Image Credit: USF Athletics
A Look Back
USF Baseball finished 2019 in last place in the American Conference with a disappointing 26-27 record. A major factor in last year’s lackluster performance were the injuries that plagued the pitching staff. In total, USF lost seven pitchers to injury in 2019. This included Carson Ragsdale, Graham Hoffman, and Ben Koff, all who underwent Tommy John surgery. These injuries proved too much to overcome for the Bulls last year, as only two starters had an ERA under 5.00 after Koff went down. The sheer volume of injuries led to a lack of consistency in the rotation, and meant some guys had to step into roles they weren’t ready for. This year, the Bulls are projected to finish in seventh place of the nine-team American Conference. Despite Pre-Season rankings, there are reasons for optimism in 2020.
Fortunately, USF will back to full strength to start this year, as Ragsdale and Hoffman return from Tommy John surgery. Koff will likely return sometime in the first half of the season. This brings stability back to a rotation which had none last year, barring further injury. They will rejoin Collin Sullivan, who anchored what was left of the pitching staff. Last season, Sullivan had a 3.86 ERA and 73 strikeouts, with a record of 4-5 in 14 starts.
USF also returns plenty of viable bullpen arms. Dylan Burns provided plenty of relief innings last season, and will be an important piece this year. Transfer Connor Churchill will be another important late-inning arm. Last year, Churchill had a 2.91 ERA with 62 strikeouts at Santa Fe College. He will be important to the stability of the pen coming off 65 innings pitched. If Nick Davila can improve his pitch placement and allow less hits, he could become a decent bullpen arm as well.
Additionally, the Bulls pick up a couple of freshmen with high potential. Jack Jasiak and Orion Kerkering join the pitching staff after tearing it up at the high school level. Jasiak had a 1.20 ERA along with 250 strikeouts, while senior All-American Kerkering posted a 1.05 ERA with 214 strikeouts. Jasiak has a fast arm with a fastball that sits at around 90 MPH. He was the 12th ranked RHP in the state of Florida. Kerkering’s fastball also clocks in at around 90 MPH to go along with a deadly 85 MPH Slider. Head Coach Billy Mohl confirmed that both Jasiak and Kerkering will have chances to earn starts. Look for those two to have an impact this year, as both showed good stuff in the fall scrimmage with Florida.
Life After Joe Genord
The biggest loss this year is that of first baseman Joe Genord. In his time with USF, Genord lit up the scoreboard. He finished his Bull career with the third-most home runs in program history (44). Last season, he hit 13 of those dingers while maintaining a .333 average and an impressive 1.064 OPS, while knocking in 52 runs. Genord finished the 2019 campaign with a 12-game hitting streak and a 25-game on-base streak. He was also named to the 2019 All-AAC First Team. Due to this performance, Genord was selected by the New York Mets in the 9th round of the MLB Draft. It will be tough for the Bulls to replace that kind of production. Multiple players will have to step up to fill his role.
The team also lost outfielder Kyle Phillips, who was another one of the Bulls’ top hitters. In 2019, Phillips hit .308 with 18 extra base hits. He also led the team in stolen bases (8). The loss of Phillips makes the task of replacing lost production even more daunting. This season, hitting will be a big question. The Bulls hitting ability may make or break the 2020 campaign with major losses to the top of the order.
Luckily, second baseman JD Dutka returns to the team after missing most of last season with a broken hand. Dutka had a solid 2018 season with a .299 average and 21 extra base hits. USF also gains infielder Micheal Montes from Miami. Montes was red-shirted last year due to surgery, but showed promise in high school with a .470 career average. A few different freshmen will compete for everyday outfielder spots. Perfect Game projects freshman outfielder Dontae Mitchell to be the 2020 AAC Freshman of The Year. These additions could help fill the hitting vacuum left by Genord and Phillips.
The 2020 campaign will be a grueling one, as the Bulls will face four Top 25 teams, including two of the top five. To make things worse, all of these matchups will be road games. USF will go on the road to face #3 Miami, #4 Florida, #12 Florida State, and #21 East Carolina. These games will be early tests for the Bulls. USF will have to figure out their identity quickly if they hope to stand a chance against top 15 opponents.
South Florida will also face tough opponents outside the top 25. Their road schedule includes Houston, who has finished in the top 45 RPI the past 3 seasons. At home, they will host Pitt and Tulane. Pitt has not been great recently, but has gotten some big wins against good programs like North Carolina and FSU. One of the better-hitting teams in the conference, Tulane also looks challenging. The good news for USF is that they will not have to leave the state of Florida until March 27th against Houston.
Keys to the 2020 Season
Having the pitching staff back at full strength will be huge for the team this season. Even after losing seven arms in 2019, the Bulls still finished in the middle of the American Conference in pitching. The unexpected playing time could be a blessing in disguise and set the Bulls up well this season. The key for pitching this year will be to stay healthy. The last time USF lost multiple key rotation arms, the team rebounded the next season (2017) with a 42-19 record and a tournament appearance.
The difference between 2017 and 2020 is that 12 different batters hit above .250 in ’17. This year, hitting will be a big question. Jake Sullivan will need to stay consistent at the plate and get help from some younger guys. Hitters that showed good potential last year, like Julio Cortez and Jordan Santos, will need to continue to improve this year.
Cortez hit .354 in just 65 at bats last year, but with only 2 extra base hits, will need to work on his power. Santos was impressive in his junior season, hitting .255 with 15 extra base hits and led the team in walks. This year, he will need to work on getting his average up and bringing the strikeouts down. If he can get his bat on a few more balls – with his power – would go a long way.
Also look for sophomore Dylan Buck to be a factor. He only hit .176 in a year where he was predicted to be the AAC Freshman of the Year, but coach Mohl likes what he’s seen from him this fall. A breakout season would be huge for the Bulls.
Also look for base running to be a factor in 2020. USF will be without its top four base stealers from 2019, adding to the loss in offensive production. Good base runners like Austin Bodrato and Alex Bello will need to get on base more often to pick up the slack. If some young players can step up and have an impact, and veteran players continue to improve, the Bulls could surprise in the American Conference.
A lot has to go right at the plate for USF if they want to be a threat this year. This is not a desirable situation to be in – you never want to rely on luck to factor in. Baseball is an odd game, and you often need some luck to win a championship. Yet there is plenty of reason for optimism for the 2020 season. If the rotation can stay healthy, pitching may become a strength this year. Plus, the roster is full of athletic players that will be good defensively. If the Bulls can get a few good breaks and stay healthy, there’s a good chance USF will finish a lot higher than seventh in the conference.