In 2022, the Big 12 was undoubtedly one of college baseball’s most competitive conferences. Week-to-week, nobody had any idea who would beat who or how the standings would look the following Monday. A year later, the same story appears to be forming, though with a new group of stars in the spotlight.
Here’s a look at some of the major contenders in the conference as we get within a month of the season’s first pitch, including key non-conference contests, potential impact transfers, and my picks for the league’s players of the year.
The favorite: No. 19 Oklahoma State
The Cowboys were stellar last season, and despite being eliminated in the first weekend of the tournament in a loss to Arkansas, OSU posted a 42-22 mark, the program’s best mark since 2014. Believe it or not, there is potential for that winning percentage to rise in 2023. Yes, even with the departure of three All-Americans in the power-hitting Griffin Doersching, starting pitcher Justin Campbell, and outfielder Jake Thompson.
Six position players are back and each could have a case for being an All-American by the season’s end. There might not be a better two-way player nationally than Nolan McLean, who has a fastball that clocks 100 miles per hour and hit 19 homers as a third baseman in 2022. The entire infield is back, in first baseman David Mendham, second baseman Roc Riggio, shortstop Marcus Brown, and of course, McLean.
With Campbell’s departure, the starting rotation is the main question, but head coach Josh Holliday successfully enlisted the services of Long Beach State transfer Juaron Watts-Brown, who put up All-American-type numbers as a freshman last spring. In 12 starts, he was 4-4, with a 3.68 ERA and 111 strikeouts. St. John’s transfer Brian Hendry and BYU transfer Janzen Keisel should add experience and depth to the pitching staff as well, whether they are used in the starting rotation or out of the bullpen.
Key non-conference matchup: vs. No. 11 Arkansas (Feb. 19). The field at the Globe Life Showdown was predetermined before last season’s tournament, but it seems very fitting that OSU gets a rematch with the team who ended its 2022 season on its home turf. Arkansas lost a handful of key position players, but brings back a deep pitching staff, which should make for a thrilling matchup.
In the hunt: No. 27 TCU
TCU is my projected No. 2 finisher in the Big 12, and much like its football team, enjoyed great success a season ago under the direction of a first-year head coach. Kirk Saarloos led his Horned Frogs to a 38-22 record, and while the pitching staff certainly has question marks entering the season, there is a lot to like about TCU in 2023.
Five position players are back, including Preseason Prospect All-American Brayden Taylor, who hit .314 with 50 RBIs, and that is a good starting point for a squad that finished second at the College Station Regional last season. The key point to make is that even with those five returners, TCU’s incoming transfers may end up being the stars of the show. Tre Richardson was a first-team All-Big 12 selection as Baylor’s starting shortstop, and opted to remain within the Big 12 as he journeyed to his next destination. He has potential for a breakout campaign as does West Virginia transfer Austin Davis, another first-team All-Big 12 honoree in the outfield. And to cap off the list of inter-conference transfer imports, Ryan Vanderhei, Kansas’ Friday night starter, transferred south from the Sunflower state. Those three transfers bring quality depth, not to mention tremendous talent, to Fort Worth.
Vanderhei’s presence should bolster the pitching staff, who loses four key arms in lefty Austin Krob, and righties Marcelo Perez, Brett Walker, and Riley Cornelio. UNC-Wilmington transfer Hunter Hodges should help minimize the losses in the bullpen, as he was an All-CAA reliever in 2022.
Key non-conference matchup: at No. 22 Texas State (March 14) : Interestingly enough, the Horned Frogs have not won in San Marcos since 2010, including the 11-1 loss suffered last season to the Bobcats, who made an NCAA Tournament run. Texas State doesn’t have all the key cogs back from last year’s squad, but has quite a few. This matchup comes just a few days before Big 12 play begins against Oklahoma, and could end up being a key result on TCU’s at-large bid resume.
In the hunt: No. 24 Texas Tech
Is there ever a year that Texas Tech is not “in the hunt?” Under Tim Tadlock, the Red Raiders are 379-194 in the last 10 years, and finished one game shy of a 40-win campaign in 2022.
To be perfectly clear, this will be a much different Tech team in terms of the faces at the forefront. All-American power hitter Jace Jung was a first-round draft pick following last year, and Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Brandon Birdsell was a fifth-round pick. Second Team All-Big 12 pitcher Andrew Morris is also gone, as is the ever-consistent Kurt Wilson at shortstop.
That said, Tim Tadlock has expressed a sense of confidence in the depth of his ballclub including some of the newer faces who are set to emerge. Owen Washburn should make his impact in the lineup after hitting .277 with 48 RBIs as a freshman. His older brother Jack, who threw 40.1 innings with a 3.35 ERA for Ole Miss has transferred into the program. Southpaw Mason Molina posted a 3.90 ERA last season and should be a key part of the regular rotation in 2023.
Four position players return, including catcher Hudson White (.260, 6 HR in ‘22), and DH Ty Coleman (.318, 59 RBI in ‘22). As long as the newcomers mesh well, the Red Raiders will be in contention for the league title once again.
Key non-conference matchup: vs Texas A&M (March 5): The Aggies went to Omaha last summer after winning five straight NCAA tournament games and appear set up for another postseason run this season, ranked No. 6 by CBN. Facing the Aggies at the Shriners College Classic will be a great opportunity for the Red Raiders to pick up a high-caliber non-conference victory within the first four weeks of the regular season.
The wild card: No. 18 Texas
The Longhorns represented the Big 12 in last year’s College World Series, finishing seventh in Omaha, but heading into 2023, this is a very different squad. A very young squad. So in many respects, Texas will be somewhat of a wild card in the months to follow.
For starters, just two starting position players are back, and only three key pitchers have returned. Outfielders Eric Kennedy and Dylan Campbell along with shortstop Mitchell Daly appear at this time to be the core returners in the lineup, and each of those three made tremendous strides last season, all of whom hit above .265 with at least 29 RBIs in 2022. On the pitching staff, Lucas Gordon might be the best arm in the Longhorns’ rotation, having gone 7-2 with a 3.05 ERA a year ago.
Gordon’s presence on this pitching staff will be especially key with All-Big 12 starters Pete Hansen and Tristan Stevens having left for the pro ranks following last year’s run to Omaha. Not only are Hansen and Stevens gone, but so is 2022 Golden Spikes Award Winner Ivan Melendez, who dominated at the plate with 32 home runs. Infielder Murphy Stehly, catcher Silas Ardoin, shortstop Trey Faltine, and third baseman Skyler Messinger have also departed, which will mean a good portion of Texas’ success will be dependent on the newcomers head coach David Pierce has brought in.
A few names to keep an eye on are outfielder Porter Brown (TCU transfer), catcher Garrett Guillemette (USC transfer), right-hander Charlie Hurley (USC transfer), reliever Heston Tole (Arkansas transfer).
Key non-conference matchup: vs LSU (Feb. 28): The nation’s No. 1 ranked team comes to Austin within the first month of the season, and Texas has an opportunity right out of the gate to make a statement. Even with the key losses from last year’s team, the Longhorns have plenty of firepower on the roster, and with a good performance against LSU’s pitching staff, could come away with a major non-conference victory.
Dark horse: No. 39 Oklahoma
The Sooners finished tied for second in the league last year, and then proceeded to make an incredible run to the College World Series final, falling to Ole Miss, 2-0. Oklahoma was the surprise of last year, and despite losing a handful of its core position players, including outfielder Tanner Tredaway, the Sooners are in a position to be the dark horse yet again.
In terms of returners, five position players are back from the College World Series, led by Jackson Nicklaus, who hit .288 last season, starting 56 games. Those five are in addition to transfer shortstop Dakota Harris, who was a Rawlings Gold Glove winner at Polk State College, where he was also the 2022 co-NJCAA Defensive Player of the Year.
On the pitching staff, who knows what the starting rotation looks like, which makes them very unpredictable in the preseason. The only returner who had any real starting experience is redshirt senior Braden Carmichael, who started eight games with an ERA of 9.00 in 2022. However, two incoming transfers do highlight the rotation, in Oklahoma State’s Kale Davis and Lamar’s Braxton Douthit.
Oklahoma’s success will be largely dependent upon its ability to mesh in the early part of the year prior to Big 12 play. As the Sooners showed in 2022, sometimes it’s best to be a question mark at the beginning of the year. Nobody quite knows what to expect.
Key non-conference matchup: vs No. 3 Stanford (March 30-April 1): This isn’t just one game but rather an entire weekend series at the midpoint of the 2023 campaign. Getting an opponent of Stanford’s quality at home is huge for OU, and by that point in the year, the pitching staff will hopefully be in a consistent spot, allowing the Sooners the potential for a big-time non-conference performance to start the final month of regular season games.
Riley’s Players of the Year Picks
Position Player of the Year: Brayden Taylor, TCU: Taylor is a CBN Preseason All-American for good reason. A member of USA Baseball’s 2022 Collegiate National Team, Taylor made 58 starts at third base for TCU a year ago, and figures to be at the heart of the Horned Frogs’ lineup in 2023. He posted a team-best .454 on-base percentage, and between his defensive performance (his fielding percentage was .950 in 2022) and consistency at the plate, one could make a very good case for Taylor being the Big 12’s top position player.
Pitcher of the Year: Juaron Watts-Brown, Oklahoma State: It might seem odd to peg an incoming transfer as a potential Pitcher of the Year, but Watts-Brown might end up being the best pitcher the league has in 2023. A tremendous amount of turnover was seen on pitching staffs across the league, and Watts-Brown has two things that I really like in terms of projecting his numbers for this spring, the first being that last season was his first seeing actual game action at the collegiate level (though he did redshirt in 2021) and oftentimes, a tremendous amount of growth happens after that first season of experience. Secondly, he has four high-level pitches, which led to the 111 strikeouts at LBSU last year (those 111 would’ve ranked fourth in the Big 12 in 2022). He utilizes his fastball, slider, curve, and changeup especially well, attacking the zone at various points. He just might be the arm that leads OSU to Omaha.