Image credit: East Carolina celebrates its 2018 American Athletic Conference Tournament championship (Photo courtesy of ECU)
Last season, East Carolina was once again the preseason conference favorite and went on to claim the regular season title and reach super regionals. The Pirates weren’t the only team from the conference to go that far, though. South Florida—picked by coaches in the preseason to finish last—won the conference tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament, where it won the Gainesville Regional to make its first super regional appearance in program history. It was just the second time the American had two teams make it that far, with the last time happening in 2014 when Louisville was still in the conference.
However, the rest of the American didn’t fare quite as well. Central Florida was expected to have a big season after going 15-3 in the pandemic-shortened season, but instead finished fifth in the standings, while Tulane slumped late to miss out on a tournament berth. In the end, ECU and USF were the only two teams that reached regionals.
The draft saw 15 players selected—including two in the first two rounds in East Carolina’s duo of Gavin Williams and Connor Norby. Even with those names gone, the trend of the Pirates rolling figures to continue. Picking the field in the conference tournament has been a good bet the last two seasons, but East Carolina looms large as the favorite to top the standings. As is, the path to the regular season title once again runs through Greenville, N.C.
Player of the Year: Bennett Lee, C, Tulane
As a true freshman, Lee played in just one of the Green Wave’s first 10 games and then missed the final nine—including the conference tournament—after being hit in the wrist by a pitch. Despite playing just 34 games, Lee more than earned the conference’s newcomer of the year award, hitting .440/.527/.600 with 30 runs, 28 RBIs and 11 extra-base hits. He was one of the league’s best hitters while active, displaying an impressive approach as a freshman with as many walks as strikeouts. A full, healthy year of Lee has the makings of a massive season.
Pitcher of the Year: Carson Whisenhunt, LHP, East Carolina
For the third year in a row, a member of the East Carolina pitching staff is likely the conference’s top pitcher. Whisenhunt enters 2022 aiming to follow in the footsteps of former Pirates’ Jake Agnos and Gavin Williams. Whisenhunt, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound lefthander, made 13 starts as a second-year freshman and posted a 3.77 ERA, 11.5 K/9, and 3.2 BB/9 across 62 innings. He boats a 90-95 mph fastball and supplements it with a plus changeup in the low 80s and a curveball. He limits hard contact—allowing just seven extra base hits in all of 2021—and has great control. As the new No. 1 on the Pirates staff, Whisenhunt will face heightened expectations and could match them.
Newcomer of the Year: Dylan Carmouche, LHP, Tulane
After striking out 11 in seven innings for eventual national champions Mississippi State, Carmouche transferred to Tulane and will take on a weekend starter role. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound southpaw spent the summer in the Cape Cod League with the Chatham Anglers and struck out 22 in 16 innings. He has a low-90s fastball, a good changeup and is further developing a breaking ball. Four members of the Green Wave pitching staff were drafted last season, so Carmouche will be expected to slot in and make the most of expanded innings. He’s likely to have a big impact right away for Tulane.
Predicted Order of Finish (2021 record)
1. East Carolina (44-17, 20-8)
The regular-season champions of the last two seasons, East Carolina is the heavy preseason favorite despite losing first round pick Gavin Williams, impact bats Connor Norby and Thomas Francisco, and several other key arms. Still, the Pirates return plenty from last season’s super regional team and will once again be expected to claim the conference’s title. Whisenhunt (6-2, 3.77 ERA) will take Williams’ spot atop the rotation and follows in his footsteps as the league’s top draft prospect. He’s joined by fellow southpaw Jake Kuchmaner (2-4, 5.97) and righthander Garrett Saylor (4-1, 5.09), two veterans who’ve been on campus three and four years, respectively. Replacing the duo of Cam Colmore and Matt Bridges in the bullpen will be difficult, but the Pirates’ do return third-year sophomore closer C.J. Mayhue (8 SV, 3.06) to anchor the staff.
Offensively, Norby, Francisco, and catcher Seth Caddell will be missed, but East Carolina still has plenty of firepower. First baseman Josh Moylan (.310/.409/.460, 6 HR) burst onto the scene as a freshman and is the team’s top returning hitter. There’s an experienced core, too, in the form of third baseman Zach Agnos (.268/.397/.439, 6 HR) and outfielders Bryson Worrell (.262/.356/.490, 9 HR) and Alec Makarewicz (.295/.356/.465, 6 HR). Senior catcher Ben Newton (.325/.451/.438) impressed across 80 at bats last season and will step into Caddell’s spot, while true freshman Ryan McCrystal could have an immediate impact as the team’s DH.
2. Tulane (31-24, 17-10)
On May 16th, the Green Wave were 10 games above .500 after a win against UCF and were on pace for a regional appearance. Instead, with Lee—their top hitter—sidelined, Tulane was swept by Cincinnati in a four-game set to fall off the bubble and eventually saw its season end in the semifinals of the conference tournament. The Green Wave was hit hard in the draft, too, losing shortstop Collin Burns, three-fourths of its rotation in Jack Aldrich, Braden Olthoff, and Donovan Benoit, and closer Kegan Gillies. That’s a tall task for any team to replace, but the talent level has been rising under sixth-year coach Travis Jewett.
Tyler Hoffman (4-3, 4.24) will lead the staff alongside three newcomers—Mississippi State transfer Dylan Carmouche (0-0, 1.23), freshman Michael Massey and Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Carter Robinson (1-1, 3.05 ERA). Carmouche is the most exciting of the group, but Massey is a projectable 6-foot-5 righthander and Robinson has a strong collegiate track record. Righthanders Zack DeVito (5 SV, 6.91) and Clifton Slagel (2-0, 3.56) were second and third in relief appearances last season and Jewett’s trust in them will likely continue. The lineup is chock-full of returnees, highlighted by Lee (.440/.527/.600, 4 HR), second baseman Chase Engelhard (.299/.361/.490, 9 HR), and first baseman Luis Aviles (.255/.372/.458, 7 HR). The outfield is all back and is paced Jake LaPrairie (.285/.415/.358). Replacing Burns’ team-high 55 runs will be difficult, but Tulane is counting on experienced bats.
3. UCF (31-30, 18-14)
After advancing to the AAC Tournament championship game, the Knights fell to rival USF and missed the NCAA Tournament. Still, UCF managed to go that far despite losing Friday night starter and eighth-round pick Colton Gordon after just five starts. This offseason, the Knights’ lost catcher Josh Crouch and outfielder Jordan Rathbone, their two top hitters, and must replace two more weekend arms in Jack Sinclair and Kenny Serwa.
Shortstop Alex Freeland (.288/.402/.429, 7 HR) and speedy outfielder Gephry Pena (.290/.405/.407, 28 SB) are a pair of all-conference caliber bats. DH Tom Josten (.253/.427/.433, 8 HR) adjusted at the plate in 2021, walking a career-high 48 times and showcasing some pop as well. The lineup receives a boost with first baseman Nick Romano (.315/.389/.373 in 2020) returning after missing all of 2021 due to injury. Plus, there’s the addition of Arkansas transfer and third baseman Michael Brooks. On the mound, lefthander Hunter Patteson (3-2, 5.50) will move to the rotation full-time and join Maryland transfer Connor Staine (0-3, 6.49) to form a one-two punch with both throwing in the mid-to-upper 90s. Staine impressed with the Cape’s Brewster Whitecaps this summer, striking out 16 in 15 innings. Another southpaw in FIU’s Will Saxton (2-0, 9.00) rounds out the rotation, while the Knights return closer David Litchfield (8 SV, 2.72) and trustworthy reliever Ben Vespi (1-1, 2.08)
4. South Florida (31-30, 14-14)
Despite entering the conference tournament as the No. 6 seed, the Bulls went on an inspired run to claim the American auto-bid. They found even more success in the NCAA Tournament, knocking off Florida on its way to a super regional appearance against Texas. USF aims to run it back in 2022 on the strength of seven returnees in the lineup, two-thirds of its weekend rotation, and a reliable closer. The Bulls will need to replace Saturday starter Colin Sullivan, key reliever Logan Lyle and first baseman Riley Hogan.
USF featured one of the conference’s top pitching staff’s a year ago and bring back the righthanded duo of Jack Jasiak (6-7, 2.93) and Brad Lord (3-5, 4.76) in the rotation, as well as lights-out closer Orion Kekering (5-3, 2.88 ERA). Florida transfer Hunter Mink and freshman Jack Cebert are expected to compete for the third starter role, with Mink arriving after four appearances for the Gators across two years while Cebert is a 6-foot-3 righthander with a four-pitch mix. Outfielder Drew Brutcher (.294/.421/.546, 8 HR), third baseman Carmine Lane (.307/.361/.496, 11 HR) and second baseman Roberto Pena (.236/.362/.476, 12 HR) are the top returnees in the lineup. Brutcher has plenty of upside—he clubbed eight home runs as true freshman despite missing seven weeks due to injury—while Lane found plenty of success hitting leadoff in the second half of the year. There’s a lot of potential throughout the lineup, too, as a quarter of the Bulls at bats last season were from true freshman.
5. Wichita State (31-23, 18-13)
Wichita State went an impressive 20-8 at home in 2021 but were two games under .500 on the road and didn’t go far in the conference tournament. As a result, the Shockers couldn’t make their first NCAA Tournament since 2013 and now face quite a bit of turnover on the mound and in the lineup. The lineup loses stalwarts Paxton Wallace, Corrigan Bartlett and Hunter Gibson in addition to three-fourths of the starting rotation—Liam Eddy, Preston Navely, and Spencer Hynes—and closer Aaron Haase.
Still, of all the pitching staffs in the league, Wichita State might have the most intriguing. Jace Kaminska (8-1, 2.32) is the top returning starter in the conference and will be joined by a trio of new faces—freshmen Payton Tolle and Robert Cranz as well as junior college transfer Will Stevens. Kaminska should challenge Whisenhunt for the pitcher of the year honors, while Stevens could have the best stuff on the staff. Ryan Stuempfig (6-0, 3.11) and LJ McDonough (1-0, 2.49) are reliable returnees in the bullpen. The Shockers also brought in Murray State transfer Connor Holden (8 SV, 2.10) to replace Haase. Losing three of the top four batters by OPS is alleviated by the return of first baseman Garrett Kocis (.286/.353/.654, 12 HR) and second baseman Jack Sigrist (.321/.390/.470, 4 HR). Reliable backstop Ross Cadena (.274/.359/.403) and outfielder Couper Cornblum (.285/.368/.380) will be leaned on, while Wichita State is hoping for big things out of sophomore DH Chuck Ingram (.225/.274/.393) and true freshman third baseman Xavier Casserilla.
6. Cincinnati (29-26, 18-14)
Cincinnati had an up-and-down 2021 campaign, finishing three games above .500 for the first time under Scott Googins but exiting the conference tournament in just two games. The Bearcats had no problems scoring—leading the league with nearly seven runs per game—but that was offset by a pitching staff that finished second-to-last in ERA. Losing Evan Shawver to injury near the start of the season caused a ripple effect, with Garrett Schoenle ultimately the only pitcher to log double-digit starts. The team’s 5.97 ERA must improve in 2022—even with the staff turning over—as the deep lineup took a hit with the loss of Eric Santiago, Jace Mercer, and Joey Bellini to graduation.
With Schoenle, Shawver, Dean McCarthy, and Jalen Wade gone, the Bearcats have a lot of work to do. Some combination of Indiana State transfer Tristan Weaver (3-4, 7.32), redshirt sophomore righthander Zach Segal (5-4, 5.14), and freshman righthander Garret Harker will form the rotation. The bullpen will lean on righthanders Jackson Murphy (1-1, 3.21) and Beau Keathley (2-3, 5.49) as they finished first and fourth in appearances a season ago. The lineup should produce plenty of runs in 2022, with outfielders Paul Komistek (.364/.459/.599, 9 HR) and Cole Harting (.289/.373/.521, 10 HR) alongside designated hitter Griffin Merritt (.274/.362/.511, 10 HR) coming off power-filled campaigns. Another key cog is first baseman Ryan Nicholson (.291/.384/.412, 5 HR), who put together a strong first full season and kept the lineup moving with an excellent 13.1 BB%.
7. Houston (19-34, 7-21)
It was a year to forget for Houston as it finished second-to-last in the league, lost both games at the conference tournament, and now replace No. 1 starter Robert Gasser and one of its top hitters in left fielder Tyler Bielamowicz (who is now a volunteer assistant coach with the program). The Cougars had a tough time offensively in 2022, ranking last in the conference in runs per game (4.3) and walk rate (7.8%) while striking out at a high rate (22.1%). Turnover was expected and Houston did just that with a group of transfers and incoming recruits. Plus, the Cougars added two new coaches in hitting coach Ross Kivett (Tennessee) and pitching coach Kyle Bunn (Middle Tennessee State).
On the mound, junior college transfers Logan Clayton and Nathan Medrano will sandwich returnee Jaycob Deese (2-7, 4.46) in the rotation. Clayton could burst onto the conference scene with a mid-90s fastball and good command—he posted a 51:16 K/BB ratio at the JC of Central Florida. Closer Derrick Cherry (2-3, 2.85) is the top returning pitcher on the staff, while another junior college transfer in lefthander José Torrealba is an intriguing former starter that figures to eat up innings in the bullpen. The Cougars’ lineup will be built around newcomers outside of the team’s top hitter, first baseman Ryan Hernandez (.287/.345/.497, 11 HR), and defensive stalwart Ian McMillan (.235/.284/.324). Freshmen Brandon Burckel and Cam Nickens join transfers Anthony Tulimero, Zach Arnold, and Alex Lopez. Tulimero is a veteran defensive catcher, while Arnold is a high-profile transfer who arrives from LSU and will slot in the middle of the lineup.
8. Memphis (18-39, 7-25)
Memphis struggled in 2021, giving up nearly eight runs per game and failing to keep pace offensively, then lost top hitter Hunter Goodman in the fourth round of the draft. The Tigers won just seven conference games and haven’t had a winning season since 2017 but reloaded this offseason. Daron Schoenrock’s 18th and final season at the helm of Memphis will feature plenty of new faces. Schoenrock and the Tigers hit the transfer portal hard and have 19 new players in 2022, including the top two in the weekend rotation and three in the starting lineup.
Alabama’s Connor Shamblin (4-2, 4.70) is a righthander with a three-pitch mix, while 6-foot-7 southpaw Dalton Fowler (0-2, 13.50) arrives from Oklahoma and is the team’s top draft prospect with a fastball up to 97 mph and a good slider. Veteran righthander Carson Stinnett (4-5, 4.96) and starter-turned-reliver Blake Wimberly (2-9, 6.52) will be expected to provide important innings in the bullpen. In the lineup, Goodman and third baseman Alec Trela will be missed after ranking first and second in OPS
Top 20 Prospects for 2022
1. Carson Whisenhunt, LHP, East Carolina
2. Alex Freeland, SS, UCF
3. Dalton Fowler, LHP, Memphis
4. Orion Kekering, RHP, USF
5. Logan Clayton, RHP, Houston
6. Hunter Patteson, LHP, UCF
7. Connor Staine, RHP, UCF
8. Jaycob Deese, RHP, Houston
9. Chase Hopewell, RHP, Cincinnati
10. Will Stevens, RHP, Wichita State
11. Zach Arnold, 3B, Houston
12. Zach Agnos, 3B, East Carolina
13. Jack Jasiak, RHP, USF
14. Will Saxton, LHP, UCF
15. Ryan Nicholson, 1B, Cincinnati
16. Derrick Cherry, RHP, Houston
17. Nathan Medrano, RHP, Houston
18. Garrett Kocis, 1B, Wichita State
19. Connor Shamblin, RHP, Memphis
20. Alec Makarewicz, INF/OF, East Carolina
Top 10 Prospects for 2023
1. Bennett Lee, C, Tulane
2. Josh Moylan, 1B, East Carolina
3. Drew Brutcher, OF, USF
4. Nelson Rivera, C, USF
5. Zack Bennett, RHP, UCF
6. Cole Harting, OF, Cincinnati
7. Chuck Ingram, OF, Wichita State
8. John Montes, SS, UCF
9. Garrett Harker, RHP, Cincinnati
10. Sam Tormos, OF, Houston
Top 10 Newcomers
1. Dylan Carmouche, LHP, Tulane
2. Ryan McCrystal, 1B, East Carolina
3. Dalton Fowler, LHP, Memphis
4. Connor Staine, RHP, UCF
5. Zach Arnold, SS, Houston
6. Connor Shamblin, RHP, Memphis
7. Xavier Casserilla, 3B, Wichita State
8. Michael Massey, RHP, Tulane
9. Michael Brooks, 3B, UCF
10. Jack Cebert, RHP, USF
Best Pure Hitter: Bennett Lee, Tulane
Best Raw Power: Drew Brutcher, USF
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Tom Josten, UCF
Best Athlete: Gephry Pena, UCF
Fastest Runner: Gephry Pena, UCF
Best Baserunner: Gephry Pena, UCF
Best Defensive Catcher: Ross Cadena, Wichita State
Best Defensive Infielder: Ian McMillan, Houston
Best Infield Arm: Ryder Giles, East Carolina
Best Defensive OF: Gephry Pena, UCF
Best OF Arm: Bryson Worrell, East Carolina
Best Fastball: Jaycob Deese, Houston
Best Breaking Ball: Orion Kekering, USF
Best Changeup: Carson Whisenhunt, East Carolina
Best Control: Jake Kuchmaner, East Carolina