2021 Big East Conference College Baseball Preview
The Big East gets a jolt in 2021 as Connecticut returns to the conference after seven seasons in the American Athletic Conference. Not only will that help from an on-field and RPI standpoint—the Huskies have made three of the last four NCAA Tournaments—it also will reignite some of the conference’s traditional rivalries, like UConn and St. John’s.
While the Huskies enter the conference as favorites, the fight for places at the top of the standings promises to be fierce. Creighton won both the regular-season and Big East Tournament titles in 2019 and has reloaded with the help of some key transfers. Seton Hall, St. John’s and Xavier all return veteran teams and Butler and Villanova have been taking strides under new coaches, a path Georgetown hopes to follow beginning this year under Edwin Thompson.
In Big East play this season, teams will play four-game series against every other team in the conference. Details have not been finalized for the Big East Tournament, which typically includes the top four teams in the standings and is held in Prasco Park in suburban Cincinnati.
There’s no shortage of intrigue in the Big East, which is becoming increasingly competitive. The race in 2021 is sure to be no different.
Player of the Year: Kyler Fedko, OF, Connecticut.
Fedko will have plenty of competition for this award from his own teammates. But after hitting .412/.434/.627 in 2020, it’s clear that the third-year sophomore has the tools to make the Huskies’ offense go. The righthanded hitter led the team with 21 hits in 2020 and will be again counted on as they aim to hit the ground running in the Big East.
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, ranking second in the conference in ERA and third in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.76). He built on that by going 2-1, 3.04 with 26 strikeouts in 23.2 innings in 2020. He’s not the most overpowering pitcher in the league, but Schultz’s four-pitch mix and ability to locate his fastball makes him tough to face.
Newcomer of the Year: Alex Helmin, OF, Xavier.
Helmin, an Illinois native, joins Xavier as a second-year freshman after transferring from Arizona State. He saw limited action for the Sun Devils in 2020 but figures to move into the starting lineup for the Musketeers, likely in left field. He has above-average speed and an exciting toolset, giving him a chance to make a quick impact for Xavier.
Predicted Order of Finish (2020 records)
1. Connecticut (8-5)
Expectations are high for the Huskies in their first season back in the Big East. They have made three of the last four NCAA Tournaments, have the most talented roster in the conference and this spring will open the new Elliott Ballpark. It all sets up well for a memorable return to the Big East. The Huskies have a deep, potent lineup, led by the Fedko and Winkel brothers. Kyler Fedko is coming off an impressive 2020 season and his older brother Christian (.275/.316/.353), anchors the infield as a fourth-year junior second baseman. Third-year sophomore catcher Pat Winkel missed last season due to injury but is the conference’s top prospect. His older brother Chris (.348/.404/.457, 5 SB) is a fifth-year senior center fielder, who has been a captain the last two seasons and has played 192 career games. In addition to that core, second-year freshman first baseman/lefthander Reggie Crawford (.365/.414/.558) gives the Huskies another powerful hitter with upside in the lineup. On the mound, UConn must replace ace Nick Krauth but receives a boost as righthander Ben Casparius is now eligible after sitting out last season following his transfer from North Carolina. The fourth-year junior will step in at the front of the rotation and has pro upside thanks to his athleticism and a fastball that gets into the mid 90s. Fourth-year junior righthander Joe Simeone (1-1, 3.00) returns to the rotation and third-year junior lefthander Caleb Wurster (1-0, 1.29, 2 SV) is back at the back of the bullpen. The Huskies will have to find some more depth around those core pitchers, possibly from third-year sophomore righthander Jimmy Wang (0-0, 7.71) taking a step forward or the addition of third-year sophomore righthander Austin Peterson, a junior college transfer. UConn has been strong on the mound throughout pitching coach Joshua MacDonald’s 10-year tenure in Storrs and if this staff continues that tradition, UConn is capable of making an NCAA Tournament run.
2. Creighton (5-10)
After winning both the Big East Tournament and regular-season title in 2019, Creighton took a step back in 2020. But with most of last year’s team returning and the addition of a few key transfers, the Bluejays are positioned to bounce back in 2021. Third-year sophomore righthander Dylan Tebrake (3-2, 2.05) returns to lead the rotation and sixth-year senior righthander John Sakowski (1-1, 2.35) and fifth-year senior Jonah Smith (1-0, 0.00) bring experience and versatility. Creighton returns fourth-year junior catcher David Vilches (.333/.481/.595) and sixth-year senior third baseman Ryan Mantle (.318/.429/.500), its top two hitters, and fifth-year senior outfielder Parker Upton (.224/.424/.408) is the toolsiest player in the lineup. But much will be riding on how its newcomers perform, especially the trio of third-year sophomore shortstop Sterling Hayes (Vanderbilt), fifth-year senior infielder Dax Roper (Furman) and fifth-year junior outfielder David Webel (Furman). If the three of them provide a boost to the lineup, Creighton will quickly return to contention.
3. Seton Hall (6-8)
The Pirates return a deep, experienced team in 2021. They could start six fourth- or fifth-year players in their everyday lineup in addition to having two more in their rotation and another at the back of their bullpen. Fourth-year junior third baseman Casey Dana (.367/.458/.531, 2 HR) led the team in hitting in 2020 and fifth-year senior outfielder Tyler Shelder-McAvoy (.304/.400/.375, 7 SB) also returns, giving the Pirates a spark at the plate. They have a veteran infield and fourth-year junior catcher Jerry Huntzinger (.190/.261/.214) returns to help lock down the defense. Seton Hall’s pitching staff has some key pieces to replace, but it will match up well on Friday nights thanks to fourth-year junior righthander Ryan McLinskey (2-0, 3.38), who has solid overall stuff. Righthander Drew Conover is one of the best true freshmen in the conference and this spring will pitch important innings. If the Pirates can line up their pitching behind McLinskey, their veteran hitters will give them a chance in the Big East.
4. St. John’s (5-9)
The Red Storm had an up-and-down start to the 2020 season, scoring road wins against California and Georgia Tech, but ultimately finishing 5-9 in Mike Hampton’s first season as head coach after succeeding longtime coach Ed Blankmeyer. While St. John’s must replace three regulars in its lineup, including 2020 preseason Big East player of the year Mike Antico, it’s well positioned to contend in 2021, thanks in part to a strong pitching staff. Fifth-year junior lefthander Nick Mondak (0-3, 4.29) has been limited by injuries throughout his college career, but at his best gives St. John’s an ace. Third-year sophomore righthander Ian Murphy (1-2, 6.35) and fourth-year junior righthander Joe Joe Rodriguez (1-2, 6.61) have both shown flashes. If they break through this spring, St. John’s could have the best rotation in the conference. Offensively, second-year freshman Jake Lazzaro (.327/.421/.408) impressed last spring and will be a focal point for the Red Storm. Outfielder David Glancy (.423/.448/.885, 3 HR), another second-year freshman, and fourth-year third baseman Justin Folz (.294/.383/.471, 2 HR) bring pop to the lineup. Pitching and defense will be the key for St. John’s, but its young offense has upside.
5. Xavier (5-10)
The Musketeers ranked fifth nationally in strength of schedule in 2020, a fact that puts their record into a different light. Still, Xavier will be aiming for a more successful season in 2021. It will be leaning on its pitching staff, especially early, as it works out its options offensively. Fourth-year junior lefthander Nick Zwack (2-2, 2.31) and third-year sophomore righthander Lane Flamm (0-3, 5.73) give the Musketeers a strong one-two punch at the top of the rotation. Second-year freshmen Jonathan Kelly (1-0, 1.50), a righthander, and Jack Lynch (1-0, 1.69), a lefthander, make a promising combination at the back of the bullpen. Xavier struggled offensively in 2020, hitting .191/.292/.308 as a team and averaging four runs per game. While the schedule was tough, the Musketeers will need to take a step forward. Third-year sophomore outfielder Luke Franzoni (.241/.333/.407, 3 HR) was the team’s leading hitter in 2020 and has the power to be a difference maker if he can cut down his swing and miss. The addition of newcomers like Helmin and third-year sophomore first baseman Jeff Holtz, a junior college transfer, will be crucial to the lineup.
6. Villanova (9-5)
In four seasons under coach Kevin Mulvey, an alumnus and former big leaguer, the Wildcats have shown improvement and may have been on their way to a breakout season in 2020. Villanova scored a big Opening Weekend upset with a win at Arizona State and finished with its first winning record since 2012. The Wildcats return some important contributors, especially on the mound. Their rotation of righthanders Gordon Graceffo (4-0, 1.42), Jimmy Kingsbury (2-1, 3.08) and Brandon Siegenthaler (1-1, 2.25) returns, as does closer Danny Wilkinson (0-0, 4.38, 4 SV). The Wildcats also return key hitters including third-year sophomore shortstop Dylan McNary (.295/.407/.477, 4 SB) and fourth-year junior center fielder Chris Rotondo (.298/.485/.447). After consecutive last-place finishes in the Big East standings, Villanova is ready to take a step forward.
7. Butler (8-7)
The Bulldogs have made consistent strides under coach Dave Schrage and enter the 2021 season led by a strong rotation. Fourth-year junior righthander Connor Schultz (2-1, 3.04) is perhaps the most accomplished pitcher in the conference and in 2019 was named first-team all-Big East. With him leading the rotation and fifth-year senior righthander Jack Pilcher (0-1, 3.86, 4 SV) anchoring the bullpen, the Bulldogs have plenty of experience on the mound. Butler will have to make strides offensively after hitting .219/.356/.280 as a team in 2020 and will look for a boost from a trio of newcomers in slugger Dan Harwood, outfielder Freddie Matos and shortstop Zach Orn. If Butler can find more consistent offense, it has the pitching staff to keep it in the mix in the Big East.
8. Georgetown (4-13)
Pete Wilk in July resigned after 20 years as head coach and Edwin Thompson was hired away from Eastern Kentucky to replace him. Thompson engineered an impressive turnaround at EKU in his five-year tenure, winning at least 30 games in 2018 and 2019. The Colonels were well on their way to a third straight 30-win season in 2020, as they were 12-2 when the season was canceled. Now, Thompson will take on another rebuild. The Hoyas have never made the NCAA Tournament and have not posted a winning record in a season this century. While it will take some time for Georgetown to become competitive in an increasingly strong Big East, it this season does have the benefit of returning fourth-year junior third baseman Eddie McCabe (.270/.382/.333), one of the best position players in the conference. Georgetown also added four graduate transfer righthanders, adding depth to the pitching staff.
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