2022 Conference USA College Baseball Preview

Image credit: Louisiana Tech coach Lane Burroughs (Photo by Tom Morris)

After several years of seeing its relevance in the national college baseball scene erode thanks to conference realignment and the lagging performance of some of the trademark programs in the league, Conference USA enjoyed a resurgent season in 2021. 

Four teams—Charlotte, Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi—made regionals. Of those, La Tech hosted a regional and ODU went on the road as a one seed, suggesting it would have hosted had it submitted a bid to do so. Though it was a mild disappointment that none of the four made it to a super regional, three of four did advance to the regional final. 

In the long term, it’s unfortunate that this run of form isn’t built to last, as realignment will again come for Conference USA, taking away Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Rice and Texas-San Antonio (to the American), as well as Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss (to the Sun Belt). But there’s still fun to be had in the meantime, as all four of those regional teams project to reach the postseason again, and there are other contenders in the league making a move to challenge them. 

Preseason Awards

Player of the Year: David McCabe, 3B, Charlotte

When McCabe was healthy last season, he was as productive a power hitter as existed in the country. Unfortunately for him and Charlotte, health was an issue and he was limited to 37 games, although he made them count. In those 37 games, he hit .338/.404/.731 with 14 home runs. Now a third-year sophomore, he has the raw power to run the ball out of the ballpark from both sides of the plate, and while offense is his calling card, he has a strong arm and he’s also a better athlete than his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame suggests, making him a more than viable third baseman. McCabe’s stiffest competition for postseason honors might end up coming from teammate Austin Knight, but if he can extrapolate out his production from last season to a full season in 2022, he might end up leaving everyone else in the dust for this award. 

Pitcher of the Year: Jonathan Fincher, LHP, Louisiana Tech

Fincher isn’t the biggest-name prospect and he doesn’t have electric stuff that really jumps off, but last season, he was among the best starters in Conference USA, going 8-3 with a 3.05 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 100.1 innings. And to be clear, it’s not as if his stuff isn’t good, because it is. His fastball is a high-80s offering, but he can reach back and get it into the low 90s and even occasionally the mid 90s if he needs it, to go along with a breaking ball and a good changeup that had a nearly 40% whiff rate last season. Simply put, Fincher really knows how to pitch and he’s a strong bet to be the best workhorse in the league in 2022. 

Freshman of the Year: Jayden Melendez, C, Florida International

Melendez, the son of FIU coach Mervyl Melendez and the brother of Royals minor leaguer MJ Melendez, will be an impact player for the Panthers right away. The No. 252 player on the BA 500 heading into last year’s draft, he’s a skilled defensive catcher who will use above-average arm strength to slow down the opposing running game. Offensively, he may not be ready to generate a ton of power from his 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame—the hope is that will come in time as he adds strength—but he controls the zone well at the plate and has enough feel to hit to suggest that he’ll provide value there as well. 

Predicted Order of Finish (2021 record)

1. Old Dominion (44-16, 22-10)

Old Dominion earned a place in the preseason Top 25 thanks in large part to the return of nearly every key hitter from last season’s team that hit .301/.396/.538 with 105 home runs, including sophomore left fielder Carter Trice (.355/.426/.632), fifth-year senior shortstop Tommy Bell (.343/.421/.554), fourth-year junior right fielder Andy Garriola (.318/.366/.564) and fifth-year senior catcher Brock Gagliardi (.316/.456/.561). There are more questions about the Monarchs’ pitching staff, but the high-end talent there is good, led by sophomore lefthander Jacob Gomez (4.75 ERA, 30.1 IP) and fifth-year senior lefthander Tommy Gertner (2-2, 4.95) in the rotation and third-year sophomore lefthander Noah Dean (4.64 ERA, 21.1 IP) and fifth-year senior lefthander Jason Hartline (1.88 ERA, 48 IP) in the bullpen. Though he’ll be new to the rotation this season, Gomez showed no fear in the spots where he was used last season and he has plenty of stuff to be a Friday guy, including a low-90s fastball. In addition to being a key piece of the ODU pitching staff this season, Dean is a real prospect to watch for the 2022 draft as well, with a fastball that averaged just a touch under 93 mph last season and touched 100. 

2. Louisiana Tech (42-20, 22-8)

Although thought more of as an offensive team last season, Louisiana Tech had a really solid pitching staff, and that entire group returns, including a rotation of fifth-year junior lefthander Jonathan Fincher (8-3, 3.05), fifth-year senior righthander Ryan Jennings (5-4, 4.48) and fifth-year senior righthander Jarret Whorff (9-2, 4.00). Fifth-year senior righthander Kyle Crigger (3.47 ERA, 36.1 IP) returns to anchor the bullpen and sixth-year senior lefthander Cade Gibson (4-3, 6.40) will also settle into a relief role after serving as a swingman last season. Gibson was extremely good during the first half of last season, but fell off late. If he can be more consistent late in the season this time around, it will greatly deepen the Bulldogs’ staff. There is more rebuilding to do in the lineup, but plenty of DNA from the La Tech teams that have won so many games the last several years is still around, including at second base with fifth-year senior Taylor Young (.331/.454/.504), in center field with third-year sophomore Cole McConnell (.347/.399/.503), in left field with fourth-year junior Philip Matulia (.311/.402/.521) and in right field with fifth-year senior Steele Netterville (.283/.394/.572). Louisiana Tech boasts a number of position players who have been good enough to play but have been stuck behind productive veterans for a while, so don’t expect too much of a drop-off offensively as those players move into regular roles. 

3. Southern Mississippi (40-21, 22-9)

Southern Miss is typically a pitching-centric program, but going into 2022, it’s the lineup that feels a bit more settled. Sixth-year senior center fielder Gabe Montenegro (.345/.439/.504), fourth-year junior third baseman Danny Lynch (.320/.396/.571), fourth-year junior left fielder Charlie Fischer (.304/.467/.491) and third-year sophomore shortstop Dustin Dickerson (.279/.364/.376) are all back after really good seasons at the plate in 2021. Also back is fourth-year junior first baseman Christopher Sargent (.227/.295/.483). He struggled with strikeouts last season, as a sub-.300 on-base percentage might suggest, but he has significant power, as shown by his 16 home runs. A wild card offensively is sophomore Slade Wilks (.158/.262/.351). A blue-chip prospect coming out of high school, Wilks has as much raw ability as anyone on the team, but he struggled in his first season. The losses of Walker Powell and Hunter Stanley in the rotation are big, but USM is hopeful a rotation of Division II Delta State (Miss.) transfer righthander Hunter Riggins, third-year sophomore righthander Ben Ethridge (6-2, 3.25) and fifth-year senior lefthander Drew Boyd (4-2, 4.21) can be solid enough. Depth is actually the Golden Eagles’ strength on the mound, as some of its biggest arms are those not projected to be in the weekend rotation, like sophomore righthander Hurston Waldrep (3.31 ERA, 13.1 IP), fourth-year sophomore righthander Tyler Stuart (7.16 ERA, 16.1 IP) and third-year sophomore righthander Blake Wehunt, all of whom have fastballs that can get up to 98 mph, third-year sophomore lefthander Chandler Best (5.50 ERA, 18 IP), fourth-year junior righthander (and returning closer) Garrett Ramsey (4.50 ERA, 14 IP) and junior college transfer lefthander Dalton Rogers. 

4. Charlotte (40-21, 24-8)

Last year’s regular-season champion in Conference USA should be back at it in 2022 thanks to a deep lineup that features arguably the two top contenders for conference player of the year honors in third-year sophomore third baseman David McCabe (.338/.404/.731) and fourth-year junior second baseman Austin Knight (.342/.398/.615). But they’ll have help from the likes of third-year sophomore right fielder Will Butcher (.328/.383/.506), fourth-year junior shortstop Jack Dragum (.288/.369/.429) and sophomore center fielder Jake Cunningham (.221/.277/.346), a physical, athletic player who feels on the verge of a breakout. Team defense should also be a strength with this group, as third-year sophomore Arizona transfer catcher Kaden Hopson (.143/.333/.190), UNC-Greensboro grad transfer first baseman Josh Madole (.304/.413/.431), Dragum and Cunningham are all high-level defenders. The concern for the 49ers is on the mound, where they were always going to be starting over this season, and that was before they lost lefthander Christian Lothes for the season due to injury. A lot will be riding on how well sophomore lefthander Spencer Giesting (5.47, 52.2 IP) takes to starting on Friday nights after pitching in the bullpen last season. He has good stuff, with a fastball that touches 94 mph, spent the summer in the Cape Cod League and he’s a very good athlete on the hill, but he’ll have to make a leap for the 49ers to be as good as they can be. The bullpen could be a strength with the return from injury of sixth-year senior righthander Colby Bruce, who has a 3.70 career ERA in 131.1 innings, and the arrival of third-year sophomore lefthander AJ Wilson (4.22 ERA, 10.2 IP), a transfer from East Carolina. 

5. Florida Atlantic (32-25, 18-14)

As is customary, we should expect FAU to really hit the ball in 2022. It starts with sophomore third baseman Nolan Schanuel (.343/.444/.576), a superstar who is looked at as a potential top-three rounds pick in 2023, but it doesn’t end there. Supporting Schanuel in the lineup will be third-year sophomore second baseman Steven Loden (.375/.441/.583), fourth-year junior left fielder Mitchell Hartigan (.318/.394/.535) and sophomore catcher Caleb Pendleton (.252/.339/.524). St. Bonaventure grad transfer outfielder Tyler Kelder (.318/.422/.692) and junior college transfer outfielder Gabriel Rincones both look capable of providing additional jolts of offense. If FAU is going to break up that top four in C-USA or force itself into the picture as a fifth postseason team in the league, pitching will have to be better than it was last season, when the Owls had a 6.16 team ERA. A healthy Jacob Josey at the front of the rotation can only help. The fourth-year junior pitched in just two games last season in what was expected to be his breakout campaign as a Friday starter. The addition of Seton Hall grad transfer lefthander Tyler Burham (3-5, 3.42) also helps. He enjoyed his best season as a Pirate in 2021 and will jump into the FAU rotation right away. Returning to his spot in the rotation is fourth-year junior lefthander Hunter Cooley (8-4, 4.23), who was arguably the Owls’ most effective pitcher last season. Closing duties will likely fall to third-year sophomore righthander Dante Visconti (7.34, 41.2 IP), whose numbers last season don’t look pretty but who was also much better after moving into the closer’s spot. If FAU makes a leap on the mound, it can challenge the top four in the league. If not, it might be fated to a similar result as last season, when it was just a little short of being a regional-caliber club. 

6. Texas-San Antonio (22-26, 14-17)

The Roadrunners could really swing the bat last season, hitting .302/.397/.481 as a team, but if they’re going to do something like that again, the lineup will require some re-tooling after it lost its top four hitters in Griffin Paxton, Nick Thornquist, Dylan Rock and Joshua Lamb. Fourth-year junior second baseman Leyton Barry (.382/.442/.598), fifth-year senior right fielder Chase Keng (.301/.397/.592), fifth-year senior center fielder Jonathan Tapia (.295/.425/.363) and sixth-year senior Ian Bailey (.270/.341/.468) are the returners who will be looked upon to do heavy lifting offensively, and grad transfer first baseman Ryan Flores (.282/.368/.391) from crosstown Incarnate Word should provide immediate punch. Last season, UTSA didn’t have a single pitcher start more than seven games and it had nine different pitchers start at least three games, so it will go into 2022 looking for that unit to be a bit more settled and for the group to have something better than the 5.92 ERA they had last year. Fourth-year junior lefthander Grant Miller (7.23 ERA, 23.2 IP), third-year sophomore righthander Simon Miller (6.90 ERA, 30 IP) and junior college transfer righthander Uli Quiroga project to make up the weekend rotation, with fifth-year senior Jacob Jimenez (3.77 ERA, 14.1 IP) likely to open the season as the midweek starter. A freshman, righthander Ryan Beaird, will get the first crack at closing games. 

7. Rice (23-29-1, 11-20-1)

Under first year coach Jose Cruz, Jr. and coming off of missing the Conference USA Tournament, it’s unlikely Rice is ready to compete near the top of the conference, but the talent on the roster is such that it’s not unreasonable to expect modest improvement in 2022. There are interesting pieces to be found on the pitching staff, including Pepperdine grad transfer righthander Cooper Chandler (2.30 ERA, 15.2 IP). He’s had his battles with injuries in his career, but he finished his career in Malibu with a 3.17 ERA in 147.2 innings. Sixth-year senior righthander Roel Garcia (1-5, 5.87) has had his own injury battles during his career, but he had moments of success in what was an otherwise up-and-down season in 2021, and the expectation is that he’ll be even better in 2022. Fourth-year junior lefthander Brandon Deskins (3-4, 3.88) will also have a prominent role on staff after he was the Owls’ most reliable arm last season. In 53.1 innings, he struck out 73 using a fastball in the low 90s and a slider that had a 43% whiff rate. Sophomore righthander Micah Davis (6.75 ERA, 10.2 IP) has the raw stuff to be a real impact arm out of the bullpen, including a fastball that was up to 98 mph last season, but he’ll have to throw strikes more consistently to reach his ceiling. The Owls were actually fairly old in the lineup last year, with its top four hitters graduating out of the program after last season, and that means there’s some turnover on that unit. Sophomore outfielder Guy Garibay, Jr. (.234/.331/.403) was a spark plug on offense for stretches last season and could be a real weapon if he’s more consistent this time around. Fourth-year junior infielder Austin Bulman (.270/.352/.468) is back to be a middle-of-the-order bat, likely to be joined by sophomore infielder Drew Woodcox, a Texas Tech transfer who had a massive fall for the Owls from a power standpoint. Symbolically, it’s also a big deal that Woodcox ended up at Rice along with North Carolina transfer infielder Jack Riedel and Texas A&M transfer pitcher Tom Vincent because all three of those players played high school baseball at schools just up the road from Rice and are precisely the type of player Rice used to get a lot of to campus—a talented player from an in-city school that had prominent Power Five options in the recruiting process—that it had been getting fewer and fewer of in recent years. 

8. Western Kentucky (27-29, 15-17)

The strength of this Western Kentucky team should be on the mound, where it returns all three of its weekend starters from last year in fifth-year junior righthander Jake Kates (3-4, 5.45), sixth-year senior righthander Sean Bergeron (3-6, 4.42) and fourth-year junior lefthander Devyn Terbrak (2-4, 4.52). That’s a trio that should keep the Hilltoppers competitive every weekend. The bullpen will be anchored by fifth-year junior righthander Mason Vinyard (2.32 ERA, 31 IP), who had a 30-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season. The lineup was a veteran bunch last year, creating some turnover going into this season, but the return of fourth-year junior right fielder Jackson Gray (.363/.460/.592), fifth-year senior left fielder Justin Carlin (.339/.401/.606) and fourth-year junior third baseman Matthew Meyer (.302/.406/.462) will help buoy a lineup that will otherwise lean on new faces. The good news is that there is optimism that those new faces will be ready to be key players right away. Fourth-year junior Alcorn State transfer second baseman Tristan Garcia (.445/.500/.582) was impossible to get out last season and should be a spark plug in the lineup for WKU. Sixth-year senior first baseman Brian McAuliffe hit .392/.451/.771 and earned all-american honors last season at Division III Denison (Ohio). Freshman catcher Ty Batusich and freshman shortstop Brodie Mackay both have the offensive skills to be threats as first-year players. If that group of newcomers really takes to Division I baseball as hoped, WKU will be in business. 

9. Florida International (20-31, 11-19)

FIU is talented, as has so often been the case under coach Mervyl Melendez, but the challenge is the same as it has been, to get over the hump and get into the postseason for the first time since 2015. Physical 6-foot-6, 225-pound sophomore first baseman Adrian Figueroa (.324/.397/.423) returns to lead the lineup after pacing the team in hitting last season. He’ll be joined by sophomore shortstop Steven Ondina (.265/.337/.341), a plus defender who also handled the bat well last season, sophomore infielder Dante Girardi (.215/.282/.262) and fourth-year junior Alec Sanchez (.214/.285/.348). The other five hitters who collected at least 100 at-bats last season are gone, leaving some rebuilding to do in the batting order. Freshman catcher Jayden Melendez, the son of coach Mervyl Melendez and the No. 252 prospect on last year’s BA 500 draft rankings, should bolster the lineup as an impact player right away. The most effective pitchers returning for FIU include fourth-year junior righthander Angel Tiburcio (3.23 ERA, 30.2 IP), who closed games last season, sophomore righthander Orlando Hernandez (5.14 ERA, 21 IP) and fifth-year senior righthander Jan Figueroa (5.72 ERA, 28.1 IP) .The Panthers were also aggressive in finding reinforcements from the transfer portal, bringing in fourth-year junior lefthander Drake Batcho (11.25 ERA, 12 IP) from Cincinnati, who really struggled with control last season—he walked 22 batters in 12 innings—but who also has good stuff and gets consistent outs when he’s in the strike zone, third-year sophomore lefthander Ryan Cabarcas (6.75 ERA, 9.1 IP) and redshirt freshman Kevin Martin from Florida, redshirt freshman righthander Carlos Anziani from Michigan, fifth-year junior righthander Pat Pridgen from Oregon and sophomore righthander Jack Clemente (12.27 ERA, 3.2 IP) from La Salle. That unit will be tasked with improving upon a 6.71 ERA from last year. 

10. Middle Tennessee State (24-29-1, 12-19-1)

Middle Tennessee State has hung its hat on pitching of late, and that should be the case again in 2022 with the return of fifth-year senior Peyton Wigginton (3-5, 3.16), a low-slot lefthander who has 241 career innings under his belt, and fifth-year senior righthander Zach Keenan (2-5, 3.86), who has a fastball up to 93 mph and a breaking ball and changeup that both had 40% whiff rates last season. Sophomore righthander Eriq Swan (3.57 ERA, 17.2 IP) will also be a key piece of the puzzle. He was an effective reliever for the Blue Raiders last season, using a fastball that averaged 95 mph and touched 99. The question on the mound is the depth around those three, as MTSU lost ace Aaron Brown, another starter in Trent Siebert, relief ace David Zoz and two other relievers with good stuff in Adam Link and Austin Cheeley. After hitting .243/.322/.365 as a team last year, offense is again the bigger question mark in Murfreesboro. The lineup does, however, boast a dynamic trio in fifth-year senior infielder Fausto Lopez (.283/.376/.389), fourth-year junior infielder Brett Coker (.278/.351/.450) and fourth-year junior infielder JT Mabry (.277/.329/.404). That group combined for 29 doubles, 13 home runs and 49 stolen bases in 2021. 

11. Alabama-Birmingham (18-36, 11-21)

First-year coach Casey Dunn, coming off of a very successful run just up the road from UAB at Samford, will have some re-tooling to do on the Blazers’ roster after they lost six starting position players and two weekend starters. That group encompasses the top six hitters for average in the lineup (of those who had at least 100 at-bats), and on the mound, the leader in ERA among starting pitchers and the team leader in innings pitched. There are reasons for optimism on the pitching staff, most notably the return of fourth-year junior righthander Tyler O’Clair (5-4, 4.04), last year’s team leader in strikeouts and a dependable weekend guy in his own right, and fifth-year senior righthander Collin Taylor (2.84 ERA, 19 IP), who was the Blazers’ most effective reliever in 2021. Both have good stuff in addition to being proven performers. Both have fastballs that get into the low 90s, and O’Clair features a swing-and-miss curveball and slider. The former had a 46% whiff rate last season, while the latter had a 39% whiff rate. Rebuilding the lineup will be a heavier lift, with fourth-year junior infielder John Marc Mullins (.238/.351/.369) the only returning position player who had more than 76 at-bats last season. 

12. Marshall (10-35, 6-26)

Marshall brings back nearly all of its biggest contributors from last year, and that group will try to make a leap forward after a disappointing 2021 season that saw the Thundering Herd at one point endure a 14-game losing streak. The centerpiece of the lineup is fourth-year junior center fielder Luke Edwards (.331/.386/.556), but fifth-year senior right fielder Jordon Billups (.280/.374/.421) and third-year sophomore catcher Ryan Leitch (.261/.346/.541) are also coming off of solid seasons. Fifth-year senior shortstop Geordon Blanton (.207/.351/.379) feels like an obvious bounce back candidate. Despite hitting just .207 last season, he still managed to be a productive offensive player by hitting with some power, getting on base at a good clip and leading the team in stolen bases with 12. The rotation projects to include sophomore righthander Patrick Copen (0-2, 8.88), sophomore righthander Zac Addkison (0-2, 5.55) and third-year sophomore righthander Chad Heiner (1-5, 6.66). All three gained valuable starting experience last season, but that group will have to be improved in 2022 for Marshall to improve overall. Fifth-year senior lefthander Raymond Pacella (2-7, 5.40), who works from a low slot, was Marshall’s most effective starting pitcher last season, but he’ll move to the bullpen in 2022. 

Top 2022 Draft Prospects

  1. Noah Dean, LHP, Old Dominion
  2. David McCabe, 3B/1B, Charlotte
  3. Ben Ethridge, RHP, Southern Mississippi
  4. Dalton Rogers, LHP, Southern Mississippi
  5. Gabriel Rincones, OF, Florida Atlantic
  6. Spencer Giesting, LHP, Charlotte
  7. Slade Wilks, OF, Southern Mississippi
  8. Cole McConnell, OF, Louisiana Tech
  9. Austin Knight, 2B, Charlotte
  10. Cam Fisher, OF, Charlotte
  11. Nate Furman, 2B/OF, Charlotte
  12. Chandler Best, LHP, Southern Mississippi
  13. Christian Lothes, LHP, Charlotte
  14. Dustin Dickerson, SS/RHP, Southern Mississippi
  15. Andy Garriola, OF, Old Dominion
  16. Philip Matulia, OF, Louisiana Tech
  17. Tyler Stuart, RHP, Southern Mississippi
  18. Steven Loden, 2B, Florida Atlantic
  19. Uli Quiroga, RHP, Texas-San Antonio
  20. Braden Ostrander, RHP, Florida Atlantic

Top 2023 Draft Prospects

  1. Carter Trice, OF/2B, Old Dominion
  2. Nolan Schanuel, 3B/1B, Florida Atlantic
  3. Jake Cunningham, OF, Charlotte
  4. Kenny Levari, 3B/RHP, Old Dominion
  5. Hurston Waldrep, RHP, Southern Mississippi
  6. Caleb Pendleton, C, Florida Atlantic
  7. Steven Ondina, SS, Florida International
  8. Adrian Figueroa, 1B, Florida International
  9. Eriq Swan, RHP, Middle Tennessee State
  10. Micah Davis, RHP, Rice

Best Tools

Best Pure Hitter: Taylor Young, Louisiana Tech
Best Power Hitter: Andy Garriola, Old Dominion
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Taylor Young, Louisiana Tech
Best Athlete: Carter Trice, Old Dominion
Fastest Runner: Jalen DeBose, Florida Atlantic
Best Baserunner: Fausto Lopez, Middle Tennessee State
Best Defensive Catcher: Kaden Hopson, Charlotte
Best Defensive Infielder: Tommy Bell, Old Dominion
Best Infield Arm: Kenny Levari, Old Dominion
Best Defensive Outfielder: Jake Cunningham, Charlotte
Best Outfield Arm: Jake Cunningham, Charlotte
Best Fastball: Noah Dean, Old Dominion
Best Breaking Ball: Garrett Ramsey, Southern Mississippi
Best Changeup: Jacob Kates, Western Kentucky
Best Control: Ben Ethridge, Southern Mississippi

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