Though technically the winningest conference in NCAA College World Series history, the Pac-12 has seen only two schools capture the national title in the last decade. The most recent victory—Oregon State’s third national title, earned in 2018—came during then-head coach Pat Casey’s final victory lap with the Beavers, signaling the end of a now-bygone era only five years removed.
Admittedly, this may not seem like a long span of time on paper, but it nonetheless begs an inherent question: When will the Pac-12 reclaim its spot as the top conference in college baseball? And, more importantly, which team will be the squad to do it?
In 2023, a few early contenders have a shot, with added pressure from dark horses benefiting from low media coverage. Throw new coaches into the mix and pair it with organizational changes within the Pac-12, and this season looks to be one of the most exciting in recent memory.
Let’s dive in!
High Expectations for Preseason Favorites
With Opening Day less than a week away, the Pac-12 has six teams in College Baseball Nation’s Preseason Top 50, the third-most of any conference. But while this feat is impressive, it is easily overshadowed by the team on top: No. 3 Stanford.
The defending Pac-12 champion faced a tough reality after the end of the 2022 season, losing five players to the MLB and two fifth-year seniors to the transfer portal. Thankfully, the Cardinal can turn to their deep roster of young faces, grounded by shortstop Tommy Troy, a projected top-10 MLB prospect entering the season.
With the ability to play anywhere on the field, the junior used his 2022 successes—including a .399 batting average with 34 runs scored and 23 RBIs—to garner multiple Preseason All-America first-team recognitions for the 2023 campaign, including our Prospect All-America second-team honors. Troy will be supported by an incoming class of nine freshmen and the return of five other players from the team’s 2021 and 2022 trips to the College World Series.
“We’ve had good players behind good players behind good players,” head coach David Esquer told The Stanford Daily. “So we’ve got some options even though we lost good players.”
The UCLA Bruins have the opportunity to present themselves as another indomitable force within the Pac-12, coming in at No. 9 on our preseason rankings. Offense does not appear to be a concern for head coach John Savage, who will be returning six of the nine returning starters from a 2022 squad that scored 409 runs to their opponents’ 300.
The big question-mark is whether the pitching staff, which lost its top three arms to the MLB Draft and the transfer portal, will be able to hold on long enough for their sluggers to work their magic. Notably, Savage is widely regarded as one of the top pitching coaches in the nation, so there’s certainly a high potential for upside on the mound.
“We are very traditional in the way we utilize pitchers in games,” Savage told Collegiate Baseball nearly a decade ago, and his approach has not changed since. “We don’t try to reinvent the position. We want to have the best starting pitching in the country and want to have the best bullpen in the nation.”
Arizona State (No. 20), Oregon State (No. 25), Arizona (No. 30), and Oregon (No. 34) round out the remainder of our top preseason teams in the Pac-12.
New Men at the Helm
In addition to the ever-changing rosters of collegiate baseball, two Pac-12 teams will benefit from the addition of new head skippers.
Looking to end their dry spell that has kept them from the postseason since 2015, the USC Trojans announced the hiring of Andy Stankiewicz. With seven seasons of professional ball in the MLB under his belt, Stankiewicz employs a hands-on and experienced coaching style that sharply contrasts that of the Trojans’ former head coach, Jason Gill, who led the team to a last-place Pac-12 finish in 2022.
The decision to hire Stankiewicz has been widely lauded across college baseball, as the coach has huge momentum after helping Grand Canyon University earn its first-ever D1 regional bid in 2021, which he followed up with the school’s first at-large bid in 2022. With USC’s move to the Big Ten looming, all eyes will be on Stankiewicz to see not only how he manages a roster of players that he didn’t recruit, but also how he prepares for the school’s long-term conference plans.
“[Stankiewicz] arrives at USC strongly recommended and respected by members of the baseball community, and we have the utmost confidence that he will elevate our baseball program back to national prominence,” USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn said in the news release announcing Stankiewicz’s hire.
Jason Kelly will also return to Washington, with whom he was a pitching and assistant-head coach from 2013–2019. In his original tenure with the Huskies, Kelly’s management of the bullpen developed 15 MLB draft selections, thrusted Washington to a College World Series appearance in 2018, and earned him recognition as Assistant Coach of the Year that same season by D1Baseball.
Now, with the freedom to manage the entire Husky roster as he sees fit, Kelly has the opportunity to surprise everyone and begin developing a baseball powerhouse. This will not come without great difficulty, of course—Washington begins its season with eight-straight road games in California—but underdog stories are what make college baseball so exciting. A first-year coach led a bottom-of-the-SEC team to the College World Series just last year, and Kelly has made it clear that he intends to do the same with the Huskies.
“This is where I got to cut my teeth, so it’s exciting to be back … in the right Purple and Gold,” Kelly said in a radio segment with DawgmanRadio. “Getting [a head-coach] opportunity has really been a great experience, but we haven’t won a baseball game yet, and that’s ultimately what I’m here for.”
Flying Under the Radar
At first glance, things could not look worse for Oregon State. The Beavers were unexpectedly upset by Auburn in the super regionals last year before losing 16 players—including the National Pitcher of the Year and Pac-12 Player of the Year—and returning only three starters. Understandably, the buzz surrounding the Beavers has been relatively quiet since. However, I would caution rival schools not to get too excited about this fact.
The dynamic infielder duo of Travis Bazzana and Garret Forrester will once again suit up for the Beavers, this time carrying Preseason All-Conference recognition. Both men have the potential to be productive at the plate, each batting over .300 and totalling a combined 110 RBIs in 2022. If they can hold down the core of the batting lineup, it opens the door for incoming freshmen like outfielder Gavin Turley—a 2022 MLB draftee and now-Pac-12 Preseason Freshman of the Year—to fill in the gaps.
The team also remains dedicated to a high-speed, analytics-based coaching style, using Hawk-Eye cameras, OptiTrack motion capture, and Statcast data to bring the younger players up to speed more quickly than they might elsewhere. This unknown factor immediately makes Oregon State a threat.
Arizona is in a similar position, with many dismissing the Wildcats after losing many of their top players after the end of last season. However, like Oregon State, Arizona will be supplementing these losses with highly touted transfers and incoming freshmen. Junior first baseman Kiko Romero joins the Wildcats hot off a career-defining season with Central Arizona College in which he dominated the plate with a .366 average—and 25 home runs to boot—en route to earning NJCAA World Series MVP accolades.
Romero’s offensive potential should pair nicely with the addition of freshman infielder Mason White, the 2022 4A Arizona State Player of the Year, and the retention of senior shortstop Nik McClaughry and his 57 runs scored.
With dark horses galore, expect conference play to be as unpredictable as it is bombastic.
There is an argument to be made that the Pac-12, more than any other conference, is working the hardest behind the scenes to ensure its teams are better prepared for long-term success. Last year, we saw the first-ever Pac-12 Baseball Tournament, the conference’s first sponsored championship event since 1978. There, UCLA beat Oregon State in an extra-inning affair, with the eight-team, double-elimination spectacle culminating in an automatic NCAA Tournament bid for the Bruins.
The developments will continue in 2023, with the tournament expanding to a nine-team field to complement the new pool-play format. This is hardly an insignificant adjustment, as it provides another team with one final opportunity to impress the Committee in hopes of gaining entry into this year’s NCAA Tournament.
“Adding another team allows more Pac-12 programs to experience [the postseason] atmosphere that will put the conference in a more advantageous position when the NCAA Tournament begins,” Esquer told the Pac-12.
And, as we saw last year, anything is possible once a team is given the chance to actually compete. Now, it’s time to see which squads rise to the occasion.