I have some more KU centric baseball preview stuff coming up soon, but first I wanted to lay out where we stand in the Big 12 picture before the season starts. First, a little background: While the Big 12 is going to be the Big 12(-2) next year for all sports, it already is for baseball as Iowa State and Colorado don't field teams. So I guess it will be the Big 9 next year when Nebraska leaves.
Traditionally the Big 12 is a pretty strong baseball conference, and is right there with the SEC, ACC and Pac 10 in terms of a big four. Usually the Big 12 isn't as deep as the other conferences, and I think it's the same this year, with the exception of the ACC. The top 2 teams look like CWS contenders, and I think the conference will get anywhere from 4-6 NCAA tournament teams.
Without further ado (last season's final record in parentheses):
1. Texas (50-13)
Last year Texas was the #2 overall seed going into the NCAA tournament before getting bounced in the Super Regionals by TCU. I think that going into this year they are basically even with Oklahoma, but I like Texas for one big reason: the new bats that will be used in college baseball this year are going to severely depress power (and Baseball America's Aaron Fitt says that no team will hit 100 home runs this year), meaning that teams who are built on power are going to be at a severe disadvantage. To be fair, Oklahoma's offense is much more versatile than that, but Texas is truly built on pitching and defense.
Texas's offense is probably the worst amongst the nation's top teams. Making it worse is that they are losing almost half of the team's 81 home runs last year, and they will be starting two Freshmen and a JuCo transfer this year. Starting at catcher for the Longhorns will likely be JuCo transfer Lucas Kephart, and he will be a key to their success. Coming out of high school there were a lot of negative reports about his defense, and although he reportedly has improved behind the plate pneumonia caused him to hit just .227 last year in junior college, so he is a big question mark.
Not a question mark is Texas's starting rotation. Taylor Jungmann is one of the best pitchers in the country, striking out 129 in 120 IP last year. He has a perfect body for a pitcher, standing 6'6", 220 lbs and has really refined his delivery over his first two years at Texas. He sits in the lower 90s but can get it up to the mid 90s when he wants to, and he has a good breaking ball and improving changeup to go with it.
Behind Jungmann is Cole Green, who doesn't have the strikeout numbers that Jungmann does but still has very good stuff. Plus he is a Senior and good Senior pitchers are like gold in college baseball, especially when they were good enough to be a 4th round draft pick. Joining them in the rotation will probably be Sam Stafford, though the Longhorns have 4 or 5 more guys who could fill in, and they also have one of the deepest bullpens in the country.
the rest of the teams after the jump
2. Oklahoma (50-18)
The Sooners have a really good lineup. They return 5 players who had 10 or more homeruns last year, and 5 players who had OBPs north of .400. As I said in the Texas blurb, the new bats will curb Oklahoma's power a bit this year, but it shouldn't affect their offense too much, as they have a pretty versatile lineup that can hit for both power and contact, and hit and run and bunt, which is used a shocking amount considering these kids get to use aluminum bats that are freaking launching pads, but I digress. The Sooners best hitter is probably third baseman Garrett Buechele, who led the team with 17 homers last year, but keep an eye on catcher Tyler Ogle, who hits well and is pretty good behind the plate. I think he'll be a guy that you hear about from a draft standpoint later this spring. Also watch for 2B Max White, who hit 15 homers as a Freshman and will be a definite draft prospect next year.
Pitching wise I don't really love the Sooners, which is what knocked them down to #2. Burch Smith had a 2.50 ERA in junior college, but obviously the Big 12 is a step up from there. Michael Rocha is a Senior and is savvy and all that good stuff, but he also had a 3.53 ERA last year and struck out 55 in only 74 innings pitched. The Sooners do have a good bullpen, anchored by Senior Ryan Duke. College coaches tend to use their closers better than MLB managers, which is baffling to me, so he could actually be a big help. Also of note: reliever Tyson Seng is back after taking a year off playing for OU's basketball team. I couldn't find him on either their KenPom or ESPN page so I am assuming he didn't play much.
3. Baylor (36-24)
Baylor didn't have the greatest year last year, but that was due to an abundance of youth. 5 of the starters in this year's lineup will be Sophomores, and 3 more will be Juniors. Baylor doesn't have a lot of power in their lineup, but like Oklahoma they have a lot of versatile hitters who can handle the bat well. Sophomore Logan Wick is probably the best hitter in the lineup, as he hit .329/.473/.553 last year with 10 homers, and also added 11 stolen bases. Also look out for catcher Joey Hainsfurther, who is spending his first collegiate year behind the plate. Senior Landis Ware could be an important figure for the Bears' fortunes this year, getting good reviews for improved defense. And it better be good, because he hit just .275/.302/.434 last year.
I don't know how much I love Baylor's rotation yet. Logan Verrett is a definite ace, striking out 97 in 91 innings last year. He has a good low to mid 90s fastball and he pounds the zone quite a bit. Neither of the pitchers slated to pitch in the weekend rotation this year lost a start last year, which is a cool stat, but it's certainly not because they were dominant. I am intrigued by Sophomore Josh Turley, who doesn't have a great pro profile but has good command that will benefit him greatly in college.
4. Texas A&M (43-21-1)
A&M is, to put it mildly, offensively challenged. Their 6.2 runs per game was last in the Big 12 (which is amazing in and of itself), and they lose some big bats off last year's team. Junior Matt Juengel is probably their best hitter, leading the team in both OBP and homers last year. I also like catcher Kevin Gonzalez ,who hit .318/.357/.510 last year and is probably the best defensive catcher in the conference. He won't get drafted very high but I think he will be a nice pro sleeper
Texas A&M's biggest strength is their rotation, which looks like the conference's second best. John Stilson led the nation in ERA last year (though out of the bullpen) and looks like he will be a quality Friday starter. Michael Wacha struck out almost a batter per inning as a Freshman and Ross Hales is back after missing all of last year with an injury.
note: there is a pretty sizable gap here and 5-10 are pretty jumbled as well.
5. Kansas State (37-22)
The Wildcats return co-Big 12 player of the year Nick Martini, who led the league with a .416 average, and got on base in more than half of his plate appearances. Unfortunately, the Wildcats have to replace both their shortstop and third baseman. Manhattan native Blair DeBord had a nice Freshman season last year, putting up a .467 OBP and he looks like he could blossom into one of the best catchers in the conference.
K State's pitching however is fraught with question marks. Four starters started 10+ games last year for K State, and they had ERAs of 4.59, 6.06, 5.37 and 7.45. But with the new bats I think that will come down a bit because they are all pitch to contact guys rather than strikeout pitchers.
6. Nebraska (27-27)
The Huskers finished 9th last year but because of the super positive influence of North Dakotan and former Husker Darin Erstad I forsee a journey back towards the top half of the standings. Also helping will be three Freshmen pitchers who decided to go to Lincoln rather than sign with the teams that drafted them. One of them, Logan Ehlers, faces some eligibility questions due to possible interaction with an agent, but he is a possible game changer for the Huskers.
7. Kansas (31-27-1)
I am very torn on this Kansas team (and I'll have more on this later of course), but we lose probably our three best hitters in Tony Thompson, Robbie Price and Brian Heere, but we bring back TJ Walz and Tanner Poppe from last year's rotation, and Lee Ridenhour, who had a good 2008-09 season before missing last year with an injury. I don't think we'll bludgeon any teams, but our rotation will keep us in a lot of games and let us steal some second and third games of series vs. teams other than Texas and A&M.
8. Oklahoma State (29-26)
The Cowboys were bad last year, and also last in ERA and last in runs scored, but they have some guys that I like. Davis Duren, a 13th round pick last year, is back after hitting .383 last season. Two way player Andrew Heck, a transfer from Duquesne, doesn't have the greatest statistical track record, but he has a lot of talent and good tools. Gabe Weidenaar, who was a teammate of Bryce Harper's at the College of Southern Nevada, will probably be their everyday center fielder. He hit .373 with 7 homers last year for them and he also is a very versatile player.
9. Missouri (29-26)
Here is where remind you that the standings from 5-10 could go a lot of ways, because I could see Missouri finishing 5th. Missouri has only one returnee who hit .300+, and looks to have one of the worst offenses in the conference. I also don't think they have an heir apparent to the Max Scherzer/Aaron Crow/Kyle Gibson Missouri ace crew. Watch for pitcher Matt Stites, a JuCo transfer who had a good summer in the Cape Cod League.
10. Texas Tech (28-29)
Again, Texas Tech could finish a few spots higher. They have one of the best lineups in the conference. They had the second best average in the conference last year, and Michael Reed is really the only key loss from said offense, and the Red Raiders return Big 12 Freshman of the year Barrett Barnes, who hit .341 with 14 homers last year.