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Missouri Valley Conference Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022

Grady, Jace (Courtesy Of DBU)
DBU OF Jace Grady (Photo courtesy of DBU)

The Missouri Valley Conference in 2021 again proved to be one of the best mid-major baseball conferences in the country. Two teams, Dallas Baptist and Indiana State, got into regionals, and a third, Southern Illinois, won 40 games overall and was on the periphery of the bubble right through conference tournament week.

DBU also made a deep run in the postseason, getting to a deciding third game of super regionals before falling to Virginia, coming just short of giving the MVC its first team in the College World Series since Missouri State made the trip in 2003.

These are five questions facing individual teams within the league and facing the league in general as it looks to build on its success again in 2022.

Can anyone unseat Dallas Baptist?

At this point, DBU comes into each season as the default favorite in the conference, but it has earned it. It has won the regular-season title, tournament title or both in five of the seven seasons it has been in the MVC, and it has never finished lower than a tie for second in the regular-season standings.

The 2022 DBU team will be favorites once again, despite losing some talented players to the draft.

Its offense, always physical and capable of scoring runs in bunches, will be led by third-year sophomore outfielder Jace Grady, fourth-year sophomore third baseman Andrew Benefield and Texas Tech transfer catcher Nate Rombach. On the mound, the departure of righthanders Dominic Hamel and Rhett Kouba leave holes at the front of the rotation, but the Patriots still feature a whole host of talented pitchers, including fourth-year junior righthanders Luke Trahan and Chandler Arnold, and Tennessee transfer righthander Elijah Pleasants.

Any discussion of challengers to DBU in the MVC has to start with the team that has most often gone toe-to-toe with the Patriots in recent years, Indiana State. 

The Sycamores have some significant questions on the mound, with the departure of MVC pitcher of the year Geremy Guerrero and others, but return much of a lineup that last year, if anything, exceeded expectations given its relative inexperience coming into the season.

The most notable loss from the lineup is catcher Max Wright, who clubbed 16 home runs in 2021. Also gone are third baseman Brian Fuentes, who had 10 doubles and five homers last season, and outfielder Ellison Hanna II, who had five home runs, three of which came in the MVC Tournament alone. Suffice it to say that there is some power to replace in the lineup, but as a whole, the Sycamores will have strength in numbers on their side.

Leading the returners are fifth-year senior shortstop Jordan Schaffer, fifth-year senior outfielder Aaron Beck, third-year sophomore second baseman Josue Urdaneta, fifth-year senior first baseman Miguel Rivera and fifth-year senior outfielder Sean Ross, and fully, the Sycamores have nine players back who started 22 or more games last season.

“Anytime you lose middle-of-the-lineup guys, it takes a while for guys to step in and fill those slots,” said Indiana State coach Mitch Hannahs. “(I) always like where we return 3-4-5 (in the lineup), because those are guys that have given us a lot of high-leverage at-bats. So we’ve got to figure some of that out, but you return Jordan Schaffer, you return Aaron Beck, Josue Urdaneta had a really good fall. I think he’s going to have a very good year. So, you return pieces that have played a lot for you. Sean Ross has played a lot of the outfield for us. So we have a fair number of those guys back.”

Among newcomers, fifth-year senior outfielder Daylan Nanny, a transfer from Western Carolina who hit .306/.421/.440 last season, looks poised to break into a crowded lineup and produce, but he dealt with a foot injury that kept him off the field for much of the fall.

Two freshmen who are part of Indiana State’s growing pipeline from Latin America (six different players on the roster list Puerto Rico, Venezuela or the Dominican Republic as their home country), catcher Luis Hernandez and infielder Randall Diaz, were among the Sycamores’ most impressive position players in the fall and are also expected to compete for at-bats in the spring.

Given that, it’s easy to say that Indiana State will hit next season and Mitch Hannahs-coached teams in Terre Haute always field the ball well. If depth on the mound rounds into form as the 2022 season gets underway, the Sycamores should be right back in the mix.

Who are the favorites for MVC player of the year?

When it comes to forecasting an MVC player of the year, it’s never a bad idea to bet on players who will play a prominent role in the DBU lineup. After all, a Patriots hitter won it last season (Jackson Glenn), in 2018 (Devlin Granberg) and 2016 (Darick Hall).

That’s why Grady has to be considered an early favorite here. Last season, Grady hit .337/.417/.534 and earned MVP honors at the MVC Tournament, and over the summer in the Cape Cod League, he shined. He hit .346/.378/.538 with four home runs in 19 regular-season games and then hit two more home runs in three playoff games. With just four home runs all of last season, it’s the one thing Grady really didn’t do, so if his improved power production holds into the 2022 season, he could be in for a monster year.

Rombach should also be considered. He never found his way into a regular role at Texas Tech, but still managed to be productive in the chances he did get, hitting 15 home runs in 59 career games across two seasons. Keeping up that kind of pace next season at DBU would put him in the conversation.

Illinois State third-year sophomore Ryan Cermak is another obvious candidate. He hit .284/.349/.553 with 11 home runs last season and took home the MVC defensive player of the year award for his play in center field. His candidacy will also be helped by his two-way ability. Just a position player in his first two seasons, Cermak worked on the mound this fall, throwing his fastball 93-96 mph with a swing-and-miss curveball.

“At scout day, he ran a 6.35 and a 6.38 (sixty-yard dash). Those were the two times I was given. It’s faster than most people think,” said Illinois State coach Steve Holm. “Most people went into that thing thinking maybe a 6.6, and he rips off a 6.38 and they’re going 'holy smokes.’ And then he comes in to close and he’s 96 miles an hour off the mound at the end of the game. The kid hit 11 homers last year as a sophomore, and that’s a sophomore year where he didn’t get 180 at-bats as a freshman because of Covid.”

Cermak’s teammate, fifth-year junior first baseman Jake McCaw, could also factor into the race along with the likes of Indiana State’s Schaffer and Bradley fourth-year junior first baseman Connor O’Brien, all of whom were first-team all-MVC performers a season ago.

How does Indiana State replace Geremy Guerrero?

Guerrero was the breakout star of the MVC last season. After four average seasons as a swingman for Indiana State, Guerrero emerged as an ace in 2021, putting up a 2.08 ERA in 99.1 innings.

There will obviously be a lot of focus on how Indiana State replaces him at the front of the rotation, but it’s worth noting that he’s not all the Sycamores lost on the mound after last season.

Five other pitchers started at least four games last season, and all five of them are gone as well, led by lefthander Tyler Grauer, a veteran who held a number of roles over the course of his Indiana State career, and righthander Javin Drake, who had as much starting experience as anyone on the roster, having served as a weekend starter at Western Illinois before transferring to Indiana State before last season.

Coming out of the fall, with the coaching staff having basically started from scratch in building a weekend rotation, a group of pitchers stood out as leaders for not just the Friday starter spot but also prominent roles more generally up and down the pitching staff.

Chief among them is third-year sophomore righthander Matt Jachec, who had a 4.58 ERA in 17.2 innings last season. He pitched well over the summer in the Hamptons Collegiate League before finishing with a cup of coffee in the Cape Cod League. This fall, he worked with a fastball at 92-93 mph with significant movement thanks to his ability to manipulate the baseball. He pairs that with a slider that last season induced a 43% whiff rate.

Graduate transfer righthander Jack Parisi from Division III Spalding (Ky.) also threw the ball well this fall, putting him in good position in the competition. Last season at Spalding, he had a 1.67 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 75.2 innings of work. Like Jachec, he also features a fastball in the low 90s.

Sophomore righthander Cole Gilley could be in line for a significant role increase as well, after he threw just one-third of an inning in 2021. With a fastball that sat 93-94 mph throughout the fall and touched 95, he certainly has the velocity to suggest that he can be successful in the MVC.

One wild card in this discussion is fourth-year junior righthander Connor Fenlong, who had a 3.06 ERA and six saves in 35.1 innings last season as the Sycamores’ top reliever. There is confidence that he could be stretched out to be a starter, but Hannahs hopes enough of the aforementioned pitchers, plus the likes of freshman lefthander Jared Spencer, freshman righthander Brennyn Cutts, third-year sophomore lefthander Cam Edmonson and junior college transfer righthander Luke Patzner step up and allow Fenlong to continue in the role he held last season.

“Obviously, you see six, eight guys come out of the fall that you feel pretty good about, but you obviously need more guys than that, and even those six or eight don’t have a lot of innings for us,” Hannahs said. “In terms of returning innings, we don’t have a lot, but we have very capable arms.”

How the pitching staff shakes out, and more specifically, how much depth Indiana State ends up having on the mound, will have a lot to do with how well it is able to compete at the top of the league in 2022.

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Can Southern Illinois reload rather than rebuild?

Southern Illinois last season had almost inarguably its best season since 1990, which is the last time the Salukis were in the postseason. Although the 2021 season didn’t end in a postseason appearance, the team enjoyed a 40-win campaign for the first time since 1990 and very likely came just a small handful of wins short of that elusive regional trip.

Lance Rhodes’ two seasons at the helm—that also includes a team that went 12-6 in 2020— have been nothing but positive, but the level of difficulty goes up from here. Last season’s team was a pretty veteran bunch, and that’s reflected in the players that moved on after the season.

Gone are top hitter Tristan Peters, slugging first baseman Philip Archer, shortstop and top home run hitter Nick Neville and third baseman Ian Walters. That’s four of the top five hitters for average last season and four of the top six home run hitters.

“We had an opportunity to be on the field for the entire team segment part of (the fall), which was a good thing because we’ve got 20 new players on our roster,” Rhodes said. “So the fact that we were able to have consistent workouts on the field basically from start to finish without any breaks was good.”

The lineup isn’t without key returners. Fifth-year senior outfielder J.T. Weber is back after hitting .322/.375/.589 with 15 home runs, as is fourth-year sophomore outfielder Evan Martin (.261/.321/.433) and fourth-year junior second baseman Cody Cleveland, who was as hot as anyone over the second half to finish the season hitting .346/.453/.526 with more walks (22) than strikeouts (12).

That group on its own makes a solid core to build a lineup around, and it should be helped by the arrival of junior college transfer shortstop Kaeber Rog, who began his career at Florida International. The standout of the fall from a position player standpoint, Rog is a tough out at the plate who should hit for average with more power than you might expect. Over the summer in the MLB Draft League, he hit .344/.475/.462.

Things are a bit more certain on the mound, where SIU returns three pitchers who started a combined 37 games last season in fifth-year senior righthander Noah Farmer (6-4, 2.98), fourth-year junior righthander Ben Chapman (7-5, 3.97) and fourth-year junior righthander Mike Hansell (2-2, 5.21). Hansell worked diligently on his body throughout the offseason and came back to campus more athletic, working with a fastball that now sits 90-94 mph.

Added to the rotation mix alongside those three returners is junior college transfer lefthander Jordan Bloemer. Last season at Kaskaskia (Ill.) College, he had a 2.02 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 84.2 innings.

In the bullpen, fifth-year senior righthander Trey McDaniel is back to be the team’s stopper once again after he had a 3.07 ERA and nine saves in 44 innings of work last season. A slider specialist who threw that pitch more often last season than his fastball that averaged a tick below 90 mph, McDaniel can close games out or stretch out to give the Salukis extended outings.

Look for fourth-year junior righthander Matthew Steidl to provide support for McDaniel in the bullpen. He was excellent in 2020 before the season was canceled, but struggled to the tune of a 7.48 ERA last season. There’s confidence, though, that he can be more like the 2020 version of himself next season.

“Over the summer, he lowered his arm slot to kind of a lower three-quarter arm slot,” Rhodes said. “His velo jumped up. It’s in the 90 to 93 range now with some really good sink and a good slider out of the arm slot. He had a very, very good summer in the Coastal Plain League after dropping the arm slot down and was really good this fall for us.”

After years of being a pitching-first team that often struggled offensively, Rhodes has helped flip that script at SIU in just a couple of years with offenses that can score runs in bunches. With what the Salukis have returning on the mound, if the lineup plugs the holes immediately and is anything close to as potent as it was last season, they will be right back in the mix at the top of the conference.

Can Valparaiso take a step forward?

Valparaiso’s first couple of years in the MVC were a struggle. After moving up from the Horizon League, the 2018 and 2019 seasons brought identical 6-15 records in league play.

When you look at the 2021 season, you might see a last-place finish for Valpo (which now goes by the nickname Beacons) and assume that not much changed, but in actuality, there was progress made that isn’t easily seen in its 16-35 overall record or 9-19 mark in conference play. The team was more competitive from weekend to weekend last season in the MVC, and it even made a relatively deep run in the MVC Tournament.

Leading the way was a young position player group. Five of the team’s top six hitters last season were freshmen, led by third baseman and MVC freshman of the year Kaleb Hannahs, the son of Indiana State coach Mitch Hannahs. And as it finished last season, Valpo had as many as seven true freshmen or second-year freshmen in the lineup at one time.

Some of those players, like Hannahs, second baseman Parker Johnson and first baseman Kyle Schmack, the son of Valpo coach Brian Schmack, flashed some star power early, while others suffered through growing pains. But together, that group provides a lot of optimism about the immediate future of the Beacons.

“They’re just confident that they understand what to expect and how to handle their business,” Brian Schmack said. “There’s not a lot of panic, there’s a little bit more belief in themselves. So I think to see those guys take the next step from a maturation process has been awesome.”

The question now is pitching after Valpo graduated arguably its two most reliable arms in Jon Tieman and Easton Rhodehouse, and that’s often the harder piece of the puzzle to put together for programs that have recently made a jump in competition level.

But there’s optimism that the recruiting class that just arrived on campus this fall will bring an influx of pitching talent similar to what the previous recruiting class did for the lineup. That group includes freshman Christian Hack, a 6-foot-3 lefthander who commands three pitches well, including a high-80s fastball that touches 90, and junior college transfer righthander Bobby Nowak, who could lock down a bullpen role right away with a fastball up to 96 mph.

If some of those newcomers are ready to be instant contributors, combined with returning veterans like fourth-year junior righthander Colin Fields, who struck out 81 batters in 59 innings last season, and third-year sophomore Trent Turzenski, a 6-foot-6 righthander who started 10 games in 2021, Valpo could be ready to take another step forward in its quest to compete in the MVC.

“First and foremost, we do want to see the win total increase,” Brian Schmack said. “We’ve made a big push for that this year, and I don’t usually talk a lot about wins, because I think there’s some things you can’t control. We talked about the process and doing things the right way, but we’re finally starting to stress the wins aspect and I think that’s the next step.”

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