2020 AAC College Baseball Preview
The 2019 season was highlighted by three American Athletic Conference schools making the NCAA Tournament and then all making noise in regionals.
Runaway regular-season champion East Carolina hosted regionals and advanced to super regionals for the second time in four years. Cincinnati won the AAC Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 45 years and then upset Oregon State to open regionals. Connecticut pushed host Oklahoma State to seven games in Oklahoma City before losing the regional final.
Many of the conference’s stars, however, saw their college careers come to an end after last season. Gone are standouts such as Tulane’s Kody Hoese – a first-team All-American, East Carolina’s Bryant Packard and Spencer Brickhouse, Uconn’s Mason Feole and Jacob Wallace and Houston’s Jared Triolo and Joe Davis —just to name a few. With the absence of those players, the 2020 season could be dominated by new faces taking the reins for their respective programs as they attempt to stop a loaded Pirates squad from taking home a second consecutive regular-season title.
Player of the Year: Alec Burleson, 1B/LHP, East Carolina
Burleson is not only one of the most dangerous hitters in the conference, but he’s also shown composure and talent on the mound. In 2019, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound two-way talent posted a .370/.399/.573 line to go along with nine home runs and 61 RBIs, and there’s no reason to believe his numbers won’t be near that level or better as a junior. On the mound, the lefty compiled a 6-2, 3.28 mark last season and has shown he can fill a variety of positions on the Pirates’ pitching staff.
Pitcher of the Year: Gavin Williams, RHP, East Carolina
Williams was primarily used as a high-leverage reliever in 2019, appearing in 21 games and making just five starts, but he could very well become the Pirates’ Friday starter this season. Armed with a fastball that can touch triple-digits and a plus curveball, Williams just needs to work on his consistency. He already has the stuff to miss plenty of bats, evidenced by his 56 strikeouts in 49.1 innings as a sophomore. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound Williams is also considered the top draft prospect in the conference.
Newcomer of the Year: Reggie Crawford, 1B/LHP UConn
The first player to ever get drafted out of North Schuylkill (Pa.) High, Crawford was selected in the 37th round by the Royals but elected to honor his commitment to UConn. The Huskies and head coach Jim Penders are certainly happy to have the two-way player who carries an imposing 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame and plenty of power for a team that hit just 40 home runs last season. In addition to providing solid defense at first base and a potential middle-of-the-order bat, Crawford can get his fastball up to 94 mph on the mound to help a roster that lost three of its top pitchers from the 2019 season.
Self-Made Star Alec Burleson Does it All For East Carolina
Burleson has gone from lightly-recruited, soft-tossing lefthander to one of the most productive two-way players in college baseball.
Predicted Order of Finish (2019 record)
1. ECU (47-18, 20-4)
Fresh off its first super regional appearance since 2016, East Carolina brings back the talent to host a third straight regional in 2020. Although the Pirates said goodbye to 2018 AAC player of the Year Bryant Packard, Spencer Brickhouse and No. 1 starter Jake Agnos, there is still plenty of returning talent to lead the way for the 20 newcomers. Two-way star Alec Burleson and pitchers Jake Kuchmaner and Gavin Williams will be at the focal point of the Pirates’ success and give the team the starpower and experience to lead them to their second consecutive AAC regular season title. Burleson, a junior, anchors a lineup that includes sophomores Lane Hoover and Thomas Francisco, who combined for 47 walks compared to just 37 strikeouts in 2019, and juniors Bryson Worrell and Seth Caddell. Yet the most dangerous component of coach Cliff Godwin’s team is its pitching. Kuchmaner, a junior who finished second on the team with seven wins last season and threw a perfect game on March 17 against Maryland, anchors a pitching staff that includes Burleson, senior Tyler Smith and Williams, a flamethrower who can touch 100 mph on his fastball. With a strong core group and plenty of experience, the Pirates will be the team to beat in the AAC.
2. Houston: (32-24, 12-12)
The Cougars’ junior-heavy lineup will sorely miss sluggers Joe Davis and Jared Triolo and righthanders Fred Villarreal and Devon Roedahl but the addition of four junior college bats to the starting lineup will help soften the blow. Former San Jacinto (Texas) JC teammates Ryan Hernandez and Andrew Papantonis will likely start at third base and center field, respectively, and left fielder Brett Cain posted a .357/.446/.615 line at Howard (Texas) JC in 2018 before missing most of 2019 with an injury. The one-two punch of two-way player Lael Lockhart Jr., (3.58 ERA, 83 K) and Clay Aguilar (3.06 ERA, 73 K) on the mound as the Friday-Saturday starters should push Houston into the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid.
3. Connecticut: (39-25, 12-12)
The Huskies have plenty of depth on their roster, something that will help offset the losses of drafted players Mason Feole, Jacob Wallace and Anthony Prato. Freshman first baseman Reggie Crawford has plenty of pop in his bat, and coaches feel that right fielder Ben Maycock is primed for a breakout year with the potential to hit double-digit home runs. Center fielder Chris Winkel moved from first base to center field in the fall after stealing 13 stolen bases in 2019. Second baseman Christian Fedko posted a .271/.408/.401 line with 43 RBIs and could be poised for an even better spring as a junior. After allowing 13 earned runs in his first 13.2 innings of the 2019 season, Colby Dunlop finished the season on a high note with a 7-4, 4.31 mark for the year. He will look to carry that momentum into this season as the team’s likely Friday starter. Caleb Wurster has the tough task of inheriting the closer role from Wallace, but the lefty reliever should be up to the challenge after pitching to a 2.66 ERA in 47 innings as a high-leverage reliever as a redshirt freshman.
4. Cincinnati: (31-31, 13-11)
The Bearcats enter the 2020 campaign on the heels of one of the best seasons in program history. After taking down UConn, 22-5, in the AAC Tournament championship game, Cincinnati qualified for its first NCAA Tournament since 1974. This season, the Bearcats return their leading hitter in Wyatt Stapp and the dynamic Joey Wiemer, who has some of the best tools in the conference and impressed over the summer in the Cape Cod League. Improving a pitching staff that last year posted a 5.54 team ERA will be critical. Gone are innings eaters A.J. Kullman and David Orndorff and reliable closer Korren Thompson. The Bearcats will need to rely on relievers Nathan Moore and Nick Murray and starter Garrett Schoenle to take steps forward this season and hope that Nathan Kroger can pick up where he left off before missing the majority of the season with an injury. In his five starts, Kroger pitched to a 1.86 ERA and struck out 27 batters in 29 innings. Wiemer will also get a chance to show off his big arm from the left side. The Bearcats are trending up under third-year coach Scott Googins but are still striving for more consistency.
5. Central Florida: (36-22, 11-13)
With just nine lettermen returning for the 2020 season and six junior college transfers and two freshman expecting to earn valuable playing time, it could be a trial-and-error campaign for a young UCF roster. Two of the team’s top pitchers—Chris Williams and Grant Schuermann—graduated, and the team is without three of its top hitters in Tyler Osik, Matthew Mika and Dallas Beaver. For the Knights to contend this year, they will need to rely on sophomore catcher Ben McCabe, junior right fielder Dalton Wingo and starter Trevor Holloway. McCabe produced a modest .274/.368/.443 line as a freshman and he will likely be asked to hit in the middle of the lineup this season along with Wingo, who posted a .294/.373/.448 line with seven home runs and 44 RBIs last season. Holloway battled through injuries as a junior and didn’t pitch after March 24, but managed to finish the year 2-0, 2.03 in 26.2 innings and uses a solid fastball-slider combo. Besides those three holdovers, Saturday starter Joe Sheridan will be asked to carry a big load after striking out 49 batters in 56.1 innings last season. The Knights also added righthander Chad Luensmann, a grad transfer from Nebraska, who adds an experienced, versatile arm to the staff. How quickly all the new pieces come together in the lineup and on the mound will determine how well the spring goes at UCF.
6. Tulane: (32-26, 12-11)
It’s tough losing any player, especially a first-team All-American talent like Kody Hoese, who was taken by the Dodgers in the first round of the 2019 draft. Losing the third baseman, along with first baseman Trevor Jensen, leaves a huge hole in the Green Wave’s lineup, one that will need to be filled by junior college transfers Trevor Minder and Luis Aviles. Fortunately, redshirt seniors Grant Mathews (.391/.392/.527, 10 HR) and Jonathon Artigues (.310/.450/.433) return to provide leadership and hitting in the lineup. Freshman All-America center fielder Hudson Haskin (.372/.459/.647, 10 HR), also returns to strengthen the lineup. With Kaleb Roper getting drafted in 2019, junior college transfer Braden Olthoff will take over as the team’s Friday starter. Olthoff, a 6-foot-4, 208-pound righthander, struck out 75 batters in 68 innings at Palomar (Calif.) JC. Keagan Gillies (2-5, 7.92) hopes to bounce back for his senior season as the team’s Saturday starter. Junior righthander Connor Pellerin should be one of the top high-leverage relievers in the conference.
7. South Florida: (26-27, 8-16)
Losing some key bats is a tough task for any team, particularly a team that struggled to just eight conference wins last season. Joe Genord was a first-team All-AAC selection as a senior, and outfielder Kyle Phillips finished third on the team in average (.308) and stolen bases (eight). Yet with the return of catcher/third baseman Jake Sullivan, the Bulls have a high-contact bat to plug into their lineup. Outside of Sullivan, only three players who started at least 30 games return this season. Fortunately, the team does return every starter that made at least five starts last year, led by senior righthander Collin Sullivan (4-5, 3.86). The Bulls will need to rely on that starting pitching, hope that someone can step up and take the place of departing righthander Nelson Alvarez as the primary closer, and rely on an inexperienced lineup. USF has some big questions to answer in 2020.
8. Memphis: (27-28, 10-13)
Going with the trend of other programs in the conference, the Tigers’ roster will be without key contributors from last year’s team. Not only are they without last year’s starting catcher, designated hitter, right fielder and first baseman, but they also lost lefthander Alex Smith and center fielder/closer Colton Neel. The good news for Memphis fans is that 2019 AAC newcomer position player of the year Hunter Goodman (.326/.367/.573, 13 HR) returns to build on an outstanding campaign. Joining Goodman in the lineup is senior Alec Trela, a team leader and plus defender at third base who hit .276 with six home runs last season. Just like South Florida, the strength of the Tigers’ team this season will be an experienced pitching staff led by returning starters Chris Durham and Danny Denz. For the Tigers to reach their ceiling, Durham, Denz and Saturday starter Walker Brockhouse will have to lead the way.
9. Wichita State: (28-31, 9-15)
Wichita State last May fired Todd Butler after six seasons as head coach and days later made a splashy hire when it brought back alumnus Eric Wedge, a former big league manager and Wichita State All-American. Wedge is a throwback to the Shockers’ glory days, as he was a part of the 1989 national championship team and brings plenty of managerial experience in pro ball, though he has not coached in college before. It was a bold move to try to kickstart a program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013, an appearance that was later vacated due to NCAA violations. He inherits a team that will need some new players to step up after losing its top three hitters, top starting pitcher and closer. Junior shortstop Paxton Wallace (.256/.327/.432, 9 HR) and senior outfielder Jacob Katzfey (.276/.333/.374, 13 SB) will be asked to lead the offense. On the mound, junior righthander Liam Eddy (5-8, 5.04) and senior righthander Preston Snavely (3-4, 6.21) are two of the returning starters who will need to have more productive seasons in 2020 to help the team stay afloat. Wedge doesn’t have an easy task in front of him as he looks to get Wichita State back to national prominence, but perhaps his managerial experience will lead to improved results in 2020.
Top 2020 Draft Prospects
- Gavin Williams, RHP, East Carolina
- Joey Weimer, OF, Cincinnati
- Alec Burleson, 1B/LHP, East Carolina
- Hudson Haskin, OF, Tulane
- Bryson Worrell, OF East Carolina
- Colby Dunlop, RHP, Connecticut
- Dalton Wingo, OF, Central Florida
- Graham Hoffman, RHP, South Florida
- Chris Winkel, OF, Connecticut
- Garrett Schoenle, LHP Cincinnati
- Paxton Wallace, SS, Wichita State
- Clay Aguilar, LHP, Houston
- Alec Trela, 3B, Memphis
- Connor Pellerin, RHP, Tulane
- Donovan Benoit, RHP, Tulane
- Jeffrey Hakanson, RHP, Central Florida
- Seth Caddell, C, East Carolina
- Lael Lockhart, LHP, Houston
- Jimmy Wang, RHP, Connecticut
- Sean Bretz, RHP, Houston
Top 2021 Prospects
- Brandon Schrepf, OF/RHP South Florida
- Patrick Winkel, C/3B, Connecticut
- Hunter Goodman, OF, Memphis
- Nolan Lepkoske, RHP, Central Florida,
- Thomas Francisco, 1B, East Carolina
- Kyler Fedko, LF, Connecticut
- Brad Burckel, 2B, Houston
- Hunter Patteson, LHP, Central Florida
- David Bates, RHP, Tulane
- Derrick Cherry, RF, Houston
- Reggie Crawford, 1B/LHP, Connecticut
- Cody Benton, RHP, East Carolina
- Skylar Brooks, INF/RHP, East Carolina
- Nicholas Gotilla, LHP, Central Florida
- Adam Grintz, RHP, Tulane
- Derek Shaver, 3B, Wichita State
- Andrew Washington, RHP, South Florida
- Carson Whisenhunt, LHP, East Carolina
- AJ Wilson, LHP, East Carolina
- Kyle Wilson, RHP, Wichita State
Best Pure Hitter: Alec Burleson, East Carolina
Best Power Hitter: Hunter Goodman, Memphis
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Lane Hoover, East Carolina
Best Athlete: Joey Wiemer, Cincinnati
Fastest Runner: Gephry Pena, UCF
Best Baserunner: Joey Wiemer, Cincinnati
Best Defensive Catcher: Kyle Lovelace, Houston
Best Defensive Infielder: Alec Trela, Memphis
Best Infield Arm: Alec Trela, Memphis
Best Defensive OF: Jeremy Johnson, Cincinnati
Best Outfield Arm: Tyler Bielamowicz, Houston
Best Fastball: Gavin Williams, East Carolina
Best Breaking Ball: Gavin Williams, East Carolina
Best Changeup: Jake Kuchmaner, East Carolina
Best Control: Jake Kuchmaner, East Carolina