Baseball America breaks down the American Athletic Conference, including our projections for player of the year, pitcher of the year and top prospects.
Baseball Members: Central Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, South Florida, Tulane.
Team To Beat: Houston. Injuries derailed what looked like a potential Omaha team last year, but the Cougars still rallied to win the regular season conference title and host a regional. The experience of overcoming last year’s adversity should only benefit them this season. Older and healthier, the Cougars are led by junior righthander Andrew Lantrip (9-3, 2.62) and hard-throwing sophomore lefthander Seth Romero (7-4, 1.94), both of whom rose to the occasion last season. Houston also returns smooth-fielding senior second baseman Josh Vidales (.300/.397/.387), sophomore outfielder Corey Julks (.302/.384/.469) and sophomore Connor Wong (.248/.320/.382), who moves from shortstop to catcher. An influx of talented juco transfers and freshmen such as Joe Davis and Mitch Ullom should help the cause.
Top 25 Teams: (12) Houston.
Other Projected Regional Teams:
Tulane: In 2015, his first year on the job, David Pierce led the Green Wave to their first regional since 2008, guiding a young team to a 35-25 record and a third-place finish in the competitive AAC. Tulane seems poised to earn a regional bid once again, returning the majority of last season’s team. The Green Wave will lean on shortstop Stephen Alemais and catcher Jake Rogers—two top draft prospects—and a veteran weekend rotation fronted by junior righthander Corey Merrill, who went 5-6, 2.12 in 102 innings last season.
South Florida: Much like Tulane, South Florida ended a long postseason dry spell in 2015 thanks to a new coach. Mark Kingston, in his first season at the helm, led the Bulls to their first regional since 2002 and tied with Tulane for third place in the conference. The Bulls will have a young team in 2016, but they bring in the nation’s No. 8 recruiting class of 2015, fronted by top ranked freshmen outfielders Garrett Zech (Naples, Fla.-Naples HS) and Chris Chatfield (Riverview, Fla.-Spoto HS), who are both projected to start. Zech was ranked as the # They also return leading power hitters Levi Borders (.291/.376/.487, 9 HR) and Luke Maglich (.306/.397/.468, 8 HR). **Garrett Zech was drafted in Round 15 of the 2015 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers; Chris Chatfield was drafted in Round 23 of the 2015 MLB Draft by the San Diego Padres.
Player of the Year: Stephen Alemais, ss, Tulane. The junior shortstop is among the top prospects and best athletes in the conference. A solid defender, Alemais also has a solid feel for hitting (.312/.361/.392) and can impact a game with his baserunning—he had 27 stolen bases in 37 attempts last year. He’s a leader on a dangerous Tulane squad.
Pitcher of the Year: Anthony Kay, lhp, Connecticut. From the same high school as Mets lefthander Steven Matz, Kay is coming off an 8-6, 2.07 sophomore season and a productive summer with Team USA. The 6-foot, 187-pound southpaw works in the high 80s and low 90s with his fastball and locates the pitch well. An above-average changeup is his main weapon, but he mixes in a big curveball, as well. Kay pounds the zone and controls the running game.
Freshman of the Year: Joe Davis, 1b, Houston. An unsigned 16th round pick of the Rays, Davis is expected to be Houston’s everyday first baseman this season after primarily catching in high school. He is one of the country’s top power hitters in his class and won the home run derby at the 2014 Area Code Games. He’ll likely hit in the middle of the Cougars lineup.
Notable Storylines: After major conference shakeups across the country the past couple of years that led to the creation of the AAC, the conference has found some stability and returns its entire baseball lineup from last season. Four of the AAC’s eight teams earned regional bids last season, and the conference as a whole finished third in the country in RPI … The AAC avoided the coaching carousel with no changes at head coach. Mark Kingston (South Florida), David Pierce (Tulane) and Cliff Godwin (East Carolina) all return for a second year after leading their respective programs to regional play in their first seasons at their new schools … Connecticut just missed the cut for a regional last year and shouldn’t be overlooked. Lefthander Anthony Kay, who pitched for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team last summer, gives the Huskies an edge every Friday and the lineup has a strong veteran presence in the form of seniors Bobby Melley, Jack Sundberg and Joe DeRoche-Duffin.
Conference Tournament: Eight teams, double-elimination, May 24-29 at Clearwater, Fla.
Best Pure Hitter: Bobby Melley, Connecticut.
Best Raw Power: Joe DeRoche-Duffin, Connecticut.
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Josh Vidales, Houston.
Best Athlete: Stephen Alemais, Tulane.
Fastest Baserunner: Richard Carthon, Tulane.
Best Baserunner: Stephen Alemais, Tulane.
Best Defensive Catcher: Jake Rogers, Tulane.
Catcher/Best Arm: Jake Rogers, Tulane.
Best Defensive 1B: Bobby Melley, Connecticut.
Best Defensive 2B: Josh Vidales, Houston.
Best Defensive 3B: Willy Yahn, Connecticut.
Best Defensive SS: Stephen Alemais, Tulane.
Infield/Best Arm: Stephen Alemais, Tulane.
Best Defensive Outfielder: Darien Tubbs, Memphis.
Best Outfield Arm: Jack Sundberg, Connecticut.
Best Fastball: Seth Romero, Houston.
Best Breaking Ball: Andrew Lantrip, Houston.
Best Changeup: Anthony Kay, Connecticut.
Best Control: Anthony Kay, Connecticut.
by Michael Lananna | BaseballAmerica.com
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