Before I get to the team breakdowns, I'd like to say a few things.
As a college baseball fan from Omaha (Home of the CWS) and an alum of Creighton University, I'll admit I was hesitant about what the new Big East meant for baseball. Trust me, I get that basketball drove this move and it has so far proved to be a wise decision for my alma mater. Still, the sport I follow appeared to be in jeopardy, or so I thought.
A few weeks ago, I saw a post on BigEastCoasBias.com that stated they were looking for new writers. I replied earnestly thinking that the beats that needed additional coverage would have more than enough applicants. On a whim, I put that I'd be interested in covering baseball on a basketball-oriented site. Matt (manager of BECB) was gracious enough to give me this opportunity, and I definitely owe him a thank you or two. This opportunity gave me a chance to look into each team a bit more, and forced me to rethink where the conference stood in the pecking order of college baseball.
What I thought was that most of the baseball schools did not take baseball seriously enough for Big East baseball to matter. I dreaded that Creighton would also let baseball become an afterthought as well. After breaking down the seven baseball teams, I could not be happier to admit how wrong I was. I believe four or five teams could compete for the Big East title this year, despite the coaches having three clear favorites, one in the middle, and three clear teams at the bottom.
If the Big East can get four teams to invest in baseball, which I believe they have already, the Big East will do just fine. Without further ado, here is my breakdown of the conference in alphabetical order.
Butler (22-27, 173, 10th in A10)
School/Team Link (2013 Record, 2013 RPI from Warren Nolan, 2013 conference finish)
Picked to finish 6th by Big East Coaches
Head Coach: Steve Farley, 531-652 in 22 seasons at Butler, 584-694 in 25 seasons total
Key losses: Jimmy Risis: (Avg. .339, 40 RBI) & Chase Byerly (8 saves).
Number of Seniors: 7
Key Returning Starters: Marcos Calderon (.268 BA, .981 Fld%), Mike Kseniak (.269 BA).
Newcomers who could make an immediate impact: Peter Nyznyk (Jr., LHP)
Other players to watch: Austin Miller (.308 BA).
Pitching should be Butler's strength as they return all three weekend starters. The veteran pitching staff consists of two right handed Seniors, Kyle Kramp and Billy Laing. Joining them is preseason All-Big East pick Eric Stout (Jr., LHP). The relief duo of Kyle Allen (Jr.) and Will Schierholz (R-Jr.) should have no problem filling the shoes of the departed Byerly. And the addition of the Junior College transfer Peter Nyznyk (Jr.) appears to strengthen an already solid pitching staff.
As the only .300 hitter with more than 100 at bats is gone, replacing Risis (1B) will be a tall order not only on offense, but on defense too, as Risis had a .990 fielding percentage.
Austin Miller is the only .300 hitter left after the departure of Risis, but had only 52 at-bats. Along with Miller, Michael Fries (Jr., OF) helped the North Fork Ospreys to a summer league title in the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League (HCBL). The continued development of A-10 All-Rookie team member Kseniak could help fill a lack luster line-up. The Bulldogs return only two position players who are Seniors, Marcos Calderon (OF) and Marco Caponi (MIF).
Bottom line: Butler's experienced pitching staff will have to be reckoned with, but will need a few players to step up and support them offensively.
Creighton (30-18, 64, 3rd in MVC)
Head Coach: Ed Servais, 357-213 in 11 seasons at Creighton.
Key losses: Federico Castignini (.320, 27 RBI) & Mark Winkelman (6-0, 4.70)
Number of Seniors: 6
Key Returning Starters: Tommy Strunc (7-3, 414 ERA), Jake Peter (.350 BA, 35 RBI), Mike Gerber (.328 BA, 5 HR, 31 RBI), and Kevin Lamb (.331 BA, 25 RBI)
Other players to watch: Bryan Sova (2.34 ERA, OBA .174) and Reagan Fowler (.282 BA, .998 Fld %)
Creighton enters the season losing only a few contributors on the mound, including Mark Winkelman and Nick Musec. The pitching staff returns two of the three weekend starters and a plurality of their bullpen. Right-handed sophomore Tommy Strunc will lead the way as the preseason Big East Pitcher of the Year. Joining him on the preseason All-Big East team is relief pitcher Byran Sova (Sr., RHP).
The Bluejays will bring a potent lineup into their 1st season of Big East play. Most of the top bats are back after the early and surprise departure of Federico Castignini for the pros. Mike Gerber (Sr., OF) is the coaches' preseason pick for the Big East Player of the Year award. Kevin Lamb (R-Jr., C) brings another .330 batting average to the lineup. Joining Gerber on the preseason All-Big East team is Jake Peter (Jr., 2B/P). In addition to leading the team in batting average in 2013, Peter recorded 6 saves in relief duty.
Georgetown (25-28, 218, 10th in Big East)
Picked to finish: 5th by Big East Coaches
Head Coach: Pete Wilk, 279-476 in 14 seasons, all at Georgetown
Key losses: Justin Leeson (.319 BA), Trevor Matern (.318 BA), and Charlie Steinman (2.36 ERA, 8 saves)
Number of Seniors: 3
Key Returning Starters: Nick Collins (.333 BA, 30 RBI) & Steve Anderson (.274 BA, 25 RBI)
Newcomers who could make an immediate impact: David Ellingson (Fr., RHP) & Christopher Giordano (Fr., LHP)
Any season a team can return 3 starting pitchers has potential. While their ERAs may not be intimidating, experience is a valuable commodity in the college game. Furthermore, all three could be back next season as none of the 3 are Seniors: Jack Vander Linden (R-Jr., RHP), Matt Hollenbeck (Jr. LHP), and Matt Smith (So., RHP). Look for the starting rotation to be the Hoyas' strength.
Offensively, Georgetown needs some immediate help. The Hoyas return only one .300 hitter in preseason All-Big East pick Sophomore Nick Collins (So., C/DH). Steve Anderson (Sr., 1B) will supply senior leadership and a .981 fielding % to go along with his .274 batting average.
Bottom line: Georgetown is picked fifth in the Big East coaches' preseason poll. Unless there are some surprises offensively, this looks like a good pick.
St. John's (23-35, 157, t-6th in Big East)
Picked to finish: 5th by Big East Coaches
Head Coach: Ed Blankmeyer, 612-385-3 in 18 years, all at St. John's.
Key losses: Frank Schwindel (.349 BA, 53 RBI) and Ryan Horstman (6-6, 2.33 ERA)
Number of Seniors: 2
Key Returning Starters: Zach Lauricella (.320 BA, 40 RBI), Thomas Hackimer (3.91 ERA, 8 Saves), and Joey Graziano (3-0, 3.24 ERA)
St. John's has an inexperienced pitching staff, evidenced by two sophomores being key returners. The team will be led by Thomas Hackimer (So., RHP,) Joey Graziano (So. RHP), and All-Big East selection, James Lomangino (R-Sr., RHP). The group will provide a solid core to a depleted pitching staff after the team lost 4 pitchers to graduation and/or the draft.
The Red Storm return only four position players, but will be led by preseason All-Big East selection Zach Lauricella. After losing Frank Schwindel, Lauricella will be the only player to bat over .280 with more than 40 at bats. After batting .351 in 37 at bats, Dan Roland should contribute more this season. The offense could do some damage if he can maintain his average with more at-bats.
Bottom line: Player development will be key in the upcoming season. Don't expect much this season, but don't be surprised if St. John's does better than preseason expectations either.
Seton Hall (37-19, 44, t-2nd in Big East)
Picked to finish: 2nd by Big East Coaches
Head Coach: Rob Sheppard, 256-274-2 in 10 seasons, all at Seton Hall.
Key losses: Giuseppe Papaccio (.365 BA, 53 RBI), Brian Gilbert (2.40 ERA, 6 Saves)
Number of Seniors: 4
Key Returning Starters: Sal Annunziata (.319 BA, 6 HR), Chris Selden (.320 BA, 17 stolen bases), Josh Prevost (5-2, 3.24 ERA)
Other players to watch: Zach Weigel (.326 BA, .972 Fld%)
The Pirates lost two of their weekend starters and main closer. However, the lone returning starter is Josh Prevost, a pre-season All-Big East selection in his senior season. The other returning pitchers saw significant time on the mound as well and should shore up any perceived holes.
Seton Hall lost their biggest bat in Giuseppe Papaccio, but return four players who hit over .300 with more than 90 at bats. Leading the way are pre-season All-Big East picks Sal Annunziata (Jr., 1B) and Chris Selden (Sr., OF). Zach Weigel (So. OF) should make significant contributions from the plate as well.
Bottom line: Despite having only 4 seniors on the roster, Seton Hall returns a bevy of experience that will help them contend for a conference title in the revamped Big East.
Villanova (14-39, 248, t-10th in Big East)
Picked to finish 6th by Big East Coaches
Head Coach: Joe Godri, 302-326-3 in 12 seasons all at Villanova
Key losses: Tyler Sciacca (.307, 36 RBI)
Number of Seniors: 7
Key Returning Starters: Josh Harris (3.75 ERA) and Kevin Jewitt (.212 BA, .927 Fld. %)
Villanova returns their No. 1 weekend starter in Josh Harris (Jr., LHP), but loses the other two. They had a closer by committee last year and most likely will do so once again this season. Junior right hander Max Almonte who saw action in 2012 is returning after redshirting in 2013.
The Wildcats lost their only two batters with averages above .250 and at least 40 at bats is Tyler Sciacca and Paul Rambaud. The offense will be led by preseason all-Big East third baseman Kevin Jewitt (So.) who also spent time at 1B last season. 'Nova returns 2 other Sophomore starters in Eric Lowe (SS) and Max Beermann (1B/P). They'll have to get better on offense to have success in this 1st year of the retooled Big East.
Bottom line: I really want to be positive about all Big East baseball teams, but there's not a lot to see here. Barring any surprises, the coaches pick of 6th appears to be spot on, if not optimistic in the seven team league. I hope I'm wrong though Villanova fans.
Xavier (32-26, 112, 4th in A10)
Picked to finish 4th by Big East Coaches
Head Coach: Scott Googins, 230-233 in 8 seasons, all at Xavier
Key losses: Mark Elwell (.332 BA), Jon Richard (9-4, 2.31 ERA), and Alex Vice (9 Saves)
Number of Seniors: 9
Key Returning Starters: Joe Forney (.313 BA, 22 RBI), Selby Chidemo (.311, BA 24 RBI)
The Musketeers lose two of their four starters on the mound, including Jon Richard. Complicating matters is the loss or Alex Vice, the go to relief man. The two starters returning are Scott Klever (Sr., RHP) and Vinny Nittoli (R-Sr., RHP/OF) with 10 starts a piece. Look to Jacob Bodner (Jr., RHP/IF) to contribute more on the mound after posting a 3.23 ERA and a 6-2 record despite not starting a game from the mound in 2013.
Leading the way offensively will be Selby Chidemo (Sr., IF) and preseason All-Big East First baseman Joe Forney (Jr.). Xavier will be in need of additional help offensively after the departure of Mark Elwell. Stephen Schoettmer (3B, Grad Student) is a Grad Student that started all 58 games last season and showed some offensive prowess at times. Look to him to help fill the hole left by Elwell.
Bottom line: Xavier is in better shape offensively than the teams below them in the preseason Big East poll, but will need more fire power to contend for a title.