As a baseball conference, the Big 12 is in an interesting spot. Even when it was really a 12-school league, there were only 10 baseball schools as Colorado and Iowa State did not field teams. After the Great Shuffling, the conference is down to just nine baseball schools--and with an 8-team conference tournament, that means one school per year has the dubious honor of being the only one not to make said tournament. Texas fans, unfortunately, know the feeling.
So while our neighbor conference to the east has had to figure out a way to structure a regular-season schedule and a 10-team tournament to accommodate its now 14 baseball-playing schools, we as a conference get a full regular-season round-robin format encompassing eight weekend series, for a total of 24 conference games.
The quality of every other team in the conference is therefore of interest to Longhorn fans; the margin for error is much lower with only 24 games in which to jockey for position, as opposed to the SEC which plays 30 conference games. In our roundtable, we at BON picked Texas to finish anywhere from second to fourth in the conference. However, unlike many previous years, a fourth-place finish in this year's version of the league shouldn't be a bar to an NCAA Tournament berth; I think the Big 12 should in fact be expected to get four of its nine teams into a regional, and five is definitely within reach.
So without further ado, a quick look at the 2016 Big 12--in the order of my predicted finish.
1. TCU: TCU has, in my estimation, the best coach in the conference. And in a league where any one of the top five teams could conceivably win it, that counts for a lot. Despite losing significant talent from last year's College World Series squad, the Frogs return Big 12 Freshman of the Year Connor Wanhanen, who hit .329 in his first year in Fort Worth. Catcher Evan Skoug, another sophomore, swings the big power stick in the TCU lineup. On the hill, Jim Schlossnagle continues his practice of reloading rather than rebuilding. Despite losing two elite pitchers to the Major League Draft, the Frogs have plenty of arms that can get the job done in Mitchell Traver, Preston Guillory, Brian Trieglaff, and Brian Howard--not to mention three highly sought-after freshmen. Included among the newcomers is the Holy Grail of recruits: Luken Baker was headed for a 1st or 2nd-round pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, but chose to attend college instead. (Had Texas been so lucky with a few of its commits the last several years, the program might be in a much different place right now.) The combination of solid coaching and the ability to beat you in all three phases of the game make TCU my pick to win the league again.
2. Oklahoma State: The consensus is that the Pokes could be poised for a breakout season. Baseball America picks them to win the league and make a run all the way to Omaha, and I can't say that sounds crazy to me. I'm sticking with TCU at the top for the reasons stated, but Okie State should be a true force to be reckoned with. They're interesting this year not only for their unwavering commitment to 80s-style buttonless jerseys, but also for the returning experience. Shortstop Donnie Walton and first baseman Dustin Williams are upperclassmen with power potential, although playing time at second and third base is up for grabs between several contenders. More important, the Pokes have some serious pitching prospects in junior Garrett Williams, senior Conor Costello, junior Trey Cobb, and junior Michael Mertz. Oklahoma State will go as far as those arms--and a few younger ones--will take them.
3. Oklahoma: The Sooners lost 11 guys to last year's MLB Draft, which means both that they have a lot of replacing to do and that coach Pete Hughes has the program humming--at least in terms of talent. The Sooners couldn't put it together last year, although they ultimately finished a respectable fourth in the league with a 34-27 overall record. Junior righty Alec Hansen is a bona fide ace, with most outlets projecting him as a high-first-round selection in the 2016 Draft; he is widely considered the conference's top pitcher coming into the season. Jake Elliott is another highly regarded hurler, and if those two stay healthy then OU's major losses off last season's roster won't hurt much. At the plate, shortstop Sheldon Neuse has the chance to be an excellent hitter; with his six dingers, 10 doubles, and 43 RBI in 2015, he just needs to improve on his .275 average to be one of the league's best.
5. West Virginia: A potential dark horse in 2016, West Virginia will live and die by their super deep pitching staff. I'm picking the 'Eers fifth, but I'm bullish on them earning an NCAA Tournament bid and wouldn't be at all shocked to see them jockeying for position with the league leaders. Sophomore righties BJ Myers and Conner Doston threw a ton of innings as freshmen, which many observers believe will have them ready to perform at a much higher level this time around. With senior lefty Ross Vance and a bunch of other young guys potentially in the mix for spots in the rotation--and the rest as good options out of the bullpen--the Mountaineers could have enough pitching to keep them hanging around in any game they play.
6. Texas Tech: Tech is another squad some are picking as a dark-horse contender for an NCAA Tournament bid. A very difficult pre-conference slate will do one of two things: demoralize the team with a bunch of losses before Big 12 play even starts, or sharpen them for a run at the rest of the league. The argument for leaning toward the latter is that coach Tim Tadlock has seven returning starters in the lineup, and another seven returning pitchers. There isn't a whole lot of star power on the Red Raiders' roster but there is a lot of experience and consistency. With six seniors expected to contribute to a program that has won 30 games two years running, including a 2014 trip to the College World Series wherein they lost a pair of heartbreakers, the league's bluebloods look past the Red Raiders at their peril.
7: Kansas: As is customary in non-basketball sports, Kansas is a perennial afterthought in Big 12 baseball. I, for one, don't see why that has to be the case. I keep waiting for Kansas or K-State to take advantage of Nebraska's downgrading of its baseball program by moving to the Big Ten. There's room in the heartland for at least one really good baseball team, it's easier to recruit kids to play baseball against the Texases and Oklahomas of the world than the Purdues, and one would think the draw of Lawrence and KU's general athletic tradition would be helpful factors for the Jayhawks in recruiting talent. Hasn't happened, and this doesn't look to be the program's breakout year either. The Jayhawks lost a season-ending series to K-State to become the one team left out of the 2015 Big 12 Tournament, but senior pitcher Ben Krauth should be a bright spot in an otherwise same-old, same-old year.
8: Baylor: Sporting the only new coach in the Big 12 in Steve Rodriguez, Baylor is in program-overhaul mode. While at least the baseball program can say it has steered clear of the general Briles-and-Drew sliming of the Bears' athletic department, on the field it's been the unfortunate reality that baseball has declined concurrent with Baylor's rise to prominence in football and basketball. In longtime coach Steve Smith's final season, the Bears limped to an eighth-place finish in the league with an overall record nine games under .500. Part of the issue was Baylor's youth, which turns into experience with the added time; but part of the issue was a lack of much depth both at the plate and on the hill, and that doesn't look to get much better in 2016. Baylor should be objectively better than a year ago, but in an improved conference still looks like an also-ran.
9: Kansas State: Someone among this group of three had to be picked last, and for me it's the Wildcats. Coach Brad Hill does what he can with the cold-weather environment, although like KU it seems Kansas State could potentially leverage its place in a solid, South-facing conference to pull some big-time Midwestern talent but hasn't managed to do so as of yet. The Wildcats have nice balance with 13 freshman and nine seniors, but several of those young-uns will have to contribute as many of the KSU seniors are not, shall we say, Big 12 starter-level ballplayers. If the 'Cats are going to be a surprise, we'll find out in Surprise (get it?!); after a 4-game road trip to UC-Riverside to start the season, they head to Surprise, Arizona for a pair of games against new-money power Oregon State and another two against Utah. Such is the early-season life of the cold-weather squad.