2015 Conference Previews: MAC
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MAC Projected StandingsExpected postseason teams in Bold, records are from 2014.
Projected Regional Teams (1): Kent State
Player of the Year: Alex Miklos, of, Kent State
Pitcher of the Year: Zach Plesac, rhp, Ball State
Freshman of the Year: Zach McKinstry, ss, Central Michigan
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PROJECTED REGIONAL TEAM
• Kent State still has a few holdovers from the 2012 team, which not only went to the College World Series, but knocked off No. 1 overall seed Florida. Most impressive among them is senior outfielder Alex Miklos, who hit .(362/.439/.593) last year, which is the kind of stat line you put up right before you realize you need to jack up the difficulty level on your Xbox. The Golden Flashes also return all-conference first baseman Zarley Zalewski and most of the rest of an offense that posted a .370 team OBP, went 75-for-95 on stolen base attempts and only executed 31 sacrifice bunts last year, the majority of them from bottom-of-the-order players. That’s some impressive efficiency. SS Sawyer Polen and OF Justin Wagler are athletic guys who also can help the Flashes go at the plate. Polen is a steady defender, and the Flashes think he’ll get back into an offensive groove this spring, while Wagler is a toolsy guy with good speed and arm, and power potential.
All three of Kent State’s weekend starters could play pro ball on some level: fast-developing lefty Eric Lauer earned the Friday night role as a true freshman last year, fellow sophomore Andy Ravel struck out almost a batter an inning out of the bullpen in 2014, while junior righty Nick Jensen-Clagg was last seen battling Golden Spikes winner A.J. Reed to a standstill in regional play.. Lauer has good velocity and a good slider, and the Flashes believe his changeup will go to another level this spring. Meanwhile, Jensen-Clagg is a four-pitch guy who will get up to 90 with his fastball, while also possessing a quality changeup. Lastly, Ravel will sit in the low-90s with his fastball, and can keep hitters off balance with his four-pitch mix.
A relatively weak non-conference schedule will make it difficult for Kent State to get an at-large bid, but the experience of its starting pitchers and the efficiency of their offense mean there just aren’t that many question marks, and that bodes well for their chances at a conference championship.
KEEP AN EYE ON
• Ball State offers an interesting contrast to the efficiency and veteran calm of Kent State with a roster full of high-upside sophomores. Righty Zach Plesac was dominant as a freshman, mixing a low-to-mid 90s fastball with an effective changeup and an improving breaking ball. He’ll start on Friday nights and could follow in the footsteps of his uncle Dan to become a first-round pick.
Right fielder Alex Call put up huge offensive numbers (.354/.437/.442) as a freshman and has an equally huge throwing arm on defense. Catcher Jarett Rindfleisch’s last name is German for “beef,” and in a victory for nominative determinism, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound sophomore has turned into an imposing physical specimen and top-notch two-way backstop (.352/.447/.520 in 2014). A fourth sophomore, Alex Maloney, will have perhaps the biggest impact on the Cardinals’ season, as he’ll start at shortstop, where coaches love his athleticism and are counting on a breakout season with the bat, and as the team’s closer, where he comes with a mid-80s fastball from a variety of arm angles.
Joining Plesac in the rotation are senior Scott Baker, who fell back to the pack in 2014 after winning conference pitcher of the year honors as a sophomore, and freshman Brendan Burns, a projectable 6-foot-6, 190-pound righty whose 88-91 mph fastball could tick up once he fills out. Someone should tell him how lucky he is to be in a position where putting on the freshman 15 is a good thing.
Ball State and Kent State figure to win their respective divisions, with the Cardinals’ relative youth setting them up to be heavy favorites in 2016.
• Central Michigan continues the trend of the top teams in the conference being disciplined above all else. The Chippewas have the ability to jump up and bite Ball State or Kent State, with a pair of seniors—first baseman Cody Leichman (.315/.390/.493) and catcher Tyler Huntey (.329/.393/.460) providing most of the power. The outfield features the speedy Reigner brothers, Nick and Logan, who combined to steal of 57 of CMU’s 94 bases last year, and in only 64 attempts. Also of note is that coach Steve Jaska has elected to start a true freshman, Zack McKinstry, at shortstop. McKinstry should contribute defense and on-base skills as he grows into his 6-foot-1 frame.
On the mound, sophomore Nick Deeg is getting the kind of attention you’d expect for a 6-foot-5 lefty who can throw four pitches, including a 88-94 mph fastball and a quality changeup. He’ll start on Friday nights, followed by 6-foot-3, 245 pound senior righty Tim Black, who dominated as a closer for both CMU and Madison of the Northwoods League last year. Keep an eye on 6-foot-4 freshman Patrick Leatherman, whose low-90s fastball hasn’t earned him a prominent role so far, but could pay off for him down the road.
• Miami (Ohio): won the East division last year and returns an experienced squad that should include six seniors in the everyday lineup and two more in the weekend rotation. It has a little more power and a little less speed than their competitors. Catcher Max Andresen, outfielder Ryan Elbe and DH Gary Russo (who led the MAC in home runs last year) should be cornerstones of a lineup that includes second baseman Steve Sada, who’d like to build on an impressive freshman year and center fielder Jake Romano, who’d like to forget an injury-plagued 2014.
Friday night starter Ryan Powers is a fastball-slider righty who can hit 94 mph. He went in the 22nd round of last year’s draft, but elected to return for his senior year. Miami is counting on continued improvement from two sophomore pitchers: lefty starter Ryan Marske, who hit 93 mph in the fall but only threw six innings in 2014, and closer Jacob Banks, who can hit 90 mph from a low-three-quarters arm slot.
The RedHawks are a solid team that should beat up on some of the MAC’s lower-ranked teams, but they’ll fall short not only against the likes of Kent State and Ball State, but a grueling non-conference schedule that includes Mississippi State, Louisville, South Carolina, Ohio State, Cincinnati and Wright State.
THE REST OF THE PACK
• Bowling Green’s offensive leader is all-conference senior shortstop Brian Bein (.351/.400/.401), who will share the infield with double play partner and fellow senior on-base specialist Brandon Howard (.299/.393/.362) and a pair of interesting and alliterative freshmen. First baseman Randy Righter is notable for being, at 6-foot-3, 236 pounds, roughly half again the size of a normal 19-year-old, and for having a name that should garner first-team all-“Ballplayer or science fiction bounty hunter?” consideration. Third baseman Cody Callaway is an athletic two-sport guy who turned down the Cleveland Indians to play not only baseball but football for the Falcons—he went 11-of-25 passing as a true freshman quarterback in the fall.
The class of the rotation is lefty Andrew Lacinak, who might not get much pro buzz as a 5-foot-11 guy with Tommy John surgery in his past, but he bounced back from missing all of 2013 to improve as the 2014 season went on, finishing as the team’s top pitcher with a 3.24 ERA and a fastball that touched 91 mph. The Falcons also have an intriguing closer to watch in senior RHP Trevor Blaylock, who will sit 89-91 with his fastball, but can get up to 92-93 at times. He also has a potentially very good curveball, but it’s a pitch that must be more consistent.
• It’s a little bit of feast-or-famine for Western Michigan, who lost star shortstop Andrew Sohn to the draft, but will lean on junior second baseman Kurt Hoekstra (.297/.375/.368) to fill the void. Freshman center fielder Tanner Allison will double as the team’s midweek starter, a 6-foot-3 lefty whose strengths include a fastball that will touch 90 mph and command of a changeup.
Which is a nice way to transition to the fact that the Broncos’ pitching staff is much better than their offense. Sophomore Keegan Akin should get the attention a lefty with a low-90s fastball usually gets, with real prospect potential if he gets over his control problems (49 walks in 88 1/3 innings as a freshman). He and Allison are joined in the rotation by senior righty Chad Mayle, who gets by on movement and changing speeds more than on velocity and lefty curveball specialist Derek Schneider. Junior closer Gabe Berman has the size (6-foot-2, 215 pounds), stuff (low 90s fastball, changeup and cutter) and track record (41 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings as a sophomore) to be one of the conference’s best relief pitchers and generate some mid-to-late-round draft interest.
It’s very much a competitive staff, but Western Michigan’s fortunes hinge on scoring enough runs for that to matter.
• Toledo shortstop Deion Tansel figures to be one of the conference’s more entertaining players, as a 5-foot-8, 142 pound spark plug who has a strong two-way game despite his size—he hit .306/.374/.347 and only struck out 11 times as a sophomore. Outfielder Ryan Callahan missed the first 16 games of last season with a shoulder injury and while his OBP was a meager .293, he had 13 extra-base hits when he did play and figures to drive Tansel in as much as anyone else. The Rockets also feel like OF Jordan Kesson could take a big step forward. Kesson only hit .205 last season in limited action, but certainly has plenty of power potential to become a force in the lineup.
Sophomore lefthanded pitcher Steven Calhoun struck out more than a batter an inning in relief last year, and the gangly lefty (6-foot-7, 190 pounds) is only gaining velocity as he fills out. If his success continues in the rotation over the next two years, he’ll get some third-day draft interest. Toledo also has an intriguing closer in RHP Adam Tyson. Tyson has a good curveball as a swing-and-miss offering, along with a good fastball with run.
• Buffalo went .500 in conference play in 2014, and we should expect more of the same this year from a team with some interesting players but not much in the way of top-end talent. Center fielder Nick Sinay isn’t a great hitter, even by MAC standards, but was incredibly productive last year thanks to his top-end speed (31-for-35 in stolen bases) and…creative approach at the plate (45 hits, 36 walks, 25 HBP). The Bulls lost all-MAC first baseman Tyler Mautner, but replace him with powerful sophomore Vinny Mallaro. Buffalo is excited about the addition of juco transfer SS Bobby Sheppard. Considered the program’s most important newcomer, Sheppard has 6.60 second speed, is a very good defender, and the talented middle infielder has good power potential.
On the mound, Buffalo’s rotation is fronted by two wildly different seniors: Anthony Magovney, a bestpectacled righty who’s in line to rewrite Buffalo’s career record book thanks to an arsenal that’s heavy on movement and light on velocity. He’s about as College Pitcher as they come. Along with him is lefty Mike McGee, who has pro-level stuff (low-90s fastball with three useful off-speed pitches) but nightmarish command. In 35 1/3 innings last year, he struck out 34 but walked 37 and was lucky to post only a 5.40 ERA—he gave up 10 unearned runs and his .258 BABIP says he actually benefited from some batted-ball luck. There’s potential in the stuff, but as for right now, the command/control issues make all that moot. Closer Mike Kaelin is worth keeping tabs on moving forward. Kaelin didn’t possess wipeout stuff last season, but has potential with an 89-92 mph fastball and 12/6 curveball.
• Akron has a lot of big things: literal bigness in the case of 6-foot-9 lefthanded pitcher Pat Dyer and big potential in the form of junior righthander JT Brubaker, who’s filling out his 6-foot-4 frame and developing enough command to become the team’s draft prospect. There’s also big production in the form of junior outfielder Kris Simonton (.320/.404/.361) and first baseman/closer Matt LaRocca. LaRocca will sit anywhere from 87-91 mph with his fastball and his hard-nosed, attacking, style typically lends positive results.
Finally, there’s a big mystery, in how in the world lefthanded pitcher John Valek managed to post a 2.77 ERA while striking out only 28 batters in 91 innings.
Akron represents the last team in the MAC’s middle class—the three teams that remain will fight to stay off the bottom.
• Northern Illinois is starting over this year after the resignation of longtime head coach Ed Mathey last fall. They’ve brought in Virginia Tech assistant Mike Kunigonis to replace him, and despite his success with the Hokies, the first-year head coach inherits a relatively bare cupboard, with shortstop Brian Sisler (.304/.406/.369) as the team’s biggest returning contributor. The Huskies do have a couple interesting freshmen in third baseman Joseph Boyle, whose defense stood out in the fall, and center fielder Malique Ziegler, a four-sport high school athlete out of Des Moines, Iowa, with game-changing speed. The Huskies also are excited about newcomer 3B Joseph Boyle, who has a terrific glove on the corner with very good instincts.
• The highlight of 2014 for the Ohio University Bobcats was probably retiring Mike Schmidt’s jersey, though 43 years after he graduated and 25 years after he retired, Schmidt wouldn’t have been out of line to ask what took them so long.
Third-year head coach Rob Smith’s had a rough go of it so far, with a combined record of 25-79 since 2013, but help is on the way with the return of outfielder Mitch Longo (.346/.416/.474), who suffered a season-ending ankle injury, and catcher Cody Gaertner, who lost the whole season to shoulder surgery.
The problem with the Bobcats last year was that the lowest ERA on the team was 4.15, and combined, 15 different pitchers combined for a 6.41 ERA. I’d like to believe in the ability of sophomores Jake Roehn and Jake Rudnicki, along with freshman Mason McWilliams and Florida State transfer Evan Geist, to turn that around, because I’m an optimistic person who believes in the human capacity for growth. But we’re also going on two full years since an Ohio pitcher threw more than two innings in a season and posted an ERA below 4, so who knows? Geist is of particular interest entering the spring. The lefty will sit 86-88 mph with his fastball, along with a good breaking ball. Geist, thought, tends to struggle with his command at times, and that must improve to take a big step forward.
• Apart from senior second baseman John Rubino, (.330/.383/.401), there’s not much in the way of returning starters for fans of Eastern Michigan to get excited about. There are two sophomores worth keeping an eye on: first baseman John Montgomery, who hit .348/.464/.522 in limited duty last year, and right-handed pitcher Sam Delaplane. Delaplane, despite being only 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, can hit 90-92 mph with the fastball and spin a curveball. His inability to throw strikes early on led to him posting an ERA of 8.49, but his command was better in fall practice. If that carries over, the stuff should make him one of the conference’s better closers.