2019 Conference USA College Baseball Preview
1. Southern Mississippi (44-18, 23-6)
2. Louisiana Tech (39-20, 21-9)
3. Florida Atlantic (43-19, 19-8)
4. Rice (26-31, 12-15)
5. Florida International (26-28, 15-13)
6. Charlotte (34-24, 17-13)
7. Texas-San Antonio (32-24, 16-13)
8. Old Dominion (15-37, 7-22)
9. Alabama-Birmingham (21-33, 13-17)
10. Western Kentucky (21-31, 11-18)
11. Middle Tennessee State (27-27, 12-17)
12. Marshall (19-31, 7-22)
Team to Beat: Southern Miss
Even with the loss of All-Americans Luke Reynolds and Nick Sandlin, Conference USA’s player and pitcher of the year, respectively, Southern Miss (44-18) will once again be the favorite to win the league title in 2019. Preseason All-American outfielder/righthander Matt Wallner (.351/.474/.618, 16 HR) is the biggest reason for optimism, but having second baseman Matthew Guidry (.328/.447/.497), first baseman Hunter Slater (.309/.393/.506), left fielder Gabe Montenegro (.295/.393/.388) and catcher Cole Donaldson (.250/.325/.333) back is a big deal as well. Donaldson also adds a ton of value as an advanced defensive catcher behind the plate. Danny Lynch, the brother of former Southern Miss star Tim Lynch, also looks the part of a freshman ready to provide some punch in the lineup. Getting instant impacts from Lynch and fellow freshman Hunter LeBlanc, and increased production from seniors Storme Cooper (.091/.211/091) and Fred Franklin (.300/.390/.320 in 50 AB) will be big factors. On the mound, there’s no easy replacement for Sandlin, but lefthander Stevie Powers (5-2, 4.07) and righthander Walker Powell (7-3, 3.80) give the Golden Eagles a pair of steady veteran starters, and if someone is going to have a Sandlin-like impact in the rotation, perhaps it’s Wallner. After serving part-time in relief over his first two seasons, he’ll take his low- to mid-90s fastball, slider and splitter combination to the rotation. If Wallner takes to starting well, you don’t have to work too hard to envision a national player of the year campaign for him. In the bullpen, senior righthander Mason Strickland (2-1, 2.74) provides the versatility to be used in a number of different roles to maximize his output. Righthanders Cody Carroll (0-3, 2.23) and J.C. Keys (3-5, 5.87) will be important bullpen arms as well. Carroll will work to replicate the success of his freshman season, while Keys, a senior, will look to put it all together in his final season. Raw stuff has never been a question with Keys, but the consistency and command just hasn’t always been there throughout his career.
Player of the Year: Matt Wallner, OF/RHP, Southern Miss
Wallner would likely be in the mix for this award if he only ever took the field as an offensive player. In his two seasons in Hattiesburg, he’s hit .343/.468/.637 with 27 doubles, 35 homers and 130 RBIs. He looks the part of a traditional power hitter, and his numbers show that he has power in spades, but he’s also an advanced hitter who is not simply swinging from his heels in every at-bat. In 2019, he’ll look to add additional value as a starting pitcher after working as a reliever the last two seasons, with just 21 career appearances to his name. At worst, Wallner is the best hitter in the league and one of the best in the country, but there’s potential for him to be the very best true two-way player as well.
Pitcher of the Year: Matt Canterino, RHP, Rice
Canterino has been an absolute workhorse for the Owls in his first two seasons. Over 190 combined innings, he has a 3.60 ERA, 227 strikeouts compared to just 71 walks and a .191 opponent average. From his freshman to sophomore season, he also showed impressive development. From one year to the next, he lowered his ERA from 4.12 to 3.06 and decreased his walk total from 49 to 22, all while increasing his strikeout total and lowering his opponent average. His competitiveness, a fastball in the low- to mid-90s and a devastating spike curveball make the righthander not only the best bet for conference pitcher of the year, but also the best bet to be the first Conference USA pitcher off the board in the 2019 draft.
Freshman of the Year: B.J. Murray, 2B, FAU
A 6-foot, 195-pound second baseman originally from Nassau, Bahamas, Murray is someone who stood out to the FAU staff in the fall for his physical gifts, including his power from both sides of the plate and the ease with which he seems to play the game. His future might be at third base, but for 2019, he’ll get a shot to start at second for an FAU team that will once again be in the mix to get into a regional.
Top 25 Teams: Southern Miss (21)
Other Regional Teams
Louisiana Tech: Saying that a team has just about everyone back is often used somewhat hyperbolically to describe a team with a good number of returning players. But when applying the phrase to Louisiana Tech (39-20) in 2019, it can really be used literally. The Bulldogs came up just short of a regional in 2018, and with nearly everyone back in the fold, they’ll have another good crack at making a postseason appearance this season. Eight starters return to the lineup, and they lose only one pitcher who threw more than 15 innings a year ago. Offensively, they boast a dangerous mix of on-base ability, power and speed. Hunter Wells (.357/.421/.443), Steele Netterville (.324/.445/.590), Parker Bates (.310/.425/.460) and Taylor Young (.302/.479/.388) have all proven to be on-base machines, with Young boasting a particularly absurd 43 walks compared to just 17 strikeouts. The 2018 Bulldogs collected 106 doubles and 50 homers, and while their leading home run hitter, Dalton Skelton, is the lone regular who departed after last season, La Tech returns five players who had double-digit doubles totals, led by Young’s 18, and four players who had at least six homers, led by Tanner Huddleston’s seven. Bates, Young, and Mason Mallard are all weapons on the base paths, and at 25-for-26 in stolen base attempts in 2018, Mallard has proven to be elite in this department. On the mound, lefthanders David Leal (4-4, 2.27), Logan Robbins (7-1, 4.66) and Logan Bailey (8-1, 2.24) and righthander Matt Miller (5-5, 4.20), no matter the order, will make for an accomplished rotation, as the quartet combined for 55 starts last year. The only other pitcher who started a game for the Bulldogs last year was righthander Tyler Follis (5-2, 2.53), and he’ll also be back to hold down a key role in the bullpen, where he will be joined by righthander Braxton Smith (1-2, 3.21) and lefthander Kyle Griffen (2-1, 2.75). In coach Lane Burrough’s third season, the Bulldogs have all the pieces to make just their second regional appearance in the last 30 years.
FAU (43-19) continues to be quietly consistent. Their regional appearance in 2018 was the fourth in the last six seasons, and just as impressively, they’ve reached the regional final in three of those four trips, including in 2018, when they pushed host Florida to a decisive seventh game. Expect the 2019 edition of the Owls to push for the postseason again. They return some key pieces in the lineup, including catcher Pedro Pages (.309/.368/.436), who is a strong defender in addition to being a solid offensive contributor, first baseman Gunnar Lambert (.246/.393/.486), third baseman Joe Montes (.293/.325/.350), DH Jared DeSantolo (.342/.391/.513) and outfielders Eric Rivera (.277/.387/.409) and Andru Summerall (.213/.319/.467). With his power potential, Summerall could be a breakout star if his plate discipline shows improvement. That group will be bolstered by the addition of Murray and junior college transfers shortstop Francisco Urbaez and outfielder Bobby Morgensen, all of whom will get a shot to play big roles right away. The weekend rotation may not be filled with proven commodities, but there’s upside with the return of senior righthander Blake Sanderson (1-2, 4.91), a very good athlete who could make a jump if he can pound the strike zone more consistently, and junior righthander Mike Ruff (1-2, 2.91), who can run his fastball up to 95 mph with a slider, curveball and changeup to go with it. Both of those guys have been in swing roles in the past, so showing the ability to work deeper into games will be important. Add in righthander Ryan Sandberg, a junior college transfer, and you can see the makings of a good group. Returning closer Zach Schneider (7-1, 2.61, 15 SV) is a nice security blanket to have in the bullpen as well.
FIU (26-28) has been stockpiling impressive talent under coach Mervyl Melendez, hauling in back-to-back Top 25 recruiting classes, and it’s only a matter of time before that pays dividends. Perhaps those returns could start to show as soon as this season. Preseason All-American third baseman Austin Shenton (.344/.417/.524), coming off of a breakout summer in the Cape Cod League, should be one of the most productive hitters in the league this season. Javier Valdes (.282/.345/.387), Lorenzo Hampton, Jr. (.278/.352/.482), Jose Garcia (.264/.385/.551), and Adan Fernandez (.262/.341/.571) will help support Shenton in the lineup. Plus, as expected, FIU has a whole new crop of talented freshman ready to contribute, including infielder Jarrett Ford, outfielder Chris Williams, shortstop John Rodriguez and first baseman Angel Tiburcio. In the rotation, lefthander/DH Logan Allen (5-5, 3.89) and righthander Nick MacDonald (3-4, 4.26) provide a solid foundation. Lefthander Will Saxton (1-2, 4.00) returns as a reliable bullpen arm, and righthander Christian Santana (2-4, 5.79), a former blue-chip recruit, is a wild card as a pitcher who could dominate if he can put it all together as a sophomore. There are also new faces on the mound to watch, including righthanders Franco Aleman and J.J. Teixeira.
It will be a season of new experiences for Rice (26-31-2). Not only do they have a new coach in Matt Bragga, who takes over the program after Wayne Graham’s contract wasn’t renewed, but this will be the first time since 1995 that they will come into the season without having made a postseason appearance the season prior. A return to the postseason isn’t out of the question in Bragga’s first season, as the Owls will boast a quality one-two punch in the rotation in Canterino and righthander Addison Moss (2-4, 2.43), a flame-throwing closer in Garrett Gayle (2-2, 4.54) and some raw talent in the lineup in players like Braden Comeaux (.319/.390/.412), Trei Cruz (.279/.392/.438) and Justin Collins (.265/.373/.382). Having a fully healthy Dominic DiCaprio (.190/.296/.286) back after an injury-compromised 2018 season is a huge key as well.
Middle Tennessee State (27-27-1) will begin the Jim Toman era in 2019. Toman arrives in Murfreesboro after nine seasons as the head coach at Liberty and a one-year stopover as an assistant for Chad Holbrook at College of Charleston. Toman was a success in his first head coaching gig, going 329-205-1 and leading the Flames to three 40-win seasons and two regional appearances. His first season with MTSU will call for quite a bit of rebuilding, but third baseman Drew Huff (.296/.340/.397), shortstop Myles Christian (.259/.378/.358) and outfielder Blake Benefield (.278/.331/.498) will give Toman a few proven players in year one. No matter what the record looks like at the end of the 2019 season, with what he’s accomplished throughout his career, Toman certainly looks like a solid hire for the Blue Raiders.
Old Dominion (15-37), coming off a tough season that saw them finish at the bottom of the conference standings, could be due for a bounce back into the middle of the pack. Matt Schwarz (.335/.402/.456), Erik Stock (.320/.371/.464) and Vinnie Pasquantino (.299/.325/.439) lead what should be a solid Monarchs’ offense. Outfielder Kyle Battle (.272/.332/.370) should also be a catalyst, not just at the plate, but also as a quality runner and outfielder who does a lot of things well. On the mound, righthander Morgan Maguire (4-7, 3.38) will be steady at the front of the rotation, and righthander Nick Pantos, a junior college transfer, will slot in behind him to give ODU the potential for a rotation that will compete well every weekend.
From strictly a baseball standpoint, Conference USA has been as affected by conference realignment as any league in the country. As former members like East Carolina, Louisville, Houston, Central Florida, South Florida, Texas Christian and Tulane have found success on a national scale after moving on to other leagues, CUSA has struggled to establish the same type of quality depth. The 2019 season, however, might be the beginning of a trend back in the right direction. There are five teams with legitimate cases to be projected regional teams (USM, La Tech, FAU, FIU, and Rice), programs like Charlotte and Old Dominion have flirted with at-large status in recent seasons and Middle Tennessee State, a program without a regional appearance since 2009, made a quality hire that could turn things around. It’s not a stretch to think that the league is about to enjoy its best overall run of collective success since the last round of realignment sent UCF, ECU, Houston, Memphis and Tulane to the American Athletic Conference.
Top 2018 Picks Ready For Double-A Test
First- and third-round picks Logan Gilbert and Cal Raleigh earned promotions to Double-A in their first full pro seasons.
1. Matt Wallner, OF, Southern Miss
2. Matt Canterino, RHP, Rice
3. Austin Shenton, 3B, FIU
4. Pedro Pages, C, FAU
5. Mike Ruff, RHP, FAU
6. Addison Moss, RHP, Rice
7. Garrett Gayle, RHP, Rice
8. Graham Ashcraft, RHP, UAB
9. Trei Cruz, SS, Rice
10. Nick MacDonald, RHP, FIU
11. Davis Sims, 3B, Western Kentucky
12. Brooks Warren, LHP, Southern Miss
13. Rey Pastrana, C, Marshall
14. Vinnie Pasquantino, 1B, Old Dominion
15. Matthew Guidry, 2B, Southern Miss
16. Myles Christian, SS, Middle Tennessee State
17. Eric Rivera, OF, FAU
18. Parker Bates, OF, Louisiana Tech
19. David Leal, LHP, Louisiana Tech
20. Hunter Slater, 1B, Southern Miss
Top 10 2020 Draft Prospects
1.Logan Allen, LHP/1B, FIU
2. Justin Collins, C, Rice
3. Christian Santana, RHP, FIU
4. Jared DeSantolo, INF, FAU
5. Jose Garcia, C, FIU
6. Steele Netterville, OF, Louisiana Tech
7. Cody Carroll, RHP, Southern Miss
8. Ryan Sandberg, RHP, FAU
9. Drake Greenwood, RHP, Rice
10. Tommy Gertner, LHP, ODU
Top 10 Newcomers
1. Chris Williams, OF, FIU
2. B.J. Murray, 2B, FAU
3. Graham Ashcraft, RHP, UAB
4. Jarrett Ford, OF/2B, FIU
5. Brooks Warren, LHP, Southern Miss
6. Franco Aleman, RHP, FIU
7. Tyler O’Clair, RHP, UAB
8. Hunter LeBlanc, OF, Southern Miss
9. Danny Lynch, 3B, Southern Miss
10. John Rodriguez, SS, FIU
Best Pure Hitter: Matt Wallner, Southern Miss
Best Power Hitter: Matt Wallner, Southern Miss
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Taylor Young, Louisiana Tech
Best Athlete: Matt Wallner, Southern Miss
Fastest Runner: Kyle Battle, Old Dominion
Best Baserunner: Mason Mallard, Louisiana Tech
Best Defensive Catcher: Pedro Pages, FAU
Best Defensive Infielder: Kevin Lambert, Western Kentucky
Best Infield Arm: Kevin Lambert, Western Kentucky
Best Defensive Outfielder: Parker Bates, Louisiana Tech
Best Outfield Arm: Parker Bates, Louisiana Tech
Best Fastball: Garrett Gayle, Rice
Best Breaking Ball: Matt Canterino, Rice
Best Changeup: Stevie Powers, Southern Miss
Best Control: David Leal, Louisiana Tech