2020 MEAC College Baseball Preview
After some lean years in the early part of the decade, North Carolina A&T has emerged at the top of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and won the tough Southern Division in back-to-back years. The Aggies again look like the team to beat this spring, but they’ll have strong competition within their own division and from Northern Division favorite Norfolk State.
While NC A&T won the regular season in 2019, it was Florida A&M that won the conference tournament to advance to regionals. The Rattlers have also recently broken out of a drought to get into the mix atop the conference, which had for so long been dominated by Bethune-Cookman. That shakeup has given the MEAC standings a new look and improved the conference’s depth.
The MEAC is down one member this season after Savannah State completed its move to Division II.
Player of the Year: Dustin Barber, SS, North Carolina A&T.
Barber arrived at NC A&T last season as a transfer from Daytona State (Fla.) JC and earned first-team all-MEAC honors. He started every game at shortstop and developed a reputation as the best defensive shortstop in the conference, in addition to leading the Aggies in batting (.328/.402/.436). Barber impacts the game in a number of ways and will again be at the heart of everything for the Aggies.
Pitcher of the Year: Ryan Miller, RHP, North Carolina Central.
While Miller’s teammate Austin Vernon is the bigger prospect after an impressive summer in the Cape Cod League, Miller is the most advanced pitcher in the conference. He last season went 6-4, 3.15 with 73 strikeouts and 13 walks in 71.1 innings as a freshman to win MEAC rookie of the year honors. He can run his fastball into the low 90s but his best skill is his control and feel for his offspeed pitches.
Freshman of the Year: Fabian Escalante, OF, Bethune-Cookman.
The Wildcats brought in a large, impressive recruiting class and have several of the most talented freshman in the conference as a result. Escalante may be the best of the bunch. He played against high-level competition throughout high school, which should help ease his transition to college baseball. He has a compact swing and handles the bat well. He’ll jump right into the mix for BCU.
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Predicted order of finish (2019 records)
1. Norfolk State (24-26, 17-7)
The Spartans last season won the Northern Division and then advanced to the championship game of the MEAC Tournament for the third time in four years. But despite coming out of the winner’s bracket for the first time since 2001, Norfolk State fell one win shy of its first MEAC Tournament title, as Florida A&M swept the championship doubleheader. Still, 2019 was a successful season for the Spartans and they return the bulk of that team with an eye on finally breaking through to the NCAA Tournament. Eight regulars are back in the lineup, led by senior first baseman Stephen Baughan (.314/.393/.560) and junior second baseman Alsander Womack (.377/.441/.503, 10 SB). Redshirt-senior lefthander Ridge Walker (4-6, 4.37) is back to lead the pitching staff, but there are a few holes to fill on the mound. If they can find the answers behind Walker, Norfolk State figures to again be the class of the Northern Division.
2. Coppin State (24-24, 15-9)
After winning the Northern Division in 2018, Coppin State slipped to second place in 2019. It’ll look this spring to get back atop the division with a young but talented lineup. Senior first baseman Justin Banks (.394/.493/.588) led the team in hitting last year and is back to anchor the lineup. Outfielders Carlos Alviarez (.292/.364/.380) and Marcos Castillo (.349/.418/.516, 11 SB) return as well and will play a big role in the lineup. Coppin State will need freshmen infielders Eddie Javier and Toran Smith to come on quickly, but both have solid tools to work with. Senior righthanders Aaron Rea (5-4, 5.37) and Corey Treys (1-1, 2.73, 7 SV) will anchor the pitching staff. Treys has been a quality reliever in the past and will now move to the rotation. If he can settle into his new role well and Coppin State gets a couple newcomers to emerge on the mound, it has the potential to be a well-rounded team.
3. Delaware State (20-25, 12-12)
Lefthander Garrett Lawson, the 2019 MEAC pitcher of the year, was drafted in the 19th round by the Angels and leaves a big hole for the Hornets to fill. But he wasn’t the only pitcher DSU lost. It will essentially have to retool the entire staff this spring. The Hornets do, however, gets back infielders Jared Gillis (.302/.394/.426) and Miguel Rivera (.366/.445/.550, 14 SB), two of their best hitters. DSU’s lineup should be able to take some of the pressure off its new-look pitching staff, but finding some answers on the mound is paramount this spring.
4. Maryland-Eastern Shore (10-44, 4-20)
The Shore Hawks finished last in the MEAC in both scoring (3.98) and ERA (8.69). Turning those numbers around will be critical to climbing out of the cellar. The good news for UMES is that it returns a lot of experience. Outfielder Brian Cordell (.278/.349/.444, 10 SB) and Devynn Hancock (.253/.362/.316, 11 SB) will lead the lineup. Senior starting pitchers Dwayne Marshall (3-5, 6.38), Marty Tolson (0-8, 4.64) and Caleb Watson (1-6, 9.79) will anchor the pitching staff.
1. North Carolina A&T (29-24, 16-8)
The Aggies have won the Southern Division in back-to-back seasons and in 2018 won the MEAC Tournament to advance to regionals for the second time in program history and the first since 2005. They were upset in the conference tournament a season ago but have what it takes to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2020. The Aggies have built their success on their pitching staff and that figures to again be the case this season. Senior righthanders Michael Johnson (4-5, 3.22) and Evan Gates (4-4, 4.05) return to the rotation and they also get back ace reliever Leon Davidson (5-0, 0.67, 4 SV). The Aggies have experienced seniors back up the middle in catcher Ryne Stanley (.265/.385/.325) and shortstop Dustin Baber (.328/.402/.436, 13 SB). Both are good defenders and Baber was the team’s leading hitter. If a couple more hitters step up around them, the Aggies should again have a formidable all-around team.
2. Florida A&M (27-34, 14-10)
The Rattlers last season came out of the losers’ bracket to win the MEAC Tournament and advance to the Atlanta Regional. After snapping a 20-year championship drought in 2015, FAMU has now been to regionals twice in five years. To return in 2020, the Rattlers will look to their pitching staff to lead them. Kyle Coleman (6-6, 3.52), Josh Hancock (5-7, 4.83) and Josh Barr (1-5, 5.45) return in the rotation and are all in their fourth year of college baseball. Closer Jeremiah McCollom (6-2, 3.58, 11 SV) is back to anchor the bullpen and has the biggest arm of the group. Seniors Octavien Moyer (.314/.418/.456) - the Rattlers’ leading hitter, catcher Tucker Rayburn (.286/.398/.442) and outfielder Seyjuan Lawrence (.296/.363/.367) give the lineup an experienced core to rely on.
3. North Carolina Central (21-28, 10-14)
The Eagles have the best 1-2 punch in the conference in junior righthander Austin Vernon (3-4, 4.09) and sophomore righthander Ryan Miller (6-4, 3.15). Vernon, listed at 6-foot-8, 295 pounds, is coming off a strong summer in the Cape Cod League and has the biggest arm in the MEAC. Miller, despite being a grade younger, is the more polished of the two and does a good job pounding the zone. That pair alone should be enough to keep NCCU in the mix in the MEAC, but even with those two a year ago, it finished in a three-way tie for last in the division. The Eagles have a large group of newcomers on the roster and that group will have to step up. Two newcomers to watch are freshman Alex Stiffen, who has two-way ability, and shortstop Michael Alicea, a junior college transfer whose defensive ability is a strong asset.
4. Bethune-Cookman (17-38, 10-14)
The Wildcats in the 21st century have become accustomed to finishing atop the MEAC standings, but last season found themselves in a three-way tie for last place in the Southern Division. BCU will look to reset this spring with a new-look roster. It could have half a dozen newcomers in its regular lineup, including three freshmen. Freshman shortstop Matthew Garcia has the most upside of the group and the switch-hitter will figure prominently into the Wildcats’ plans. Redshirt-senior outfielder Josten Heron (.287/.398/.378) leads the returners. The Wildcats have a similar story on the mound. Senior righthander Isaak Gutierrez (2-5, 5.44) will lead the pitching staff but much of the rest of the Wildcats pitching will be new. Righthander Nick Rogers, a junior college transfer, is the most promising thanks to his feel for his four-pitch mix. Coach Jonathan Hernandez has a talented group, but its youth and inexperience mean growing pains are inevitable this spring.
Top 10 2020 Draft Prospects
1. Austin Vernon, RHP, North Carolina Central
2. Dustin Barber, SS, North Carolina A&T
3. Michael Johnson, RHP, North Carolina A&T
4. Josten Hernon, OF, Bethune-Cookman
5. Jeremiah McCollom, RHP, Florida A&M
6. Michael Alcea, SS, North Carolina Central
7. Leon Davidson, RHP, North Carolina A&T
8. Marcos Castillo, OF, Coppin State
9. Alsander Womack, 2B, Norfolk State
10. Justin Banks, 1B, Coppin State