2020 Big East Conference College Baseball Preview
After mostly producing a clear-cut top tier of teams in recent seasons, the Big East this year looks to be much more open. Creighton last year won both the conference’s regular season and tournament championships and swept the conference awards but must replace much of that roster. St. John’s, another of the conference’s powerhouses, similarly lost a lot of talent and longtime coach Ed Blankmeyer also moved on to pro ball, joining the Mets organization.
With so much turnover, the conference looks as wide open as its been in recent seasons. Any of the top four teams listed in the projected standings could craft a legitimate case for why it should enter the spring as the favorite.
Part of the reason the conference appears to be so wide open is how well its schools fared in last year’s draft. Nineteen players from the conference were drafted, including six in the top 10 rounds, and six of the seven teams had at least one player drafted.
The Big East won’t match that level of pro talent in 2020, but the competitive nature of the conference should make it a fun race to follow throughout the spring.
Player of the Year: Allbry Major, OF, Xavier
The Musketeers have produced some highly drafted pitchers in the program’s history including competitive bonus-rounder Zac Lowther in 2017 and fifth-rounder Conor Grammes in 2019. Major, the 2018 Big East Freshman of the Year, has a chance this year to become the highest drafted position player in program history. He’s hit .285/.347/.443 for his career at Xavier and is coming off a solid summer in the Cape Cod League. Tall and lanky at 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, Major has a lot of tools and can impact the game in a variety of ways with his power and athleticism.
Pitcher of the Year: Connor Schultz, RHP, Butler
Schultz was named first-team all-Big East as a sophomore in 2019 after going 6-1, 2.29. He ranked second in the Big East in ERA and his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.76 was third-best in the league. Listed at 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, Schultz is not the most overpowering pitcher in the league, but his four-pitch mix and ability to locate his fastball makes him tough to face.
Freshman of the Year: Griffin Holderfield, RHP, Creighton
The Blue Jays lost their three regular starters and closer from last year’s Big East championship team, opening plenty of opportunities for new arms and Holderfield is in position to capitalize. Listed at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, the righthander is big and powerful and has a fastball that can get up to 95 mph. It more typically sits 90-91 mph and he pairs it with a good slider. Holderfield is poised to pitch in a significant role this spring for Creighton.
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Predicted Order of Finish (2019 record)
The Musketeers’ overall record of 27-31 last season isn’t reflective of how good they were. Xavier’s nonconference strength of schedule ranked 19th in the nation and it finished one game behind Creighton in the regular season, before losing 9-8 to the Blue Jays in the Big East Tournament championship game. After getting that experience last season, Xavier has what it takes to win the Big East and return to regionals for the third time in five years. It must replace its three leading hitters, including two-way superstar Connor Grammes, but if Major can take a step forward as a junior, he has what it takes to anchor a lineup. Ryan Altenberger will move to shortstop to take over for Chris Givin, who last year was Xavier’s second leading hitter and one of the better defenders in the draft. Altenberger (.259/.387/.443) was hampered in the second half of last season by injuries but has the tools to play a big role in the lineup. Outfielder Luke Franzoni (.254/.338/.563) last year struck out in 40 percent of his plate appearances but also hit 11 home runs in 126 at bats. If he can cut down on his strikeouts, he’ll be a middle-of-the-order threat. Grammes’ power arm won’t be easy to replace on the mound, but Xavier will move righthander Lane Flamm (3-2, 2.68, 8 SV) from the back of the bullpen to Friday nights. He’ll lead a high-upside rotation with lefthanders Trevor Olson (2-1, 6.19) and Nick Zwack (4-3, 6.28) following. They all have fastballs that can get up to 94-95 mph and are primed to this spring take a step forward. Xavier has good pitching depth and experience, which should be an asset for them. In what should be a highly competitive Big East race, Xavier has the talent to rise to the top.
The Blue Jays last year won the Big East, eliminated host Oregon State in the Corvallis Regional and then pushed Michigan to the brink in the regional final, finishing the season 41-13. From that team, Creighton lost six players to the draft, including sluggers Jake Holton and Will Robertson and starters Denson Hull and Mitch Ragan. The Blue Jays have the talent on hand to reload, led by a talented pitching staff. Sophomore righthander Dylan Tebrake (2-1, 3.90) has the ability to move to the front of the rotation and senior righthander John Sakowski (7-1, 2.83) brings experience at the back of the bullpen. Outfielder Parker Upton (.324/.483/.603, 10 HR) leads the returners in the lineup and brings needed thump. Creighton won’t be as powerful as it was a year ago, but it should be pretty athletic and if some of the more inexperienced players step up to join Upton, it should support the pitching staff well. The Blue Jays also brought in a strong group of newcomers, headlined by Holderfield. Put it all together and this team doesn’t need to take much of a step back in 2020.
3. Seton Hall
The Pirates have a veteran team returning after finishing tied for third in the Big East standings in 2019. Their roster has eight players in their fourth year of college baseball, including outfielder Tyler Shedler-McAvoy (.324/.406/.471, 22 SB) and infielder Matt Toke (.290/.394/.398), their top two hitters from a year ago, and righthander Noah Thompson (4-3, 4.20), a member of the rotation, and lefthander Corey Swayer (1-1, 1.73, 4 SV), their top reliever. As usual, the Pirates are built around pitching and defense and their run prevention will have them in contention this spring.
4. St. John’s
Things are going to look very different at Jack Kaiser Field this spring. Longtime coach Ed Blankmeyer, who won 829 games in 24 seasons as head coach, stepped down in January to become the manager of short-season Brooklyn and the Mets’ extended spring training coordinator. Mike Hampton, Blankmeyer’s longtime assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, was elevated to interim head coach for 2020 and takes over a team with an experienced lineup, but a young pitching staff after the Red Storm lost four pitchers in the top 20 rounds of last year’s draft. St. John’s still has impactful talent on the mound, starting with redshirt junior lefthander Nick Mondak (2-3, 3.86), who has been working back to full strength after a series of injuries early in his college career, and junior righthander Jose Rodriguez, who last year won a national championship at Cumberland (N.J.) JC and was drafted in the 20th round. Mondak, Rodriguez and sophomore righthanders Ian Murphy and Matt Sermon offer upside. If they can capitalize on it, 2020 doesn’t have to be a season of transition for the Red Storm.
The Bulldogs have made important strides in three years under coach Dave Schrage and enter 2020 in a good place, despite losing ace Ryan Pepiot and leading hitter Harrison Freed in the draft. Schultz outperformed Pepiot in some respects and has what it takes to lead the rotation. Closer Jack Pilcher (1-1, 6.46) is coming off a tough season but has experience finishing games for the Bulldogs and could lead a solid bullpen. Butler needs to find some answers offensively, especially after losing Freed and Kyle Smith who combined for 27 of the team’s 39 home runs in 2019, and will look to juniors James Gargano (.268/.364/.381), Jacob Margoff (.260/.436/.325) and Robbie McCargar (.260/.377/.420) as experienced hitters to lead the offense.
The Wildcats have not won more than five Big East games in a season since 2015 but there is reason for optimism in Philadelphia. Sophomore infielder/righthander Nick Lorusso was named 2019 Big East rookie of the year after hitting .302/.408/.425 and going 1-3, 6.05 with 32 strikeouts and 15 walks in 41/2 innings. Sophomore righthander Gordon Graceffo (3-8, 4.88) last season emerged as the team’s Friday starter and is ready to reprise that role this spring. The Wildcats brought in another solid recruiting class, giving coach Kevin Mulvey some solid building blocks for the program.
The Hoyas are led by shortstop Eddie McCabe, who is one of the conference’s best prospects and a legitimate player of the year candidate. He last year led the team in hitting with a .345/.433/.453 line and has started every game in his first two years on campus. Georgetown will need some more players to step up around McCabe, particularly on the mound. Georgetown posted a 5.20 team ERA last season and lost the three pitchers who threw more than 40 innings last season.
Top 2020 Draft Prospects
- Allbry Major, OF, Xavier
- Jose Rodriguez, RHP, St. John’s
- Eddie McCabe, SS, Georgetown
- Nick Zwack, LHP, Xavier
- Trevor Olson, LHP, Xavier
- Nick Mondak, LHP, St. John’s
- Parker Upton, OF, Creighton
- Connor Schultz, RHP, Butler
- Jerry Huntzinger, C, Seton Hall
- OF Tyler Shedler-McAvoy, OF, Seton Hall