Pitchers and catchers have reported for spring training in the MLB. It is baseball time. The pending spring air brings the joys and jubilation of a ball game, just with a little more virus than anyone would want.
As the MLB gears up, a group of us writers at Building the Dam gather to discuss our thoughts on the upcoming Pac-12 College Baseball season and answer some burning questions...
Who is the favorite in the Pac-12 this year?
Ross: I mean, it has to be the UCLA Bruins right? They come in as the number two ranked team in all of college baseball according to BaseballAmerica.com and will absolutely expect to go to Omaha this season. UCLA always has good pitching, but it should be especially filthy this year with the return of Jesse Bergin, Nick Nastrini, and Zach Pettway. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the possible Golden Spikes finalist Matt McLain. There’s no question that the Bruins are the class of the Pac-12 this season.
John: Wish I could give a different answer to mix things up but it is absolutely UCLA. The Bruins were expected to contend for a national title last year, and if anything they look even more stacked this year. there are other good teams in the Pac-12, but none that are built as well to contend as the Bruins.
Marcus: Well yes UCLA, but don’t count out the Arizona schools and of course the Beavers have the pitching to be a dark horse contender. Here’s what the media said in their pre-season poll.
Beavers picked to finish fourth in Pac-12 preseason baseball coaches poll pic.twitter.com/tIibfPIPZa— Nick Daschel (@nickdaschel) February 17, 2021
How will the Beavers team shape up this season?
Ross: This should be a quality Beavers team this season. Oregon State was picked to finish fourth in the conference in the coaches preseason poll, so this should be shaping up to be a regionals team. They will be returning a lot of guys and this should be an extremely talented team, though they will be competing in a Pac-12 conference that may be more difficult than ever before.
John: I think the team will be pretty good, but they’re not built to take the conference or make a deep run through the tournament. I think they’ve got an excellent shot at getting to regionals, and I’m excited to finally see what Mitch Canham can do as coach and getting a look at the young players coming up, but I think expectations should be closely measured this season.
Marcus: Hoping to see more improvements and competitiveness; this team isn’t necessarily competing for a championship. But making the tournament should certainly be the goal.
Who will be the most important player on this Beavers Baseball team?
Ross: I’m gonna take another layup answer here and say Kevin Abel. Yes, the hero from our 2018 national championship run WILL be the most important piece of this season’s squad. After his historical postseason run in 2018, Abel battled injuries and inconsistent play in 2019 before ultimately having to go in for Tommy John's surgery midway through the season. He was actually slated to miss all of last season too, but we kinda had a big virus thing that stopped life as we know it. If Abel is back and fully healthy, the Beavers will be getting back one of the best pitchers in the entire nation. Abel should be a number one starter for the season and could help spearhead arguably the best pitching staff in college baseball.
John: I’ll say Kyler McMahan. I feel good about the team’s pitching, but I think they’re going to have to come with a lot more offense than they showed last year. McMahan was one of the team’s best hitters last season, and if he can stay consistent in 2021 he’ll anchor what should be a pretty solid top of the order.
Marcus: I’ll go with a slightly under the radar guy, Jake Mulholland. One of the few seniors on the team and a fierce reliever/closer in 2018 & 2019. Jake struggled in a strange short year last season, but he’ll be asked to do a lot and be a leader this upcoming season.
Offense, defense, pitching. What unit group will become the biggest strength for this Beavers squad?
Ross: Man, I love a stable of good pitching, and the Beavs should be locked and loaded in this unit group. Even outside of Abel, who is the obvious Friday starter, Canham will have Jake Pfennigs, Will Frisch, Nathan Burns, Cooper Hjerpe, and Jaren Hunter to pick from as his Saturday and Sunday starters. This isn’t even mentioning the Beavers bullpen that will feature quality arms in Jake Mulholland and Mitchell Verburg in addition to the guys that aren’t selected as starters. The Beavers pitching unit, starting and bullpen, should be downright filthy this season.
John: Agreed, particularly the starting rotation feels great. If Abel is back to his old form and Pfennigs and Hjerpe continue their development, this will be a hell of a lineup. Abel is Abel of course, though we haven’t seen much of him since the World Series win. Pfennigs looked pretty good in 2020, giving up 7 runs in his 4 starts for a 3.57 ERA. If he can cut down his walks that’ll go a long way. Hjerpe looked solid in relief last year with some great performances against San Diego State and Mississippi State. I’m optimistic that both will look even better in 2021.
Marcus: If Oregon State baseball had a motto it would be find good pitching and figure everything out later. This upcoming season will be similar. It’ll be interesting to see who grabs starting jobs behind Abel and if the other phases of the game can come together.
And the biggest weakness?
Ross: Can I cheat and give two answers? The defense and hitting will be something I’m watching very closely and very anxiously. Prior to the NCAA suspending all spring sports, the Beavers were batting just .267 and were shut out of three games. In addition, they committed 14 errors. Mind you, the season was ended after 14 games for the Beavs, so that averages out to exactly one error a game. NOT GREAT. Yet, I remain optimistic as this team is super talented and they all seem laser-focused on this season. So while I’m hopeful, this is still something that I need to see be worked out before I really feel comfortable.
John: Absolutely defense. 14 errors in 14 games is pretty inexecusable, and the team just looked completely out of sync on the field. Granted, the team was still coming together early last year, and early 2020 was kind of a distracting time to be in, but there seemed to be a clear lack of communication in the squad. Hopefully things click better this year.
Marcus: In my eyes it’s hitting. The Beavers have been downright terrible at the plate since losing Adley Rutchsman. I hope to be pleasantly surprised, but looking at their roster I don’t think opposing pitchers are going to be intimated by the Beavers bats.
Who will win the Adley Rutschman award? (Best freshman on the Beaver Baseball team, an award that I totally just made up)
Ross: So this is a tough question because this is a veteran team. A lot of the key spots will be filled by upper-classmen so it makes it tough for a freshman to get in there. However, I will bring up a kid I mentioned prior here and cast a vote for Jaren Hunter. Hunter was the fourth overall rated player in the state of Oregon and Coach Canham managed to keep talent in the state and recruited him to OSU. Hunter will be in the conversation to be one of the starters after Abel, and if Beaver fans have learned anything from 2018, it’s that a freshman can make a big difference in Omaha. Hunter leads with a plus fastball that should be hitting low 90’s come opening day. The Beavs pitching staff have shown they can develop players so there’s a lot of hope for Hunter not just for this season, but future seasons as well.
John: I’ll go with Garrett Forrester. Forrester was a highly rated infield prospect out of California, and showed both power and speed in high school play. If the Beavers can find a spot for him in the infield, or potentially at DH, he could add another power hitting threat to the lineup.
Marcus: I think Jack Washburn and Will Frisch both have a chance to be special pitchers. I don’t think either one will immediately grab a starting job; but both will show flashes at their potential as freshman.
Who is a sleeper team to watch for in the Pac-12 this season?
Ross: If you have read one of these roundtables with me involved in the past, you all know that I am a huge fan of the Stanford program and how they operate. However, I’m not picking them this time. While their roster is stupid talented, it’s also very young and had a brutal start to the 2020 season. I actually am very intrigued by the USC Trojans this year. Prior to the stoppage, the Trojans were at a 10-5 record, albeit a shaky 10-5 with a couple of questionable losses. However, they boasted key wins against teams like TCU and Vanderbilt. If USC can find that magic with this roster again that helped them beat legit programs like last season, I think the Trojans could be a sneaky pick this season.
John: I don’t know if they count as a sleeper, but I’ll go with Arizona State. People expect them to be good, but I feel like the media has been a little down on their prospects after they got hit hard by last year’s draft. This is still a very solid team, and they have the experience necessary to make a deep run in the postseason. If a team emerges to challenge UCLA, I have a hunch its this one.
Marcus: It’s gotta be Stanford. Despite the young roster, they are skilled and just seem to take care of business and exceed expectations most years.
Predictions for the Beavers?
Ross: Realistically, this Beavers is the best team in the North and should win this side of the division. The Huskies will have a good squad and will challenge us, but the Beavs are too talented to not finish atop the North. In a perfect world where every game is played, I predict the Beavs will 33-19 and will make an appearance in Super Regionals.
John: Yeah, the Beavers are better than a lot of teams in the conference, especially in the north, and that’s going to help their record a lot. I think they start sneaking into the back end of the top 25 after a couple weeks, but they’re not going to reach the level where they host a regional. Also, some games are going to get postponed and never rescheduled so I’ll say 30-16.
Marcus: I am bit lower on Oregon State’s chances in 2021. I’ll predict they go 28-24 and miss out on the postseason altogether.
And finally, predictions for the Pac-12?
Ross: It’s UCLA and then everyone else. The Bruins are already planning flights to Nebraska in June, and understandably so. I’m not saying that it will be an easy path, but this season should result in a UCLA Bruins Pac-12 Championship.
John: UCLA wins, and they, Arizona and ASU all host Regionals. Oregon State also makes the postseason. UCLA makes it back to Omaha but doesn’t manage to challenge for a World Series title, which ends up with Florida.
Marcus: UCLA is really good, but I’ll pick ASU to ultimately win the Pac-12 Championship.
The Beavers season will begin against the Kansas State Cougars in Surprise, AZ on Friday, February 19th.