The theme of this season will be balance. The conference's top six teams all have the talent necessary to contend for the Big 12 Championship and – ultimately – a trip to the College World Series. While the league's top six should be competitive with each other, there will likely be a considerable gap between those clubs and the bottom feeders.
C: Trevor Coleman, Jr. (Missouri)
1B: Luke Anders, Sr. (Texas A&M)
2B: Willie Rueda, Sr. (Texas Tech)
SS: Tom Belza, So. (Oklahoma State)
3B: Shaver Hansen, Jr. (Baylor)
OF: Neil Medchill, Jr. (Oklahoma State)
OF: Jamie Johnson, Jr. (Oklahoma)
OF: Aaron Senne, Jr. (Missouri)
DH: Michael Torres, Sr. (Texas)
SP: Andy Oliver, Jr. (Oklahoma State)
SP: Chance Ruffin, So. (Texas)
SP: Kendal Volz, Jr. (Baylor)
RP: Kyle Thebeau, Sr. (Texas A&M)
Player of the Year: Neil Medchill, Jr. (Oklahoma State)
Pitcher of the Year: Andy Oliver, Jr. (Oklahoma State)
Freshman of the Year: Taylor Jungmann, Fr. (Texas)
Newcomer of the Year: Doug Kroll, Jr. (Oklahoma State)
1. Texas Longhorns
After glancing at the preseason honors, Oklahoma State may appear to be the league's best team. But the Longhorns and Aggies have one key aspect the Cowboys lack – depth.
Coming off a disappointing 2008 campaign, the ultra-talented Longhorns return seven of nine offensive starters and all but one key pitcher. Coach Augie Garrido had an excellent recruiting class, resulting in the addition of right-handers Taylor Jungmann and Austin Dicharry, two of the league's most promising youngsters.
Freshman All-American Chance Ruffin will lead a deep starting rotation for the ‘Horns, but fellow weekend starters Taylor Jungmann, Brandon Workman and Cole Green also have All-Big 12 potential. Senior left-hander Austin Wood will move back to the bullpen this season, and he will be the team's closer.
Although Texas is talented in the field, they must replace the prolific power production of outfielders Kyle Russell and Jordan Danks. The ‘Horns will look to sophomore slugger Kevin Keyes' powerful bat to make up for some of that loss, but Brandon Belt, Preston Clark and Cameron Rupp are also expected to produce extra-base hits.
Last year's club had the fewest sacrifice hits since the 2002 Texas squad. With less power this season, expect Garrido's Longhorns to make a return to the small-ball emphasis. Projected starters like Michael Torres, Tant Shepherd and Travis Tucker have excellent bat control and command of the strike zone, and they will be key to the success of the offense.
2. Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggies are certainly the Big 12's deepest team on the mound, and they should be neck-and-neck with the rival Longhorns all season.
Texas A&M returns its top seven pitchers from a relatively young bunch that won 46 games and the Big 12 Championship a year ago. In addition to the returnees, the Aggies add hard-throwing Winthrop transfer Alex Wilson to their pitching staff. Wilson, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, will join super sophomores Barret Loux and Brooks Raley in the weekend rotation.
The Aggies and Longhorns have similar talent and depth in the starting rotation, but A&M has a more battle-tested bullpen. Senior righty Kyle Thebeau finally harnessed his control last season, as he posted a 2.12 ERA with 79 strikeouts in 76.1 innings. Rob Childress' team also returns closer Travis Starling and successful hurlers Clayton Ehlert, Shane Minks and Hank Robertson.
First baseman Luke Anders and centerfielder Kyle Colligan combined for 30 home runs last season, and they are two of the top returning sluggers in the conference. However, after those two, the Aggies have a lot of offensive production to replace.
Jose Duran, Darby Brown, Dane Carter and Brian Ruggiano batted a cumulative .356 in Big 12 games last year, combining for over one-half of the team's conference RBIs. All four are absent this season, and they will be replaced by players with little-to-no experience. Included in that group is sophomore third baseman Nick Fleece. The coaching staff is excited about Fleece's power potential, and they believe he could emerge as one of the team's leading hitters in 2009.
3. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Assuming Andy Oliver is in the clear with the NCAA, the Cowboys will possess the conference's best 1-2 punch on the mound this season.
Oliver, who was 7-2 with a 2.20 ERA in 2008, teams up with fellow southpaw Tyler Lyons [12-2, 3.31] to form a truly dynamic duo. After that is where it gets shady for the Cowboys. Sunday starter Tyler Blandford also returns, but the Kentucky native was just 1-3 with an 8.13 ERA in six Big 12 starts. In the bullpen, OSU brings back veteran Matt Peck, but the remainder of the relief roles will be occupied by newcomers.
As is usually the case, Oklahoma State will have a potent offense that plays well in the hitter-friendly Allie P. Reynolds Stadium. All-Conference selections Tom Belza [.386] and Neil Medchill [.349] are among the returners for the Pokes, and they will also welcome in a solid crop of sluggers. First baseman Doug Kroll belted 19 home runs at Iowa Western CC last season, and freshman Randy McCurry finished his high school career with a .618 average and 105 round-trippers.
4. Baylor Bears
Baylor head coach Steve Smith brought in the nation's top recruiting class in 2006, but their first two seasons have been underwhelming, producing two sub-.500 conference seasons and just one regional bid. Although Baylor has underachieved since its 2005 College World Series appearance, the talented recruiting class of '06 now leads the team.
The Bears have three starting pitchers – Kendal Volz, Shawn Tolleson, and Craig Fritsch – who possess outstanding potential. Despite a 3-6 record last season, Volz – a future first-round pick – used his low-to-mid-90s heat and hard slider to toss 14 innings without surrendering an earned run for Team USA last summer. Both Tolleson and Fritsch were disappointing last season, but the pair turned heads in the Cape Cod League. Tolleson struck out 53 batters in 37 innings while Fritsch yielded just 29 hits in 44.2 frames. The two hurlers are redshirt sophomores and possess low-90s fastballs. Though Baylor's starters are promising, their bullpen likely won't be very deep.
Smith's ballclub returns eight of its nine offensive starters off last year's team. Included in the powerful bunch are four players [Aaron Miller, Adam Hornung, Ben Booker, Shaver Hansen] who belted at least six home runs last season. Veteran shortstop Raynor Campbell batted .311 last season, and he will shift from centerfield/second base to shortstop in '09. Taking over in center will be speedy redshirt freshman Brooks Pinckard, who had an excellent summer.
5. Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners and Bears are very similar teams on paper. Like Baylor, OU returns most of its offense. First baseman Aaron Baker, a native Texan, was the team's leading home run hitter and run producer a season ago. OU also brings back perhaps the league's most underrated player. Outfielder Jamie Johnson came into his own during Big 12 play last year, batting .393 with 12 extra-base hits in 112 at-bats. Johnson proved to be an excellent all-around performer by stealing 20 bases in 21 attempts and going 55 games without committing an error.
Oklahoma is also comparable to Baylor in that their weekend rotation will be talented, but largely unproven. The Friday starter is 6-foot-3 junior Andrew Doyle, who pitched 99.1 innings and won nine games as a sophomore. Hard-throwing righties Garrett Richards and Antwonie Hubbard combined to start just four non-conference games last season, but both pitchers overcame control issues and pitched well in the Alaskan Baseball League during the summer.
The bullpen should be a strength due to its depth, experience, and versatility. Returning hurlers C.J. Blue, Ryan Duke, Chase Anderson and Jeremy Erben combined to pitch nearly half of OU's innings last season. Junior college transfer J.R. Robinson led the nation with a 0.83 ERA in 2008, and he should be a key member of the Sooners' pitching staff.
6. Missouri Tigers
With the help of some elite pitchers, Tigers head coach Tim Jamieson has built an excellent program in Columbia. The trend will continue in 2009, as righty Kyle Gibson should be Mizzou's third highly drafted pitcher in four years. Gibson worked behind Aaron Crow – the eighth overall pick in the '08 draft – last season, but he takes over as the Friday starter in 2009. Nick Tepesch, who stands 6-foot-5, worked out of the bullpen last season, but he has loads of potential and will slide into the weekend rotation. The Tigers return Sunday starter Ian Berger, who had a 4.54 ERA in 85.1 innings.
Just like most of the Big 12's upper echelon, Missouri is talented and has the potential to be dominant. And while the bullpen will have two experienced relievers that combined for 46 appearances last year [Scooter Hicks and Ryan Allen], they will struggle to find much more depth in the ‘pen and midweek starting rotation.
The Missouri offense was very good last season, and it should be solid once again this year. The Tigers have possibly the Big 12's top returning offensive performer in Aaron Senne, who batted .347 with 13 home runs and 67 RBIs last season. First baseman Steve Gray [10 home runs] will also provide power, while backstop Trevor Coleman, a Dripping Springs native, is expected to be a high draft pick in June.
7. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Mike Anderson's Cornhuskers have placed fourth or higher in the Big 12 in each of the last four seasons, but 2009 is expected to be a major rebuilding year. Because the ‘Huskers are not nearly as talented as the league's top six teams – but still not on the level of the bottom three – they appear to be a unanimous pick to finish seventh in the conference.
Nebraska will rely heavily on pitcher Mike Nesseth, who will move from the bullpen into the starting rotation this year. Nesseth came into the program as an unknown, but he has blossomed into an ace with mid-90s heat. Following Nesseth will be former midweek starter Erik Bird and either sophomore Michael Mariot or JUCO transfer Jordan Roualdes.
Despite having a team batting average of .263 and a slugging percentage of .383 in Big 12 play last year, Nebraska managed to finish third in the league at 17-9-1. Unfortunately, the Cornhuskers lost their two leading hitters in Jake Opitz [.339, 11 HR, 50 RBI] and Mitch Abieta [.337, 10 HR, 49 RBI] and do not have any impact players ready to fill their shoes.
8. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Dan Spencer was widely regarded as an excellent pick to take over for the legendary Larry Hays, but it won't be a quick fix in Lubbock. The departure of sluggers Roger Kieschnick and Jason Seefeld has left little offensive talent. Add in some injuries to the pitching staff, and the result figures to be a shaky season on the South Plains.
Kieschnick and Seefeld combined for 28 of the Red Raiders' 49 home runs last season. Overall, this year's team returns just six home runs. The Tech offense will be led by 5-foot-7 second baseman Willie Rueda and 5-foot-5 shortstop Joey Kenworthy. Spencer is not afraid to play small-ball, and that is an attitude that will fit in well with a lineup that must be scrappy to score runs against the tough Big 12 pitching staffs.
The Raiders have plenty of talent on the mound, but there are numerous question marks. Fireballing righty Miles Morgan – the Big 12's Freshman Pitcher of the Year in 2006 – made just one appearance in 2007 and missed the entire '08 campaign with a torn rotator cuff. Morgan is reportedly fully healthy for the first time since his dominant freshman year. Tech also has A.J. Ramos coming off injury. Ramos was solid two years ago, but he missed most of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He should eventually work his way back into the weekend rotation. If Morgan and Ramos are healthy this season – and talented arms Chad Bettis and Nate Karns right the ship – the Raiders could put together their best pitching staff since the Frank Anderson days.
9. Kansas State Wildcats
The Wildcats have most of their offense returning, but it was the solid pitching staff that helped propel them to a surprising sixth place finish in the Big 12 last season.
K-State must replace its top two starting pitchers [Brad Hutt and Justin Murray] and All-Big 12 closer Daniel Edwards. The key to Kansas State's staff in 2009 will be left-hander Thomas Rooke, who went 5-1 with a 3.59 ERA as a freshman last season.
Although Brad Hill's club lost third baseman Nate Tenbrink to the draft, they will get another year from first baseman Justin Bloxom. The Phoenix native led the team in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in last season. Dane Yelovich [18 steals], Adam Muenster [18 steals] and Brett Scott [10 steals] help round out a lineup that should be built around speed.
10. Kansas Jayhawks
The Jayhawks have already had a few blows to what was an undermanned pitching staff in the first place. Ace pitcher Wally Marciel and freshman Jordan Jakubov will both miss the entire 2009 campaign after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Lefty Andy Marks, a weekend starter two seasons ago, is also expected to miss a sizeable chunk of the year, as he's still recovering from labrum surgery.
Things appeared to be looking up for Ritch Price's Jayhawks when they took home the Big 12 Tournament Championship in 2006, but Kansas has failed to qualify for the tournament in each of the last two seasons. They appear likely to suffer that fate again this season.
There are a couple of reasons for KU fans to remain hopeful. Barring any setbacks, Marciel, Jakubov and Marks will be fully healthy at the start of next season. Kansas also has a couple of standout freshmen in slugger Zac Elgie and pitcher Lee Ridenhour. Elgie made headlines when he became the highest-drafted player ever in North Dakota, going in the 12th round of the 2008 MLB Draft. Elgie has tons of power [he hit an American Legion record 34 home runs in 2007] and should contribute immediately.