2015 Conference Previews: Conference USA
C-USA Projected StandingsBold indicates projected regional team, Top 25 ranking in parenthesis, and records are from 2014. Teams are listed in order of projected finish.
|Western Kentucky||Sun Belt, 2014||29-28|
Projected Regional Teams (2): Rice, Florida International
Player of the Year: Brendon Sanger, of, Florida Atlantic
Pitcher of the Year: Blake Fox, lhp, Rice
Freshman of the Year: Garrett Cave, rhp, Florida International
OTHER PROJECTED REGIONAL TEAMS
• Florida International figures to be one of C-USA’s more talented teams as Turtle Thomas has assembled another solid cast. 2B Edwin Rios (.296/2/38) is the top prospect and has a chance to earn some accolades as a junior. The physically imposing Rios is a big-time lefthanded bat who’s expected to put together an impressive 2015 campaign. C J.C. Escarra (.247/0/17) had a strong summer in the Valley League and is expected to be much improved offensively. Senior OF Brian Portelli (.350/2/11) may be the team’s best bat with a consistent and advanced approach. Keep an eye on speedy freshman OF Jack Schaaf and senior SS Julius Gaines (.288/1/27) to set the table, as both are good athletes that can make things happen. The Panthers have plenty of depth on the mound starting with Robbie Kalaf (3-2, 3.74), Cody Crouse (4-3, 2.23), and Chris Mourelle (9-3, 1.95). Kalaf will sit anywhere from 88-92 with a sinking fastball, along with a quality slider, while Crouse has a big frame and a heavy 90-92 fastball with late life. He also possesses a quality slider and changeup. They also get a boost from Maleko Galusha, who’s back from Tommy John surgery. The bullpen has two scary arms in freshman righty Garrett Cave, who was mid-90s in the fall, and righty Williams Durruthy (0-0,1.65) who was low 90s with a plus cutter.
KEEP AN EYE ON
• Florida Atlantic should have one of the better offenses in the conference. 2B Stephen Kerr (.324/0/15), SS C.J. Chatham (.300/4/26), OF Brendon Sanger (.332/2/29) and 3B Ricky Santiago (.243/3/26) lead the attack. Sanger is a particularly interesting prospect to watch this season. In addition to his consistent offensive approach, Sanger showed more power during the fall and should see those numbers improve. Also keep an eye on newcomers Roman Collins and Christian Dicks, who have shown power potential. The athletic Dicks can make things happen on the bases. Look for Drew Jackson (5-4, 4.48), Brandon Rhodes (4-0, 3.27), Kyle Miller (0-0, 4.02), and Sean Labsan (0-1, 5.03) as top starting pitching options. Jackson has a premium arm, with the ability to get his fastball up to 93 mph, along with a good slider. Miller probably was the top pitcher in the fall. Seth McGarry (0-1, 1.54) should get a chance to close if he can stay healthy. He was clocked at 97 mph in the Cape Cod League, along with a plus slider at 82-84. Bo Logan (4-1/1.28) is another dependable relief option.
• Old Dominion was one of the league’s best stories last season, as Chris Finwood’s club returned to regional play for the first time since 2000. The Monarchs will try to match that lofty goal in 2015 on the strength of some new arms. Transfers Jared Koenig, Nick Hartman and Thomas Busbice are all talented additions. Hartman has a rather intriguing arm, sitting 90-92 with his fastball, along with a biting curveball. Victor Diaz (5-2, 3.00) and Greg Tomchick (1-2, 5.94) return as rotation options. 1B/OF Taylor Ostrich (.306/1/22), SS Jason McMurray (Iowa Western CC transfer), OF Josh Eldridge (.295/1/31), and OF Nick Walker (.309/4/26) should pace the offense. Ostrich is an athletic first baseman and excellent defender. He has good power and is a surprisingly decent runner (he can also play corner outfield). Also watch for Temple transfer 3B Nick Lustrino. Lustrino redshirted last season, but has good makeup and hit close to .300 during his time with the Owls.
THE REST OF THE PACK
• UAB surprised many by finishing second in Conference USA last season. The Blazers have high hopes for 2015 since all but two position players return. The pitching staff was the story of the fall as several pitchers stepped forward. Alex Luna (7-1, 1.76), James Naile (RS in ’14), Johnny Lieske (5-2, 2.69), and Cory Eller (2-4, 3.29) all impressed. Replacing RHP Chase Mallard is the toughest chore for the Blazers. Mallard had a very good 2014 campaign, tallying a 1.55 ERA in 110 innings, along with 94 strikeouts and 22 walks.
• Southern Mississippi has won at least 30 games for thirteen consecutive seasons and 28 times in the last 29 years. The Golden Eagles should be competitive again in 2015 thanks to some veterans on the pitching staff. Christian Talley (4-4, 2.67), Cody Carroll (3-2, 3.99), Ryan Milton (3-3, 3.22) and Jake Winston (3-3, 4.46) all return, and they are joined by talented freshman Kirk McCarty and transfer Cord Cockrell. USM will look to improve on last season’s .246 team batting average with Matt Durst (.277/6/42), Nick Dawson (.251/0/23), and Dylan Burdeaux (.266/3/24) the top returnees. OF Connor Baron (.246/4/20) had a nice summer and is a key to the offense. Barron spent another summer at the Texas Collegiate League and seemed to display more consistency. In addition to his impressive athleticism, Barron showed a more advanced, mature approach. He won’t be drafted in the third round again like he was out of high school, but he looks poised to put together his best collegiate season.
• UTSA figures to be an intriguing team in 2015. Jason Marshall’s squad should have some speed and be solid defensively. The Roadrunners have some pieces to build around offensively in C John Bormann (.288/4/24), versatile INF/OF Jesse Baker (.273/6/37), and JC transfers OF Kevin Markham, SS Tyler Straub, and 1B Geonte Jackson. Bormann decided to return to UTSA for another season after getting drafted in the 19th round by the Angels last summer, while Horacio Correa is a fluid infielder who makes the transition from shortstop to third base this season. Hard-throwing RHP Brock Hartson (7-3, 2.24) will return as the staff ace for his third season. Hartson is an intriguing prospect who sits 90-92 with his fastball and has the ability to throw three pitches for strikes. Nolan Trabanino (9-3, 2.43), Cody Brannon (0-1, 4.15), Boone Mokry (1-2, 4.86), Logan Onda (3-2, 2.34) and Texas Western College transfer Nolan Savage should all have key mound roles. Brannon is coming off a good summer in the Texas Collegiate League, and is a crafty strike-thrower who sits anywhere from 86-88 with his fastball.
• Western Kentucky has a lot of experienced position players returning as it makes the move from the Sun Belt to Conference USA. Ryan Church (.306/7/38), Philip Diedrick (.294/4/17), and Anderson Miller (.335/3/33) lead a solid offense. Ryan Messex has room to improve from an offensive standpoint, but is a solid defender with a strong arm. John Harman (8-3, 2.33), Josh Bartley (5-4, 4.61), Austin King (7-3, 4.32), and breaking ball specialist Ryan Thurston (1-0, 2.16) should be the starters while Sam Higgs (5-4, 5.15) and converted outfielder Ben Morrison lead the pen. Bartley’s fastball sits anywhere from 88-91 mph on the radar gun, while Morrison is an intriguing pitcher with a very strong arm. Morrison sits 91-94 with his fastball and has a wipeout slider with some deception.
• Middle Tennessee State looks to lean on its position players early as it decides which pitchers will play key roles this spring. OF Jared Allen (.257/10/33) led C-USA in home runs last season. Heath Slatton (2-1, 5.97) was 92-96 in the fall and could be a high draft pick, while junior college transfer RHP Nate Hoffman showed serious stuff in the fall, sitting 89-92 with upside. LHP Jonathon Frebis (4-6, 4.07), Kooper Kessler (2-2, 3.28) and potentially Hoffman could be in the rotation. Frebis is an experienced veteran with good stuff, while Kessler is a 90-92 mph type of arm, and closer Garrett Ring is a premium arm to watch with a 90-94 mph fastball and a developing cutter.
• Marshall returns senior 1B T.J. Diffenderfer who hit four of the team’s seven home runs last season. Diffenderfer had a strong summer and has a veteran-like approach at the plate. Josh King (2-2, 2.60) and Caleb Ross (2-0, 2.29) should lead the mound crew. The Thundering Herd might have some question marks at the plate, but this team should be solid on the mound and stable from a defensive standpoint.
• Louisiana Tech will look to improve on a five-win 2014 C-USA season. The Bulldogs will be led by SS Taylor Love (.320/2/17), OF Colby Johnson (.260/1/13) and RHP Phil Maton (3-9, 4.98). The Bulldogs could be a surprise candidate in Greg Goff’s first season in Ruston, La. Goff spent seven seasons at Campbell, where he helped guide the Camels to the NCAA postseason, along with a school-record 49-win season in 2013.
• Charlotte looks to rebuild and feels the talent level is up from last season. Derek Gallego (.283/0/8), Logan Sherer (.260/5/29), and T.J. Nichting (.283/1/17) should lead the lineup. J.D. Prochaska and Brandon Vogler (1-2, 3.67) are the top pitchers. Nichting hit .283 with just 17 RBIs last season, but is expected to take as step forward after putting together an impressive summer from an offensive standpoint. The 49ers enter the season under a cloud of turmoil after the program was rocked by a hazing scandal in the fall, which resulted in the dismissal of five players.
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