Big East Conference Preview
Team to Beat: St. John’s.
The Red Storm went 42-13 last season, one victory shy of a program record, and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Even after a few key losses, St. John’s returns an experienced, veteran team that should again be formidable on the mound and the batter’s box. The pitching staff is led by righthander Sean Mooney, who was named both Big East pitcher and freshman of the year last season after going 8-2, 1.71. The pitching staff behind him looks to be deeper, especially if sophomore lefthander Jeff Belge, a heralded recruit a year ago, can take a step forward with his control. St. John’s must replace catcher Troy Dixon, outfielder Michael Donadio and shortstop Jesse Berardi, three of its top four hitters a year ago, but with outfielder Anthony Brocato (.317/.400/.550, 8 HR) and infielders Josh Shaw (.288/.350/.384) and John Valente (.375/.437/.464) back, the offense still has plenty of firepower.
Player of the Year: Anthony Brocato, OF, St. John’s.
Brocato was St. John’s leading source of power last season, when he led the team in doubles (16), home runs (eight), slugging percentage (.550) and RBI (47). Now a senior, Brocato will be counted on to continue to produce in the heart of the order.
Pitcher of the Year: Sean Mooney, RHP, St. John’s.
Mooney had a fantastic freshman season, going 8-2, 1.71 with 88 strikeouts and 16 walks in 100 innings. He earned All-Freshman honors and became the first Red Storm player to play for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team since Frank Viola did so 35 years ago. Mooney isn’t overpowering, but can locate his fastball, which sits around 90 mph, in all parts of the strike zone and effectively mixes in a cutter, curveball and changeup.
Freshman of the Year: Allbry Major, OF, Xavier.
The Musketeers brought in a strong recruiting class this fall and will rely on several freshmen this season as it replaces four players who were drafted last year. Major, listed at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, has an impressive toolset. He is an above-average runner and will patrol center field and hit at the top of Xavier’s lineup. He put together a strong summer in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League and earned all-league honors after hitting .336/.385/.484 with 12 doubles and striking out 44 batters in 32.1 innings on the mound.
Top 25 Team: St. John’s (25).
Bubble Watch: LSU, North Carolina Bolster Hosting Cases
As conference tournaments continue, we look at NCAA Tournament bubble winners and losers from Friday.
Notable Storylines: Xavier elevated itself into the top tier of Big East teams under Scott Googin by winning the conference tournament three times since joining the league in 2014. The Musketeers are now moving into a new era under coach Billy O’Conner, following Googin’s crosstown move to Cincinnati after last season. O’Conner, a former Xavier player and assistant coach, takes the helm as the Musketeers are tasked with replacing lefthander Zac Lowther and righthander Garrett Schilling, their top two pitchers, and third baseman Rylan Bannon, their best hitter, from a team that made the Louisville Regional final. Xavier will have a young team this year and projects to start three freshmen in its rotation, but still has some key players back, including sophomore DH/RHP Conor Grammes (.341/.381/.500, 7 HR) and redshirt senior outfielder Joe Gellenbeck (.271/.380/.476, 11 HR, 12 SB). If Xavier’s freshmen arms can keep them in games, the Musketeers can turn to their experienced bullpen led by junior righthander Matt Kent (5-2, 1.74). It will be a transition, but Xavier has the pieces to build around.
As is often the case, Seton Hall looks to be strong on the mound again this spring. Lefthander Cullen Dana (5-3, 3.40) and righthander Shane McCarthy (3-7, 5.13) return to the rotation and righthanders Billy Layne (3-1, 4.43) and Andrew Politi (41 SO, 23 IP) are back in the bullpen. All four have a chance to be drafted this June and will make the Pirates tough to beat on weekends. The Pirates’ staff will have to adjust to new pitching coach Pat Pinkman, after longtime pitching coach Phil Cundari left in July after 17 years at Seton Hall to take the same job at Rutgers.
Butler made one of the biggest turnarounds in the country last year in coach Dave Schrage’s first season, improving from 14-40 in 2016 to 31-20 in 2017. It was the Bulldogs’ first winning season since 2003 and elevated them from the league’s cellar to fifth place. Butler’s next step will be to try to crack the top four in the conference standings and qualify for the Big East Tournament. Senior outfielder Tyler Houston (.287/.379/.540, 12 HR) was a first-team all-Big East selection last season and will be the key to the Bulldogs lineup. Senior righthander Garrett Christman will lead the pitching staff after going 3-2, 2.60 last season.
Top 10 2018 Draft Prospects
1. Josh Shaw, 2B/SS, St. John’s
2. Shane McCarthy, RHP, Seton Hall
3. Kevin Magee, LHP, St. John’s
4. Cullen Dana, LHP, Seton Hall
5. Conor Grammes, DH/RHP, Xavier
6. Jamie Galazin, OF/RHP, St. John’s
7. Andrew Politi, RHP, Seton Hall
8. Anthony Brocato, OF, St. John’s
9. Michael Emodi, C, Creighton
10. Chris Givin, SS, Xavier