2020 Atlantic Sun Conference College Baseball Preview
Last season, the Atlantic Sun lived up to its reputation as one of the most competitive mid-major conferences in college baseball. Although it failed to get multiple teams into regionals, as it had in 2018, it very well might have if a team other than Liberty, an at-large candidate, had won the automatic bid.
The Flames will come into the 2020 season as the favorites to win the regular season title, but in typical Atlantic Sun fashion, the expectation is that they will find themselves in competition with several teams at the top of the standings come the end of the season.
The toughest tests are set to come from a rejuvenated Stetson team that suffered through some growing pains last season on the heels of a super regional appearance; Jacksonville, which is well-stocked with high-end pitching; and Florida Gulf Coast, the team that won the regular season title last season.
Player of the Year: Will Wagner, 2B, Liberty
After being a bit overmatched in a freshman season that saw him get into just 16 games in 2018, Wagner went to the Northwoods League that summer and worked hard on his game to prove that he could be a full-time player as a sophomore. It clearly did the trick, as he hit .305/.382/.444 with six home runs and 42 RBI in his second year with the Flames. After hitting .327 this past summer with Keene in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, Wagner returns to campus a much bigger and stronger player according to Liberty coach Scott Jackson, suggesting a breakout campaign for the junior could be in store.
Pitcher of the Year: Noah Skirrow, RHP, Liberty
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound righthander was effective right out of the gate for Liberty as a freshman, going 4-3, 4.57 in 67 innings of work. He took a big step forward as a sophomore in 2019, recording a 5-6, 3.76 mark with 98 strikeouts in 76.2 innings, while allowing a .230 opponent average along the way. He was an all-star in the Cape Cod League last summer and ended the campaign with a 2.76 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 29.1 innings. Skirrow’s stuff jumps off the page as well, including a high-spin rate fastball that can touch 95 mph and an effective curveball that he can use as an out pitch. As the season nears, the righthander will look to bring along his changeup as a third offering and really attack hitters, which could help to cut down his walk total—an area of concern for him in the past. Liberty already knows what it’s going to get from Skirrow, but if he can add those elements to his game in 2020, he could be in for a massive season.
Freshman of the Year: Nick Durgin, RHP, Stetson
Stetson returns a number of experienced pitchers who will be fighting for innings on the weekend, but already, Durgin has forced his way into the conversation. The righthander dominated Class 5A competition in Florida at Melbourne Central Catholic High and then immediately made an impression at the college level, throwing four no-hit innings with six strikeouts against Central Florida in a fall exhibition. Stetson’s available pitching depth means that Durgin will likely have to pitch well in his opportunities to keep getting them, but he appears advanced enough at this stage to do so.
Boise State Eliminates Baseball Program, Cites Budget Concerns
Boise State on Thursday announced it eliminated its baseball program just three years after the school moved to restart its long-dormant team.
Predicted Order of Finish (2019 record)
1. Liberty (43-21, 15-9)
Skirrow highlights the Flames’ rotation, but it’s a veteran group overall. Joseph Adametz (7-2, 4.04) is back in the rotation and Mason Meyer (6-4, 4.28) projects to jump into a weekend role after pitching as a mid-week starter a season ago. Given Liberty’s perpetually tough midweek slate, that means that he threw ten games against ACC foes and one against an SEC team. He also beat Tennessee in the regional. Jackson says that Meyer could push his way into the competition for the Friday spot thanks to his competitive nature. Another key piece back on the mound is Garret Price (7-3, 3.15), Liberty’s most consistent pitcher over the last three years. He settled into a role as a multi-inning reliever last season and should do the same in 2020.
Wagner and first baseman Logan Mathieu (.265/.378/.410), whose seven home runs are the top returning total on the team, provide a solid foundation for the lineup. For the Flames to reach their potential, though, they need more consistent production from players who project to hit in the bottom of the order, like shortstop Cam Locklear (.257/.375/.347) and outfielder Jaylen Guy (.257/.351/.320). The biggest hole to fill in the lineup is the one left by departed catcher Jonathan Embry, the 2019 Atlantic Sun player of the year, but Jackson and his staff believe they’ve filled it to some degree with junior college transfer Brady Gulakowski, who flashes a plus arm behind the plate and power in the batter’s box. Defensively, the Flames should be very solid, with Mathieu, Locklear, Guy and third baseman Ben Highfill (.219/.301/.284) all showing solid ability in the field.
2. Stetson (27-32, 11-12)
The Hatters took a step back last season after their super regional appearance in 2018, but the talent, particularly on the mound, is in place to bounce back in a big way this season. Lefthander Daniel Paret (5-4, 3.61), the freshman of the year in the A-Sun, fought his way into the rotation early last season and will be expected to lead it this time around. Righthander Robbie Peto (1-9, 4.10) was drafted in the 26th round at the end of last season, but chose to return for his redshirt junior season. He certainly pitched much better in 2019 than his 1-9 record suggests. Durgin will be in the mix, of course, and then there’s strike-throwing junior lefty Chris Gonzalez (7-3, 3.40), who served as Stetson’s Friday starter for much of last season. Danny Garcia (5-1, 1.22) will move from a setup role to the closer’s spot after a dominant 2019 that earned him Freshman All-America honors.
If the Hatters are to get back into the postseason picture, they will need to improve upon their .238/.333/.333 offensive line from last year. The good news is that there are still a number of holdovers in the lineup from that 2018 team, led by powerful first baseman Eric Foggo (.275/.368/.444) and steady shortstop Jorge Arenas (.268/.341/.390). Andrew MacNeil (.181/.326/.243) was a catalyst two years ago and will be looking for a bounce back campaign after his numbers fell off last season. The Hatters should also be healthier in 2020. Jonathan Meola (.268/.354/.411), a premium defender at third base, is back after missing all but 15 games last season. Towering 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman Brandon Hylton was lost to injury before last season even began, but he could be a source of power this season.
3. Jacksonville (32-27, 13-11)
Consider the Dolphins another team with the pitching talent to win the conference title if their offensive questions get answered in a positive way. Whether he pitches as a weekend starter or moves to the bullpen, as he did last season out of necessity, righthander Trent Palmer (5-4, 4.55) is one of the best arms in the conference, with a fastball up to 97 mph to go along with a slider that flashes plus, a curveball and a splitter. Behind him, there is a ton of experienced depth. Righthander Tyler Santana (4-4, 5.30) has pitched on the weekends in each of the last two seasons, senior righthander A.J. Jones (7-4, 3.30) was consistent last year in a weekend role and Austin Temple (4-3, 5.37) is a projectable righthander whose fastball sits 89-92 mph. That’s to say nothing of Mike Cassala, who was being groomed for a weekend role back in 2018 before he missed most of that season and all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. In the bullpen, getting Chris Mauloni (0-1, 7.07) back is a huge deal. He missed a good chunk of time in 2019 with injury, one season after he was a Freshman All-American, and was still drafted in the 35th round as a draft-eligible sophomore. He’ll be joined in relief by Nick Love (5-3, 3.38), a righty with some funk in his delivery who was a workhorse out of the bullpen last year.
Offensively, the loss of Angel Camacho, who led the team in most offensive categories, is a big one, but the return of senior second baseman Scott Dubrule (.307/.404/.359), senior shortstop Dakota Julylia (.313/.379/.378) and senior catcher/DH Jacob Southern (.249/.353/.405) will help. Southern, as far and away the team’s most proven returning power bat, will look to fill in some of Camacho’s missing extra-base pop. The productivity of a group of transfers in catcher Anthony George, third baseman Stephen Moffatt and outfielder Langston Provitt will go a long way toward bringing the Jacksonville offense along.
4. Florida Gulf Coast (34-21, 16-7)
After winning the league’s regular season title in 2019, FGCU will look to compete at the top of the conference again thanks to balance achieved by having established stars in all facets of the game. In the lineup, senior catcher Alex Brait (.321/.390/.414), senior second baseman Richie Garcia (.289/.404/.453) and sophomore outfielder Joe Kinker (.324/.461/.492) give the Eagles three foundational pieces around which to build an offense. Brait is also a good athlete behind the plate and outfielder Marc Coffers (.235/.316/.318) provides outstanding defense and a good arm in center field.
On the mound, senior Mason Studstill (5-2, 2.60) will give FGCU a chance every Friday night and if converted closer Hunter McGarry (3.05, 9 SV) can take to starting pitching, it could have a rotation on par with the other top teams in the league, all of which boast enviable pitching quality and depth. Perhaps FGCU doesn’t have the standout pitching depth of others in the conference, but the return of those veteran bats could set them apart.
5. Kennesaw State (27-29, 11-13)
Kennesaw State’s offensive prowess could prove to be a differentiator in a league that is extremely pitching-heavy. First baseman Justin Russell (.308/.374/.609) returns after his 12 home runs led the league a season ago. Outfielder Terence Norman (.350/.431/.481), catcher Tyler Tolve (.328/.407/.420), shortstop Tyler Simon (.301/.383/.416), the team’s top 2020 draft prospect, and outfielder Garrett Hodges (.293/.377/.428) give the lineup impressive depth. The pitching staff is long on talent, but short on proven commodities. Sophomore righthander Jared Rine (3-5, 3.44), a reliever last season who is projected to be the team’s Friday starter, features a four-pitch mix highlighted by a fastball that has reached 95 mph. Redshirt freshman Makenzie Stills, a Vanderbilt transfer also projected for a weekend spot, brings high-end ability but has yet to throw a pitch at this level. Lefthander Ryan Kennedy (5-3, 5.16) brings experience, having pitched in the rotation each of the last two years. If Rine and Stills make immediate impacts like their talent suggests they could, the combination of that rotation and KSU’s returning offensive pieces will give the Owls a chance to compete at the top of the league.
6. Lipscomb (30-25, 14-10)
In junior outfielder Maddux Houghton (.342/.400/.482), the Bisons return one of the best offensive catalysts in the conference. A shortstop when he arrived at Lipscomb, Houghton has not only become the guy who makes the offense go, but he has also developed into a quality center fielder. He’ll be supported by senior second baseman Haddon Adams (.277/.358/.388), a typical table-setter who will once again hit at the top of the order. Primarily a catcher and designated hitter in the past, Chris Bashlor (.302/.413/.447) will look to transition to a spot at an infield corner, while continuing to be a key piece in the lineup. Senior shortstop Brian Moore (.205/.304/.315) will look to do a little more with the bat in 2020, but he’s already a plus defender at his position. On the mound, lefthander Noah Thompson (4-5, 4.39) has been slowed by an ankle injury leading up to the season, but if he’s healthy, he will keep Lipscomb competitive on Fridays. Six-foot-nine lefty Max Habegger (3-2, 6.26) is certainly a pitcher to watch. The best traditional pitching prospect on the roster, he excelled at missing bats last season, evidenced by his 36 strikeouts in 23 innings, but he also struggled with control and walked 25 batters. If he can carve out a regular role and be more consistent, it will raise the ceiling for what this team can accomplish.
7. North Florida (32-25, 12-11)
The Ospreys will have to deal with the loss of A-Sun pitcher of the year Brad Deppermann, but they’re hopeful the depth they have on the mound will help offset some of that. Senior Brandon Reitz (4-5, 4.58) brings experience to his role as the Friday starter after pitching on the weekends last season. Hunter Bowling (1-1, 3.72) will look to have the same amount of success in a starting role as he did as a reliever in 2019. The best news on the mound for UNF is the return of closer Eddie Miller (1.31, 8 saves), who set the single-season ERA record for the program with his performance last year. The return of catcher Tanner Clark (.306/.407/.398), who was an effective part of the lineup in a limited role last season, will help, but UNF’s offensive success will likely be closely tied to the success of power-hitting junior college transfers in first baseman Trey Spratling-Williams and third baseman Ricky Presno.
8. New Jersey Tech (17-27-1, 7-17)
Once again, third baseman Julio Marcano (.309/.415/.509) and shortstop David Marcano (.314/.402/.416), twin brothers, will lead the Highlanders offense, although they’re not alone. With second baseman Brett Helmkamp (.325/.420/.387) and first baseman Nick Hussey (.291/.357/.430) also back in the fold, NJIT returns its top four hitters from last season. Catcher Paul Franzoni (.200/.335/.375) provides raw power at the plate and outstanding defensive ability behind it. Senior Matt Cocciadiferro (.249/.322/.387) brings good speed to the lineup and an outstanding arm to the outfield. Freshman center fielder Albert Choi is a speedster who should be able to impact the game in a number of ways. On the mound, righthander Tyler Stafflinger (2-6, 4.82) will lead the rotation after serving as the Highlanders’ best starter a year ago and lefty Grant Vurpillat (2-0, 4.82) will look to successfully transition into a starting role. Beyond those two, there are more questions than answers heading into the season.
9. North Alabama (16-38, 7-16)
As expected, North Alabama’s move into Division I last year was bumpy, but with a full season at this level now under its belt, it will look to start building something and make a move to be more competitive moving forward. Key veteran pieces on the mound are back with the return of Bryant Claunch (5-2, 3.26), Hunter Davidson (3-4, 4.53) and Jacob Laws (1-7, 5.86), the team’s three leaders in innings a year ago. Offensively, two of the team’s top three hitters are back in Ben Kiefer (.293/.354/.328) and Reid Homan (.252/.311/.347). Of UNA’s 20 home runs in 2019, six came from the departed Davis Elliott, so it will certainly need to find power sources as the season goes on.
Top 2020 Draft Prospects
- Trent Palmer, RHP, Jacksonville
- Noah Skirrow, RHP, Liberty
- Will Wagner, 2B, Liberty
- Chris Mauloni, RHP, Jacksonville
- Robbie Peto, RHP, Stetson
- Austin Wood, RHP, Stetson
- Eric Foggo, 1B, Stetson
- Tyler Simon, SS, Kennesaw State
- Maddux Houghton, OF, Lipscomb
- Max Habegger, LHP, Lipscomb