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The Big 12 could be on the verge of having its best showing since 2017.
That year, the conference, which has seen its complexion change over the past decade with the departures of Texas A&M, Missouri and Nebraska, got seven teams to the NCAA postseason.
This season, the Big 12 might be aiming higher than ever for plenty of reasons. Though we have six teams from the league projected to make the tournament, including Texas Tech, TCU, Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Kansas State are not far behind at all. The Bears have some incredibly intriguing pieces to its team, and it returns one of the league’s best overall players in Jared McKenzie. Meanwhile, Kansas State has one of the nation’s premier ace pitchers in left-hander Jordan Wicks, while the bar is also set very high for hard-throwing right-hander Carson Seymour, who makes the move from the backend of the bullpen to the starting rotation. Even Kansas has some promising pieces, including ace pitcher and right-hander Everhett Hazelwood.
It should be an incredible season for the Big 12, and here’s our in-depth look at the league:
*Teams are listed in order of projected finish
Projected regional teams (6): Texas Tech, TCU, Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma
Player of the year: Dylan Neuse, OF, Texas Tech
Pitcher of the year: Ty Madden, RHP, Texas
Freshman of the year: Tanner Witt, RHP, Texas (Oklahoma’s Cade Horton was the initial choice, out for the year with Tommy John surgery.)
Projected regional teams
Head coach: Skip Johnson
2019 record: 33-23 (11-13 Big 12)
2020 record: 14-4
Strengths: Oklahoma will have a stout bullpen with right-hander Jason Ruffcorn and others leading the charge, while the offense, which was off to a nice start in the spring, will be productive and experienced this spring. The Sooners welcome back almost every key player from their 2020 offense, and welcome some big-time potential producers in Cade Horton, Brett Squires and others. The Sooners also are expected to be an elite club from a defensive standpoint with experience behind the plate and Brandon Zaragoza and Co., leading the way up the middle.
Question marks: There are not many question marks with this Oklahoma club. It is loaded. However, there is some uncertainty about the weekend rotation. There’s zero doubt the Sooners have some talent and experience in the rotation, but how will they fare in 2021? Wyatt Olds moves to the front-end of the rotation, junior college transfer left-hander Dalton Fowler is a premium left-handed arm, but will he make a quick transition to the Big 12? And the third spot in the rotation is up in the air with someone like Incarnate Word graduate transfer Luke Taggart in the hunt to take that spot. Again, there are strong options here, but also some guys who have something to prove in a weekend role. The same can be applied if Jake Bennett or Horton end up in the rotation sooner rather than later.
Star power: Peyton Graham. The Sooners were off to an amazing start back in the spring, and Graham, a premier true freshman at the time, was a big part of that. In addition to being a stable force at the hot corner, Graham was a terrific hitter, hitting .358 with eight doubles, three home runs and 10 RBIs. He also slugged .612, had a .457 OBP and tallied a 1.069 OPS. Graham is a mature, pure hitter and should have another strong season for Johnson’s club.
Glue guys: Olds, a hard-nosed right hander, is an obvious glue guy this spring, but keep an eye on Tyler Hardman, Tanner Tredaway and catcher Justin Mitchell as well. Hardman has had a productive career for the Sooners and provides power in the lineup, Tredaway was climbing in terms of his draft stock before the 2020 campaign ended and is back and Mitchell is a veteran backstop … something that will pay dividends throughout this ‘COVID’ season.
Pick to click: Give me Wyatt Olds. Olds tallied solid numbers through the first few weeks of the 2020 season with a 1.89 ERA in 19 innings, along with 29 strikeouts and eight walks. But now he goes from just one of the guys to the Friday night starter. Olds has a mean streak, filthy stuff and a fastball up to 94-95 with solid secondary stuff. I could be wrong, but put me down as someone who thinks he has a strong season.
Top newcomer: Cade Horton. The Sooners have some talented young players on this roster, but no one is more heralded than the potential two-way standout. Horton put together a strong fall for the Sooners, getting up to 95-96 mph with his fastball on the mound, while also showing light tower power at times at the plate. Skip Johnson doesn’t like to anoint anyone the next coming, but Horton could be one of those guys as the season progresses. But as they say … he’s still a freshman.
Outlook: Let’s be honest, OU is one of those teams that we’re going to look back at the end of the season and wonder why we didn’t rank them in the Top 25. That’s my take, at least. OU has a solid weekend rotation, a lot of experience in the bullpen, and the lineup and defense are both expected to be improved across the board. That’s a recipe for success.
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Head coach: Steve Rodriguez
2019 record: 35-19 (14-8)
2020 record: 10-6
Strengths: Like many teams around college baseball, the Bears will have plenty of experience at the back end of the bullpen and in the offensive lineup. Bullpen-wise, the Bears have a talented senior duo in Logan Freeman and Luke Boyd, while the offense has a strong nucleus with Andy Thomas, Davion Downey, Jared McKenzie and Chase Wehsener leading the charge. There’s also plenty of talent in the weekend rotation.
Question marks: I feel pretty good about BU when it comes to the bullpen and offensive lineup. Both of those pieces are proven commodities to me. But the starting rotation still has something to prove. Talented left-hander Tyler Thomas was off to a strong start last spring, but all were appearances out of the bullpen. He’s now expected to be in the starting rotation after having a strong fall. There’s also Evan Godwin, who was terrific in the fall but who had a 5.50 ERA in 18 innings last season. If those two guys have strong seasons, my concern about the rotation is alleviated.
Star power: Jared McKenzie. We didn’t have a Freshman All-American squad in 2020, but had we did, McKenzie would’ve been an absolute slam dunk to make it. McKenzie was outstanding in my look at him at the Shriners College Classic last season. He had a mature, smooth, left-handed stroke with some definite power potential. He hit .406 with five RBIs, along with a .453 OBP and .902 OPS.
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Glue guys: With Nick Loftin gone from the lineup, I’ve got my eye on Andy Thomas and Davion Downey. Thomas is a talented backstop with some serious power potential at the plate. But there’s no doubt he got off to a slow start in 2020 with a .213 average. I think he returns to his normal form this season. Meanwhile, Downey had been an enigma before the 2020 season, where he hit well over .350 and was on his way to a massive season. Can he continue that form in ’21? We’ll soon find out.
Pick to click: Give me left-hander Evan Godwin. Godwin had just OK numbers in the shortened 2020 season, but he has huge upside for the Bears. Godwin was a little behind in the fall for various contact tracing reasons related to COVID, but he should be ready to roll this spring. Godwin will sit anywhere from 88-91 and up to 92 mph with his fastball, along with a quality curveball and slider that rate well from a metrics standpoint.
Top newcomer: Cam Caley. The Bears love Caley’s potential both as a hitter and pitcher. Caley was anywhere from 88-91 and up to 92 mph with his fastball in the fall, along with good pitchability and impressive athleticism. Meanwhile, he showed an ability to be a mainstay in the offensive lineup with some power potential. He also has power and speed and reminded Rodriguez of former Pepperdine two-way standout Aaron Brown.
Outlook: The Bears have all the pieces not only to be an NCAA tournament team yet again, but to make some noise in the tournament. BU has some serious upside in the rotation with Godwin and Thomas leading the way, proven production and experience in the bullpen and the offense has a solid nucleus as well. This coaching staff gets the absolute most out of their players and that won’t change this season.
Head coach: Pete Hughes
2019 record: 25-33 (8-16)
2020 record: 10-7
Strengths: We’re banking on Seymour making a smooth transition to the weekend rotation, so we’re going with the rotation as the strength for this team. Both Wicks and Seymour have big-time velocity, while right-hander Connor McCullough is another talented arm to watch. McCullough has quality stuff with a fastball up to 89-91 mph, while husky Kasey Ford is another starting option with improved velocity and overall stuff.
Question marks: I think the biggest thing is just how Kansas State handles expectations. Despite being picked second to the last in the Big 12, that is not exactly a horrible thing this spring with how loaded the conference is. This team has Omaha Sleeper type of potential, only if the weekend rotation pans out and the lineup continues to improve. Putting all the puzzle pieces together for an unproven program like K-State can be harder than you think.
Star power: LHP Jordan Wicks. I mean, who else? Wicks put together a strong summer and only improved his draft stock with an even better fall. Wicks is the total package. He has good measurables with premium velocity from the left side — he was up to 94-95 mph with his fastball in the fall. He also continues to command four pitches. Though we narrowly sided with UT’s Ty Madden as our top prospect in the Big 12, some high-level scouts actually prefer Wicks.
Glue guys: We’ve talked so much about the pitching staff with this team for obvious reasons, but the Wildcats do have some quality glue guys from an offensive standpoint. Zach Kokoska was off to a great start last spring, Cam Thompson is a veteran with a consistent offensive approach and can draw walks and Dylan Phillips hits for some serious power. I’m also expecting Terry Spurlin to have a much better season than the .210 average he put together last spring.
Pick to click: RHP Carson Seymour. Though Wicks is a proven commodity and likely first-round pick, the hard-throwing right-hander still has some proving to do. Seymour has struggled with his command in the past, but there are signs that he’s ready to rid of that bugaboo. The righty was impressive in the fall, sitting 92-95 mph with his fastball, while also getting up to 97-98 at times. The continued development of his hard slider and changeup makes him a likely breakout candidate.
Top newcomer: Nick Goodwin. The Wildcats have several bats to watch this spring, but no one from the newcomer class impressed Hughes and Co., more in the fall than Goodwin. Goodwin can play in the infield or outfield and has a strong frame and athletic build. He has impressive bat speed and has a chance to hit for some legitimate power this season.
Outlook: Could this finally be the year Kansas State takes a step forward in the national picture? The Wildcats have not reached the NCAA tournament since 2013 — the year it reached the Super Regional round and faced off against Oregon State. Kansas State certainly has a solid offensive lineup returning, but the season hinges on the success of Wicks and Seymour in the weekend rotation. This team will go the way they go. Stay tuned.
The rest of the pack
Head coach: Ritch Price
2019 record: 32-26 (12-12)
2020 record: 7-10 (0-0)
Strengths: Experience will be a huge key for this team, and the weekend rotation’s potential is another strength. Ryan Cyr, if he can stay healthy, will be a force in the rotation, while Everhett Hazelwood is the bell cow if he can put all the pieces together. Then, on Sundays, you have a guy like veteran left-hander Eli Davis, who’s finally completely healthy and will show excellent command of four offerings. The bullpen is also intriguing with Jonah Ulane and Nathan Barry leading the way. Barry is a lefty with a hard-nosed approach and command of multiple pitches.
Question marks: The Jayhawks might have some potential from an offensive standpoint, but it’s a unit with a lot to prove. KU got off to a slow start offensively last spring, and several returning hitters must rise to the occasion. With that said, catcher Anthony Tulimero has the ability to put together a strong season at the plate, while a newcomer like Tavian Josenberger has a chance to make an immediate impact. Josenberger is a solid runner and has a chance to hit lead off entering the season.
Star power: If the Jayhawks can head into the later innings with a lead, chances are good they can hold on to it with redshirt junior right-hander Jonah Ulane serving as the ultimate stopper. Ulane did not allow a run in limited innings last spring, and he has electric stuff to boot. In the fall, he was up to 93-95 mph with his fastball, along with good metrics on the offering. His slider has improved as well.
Glue guys: In a season like this that promises to be challenging, it’s important to have seniors, and Kansas has several of them with right-hander Ryan Cyr and position players James Cosentino and Brett Vosik leading the way. Cyr had bone chips removed from his arm during the offseason and is expected to start on Friday with a fastball up to 91-93 mph, while Cosentino needs to bounce back from a slow start in the spring and Vosik is coming off an injury that sidelined him last year.
Pick to click: Though he had a 5.23 ERA in the shortened spring season, Hazelwood is still a big-time arm with unbridled potential. The talented right hander was strong in the fall with a fastball ranging 90-94 and up to 95 mph, while he has a good slider and developing changeup. A three-pitch mix with good command could lead to not only great numbers this spring, but also a drastically improved draft stock.
Top newcomer: Maui Ahuna. Ritch Price has ties to unique places, Hawaii being one of them. That is how he landed a premier high school recruit like Ahuna in Lawrence, Kan. Ahuna is a 6-foot, 160-pounder, who certainly has room to get bigger, stronger and faster, but already has good speed, a strong arm, outstanding instincts and impressive talent from a defensive standpoint. He’s expected to make a huge impact this spring.
Outlook: Kansas has some positives from an offensive standpoint this spring, but its success will depend on the pitching staff taking a step forward. Of all starters expected to be in the weekend rotation, none had an ERA under four during the shortened season. It’s a brutal year in the Big 12, but if the rotation has success, this Kansas team can not only finish higher in the league standings, it can make the NCAA tournament.