The following article first appeared on D1Baseball.com. For more like it, you can use coupon code NCAA2021 to get a 20% discount for an annual subscription to DIBaseball.com or D1Softball.com.
Few teams were as disappointed to see the 2020 campaign come to an end as the top of the American Athletic Conference early last season. UCF, East Carolina, Tulane and Wichita State to be exact.
UCF picked up a huge road series win over Auburn and was well on its way to a huge season that could’ve ended with a trip to the College World Series. ECU was doing ECU things with a 13-4 overall record at season’s end, and Tulane and Wichita State were both on the verge of taking big leaps forward.
Tulane had a 15-2 record and looked like a sure-fire regional club with right-handed pitcher Braden Olthoff leading the way, and Wichita State was making quite the first impression in Eric Wedge’s first season at the helm with a 13-2 overall record.
With last season a distant memory, every team now enters the 2021 campaign with a clean slate.
East Carolina and UCF lead the way, but Houston and Tulane are most certainly within striking distance, and the Shockers have enough key pieces back to once again make some serious noise atop the league standings.
Let’s take an in-depth look at the American:
*Teams are listed in order of projected finish
Projected regional teams (3): East Carolina, UCF, Houston
Player of the year: Hunter Goodman, C, Memphis
Pitcher of the year: Braden Olthoff, RHP, Tulane
Freshman of the year: Alex Freeland, INF, UCF
Projected regional teams
Head coach: Greg Lovelady
2019 record: 36-22 (11-13)
2020 record: 15-3
Strengths: The biggest strength from my vantage point is the weekend rotation with the return of Colton Gordon, Hunter Patteson and addition of Kenny Serwa. Assuming Serwa can get healthy and pitch most of the season, that is a rotation mixed with intriguing pieces. Gordon is accomplished, Serwa is accomplished and has a plethora of experience and Patteson has the best stuff of anyone in the rotation. UCF is a sure-fire Top 25 team if those three guys have big campaigns.
Question marks: I’ll be intrigued to see how this team stacks up from a power standpoint. Two seasons ago, the Knights were loaded with premium power options, and last season, only Jordan Rathbone and Pablo Ruiz had more than a pair of home runs when the season ended. I don’t have a ton of questions about this team, but I am curious to see where big-time power production will come from.
Star power: After losing a couple of arms from last year’s club, the Knights will rely heavily on left-handed pitcher Colton Gordon to have a huge spring. Gordon was off to a nice start last season with a 2.35 ERA in 23 innings, along with 24 strikeouts and five walks. He’s a hard-nosed pitcher who wants the ball, and his stuff was solid in the fall, sitting 90-93 mph with his fastball, along with a harder 84-85 mph slider and an 82-84 mph changeup.
Glue guys: The Knights have several glue guys from an offensive standpoint this season, but two in particular stand out — outfielders Pablo Ruiz and Gephry Pena. Ruiz is an athletic player who was off to a nice start last season. He has several impressive tools. Pena is the most talented upperclassmen in the lineup with elite athleticism and a spark plug approach atop the lineup.
Pick to click: LHP Hunter Patteson. Patteson did some positive things last season, but still had an ERA approaching five when the season came to a close. He has the stuff and potential to have a strong 2021 season after having a solid fall. Patteson is anywhere from 88-91 mph with his fastball, but was up to 93 with the offering as well in the fall. His 80-81 mph slider has some depth and the changeup is making strides at 83-84 mph.
Top newcomer: INF Alex Freeland. The Knights have a very, very good one in the ultra-talented freshman infielder. Freeland was terrific in the fall with an advanced toolbox of skills. He was impressive enough that Lovelady said in the fall that he might be the most toolsy player on the roster. He’s a switch-hitter with power who has an advanced offensive approach.
Outlook: UCF was disappointed with the way last season ended, but the outlook is promising for the spring with the return of Gordon and rise of Patteson, along with the addition of Kenny Serwa to the weekend rotation. Serwa is out with a pulled muscle in his rib cage, but he should be fine a few weeks into the season. The back-end of the bullpen also is in good shape with the return of right-hander Jack Sinclair. UCF’s offense doesn’t look overwhelming on paper, but I’m not sure it needs to be with the expectation from the pitching staff.
MLB DRAFT 2021: Which college player will be MLB's next superstar?
Head coach: Todd Whitting
2019 record: 32-24 (12-12)
2020 record: 6-9
Strengths: The Cougars will have one of their deepest pitching staffs ever from a quality standpoint. You can easily say that pitching coach Terry Rooney can dip into the treasure chest for seven or eight arms, minimum, and get good results on the mound. Furthermore, I really like the blend of UH’s offense with the speedy duo of Brandon Uhse and Brad Burckel, along with big-time power bat of Hernandez.
Question marks: For me, the question mark is pretty clear — it’s the inexperience in the weekend rotation. Ben Sears and Cam Prayer are both junior college transfers. They’re talented, there’s no doubt about that. But they’re also expected to make a quick transition from the JC ranks to major Division I Baseball. There’s also right-hander Sean Bretz, who is returning from Tommy John surgery. I’m a believer in those three, but they need to prove it.
Star power: Ryan Hernandez. The hard-hitting first baseman has really evolved as a hitter. He used to be a free swinger with a lot of swing and miss. However, he was improved last season with a .300 average, five home runs and 15 RBIs, and he was even better at the Texas Collegiate League throughout the summer. Hernandez will have a more polished approach this spring, along with continued power generation.
Glue guys: Kyle Lovelace and Luke Almendarez. I love the way these two play the game. Lovelace certainly leaves something to be desired at the plate, but he’s so good behind the plate and as a leader that it, frankly, doesn’t matter. If Lovelace can hit around .250-.275, that’s just a luxury for this team. As for Almendarez, he’s a solid, instinctual infielder who got off to a surprisingly good offensive start last season.
Pick to click: OF Steven Rivas. The Cougars should have a potent offensive lineup this spring, and Rivas will be be a significant part of that. Rivas only hit .236 with three home runs and nine RBIs on the young season in 2020, but he’s ready to have a massive spring. Rivas was terrific in the fall with a mature left-handed swing with serious power generation. Put me in the camp of someone who believes Rivas will hit closer to .300 with double digit home runs.
Top newcomer: I really like what right-hander Jaycob Deese brings to the table, but tall lef-thander Cam Prayer is the choice. Prayer, a 6-foot-5, 205-pounder, was terrific in the fall with some whippy arm action and a 89-91 mph fastball. He also attacked hitters with a 77-80 mph slider that was swing and miss. Prayer’s arm angle creates some natural life, and he should be a mainstay in the weekend rotation.
Outlook: Whatever happened with the Cougars early last season is washed away in my book. The Cougars will certainly need some guys to take a step forward from an offensive standpoint, but Rivas and Hernandez will have huge campaigns, and Brad Burckel and Brandon Uhse are both incredibly athletic and speedy guys who give this lineup some versatility. Meanwhile, the rotation has two solid options with Ben Sears and Prayer, while Sean Bretz will be a big-time weapon if he can stay healthy. The prognosis is good with the Cougars.
Keep an eye on
Head coach: Travis Jewett
2019 record: 32-26 (12-11)
2020 record: 15-2
Strengths: This team learned a lot from last season. It was going to be a huge year for Travis Jewett and his coaching staff, and the Green Wave played with a ton of urgency. I’m expecting the same tenacity this spring with a lineup that should be solid and a weekend rotation that has the potential to be the best in the American Athletic Conference. The pieces are there to make a strong run.
Question marks: It’s not necessarily a huge concern per se, but the Green Wave is relying on a cornucopia of fresh faces from a bullpen standpoint. They have some talented but unproven freshmen in the mix, while they also added some junior college and four-year transfers. It will be imperative for those guys to make an immediate impact.
Star power: I mean, who else here, right? Right-handed pitcher Braden Olthoff. Olthoff was incredible last spring with a 4-0 record and a 0.32 ERA in 28 innings, along with a whopping 47 strikeouts and three walks. His fastball velocity climbed to 93 mph in the fall and the curveball was sharp. It’s hard to emulate what he did early last season. But if he does, goodness gracious, he could have an incredible season.
Glue guys: Trevor Minder and Keegan Gillies. These two will be insanely important for two distinct reasons. Minder had an outstanding spring and fall and is ready to take a huge step forward. He has the ability to hit for a high average and with some big-time power. Meanwhile, Gillies is a bullpen arm who was up to 96-97 mph with his fastball in the fall. They will be crucial to TU’s success.
Pick to click: RHP Donovan Benoit. Benoit got off to just an OK start last season with a 4.19 ERA and just as many walks as strikeouts. But he appears to be ready to take a step forward after fall workouts. Benoit looks the part at 6-foot-4, 202 pounds and the fastball was up to 96 during fall workouts with ease. His command has improved, and that should be his big differentiator this season.
Top newcomer: Blake Mahmood. The Green Wave won’t have to rely on too many newcomers in the field this spring, but they will need some younger arms to rise to the occasion. Mahmood, a Minnesota native and right hander is one of those guys. Mahmood was terrific in the fall with a fastball up to 94 mph. He’s an aggressive strike thrower and had a ton of success during fall workouts.
Outlook: I’m a believer in the weekend rotation with Olthoff back and Benoit having a strong fall, while Jack Aldrich is a quality, consistent arm at the back-end of the rotation. The offense doesn’t look overwhelming on paper, but there are some nice pieces for sure. Minder is expected to have a huge season, Luis Aviles is expected to have a productive campaign and Frankie Niemann has the potential to hit for average and power this spring.
Head coach: Eric Wedge
2019 record: 28-31 (9-15)
2020 record: 13-2
Strengths: Color me a big fan of the pitching staff as a whole. Eddy and Peters give the Shockers two strong options in the weekend rotation, while right-hander Preston Snavely is a veteran who pounds the zone. The bullpen also is deep and intriguing with hard-throwing Aaron Bechtel and Aaron Haase leading the way, while right-hander Foster Gifford is a strike thrower who is up to 91 mph with his fastball.
Question marks: I would like to see the Shockers establish consistency from an offensive standpoint. They had a couple of guys get off to a solid start last season, but overall, they need talents like Ross Cadena, Garrett Kocis and Jack Sigrist to have strong campaigns to meet their goals.
Star power: We’ve already covered a couple of WSU’s big-time arms, and from a positional standpoint, no one is a table setter quite like outfielder Couper Cornblum. Cornblum was off to a terrific start last spring with a .354 average, four doubles, three triples and 12 RBIs. He also had a good fall with a mature offensive approach, and the coaching staff said he was an incredibly tough out for the pitching staff.
Glue guys: Ross Cadena and Garrett Kocis. Both players were off to slow starts in the spring, but retooled their approach and took a big step forward during fall workouts. Cadena and Kocis showed much better overall approaches in the fall, showing good strength and an ability to hit the ball to all fields. They’re expected to have a strong season.
Pick to click: Everyone knows about right-hander Liam Eddy, who had a strong fall. But how about sophomore right-hander Connery Peters? WSU’s best overall prospect also had a good fall, and he’s a 6-foot-5, 228-pounder with a fastball up to 96 mph, along with a consistent 90-93 with the offering. He also has a plus changeup at times, along with a serviceable curveball. He’s expected to start the season in the No. 3 starting spot. And if that happens, he could be one of the nation’s best Sunday starters.
Top newcomer: The Shockers have several key pieces back from that team that began the 2020 campaign in such impressive fashion, but one freshman to keep an eye on is projected starting outfielder Seth Stroh. Stroh, the younger brother of Gareth, had a terrific fall. He utilizes impressive speed with a 6.4, 6.5 in the 60, while also having some bat speed from the left side.
Outlook: I really like the potential of this Shockers team, to the point where I wrote the projected order of finish and wondered to myself how Wichita State was so low. That gives you an idea of how deep this league is, because the Shockers should be very solid. WSU has a strong weekend rotation filled with a couple of high projection guys, while the offense has some definite balance.
The rest of the pack
Head coach: Scott Googins
2019 record: 31-31 (13-11)
2020 record: 7-8
Cincinnati is one of those intriguing American programs to watch for good reason.
The Bearcats finished the 2019 season with a .500 overall record (31-31), but made the NCAA tournament after tallying a winning conference record and winning the conference tournament. They were a formidable foe in the NCAA Tournament. Now, after tallying a 7-8 record in 2020, the Bearcats hope to return to their winning ways in ’21.
UC’s offense has potential to be productive this spring. Ryan Nicholson, Griffin Merritt and Paul Komistek are quality hitters to watch, while Joey Bellini is a talented senior who was off to an outstanding start in the spring with a .429 average and eight RBIs. Nicholson is a talented first baseman with plus power and some impressive feel to hit. He will hit in the middle of UC’s offense, while Merritt is another middle of the order bat with power and can hit for a solid average. Then there’s Komistek, a physical presence in the lineup who has tools, can run well and can hit for power.
Jace Mercer is a potential breakout player for the Bearcats. He has speed, good instincts and actions and can be a table setter for this team, while Northern Kentucky transfer Jake Murray is expected to man center field. Murray hit .310 with two home runs and seven RBIs for the Norse last season, and he has quality left-handed pop with good defensive skills in the outfield.
The most exciting thing about this Cincinnati club is its potential on the mound — particularly in the weekend rotation.
Junior ace left-hander Evan Shawver has a chance to be a high-round draft pick next summer. He was 91-94 and up to 95-96 mph with his fastball in the fall, while showing feel for three pitches, including a flashing plus breaking ball at 83-84 mph. Senior lefty Dean McCarthy is an Elon transfer who was 89-91 and up to 92 mph with his fastball in the fall, while also showing a quality slider up to 83 mph, while another veteran lefty, Garrett Schoenle has big-time potential. Schoenle is 6-foot-4 and was up to 93-94 mph with the fastball in the fall. He controls the running game with his breaking ball and made a jump. He’s ready for a strong season.
Junior left-hander Drake Batcho was off to a solid start before the spring season ended. He will get up to 92-94 and up to 95 mph with his fastball, along with a good slider, while closer Zach Segal looks to be a rock at the back-end of the bullpen. Segal throws from a 3/4 angle and has whippy arm action with a fastball up to 91 mph. He also has a quality cutter.
BAUER THROWBACK: Watch MLB star Trevor Bauer's UCLA highlights
Head coach: Daron Schoenrock
2019 record: 27-28 (10-13)
2020 record: 10-7
Memphis should have one of the more intriguing offenses in the American Athletic Conference.
It all starts with premium draft prospect and catcher Hunter Goodman. Goodman has had an incredible career on Daron Schoenrock’s program, and it appears he’s ready to have a terrific final hurrah after hitting .357 with eight home runs and 31 RBIs last season.
Taylor Howell is a talented young hitter who hit .283 with two home runs and four RBIs in the shortened season, and he’s got big-time pop with unbridle potential at the collegiate level. Meanwhile, Alec Trela needs to be more consistent at the plate, but he has big-time power potential and talents Ben Brooks and Zach Wilson are both guys with some power potential.
Two interesting bats for different reasons are Braden Webb and Sterling Turmon. Webb is a utility player type who has athleticism and speed and can really set the table for the offense, while Turmon is a physical specimen at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and is a left-handed hitter. Turmon needs to be more selective with his pitches. He can be a force in the lineup if he cuts down on strikeouts.
Form a pitching standpoint, the Tigers have some quality options in the weekend rotation. Junior right-hander Carson Stinnett is 88-91 and up to 92 mph with his fastball, along with a slider at 82 mph and a three-pitch mix for strikes, while senior left-hander Chris Durham is back after not pitching last spring. Durham was an all-conference arm two summers ago, and is back and healthy. Right-hander Blake Wimberley is a heavy sinker/slider pitcher with a fastball topping 89-90 mph, while the most intriguing young arm on this staff is freshman right-hander Jackson Cothren. Cothren could find himself in the weekend rotation sooner rather than later with a fastball up to 92-93 mph, along with a slider at 83 mph. The Memphis staff feels like Cothren could have Jon Bowlan type of stuff before he leaves campus.
In the bullpen, senior right-hander Takoda Metoxen is 90-93 and up to 94 mph with his fastball, along with a slider at 80-84 and curveball and changeup combination, while left-handers Daniel Casto and Dalton Kendrick are worth watching. Casto throws from a low 3/4 slot and has a fastball up to 91-92 mph, along with a slider and flash plus changeup, while Kendrick might have the best stuff of anyone on this staff with a fastball up to 90-91 mph and a plus changeup.
Head coach: Billy Mohl
2019 Record: 26-17 (8-16)
2020 Record: 6-11
Strengths: I think the general upside of this team is intriguing if all the pieces come together. For instance, Catcher Jake Sullivan is more talented than he showed early last spring, Riley Hogan has the ability to put up big numbers, Nicki Gonzalez and Dontae Mitchell are both athletic guys with upside and Carmine Lane is a redshirt freshman who struggled early last season but who led the team in hitting in the fall.
Question marks: This team has a plethora of question marks. Talented infielder Isaac Nunez left following fall workouts, so there will be some shifting in the infield. The offense needs to be much more consistent. Meanwhile, the weekend rotation is intriguing, but still has something to prove outside of Jack Jasiak. Dawson Barr is a quality arm who has yet to find anywhere his home, while Brad Lord is an unproven, but quality arm.
Star power: Look for talented right-hander Jack Jasiak to have a strong spring on the mound. Jasiak has electric stuff with a fastball 90-93 and up to 94 mph, along with a quality slider and a changeup that continues to make strides. He has command of all three pitches in the zone.
Glue guys: Give me third baseman Roberto Pena and closer Orion Kerkering. Pena is an ultra-talented infielder who possesses big-time power generation potential in his bat. He will hit in the middle of the order. As for Kerkering, he had an ERA north of seven in 12 innings last season, but has huge upside with a fastball up to 95-96 mph, along with a slider and curveball.
Pick To click: He’s a huge key to their success offensively. We’re talking about Riley Hogan, of course. Hogan has some tools and is coming off a spring where he hit .271. Hogan is a physical switch hitter who tends to hit a little better from the left side. He can be a gap hitter this spring with 5-10 home run capability.
Top newcomer: Drew Brutcher. The Bulls could have one of the better two-way talents in the league this spring with the addition of Brutcher. Brutcher had a strong fall, showing a fastball 88-91 and up to 92 mph from a tall, downhill angle at 6-foot-7. He throws three pitchers for strikes and could have a future in the program as a hitter as well.
Outlook: This is a huge season for the Bulls. They struggled two seasons ago and followed that up with a slow start in 2020. For this season to be a success, Jasiak must be a bonafide Friday night ace, while power-armed Brad Lord and Kerkering must have a strong season. The offense will need to make noticeable improvements, too.