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2021 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Preview

If unpredictability is your preferred college baseball aesthetic, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference might be the low-major conference for you. Five different teams have won the league’s automatic bid in the last six full seasons, with Canisius (2015, ‘18) the only team to repeat in that stretch.

At the same time, five different schools have been represented in the pitcher of the year award over the last six seasons, with Canisius again the only school represented twice.

Those two bullet points seem like a good entree into the 2021 MAAC campaign, a season where you can make a case for several teams being the favorite and where teams up and down the league feel pretty good about what they have on the mound.

The MAAC is taking a conference-only approach to scheduling in this unique season. Teams will compete in a total of 40 conference games, played as 10 four-game series, beginning March 20.

Here are five questions ahead of what should be a real battle in the Northeast. 

Is Fairfield the favorite again?

Fairfield was the favorite in the preseason last year, thanks in large part to the talent it had on the mound. And with that group back, it should be in the mix to win the conference title, even if it’s not a runaway favorite.

First, it’s important to note that the 7.46 team ERA from last season isn’t indicative of how talented the Fairfield pitching staff is and that two blowout losses to Boston College by a combined 39-7 score ballooned that number.

Fourth-year junior Trey McLoughlin (0-2, 4.60) will lead the rotation once again. A physical bulldog of a pitcher, the righthander’s fastball sits in the low 90s at its best with a solid-average breaking ball. He was one of the pitchers who had a tough start against Boston College early in the year, but he bounced back from it by throwing 7.1 no-hit innings against Stetson in what turned out to be his last start of the season.

He’ll be followed by a pair of veterans in third-year sophomore lefthander Michael Sansone (0-2, 6.59), a member of the MAAC all-rookie team in 2019, and sixth-year senior righthander John Signore (1-2, 7.45), a first team all-MAAC honoree in his last full season, 2018. Neither of those pitchers have stuff that will blow hitters away, but both have track records of success. Third-year sophomore Jake Noviello is the fourth starter. The big 6-foot-5 righthander missed last season with injury but served as the team’s midweek starter back in 2019.

The coaching staff came away from fall practice impressed by the lineup’s ability to drive the ball. In the spring, some of that ability will come from holdovers like third-year sophomore second baseman Justin Guerrera (.244/.277/.489), an athletic player with some strength in his swing, and fourth-year junior left fielder Giacomo Brancato (.150/.280/.150), who got off to a slow start last season but was second on the team with five homers in 2019. Fifth-year senior center fielder Dan Ryan (.275/.348/.325) should also continue to be a catalyst at the top of the order and a plus defensive center fielder.

But there is also hope that newcomers like junior college transfer Matt Hayes and graduate transfer first baseman Sean Cullen can inject some physicality into the order right away. Cullen, who transferred from Division III Union (N.Y.), is a career .386/.441/.563 hitter.

Getting right into MAAC play should do wonders for the results of a talented pitching staff that should be among the best in the conference. And while the lineup will need new players to step up in order to show improvement overall, the Stags had a fairly potent attack in 2019, so those types of strides are not without precedent.

Does Quinnipiac have any magic left?

Your most recent memory of Quinnipiac very well might be the team putting up a fight in the Greenville Regional in 2019, eventually advancing all the way to the regional final. While it’s not that exact team still in place as the Bobcats go into 2021, they do have an intriguing club.

Most impressively, they have the best outfield in the MAAC with the return of fourth-year junior left fielder Ian Ostberg (.250/.328/.288), fifth-year senior center fielder Andre Marrero (.125/.210/.179) and fifth-year senior right fielder Evan Vulgamore (.277/.414/.532). All three were big parts of the 2019 team and should be equally important this season.

Ostberg is a versatile athlete who has played seven different positions in his Quinnipiac career. Marrero had a down season last year, but he’s a plus runner who hit .316/.383/.538 with 10 homers and 20 stolen bases in 2019. Vulgamore is a talented all-around player who will be moving to the outfield from third base. He has 23 home runs in his career.

The rotation is long on big arms and short on track record in starting roles. The No. 1 starter, third-year sophomore righthander Derek Goldrick (29.70, 3.1 IP), throws his fastball 90-95 mph with a good slider and splitter, but he has struggled in each of his two seasons on campus. Third-year sophomore lefthander Brandyn Garcia (5.40, 10 IP) has a fastball that sits 90-93 mph but touches 95. He’ll look to transition from serving primarily as a reliever to starting games. The third and fourth starters, second-year freshman righthanders Kevin Seitter (9.53, 5.2 IP) and Jimmy Hagan (0.00, 1 IP), are more pitchability types than their counterparts, but will also be looking to take on bigger roles.

How well the pitchers take to their roles will have a lot to do with how well Quinnipiac is able to run things back in an attempt to make another postseason appearance.

Who is the favorite to win pitcher of the year honors?

With all due respect to pitchers like Fairfield’s McLaughlin, Manhattan righthander Nick Massa (0-4, 3.81), Monmouth lefthander Rob Hensey (2-1, 2.42) and Marist righthander Alex Pansini (1-1, 4.18), the favorite for pitcher of the year has to be Marist third-year sophomore Ryan Cardona.

The righthander first made his mark in 2019 as a reliever, striking out 51 in 41 innings of work and saving five games, even if relatively high walk numbers helped push his ERA up to 5.05. Last season, he transitioned into the rotation and thrived, putting up a 3.00 ERA with 26 strikeouts, while walking just eight batters in 21 innings of work.

With another step forward in 2021, he'll not only be the best starter in the MAAC, but also one of the best at the low-major level in college baseball.

Cardona features a four-pitch mix that includes a fastball up to 94 mph with a good curveball and a usable slider and changeup that have a chance to catch up to his other offerings. An athletic 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, there is also optimism that he will be able to make the necessary adjustments to improve his stuff as he matures.

Taking a wider view on Marist, the one-two rotation punch of Cardona and Pansini, who has been a workhorse the last two seasons, will give the Red Foxes a chance to win every series they play.

To truly compete for the MAAC title, the lineup will have to hit better than it did a season ago, when it had a .199 team average, but with the return of third-year sophomore Brian Hart (.275/.339/.353), sixth-year senior Tyler Kapuscinski (.245/.339/.286) and fourth-year juniors Reece Armitage (.233/.364/.349) and Robbie Armitage (.167/.268/.313), there should be reason to believe that the group will be more productive against MAAC-only competition.

Last year’s numbers for Kapuscinski and the Armitage brothers weren’t anything to write home about, but in 2019, Kapuscinski hit .366, Robbie Armitage hit .318 with nine homers and Reece Armitage hit .269 and led the team in walks with 32. That year, the team also led the MAAC in hitting with a .288 average. Count the Red Foxes among the group of teams with a shot at the regular-season title, especially if the lineup shows improvement early.

Is Canisius due for a step back?

Cansius has long been the most consistent program in the MAAC, and while things can always change and winds shift over time when it comes to a conference’s pecking order, it doesn’t seem like the Golden Griffins are ready to slow down yet.

The lineup returns a couple of players in fourth-year sophomore catcher Mike Mazzara (.292/.485/.292) and second-year freshman second baseman Mike DeStefano (.292/.320/.500) who will look to turn small-sample success (both had 24 at-bats) in 2020 into good full seasons in 2021.

They will be joined by regulars from last season in fourth-year sophomore first baseman Mike Steffan (.278/.341/.444), fifth-year junior third baseman Gibson Krzeminski (.275/.413/.431), fifth-year senior center fielder Jake Burlingame (.259/.322/.444) and third-year sophomore right fielder Dylan Vincent (.256/.370/.256). Look for a bounce back from fifth-year senior left fielder Jacob Victor (.190/.333/.238). He never got going last season, but in 2019, he hit .292/.371/.433.

Overall, the lineup will boast good depth and experience, and that should help buy time for the pitching staff to take shape around returning starting pitchers Andrew Fron (0-2, 5.12), a third-year sophomore righthander, and Will Frank (0-0, 3.22), a fifth-year senior righthander. The coaching staff has 18 different pitchers to work with and feels like they have six or seven viable starting options, so the hope is that a solid group takes shape around the proven guys.

And even if the staff depth doesn’t completely come together as Canisius would like, having two steady starting pitchers and a returning closer in fourth-year junior righthander Joe Barberio (6.97, 10.1 IP) is enough to give the Golden Griffins a leg up in most series they will play.

Horton, Cade 2 (Courtesy Of Oklahoma)

2022 MLB Draft: Oklahoma RHP Cade Horton Uses College World Series To Rocket Up Draft Boards

In a draft class that has been decimated on the college side (and has started losing pitchers on the prep side as well), Horton is potentially filling a demographic vacuum ahead of the July draft.

Who will have the best offense in the conference?

This race is a tough one to handicap, in large part because an easy way to get a feel for which teams will be in the mix to have the best offense in the conference in a given season is to look at who really crushed it last season.

But therein lies the problem. The entire conference spent the first month of last season on the road, as it always does, in many cases playing tough competition, and as a result, a lot of the offensive numbers don’t look very pretty.

Still, we can make some guesses. The aforementioned Marist lineup, which was quite good in 2019 and has a number of returning impact players in it, is one to watch. So is Rider, a team that could be ready to break out.

The safest bet, though, is probably Manhattan, which returns a few hitters who performed well in the early going last season, along with an early favorite for MAAC player of the year honors.

The three returning hitters who all hit over .300 last season are fourth-year junior shortstop Will Trochiano (.333/.441/.375), the team’s leadoff hitter, third-year sophomore center fielder Sam Franco (.321/.397/.500), an intriguing pro prospect who matches all-fields power at the plate with the ability to chase just about everything down in the outfield, and fourth-year junior catcher Matt Padre (.340/.379/.472), who projects to be the team’s DH.

Third-year sophomore catcher Nick Cimillo (.259/.365/.370) wasn’t off to quite as good a start last season, but he’ll go into this season as safe a bet as any to win the MAAC player of the year award when it’s all said and done. In 2019, he was named the league’s rookie of the year after hitting .350/.417/.498 with seven home runs and 36 RBIs.

The Jaspers have an offense capable of putting up runs in bunches, and in a season when the MAAC’s best teams appear to be heavier on high-end pitching than normal, that could set them apart.

Top 2021 Draft Prospects

  1. Ryan Cardona, RHP, Marist
  2. Rob Hensey, LHP, Monmouth
  3. Sam Franco, OF, Manhattan
  4. Trey McLoughlin, RHP, Fairfield
  5. Nick Cimillo, C, Manhattan

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