Baseball Preview: Johnnies picked to repeat as Big East Champions

St. John's is picked by the coaches to repeat as Big East champions after appearing in the NCAA Tournament last season (Photo: St. John's Athletic Communications)

St. John’s is picked by the coaches to repeat as Big East champions after appearing in the NCAA Tournament last season (Photo: St. John’s Athletic Communications)

Brandon Mauk, Digital Sports Manager

St. John’s enjoyed another landmark season in baseball last season, and they look to do it again in 2016, even after losing several key players from last year’s Big East title.

The Red Storm (41-16 last season) dominated preseason honors as they get set for the NCAA baseball season. Edging out Creighton, they were voted by the coaches as the favorites to win their second straight Big East Championship.

A testament to the program’s longevity and depth, the Johnnies remain a top notch ballclub despite losing several pitchers and key bats in their lineup, as they look again to other players to take that next step.

Several Johnnies were named to individual Big East preseason honors. Centerfielder Alex Caruso, closer Thomas Hackimer, leftfielder Michael Donadio, and third baseman Robbie Knightes all earned unanimous selections to the Preseason All-Big East First Team. Catcher/designated hitter Troy Dixon was named to the Preseason All-Big East Second Team.

“Preseason accolades can sometimes be a burden, though they’re certainly deserved. They’ve both created some expectations for themselves based on what they did last year, but 2016 is a new season. We just need them to go out and do their jobs and continue developing as players,” St. John’s head coach Ed Blankmeyer said.

Caruso and Hackimer were also voted as Big East Preseason Player of the Year and Big East Preseason Pitcher of the Year, respectively.

Caruso looks to continue to be a force at the top of St. John’s well-balanced offense. He led the league with a .382 batting average and a .480 OBP last season, and led conference play with a .412 average and a .524 OBP.

After getting drafted in the 15th round in last year’s MLB Draft by the New York Mets, Hackimer opted to return for his senior season, as the submariner closer looks to cap off a dominant St. John’s career. He had a career-best 1.92 ERA and set the single-season program record in saves with 15 last year.

St. John’s offense should continue to be a machine despite the graduation of Matt Harris, Jarred Mederos and Zach Lauricella. The Johnnies hit .288 with a .375 on-base percentage in 2015, averaging 5.65 runs per game, and four of their most important hitters, Donadio, Knightes, Caruso and Dixon have returned.

“We have some depth in the lineup, particularly in right field where two or three guys could be vying for time. Gui Gingras comes in as a junior college transfer and fills the hole at first and we’ll slide Jesse Berardi over to shortstop.”

Returning lettermen Jesse Berardi and Anthony Brocato look to move into full-time starters roles. Berardi, a middle-infielder, will replace Mederos at shortstop while Brocato is among the players trying to fill Lauricella’s spot in rightfield.

Six St. John’s players were drafted into MLB last season, a program record. Out of those six, only Hackimer returned to the program for the 2016 season. Blankmeyer looks to replace all the innings thrown by starters Cody Stashak and Ryan McCormick and relievers Matt Clancy, Joe Kuzia and Alex Katz.

“Starting pitching is the question mark. We have plenty of candidates and the ability is there, but we lack experience and it will take a few weekends to figure things out. You can’t teach experience,” Blankmeyer said.

One of St. John’s traits as a program under Blankmeyer has been bringing in junior college transfers, and 2016 should be right on that narrative. Ryan McAuliffe and Joe Nellis are two transfers that Blankmeyer expects to be a serious boost to their rotation.

With Hackimer being the only full-time reliever returning from last year, St. John’s expects their older, more experienced relievers like Joey Graziano and Joe Napolitano to step up and form that bridge to the 9th inning. 

St. John’s kicks off the 2016 campaign in Wilmington, N.C. at the Buffalo Wild Wings Battle at the Beach Tournament, hosted by UNC-Wilmington the weekend of Feb. 19. The Johnnies’ home opener is set for March 15 against Fairfield. They went 41-9 at Jack Kaiser Stadium the previous two seasons.