2022 Metro Atlantic Conference College Baseball Preview

Image credit: Fairfield LHP Michael Sansone (Photo courtesy of Fairfield)

The 2021 MAAC season was nothing short of historic. Fairfield began the season 27-0, along the way earning a spot in the Top 25, on the path to going 32-1 in the regular season. And as it turned out, that was enough to earn an at-large bid, as Rider upset the Stags in the MAAC Tournament, making it a two-bid conference for the first time in history. 

Replicating that conference-wide success in 2022 will be next to impossible, not least because the MAAC won’t be playing a conference-only schedule, which helped keep Fairfield’s undefeated streak going as long as it did last season. But what Fairfield accomplished last season, not just its regular season success but also advancing to a regional final, should give the conference permission to dream. Its best can go up against the rest of the nation’s best and compete well, and that’s what the league will aim for moving forward. 

These are five questions in the MAAC ahead of the 2022 season. 

Will Fairfield repeat?

It’s worth repeating that it’s extremely unlikely that Fairfield puts up anything close to the record it had last season, but it has to be looked at as the odds-on favorite to win the conference once again in 2022. 

The front end of the rotation should be excellent thanks to the return of fourth-year junior lefthander Michael Sansone (9-2, 2.58) and fourth-year junior righthander Jake Noviello (9-0, 1.47). Either one of those guys would be the unquestioned ace of most other teams in the MAAC and in the Northeast more generally, but on this team, they’ll be co-aces. 

Sansone works with a fastball in the mid 80s and a swing-and-miss changeup that had a 47% whiff rate last season. Noviello’s stuff is a tick firmer than Sansone’s and his fastball is notably heavy, but he’s similar to Sansone in that his changeup was also his top pitch for whiffs last season. 

The bullpen should also be a strength once again with the return of fifth-year senior lefthander Bryson Cafaro (1.66 ERA, 38 IP) and fifth-year senior righthander Nick Grabek (4.33 ERA, 27 IP). 

The lineup lost its two best power bats from last season in Justin Guerrera and Dan Ryan, but the offense shouldn’t take too much of a step back thanks to the return of fifth-year senior catcher and MAAC player of the year Mike Caruso (.414/.532/.566), fourth-year junior center fielder Mike Handal (.357/.396/.560), third-year sophomore second baseman Mike Becchetti (.254/.356/.366), third-year sophomore third baseman Charlie Pagliarini (.242/.404/.391) and third-year sophomore DH Matt Venuto (.373/.506/.525), the last of whom was excellent last season in a small sample and will look to extrapolate that out over a full campaign in 2022. 

And true to Fairfield’s type of being a pitching and defense-oriented team, there’s optimism that this group will once again field the ball well and refuse to give games away. 

A lot can happen over the course of the season, and there are teams in the league that project to provide stiff competition, but the Stags once again look like the class of the MAAC. 

Can Monmouth make up the gap?

Lost in how good Fairfield was last season and in the MAAC also getting Rider into the postseason was how good Monmouth was for much of 2021. 

The Hawks got swept in a four-game series against Fairfield in mid April, a fate met by many a MAAC team in 2021, but were otherwise outstanding on the way to finishing 22-10 in the regular season. 

They will look to close the gap with Fairfield this season, and they certainly have the pitching talent to do so, with all four weekend starters returning in third-year sophomore lefthander Trey Dombroski (5-1, 2.73), fifth-year senior righthander Dan Klepchick (4-4, 3.35), fourth-year junior lefthander Rob Hensey (5-0, 1.54) and fourth-year junior lefthander Alex Barker (3-1, 2.68). 

With the MAAC going back to traditional three-game series in 2022, it’s expected that Barker will slide into the midweek role, but given his experience, he could slide back to a spot on the weekend with ease. 

All four of those guys are among the best the league has to offer, but Dombroski is truly a special pitcher. He dominated in the Cape Cod League over the summer, putting up a 1.19 ERA and striking out 51 batters, while walking only three, in 37.2 innings. He has a fastball in the high 80s and low 90s that he complements with a slider and curveball that both had whiff rates of 44% or better last season, plus a usable changeup. 

With that kind of pitching, Monmouth doesn’t need a ton of offense to win games, but that unit does have the potential to be one of the MAAC’s best as well. Top hitter Jalen Jenkins transferred out of the program to be closer to home, but the Hawks otherwise return a solid core in sophomore shortstop Dixon Black (.350/.414/.537), fifth-year senior center fielder Jake Catalano (.261/.347/.352), third-year sophomore third baseman James Harmstead (.259/.354/.370) and Barker (.250/.376/.594), who led the team in home runs last season with eight. 

In all, Monmouth returns 32 lettermen from a team that in many years probably wins the MAAC regular-season title. Fairfield established quite a gulf between itself and the rest of the league last season, and Monmouth does still have some questions to answer in the bullpen, but the potential is there for the Hawks to give the Stags a run in 2022. 

What will Rider do for an encore?

Rider earned its first regional appearance since 2010 with an impressive showing in the MAAC Tournament that included wins over both Monmouth and Fairfield. 

The Broncs finished third in the MAAC standings last season, but with an 18-16 record, it was well behind Fairfield and five games behind second-place Monmouth. So how likely is it that Rider not only puts itself back in position to make a run through the conference tournament but perhaps also make more of a run toward the top of the standings in the regular season?

The losses in the lineup do raise the degree of difficulty, but if the Broncs pitch as well as the talent suggests they can, there’s no reason why they can’t end up in the mix alongside Fairfield and Monmouth again this season. 

The rotation will be led by fourth-year junior lefthander Frank Doelling (5-3, 3.30), who held opponents to a .216 batting average last season and should once again be one of the best starters in the conference. He’ll be supported by fifth-year senior lefthander Joe Papeo (4-2, 4.67), a versatile pitcher who had a 35-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season in 34.2 innings. A wild card is the projected third starter, third-year freshman righthander Dylan Heine. He missed last season recovering from Tommy John surgery, but when he’s healthy, he features a low-90s fastball and a quality breaking ball. 

The bullpen should be a strength as well thanks to the return of sixth-year senior righthander Cal Stalzer (3.08 ERA, 26.1 IP) to the closer’s role and the healthy return of fifth-year senior righthander Vincent Vitacco, who is coming off a Tommy John surgery of his own, but who has also thrown 129.2 innings in his Rider career. 

Pitching will be Rider’s calling card, but keys to doing enough offensively include fifth-year senior left fielder Jake Barbiere (.314/.429/.384), third-year sophomore second baseman Jake Volpe (.300/.427/.383) and third-year sophomore first baseman Luke Lesch (.254/.365/.349), a big-bodied slugger who was one of just two players last season to play in and start all 41 games for Rider. 

It’s almost a prerequisite to have a stout pitching staff to compete in the MAAC, and Rider checks that box, but for the Broncs to be markedly closer to the top of the league in 2022, they will need some bats to step forward. 

Could Marist make a run?

Every team in the MAAC dealt with adversity last season related to Covid, but Marist had it worse than the rest. While the MAAC was set to get started on its 40-game conference-only schedule on March 20, Marist didn’t get the green light to start until April 2. But then another campus activities pause actually forced the start date all the way back to April 17. 

In that context, it’s impressive that the Red Foxes were still able to finish fifth in the regular-season standings with a 17-9 record. 

They could be better this season just by virtue of having had a more normal leadup to the season and having a full schedule, but beyond that, this team is also talented enough to make noise. The specific advantage Marist has is having a top-flight lineup in an otherwise pitching-centric league. 

The Red Foxes project to return five of their top six hitters from a group that last season hit .313/.419/.463 in third-year sophomore infielder Dylan Hoy (.410/.520/.538), fifth-year senior infielder Tyler Kapuscinski (.359/.496/.500), third-year sophomore catcher Niko Amory (.329/.442/.529), third-year sophomore outfielder Brian Hart (.326/.425/.547) and fourth-year junior infielder Robbie Armitage (.305/.416/.533). 

We know the lineup will hit enough to keep Marist in just about every game, but there are two keys that will likely determine how well it can keep up with the others at the top of the standings. 

One is team defense. Last season, the Red Foxes fielded the ball at a .958 clip. While that put them in the middle of the pack in the conference, it was a clear step back from the likes of Monmouth and Fairfield, which had .978 and .976 fielding percentages, respectively. 

The other key is what Marist gets on the pitching staff, especially in light of Ryan Cardona departing after he was drafted in the 19th round last summer and do-everything swingman Skyler Pichardo graduating. 

Getting third-year sophomore righthander Erubiel Candelario (4-1, 3.62) and third-year sophomore lefthander Jack Keenan (2-1, 4.33) back helps, but what would really raise the ceiling for the Red Foxes on the mound would be fifth-year senior righthander Alex Pansini (2-4, 6.15) performing a bit more like he did in 2019 and 2020, when he had an ERA just over 4.00 across those two seasons. At his best, he’s a guy who could win MAAC pitcher of the year honors. 

Marist is certainly a team to watch in 2022, if for no other reason than it is clearly going to try to win games a little bit differently than much of the rest of the league. 

Who are the player of the year favorites?

It’s easy to marvel at all of the good pitching in the MAAC, because there’s a ton of it, but in such a pitching-focused conference, who are the hitters to watch as we assess the player of the year race?

Marist has a number of candidates in the likes of Brian Hoy, Tyler Kapuscinski, Niko Amory, Brian Hart and Robbie Armitage. Fairfield also has obvious candidates in Mike Caruso, the reigning player of the year, and Mike Handal. Monmouth’s Dixon Black stands out as an early favorite, and his teammate Alex Barker does as well if he’s able to continue to handle his two-way duties with aplomb. Rider’s Jake Barbiere should also be in the mix. 

Canisius sixth-year senior first baseman Vinny Chiarenza (.330/.469/.634) can’t be overlooked in this discussion, and the Golden Griffins’ lineup is good enough in general that they could have several candidates by season’s end. 

Niagara fourth-year junior infielder Cole Tucker (.391/.482/.587) was a hit machine last season, helping him finish third in the conference in hitting behind Hoy and Caruso. If he does something similar in 2022, he could take home hardware. 

Quinnipiac fifth-year senior third baseman Ian Ostberg (.245/.287/.309) probably doesn’t stand out as an obvious candidate because he had a down season in 2021, but he was first team all-conference in 2019 when he hit .321/.383/.429. If he’s that kind of hitter again this season, he’s right back in the conversation. 

One thing is certain. With the quality of pitching in this league, whoever ends up securing the trophy at the end of the season will have earned it. 

Top 2022 Draft Prospects

  1. Trey Dombroski, LHP, Monmouth
  2. Brandyn Garcia, LHP, Quinnipiac
  3. Rob Hensey, LHP, Monmouth
  4. Ben Seiler, LHP, Siena
  5. Jake Noviello, RHP, Fairfield

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