Sun Belt Conference 2010 Baseball Preview

February 5, 2010
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Will The Sun Belt Race Go Down To The Wire Again?

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2009 Regular Season Champion:  Middle Tennessee & Western Kentucky * MTSU and WKU shared the regular season crown based on their identical 21-8 league marks.  The Blue Raiders were the #1 seed at the Sun Belt Tournament, because they won their two head-to-head games vs. the Hilltoppers (game 3 of their series was rained-out).

2009 Tournament Champion: Middle Tennessee beat Louisiana-Monroe 3-1

Banner Year:  Middle Tennessee earned the Sun Belt Conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid by winning the league tournament in 2009.  Regular season co-champion Western Kentucky garnered the program’s first-ever at-large bid when it was picked for the Oxford, MS Regional.

On The Way Out:  The University of New Orleans recently announced that it will leave the Sun Belt Conference and the Division I ranks after the current season.  The program plans to begin the transition to Division III.

2010 Sun Belt Conference Preview

Arkansas State

2009 Record:  (23-30, 12-18)

Mascot:  Red Wolves

Head Coach:  Tommy Raffo

Location:  Jonesboro, AR

Vitals:  .296 BA, 34 HR, .393 OBP, .959 Fld%…5.67 ERA, 2 CG, 6 SV, 392 K, 215 BB, .282 opp. BA

Murray Watts (ASU photo)

Heart Of The Order:  Arkansas State loses three of its top five hitters, but the team’s 3 and 4 batters in the line-up, but Todd Baumgartner (.350, 8 HR, 53 RBIs, 13 SB) and Murray Watts (.305, 10 HR, 44 RBIs), both return.  One of those two led the Red Wolves in nearly every offensive category in 2009.  Watts is in his third season at his home town school after redshirting at Arkansas in 2007.  Leadoff man Cody Pace (.282)  is back for his senior season as well.

Pitching Questions:  The pitching staff loses its top three hurlers, Chris Bullington (2-3, 3.95 ERA), Chase Ware (5-3, 4.22 ERA) and Nick Lambert (4-1, 4.35 ERA), from a year ago.  Junior Andy Ferguson (5-5, 4.65 ERA) tied Ware for a team-high with five wins in ’09.

Home Opportunities:  The Red Wolves host 2009 Sun Belt Co-Champs Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky as well as 2009 Super Regional host Ole Miss this season.

Hey Rookie:  Former big league pitcher Jim Morris is the team’s featured speaker at its preseason Grand Slam Banquet.  The movie “The Rookie” was based on Morris’ inspirational and non-traditional route to Major League Baseball.

Arkansas-Little Rock

2009 Record:  (16-34, 7-21)

Mascot:  Trojans

Head Coach:  Scott Norwood

Location:  Little Rock, AR

Vitals:  .274 BA, 51 HR, .380 OBP, .941 Fld%…7.14 ERA, 2 CG, 5 SV, 368 K, 250 BB, .314 opp. BA

Core Four:  The Trojans lose their top overall hitter, Matt Apfel (.325 12 HR, 41 RBIs), but they return four key regulars from last year’s line-up.   Nate Brown (.306, 7 HR, 42 RBIs), Tim Emmons (.292, 10 HR, 32 RBIs), Tyson Parks (.276, 6 HR, 34 RBIs), and Landis Wilson (.274, 2 HR, 25 RBIs) each started at least 44 of the team’s 50 games in 2009.

Trojan Turnover:  UALR has 29 players on its roster (including the four previously mentioned returnees) who began their college baseball careers at other schools (mostly junior colleges).  20 junior college transfers, including 2009 NJCCA All-Americans Cody Giles, Ryan Juris and Casey McCollum, are among 26 newcomers on this year’s roster.

Mound Experience:  Four of the pitching staff’s top five pitchers, Adam Champion (3-7, 5.60 ERA, 13 starts), Sean Potter (2-4, 6.07 ERA, 25 app/6 starts), Anthony Pryor (3-4, 6.99 ERA, 10 starts), and J.R. Boling (2-3, 3.53 ERA, 3 SV), are all back for the Trojans in 2001.  All four are seniors.

Tough Tests:  The Trojans make non-conference  mid-week road trips to four 2009 NCAA Tournament teams – Kansas, Oral Roberts, Oklahoma, and Ole Miss.  They also host Kansas on May 18.

Florida Atlantic

2009 Record:  (30-26, 12-17)

Mascot:  Owls

Head Coach:  John McCormack

Location:  Boca Raton, FL

Vitals:  .313 BA, 59 HR, .396 OBP, .965 Fld%…6.41 ERA, 1 CG, 14 SV, 354 K, 281 BB, .295 opp. BA

Nick DelGuidice (FAU photo)

Balancing Act:  FAU had 12 batters who saw extensive duty in the line-up in 2009.  Seven of them hit between 6 and a team-leading 9 home runs and had between 32 and 52 RBIs (departed William Block led the team in both categories).  Junior SS Nick Delguidice (.321, 6 HR, 38 RBIs) is the only returnee from that group.

Something To Build OnNick Albaladejo (.373, 10 RBIs) started just 20 games as a freshman last year, but five of them were in the Owl’s last seven games.  The catcher finished his season by being named to the Sun Belt Conference All-Tournament Team.  He was 7 for 12 (.583) with four of his total 10 RBIs in three tournament games.  Albaladejo started just four of FAU’s first 23 games, but earned more playing time by hitting .308 in his opportunities.

Owl Arms:  Junior starter Mike Gipson (4-5, 5.93) is FAU’s top returning starter.  He had the staff’s only complete game and also earned a save last year.  Fellow junior Glen Troyanowski (4-3, 5.75 ERA, 6 SVs) is the top arm back in the bullpen.  Sophomore Hugh Adams (3-2, 3 SV) returns as well.

Big East Battles:  The Owls open the season by hosting a 3-game series vs. Big East member Cincinnati.  They also host Big East team Pittsburgh (March 10) and Rutgers (March 16 & 17) in 2010.

Florida International

2009 Record:  (34-22, 18-12)

Mascot:  Golden Panthers

Head Coach:  Turtle Thomas

Location:  Miami, FL

Vitals:  .325 BA, 82 HR, 65 SB, .410 OBP, .958 Fld%…5.74 ERA, 4 CG, 10 SV, 445 K, 167 BB, .297 opp. BA

Is That A Hole Or The Grand Canyon?:  FIU returns six of its top nine batters from last year’s team, but it loses one of the top power hitters in the country.  Tyler Townsend’s 24 home runs ranked 8th in the nation, his .434 batting average was 13th and he was 20th in the NCAA rankings with 77 RBIs.  He was taken by Baltimore in the third round of the 2009 MLB Draft.

Filling The Void:  Senior first baseman Tim Jobe (.364, 10 HR, 48 RBIs) heads the group of top returnees.  He’s joined by Mike Martinez (.335, 6 HR, 37 RBIs), Junior Arrojo (.316, 23 SB), Pablo Bermudez (.313), and Raiko Alfonso (.300).

Panther Pitching:  Two weekend starters, Scott Rembisz (6-3, 4.69 ERA) and LHP Corey Polizzano (4-3, 6.20 ERA), are back to bolster the FIU pitching staff.  Sophomore LHP R.J. Fondon (7-2, 5.05 ERA, 2 SV) and Jorge Marban (4 SV, 24 app.)are among the returning relief corps.

Golden Panthers Go West :  18 of FIU’s first 22 games are in the state of Florida.  The only exceptions are four are games vs. Utah Valley State, Cal-Riverside, Cal Poly, and Arizona State at the Coca Cola Classic March 4-7 in Surprise, AZ.

Louisiana-Lafayette

2009 Record:  (27-30-1, 14-15)

Mascot:  Ragin’ Cajuns

Head Coach:  Tony Robichaux

Location:  Lafayette, LA

Vitals:  .278 BA, 51 HR, 68 SB, .358 OBP, .968 Fld%…5.01 ERA, 2 CG, 12 SV, 374 K, 202 BB, .288 opp. BA

Ragin’ Cajun Returns:  The team brings back six position players from 2009, including 3 of 4 infield spots. Greg Fontenot (.329), RBI leader Chad Keefer (.282, 8 HR, 47 RBIs) and Kyle Olasin (.305, 10 SB) are the top returnees.  Travis Whipple (.329, 8 HR), Scott Hawkins (.303, 10 HR) and Les Smith (.284, 9 HR, 41 RBIs) are the line-up’s  biggest losses.

Returning Pitching:   Senior Zach Osborne (5-3, 3.44 ERA) who had both of the staff’s complete games as well as a save and  junior Michael Cook (5-3, 5.88 ERA) are the top starters to return.  The duo tied for the team lead in wins.  Senior Justin Robichaux (3-3, 1.98 ERA, 2 SV) started six games and came out of the pen11 times last year.  They lose LHP Greg Wilborn, who was drafted in the 18th round by the Dodgers.

Bayou Cookin’:  The Ragin Cajuns play 22 of their first 25 and 46 games overall in Louisiana this season.

Louisiana-Monroe

2009 Record:  (32-27, 12-17)

Mascot:  Warhawks

Head Coach:  Jeff Schexnaider

Location:  Monroe, Louisiana

Vitals:  .325 BA, 85 HR, 65 SB, .415 OPB, .965 Fld%…6.27 ERA, 6 CG, 10 SV, 338 K, 235 BB, .325 opp. BA

So Long Soignier:  ULM loses Ben Soignier, who  led the Warhawks in batting average (.376), doubles (22), RBIs (71), slg% (.628), and on-base percentage (.500) last year.  He also hit 11 HR.  Soignier was drafted in the 18th round by Florida last year after a stellar senior season.

Oh Canada:  Another key loss is OF Jon Prevost (.332, 15 HR, 52 RBIs).  The Montreal native was recently named to the Canadian Baseball Network’s 2009 All-Canadian College First Team.

Boomer Blanchard (ULM photo)

Key Returns:  The Warhawks return four key contributors, Jordy Poche (.365), Perry Smith (.365), Boomer Blanchard (.351, 12 HR), and Matt Laird (.301, 10 HR, 55 RBIs), to this year’s line-up. Blanchard was named 2009 Sun Belt Conference Newcomer of the YearPoche also started 12 games on the mound (2 wins).  Fellow starter Don Williams (6-2, 5.72 ERA, team-high 3 CG) also returns along with reliever Corey Brown (4-2, 3.46 ERA, SV).

Bring It On:  ULM opens the season with a 3-game series in Oxford, MS vs. 2009 Super Regional team Ole Miss.  They also face defending national champion LSU in Baton Rouge on March 9th.

Middle Tennessee State

2009 Record:  (44-18, 21-8)

Mascot:  Blue Raiders

Head Coach:  Steve Peterson

Location:  Murfreesboro, TN

Vitals:  .340 BA, 101 HR, .416 OBP, .969 Fld%…5.15 ERA, 5 CG, 16 SV, 392 K, 233 BB, .281 opp. BA

Bryce Brentz (MTSU photo)

The Champ Is Here:  The defending conference champions are led by junior OF/P Bryce Brentz.  The reigning SBC Player of the Year led the nation in batting average (.465), home runs (28-T), and slugging % (.930), while his .535 on-base % ranked 4th nationally.  Brentz was also 5-3 with a 4.57 ERA and a complete game in 14 starts on the mound.

Supporting Cast:  MTSU returns five other tough outs in the line-up with Tyler Burnett (.344, 7 HR), Blake McDade (.340, 6 HR, 51 RBIs), Ben Darlington (.325, 7 HR), Stuart Meinhart (.324, 6 HR), and Drew Robertson (.312) all back.

Staff Ace:  Senior Kenneth Roberts (11-1, 3.04 ERA) is back to lead the pitching staff.  Brentz and senior Chad Edwards (8-2, 5.77 ERA) give the Blue Raiders a solid pitching rotation.

Key LossesRawley Bishop (.398, 14 HR), Nathan Hines (.352, 11 HR, 73 RBIs) and closer Coty Woods (4-3, 1.62 ERA, 15 SV) were all drafted and signed professionally last summer.

SEC Challenge:  MTSU plays home-and-home series vs. in-state rivals Vanderbilt and Tennessee.

New Orleans

2009 Record:  (22-23, 12-18)

Mascot:  Privateers

Head Coach:  Bruce Peddie

Location:  New Orleans, LA

Vitals:  .291 BA, 54 HR, 60 SB, .370 OBP, .948 Fld%…7.76 ERA, 0 CG, 10 SV, 337 K, 220 BB, .312 opp. BA

Baseball Jones:  Sophomore OF Rodarrick Jones (.299,7 HR, 12 SB) was named the New York Collegiate Summer League’s #3 prospect by Baseball America.  In 41 games for Glen Falls last summer he hit .279 with 13 stolen bases and a team-high 25 RBIs.

Locked-In Line-Up:  Including Jones UNO returns its top six hitters for first year head coach Bruce Peddie.  Jr. Jay Morris (.362), Sr. Alan Harris (.344, 9 HR, 44 RBIs), Sr. Nick Schwaner (.332, 12 HR, 53 RBIs, 1.015 OPS), Jared Comarda (.306, 9 HR), and Ryan Eden (.270, 5 HR) combined with Jones to hit 44 of the Privateers’ 54 home runs in 2009.

Privateer Pitching:  UNO returns 12 of its 16 pitchers who saw action last year, including Soph. RHP Joe Zimmerman (3-4, 6.04 ERA, 13 starts) and Jr. RHP Cory Myers (2-8, 9.31 ERA, 11 starts), who were the only hurlers on the staff to reach double digit starts.  The biggest loss is reliever David Burch (2-0, 3.26 ERA, 9 SV).

South Alabama

2009 Record:  (25-30, 13-16)

Mascot:  Jaguars

Head Coach:  Steve Kittrell

Location:  Mobile, AL

Vitals:  .328 BA, 37 HR, .394 OBP, .966 Fld%…6.70 ERA, 1 CG, 10 SV, 387 K, 226 BB, .314 opp. BA

Eddy Cabrera (USA photo)

Two Sport Milestone:  Freshman Eddy Cabrera is also a member of the USA football team.  2009 was  South Alabama’s first season of college football, which makes Cabrera the first player in the 45-year history of the USA baseball program to play both  football and baseball.  The defensive back played in five games last fall and ranked third on the team with two interceptions.

Pitching Questions:  The Jaguars lose three of their top starters, Brandon Sage (3-6, 4.64 ERA), Matt Jackson (5-4, 5.33 ERA) and Miles Ethridge (4-4, 7.38 ERA), who combined to make 35 of the team’s 55 starts last year.  They do return their most versatile pitcher, Lance Baxter (3-3, 3.74 ERA).  The senior southpaw made seven starts and also led the staff with 6 saves.

No Doss:  The Jaguars lose one of the most prolific hitters in program history, David Doss.  The catcher Leaves South Alabama as the Jags’ all-time leader in career hits (312), doubles (70), RBI (197) and at-bats (851).  He hit .378 with 12 HR and 59 RBIs last year before being drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies.

Solid Returns:  USA does return a quartet of solid hitters from last year’s team.  OF Adam Heisler led the Jags with a .309 average while stealing 16 bases,  Jake Overstreet hit .336 with 18 doubles and 4 HR, Clint Reynolds hit .328 with a team-high 18 stolen bases, and INF Zach Grichor hit .306.

Troy

2009 Record:  (33-23, 18-10)

Mascot:  Trojans

Head Coach:  Bobby Pierce

Location:  Troy, AL

Vitals:  .309 BA, 67 HR, .392 OBP, .970 Fld%…6.32 ERA, 0 CG, 13 SV, 382 K, 234 BB, .299 opp. BA

En-masse Experience:  Troy returns 13 seniors, of which 9 are position players.  Eight of those nine have been starters at some point in their first three years.  The team’s top two hitters from 2009, OF Miles Hoyle (.350, 9 HR, 35 RBIs) and 1B Ryan Ditthardt (.327, 7 HR, 54 RBIs) along with OF Chad Watson, (.317, 6 HR, 10 SB) are included in the veteran group.

Significant Losses:  Gold Glove third baseman Brett Henry (.314, 7 HR, 42 RBIs) and team home run leader Trevor Tyre (.324, 11 HR, 36 RBIs) are the two biggest holes to fill in the Trojan line-up.  The pitching staff also loses starters Jason Walls (4-4, 4.73 ERA) and Travis Burge (6-2, 5.47 ERA) as well as closer Chris Sorce (2-1, 3.26 ERA, 5 SV).   Sophomore Tyler Ray (7-3, 4.60 ERA) is the only returning weekend starter.  His seven wins and 62 strikeouts led the Trojans.

CWS Challenge:  Troy plays four games vs. 2009 College World Series teams.  They play a 3-game series at Arkansas Feb. 26-28 as well as one game at Southern Mississippi on March 10th.

Western Kentucky

2009 Record:  (42-20, 21-8)

Mascot:  Hilltoppers

Head Coach:  Chris Finwood

Location:  Bowling Green, KY

Vitals:  .330 BA, 88 HR, .423 OBP, .982 Fld%…5.47 ERA, 1 CG, 19 SV, 450 K, 216 BB, .282 opp. BA

Historic Hilltoppers:  WKU’s share of the Sun Belt Conference regular season crown in 2009 was a program first.  The team also advanced to its first-ever NCAA Regional championship game before falling to Ole Miss.  Their at-large bid was also a first for the program.

No Net Gains:  The Hilltoppers have two huge holes to fill in the middle of their line-up this year.  Wade Gaynor (.371, 25 HR, 78 RBIs, 21 SB) was drafted in the 3rd round by Detroit last year with the 89th overall pick.  The highest draft pick in the Hilltoppers’ 90-year history is also the first WKU player to hit 20 HR and steal 20 bases in the same season.  Chad Cregar (.325, 19 HR, 63 RBIs, 19 SB) was drafted by Florida.  The team also loses 2009 Sun Belt Pitcher of the Year Matt Hightower (7-3, 4.01 ERA), who also hit .300 with 11 HR and 53 RBIs.

Key Returns:  Western Kentucky does return a slew of key players.  Junior catcher Matt Rice is a preseason All-American.  He’s joined in the line-up by Jake Wells Matt Payton and OF Kes Carter, who only started 24 games last year.   Starting pitchers Shane Cameron (5-2, 5.03 ERA) and Matt Ridings (8-2, 4.84 ERA) are back.  Ridings was drafted last June, but opted to return for his senior season.  Eight WKU pitchers combined for 19 saves last year.  Senior LHP Bart Carter (6-1, 6.00) led the staff with 4 saves.

2010 Sun Belt Conference Predictions

Player of the Year:  Bryce Brentz – Middle Tennessee State

Pitcher of the Year:   Kenneth Roberts – Middle Tennessee State

Sun Belt Champion:  Middle Tennessee State

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