Big Ten Baseball: Preseason power rankings and preview for 2023 season
Believe it or not — and if you’re in the heart of Big Ten country, you are probably choosing “or not” — college baseball season is upon us.
Last season, the Big Ten’s newbies took charge. Maryland and Rutgers both exceeded the 40-win mark, though the Scarlet Knights were given 1 of the most egregious penalty snubs in recent NCAA regional memory when they were left out of the tournament despite hitting the mark in every metric but strength of schedule — penalized for playing other northeastern teams.
And if you think “what difference does it make being 1 of the last teams in the field?” look no further than last year. Ole Miss was the very last team in and ended up winning the College World Series. Rutgers may not have had a championship level depth-wise, but it was capable of making a Cinderella run to Omaha.
Maryland and Michigan were the only Big Ten teams to reach the postseason. The Terps hosted a regional for the 1st time before losing to UConn in the regional final. The Wolverines won the Big Ten Tournament before pushing host Louisville to the brink in the regionals.
This season, with a bit more respect by their names, the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights are poised to make some more noise. And a handful of teams from the Big Ten’s Midwestern base will have a chance to join them in the postseason.
Here is how the Big Ten teams rank going into the 2023 season:
Last year: 16-36 (6-18 Big Ten)
Best returning position player: CF Brett Bateman
Best returning pitcher: LHP Tucker Novotny
Top newcomer: SS Ike Mezenga
Outlook for 2023: The Golden Gophers have taken quite a tumble since hosting and winning a regional in 2018. But Minnesota might have the pitching needed to pull itself out of the cellar.
Righty Sam Malec and Novotny figure to be the top 2 starters, and it’s possible George Klassen will be better than both. Klassen, who can reach 100 mph, finally has a fully functional elbow after Tommy John surgery a couple years ago. Whether used as a closer or a starter, he could be among the 1st Big Ten pitchers drafted.
Last year: 24-27 (10-14)
Best returning position player: C/1B/DH/OF Stephen Hrustich
Best returning pitcher: RHP David Utagawa
Top newcomers: 2B Mike Elko, LHP Sam Garewal
Outlook for 2023: The Wildcats are rebooting with new coach Jim Foster, who led Army to 4 consecutive Patriot League titles before taking the job. If Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski are any indicators, hiring former Army coaches isn’t such a bad idea.
Last season, Northwestern flirted with its 1st .500 finish since 2003 under interim coach Josh Reynolds. Finally getting to that threshold would be a success for Foster, though it’s likely not attainable in Year 1.
11. Michigan State
Last year: 24-20 (6-18)
Best returning position player: SS Mitch Jebb
Best returning pitchers: LHP Nick Powers, RHP Wyatt Rush
Top newcomer: CF Jake Dresselhouse
Outlook for 2023: It’s baby steps for the Spartans, who are simply trying to qualify for the Big Ten tourney for the 1st time since 2018.
No Spartan position player has appeared in the big leagues since 1995, but Jebb could be the guy who eventually breaks that drought. He hit .356 as a sophomore last year, then posted the exact same batting average while stealing 26 bases in the Cape Cod League over the summer.
Jebb will set the table frequently. If Michigan State hits behind him, this will be a better season than those of recent memory.
10. Penn State
Last year: 26-29 (11-13)
Best returning position player: DH Josh Spiegel
Best returning pitchers: RHP Travis Luensmann, LHP Jordan Morales
Top newcomer: RHP Daniel Ouderkirk
Outlook for 2023:: The Nittany Lions made the Big Ten tourney for the 1st time in a decade last year but must find a way back without slugging catcher Matt Wood, whom the Brewers drafted in the 4th round.
If the pitching staff can carry on without Wood behind the plate, Penn State can build on that success. The staff set a school record with 503 strikeouts last year and has the arms to chase that mark again.
Last year: 29-21 (9-12)
Best returning position player: 1B Cam Thompson
Best returning pitchers: RHP Khal Stephen, LHP Cal Schapira
Top newcomer: OF Couper Cornblum
Outlook for 2023: The good news? The Boilermakers return 7 of the 9 bats from last year’s lineup and add a skilled Wichita State transfer in Cornblum to fill 1 of those vacancies.
The not-so-great news? The weekend rotation is gone and replacing it will determine Purdue’s fate. Stephen was moved from the bullpen into the rotation, and 2021 ace Schapira is back after missing last season because of Tommy John surgery.
The Boilers will put the ball in play. If the arms are there, they can finish in the top half of the Big Ten.
8. Ohio State
Last year: 21-30 (8-14)
Best returning position player: 1B/OF Marcus Ernst
Best returning pitcher: LHP Isaiah Coupet
Top newcomer: RHP Justin Eckhardt
Outlook for 2023: Former TCU assistant coach Bill Mosiello gets his shot at running his own program at Ohio State. And that means the Buckeyes are going to be very aggressive on the basepaths. The Horned Frogs were 2nd among all Power 5 schools in stolen bases during his tenure running the offense from 2014-22.
Ohio State, which was 12th in the B1G in stolen bases and last in fielding last season, will look a whole lot different this year and beyond.
Last year: 27-32 (10-14)
Best returning position players: C Matthew Ellis, OF Carter Mathison
Best returning pitcher: LHP Ty Bothwell
Top newcomer: RHP Gabe Levy
Outlook for 2023: The Hoosiers can mash. Ellis and Mathison combined for 37 home runs last season, with Mathison’s 19 setting a new program mark for freshmen. But will Indiana have to win every game by a score of 12-11 or so to have a chance at winning?
Indiana is replacing its entire starting rotation for the 2nd straight year. Bothwell moves from the bullpen to Friday night starter, while the Davidson transfer Levy will also need to be a reliable weekend starter.
If the Hoosiers are simply average on the mound, they can make some noise.
Last year: 34-28 (12-12) — Won Big Ten Tournament, lost in NCAA regional final
Best returning position player: OF Tito Flores
Best returning pitchers: LHP Connor O’Halloran, LHP Jacob Denner
Top newcomer: 3B/RHP Mitch Voit
Outlook for 2023: Michigan has a new face in charge after Eric Bakich was hired at Clemson, but it’s a familiar face to Big Ten fans.
Former Indiana coach Tracy Smith, who led the Hoosiers to the College World Series in 2013, is back in the B1G after 7 years at Arizona State. Success seems sure to follow, though we’ll see how much of it comes this season. Bakich took a pair of players and multiple members of Michigan’s signing class to Clemson.
Still, Smith isn’t walking into an empty cupboard. The Wolverines have made 3 straight regional appearances, punctuated by a trip to the CWS final in 2019. Even if there are early struggles, this group may be dangerous again come May.
Last year: 23-30 (10-14)
Best returning position players: SS Brice Matthews, 2B Max Anderson
Best returning pitchers: LHP Emmett Olson, RHP Shay Schanaman
Top newcomer: RHP Jace Kaminska
Outlook for 2023: The Cornhuskers were a win from making the Super Regionals in 2021, then failed to even make the Big Ten Tournament in 2022. Look for Nebraska to finish somewhere between those extremes this season.
Olson and the Wichita State transfer Kaminska potentially give Nebraska the best 1-2 pitching punch in the Big Ten, and Schanaman should be an ace closer after moving back to the bullpen. At worst, Nebraska’s staff will be 3rd in the B1G.
The Huskers are the opposite of the Hoosiers. The pitching appears reliable, but it’s a matter of how the bats come together.
Last year: 31-22 (17-7)
Best returning position player: 3B Branden Comia
Best returning pitchers: RHP Riley Gowens, RHP Jack Crowder
Top newcomer: 1B Drake Wescott
Outlook for 2023: Illinois was a regional contender for most of last season before critical series defeats to Indiana and Maryland put pressure on the Illini to make a Big Ten Tournament run. They failed to do so, going 0-2 in Omaha to end a once-promising season.
Though Illinois must replace its Friday night starter and some bullpen pieces, much of the lineup is back. If the Illini weren’t stuck behind a pair of legitimate Top 25 teams in Maryland and Rutgers, they’d feel like a Big Ten title contender. And they certainly make for a solid dark-horse pick.
Last year: 36-19 (17-7)
Best returning position player: OF Keaton Anthony
Best returning pitchers: RHP Ty Langenberg, RHP Brody Brecht
Top newcomer: RHP Zach Voelker
Outlook for 2023: Though perhaps not as egregious a snub as Rutgers, Iowa certainly had an NCAA-worthy resume last spring and got the shaft.
Iowa’s pitching staff is in such a good place that the Hawkeyes are likely replacing departing Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Adam Mazur with the award’s next winner in Langenberg.
The Hawks just need someone to join Anthony (.361/.455/.678 with 14 HR and 55 RBI) as a legitimate hitting threat. If it happens, this is a regional team and a potential Big Ten champion.
Last year: 44-15 (17-7)
Best returning position player: CF Ryan Lasko
Best returning pitchers: RHP Sam Bello, RHP Ben Gorski
Top newcomer: RHP Drew Conover
Outlook for 2023: Hopefully, the Scarlet Knights are able to express their outrage over last year’s snub with wins, wins and more wins.
It starts with Lasko, who is the program’s best hitting prospect since Todd Frazier and a guy who can sneak into the 1st round of the MLB Draft. Rutgers finished 3rd nationally in runs scored last year and brings back key pieces to that attack in slugging corner infielder Chris Brito, middle infielders Tony Santa Maria and Josh Kuroda-Grauer, and outfielder Evan Sleight.
Bello and Gorski anchor the Big Ten’s best bullpen, but Rutgers needs a new group of starters to come through. Conover, a Seton Hall transfer, is expected to lead the way on Friday nights.
Last year: 48-14 (18-5) — Lost in NCAA regional final
Best returning position player: SS Matt Shaw
Best returning pitchers: RHP Jason Savacool, RHP Nick Dean
Top newcomer: RF Matt Woods
Outlook for 2023: Shaw is the best baseball player in the Big Ten. The shortstop slugged 22 homers last year, then backed it up by winning Cape Cod League MVP over the summer. He will almost certainly supplant former Minnesota Twins All-Star Eric Milton as the highest draft pick in Terrapins history.
More importantly, he’s not alone.
The Terps have the Big Ten’s best lineup behind Rutgers. And Maryland makes up for that difference with Dean and Savacool anchoring the rotation. If Iowa’s Langenberg isn’t the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, it will be Savacool.
The bullpen was Maryland’s lone weakness last season, and it remains the unanswered question mark going into this one. If the Terps are solid at the back end, only injuries or dumb baseball luck would be capable of keeping this team from a Super Regional.
And with Dean and Savacool leading the way, you’d have to feel good about Maryland’s chances no matter who that Super Regional opponent might be.