American Athletic Conference Preview

 Greyson Jenista (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)

Team to Beat: Central Florida.

The Knights put together an impressive 2017 season, coach Greg Lovelady’s first in Orlando. They went 40-22, won the American regular-season title to complete a worst-to-first turnaround and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.UCF will have a new look this spring after the departures of some key players, such as American pitcher of the year Robby Howell. But UCF has a strong returning group, led by first baseman Rylan Thomas (.303/.359/.530, 14 HR), American rookie position player of the year, and closer Bryce Tucker (2-2, 1.66, 9 SV), who spent the summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. The Knights also brought in a strong recruiting class heavy on junior college players who should be able to help UCF quickly reload. Junior righthanders Jordan Spicer and J.J. Montgomery were two of the best junior college pitchers in Florida last year and will factor into UCF’s staff in prominent roles, joining Tucker, sophomore lefthander Joe Sheridan (10-4, 3.25), junior righthander Thad Ward (4-0, 2.29) and redshirt-junior righthander Chris Williams (5-4, 2.65). Tyler Osik and Brody Wofford were both a part of Chipola (Fla.) JC’s national championship team last year and will be expected to join Thomas and junior second baseman Matthew Mika (.278/.344/.339) as key pieces of the lineup. The Knights may need some time to gel as a team, but have all the pieces they need to contend for another title.

Player of the Year: Greyson Jenista, OF, Wichita State.

The Shockers take a step up in competition this season as they move from the Missouri Valley Conference to the American, but they will do so with the help of first-team Preseason All-Americans Jenista and third baseman Alec Bohm. Jenista gets the edge for player of the year honors after claiming this summer the MVP award in the Cape Cod League. Jenista has hit .323/.421/.493 over the last two seasons at Wichita State and did a better job of tapping into his power last year, as he hit 14 doubles and nine home runs. He figures to be one of the first college hitters drafted in June thanks to his hittability, power potential and athleticism.

Pitcher of the Year: Shane McClanahan, LHP, South Florida.

One of the headliners of USF’s top-10 2015 recruiting class, McClanahan has blossomed into an elite prospect over the last two years. After missing the 2016 season while he recovered from Tommy John surgery, McClanahan went 4-2, 3.20 and struck out 104 batters in 76 innings last spring. He is regarded as the best college lefthander in the draft class and was voted a first-team Preseason All-American by major league scouting directors. He has gotten stronger over the last two years and can now run his fastball into the upper 90s, while also mixing in a sharp slider and a good changeup.

Freshman of the Year: Gavin Williams, RHP, East Carolina.

Ranked No. 120 on the 2017 BA 500, Williams was the top recruit in East Carolina’s 19th-ranked recruiting class. Listed at 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, he is big and projectable, but already has impressive stuff. His fastball gets up to 95 mph and made strides this fall with his pitchability, which will serve him sell this spring. He figures to start his college career as the Pirates’ closer and he could end up as a premier starter in a couple years.

Top 25 Teams: Central Florida (22).

Other Regional Teams:

Connecticut: The Huskies (33-25) were the second team out of the NCAA Tournament field last year, a victim of a bubble-bursting weekend of conference tournaments. Connecticut should be able to avoid any drama this Memorial Day thanks to an outstanding rotation led by Preseason All-American lefthander Tim Cate and a veteran lineup. Cate (4-3, 3.33) will battle McClanahan for conference pitcher of the year honors. Sophomore lefthander Mason Feole (7-4, 3.38), the 2017 American rookie pitcher of the year, will follow Cate in the rotation and give the Huskies a formidable 1-2 punch. UConn must replace leading hitter Willy Yahn, but much of the rest of its lineup returns this season. Shortstop Anthony Prato (.304/.376/.388), coming off a solid freshman season, and junior catcher Zac Susi (.286/.362/.376) keep the Huskies solid up the middle defensively. With its pitching and defense, UConn should return to regionals for the second time in three years.

Houston: The Cougars last season went 42-21, won the American Tournament and hosted a regional for the second time in three years. They return the bulk of a pitching staff that ranked 15th in the country with a 3.43 team ERA. Righthander Trey Cumbie (10-2, 2.04), the co-American pitcher of the year, returns to lead the pitching staff. Lefthander Aaron Fletcher (2-1, 2.40, 8 SV) and righthander Fred Villareal (1-2, 4.25) figure to take on significant roles in the pitching staff. The lineup will see more changes this spring after catcher Connor Wong, infielder Jake Scheiner and outfielder Corey Julks were all drafted in the top 250 picks. The Cougars will be looking for a bounceback season from first baseman Joe Davis, who hit 14 home runs during a Freshman All-American campaign in 2016 but played through injury much of last season and hit .299/.368/.451 with eight home runs. Davis and junior outfielder Grayson Padgett (.309/.402/.414) will be counted on to lead the offense. The American has been topsy-turvy since its creation in 2014, but Houston has been one of the constants. The Cougars have made regionals in three of the last four seasons and are aiming for a return this year.

Notable Storylines

For the first time since the conference was created five years ago because of the Big East Conference’s division, the American this year expanded and added Wichita State. While the move was largely driven by basketball, it was also a significant move from a baseball perspective. The American previously had only eight baseball members, forcing it to adopt an awkward scheduling arrangement where each team was assigned a rival that it played home and away every year. The format made sense in some cases, such as UCF and USF, but less so in others, such as ECU and UConn. It also led to significantly different strengths of schedules in an otherwise balanced system. But Wichita State’s addition eliminates that awkwardness. With nine baseball-playing members now, the American can now play a true round-robin format. And it added a program with a rich baseball tradition, including the 1989 national championship and seven appearances in the College World Series. Coach Todd Butler is still in the process of rebuilding the Shockers after taking over in 2014 a program beset by NCAA violations. The American will be a step up for Wichita State, which went 28-30 last year as a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, but Jenista and Bohm give it the best two hitters in the conference. If the Shockers’ pitching staff, led by righthanders Tyler Jones (0-2, 5.63) and Codi Heuer (2-2, 4.42), can take a step forward, they should be able to make a quick transition.

South Florida went 42-19 last season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years under coach Mark Kingston. Following the season, Kingston left to become head coach at South Carolina, taking recruiting coordinator Mike Current with him. Pitching coach Billy Mohl remained in Tampa and was promoted to head coach. Under his tutelage, the Bulls’ pitching staff was one of the best in the conference last season and remains a strength of the team this year. McClanahan will lead the rotation, with redshirt-senior righthander Peter Strzelecki (3-4, 2.42) following him. The Bulls must replace All-American shortstop Kevin Merrill, one of the fastest players in the country last year, but will not be lacking athleticism. The bulk of its lineup will be made up of players from its star-studded 2016 recruiting class. If players such as outfielders Garrett Zech (.260/.368/.359, 17 SB) and Chris Chatfield (.226/.332/.433, 8 HR) and first baseman Joe Genord (.259/.352/.439, 9 HR) can take a step forward as juniors, the Bulls have a chance to be the most talented team in the conference.

East Carolina entered last season ranked No. 6 in the Preseason Top 25, expected to compete for its first ever trip to the CWS after falling 90 feet shy of upsetting Texas Tech in super regionals the year before. But the Pirates stumbled out of the gate and never recovered. They made a run to the conference tournament championship game, but it was too late to salvage an NCAA Tournament bid. ECU last year had a large senior class that has now moved on and it will turn to a younger core to lead it this season. The Pirates brought in Top 25 recruiting classes in back-to-back years, the first in program history, and the pitching staff will heavily rely on players from those classes. Sophomores Trey Benton (3-4, 4.18) and Jake Agnos (3-3, 3.20) will take over at the front of the rotation after solid freshman seasons, and Williams will provide a power arm at the back of the bullpen. The Pirates should benefit from a full healthy season from junior outfielder Dwanya Williams-Sutton (.286/.403/.509, 7 HR), who missed half of last season due to a thumb injury. First baseman Spencer Brickhouse (.310/.385/.513, 10 HR) is coming a Freshman All-American season and will be a focal point of the lineup. The Pirates will have a different look this spring, but if their young players play to their potential, they will be in the mix for a regional berth this spring.

After guiding Xavier to three Big East Conference Tournament titles in four years, coach Scott Googins made a crosstown move to Cincinnati this year. He takes over a Bearcats program that hasn’t had a winning record since 2011. The Bearcats have experience in their weekend rotation with seniors J.T. Perez (2-7, 4.42) and David Orndorff (5-4, 3.41) returning. Shortstop Manny Rodriguez (.242/.297/.331) and third baseman Connor McVey (.280/.382/.383, 14 SB) will be counted on to provide stability in the infield, while outfielder A.J. Bumpass (.287/.384/.491, 7 HR) adds some juice to the lineup, as he returns after being drafted in the 29th round by the Reds as a draft-eligible sophomore. Googins knows what it takes to win in the Queen City, it will likely take him some time to get the Bearcats up to speed in the American.

Top 20 2018 Draft Prospects 
1. Shane McClanahan, LHP, South Florida 
2. Greyson Jenista, OF, Wichita State 
3. Alec Bohm, 3B, Wichita State 
4. Tim Cate, LHP, Connecticut 
5. Dwanya Williams-Sutton, OF, East Carolina 
6. Bryce Tucker, LHP, Central Florida 
7. Jonathan Bowlan, RHP, Memphis 
8. Zac Susi, C, Connecticut 
9. J.J. Montgomery, RHP, Central Florida 
10. Jordan Spicer, RHP, Central Florida 
11. Andrew Perez, RHP, South Florida 
12. Trey Cumbie, RHP, Houston 
13. Rylan Thomas, 1B, Central Florida 
14. Joe Davis, 1B, Houston 
15. Grant Witherspoon, OF, Tulane 
16. Garrett Zech, OF, South Florida 
17. A.J. Bumpass, OF, Cincinnati 
18. Codi Heuer, RHP, Wichita State 
19. Thad Ward, RHP, Central Florida 
20. Chase Gardner, LHP, Connecticut

Top 10 2019 Draft Prospects 
1. Mason Feole, LHP, Connecticut 
2. Trey Benton, RHP, East Carolina 
3. Spencer Brickhouse, 1B, East Carolina 
4. Garrett Schoenle, LHP, Cincinnati 
5. Collin Sullivan, RHP, South Florida 
6. Jake Agnos, LHP, East Carolina 
7. Joe Sheridan, LHP, Central Florida 
8. Fred Villareal, RHP, Houston 
9. Alec Trela, SS, Memphis 
10. Jared Triolo, 3B, Houston

Top 10 Newcomers 
1. Gavin Williams, RHP, East Carolina 
2. J.J. Montgomery, RHP, Central Florida 
3. Jordan Spicer, RHP, Central Florida 
4. Chase Gardner, LHP, Connecticut 
5. Garrett Schoenle, LHP, Cincinnati 
6. Dalton Wingo, OF, Central Florida 
7. D’Mond LaFond, RHP, Houston 
8. Graham Hoffman, RHP, South Florida 
9. Kaleb Roper, RHP, Tulane 
10. Riley Cabral, RHP, Memphis

Best Tools 
Best Pure Hitter: Alec Bohm, Wichita State 
Best Power Hitter: Rylan Thomas, Central Florida 
Best Strike-zone Discipline: Turner Brown, East Carolina 
Best Athlete: Dwanya Williams-Sutton, East Carolina 
Fastest Runner: Garrett Zech, South Florida 
Best Baserunner: Matthew Mika, Central Florida 
Best Defensive Catcher: Zac Susi, Connecticut 
Best Defensive Infielder: Manny Rodriguez, Cincinnati 
Best Infield Arm: Manny Rodriguez, Cincinnati 
Best Defensive Outfielder: Duke Stunkel, South Florida 
Best Outfield Arm: Andrew Henrickson, East Carolina 
Best Fastball: Shane McClanahan, South Florida 
Best Breaking Ball: Tim Cate, Connecticut 
Best Changeup: Trey Cumbie, Houston 
Best Control: Trey Cumbie, Houston

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