2021 Big 12 Conference College Baseball Preview
Understanding that it might be folly to try to take too much away from the shortened 2020 season and what we’ve seen in the ensuing offseason, it’s easy to feel optimistic about the near-term future of the Big 12.
Led by Texas Tech, the league has a solid group of national title contenders that also includes Texas, one of the most talented teams in the country, and Texas Christian, which brings back one of the most experienced teams to be found.
Depth in the league is also as good as it has been in recent memory. Reasonable arguments can be made for why eight different teams in the league could be postseason teams, and that includes Kansas State, which hasn’t been to a regional since 2013 but might have the best starting rotation in the conference, and West Virginia, which will still field a young team, but one with enough upside to be dangerous.
If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that we’ll look up once the NCAA Tournament field has been announced and there will be good teams from the Big 12 left sitting at home, just because the depth of the league is impressive and someone has to lose conference games.
Player of the Year: Peyton Graham, 3B, Oklahoma
Graham arrived as a freshman at Oklahoma last season at a time when the Sooners were looking for a jolt on offense, and he wasted no time in giving it to them. In 18 games before the season was canceled, he hit .358/.457/.612 with eight doubles, three home runs and eight stolen bases with as many walks (12) as strikeouts. In 2021, he’ll be a centerpiece in a lineup that will look to carry the load until a rebuilt Oklahoma pitching staff comes together.
Pitcher of the Year: Ty Madden, RHP, Texas
Madden looks poised for a huge year in what might be a banner season for pitchers in the Big 12. After serving as an effective swingman in 2019, the righthander jumped into the weekend rotation full time and thrived in 2020, putting up a 1.80 ERA and a 26-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings. And while his stuff was already good, with a fastball that sat in the low 90s and touched the mid 90s, it took a jump this fall, with his fastball now running close to triple digits at times, complemented by a plus slider. If Texas reaches its potential in 2021, it’s almost certainly thanks in part to Madden locking down Friday nights.
Freshman of the Year: Cade Horton, INF/RHP, Oklahoma
The Sooners didn’t have to travel far to recruit Horton, who played his high school ball in Norman. The No. 65 prospect in the 2020 draft, and by extension one of the most talented recruits to make it to a college campus, Horton projects as a potential two-way starter and the shortstop of the future for the Sooners, but in 2021, he has the best chance to get on the field as the team’s second baseman. A premium athlete, he moves well on the infield and will likely provide some extra pop in an Oklahoma lineup that already should have plenty to spare.
(Editor's note: On Feb. 2, after this preview was published, Baseball America learned Horton will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the 2021 season. Texas third baseman/righthander Tanner Witt is now the favorite for Big 12 newcomer of the year, thanks to his dynamic two-way talent.)
Predicted Order of Finish (2020 record)
1. Texas Tech (16-3)
Each year, Texas Tech loses key offensive players from the lineup but it always seems to replace them effectively. So it stands to reason that its 2021 lineup will be particularly formidable after it lost just one key piece, veteran second baseman Brian Klein. Klein’s potential replacement, second-year freshman Jace Jung (.264/.438/.604) is a solid bet to be the Red Raiders’ breakout star after he enjoyed a standout summer with the Santa Barbara Foresters. He’ll support third-year freshman shortstop Cal Conley (.371/.444/.643), fourth-year junior center field Dylan Neuse (.355/.438/.487) and second-year freshman catcher Nate Rombach (.308/.440/.677), who led the team in homers last season with six. He’ll likely split time behind the plate with fourth-year junior Braxton Fulford, who is a strong defender.
It’s also business as usual on the mound for Texas Tech, which is to say that it has a number of high-end arms to slot into various roles, but don’t be surprised if those roles are fluid all throughout the season. Look for junior college transfer righthander Brandon Birdsell, who can run his fastball up to 98 mph, third-year sophomore righthander Micah Dallas (1-0, 0.57) and third-year sophomore lefthander Mason Montgomery (3-1, 3.00) to get first crack at weekend starts after the departure of two-thirds of last season’s rotation in Clayton Beeter and Bryce Bonnin.
2. Texas (14-3)
Texas’ 14-3 start in 2020 went a long way toward showing that it was ready to bounce back from a last-place finish in the conference in 2019, but it will go into this season looking to hammer that home. The Longhorns weekend rotation could be the best in the country if it all comes together. Third-year sophomore righthander Ty Madden (3-0, 1.80) has seen his stuff, including a fastball up to 99 mph, take a jump, making him the favorite for Big 12 pitcher of the year honors. Second-year freshman lefthander Pete Hansen (0.00, 17 IP) will be moving from a relief role to the rotation, but he has plus command of his four-pitch repertoire. And between third-year sophomore righthander Kolby Kubichek (2-1, 2.79) and freshman righthander Tanner Witt, the top recruit in the 2020 class, UT should also have a Sunday guy as talented as just about any.
Defense should be a strong suit for Texas’ position players, but as has often been the case in recent years, offensive production is more of a question mark. There is enough individual talent in place, however, to suggest that improvement could be on the horizon. Fifth-year junior first baseman Zach Zubia (.288/.356/.492) is a proven power bat with 19 career homers. Third-year sophomore left fielder Eric Kennedy (.288/.380/.356) is the best 2021 draft-eligible position player prospect on the roster and was Texas’ most effective hitter last season. Fifth-year senior right fielder Austin Todd (.375/.430/.500) has more than 550 plate appearances in his career and appeared to be in the middle of a breakout season in 2020. Second-year freshman shortstop Trey Faltine adds value defensively and the coaching staff saw him make strides at the plate this fall. The hope is that center fielder Mike Antico, a graduate transfer from St. John’s, can be a catalyst at the top of the order and fill an opening left by Duke Ellis moving on to pro ball.
3. Texas Christian (11-4)
The Horned Frogs return everyone from a team that finished 11-4 last season, but newcomers into the program created competition throughout the fall, giving the team impressive depth and versatility. Steady veterans like fifth-year senior catcher Zach Humphreys (.295/.418/.477) will be joined in the lineup by 2020 breakout stars like sixth-year senior Gene Wood (.353/.514/.706) and fourth-year junior Gray Rodgers (.373/.464/.559), in addition to some precocious freshmen who elbowed their way into the picture like outfielder Elijah Nunez and infielder Brayden Taylor. That mix of experience and talent should give the TCU position player group a high floor.
The pitching staff has a higher ceiling, with a projected rotation of fourth-year junior righthander Johnny Ray (1-1, 2.53), third-year sophomore lefthander Austin Krob (1-0, 0.00) and third-year sophomore lefthander Russell Smith (2-0, 2.57). Ray and Smith were a part of the rotation last season, while Krob was one of the standouts of the fall for the Horned Frogs and elbowed his way past the likes of second-year freshmen Riley Cornelio (1-0, 0.87) and Jacob Meador (19.29, 2.1 IP) and fifth-year senior Charles King (2-1, 4.50) for a spot on the weekend. Between Cornelio, Meador and King, plus third-year sophomore righthander Marcelo Perez (1-0, 2.84), quality depth when it comes to those who can start games will also not be an issue. Fifth-year senior lefthander Haylen Green (0.00 17.2 IP) also returns to help close out games.
4. Oklahoma (14-4)
The Sooners ended last season ranked No. 9 in the country largely on the strength of an outstanding starting rotation. The challenge in 2021 is completely rebuilding that unit after all three members of the rotation were drafted. The favorite to start on Fridays is third-year sophomore righthander Wyatt Olds (4-0, 1.89), who has primarily been a reliever in his career. Behind him, junior college transfer lefthander Dalton Fowler, Incarnate Word graduate transfer Luke Taggart and second-year freshman lefthander Jake Bennett (3-0, 0.75) could see weekend starts. No matter how it shakes out, the Sooners will be asking more of the pitchers in those roles.
An experienced, talented offense that showed big improvement over the 2019 lineup should provide the pitching staff with the needed cover and time to get things figured out. Second-year freshman third baseman Peyton Graham (.358/.457/.612) is an early favorite to win Big 12 player of the year honors, fourth-year junior center fielder Tanner Tredaway (.378/.392/.689) will look to pick up where he left off after a scorching-hot 2020 season, fourth-year junior first baseman Tyler Hardman is a proven power bat (.270/.333/.459) and fifth-year senior shortstop Brandon Zaragoza is a nice security blanket to have as a premium defensive player. Look for freshman two-way player Cade Horton, the best recruit in Oklahoma’s 2020 class, to find his way onto the field quickly, most likely at second base.
5. Oklahoma State (13-5)
Oklahoma State lineups under Josh Holliday always mash, and on paper, this lineup looks no different. Fifth-year senior outfielders Carson McCusker (.235/.322/.451) and Cade Cabbiness (.281/.317/.456) and fifth-year senior first baseman Alix Garcia (.250/.370/.324) are proven sluggers. Second-year freshman center fielder Caeden Trenkle (.333/.387/.623) already looks like one of the most exciting players in the Big 12. Third-year sophomore Hueston Morrill (.258/.383/.470) and fourth-year junior Kentucky transfer Matt Golda (.318/.404/.477) are locked in a battle for the two middle infield spots, but no matter who plays where, both should be catalysts. Third baseman Christian Encarnacion-Strand showed prodigious power at the junior college level and will look to keep that up in Stillwater.
There are some more questions on the pitching staff, but the ceiling is extremely high for this group. The surest thing is fourth-year junior lefthander Parker Scott (3-1, 2.16) as the Cowboys’ Friday starter. A normal draft in June probably would have meant Scott beginning his pro career, but after he went undrafted in five rounds, he’s back. Second-year freshman righthander Bryce Osmond (1-1, 5.06) and lefthander Justin Wrobleski, a junior college transfer, have much less track record than Scott, but both have big-time stuff. Speaking of stuff, few pitchers in college baseball have better stuff than fourth-year junior righthander Zach Cable (5.14, 7 IP), who can run his heater into the high 90s with a sometimes-dominant slider in the low 90s. If the pitching staff takes a step forward, Oklahoma State has Omaha upside.
6. Kansas State (10-7)
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Kansas State may end up with the best starting rotation in the Big 12 in 2021. Third-year sophomore lefthander Jordan Wicks (3-0, 0.35) has been excellent since stepping on campus at K-State and he might have been the favorite for Big 12 pitcher of the year if it weren’t for Texas’ Ty Madden. Fourth-year sophomore righthander Carson Seymour (2-2, 3.92) has a fastball that he can run near triple digits and could dominate if he improves his command. Third-year freshman righthander Connor McCullough (2-1, 2.25) isn’t as famous as his rotation counterparts, but he was outstanding last season and he’s a legitimate pro prospect in his own right. Fifth-year senior righthander Kasey Ford (1-1, 2.45) provides a steady fourth option as well.
It hasn’t earned the plaudits of the pitching staff, but the lineup is full of proven contributors. Third-year sophomore left fielder Dylan Phillips (.333/.368/.619), fifth-year senior catcher Chris Ceballos (.212/.317/.308), fourth-year junior right fielder Zach Kokoska (.349/.446/.540) and fourth-year junior first baseman Terrence Spurlin (.210/.296/.419) all provide pop. Third-year sophomore second baseman Daniel Carinci (.373/.409/.492) and fifth-year senior third baseman Cameron Thompson (.338/.436/.523) were off to hot starts in 2020 and will give the batting order additional length. If the defense fields as well as it did last season, when it did so at a .980 clip, and the offense puts up enough runs to support the pitching staff, the Wildcats could be going to their first regional since 2013.
7. Baylor (10-6)
The last impression Baylor made in 2020 was an impressive one, as the Bears went 3-0 in the Shriner’s Hospitals for Children College Classic with wins over Missouri, Louisiana State and Arkansas and then took a series from Cal Poly to end the season. An experienced, talented rotation of fifth-year senior righthander Paul Dickens (0-0, 3.15), second-year freshman lefthander Evan Godwin (1-0, 5.50) and fourth-year junior lefthander Tyler Thomas (0.00, 6.2 IP) should help them keep that momentum going. Having a pair of fifth-year senior righthanders in Logan Freeman (0.00, 9.1 IP) and Luke Boyd (0.82, 11 IP) will help in closing games out. A wild card on the staff is second-year freshman righthander Will Rigney (0.00, 3 IP), the best pitching prospect on the roster. If he can carve out a regular role, it will raise the ceiling for the staff overall.
In the lineup, Baylor mixes productive veterans with exciting young players who were just beginning to show what they could do last season. Fifth-year senior catcher Andy Thomas (.213/.371/.340) got off to a slow start in 2020, but he’s an incredible pure hitter with a career .323 average. Fourth-year junior right fielder Davion Downey (.389/.463/.639) has a similar level of experience and an impressive track record of his own. Second-year freshman center fielder Jared McKenzie (.406/.453/.449) and second-year freshman left fielder Kyle Nevin (.350/.366/.450) are chief among the young players who were making their mark quickly in 2020. Their return gives the Bears’ lineup plenty of upside.
8. West Virginia (11-5)
West Virginia went into the 2020 season with an extremely young team, and while we never got to see what it could do in the Big 12, it played well early on and put up an 11-5 record. It will be interesting to see what the next step is for this talented but still inexperienced bunch. There is a lot to like on the mound for the Mountaineers with the return of fourth-year junior lefthander Jackson Wolf (3-1, 1.05), third-year sophomore righthander Ryan Bergert (2-1, 2.92), second-year freshman lefthander Jake Carr (2-1, 1.52) and second-year freshman righthander Tyler Stretchay (2-1, 3.07) to starting roles and third-year sophomore righthanders Madison Jeffrey (1.42, 6.1 IP) and Zach Ottinger (1.00, 9 IP) as key bullpen pieces. That group should make WVU competitive every weekend.
The position player group in Morgantown is heavy on excellent athletes, including fourth-year junior second baseman Tyler Doanes (.279/.366/.344), third-year sophomore shortstop Tevin Tucker (.170/.250/.170), who is right there with Oklahoma’s Brandon Zaragoza as the best defensive infielder in the conference, and second-year freshman center fielder Victor Scott (.222/.265/.444), who is the best athlete of the bunch. Look for left fielder Hudson Byorick (.373/.500/.542), a graduate transfer from Wofford, to bring some instant pop to the lineup, and second-year freshman first baseman Matt McCormick (.364/.470/.600) has the look of a breakout star.
9. Kansas (7-10)
The Jayhawks project to put a pitching-centric team on the field in 2021 thanks to the return of four quality starting pitchers in fourth-year junior righthander Everhett Hazelwood (2-1, 5.23), fifth-year senior righthander Ryan Cyr (1-2, 4.03), third-year freshman lefthander Eli Davis (2-2, 6.45) and fourth-year junior righthander Cole Larsen (0-1, 5.14). Experienced relievers in fifth-year junior righthander Jonah Ulane (0.00, 5.1 IP) and sixth-year senior lefthander Nathan Barry (2.03, 13.1 IP) are back to anchor the bullpen.
The position player group should be solid defensively, led by fifth-year senior second baseman James Cosentino (.179/.236/.284), who is also a much more accomplished hitter than his 2020 stats suggest. Second-year freshman catcher Anthony Tulimero (.314/.368/.412) paced the offense last season in his first year on campus and will look to do so again. Losing shortstop Benjamin Sems as a transfer to Michigan is a significant loss, but Kansas hopes the next multi-year starter at the position has already arrived in freshman Maui Ahuna, the top recruit in its most recent recruiting class. His defensive skills and contact ability are ready to play right away, with the expectation that he will impact the baseball more effectively as time goes on.
Top 2021 Draft Prospects
- Ty Madden, RHP, Texas
- Jordan Wicks, LHP, Kansas State
- Pete Hansen, LHP, Texas
- Carson Seymour, RHP, Kansas State
- Riley Cornelio, RHP, Texas Christian
- Mason Montgomery, LHP, Texas Tech
- Kolby Kubichek, RHP, Texas
- Austin Becker, RHP, Texas Tech
- Max Marusak, OF, Texas Tech
- Wyatt Olds, RHP, Oklahoma
- Johnny Ray, RHP, Texas Christian
- Micah Dallas, RHP, Texas Tech
- Eric Kennedy, OF, Texas
- Kale Davis, RHP, Oklahoma State
- Brandon Birdsell, RHP, Texas Tech
- Austin Krob, LHP, Texas Christian
- Dalton Fowler, LHP, Oklahoma
- Dylan Neuse, SS/OF, Texas Tech
- Marcelo Perez, RHP, Texas Christian
- Porter Brown, OF, Texas Christian
Top 2022 Draft Prospects
- Bryce Osmond, RHP, Oklahoma State
- Cade Horton, SS/RHP, Oklahoma
- Trey Faltine, SS/RHP, Texas
- Peyton Graham, 3B, Oklahoma
- Jacob Meador, RHP, Texas Christian
- Jared Southard, RHP, Texas
- Jace Jung, 3B, Texas Tech
- Nate Rombach, C, Texas Tech
- Jake Bennett, LHP, Oklahoma
- Matt McCormick, C, West Virginia
- Cade Horton, INF/RHP, Oklahoma
- Tanner Witt, RHP/INF, Texas
- Brandon Birdsell, RHP, Texas Tech
- Dalton Fowler, LHP, Oklahoma
- Jace Bohrofen, OF, Oklahoma
- Nolan McLean, RHP/INF, Oklahoma State
- Justin Wrobleski, LHP, Oklahoma State
- Travis Sthele, RHP, Texas
- Cam Brown, RHP, Texas Christian
- Levi Wells, RHP, Texas Tech
Best Pure Hitter: Andy Thomas, Baylor
Best Power HItter: Carson McCusker, Oklahoma State
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Jace Jung, Texas Tech
Best Athlete: Victor Scott, West Virginia
Fastest Runner: Max Marusak, Texas Tech
Best Baserunner: Dylan Neuse, Texas Tech
Best Defensive Catcher: Braxton Fulford, Texas Tech
Best Defensive Infielder: Brandon Zaragoza, Oklahoma
Best Infield Arm: Trey Faltine, Texas
Best Defensive Outfielder: Dylan Neuse, Texas Tech
Best Outfield Arm: Cade Cabbiness, Oklahoma State
Best Fastball: Ty Madden, Texas
Best Breaking Ball: Carson Seymour, Kansas State
Best Changeup: Jordan Wicks, Kansas State
Best Control: Pete Hansen, Texas