2023 American Athletic Conference College Baseball Preview
The American Athletic Conference was created in 2013 out of conference realignment and, after a decade, its first chapter as a conference is coming to a close. Following this season, the American will undergo radical realignment again, as Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston will depart the conference for the Big 12 and Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas (which doesn’t play baseball), Rice and Texas-San Antonio will all join from Conference USA.
The conference has previously experienced the departures of Louisville, Rutgers (one year after the conference was created) and Connecticut (2020) and added Wichita State (2018). But this realignment is much larger and has the potential to completely change the conference’s position in the sport.
But, for one more season, the American as we’ve come to know it will exist and East Carolina will aim for a four-peat as conference champion. UCF and Houston are perhaps the teams best positioned to stop the Pirates, as they look to go out with a bang.
The American was just a one-bid league last year, though ECU did earn a top-eight national seed. It should return to multi-bid status in 2023, but the days of that being a lock seem to have passed for now. Anyone that wants to join ECU in regionals will have to prove it on the diamond this spring.
Player of the year: Jacob Jenkins-Cowart, OF, East Carolina. Jenkins-Cowart is coming off a Freshman All-American season that saw him hit .330/.367/.549 with 13 home runs. He was particularly good in the postseason, as he went 14-for-41 with four home runs during the conference tournament, regionals and super regionals. Jenkins-Cowart will be at the heart of everything for ECU this spring.
Pitcher of the year: Carter Spivey, RHP, East Carolina. Spivey last year was named conference pitcher of the year while serving in an unusual role out of the bullpen. He went 8-0, 2.83 with 76 strikeouts and 19 walks in 76.1 innings. He appeared in 35 games, typically in high-leverage spots. He’s expected to take on a more traditional role in the ECU rotation this year and he’s already shown he has what it takes to excel in big spots.
Freshman of the year: Cameron Leiter, RHP, UCF. Leiter is slated to play a key role in the new-look UCF rotation. He’s the cousin of Jack Leiter and while he doesn’t have his pure stuff, Cameron can run his fastball into the low 90s and pairs it with a good slider and changeup. Listed at 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, he has a big frame and good pitchability, throwing his whole arsenal for strikes.
Predicted Order of Finish (2022 record)
1. East Carolina (46-21, 20-4)
ECU has become the AAC’s powerhouse under Godwin and has won three straight conference titles. The Pirates are well positioned to extend that streak in 2023, as they return an older, veteran team.
Offensively, ECU returns leading hitter Lane Hoover (.341/.423/.416, 12 SB) and outfielder Jacob Jenkins-Cowart (.330/.367/.549, 13 HR), who is coming off a Freshman All-American season. The Pirates lost outfielder Bryson Worrell, their leading power threat, and All-American shortstop/reliever Zach Agnos, leaving two significant holes in their lineup. The Pirates will hope for a bounceback season from first baseman Josh Moylan (.221/355/.416), who was a Freshman All-American in 2021, but last season posted just a .771 OPS. The Pirates will also be young up the middle with sophomore catcher Ryan McCrystal and freshman shortstop Nathan Chrismon. Getting that duo up to speed, especially defensively, in the college game will be critical.
On the mound, righthander Carter Spivey (8-0, 2.83, 5 SV), the 2022 AAC Pitcher of the Year, returns, as does fellow fifth-year senior Garrett Saylor (6-3, 5.01, 5 SV). Saylor, Spivey and Josh Grosz (4-5, 5.65) were three of the Pirates’ top four pitchers by innings last year, giving them plenty of returning experience. Last year, ECU didn’t play with a traditional rotation and instead were aggressive with their relievers, particularly their top options like Spivey. Things are likely going to be more traditional this season, but finding the right formula is critical.
2. UCF (35-25, 14-10)
The Knights last year finished second in the standings but were six games out of first place. UCF hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2017, a drought that could be broken this year if it can integrate its newcomers successfully. Those newcomers will be especially important after UCF lost two of its three leading hitters from 2022 to graduation, as well as a trio of players as fifth-round picks.
Outfielder Lex Boedicker (.330/.414/.426) and catcher/first baseman Ben McCabe (.298/.369/.544, 14 HR, 12 SB), the team’s top power threat, anchor the lineup. First baseman Nick Romano (.366/.480/.707) also provides a big boost in the heart of the order, as he returns following a knee injury that last year sidelined him after just 12 games. An X-factor is John Rhys Plumlee, who also plays quarterback for the Knights but had to sit out last season as a mid-year transfer from Mississippi. He’s a premier athlete with game-changing speed, but his two-sport status makes it difficult to assess how much impact he’ll make this spring.
UCF has strong depth on the mound and, despite losing Hunter Patteson and Connor Staine in the draft, it still returns its most successful pitcher from last season in Ben Vespi (6-4, 3.56). He’ll be joined in the rotation by veteran righthander Ruddy Gomez (5-0, 4.03), who is moving from the bullpen, and freshman Cameron Leiter, the cousin of Jack Leiter, is expected to join them. Righthander Najer Victor, a transfer from Florida Gulf Coast, adds another premium arm to the staff and is expected to close. UCF has the talent on the mound to compete but finding the right roles for everyone will be critical.
3. Houston (37-24, 13-11)
Prior to ECU’s emergence, it was Houston that dominated the conference, winning the regular season or tournament title in four of five years from 2014-2018. The Cougars haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2018, however, and while last year’s third-place finish was an important step back following a 19-34 campaign in 2021, it now must build on that progress.
Catcher Anthony Tulimero (.326/.396/.455 11 SB), shortstop Ian McMillan (.302/.375/.514, 10 HR) and third baseman Zach Arnold (.283/.348/.452, 10 HR, 9 SB) form a solid core for the lineup and defense. The Cougars must replace first baseman Ryan Hernandez, who last season led the team in OPS, but their veteran lineup and aggressive approach on the bases—the Cougars ranked 50th nationally in stolen bases (82)—will make them dangerous. On the mound, the Cougars lost their top three pitchers by innings pitched. Righthander Josh Ekness, a transfer from Lamar, has as much pure talent as any pitcher in the conference, but getting him to harness his stuff will be critical. Lefthander Kyle LaCalameto (2-3, 5.28), righthander/slugger Malachi Lott (0-0, 4.40), junior college transfer Tom Egan and freshman Ryan Dollar figure to pitch important innings for the Cougars. How well the new-look staff comes together will determine how far Houston goes this spring.
4. South Florida (28-29, 8-16)
In 2021, USF won the conference tournament and then made a surprising run through the Gainesville Regional to reach super regionals for the first time in program history. The Bulls were unable to build on that success, however, as they were hit hard by injuries and finished last in the conference standings. A bounce-back season could be in the cards in 2023, if the Bulls can build around star outfielder Drew Brutcher.
Brutcher (.299/.447/.610, 13 HR) is the conference’s top draft prospect, and a projected top-five rounds pick. He’s been limited by injuries in each of his first two year at USF and keeping him healthy for a full season would be a big boost. USF also returns first baseman Daniel Cantu (.263/.416/.437) and outfielder Jackson Mayo (.265/.366/.503), but it will need some newcomers to step up to help it improve an offense that ranked 180th nationally in scoring (6.0 runs per game). USF had a trio of pitchers drafted last season, leaving it with a new look on the mound. Lefthander Ethan Brown (3-3, 5.66) is the team’s leading returner by innings pitched (47.2). Twins Hunter (3-2, 5.27, 9 SV) and Tanner Mink (1-1, 4.70) will figure prominently into the staff. USF is not lacking for talent on the mound but it will need to find the right mix in the rotation.
5. Tulane (33-26-1, 11-13)
Tulane had some big moments last season—it won series against East Carolina and at Louisiana Tech—but it faded down the stretch and fell short of the NCAA Tournament again. That led to the dismissal of Travis Jewett after six years as head coach. To replace him, Tulane promoted Jay Uhlman, who spent the last three years on staff as recruiting coordinator. Uhlman is a longtime assistant coach, including spending nine years on staff at Oregon prior to his tenure at Tulane, and now will get his chance as head coach.
The Green Wave have several holes to fill this year. Gone are catcher Bennett Lee and sluggers Luis Aviles and Ethan Groff, as well as starter Michael Massey and closer Zach DeVito. But the cupboard isn’t bare for Tulane. Outfielder Jackson Linn (.353/.410/.536), who last season led the team in batting as a freshman, is back in the lineup and there are plenty of veterans around him. Tulane will have to find some new sources of power with Aviles and Groff gone, but it has an athletic lineup with upside. On the mound, ace Dylan Carmouche (5-5, 4.48) returns but the Green Wave have a lot to prove behind him. Righthander Cristian Santana (0-0, 13.50) has a big arm and has made significant strides. Whether it’s Santana or graduate transfer Ricky Castro (Purdue) or some of Tulane’s exciting newcomers, the Green Wave will need some pitchers to step up into big roles this spring.
6. Cincinnati (24-31, 12-12)
The Bearcats are coming off back-to-back fourth-place finishes in the conference standings but have to replace some key pieces. Griffin Merritt, the conference player of the year, and Paul Komistek, the team’s leading hitter, are gone, as are starters Beau Keathley and Tristan Weaver.
Third baseman Kerrington Cross (.291/.386/.526, 9 HR, 17 SB), outfielder Cole Harting (.313/.380/.500, 14 SB) and first baseman Ryan Nicholson (.277/.354/.529, 12 HR) will anchor the lineup, and all bring a bevy of experience. On the mound, lefthander Conner Linn (4-2, 4.07) and righthanders Max Bergmann (0-3, 7.14) and Garrett Harker (4-3, 7.08) all saw significant innings last season. The Bearcats will need to improve overall on the mound, however, after ranking last in the conference in team ERA (6.87).
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7. Memphis (26-29, 9-15)
Following the retirement of Daron Schoenrock after 18 seasons at Memphis, the Tigers hired Kerrick Jackson to take over the program. Jackson was the president of the MLB Draft League for the last two years and previously was head coach at Southern, which he led to the NCAA Tournament in 2019. Since joining the American in 2014, Memphis has never finished with a winning record in conference play, but the program has solid upside waiting to be unlocked.
The Tigers will also have a very different look on the field. Much of the lineup will be new, including exciting transfers Brayland Skinner, who was a part of Mississippi State’s 2021 national championship, and Dexter Swims (Missouri). One of the key returners is third baseman Logan Koehler (.282/.374/.436). On the mound, Memphis lost ace Landon Gartman, the conference’s newcomer pitcher of the year. But new pitching coach Tim Jamieson will have some interesting talent to work with. Lefthander Dalton Fowler (3-3, 6.25) returns to the rotation and closer Dalton Kendrick (2-2, 5.59, 8 SV) is back as well. Watch for freshman righthander Seth Garner, who could play a big role this spring.
8. Wichita State (21-36, 9-15)
Eric Wedge started his tenure at Wichita State strong, going a combined 44-25 in 2020-21. But last year was a step back on the field for the Shockers and then in October, Wedge stepped away from the team due to health reasons. Two months later, Wichita State announced he would not return to his role as head coach and Loren Hibbs, who coached Charlotte for 27 seasons and spent the last three on Wedge’s staff, would take over as interim coach of his alma mater for 2023.
The Shockers last season ranked last in the conference in scoring (5.77 runs per game) and improving the offense will be critical. The good news is Brock Rodden (.338/.441/.653, 17 HR), Chuck Ingram (.310/.362/.582, 14 HR) and Sawyre Thornhill (.278/.365/.467), the team’s top three hitters, return. Rodden was the conference’s newcomer position player of the year in 2022 and Ingram was named first-team all-conference. On the mound, starters Cameron Bye (5-2, 3.76) and Payton Tolle (4-6, 4.48) return and look for junior college transfer Matt Wilkinson to step into an important role.
Top 10 2023 Draft Prospects
- Drew Brutcher, OF, USF
- Josh Ekness, RHP, Houston
- Josh Grosz, RHP, East Carolina
- Najer Victor, RHP, UCF
- Brock Rodden, 2B, Wichita State
- Cole Harting, OF, Cincinnati
- Chuck Ingram, OF, Wichita State
- Corey Robinson, OF, UCF
- Josh Moylan, 1B, East Carolina
- Hunter Mink, RHP, USF