rubber game of their head-to-head series in extra innings. Still, it was a fantastic first season for coach Eddie Cornejo, as CSUN’s 34 wins and runner-up conference finish were the program’s best since 2002.

Outfielder Jakob Simons (.356/.450/.665, 14 HR, 11 SB), co-Big West player of the year, returns to anchor the offense. Also back are infielders Kevin Fitzer (.339/.410/.537), Mason Le (.292/.366/.435, 10 SB) and Shunsuke Sakaino (.310/.428/.374), though the loss of Ali Camarillo, the team’s leading hitter and the first-team all-Big West shortstop, to the transfer portal is a big one. CSUN also lost ace Lucas Braun to the draft. Righthander Thomas Bainton (7-2, 4.18) will move to the front of the rotation, while closer Joshua Romero (0-2, 3.29, 13 SV) is back to anchor the bullpen.

4. Hawaii (29-20, 18-12)

Since joining the Big West ahead of the 2013 season, Hawaii hasn’t had a 30-win season or gotten into the NCAA Tournament discussion. But in their first two seasons under coach Rich Hill, the Rainbow Warriors have pushed into the conference’s upper tier, finishing third and fifth in the standings.

This spring is shaping up to be another solid one for Hawaii. It lost its top two hitters but returns the six other players who got more than 65 at-bats in 2023. First baseman Ben Zeigler-Namoa (.301/.419/.451) and outfielder Jared Quandt (.299/.430/.480) lead the way. On the mound, lefthander Randy Abshire (6-3, 4.29) returns to the rotation and closer Connor Harrison (1-5, 2.70, 7 SV) is back to anchor the bullpen. Righthander Alex Giroux (4-2, 2.83) and lefthander Harrison Bodendorf (5-2, 3.45, 5 SV) give the staff two more experienced arms who can pitch in a variety of roles.

5. UC San Diego (34-18, 21-9)

The Tritons, in just their third season as a Division I program, were the surprise conference champions last year. They had been picked to finish eighth in the preseason coach’s poll and instead took down the conference’s heavyweights to finish atop the standings. Due to NCAA rules governing the transition from Division II, however, they were not able to represent the Big West in the NCAA Tournament. UCSD is in the final year of its reclassification process and is again ineligible for the postseason this season.

It starts on the mound for the Tritons. Righthander Ryan Forcucci (4-1, 3.86) is back to lead the rotation, with lefthander Izaak Martinez (6-1, 2.84, 9 SV) anchoring the bullpen. They have solid depth behind those cornerstones with the likes of Nic Gregson (5-1, 4.94) and Matthew Dalquist, who missed last season due to injury. Third baseman Matt Halbach (.306/.406/.500), who earned first-team all-Big West honors last spring as a sophomore, returns to lead the lineup, as does leading hitter Doyle Kane (.327/.397/.411).

6. Cal State Fullerton (32-24, 20-10)

After a few difficult seasons, the Titans last season bounced back in 2023. It was their first winning season since 2019 and saw them return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017. The postseason appearance, however, was a result of UCSD being unable to use the Big West’s automatic bid due to NCAA rules and Fullerton’s runner-up finish in the standings.

Fullerton will look to build on that season, but it is doing so with a much younger roster. The Titans return three regulars from their lineup, led by second baseman Maddox Latta (.287/.350/.431). Look for Matthew Bardowell, the 2023 California junior college player of the year, to make an immediate impact. On the mound, righthanders Evan Yates (3-2, 3.75) and Christian Rodriguez, who began 2022 as a starter but has been sidelined for nearly two years due to Tommy John surgery, will lead the rotation. There’s a lot that’s new on both sides of the ball for the Titans, but if its younger players can live up to their potential, Fullerton doesn’t have to take a big step back.

7. Cal Poly (21-35, 11-19)

Prior to last season, Cal Poly had been one of the Big West’s most consistently successful teams for more than a decade. In every full season since 2010, the Mustangs had posted at least a .500 record and finished in the top four of the Big West standings.

For Cal Poly to get back to those standards in 2024, it will need marked improvement on the mound after finishing eighth in the conference with a 5.85 team ERA. While top starter Bryce Warrecker must be replaced after he was drafted, righthanders Steven Brooks (4-2, 5.58) and Ryan Baum (4-5, 5.03), who ranked second and third on the team in innings pitched, are back. Lefthander Jakob Wright (2-1, 6.27) will get a chance to take a step forward as a starter. The Mustangs return seven regulars in their lineup, led by catcher Ryan Stafford (.313/.393/.500, 20 2B) and shortstop Aaron Casillas (.329/.369/.394), who will keep them strong up the middle.

8. Long Beach State (33-22, 17-13)

At the end of last season, coach Eric Valenzuela surprisingly left Long Beach after four seasons to return to Saint Mary’s. He spent six years as head coach of the Gaels before taking over the Dirtbags. His departure came at a tricky time for Long Beach, which was in between athletic directors, and associate head coach Bryan Peters was promoted to interim head coach.

The Dirtbags’ top two hitters were drafted in the top 10 rounds, and they lost two more starters through the transfer portal. The lineup will have a new look to it as a result, but outfielder Kyle Ashworth (.306/.387/.376) and first baseman Jack Hammond (.263/.337/.480, 8 HR) bring experience. The Dirtbags must also replace their top two starters, including Big West pitcher of the year Nico Zeglin. Look for righthander CJ Hood, a transfer from Nebraska, and sophomores Kellan Montgomery (4-4, 4.91) and Myles Patton (3-4, 6.18) to take on big roles. Closer Sky Wells (1-0, 4.97, 6 SV) is back to lead the bullpen.

9. UC Davis (17-37, 7-23)

After taking over an extremely difficult situation before the 2022 season, coach Tommy Nicholson helped lead the Aggies to solid improvement last season, as they went from a 6-35 campaign to 17 wins. They’ll look to continue to build in 2024.

UCD returns eight regulars from last year’s lineup. Catcher Jack Gallagher (.222/.314/.497, 12 HR) and shortstop Joey Wright (.250/.367/.361) are solid defenders, while second baseman Alex Gouveia (.313/.345/.462, 20 2B) and center fielder Mark Wolbert (.262/.364/.377) anchor the offense. Lefthander Bryan Green (5-4, 4.15) is back to lead the pitching staff. If the Aggies can find the right pitchers behind him, they could take a strong step forward.

10. Cal State Bakersfield (18-34, 9-21)

The Roadrunners have finished 18-34 and in ninth place in the Big West standings in back-to-back seasons. To take a step forward in 2024, they will need their pitching staff to improve on last year’s 6.07 team ERA. That won’t be easy after losing both top starter Matt Comnos and top reliever Gabe Ulloa, but righthander Ryan Verdugo (4-7, 6.12) gives them an experienced starter to anchor the rotation. Leading hitter Matthew Kurata (.369/.429/.439) returns, but there will be several new faces joining him in the lineup.

11. UC Riverside (11-41, 5-25)

The Highlanders have finished in the Big West cellar in back-to-back seasons, and last season finished last in the conference in both scoring (4.2 runs per game) and team ERA (7.79). Leading hitter Anthony McFarland (.329/.402/.399) is back at third base. UCR added outfielders Cole Koniarsky (junior college) and Tyler Martinez (San Francisco), as well as slugger Zach Tallerman (junior college), who will slot into the lineup. The Highlanders will have a new look on the mound. Righthanders Matthew Flores (Hawaii) and Julian Orozco (Long Beach State) come to UCR with Big West experience.

2024 Top 100 Prospects

See the full Top 100 entering the 2024 season headlined by Orioles SS Jackson Holliday.

Top 10 2024 Draft Prospects

1. Matt Ager, RHP, UC Santa Barbara
2. Zander Darby, 3B, UC Santa Barbara
3. Ryan Stafford, C, Cal Poly
4. Matt Hallbach, 3B, UC San Diego
5. Ryan Forcucci, RHP, UC San Diego
6. Dub Gleed, 3B, UC Irvine
7. Ivan Brethowr, OF, UC Santa Barbara
8. Christian Rodriguez, RHP, Cal State Fullerton
9. Caden Kendle, OF, UC Irvine
10. Jo Oyama, 2B, UC Irvine

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