Two days from first pitch, Part IV of our 2018 season preview looks at where the Hoosiers stack up in the Big Ten race.
What is abundantly clear when looking at the 2018 season of Big Ten baseball is that there is a sizable disparity in talent and experience between the top and middle parts of the league and the bottom feeders. What is less clear, at least in February, is whether we will be treated to a two-horse match race, like Seabiscuit and War Admiral, between Indiana and Maryland, like so many publications believe, or whether one or more of those teams that, on paper at least, seem to be in the middle of the pack can make a push for the regular season title and the top seed in the conference tournament in Omaha, Nebraska in May.
Illinois Fighting Illini
2017 Record: 23-28 (9-15 Big Ten)
Names to Know: A duo of transfers, pitcher Sean Leland from Louisville and outfielder Zac Taylor from Houston, will look provide the Illini with something severely lacking last season - talent.
Outlook: Illinois draws one of the most unfavorable schedules in the Big Ten in 2018. They’ll make roadtrips to Indiana, Maryland, and Michigan, while still drawing Nebraska and Iowa in Champaign. A far cry in the talent and experience departments from the 2016 version of this squad, if the Illini can’t take advantage of home series with Rutger and Ohio State, they’ll have no shot at qualifying for the Big Ten Tournament, which would be their second straight miss after being a national seed just two seasons ago.
2017 Record: 34-24 (14-9 Big Ten)
2017 Record: 39-22 (15-9 Big Ten)
Names to Know: Nick Allgeyer, fresh off a return from Tommy John surgery, and transfer Brady Schanuel will form a serious one-two punch for the Hawkeyes on Friday and Saturday nights, giving Iowa a legitimate chance to win every series they play.
Outlook: With a soft non-conference schedule, Iowa will need to get off to a fast start to avoid the position Indiana found themselves in two years ago, where a bad RPI, thanks to an even worse schedule, kept them from an NCAA berth. But if Iowa can win 15 or so of their first 20 games, they’ll have a huge opportunity to make an early statement in Big Ten play as they host Indiana to open the conference campaign. A series win in that one, and the Hawkeyes could find themselves 8-1 or 7-2 with sights set on the regular season title going into back-to-back series at Nebraska and at Minnesota.
2017 Record: 38-23 (15-9 Big Ten)
Names to Know: There are plenty of names to know in College Park, but one stands out - Marty Costes. With a .322/.429/.548 slash line in 2017, and 13 HRs to boot, Costes is a deserving selection for preseason player of the year in the league.
Outlook: Maryland lost manager John Szefc to Virginia Tech in the offseason and Rob Vaughn, who takes over for the Terps, will have plenty of pressure on him as Maryland expects to find itself in the thick of the Big Ten race and in a regional come NCAA Tournament time. With their first four Big Ten series coming against Northwestern, Illinois, Michigan, and Purdue (the lone road series in those four being at Michigan), Maryland should sit atop the conference standings for most of the conference season. But for the Terps, everything will come down to the last three weeks, when they travel to Lincoln and to Bloomington for clashes with Nebraska and Indiana.
2017 Record: 42-17 (16-8 Big Ten)
Names to Know: Ako Thomas is an All-American second baseman who comes into his junior year in Ann Arbor fresh off a 2017 season where he put up an eye-popping .354/.462/.396 slash line. If anyone other than Ako Thomas is First Team All-Big Ten at second base, the other guy will be one of the biggest individual stories, not only in the Big Ten, but in the country.
Outlook: Michigan has a deep pitching staff that will give them a shot to win anytime they step on the field. But if the Wolverines don’t get production from their lineup, which will feature a combination of youth and inexperience, the Wolverines may struggle against the Indianas and Marylands of the Big Ten. But we could learn a lot about Michigan in just a couple weeks when they head to the farm to take on Stanford in a four-game set.
Michigan State Spartans
2017 Record: 29-23 (10-14 Big Ten)
Names to Know: Riley McCauley will transition from closer to Friday night starter for Michigan State as the Spartans try to fill the void left by Alex Troop’s departure. If McCauley can’t handle the role, though, Sparty could struggle again and, for the second straight season, miss out on the 30-win mark. Perfect Game has named him preseason All-Big Ten, though, and Michigan State will be comfortable putting the pressure on his shoulders.
Outlook: The Spartans could, I suppose, surprise everyone and find their way into the top half of the Big Ten tournament seeding. But if that happens, my money is on that saying a whole lot more about the rest of the Big Ten - specifically about Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska - than it does about Michigan State.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
2017 Record: 36-21 (15-8 Big Ten)
Names to Know: Micah Coffey, the Gophers’ senior infielder, hit .370 in Big Ten play last season and, over the summer, put together a .282/.366/.366 slash line for Hyannis in the Cape Cod league. With Coffey aongside First-team All Big Ten catcher Cole McDevitt, Minnesota won’t have any trouble getting offensive production. With no holes in the lineup, the Gohpers look poised to provide plenty of run support for a young pitching staff.
Outlook: Minnesota has plenty of talent to make a push toward an NCAA Tournament bid. But aside from the things they can control, the club will get a real break when it comes to the schedule. They won’t play Maryland or Michigan at all, they get Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan State all in Minneapolis, and only face one tough opponent on the road - Nebraska. When you consider the fact that the Gophers get Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, and Rutger, you can pencil them in for a minimum of nine or 10 wins without even giving them a win or two against each of Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan State. If they can win just two of those three critical series at home, 15 or 16 conference wins could come with ease. What does it all mean? Despite a perceived talent gap between themselves and the Hoosiers and Terps, Minnesota may grab the regular season title thanks to unbalanced scheduling.
2017 Record: 35-22 (16-7 Big Ten)
Names to Know: Scott Schreiber is the best run-producer in the Big Ten. He is a career .314 hitter with over 100 runs scored and 114 RBIs. If Schreiber can return to his 2016 production, when he hit 16 HRs, he could take home the player of the year hardware.
Outlook: Nebraska gets a Minnesota-like break in the schedule department in 2018, hosting each of their series with Minnesota, Iowa, Maryland, and Indiana. If Nebraska protects their home field and wins all four of those series, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the Cornhuskers claiming the regular season crown. Then, they’ll get the conference tournament in their backyard at TD Ameritrade.
2017 Record: 27-30 (13-11 Big Ten)
Names to Know: Hank Christie will likely be the ace of this staff. But that could spell trouble for Northwestern. Christies was just 5-4 with a 4.01 ERA last season. That won’t get it done on Friday nights in the Big Ten.
Outlook: With the losses of Cooper Wetherbee, Joe Hoscheit, and Matt Hopfner, Northwestern will be hard pressed to find any success like they did during Big Ten play last season. If Spencer Allen can keep his club around .500 and find his way into the Big Ten Tournament, he might deserve to be Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Ohio State Buckeyes
2017 Record: 22-34 (8-16 Big Ten)
Names to Know: The Buckeyes will put a lot of their hopes this season on the prospect that Ryan Feltner can evolve from the sophomore in 2017 who had an ERA of 6.32 in 17 appearances to a Friday night ace. If not, every weekend may see Ohio State giving up easy runs from first pitch on Friday until the final out on Sunday.
Outlook: After winning 44 games in 2016, Ohio State baseball fell off the face of the map last season with seven newcomers in their lineup. Despite now having youthful experience, there wasn’t much in the Buckeyes’ 2017 campaign that would lend any confidence to the idea that 2018 will be any better. And in a Big Ten that appears to be top heavy, that may mean an even worse Big Ten record for Ohio State.
Penn State Nittany Lions
2017 Record: 18-37 (4-20 Big Ten)
Names to Know: Penn State coach Rob Cooper is beginning his fifth season in Happy Valley. In three of his first four seasons, the Nittany Lions won just 18 games. If there isn’t vast improvement in 2018, it would be hard to imagine that either Cooper or Penn State would want the relationship to continue beyond the end of the upcoming season.
Outlook: Penn State baseball makes the Nittany Lion basketball program look like a blue blood. Notching 25 wins would be great improvement for this club and might be an attainable goal with 12 of their 24 league games coming against Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue, and Rutger.
2017 Record: 29-27 (12-12)
Names to Know: Mark Wasikowski is set to begin his second season in West Lafayette, and if the first season was any indication, he is the right man for the job at Purdue. With a roster lacking star-studded names, for the Boilers it may be more about Wasikowski continuing to change the culture and implement winning ways.
Outlook: Purdue was 19 games better in the win column in 2017 than they were in 2016. The 29-27 campaign marked the Boilers’ best since 2012. With a shaky pitching staff, the Boilers may not be primed to make the jump from Big Ten qualifier to NCAA Tournament contention, there is no reason to think that Purdue won’t find themselves in Omaha for the conference tournament.
Rutger Scarlet Knights
2017 Record: 19-34 (7-16 Big Ten)
Names to Know: [null set]
2017 Record: They don’t have baseball.
Names to Know: They don’t have baseball.
Outlook: They don’t have baseball. They may still be better than Rutger.
- Nebraska (19-5) (owns head-to-head tiebreaker over Indiana based on projected results)
- Indiana (19-5)
- Minnesota (17-7) (owns head-to-head tiebreaker over Iowa and non-head-to-head tiebreaker over Maryland based on projected results)
- Maryland (17-7) (owns non-head-to-head tiebreaker over Iowa based on projected results)
- Iowa (17-7)
- Michigan State (15-9)
- Michigan (14-10)
- Purdue (13-11)
- Penn State (7-17)
- Illinois (6-18)
- Ohio State (5-19)
- Northwestern (4-20)
- Rutger (3-21)
The bottom of the Big Ten will be so bad in 2018 that all eight qualifiers for the conference tournament will finish above .500 in Big Ten play and will get in with ease. What that will create at the top, though, is chaos. Given Nebraska’s four home series with Minnesota, Iowa, Maryland, and Indiana, it’s hard to imagine the Huskers not earning the top seed. We predict it will come down to their series with Indiana, where the Hoosiers will enter 16-2, with their lone losses being at Iowa and at Minnesota, and the Huskers will be 14-4. But a home field series win against Indiana and a sweep of lowly Illinois to finish the season will be sufficient for the Huskers to earn the one-seed by way of tiebreaker.
Player of the Year: Scott Schreiber, OF, Nebraska - While Marty Costes would be a worthy player of the year, and others will certainly shine, if 2016 Scott Schreiber shows up and Nebraska finishes at or near the top of the Big Ten standings, this award would be his.
Others to watch: Matt Lloyd, Luke Miller, Marty Costes, Ako Thomas
Pitcher of the Year: Pauly Milto, P, Indiana - Jonathan Stiever may be the Friday night guy for Indiana and the man to beat on paper, but if he has a 2018 anything like the way he finished 2017, Pauly Milto will run away with this hardware. Milto went 6-3 in 10 starts last season and in his five home starts, posted a 1.24 ERA. I think he keeps it up, his success spreads to other parks as well, and he stuns the league by earning this honor.
Others to watch: Jonathan Stiever, Riley McCauley, Nick Allgeyer