2019 American Athletic Conference College Baseball Preview
1. East Carolina (39-15, 14-10)
2. Houston (33-21, 16-8)
3. Connecticut (37-22-1, 14-10)
4. Central Florida (35-19, 13-10)
5. South Florida (32-18-1, 14-9-1)
6. Tulane (24-31, 9-14)
7. Wichita State (34-19-1, 9-14-1)
8. Cincinnati (28-26, 12-12)
9. Memphis (20-36, 5-19)
Team to Beat: East Carolina
The reigning American Athletic Conference Tournament champions, East Carolina returns a bevy of experience from a season ago. Led by All-American outfielder Bryant Packard, who earned AAC player of the year honors last year, the Pirates feature a veteran lineup that could include three seniors, four juniors and two sophomores. In 2018, Packard and first baseman Spencer Brickhouse paced the Pirates’ offense by hitting a combined 24 home runs, 32 doubles and driving in 100 runs. Coach Cliff Godwin’s club also returns four of its top pitching options from last season in sophomore Alec Burleson and juniors Tyler Smith, Trey Benton and Jake Agnos. A 6-foot-1, 212-pound lefthander, Burleson was the AAC rookie pitcher of the year in 2018, and he has the chance to lead the Pirates’ rotation while also serving as a middle-of-the-order hitter alongside Packard, Brickhouse and catcher Jake Washer. Righthanders Smith and Benton could round out ECU’s rotation, while Agnos, a 5-foot-11, 207-pound lefthander, could be a weapon in the back of the bullpen or in a starting role. Righthander Gavin Williams also has a power arm currently best suited for the bullpen, which will be crucial as the Pirates look to replace Davis Kirkpatrick, last year’s most effective reliever. Last season ended on a sour note for the Pirates when they won only one game in their first home regional since 2009. This year, the Pirates have the talent and experience to not only host back-to-back regionals for the first time in school history, but also advance to the program’s first super regional since 2016.
Player of the Year: Bryant Packard, OF, East Carolina
Packard is looking for back-to-back AAC player of the year campaigns after hitting .406/.462/.671 with 14 home runs, 16 doubles and 50 RBIs as a sophomore in 2018. A Preseason All-American, Packard is a solid corner outfielder who performed well in both the Cape Cod League and with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team over the summer. Standing 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, the lefthanded-hitting Packard enters the season ranked as the No. 59 prospect for the 2019 draft.
Pitcher of the Year: Mason Feole, LHP Connecticut
An All-American in 2018, Feole was unanimously selected as the AAC preseason pitcher of the year by the league’s coaches earlier this offseason. A 6-foot-1, 195-pound lefthander, Feole (No. 43) is the conference’s top ranked 2019 draft prospect, and he was teammates with East Carolina’s Bryant Packard on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team last summer. With a low-90s fastball and potentially plus, 12-to-6 curveball, Feole struck out 120 hitters in 100.2 innings last spring and limited opponents to a .220 average.
Freshman of the Year: Patrick Winkel, C, Connecticut
Ranked No. 331 on the BA 500 in 2018, Winkel was considered a tough sign coming out of high school in Woodbridge, Conn., and decided to head to college instead of signing with the Yankees as a 31st-round pick last June. Now on the Huskies’ roster, Winkel has a chance to step right into the team’s starting catcher’s role, where he could make an immediate impact both offensively and defensively. The younger brother of Connecticut junior first baseman Chris Winkel, Patrick is considered an advanced defensive catcher for his age.
Top 25 Teams: East Carolina (12).
Other Projected Regional Teams:
Connecticut: Although the Huskies must replace lefthander Tim Cate, a second-round pick by the Nationals in 2018, coach Jim Penders and his staff have a ready-made replacement in Mason Feole. In fact, Feole already has experience starting on Friday nights while filling in for the injured Cate during portions of last season, and the 6-foot-1 lefthander was so dominant that he earned All-American honors. Following Feole in the rotation should be senior righthander Jeff Kersten, who made 11 starts a season ago. Sophomore Colby Dunlop and senior Chase Gardner could also see time in the weekend rotation, although the 6-foot-7 Gardner could be a dangerous weapon out of the bullpen with a fastball up to 93 mph from the left side. Junior righthander Jacob Wallace, coming off a strong summer in the Cape Cod League, should assume the closer’s role for Connecticut, replacing P.J. Poulin who recorded 16 saves a season ago. Junior shortstop Anthony Prato joined Feole and Wallace on the preseason all-conference team, while second baseman Christian Fedko returns after earning AAC rookie position player of the year honors in 2018. All of that has UConn in position for its first back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths since 2010-11.
Houston: Last season’s regular season conference champions, Houston should once again be contenders in 2019. Senior designated hitter Joe Davis returns after leading the American in RBIs with 62 last season, while junior third baseman Jared Triolo ranked third in the league with a .334 batting average. Both Davis and Triolo earned preseason all-conference honors, giving the Cougars a solid one-two punch in the middle of their lineup. On the mound, Houston must replace a pair of lefthanders in Trey Cumbie and 2018 AAC pitcher of the year Aaron Fletcher, who last year won a combined 14 games and totaled nearly 200 innings at the front of Houston’s rotation. Talented junior righthander Fred Villarreal will get a chance to lead the rotation in 2019, but he has made just four starts and has a 4.31 career ERA across 26 appearances. Although there are still questions to be answered when it comes to the pitching staff, 2018 AAC coach of the year Todd Whitting has a proven track record, leading the Cougars to the NCAA Tournament in four of the previous five seasons.
Wichita State embarks on its second season in the American in 2019, but the Shockers do so after losing two of their top players from last year’s 35-win team. Third baseman Alec Bohm hit .339/.436/.625 with 16 home runs and was drafted by the Phillies with the No. 3 overall pick in last June’s draft, while outfielder/first baseman Greyson Jenista (.309/.446/.475, 9 HR) was a second-round pick by the Braves. Replacing those two sluggers will be a challenge for Wichita State, and the Shockers were predicted to finish seventh in the conference by the league’s coaches as a result. One silver lining for the Shockers is that second baseman Luke Ritter decided to return to school after being drafted by the Twins in the 37th round. Now a senior, Ritter led the team with a .341 average last year, and he finished second in the conference with 56 runs scored. On the mound, sophomore righthander Liam Eddy will look to take a jump forward after an impressive freshman season in which he went 7-4, 3.84 in 65.2 innings over 12 starts. A frequent College World Series contender throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, the Shockers are looking for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2013, an appearance that was later vacated by the NCAA due to rules violations.
Similarly to Wichita State, South Florida enters the season looking to fill a void created by a 2018 first-round pick. Lefthander Shane McClanahan was drafted by the Rays with the 31st overall pick after a redshirt sophomore campaign in which he struck out a conference-best 120 hitters and limited opponents to an .188 batting average. Junior righthander Collin Sullivan is the early favorite to replace McClanahan at the front of the Bulls’ rotation, followed by senior righthander Alec Wisely. Sullivan (3-1, 3.80) and Wisely (3-0, 3.61) combined to make 19 starts a season ago, while junior college transfer Pat Doudican could give South Florida an experienced lefthanded option at the back of its rotation. Coach Billy Mohl also went to the junior college ranks to land Nelson Alvarez, and the former Miami Dade JC righthander has an explosive arsenal that should play nicely in the back of the bullpen. Finding success on the mound will be vital for the Bulls, who last year had an explosive offense and set single-season conference records in batting average (.296), slugging percentage (.464), doubles (147) and total bases (951). South Florida returns two of its top hitters from a season ago in seniors Kyle Phillips and Joe Genord, who last year combined for 21 home runs, 24 doubles, and 75 RBIs.
Despite the departure of 2018 all-conference selection Rylan Thomas, who was drafted by the Reds in the 26th round last June, Central Florida should boast one of the conference’s better offenses this season. Led by redshirt junior Ray Alejo (.299/.379/.402) and senior Matthew Mika (.276/.365/.373) at the top of the lineup, the Knights should be able to score runs in a variety of ways. Alejo and Mika stole a combined 61 bases in 72 attempts a season ago, while junior Dallas Beaver (.284/.372/.399) and redshirt senior Tyler Osik (.310/.391/.485) provide power threats in the middle of the lineup. Improved offensive production would go a long ways to getting Central Florida into the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in the past seven years. That’s because the Knights lost five pitchers to the draft from last year’s team. However, Central Florida does return Friday starter Chris Williams (4-3, 2.81), while righthander Trevor Holloway, a transfer from Chipola (Fla.) JC, should give the Knights an effective one-two punch at the front of their rotation. Coach Greg Lovelady returns several relief options as well, though replacing the production from 2018 all-conference reliever Thad Ward (5-4, 3.27) could prove challenging.
PODCAST: Ranking The Best Recruiting Classes
The college pod breaks down the very best recruiting classes in college baseball now that students are back on campus.
1. Mason Feole, LHP, UConn
2. Bryant Packard, OF, East Carolina
3. Spencer Brickhouse, 1B, East Carolina
4. Jake Agnos, LHP, East Carolina
5. Trey Benton, RHP, East Carolina
6. Jared Triolo, 3B, Houston
7. Jacob Wallace, RHP, UConn
8. Nelson Alvarez, RHP, South Florida
9. Fred Villarreal, RHP, Houston
10. Luke Ritter, 2B, Wichita State
11. Trevor Holloway, RHP, UCF
12. Kody Hoese, 3B, Tulane
13. Joe Genord, 1B, South Florida
14. Ray Alejo, OF, UCF
15. Anthony Prato, SS, UConn
16. Pat Doudican, LHP, South Florida
17. Chase Gardner, LHP, UConn
18. Alex Segal, LHP Wichita State
19. Alec Trela, SS, Memphis
20. Kaleb Roper, RHP, Tulane
Top 10 2020 Draft Prospects
1. Gavin Williams, RHP, East Carolina
2. Alec Burleson, LHP/DH, East Carolina
3. Chris Winkel, 2B, UConn
4. Griffin Bernardo, 3B, UCF
5. Jeffrey Hakanson, RHP, UCF
6. CJ Dandeneau, RHP, UConn
7. Garrett Schoenle, LHP, Cincinnati
8. Connor Pellerin, RHP, Tulane
9. Bryson Worrell, OF, East Carolina
10. Dalton Wingo, OF, UCF
Top 10 Newcomers
1. Patrick Winkel, C, UConn
2. Hudson Haskin, OF, Tulane
3. Nicolas Gonzalez, SS, South Florida
4. Dylan Buck, 3B, South Florida
5. Kyler Fedko, 3B, UConn
6. Jake Plastiak, 3B, Wichita State
7. Trevor Holloway, RHP, UCF
8. Michael Chivotti, OF, UConn
9. Jack Sigrist, SS, Wichita State
10. Grant Schuermann, LHP, UCF
Best Pure Hitter: Bryant Packard, East Carolina
Best Power Hitter: Bryant Packard, East Carolina
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Anthony Prato, UConn
Best Athlete: Jared Triolo, Houston
Fastest Runner: Ray Alejo, UCF
Best Baserunner: Ray Alejo, UCF
Best Defensive Catcher: Jake Washer, East Carolina
Best Defensive Infielder: Anthony Prato, UConn
Best Infield Arm: Jared Triolo, Houston
Best Defensive Outfielder: Ray Alejo, UCF
Best Outfield Arm: Tyler Bielamowicz, Houston
Best Fastball: Jacob Wallace, UConn
Best Breaking Ball: Jake Agnos, East Carolina
Best Changeup: Chris Williams, UCF
Best Control: Chris Williams, UCF