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Mike Rooney | D1baseball.com | January 28, 2021

2021 Pac-12 college baseball preview: Can anyone stop UCLA?

All you need to know about the 2021 college baseball season

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This is a fascinating year for the Pac-12 in that every single program in the league is showing some version of upward trajectory. Realistically, not all of that positive momentum will bear fruit in 2021, but there is cause for optimism regardless. UCLA is the class of the league, a team that has Omaha written all over it. Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington make up the next tier, and all four should be in the mix for a regional. Cal and Stanford do not lack talent, but rough starts in 2020 and the cancellation of fall baseball leave both programs with significant question marks. The rest of league is made up of programs with recent and intriguing coaching changes, and those rosters are all trending up from a talent standpoint. 

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Projected conference standings

*Teams are listed in order of projected finish

Team 2020 Record
UCLA 13-2
Arizona 10-5
Arizona State 13-4
Oregon State 5-9
Washington 9-6
Oregon 8-7
California 5-11
Southern California 10-5
Stanford 5-11
Washington State 9-7
Utah 6-7

Projected regional teams (4): UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State

Player of the year: Matt McLain, SS, UCLA 

Pitcher of the year: Zach Pettway, RHP, UCLA

Freshman of the year: Jacob Berry, 3B, Arizona

Projected regional teams

No. 2 UCLA
No. 22 Arizona
Arizona State
Oregon State

Below are overviews of Arizona State and Oregon State:

Arizona State

Head coach: Tracy Smith
2019 record: 38-19 (16-13)
2020 record: 13-4 (0-0)

Strengths: The Sun Devils are experienced on the mound, and this pitching staff has depth also. The rotation in particular looks to be a separator for ASU. Additionally, this club projects to play excellent defense.

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Question marks: The draft was not kind to Arizona State, and replacing four hitters taken in the first 102 picks is a big hill to climb. Transfer Conor Davis (Auburn) looked like a massive addition given those losses but he suffered an ACL injury in the fall and will miss the 2021 season. Solidifying the middle of the order will be critical.

Star power: Shortstop Drew Swift is the best player on this roster, and he was hitting .365 when the season ended in 2020. He is an exceptional defender with a well-rounded offensive game. With 117 career starts, Swift is one of the most experienced players in the Pac-12.

Arizona State Athletics Drew Swift of Arizona State baseball Arizona State baseball's Drew Swift was hitting .365 when the season ended in 2020.

Glue guys: Sean McLain made a jump offensively this fall and he could play second base or center field. Right-handers Tyler Thornton and Boyd Vander Kooi are talented and reliable arms who could pitch in a variety of roles. These three may be undervalued from a raw tools standpoint but they are winning players for sure.

Pick to click: Erik Tolman was originally a two-way player but he is fully focused on pitching now. His velocity ticked up this fall and he already possess a plus breaking ball. His 2020 stats included 30 punchouts in just 18 innings. If it all comes together, Tolman offers top of the rotation stuff. 

Top newcomer: True freshman Jack Moss is a 6-foot-5 left-handed hitter with athleticism and a pure hit tool. Moss will play first base and while it is currently hit over power, he projects to grow into significant pop. He is a future middle of the order bat and there is first round upside here. 

Outlook: It would be easy to say that the Sun Devils, through no fault of their won, missed their window in 2020 and it’s time to move on. But if you look closely, this 2021 roster will sneak up on you. Pitching and defense will lead the way and this could be an outstanding run prevention outfit. There is a lot to figure out offensively, but as a program ASU rarely struggles to score runs. 

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Oregon State

Head Coach: Mitch Canham
2019 Record: 36-20-1 (21-8)
2020 Record: 5-9 (0-0)

Strengths: Pitching headlines this roster and if Kevin Abel and Jake Mulholland return to previous form, this group could be a dominant one. Cooper Hjerpe and Jake Pfennigs are extremely talented and if these two take a step forward on the pitchability side, look out. The Beavers’ experienced lineup defends at a high level as well. 

Question marks: Will there be enough offense? The 2020 lineup posted a fairly average triple slash of .267/.361/.372. Most of that group returns and they will need to be a year better. 

Star power: Abel nearly won the 2018 CWS Most Outstanding Player (he was bested by teammate Adley Rutschman). If he shows that he is fully recovered from his 2019 Tommy John surgery, it is not outrageous to think of Abel as a potential first-round draft pick.

Glue guys: Shortstop Andy Armstrong and catcher Troy Claunch provide top shelf leadership for Canham. Both are elite defenders and they are the heartbeat of this position player group.

Pick to click: This may be taking liberties with the verb “click”, but give us Kyler McMahan. McMahan already went off in 2020 with a .439 batting average that led the Pac-12. He is an undersized hit machine and his swagger fuels this offense.

Top newcomer: This is an extremely veteran roster so there isn’t much space for a newcomer to generate immediate impact. Garrett Forrester (MIF) and Jaren Hunter (RHP) lead a promising group of true freshmen.

Outlook: This is a vintage Oregon State team: potentially dominant on the mound, outstanding on defense and scrappy and opportunistic on offense. If the rotation lives up to its billing, this is a club that could make some noise in June. 

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Keep an eye on

Washington

Head coach: Lindsay Meggs
2019 record: 28-24 (12-17)
2020 record: 9-6 (0-0)

Strengths: The strength of this team is its balance. There is depth on the mound, and that includes both strike throwers and a variety of arms with legitimate out pitches. On paper, this lineup is a nice blend of top-end speed and imposing physicality.

Question marks: The offense struggled mightily in 2020. There is cause for optimism here because this is a very talented group but it would be naïve to ignore last year’s triple slash of .229/.325/.304.

Star power: Braiden Ward is the fastest player in college baseball and his return was an exciting surprise. Ward’s speed changes the game offensively and he is the only player in Pac-12 history to lead the conference in stolen bases in three consecutive seasons.

Glue guys: Right-hander Jack Enger and second baseman Noah Hsue do not offer the star power of some of the others on this roster but their consistency will be counted on. Enger pitches off a plus slider and he has excelled both as a reliever and a starter. The 5-foot-4 Hsue reaches base at an impressive clip and he plays with a winning edge.

Pick to click: Will Simpson is a right-handed hitter with size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and pedigree (18th-round pick of the Pirates in 2019). He was off to a rough start in 2020 (.174/.309/.261) but those 50-plus plate appearances should serve him well. 

Top newcomer: Left-hander Tyson Guerrero started his career as a successful two-way player at Washington State and then became at pitcher-only at junior college last year. He is a good athlete with an electric arm. His fastball will touch 95 and he shows a plus breaking ball at times. If it all comes together this year, Guerrero could blossom into a Top 100 draft pick.

Outlook: With so many unproven commodities, it is hard plant a flag on the Huskies. That said, we know they will be well-coached so that creates a floor that is reassuring. And the upside here is immense: this is an extremely talented team. If this group blossoms into an NCAA tournament team, they will be more than capable of winning a regional.

The rest of the pack

Oregon

Head coach: Mark Wasikowski
2019 record: 27-29 (10-19)
2020 record: 8-7 (0-0)

Strengths: Three top of the league, middle of the order bats. The Ducks’ trifecta of Kenyon Yovan, Gabe Matthews and Aaron Zavala is a separator for this lineup. These veterans are proven producers, and traversing this part of the Oregon lineup will be treacherous for Pac-12 pitchers. 

Question marks: The weekend rotation. There are plenty of options for Wasikowski here and the Ducks’ talent level on the mound is trending up. That said, there aren’t any current resumés here to hang your hat on. This will be something to follow as Pac-12 play approaches. 

Star power: Yovan earned All-America honors as a pitcher in each of his first two seasons. And he was on his way to the same level of accolades as a hitter in 2020. Yovan has been an impact player since day one of his Oregon career, and his ability to contribute as a two-way player in 2021 is an intriguing part of the Ducks’ projection.

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Glue guys: Matthews anchors this team at first base and his four seasons at Oregon have been remarkably consistent. He is a hit machine with 181 career knocks and 173 career starts. Matthews is one of the most established players in college baseball. 

Pick to click: Second-year freshman Andrew Mosiello had pitched his way into the weekend rotation as a true freshman only to have the season come to an abrupt end. He comes from a baseball family and he shows advanced feel for pitching.

Top newcomer: True freshman right-hander Isaac Ayon is another arm who will push for weekend innings. Ayon checks every box including frame (6-4, 219 pounds), velocity (fastball up to 95) and the ability to miss bats (out pitch slider). He will also wear jersey No. 1 so his swag factor is also strong. This is a potential high draft pick for 2023.

Outlook: This program is surging and the main question will be how quickly success arrives. The offense looks ready to compete right now while the pitching is more difficult to pin down. If the depth of the Ducks’ pitching talent advances to a playable level, this looks like a top half of the league team. 

Cal

Head coach: Mike Neu
2019 record: 32-20 (17-11)
2020 record: 5-11 (0-0)

Strengths: The Bears’ entire weekend rotation returns, and these three right-handers (Grant Holman, Sean Sullivan, Sam Stoutenborough) have combined for 26 career starts. This is a talented group and if one or more of them puts together a breakout season, that changes the equation for Cal.

Question marks: It would be unfair to single out one position group for Cal’s difficult 5-11 start in 2020, but the offense appears to be the biggest area of concern. Much of that lineup returns but the numbers from a year ago were troublesome (.226/.320/.307).

Star power: Fourth-year junior third baseman Quentin Selma posted a .950 OPS in 2019, and he backed that up with a team-leading .825 OPS a year ago. Selma is a physical left-handed hitter with a mature approach, and he gives this lineup a legitimate middle of the order bat.

Glue guys: Fourth-year junior Darren Baker is an elite defender at second base and he is also one of the fastest players in the conference. This will be his fourth year as a starter. 

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Pick to click: Holman is in his third year as a two-way talent for Cal and he showed signs of taking a big step forward in 2020. His profile is the classic college baseball two-way star player: middle of the order run producer and Friday night starter. 

Top newcomer: True freshman outfielder Jag Burden is an intriguing left-handed hitter from Huntington Beach who could make an immediate impact.

Outlook: After playing in the Fayetteville Regional in 2019, Cal needed to reload with a young roster in 2020. The Bears’ 5-11 start is reflective of those growing pains. Most of that team is back but unfortunately, the program lost valuable development time in the fall as well. 

While those lost repetitions from a year ago are problematic, there may be enough top end talent to overcome that. The three juniors in the rotation are talented and experienced. If these three right-handers take a step forward, that will be an outstanding foundation to build upon. The bullpen also lines up as a strength as Joseph King and Ian Villers both excelled in the shortened season. 

The offense will lean heavily on Baker, Selma, and Holman. These three upperclassmen offer a diverse set of skills and that combination might be a perfect catalyst. Baker’s speed and on-base skills should set the table brilliantly for Selma’s run production and Holman’s immense power. This is a good place to start. 

If this offense is going to make a move forward, Nathan Martorella and Sam Wezniak will be critical. Martorella put up a .813 OPS in 2020 despite hitting just .241. The 6-foot-1, 217-pound left-handed hitter walked more than he struck out as a true freshman and he is an intriguing combination of strength and a pure hit tool. Wezniak was the starting shortstop on the 2019 team and he hit 10 home runs that season. He brings 94 starts and a career slugging percentage of .432 to the table. 

Southern California

Head coach: Jason Gill
2019 record: 25-29-1 (13-15-1)
2020 record: 10-5 (0-0)

Strengths: The Trojans return almost all of their position player group from 2020, and that unit performed well in the 10-5 start. This group defends at a high level and there is a nice blend of speed, power, and pure hit here. 

Question marks: The pitching staff must replace two big arms in the rotation and its closer. There is enough talent on this roster to fill in the gaps but these are significant losses. 

Star power: Fourth-year junior Jamal O’Guinn improved his numbers once again in 2020, and his OPS was a loud 1.044. He is a physical presence in the box (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) and also controls the strike zone at a level rarely seen in power hitters. O’Guinn’s upside is conference player of the year. 

Glue guys: Shortstop Ben Ramirez and first baseman Clay Owens have been consistent producers over the last few seasons. Ramirez is a steady defender (.944 career fielding percentage) who has improved each year offensively. Owens’ excellent bat to ball skills play well in the middle of the order. These two left-handed hitters are a steadying force in the USC lineup. 

Pick to click: 5YR SR Brady Shockey enjoyed a breakout season in 2019 (.295/.331/.403), and the left-handed hitter is one of the most experienced players in the program. His feel for the barrel fits well in a lineup that is replete with speed and extra-base power.

Top newcomer: Nate Clow is a left-handed hitting freshman from the state of Washington and he is in the mix to start at third base. Clow is also an option on the mound and that speaks to his arm strength.

Outlook: USC was off to an encouraging start in Jason Gill’s first year at the helm. While there was some unevenness to the start, wins over TCU and Vanderbilt in the final weekend made a loud statement. 

The position player group improved in every meaningful category in 2020 and this group will need to lead the way. O’Guinn is a potential star and this has the makings of a lineup with length. Tyresse Turner is a shortstop by trade but he is athletic enough to play all over the field. He adds a speed element to the top of this lineup and he led last year’s club with six stolen bases. Turner also showed great command of the strike zone, striking out just four times in 44 plate appearances. 

In all likelihood, the Trojans’ season will be determined by their ability to replace power arms John Beller and Kyle Hurt in addition to surprise closer Ben Wanger. Beller was more statistically dominant than Hurt but both put up big strikeout numbers. 

USC will counter with an all left-handed rotation of Isaac Esqueda, Alex Cornwell, and Brian Gursky. The strikeout numbers will most likely decrease, but these three southpaws are more than capable of providing quality starts. Ethan Hoopingarner impressed in his true freshman season (1-0, 0.79, 11.1, 16-4) and he will take over at closer. Chandler Champlain enters his third year in the program and while his 1.23 ERA was an excellent step forward, the number of baserunners surrendered was not ideal. That said, Champlain’s strong pedigree suggests that there remains big upside here. This bullpen could end up being a separating strength for the Trojans. The thought of these power-armed right handers finishing games for finesse-first left-handed starters is intriguing.

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Stanford

Head coach: David Esquer
2019 record: 45-14 (22-7)
2020 record: 5-11 (0-0)

Strengths: Young talent. The Cardinal played with a very young team in 2020, and while the results were sub-optimal, that was a wise investment in the future. Now the No. 11 ranked recruiting class enters the picture, and this true freshman class is the most talented group in the program. 

Question marks: The position player group is extremely young, and while many of them gained valuable experience in 2020, the struggle was real. This group posted a triple slash of .207/.277/.280 while also fielding .950. There is too much talent on this roster for those results to continue but the youngsters will have to grow up quickly in a year when the rest of college baseball is more experienced than normal. 

Star power: Ace Brendan Beck commands the baseball at a high level and now his velocity has jumped up into the low-90s. Beck’s career numbers (13-7, 3.07, 31 career starts) stand out, and he will be one of the toughest Friday night starters in the conference.

Glue guys: Tim Tawa started 58 games each on teams that won the Pac-12 (2018) and advanced to a super regional (2019). His offensive production has taken a perplexing downturn since his very productive freshman season (.845 OPS) but his athleticism and experience will be an asset for this club.

Pick to click: Brock Jones was a scholarship football player at Stanford, but he has chosen to focus full-time on baseball. The left-handed-hitting Jones brings off-the-charts makeup in addition to being an electric athlete. His top-of-the-order, center-field profile makes him arguably the most exciting prospect in the program.

Top newcomer: Drew Bowser, who played at national power Harvard-Westlake School, is a rare combination of size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and middle-of-the-field athleticism. Bowser looks like a future star. 

Outlook: The trajectory of the Stanford program is positive, but the Cardinal is squarely in the middle of a rebuild. That rebuild was dealt a blow when the pandemic halted all baseball activities in 2020, including fall practice. Once this young, talented core gets their bearings, the Cardinal should be upwards from there. Whether that happens in 2021 is hard to say.

Washington State

Head coach: Brian Green
2019 record: 11-42-1 (3-26-1)
2020 record: 9-7 (0-0)

Strengths: The Cougars have the makings of a dynamic, run-producing middle of the order. Kyle Manzardo and Tristan Peterson have talent and track record. Both hitters combine pure hitting talent with an advanced approach and this part of the lineup should produce 100-plus RBI.

Question marks: Will WSU pitch enough to turn the corner? Only three pitchers return who had an ERA under four in 2020 and therein lies the concern: does this pitching staff match up with the rest of the conference in regards to talent and depth?

Star power: Manzardo would be a middle of the order bat for any team in the Pac-12 and he went off in 2020 (.435/.500/.694). He hits for a high average but also drives the ball to all fields.  

Glue guys: Collin Montez leads the Cougars in career starts (84). Montez is an excellent defensive outfielder and he adds to the physicality of this offense. He was off to a great start in 2020 with an OPS of .952.

Pick to click: Zane Mills turned a corner in 2020 and he looked ready to take on the best arms in the Pac-12 on Friday nights. Mills’ slider is an out pitch and his K/9 improved to 11.52 a year ago.

Top newcomer: True freshman Kyle Russell will begin the year as the starting shortstop and he looks like a special talent. Russell has size and uncanny feel for the barrel and his steady defense comps to Brandon Crawford.

Outlook: Green has infused his signature energy into the Cougars and the 2020 club was ready to blow by the previous year’s win total of 11. This offense is going to sneak up on people and it could easily be a top half of the conference group. If the pitching staff can hold its own, things get interesting in a hurry.

Utah

Head coach: Bill Kinneberg
2019 record: 16-33 (6-24)
2020 record: 6-7 (0-0)

Strengths: The Utes depth and experience are at a level reminiscent of their 2016 Pac-12 championship team. This depth is particularly important on the mound and several transfers will play key roles in 2021. 

Question marks: While the Utah pitching staff gained valuable depth in the offseason, it remains to be seen if this weekend rotation matches up with the rest of the conference. The good news is that Kinneberg has a plethora of arms with starting experience. 

Star power: True freshman third baseman Kai Roberts stood out this fall and he looks like a future star player. The 6-foot-4 left-handed hitter is the son of a coach and while his immense talent is easy to see, he works at the game like he’s still trying to make the team. The sky is the limit for Roberts.

Glue guys: Left-hander Brayson Hurdsman will be a Swiss army knife for this pitching staff. He is a fifth-year senior who transferred in from the University of Houston where he made 13 starts and 62 total appearances. Hurdsman’s versatility and experience will be big for this pitching staff.

Pick to click: Friday night arm Justin Kelly is two years removed from Tommy John surgery and he is trending up in a big way. His start to the 2020 season was very encouraging and he backed that up with a strong summer performance in the Northwoods League.

Top newcomer: Jaylon McLaughlin should be plug and play in centerfield for Utah. His career at Nevada was somewhat of a roller coaster but his outstanding 2019 season (.339 with 25 stolen bases) shows what he is capable of.

Outlook: The last time Utah fielded a team with this much depth and experience, they shocked the world and won the conference championship. This is a different Pac-12 certainly but the Utes have a roster that can play with anyone in the league on any given night. There is a wide range of possible outcomes for this team and finishing in the top half of the conference is doable. 

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Division I
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