2021 American Athletic Conference Preview
Few conferences got off to a more impressive start than the American did in 2020, with Central Florida getting out to a 15-3 record that included a series sweep of Auburn, Wichita State winning 13 of its first 15 games under first-year coach Eric Wedge, Tulane ending the season on a nine-game win streak and a 15-2 record, East Carolina going about business as usual with a 13-4 mark and Hunter Goodman providing an incredible encore performance after his award-winning freshman campaign at Memphis.
Connecticut departed in the offseason for the Big East, leaving the conference with an even eight teams, but little else changed in the conference. East Carolina is still expected to be near the top of the standings, but this year the Pirates are not the league favorite. That distinction goes to Central Florida, which ranks in the Top 25 after its impressive campaign. The Knights return the core of their roster, and added two key transfer arms in the offseason to strengthen their rotation.
But even though Central Florida and East Carolina are expected to lead the way at the top, there are plenty of other intriguing storylines in the league, including seeing the progress of Wichita State in Wedge’s second season, watching the continued growth of Goodman, a potential first-rounder in July, and witnessing Tulane righthander Braden Olthoff continue his miraculous streak of not giving up a collegiate home run.
Player of the Year: Hunter Goodman, C, Memphis
Goodman followed up an outstanding freshman season filled with accolades, including being named 2019 AAC newcomer of the year and earning Freshman All-American honors, with an even better sophomore campaign. He led the league in home runs (8), RBIs (31), slugging percentage (.743) and total bases (52). Goodman was voted a Preseason All-American by MLB scouting directors, thanks in part to his plus raw power and plus arm strength, but he will need to improve his plate discipline, show that he can draw more walks and cut down on strikeouts. Evaluators want to see him work on his blocking and receiving skills, but there’s no doubt he has the arm strength to stay at catcher and has shown the versatility to play multiple positions.
Pitcher of the Year: Braden Olthoff, RHP, Tulane
Olthoff impressed in junior college at Palomar (Calif.) JC in 2019 while appearing in 30 games and making 13 starts, but was even better for the Green Wave in 2020. Olthoff finished third in Division I in strikeouts (47) and sixth in WHIP (0.54), while posting a 4-0, 0.32 mark in 28 innings. Olthoff has four average or better pitches, including a low-90s fastball, an above-average changeup, and a pair of average breaking balls, but his real strength is his plus command and control. He walked just three batters last season and has surrendered 32 free passes over his three-year career.
Newcomer of the Year: Kenny Serwa, RHP, Central Florida
After transferring from Division II St. Joseph’s (Ind.) to Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, Serwa gradually improved each of his three years, leading to an excellent 2020 campaign where he went 4-0, 1.33 with 42 strikeouts and four walks in 27 innings. The righthander utilizes a four-pitch mix led by a fastball in the low 90s, a pair of breaking balls and a changeup. Serwa will miss the first few weeks of the season due to a pulled muscle in his side, but should return for conference play, in plenty of time to make his impact felt.
Predicted Order of Finish (2020 record)
1. UCF (15-3)
The Knights return the majority of their lineup from the team that steamrolled to a 15-3 start, a run that included a series sweep at Auburn in late February. Dalton Wingo’s departure will be felt, but there are more than enough quality hitters to make up for his absence, including fourth-year junior first baseman Nick Romano (.315/.373/.389), who led the team in hitting last season, third-year sophomore Gephry Pena (.314/.415/.429), who emerged as one of the top basestealing threats in the country and finished tied for second nationally with 13 stolen bases, sixth-year senior right fielder Jordan Rathbone (.313/.382/.507), whose three home runs tied for the team lead and 17 RBIs led the team, and third-year sophomore catcher Ben McCabe (.304/.385/.500), who combines quality defense behind the plate with a strong bat that should fit in the middle of the lineup. Left fielder Pablo Ruiz (.275/.302/.490), second baseman Matt Archer (.291/.328/.364) and shortstop Andrew Brait (.226/.368/.226) all contributed as freshmen and should take steps forward this season. Alex Freeland is the lone true freshman starter, but he could be the most talented hitter of the bunch. Ranked as the No. 269 prospect in the BA 500, the switch hitter has solid power and a strong hit tool.
On the mound, the Knights lost some contributors from the team that led the American in ERA at 2.17, including Saturday starter Trevor Holloway, closer Jeffrey Hakanson and Joe Sheridan and Jaylyn Whitehead. The Knights still have plenty of firepower, with fourth-year sophomore righthander Colton Gordon (2-0, 2.35, 24 K) back to assume the Friday night starter role and he’ll be joined in the rotation by graduate transfer AJ Jones (Jacksonville) and second-year freshman lefthander Hunter Patteson (1-0, 4.91, 12 K), with fifth-year junior righthander David Litchfield (2-0, 0.73, 9 K) inheriting closer duties and fourth-year junior righthander Jack Sinclair (4-0, 1.35) also holding a big role in the bullpen. Righthander Kenny Serwa, who went 4-0, 1.33 with 42 strikeouts in 27 innings at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville in 2020, joins the team as a graduate transfer and figures to play a key role, but will miss the first few weeks of the season with a pulled muscle in his side.
2. East Carolina (13-4)
The loss of two-way star Alec Burleson to the draft leaves a gaping hole, but with 27 returning lettermen, East Carolina has more than enough talent to fill it and the Pirates’ coaching staff feels this is the deepest group they’ve had in Cliff Godwin's seven-year tenure. Fourth-year junior Seth Caddell (.305/.344/.475) will once again be stationed behind the plate after making a big leap in the fall, third-year sophomore second baseman Connor Norby (.403/.439/.500, 6 SB) should serve as a spark plug and the Pirates boast the top outfield trio in the conference in third-year sophomore Thomas Francisco (.423/.515/.538), fourth-year junior Bryson Worrell (.373/.465/.729 5 HR) and third-year sophomore Lane Hoover (.353/.380/.456). Freshman Josh Moylan, who ranked as the No. 444 prospect on the BA 500, will start at first base and his plus power and huge frame should remind fans of Spencer Brickhouse. The Pirates return their top three starters on the mound in fourth-year junior lefthander Jake Kuchmaner (4-0, 0.60, 13 K), a control artist who was a unanimous all-AAC selection in the preseason, fourth-year junior righthander Gavin Williams (0-0, 0.00, 5 K), who has the best stuff of any pitcher in the conference with a fastball that sits 93-98 mph and touches triple-digits to go with improved offspeed offerings, fifth-year senior righthander Tyler Smith (2-1, 1.96, 19 K), who sits 89-92 mph on his fastball with a slider that made a jump in the fall and second-year freshman lefthander Carson Whisenhunt, whose fastball showed an uptick in velocity to 90-95 mph in the fall to go with a strong breaking ball and improved command. Sixth-year senior righthander Matt Bridges (0-0, 2.70, 2 SV) will close games.
3. Tulane (15-2)
Fresh off the program’s best start to a season since 2005, when it went 57-12 and made the College World Series, Tulane lost its top hitter in outfielder Hudson Haskin, a second-round pick to the Orioles, along with quality bats Grant Mathews (.373/.423/.612), Ty Johnson (.362/.492/.681) and Jonathan Artigues (.313/.384/.469). The good news is the Green Wave still returns fourth-year junior third baseman Trevor Minder (.359/.455/.609), third-year sophomore shortstop Collin Burns (.263/.391/.316), fourth-year junior first baseman Frankie Niemann (.250/.370/.341), third-year freshman outfielder Ethan Groff (.250/.263/.444) and fourth-year junior catcher Luis Aviles (.394/.432/.697), who got off to a strong start in the shortened season.
Tulane also brings back the top pitcher in the conference in fourth-year junior righthander Braden Olthoff (4-0, 0.32), who has not allowed a home run in over 133 collegiate innings. He’s joined in the starting rotation by fourth-year junior righthander Donovan Benoit (2-0, 4.19), fourth-year sophomore lefthander Jack Aldrich (2-0, 1.86) and true freshman righthander Blake Mahmood. Fifth-year senior righthander Keagan Gillies (1-1, 5.87, 4 SV) will once again handle closing duties.
4. Houston (6-9)
The Cougars limped through the 2020 season, dropping nine of 15 games, but four of those losses came against Tennessee, Arizona and Texas Tech, and they earned an 11-4 win against Stanford in the Round Rock Classic. Houston brings back the core of last year’s team, but did lose its top two starting pitchers in lefthanders Clay Aguilar, who signed a nondrafted free agent deal with the Yankees, and Lael Lockhart, who transferred to Arkansas. Replacing those two won’t be easy, but Houston has plenty of options to choose from, starting with righthander Ben Sears, a junior college transfer, who combines a low-90s sinker with a hard slider and a 6-foot-6 frame. Fellow juco transfer lefthander Cameron Prayer impressed coaches in the fall with his low-90s fastball and will likely be the team’s Saturday starter. Fifth-year senior righthander Sean Bretz makes his return from Tommy John surgery and is expected to take over the Sunday starter role, although he will face stiff competition from third-year sophomore Jaycob Deese, a transfer from Galveston (Texas) JC. Third-year sophomore Derrick Cherry (0-0, 1.86, 3 SV) will close games.
The Cougars have more continuity in the lineup, with fourth-year junior first baseman Ryan Hernandez (.300/.391/.650, 5 HR) back to hit in the middle of the lineup after an excellent summer campaign in the Texas Collegiate League. He’s joined by key returners fourth-year junior catcher Kyle Lovelace (.188/.297/.219), third-year sophomore second baseman Brad Burckel (.278/.333/.417, 5 SB), fourth-year sophomore Ian McMillan (.205/.321/295), the top defensive shortstop in the conference, and fourth-year junior outfielder Steven Rivas (.236/.259/.455).
5. Wichita State (13-2)
After dropping two of three games at Northwestern State to start the season, the Shockers rolled off 12 consecutive wins before the season was halted and they brought back the core of that squad, starting with second-year freshman Couper Cornblum (.354/.492/.625), who should be one of the top players in the conference again in 2021. Fourth-year junior outfielder Hunter Gibson (.316/.400/.491) returns after leading the team in RBIs (17) and hits (18), along with fourth-year junior catcher Ross Cadena (.271/.308/.339), third-year sophomore Jack Sigrist (.250/.371/.321, 9 SB), fourth-year junior first baseman Garrett Kocis (.250/.371/.577, 14 RBIs) and second-year freshman Cade Clemons, whose three home runs led the team.
On the pitching side, Wichita State also returns much of the rotation that posted a 2.91 ERA in 2020, including its three weekend starters in fourth-year junior righthanders Jake Hamilton (2-1, 4.26, 33 K) and Liam Eddy (2-0, 1.73) and fifth-year senior righthander Preston Snavely (2-1, 2.95) to give the Shockers one of the top starting rotations in the conference. Fourth-year junior righthander Foster Gifford will close games again after compiling four saves and not allowing a run in eight innings in his first year at Wichita State in 2020.
6. Cincinnati (7-8)
Cincinnati struggled during the truncated 2020 season, then lost two of its top hitters—outfielders Joe Wiemer and Jeremy Johnson to the MLB draft and graduation, respectively. Third-year sophomore outfielder Griffin Merritt (.333/.462/.667, 3 HR) and fifth-year senior third baseman Eric Santiago (.314/.410/.431) both return, but the Bearcats will need Northern Kentucky transfer Jake Murray to step up in the outfield and hope for a sustained breakout campaign from fifth-year senior shortstop Joey Bellini (.429/.528/.571) to help make up for the offensive production lost.
The good news comes on the mound, with third-year sophomore lefthander Evan Shawver (2-0, 1.59, 35 K) back after a breakthrough first season as a full-time starter. Elon graduate transfer Dean McCarthy (2-2, 3.92) will take over as the team’s Saturday starter and third-year sophomore lefthander Drake Batcho (1-1, 2.16) might be the most talented Sunday starter in the league. For Cincinnati to excel, however, it will need to see improvement from its bullpen. Second-year freshman righthander Zach Segal (5.40, 8.1 IP) will close games, with fifth-year senior righthander Nathan Moore (7.56, 8.1 IP) also expected to take on a significant role in relief.
7. Memphis (10-7)
The top player in the conference and its No. 1 prospect for the 2021 draft, Hunter Goodman (.357/.416/.753, 8 HR) returns to campus after an excellent second season and will be reunited with fourth-year junior shortstop Ben Brooks (.368/.457/.603), the team’s leading hitter. No other player hit better than .283 or posted double-digit RBIs, but second-year freshman Taylor Howell (.283/.340/.522) should take another step forward after an encouraging first-year campaign. Fifth-year senior third baseman Alec Trela (.222/.364/.302) struggled in 2020, but should be able to regain the form that saw him hit .276/.406/.458 in 2019 in 55 games.
Memphis will be without its top starting pitcher from last year’s team, lefthander Danny Denz, who signed a nondrafted free agent deal with the Padres. It’s a huge blow considering Denz led the team in strikeouts and ERA, but fourth-year junior righthander Carson Stinnett (1-1, 2.05) pitched well last season and should be able to handle the Friday starter load. Third-year freshman righthander Blake Wimberley (2-1, 3.86) takes over the Saturday starting job, bringing a high-80s sinker and slider that keeps hitters guessing. Sunday starter Chris Durham missed the 2020 season due to injury, but earned second-team all-AAC honors in 2019 after posting a 4-4, 3.98 mark with 75 strikeouts and 24 walks in 72.1 innings. Fifth-year senior righthander Takoda Metoxen (0.00, 9 IP, 2 SV) will once again handle closing duties after taking a step forward in 2020 and he will be joined in the bullpen by fourth-year sophomore righthander Bailey Wimberley (2-0, 1.42), the older brother of Blake, who should eat up significant innings.
8. South Florida (6-11)
The Bulls struggled out of the gate in 2020, winning just six of 17 games, including losing four of their last five games before the season was canceled, while struggling to a combined .189/.290/.254 slash line. The good news is fifth-year junior first baseman Riley Hogan (.271/.358/.305), the team’s leading hitter, is back to hit in the middle of the lineup, and is joined by fellow fifth-year junior catcher Jake Sullivan (.217/.269/.267). The Bulls experienced significant losses in the offseason, especially on the mound, with top starter Carson Ragsdale getting drafted in the fourth round by the Phillies. Top reliever Graham Hoffman signed a nondrafted free agent deal, as did righthander Nick Davila, and second baseman JD Dutka graduated, meaning South Florida will need to see some new faces step up, including Texas A&M transfer righthander Dawson Barr, to help replace the lost production.
Top 20 Prospects For 2021
- Hunter Goodman, C, Memphis
- Gavin Williams, RHP, East Carolina
- Evan Shawver, RHP, Cincinnati
- Braden Olthoff, RHP, Tulane
- Brandon Schrepf, OF/RHP, South Florida
- Collin Sullivan, INF, South Florida
- Isaac Nunez, 3B/RHP, South Florida
- Thomas Francisco, INF, East Carolina
- Trevor Minder, 3B, Tulane
- Colton Gordon, LHP, Central Florida
- Jaycob Deese, RHP, Houston
- Kenny Serwa, RHP, Central Florida
- Donovan Benoit, RHP, Tulane
- Nolan Lepkoske, RHP, Central Florida
- Roberto Pena, OF, South Florida
- Bryson Worrell, OF, East Carolina
- Brad Lord, RHP, South Florida
- Cam Prayer, LHP, Houston
- Hunter Patteson, RHP, Central Florida
- Jake Kuchmaner, LHP, East Carolina
Top 10 Prospects For 2022
- Alex Freeland, SS, Central Florida
- Couper Cornblum, OF, Wichita State
- Josh Moylan, 1B, East Carolina
- Carson Whisenhunt, LHP, East Carolina
- Dylan Post, C, Houston
- Pablo Ruiz, OF, Central Florida
- Brandon Burckel, INF, Houston
- Josh Grosz, RHP, East Carolina
- Zach Wilson, OF, Memphis
- Ryan Nicholson, INF, Cincinnati
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Top 10 Incoming Prospects
- Alex Freeland, SS, Central Florida
- John Montes, SS, Central Florida
- Josh Moylan, 1B, East Carolina
- Drew Brutcher, RHP, South Florida
- Ben Vespi, RHP, Central Florida
- Albert Hernandez, OF, South Florida
- Cameron Bye, SS, Wichita State
- Blake Mahmood, RHP, Tulane
- Robert Ready, RHP, East Carolina
- Cameron Collier, OF, South Florida
Best Pure Hitter: Connor Norby, East Carolina
Best Raw Power: Hunter Goodman, Memphis
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Jace Mercer, Cincinnati
Best Athlete: Hunter Goodman, Memphis
Fastest Runner: Gephry Pena, Central Florida
Best Baserunner: Gephry Pena, Central Florida
Best Defensive Catcher: Seth Caddell, East Carolina
Best Defensive Infielder: Ian McMillann, Houston
Best Infield Arm: Eric Santiago, Cincinnati
Best Defensive Outfielder: Bryson Worrell, East Carolina
Best Outfield Arm: Bryson Worrell, East Carolina
Best Fastball: Gavin Williams, East Carolina
Best Breaking Ball: Ben Sears, Houston
Best Changeup: Jake Kuchmaner, East Carolina
Best Control: Braden Olthoff, Tulane