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2020 Conference USA College Baseball Preview

Over the last two seasons, the cream has risen to the top in Conference USA, with Southern Mississippi and Florida Atlantic being the league’s two representatives in regionals both times. Taking a wider view, one of the two has won the league’s regular season title in each of the last four years.

Those trends should continue into 2020, with USM and FAU the favorites once again.

One other recent trend is the lack of any sort of firm middle class in the conference. Once upon a time, when programs like East Carolina, Tulane, Central Florida and Houston were in the league, Rice may have been the perennial champion, but those four teams, plus USM and FAU, took turns not just getting into regionals, but in many cases, challenging to host them.

With Rice clearly down from where it was even a decade ago and realignment having changed the shape of the league, no one has really stepped up to fill in that vacuum.

One season won’t necessarily prove anything to that end, but getting a team into regionals other than Southern Miss or Florida Atlantic could provide a hint of things to come.

Player of the Year: Trei Cruz, SS, Rice

A Rice University legacy whose father, Jose Cruz, Jr., and uncle Enrique Cruz both played for the Owls under Wayne Graham, Trei Cruz burst onto the scene with a solid freshman season in 2018, hitting .279/.392/.438. Then, he solidified his position as the conference’s most dynamic player and as a prospect for the 2020 draft with a .305/.393/.519 sophomore season with nine home runs, all while playing a demanding defensive position.

Pitcher of the Year: Logan Allen, LHP, Florida International

Allen, who also occasionally finds himself in the lineup as a hitter for the Panthers, took a big jump as a sophomore last season, going from 5-5, 3.89 with 85 strikeouts and a .262 opponent batting average in 74 innings in 2018 to 4-6, 3.11 with 120 strikeouts and a .231 opponent batting average in 84 innings in 2019. With another season like his last, the lefthander could help push FIU toward its first postseason appearance since 2015 and push himself into being selected early in the draft. He was voted a Preseason All-American as a two-way player by major league scouting directors.

Freshman of the Year: Dante Visconti, RHP, Florida Atlantic

A 6-foot-5, 220-pound righthander from Bartram Trail High in St. Johns, Florida, Visconti has the physicality, arm strength and repertoire, including a good breaking ball, to break into the rotation right away. With the losses of Blake Sanderson and Mike Ruff, FAU will be looking for pitchers to step up and earn innings on the weekend, and Visconti has the opportunity to take advantage.

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Projected Order of Finish (2019 Record)

1. Southern Mississippi (40-21, 20-10)

The Golden Eagles lost three of their four top hitters from last season in Matt Wallner, Bryant Bowen and Hunter Slater. Those three not only had three of the four highest averages, but they also accounted for 45 of the team’s 67 home runs. As a result, the offense may have to take a different approach this time around and push to score more runs as a result of stringing multiple hits together and making things happen on the bases. The quality, versatility and athleticism of the lineup should put them in a position to do so. Left fielder Gabe Montenegro (.342/.455/.494) is back after leading the team in hitting a season ago. Also back is senior second baseman Matthew Guidry (.297/.457/.491, 8 HR), a prototypical gamer who does everything, from drawing walks, to hitting home runs, to even stealing the occasional base. Third baseman Danny Lynch (.296/.387/.357) was productive as a freshman and has now added some additional strength. First baseman Will McGillis (.223/.328/.293) and center fielder Hunter LeBlanc (.239/.306/.336) stand out as athletes that could thrive on a team looking to rely less on power. The former played shortstop last season and brings uncommon athleticism to his new position. The latter tied for the team lead in stolen bases a year ago, even if seven is all it took, and in an offense that might run a bit more in 2020, he could be a bigger catalyst. Freshman shortstop Dustin Dickerson, one of the best newcomers in the conference, will get a shot at holding down an important position right away.

The USM pitching staff will have to deal with the loss of starting pitcher Stevie Powers, but the high-end talent on the roster should mitigate his departure and give the Golden Eagles a chance to have one of the best rotations in the conference. Electric righthander Gabe Shepard (3-0, 2.35) exploded onto the scene late last year with 7.1 no-hit innings against Rice in the Conference USA Tournament and then backed that up by holding Arizona State to two runs in 5.2 innings in the regional. In 2020, he’ll step into the Friday role. He’ll have to prove that he can handle that workload, but there’s no doubt that he has the stuff to be as good as anyone in the league. Having senior righthander Walker Powell (6-2, 2.81) back will help steady the rotation, even if Shepard deals with growing pains along the way. The Sunday starter job is projected to go to freshman lefthander Chandler Best. Righthander Hunter Stanley (3.07, 4 SV) will look to be a workhorse out of the bullpen again after a successful debut last season. There are enough veteran pieces back that the floor is pretty high for this Southern Miss team. What would raise the ceiling is the offense truly finding a way to manufacture more runs without the luxury of waiting for homers and Shepard and Best taking to their roles.

2. Florida Atlantic (41-21, 22-8)

Under coach John McCormack, FAU has done an extraordinary job of striking balance on the roster that allows the program to continually put tons of players into pro baseball while also avoiding seasons where the coaching staff has to start from scratch come February. That’s the case again in 2020. From the lineup, center fielder Eric Rivera, catcher Pedro Pages and third baseman Joe Montes are gone. Those are three huge losses, but they are eclipsed by what they have coming back in second baseman Francisco Urbaez (.322/.432/.519, 10 HR), outfielder Mitchell Hartigan (.322/.404/.514), shortstop Wilfredo Alvarez (.320/.396/.395), right fielder Bobby Morgensen (.312/.408/.535, 11 HR), DH Jared DeSantolo (.298/.373/.413) and first baseman Andru Summerall (.295/.386/.474). It’s a similar story on the mound. Blake Sanderson and Mike Ruff are gone from the rotation and so is closer Zach Schneider. But Jacob Josey (3.38, 37.1 IP) will transition from a swingman role to the front of the rotation and relievers Michael Schuler (4.67, 34.2 IP) and Dylan O’Connell (4.85, 29.2 IP) are back to help close out games. Schuler, in particular, took a big jump in the summer and fall, with his fastball now touching 95 mph.

At the same time, McCormack and his staff do an outstanding job of developing players to move up into bigger roles and finding players from the high school and junior college ranks who can have an impact right away. On the mound, they hope junior college transfer righthander Corey Ireson and the freshman Dante Visconti will fit that mold and fill in behind Josey in the rotation. The same can be said of junior college transfer lefthander Adrien Reese, who could be ticketed for midweek starts. With midweek games against Florida, Miami and UCF always looming large for FAU’s postseason hopes, finding someone for that role is no minor task. In the lineup, junior college transfer center fielder Jackson Wenstrom is a physically gifted player that should be able to do a little bit of everything. Catcher Nicholas Toney (.167, 18 AB) is a toolsy backstop and an intriguing player for the 2021 draft who will now look to flourish in a full-time role after sitting behind Pages last season. Similarly, highly-regarded third baseman B.J. Murray (.086, 35 AB) will look to start turning his promise into production after a tough freshman campaign. Dealing with personnel losses after each season is just the cost of doing business if you’re a good program. FAU knows that, deals with it as well as anyone and should do so again in 2020.

3. Louisiana Tech (34-24, 17-13)

It’s hard to know exactly what to expect with Louisiana Tech in 2020. On one hand, the Bulldogs will be baseball nomads this season, playing “home” games in three different venues, including several series more than two hours away in Jackson, Miss., due to the re-construction of J.C. Love Field that will take place this season. That seems like reason enough to expect some bumps in the road for the Bulldogs. But on the other hand, La Tech has established itself as the most consistent program in the league outside of USM and FAU, and they have a talented team on their hands again. Notably, it is old in a lot of spots in the field. Four significantly experienced juniors or seniors project to populate the lineup in second baseman Taylor Young (.316/.443/.396), third baseman Hunter Wells (.294/.372/.431), center fielder Parker Bates (.270/.348/.434) and right fielder Steele Netterville (.254/.349/.462). Netterville could hold the key to this lineup reaching the next level. He has more power than anyone on the roster, and if he can cut down on his strikeouts and tap into more of that power in-game, he could be in for a massive year. Catcher Jorge Corona and first baseman Ben Brantley are freshmen worth getting excited about. A 38th-round selection of the Royals last year, Corona is a good catch and throw guy behind the plate, which gives the coaching staff confidence he can handle the position as a freshman. Brantley is a 6-foot-4, 240-pound physical power bat who will provide pop from day one. Senior righthander Tyler Follis (3.94, 45.2 IP) will look to make the transition from the bullpen to the Friday starter spot. He’s coming off of a successful summer in the Cape Cod League and will look to use that as a springboard into becoming a workhorse in the rotation. Speaking of workhorses, two of them are back in the bullpen in lefthanders Jonathan Fincher (2.78, 32.1 IP) and Kyle Griffen (4.19, 58 IP), who set the program record for appearances in 2019. To round out the pitching staff, the Bulldogs will lean heavily on junior college transfers in righthanders Jarret Whorff and Ryan Jennings, who project to follow Follis on the weekend, and righthander Shemar Page, who could find his way into starts or work out of the bullpen. The offense feels more settled at this stage, with how well the new faces take to Division I baseball looking like a potential difference-maker in whether or not La Tech can make another regional.

4. Old Dominion (35-21, 16-14)

The Monarchs bring back a team that features proven players and talented newcomers in just about equal measure. The biggest name on the marquee for ODU is outfielder Andy Garriola (.328/.378/.559, 10 HR), a toolsy player who was a Freshman All-American last season. But around him, outfielder Kyle Battle (.306/.399/.418), second baseman Matt Burch (.298/.369/.367), outfielder Ryan Teschko (.291/.372/.342) and shortstop Tommy Bell (.273/.356/.407) ensure that it’s not a one-man show in the lineup. Look for freshman third baseman Chris Dengler to be an impact player right away. An explosive athlete, Dengler is a quality defender at the hot corner who already boasts a mature understanding of the game. In righthanders Nick Pantos (5-3, 4.05) and Ryne Moore (6-4, 3.78), Old Dominion returns two-thirds of its starting rotation from last year, and if freshman lefthander Noah Dean lives up to his immense potential right away, it will have a weekend group that could rival anyone in the league. Dean, a New Jersey native, already features a fastball that can reach the mid 90s. In the bullpen, it doesn’t get much better than the duo of righty Hunter Gregory (4.05, 60 IP), who struck out 85 to lead the team in 2019, and righthander Aaron Holiday (2.90, 40.1 IP). Under coach Chris Finwood, ODU has been quietly consistent for a long time. With this group, the program could be ready to jump back into the postseason for the first time since 2014.

5. Rice (26-33, 14-16)

Rice’s first season under coach Matt Bragga looked a lot like the program’s last under Wayne Graham, right down to having the same number of wins - 26. The Owls are still clearly several steps back from where they were at their peak, but there’s enough impressive talent in place this season that you might start to see the rebuild under Bragga taking shape. On offense, Cruz is a fantastic centerpiece to begin with, junior catcher Justin Collins (.260/.387/.425) is a star in his own right and seniors in second baseman Cade Edwards (.308/.360/.498), third baseman Braden Comeaux (.299/.388/.421) and right fielder Bradley Gneiting (.295/.366/.378) give the lineup length. Add in junior college transfers in first baseman Austin Bulman, left fielder Daniel Hernandez and DH Brayden Combs, who began his career at Kentucky, all of whom have great offensive track records, and you have the makings of the best Rice offense in quite some time. The Owls’ pitching staff is long on talent, but short on experience. Hard-throwing senior righthander Roel Garcia has been in the program going on four years, but due to missing all of last season with injury, he hasn’t yet had a chance to prove himself in the rotation full-time. The fact that he was still drafted in the 27th round at the end of last season speaks to his talent level, however. Saturday starter Alex DeLeon transferred in from junior college power McLennan (Texas) JC after two productive seasons there. Sophomore righthander Dalton Wood (4.23, 27.2 IP) will round out the rotation after pitching in relief a season ago. One pitcher to watch in the bullpen is junior college transfer righthander Jack Conlon, who has taken a circuitous route to get to Rice. An unsigned fourth-round pick in 2017, Conlon began his career at Texas A&M and then stopped over at San Jacinto (Texas) JC last season before arriving in Houston. His talent is impressive and could help him become a huge weapon for the Owls if he can stay healthy and put it all together. Expectations should not be that Rice will return to its status as a national power in 2020, but if things click, a postseason appearance is certainly on the table.

6. Florida International (23-32, 12-18)

Under Mervyl Melendez, FIU has excelled at talent acquisition, as it continues to bring in top recruit after top recruit. That talent has yet to lead to any postseason appearances for the Panthers, but as has been the case the last couple of seasons, the individual pieces are there for this to be the year they come through. It starts with Allen on the mound. Not only has he been outstanding for FIU, but he was excellent last summer in the Cape Cod League before moving on to USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Getting Tyler Myrick back should be a boon for the pitching staff as well. The righthander missed all of last season, but has the raw stuff to be a game-changer. In the bullpen, righty Angel Tiburcio (2.15, 29.1 IP) returns after serving as the team’s most effective reliever last season. On offense, diminutive second baseman Derek Cartaya (.316/.395/.374, 20 SB) should be a spark plug in the order once again, Jose Garcia (.285/.365/.521, 11 HR) will provide some pop and Jarrett Ford (.277/.357/.331, 17 SB) will give FIU speed on the bases. Outfielder Chris Williams (.188/.243/.290) is another player to watch. He’s a high-end talent that struggled through his freshman season, but could be ready to make a jump. It remains to be seen how much of an opportunity he will get as he continues to develop as an ace, but Allen (.276/.321/.434) could also be a contributor in the lineup once again.

7. Western Kentucky (26-29-1, 16-13-1)

Powered by outfielder Jake Sanford, who won Conference USA’s regular season triple crown, 2019 was the best season for Western Kentucky since joining the league prior to the 2016 season. The 2020 season could be just as good, despite the loss of Sanford. Part of that optimism comes from WKU being healthy coming into the season. First baseman Richard Constantine (.376/.449/.645, 7 HR) and DH Davis Sims (.362/.443/.505) were the two best hitters outside of Sanford last season, but both were limited to about half a season due to injury. They’ll be joined in the lineup by senior catcher Matt Phipps (.275/.338/.413), senior second baseman Jack Wilson (.307/.423/.407), senior shortstop Kevin Lambert (.271/.316/.300) and senior center fielder Ray Zuberer III (.222/.323/.380, 7 HR). Add in sophomore left fielder Jackson Swiney (.257/.348/.422) and senior third baseman Sam McElreath (.184/.296/.243) and it makes for an extraordinarily experienced lineup. Improved health should also benefit WKU on the mound, what with the return of starting pitcher Michael Darrell-Hicks, who missed last season after Tommy John surgery. With a fastball that sits 90-94 mph, Darrell-Hicks will pair nicely in the rotation with a pitcher who has similar fastball velocity in junior college transfer Riley Boyd. The righthander was a 28th-round selection of the Royals last season, but elected to attend WKU. Righthander Bailey Sutton (4.04, 42.1 IP) will be back to anchor the bullpen. With another solid season in 2020, perhaps we will look back at the 2019 campaign as a turning point for this program.

8. Alabama-Birmingham (27-29, 12-18)

The Blazers will go into 2020 looking to reverse a trend in league play. It has finished eighth or lower in each of the last four seasons after finishing as high as second in 2014, the first year that conference membership shifted radically. There is certainly a lot to like about this team offensively, as it brings back most of its most effective hitters from last year. That includes right fielder Zack Davis (.330/.421/.569, 8 HR), left fielder Colton Schultz (.316/.421/.490), center fielder Jess Davis (.296/.391/.431, 48 SB), who finished second in the country in steals last season, first baseman Ian Ladner (.293/.404/.493) and catcher J.P. Fullerton (.341/.433/.511), who thrived at the plate in a small sample of 88 at-bats last season. There’s also good balance with this group, as Zack Davis, Schultz and Ladner provide some power, Jess Davis and shortstop Justin Wiley (.245/.328/.327, 17 SB) can steal some bases and four returning players showed a nose for finding their way on base with .400 or better on-base percentages. Jess Davis and Wiley also give UAB good defenders at important positions. There isn’t quite the same track of record of success among those ticketed for the weekend rotation, but righthander Riley Davis (4-1, 5.13), righthander Tanner Rusk (2-2, 4.85) and lefthander Austin Bohannon (1-3, 6.51) all bring some starting experience to the table. Davis has the goods to be a bona fide ace in the league with command of three pitches, including a fastball that has been up to 94 mph.

9. Charlotte (21-31-1, 11-18-1)

The 49ers have the look of an ascendent college baseball program. They have a highly regarded first-year coach in Robert Woodard, who spent the last three years as pitching coach at North Carolina. Facility investment, including a newly completed indoor facility, is underway. And the new coaching staff is going all-in on introducing advanced training technology to the 49ers. But in 2020, understandably, there still might be growing pains. There should be optimism about a lineup that returns veterans like center fielder Todd Elwood (.333/.384/.385), second baseman Carson Johnson (.304/.385/.362), first baseman Rafi Vazquez (.289/.362/.543, 12 HR) and third baseman Josh Haney (.281/.328/.325). Six-foot-three, 220-pound freshman DH David McCabe, a corner infielder by trade, looks the part of an instant-impact bat as well. In the rotation, righthanders Ryan Czanstkowski (2-6, 6.50) and Bryce McGowan (2-7, 5.82) have experience, but both will look to put up better seasons overall. They’ll be joined by another precocious freshman in Christian Lothes, a 6-foot-2 lefthander from Ohio. Righthander Matt Brooks is a pitcher to watch in the second half of the season, once he returns from his torn labrum. He was limited to four appearances last season, but in 2018, he started 14 games for the 49ers. In the bullpen, senior righty Colby Bruce (2.63, 8 SV) is one of the best in the conference and will give Woodard and his staff confidence that closing out wins once they get a late lead won’t be much of an issue.

10. Texas-San Antonio (28-30, 13-16)

Everything points to new coach Patrick Hallmark being the right fit for UTSA. He had successful stints as an assistant at Rice and Missouri, and as the head coach at crosstown Incarnate Word, he led a turnaround that saw the Cardinals go from 20 wins the season before he arrived, to 29 in year one and 37 in year two. But it remains an open question what can be expected in year one of his tenure with the Roadrunners. An early emphasis has been placed on competition all over the field, as UTSA expects to mix and match at any number of positions. No matter how things shake out, you have to imagine outfielder Dylan Rock (.327/.423/.473, 20 2B), catcher/first baseman Bryan Sturges (.316/.465/.523, 19 2B) and catcher Nick Thornquist (.315/.400/.568, 19 2B) will be right in the thick of things. Staff ace Karan Patel is gone, but having righthander Slater Foust (8-2, 2,96) back in the rotation will help keep things on course. Around Foust, expect converted relievers Hunter Mason (4.63, 46.2 IP) and Shane Daughety (6.24, 53.1 IP) to get a crack at weekend innings. Righthander Palmer Wenzel (2.12, 17 IP) looked dominant in what was an injury-shortened season and will look to bounce back in a big way now that he’s healthy in 2020.

11. Marshall (29-28, 14-15)

Marshall will lean on a veteran pitching staff to try to stay in the middle of the pack or better in the league. A ton of quality bullpen arms from last season are back in righthander Michael Guerrero (2.11, 5 SV), righthander Philip Hoffman (3.52, 38.1 IP), lefthander Garett Priestley (4.32, 16.2 IP) and righthander D’Andre Knight (4.72, 34.1 IP). Also returning is righthander Ryan Capuano (1-3, 5.61), who split his time between starting and relieving. The lineup is a bit of a different story, as all four of Marshall’s .300 hitters are gone, plus catcher Rey Pastrana. Back to help mitigate those losses are middle infielder Geordon Blanton (.286/.352/.468), whose 17 doubles and 18 stolen bases were good for first and second on the team, respectively, and Zach Inskeep (.281/.361/.427). The Thundering Herd’s pitching talent already makes them a tough customer in the league, but achieving more balance by having some additional offensive difference-makers step forward would make them more competitive week-to-week in a deep conference.

12. Middle Tennessee State (18-37, 11-19)

In coach Jim Toman’s first season on the job, the Blue Raiders finished last in the league for the second time in four years. With just 12 returning lettermen, the 2020 team will have to fight to avoid that fate again, but with so many newcomers, it may be a season where you can begin to see the rebuild take hold in Murfreesboro. There’s plenty of optimism about a weekend rotation of lefthander Peyton Wigginton (5-5, 5.25) and junior college transfers Aaron Brown and Justin Medlin. Brown is regarded as the best 2020 draft prospect on the roster, and the MTSU coaching staff notes that his competitiveness and work ethic are through the roof. Lefthander Zach Keenan (4-4, 4.48) is projected to slide into the midweek spot after starting ten games in 2019. The bullpen looks like it could be a strength, what with the return of righthander Scheldon Paulk (3.61, 42.1 IP) and lefty David Zoz (3.44, 55 IP). DH Brycen Thomas (.301/.379/.441) will likely have to do the heavy lifting in the lineup, as there is scant experience to be had otherwise.

Top 2020 Prospects

  1. Logan Allen, LHP, Florida International
  2. Trei Cruz, SS, Rice
  3. Justin Collins, C, Rice
  4. Gabe Shepard, RHP, Southern Mississippi
  5. Jared DeSantolo, 1B, Florida Atlantic
  6. Roel Garcia, RHP, Rice
  7. Jack Conlon, RHP, Rice
  8. Hunter Gregory, RHP, Old Dominion
  9. Riley Boyd, RHP, Western Kentucky
  10. Christian Santana, RHP, Florida International
  11. Aaron Brown, RHP, Middle Tennessee State
  12. Jonathan Fincher, LHP, Louisiana Tech
  13. Riley Davis, RHP, Alabama-Birmingham
  14. Peyton Wigginton, LHP, Middle Tennessee State
  15. Ryne Moore, RHP, Old Dominion
  16. Francisco Urbaez, 2B, Florida Atlantic
  17. Michael Schuler, RHP, Florida Atlantic
  18. Taylor Young, 2B, Louisiana Tech
  19. Michael Darrell-Hicks, RHP, Western Kentucky
  20. Tommy Bell, SS, Old Dominion

Top 2021 Prospects

  1. Andy Garriola, OF, Old Dominion
  2. Chris Williams, OF, Florida International
  3. Nicholas Toney, C, Florida Atlantic
  4. B.J. Murray, 3B, Florida Atlantic
  5. Dalton Wood, RHP, Rice
  6. Aaron Holiday, RHP, Old Dominion
  7. Mitchell Hartigan, OF, Florida Atlantic
  8. Jacob Josey, RHP, Florida Atlantic
  9. Ryan Teschko, OF, Old Dominion
  10. Adarius Myers, OF, Louisiana Tech

Top Newcomers

  1. Dustin Dickerson, SS, Southern Mississippi
  2. Dante Visconti, RHP, Florida Atlantic
  3. Jorge Corona, C, Louisiana Tech
  4. Christian Lothes, LHP, Charlotte
  5. David McCabe, 3B, Charlotte
  6. Noah Dean, LHP, Old Dominion
  7. Jack Conlon, RHP, Rice
  8. Riley Boyd, RHP, Western Kentucky
  9. Alex DeLeon, RHP, Rice
  10. Ben Brantley, 1B, Louisiana Tech

Best Tools

Best Pure Hitter: Matthew Guidry, Southern Mississippi
Best Power Hitter: Andy Garriola, Old Dominion
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Matthew Guidry, Southern Mississippi
Best Athlete: Trei Cruz, Rice
Fastest Runner: Jess Davis, Alabama-Birmingham
Best Baserunner: Jess Davis, Alabama-Birmingham
Best Defensive Catcher: Justin Collins, Rice
Best Defensive Infielder: Kevin Lambert, Western Kentucky
Best Infield Arm: Kevin Lambert, Western Kentucky
Best Defensive Outfielder: Parker Bates, Louisiana Tech
Best Outfield Arm: Bobby Morgensen, Florida Atlantic
Best Fastball: Gabe Shepard, Southern Mississippi
Best Breaking Ball: Gabe Shepard, Southern Mississippi
Best Changeup: Nick Pantos, Old Dominion
Best Control: Walker Powell, Southern Mississippi

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