American Athletic Conference Preview

Evan Kruczynski went 8-1, 2.01 last season (Photo by Carl Kline) 

SEE ALSO: College Preview Index

Baseball Members: Central Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, South Florida, Tulane.

Top 25 Teams: East Carolina (6)

Team to Beat: East Carolina. The Pirates went further than they ever have before in head coach Cliff Godwin’s second year, winning the program’s first super regional game and coming within 90 feet of Omaha. While ECU fell just short at Texas Tech to end the season, the Pirates have plenty of reason to be optimistic heading into this season. They return nearly their entire team, with mainstays like fifth-year senior catcher Travis Watkins (.326/.407/.476), ace lefthander Evan Kruczynski (8-1, 2.01) and junior closer Joe Ingle (12 saves, 3.59) all back in the fold. ECU also brings in the country’s No. 23 recruiting class, headlined by power hitters Bryant Packard and Spencer Brickhouse and power righthander Trey Benton. The 2017 team is the deepest, most experienced squad Godwin has had since he’s been at the helm, and it will aim to send the program to Omaha for the first time.

Best Pure Hitter: Dwanya Williams-Sutton, East Carolina
Best Raw Power: Joe Davis, Houston
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Connor Wong, Houston
Best Athlete: Dwanya Williams-Sutton, East Carolina
Fastest Runner: Garrett Zech, South Florida
Best Baserunner: Connor McVey, Cincinnati
Best Defensive C: Travis Watkins, East Carolina
Catcher/Best Arm: Travis Watkins, East Carolina
Best Defensive 1B: Ryan Noda, Cincinnati
Best Defensive 2B: Charlie Yorgen, East Carolina
Best Defensive 3B: Willy Yahn, Connecticut
Best Defensive SS: Brennan Bozeman, Central Florida
Infielder/Best Arm:  Turner Brown, East Carolina
Best Defensive OF:  Treg Haberkorn, Cincinnati
Outfielder/Best Arm:  Grant Witherspoon, Tulane
Pitcher/Best Fastball:  Seth Romero, Houston
Pitcher/Best Breaking Ball:  Tim Cate, Connecticut
Pitcher/Best Changeup: Evan Kruczynski, East Carolina
Pitcher/Best Control:  Evan Kruczynski, East Carolina

Other Projected Regional Team: Houston. Limited in part by injuries, the Cougars missed the postseason a year ago, going 36-23 overall and 11-12 in AAC, despite having arguably the best one-two pitching punch in the conference in Andrew Lantrip and Seth Romero. Though Lantrip is gone, the Cougars still have Romero (6-4, 2.29), a potential first-round pick, and behind him, they have two starters who are coming off strong freshman seasons in lefthander Trey Cumbie (5-2, 1.29) and righthander Mitch Ullom (7-4, 2.88). Outside of graduated second baseman Josh Vidales, Houston returns its key position players, as well. Sophomore Joe Davis (.331/.383/.577) hit 14 home runs last season and has the best raw power in the conference, while toolsy junior outfielder Corey Julks (.332/.409/.439) and junior catcher Connor Wong (.304/.415/.439) solidify the team’s core. Those pieces should be enough to get Houston back to a regional.

Player of the Year: Dwanya Williams-Sutton, of, East Carolina. A first-team Freshman All-American last year, Williams-Sutton (.360/.455/.551) led the conference in batting and on-base percentage, and finished second in slugging. The 6-foot-1, 234-pound is a five-tool threat and one of the most gifted athletes in the AAC. Williams-Sutton at times carried ECU last year and figures to play an even more prominent role this season.

Pitcher of the Year: Seth Romero, lhp, Houston. Suspended for two weeks at the start of last season for conduct detrimental to the team, Romero came back to throw 94.1 innings, including two complete games, going 6-4, 2.29 with 113 strikeouts. Romero has the best raw stuff in the conference, touching the upper 90s at times from the left side. By all reports, Romero worked hard on his conditioning during the offseason and comes into 2017 leaner and stronger. He has the chance to be one of the first college pitchers drafted come June.

Freshman of the Year: Trey Benton, rhp, East Carolina. A 6-foot-4 righthander with a live arm, Benton projects to fill the Sunday vacancy in ECU’s weekend rotation. Benton works 88-92 mph with his fastball, touching as high as 95, and he impressed his coaching staff and new teammates with his hard curveball during the fall. He also throws a changeup with sink and arm-side run.

Notable Storylines: With David Pierce taking the head coaching job at Texas, Tulane hired Vanderbilt recruiting coordinator Travis Jewett to take over the program. Jewett inherits a regional team from a year ago, albeit one without the services of talented shortstop Stephen Alemais and catcher Jake Rogers. Tulane should have some pop, however, with the return of seniors third baseman Hunter Hope (14 HR), catcher Jeremey Montalbano (12 HR) and first baseman Hunter Williams (9 HR) . . . After posting a 124-56 record in three seasons at Wright State, Greg Lovelady takes over as Central Florida’s after Terry Rooney left to join Alabama’s coaching staff. The Knights went 26-33 last year but are a veteran group with 24 returning lettermen. The loss of ace Cre Finfrock for the season with a shoulder injury is a significant blow . . . After being voted unanimously to finish last in the AAC in last year’s preseason coach’s poll, Cincinnati surprised many and finished fourth in the conference at 13-10-1. Entering Ty Neal’s fourth season as head coach, the Bearcats return all but their starting catcher from last year’s squad and are trying to continue to move up the AAC pecking order. After starting last season 1-11, Cincinnati will look to avoid another sluggish start this year to stay in the mix for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament . . . The reigning AAC tournament winner Connecticut will have to find a way to replace ace Anthony Kay, a Mets first-rounder, at the top of the rotation. The leading candidate is sophomore lefty Tim Cate, who went 5-1, 2.73 in his freshman year and earned a spot in the trials for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Offensively, the Huskies won’t have quite the same middle-of-the-order power, as they’ll be without Bobby Melley’s and Joe DeRoche-Duffin’s combined 28 home runs.

Tournament: Eight teams, double-elimination, May 23-28 at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla.

2017 Top 20 Prospects 2018 Top 10 Prospects Top Freshmen
1. Seth Romero, lhp, Houston 1. Dwanya Wiliams-Sutton, of, East Carolina 1. Trey Benton, rhp, East Carolina
2. Connor Wong, c, Houston 2. Joe Davis, 1b, Houston 2. Bryant Packard, 1b/of, East Carolina
3. Ryan Noda, of/1b, Cincinnati 3. Shane McClanahan, lhp, South Florida 3. Spencer Brickhouse, 1b, East Carolina
4. Kyle Marsh, of/rhp, Central Florida 4. Tim Cate, lhp, Connecticut 4. D.J. Roberts, rhp, South Florida
5. Corey Julks, of, Houston 5. Garrett Zech, of, South Florida 5. Carter Henry, rhp, Houston
6. Colton Hathcock, rhp, Memphis 6. Ross Massey, lhp, Tulane 6. Chris Winkel, of/1b, Connecticut
7. Joe Ingle, rhp, East Carolna 7. Jon Bowlan, rhp, Memphis 7. Brandon Fraley, of/rhp, Tulane
8. Kevin Merrell, 2b/ss, South Florida 8. Sam Lanier, rhp, East Carolina 8. Nick Slaughter, c, Houston
9. Willy Yahn, 3b, Connecticut 9. Trey Cumbie, lhp, Houston 9. Collin Sullivan, rhp, South Florida
10. Hunter Hope, 3b, Tulane 10. Andrew Perez, lhp, South Florida 10. Sal Gozzo, ss, Tulane
11. Evan Kruczynski, lhp, East Carolina    
12. Travis Watkins, c, East Carolina    
13. Cre Finfrock, rhp, Central Florida    
14. Jeremy Montalbano, c, Tulane    
15. Bryce Harman, 1b, East Carolina    
16. Jordan Scheftz, rhp, Central Florida    
17. Drew Crosby, lhp Memphis    
18. Corey Merrill, rhp, Tulane    
19. Connor Hollis, ss, Houston    
20. Hunter Williams, 1b, Tulane    

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