The status of the 2016 group of Mid-American Conference is quite fitting after looking at the first two position groups we covered here. When it comes to pitching, most of the conference's elite class of arms are back on board. At the catcher position, however, it will be a relatively clean slate in terms of determining who emerges at the top of the new hierarchy in the conference.
So, it makes sense that the infield spot is pretty much split right down the middle when considering how much of last year's best talent comes back, and how much has moved onto brighter pastures. Three infielders were selected in the MLB Draft last summer, and several individual teams lost the best hitter in its infield to graduation. At the same time, however, the conference does return its 2015 batting champ, as well as its consensus top defender when the new season kicks off.
All things considered, the MAC boasts a deep group of infielders near the top of its ranks entering 2016, from underclassmen to seasoned veterans. Here's the best of the best:
2B Ryan Spaulding (Sr, Ball State Cardinals): .284 batting average/.354 on-base percentage/.431 slugging percentage in 224 plate appearances, 11 doubles, 1 triple, 6 home runs, 35 runs batted in, 23 strikeouts, 20 walks, 5 stolen bases, .966 fielding percentage.
1B Randy Righter (So, Bowling Green Falcons): .278/.302/.411 in 194 PA, 9 2B, 5 HR, 28 RBI, 16 K, 8 BB, 1 SB, .984 fld%.
SS Bobby Sheppard (Sr, Buffalo Bulls): .270/.341/.287 in 208 PA, 3 2B, 32 RBI, 23 K, 16 BB, 11 SB, .939 fld%.
3B Joe Houlihan (Sr, Central Michigan Chippewas): .265/.382/.394 in 215 PA, 5 2B, 1 3B, 5 HR, 35 RBI, 40 K, 26 BB, 4 SB, .944 fld%.
SS Brian Sisler (Sr, Northern Illinois Huskies): .309/.406/.431 in 229 PA, 14 2B, 3 HR, 32 RBI, 23 K, 30 BB, 6 SB, .932 fld%.
3B Grant Miller (Jr, Western Michigan Broncos): .256/.406/.311 in 236 PA, 8 2B, 1 3B, 14 RBI, 20 K, 25 BB, 22 hit by pitch, 2 SB, .934 fld%.
10. SS Chad Sedio (Sr, Miami Redhawks): .330/.408/.560 in 103 PA, 7 2B, 4 3B, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 19 K, 10 BB, .918 fld%.
Sedio's 2015 ended far before it should have when he suffered a season-ending injury during the team's road trip to Louisville. Before that, though, he was one of the premiere talents in a loaded Miami offense, racking up 13 extra base hits in just over 100 plate appearances. Now, the Redhawks' captain has his senior season to prove he's one of the MAC's best all-around hitters. He's not gonna make it on many people's lists for the best defensive shortstops in the conference, but the offense is too impressive to ignore.
9. 3B John Adryan (Sr, Ohio Bobcats): .297/.374/.429 in 212 PA, 9 2B, 5 HR, 29 RBI, 30 K, 24 BB,, .909 fld%.
Adryan's long had the frame to develop into a terrific middle of the order bat at the hot corner, and that potential came full circle in his junior year. His plate discipline took a big leap, as he improved his strikeout numbers while working a higher percentage of walks, and his .297 average placed him at fourth best in the Bobcats' offense. Like Sedio, Adryan's defense was still lacking throughout the season, but MAC third basemen aren't typically recruited for their defense. They're on their respective teams to produce plus contact, power and arm strength, and Adryan produces plenty of all three.
8. 2B Ben Haefner (RS So, Buffalo Bulls): .302/.454/.371 in 152 PA, 6 2B, 1 3B, 0 HR, 20 RBI, 26 K, 28 BB, .940 fld%.
Several freshman infielders made huge impacts on their respective teams in 2015, but few offer more promise than Haefner. The second baseman helped carry an offensively challenged Bulls squad with a .302 batting clip that ranked second highest on the team, while also providing solid defense for the worst fielding team in the conference. Haefner doesn't show much pop, but what he does show is an approach at the plate of someone beyond his years, compiling 28 walks and six hit by pitches to go along with just 26 strikeouts. The Bulls still have a ways to go in terms of competing in the higher tier of the conference, but you could do a lot worse than Haefner at the top of the order for years to come.
7. 1B Mitchell McGeein (Sr, Eastern Michigan Eagles): .277/.352/.515 in 236 PA, 15 2B, 2 3B, 10 HR, 36 RBI, 47 K, 24 BB, .913 fld%.
Not every first baseman in the MAC fits the stereotype of the brawny home run-masher, but McGeein fits the bill pretty well. His 6-foot-1, 210 pound frame is similar to what many middle infielders bring to the table, but his power puts him head and shoulders above the rest of the first base in the conference. His ten homers were second to only Kent State's Conner Simoneti on the MAC leaderboard, while his doubles, total bases and slugging percentage all placed him in the top five in the conference. McGeein doesn't walk as much as one would expect from the lone power threat in mostly punchless Eagles offense, but if his double-digit home run power keeps up, fans will likely forgive his disappointing rate stats.
6. 1B Dalton Bollinger (So, Toledo Rockets): .303/.340/.386 in 155 PA, 4 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 19 RBI, 32 K, 7 BB, .982 fld%.
Second-team all-conference as a freshman, Bollinger showed an impressive bat and glove combo on the right side of Toledo's talented infield. He swings a lot, but he also makes contact a lot, evidenced by the fact that the kid never struck out during his senior year of high school. Let me say that again: Throughout his entire senior year of high school, he never struck out once. It's not Joe Mauer batting .800, but hey, it's a damn impressive stat. He wasn't quite as lucky during his freshman year, but all the tools are here for Toledo to have a first baseman to build around for years to come.
5. 1B Alex Borglin (Jr, Central Michigan Chippewas): .308/.420/.402 in 276 PA, 10 2B, 1 3B, 3 HR, 24 RBI, 30 K, 37 BB, 5 SB, .975 fld%.
The third consecutive first baseman to check in on this list also happens to be the last, with Borglin showing the best all-around package of anyone at his position in 2015. Borglin was able to keep a high average while simultaneously being able to hit the gaps when he wanted to. The then-sophomore also was able to serve as a tablesetter in Central Michigan's lineup, finishing the third in the MAC in runs scored. Borglin made a lot of tangible strides between his first two seasons as a Chippewa, and while he still may not be the star of the show in 2016, he's a formidable piece in the middle of the order.
4. SS Zach McKinstry (So, Central Michigan Chippewas): .317/.390/.362 in 254 PA, 4 2B, 3 3B, 19 RBI, 32 K, 23 BB, 8 SB, .940 fld%.
It was a tough decision figuring out which sophomore should rank higher coming into 2016, but in terms of who each player is at the present time, no sophomore infielder is more complete than McKinstry. The shortstop joined Bollinger on the All-MAC second team, and put together better numbers in almost 100 more plate appearances. It isn't easy to stick out amongst the embarrassment of riches the Chippewas have in their infield, but McKinstry managed to do so with his above-average range on defense and his steady approach at the plate. Not only did the then-freshman get on base at a nearly .400 clip, he was also able to use his speed to swipe eight bags. All things considered, it's easy to see why Louisville Slugger put him on their Freshman All-American team. It's also easy to see the possibility of him topping this list a year from now.
3. 3B Adam Yacek (RS Jr, Miami Redhawks): .337/.402/.577 in 186 PA, 11 2B, 5 3B, 6 HR, 27 RBI, 25 K, 13 BB, 2 SB .924 fld%.
I've mentioned before that MAC third basemen are put in the order for their offense, and nobody exemplified that more in 2015 than Adam Yacek. Yacek got himself named to the second-team All-MAC list by being one of the most feared hitters in the conference, finishing with the MAC's second-best slugging percentage and fifth most triples. Yacek has bright future as a power hitter in this league, and is likely to only get better as he fills out his 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame. And with Matt Honchel lost to graduation, eyes will be on Yacek to lead this offensive to another explosive year.
2. 3B Zarley Zalewski (Sr, Kent State Golden Flashes): .374/.463/.483 in 242 PA, 13 2B, 3 HR, 32 RBI, 39 K, 30 BB, 5 SB, .986 fld%.
Best name on the list, but only the second-best skillset. Zalewski was a 2015 first team All-MAC selection, emerging as one of the best offense-defense combos in the conference. Though the Flashes are a team entrenched in their pitching staff, Zalewski was as important to the team's success as anyone, posting the highest batting average in the MAC along with the third-best on base percentage and fifth most hits. Zalewski passed on a chance to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization out of high school, and has proven that decision to be a good one, as he's more than capable of turning what was once a 40th round selection into a pick somewhere between the 10th and 20th round, and possibly higher.
1. SS Deion Tansel (Sr, Toledo Rockets): .324/.413/.388 in 204 PA, 9 2B, 1 3B, 0 HR, 16 RBI, 8 K, 12 BB, 12 SB, .969 fld%.
The MAC's best fielder and likely its best infield pro prospect, Tansel earned MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors last season while also putting together a memorable year at the plate. Tansel brings a quick bat to the top of Toledo's order that generates a lot of contact and keeps strikeouts down at an absurd total of eight strikeouts for the season. The shortstop also shows plenty of speed, with a team-high 12 stolen bases. Tansel could get upstaged offensively in the Toledo lineup by sophomore outfielder A.J. Montoya, but his range and arm at shortstop speak for themselves. A fourth year similar to what he's posted in past seasons wouldn't just make him the best infielder in the MAC - it would align him as one of the best shortstops in Toledo history.