It's no secret that there are some high expectations with the Cavalier baseball team heading into the 2014 season. A number one ranking from both Perfect Game and Baseball America, pegged by the ACC coaches to be the favorite, and the most Pre-Season All Americans have certainly helped bolster those expectations that many have.
If there is to be a let down at any point in the season, many think it will come from the pitching staff which could be one of the youngest in the conference, if not the nation, but also the most talented and deepest. Just think about that. Thanks in large part to amazing recruiting from Coach Mac, Kuhn, and O'Connor, this team is going to be anchored by 1st and 2nd years, but is considered one of the top teams in the country.
Before we talk about the weekends, the weekdays are going to be a proving ground for two of the best pitching prospects UVa has seen since Danny Hultzen. Connor Jones and Jack Roberts will showcase their skills during the week until one of the weekend starters falters or they prove themselves worthy of a weekend spot. Jones enters UVa after many thought he would be drafted in the first round and not make it to Charlottesville. He was rated as the top high school player in Virginia last year and the 26th best in the country. Roberts doesn't have the amount of accolades as Jones, but will enter with high expectations just the same. The brother of former Cavalier Will Roberts, Jack was a Louisville Slugger All-American after his senior year last year and will be worked back into the rotation while he recovers from a bit of an injury. The injury shouldn't hold him out long, so expect to see Roberts and Jones holding down the weekdays for the beginning of the season.
While the weekday rotation seems to be all first years, the weekend rotation will start off featuring all second years. Most will recognize Brandon Waddell in his Friday spot which he was more than competent in last year. In that spot he posted an impressive 6-3 record and 3.96 ERA while striking out 84 in 88 innings. Nathan Kirby will begin the season in the Saturday spot after a somewhat disappointing first year. He was 4-1 with 37 Ks in 32 innings, but I expected Kirby to come in and dominate hitters last year. Having another fall in Coach Kuhn's system, I expect a big jump in output from Nathan and a very strong 2nd year. Rounding out the weekend will be Josh Sborz. Sborz appeared in the most games on the team last year (30) and registered a 1.98 ERA over those 50 innings. He only had three starts last year, but if he can convert the dominance he showed out of the pen into weekend starts he could be a force to be reckoned with.
Out of the pen at the beginning of the season will feature all the seniors that UVa has to offer. Expect Austin Young to move back into the role of set up man that he was so successful in last season. Whit Mayberry will enter his 5th year likely in the long relief role. He missed nearly all of the 2012 season thanks to Tommy John surgery which hampered his role last season. Mayberry in the long relief role is a blessing given his experience contrasted with the lack of experience much of the rotation will have. Finally, 3rd year Nick Howard will assume the closer role that Kyle Crockett dominated last year. Howard pitched mainly in the Sunday position for most of the season last year, and registered a 3.38 ERA in 12 starts. I have heard rumblings that Howard is bringing heat this spring out of the pen. If that is the situation then Howard could be the most dominant closer UVa has had since Casey Lambert.
Many expected Howard to be in the weekend rotation, but I actually like him more in the closer's role. That leadership and experience at the end of the game could pay strong dividends in tight ball games. I also would not be surprised if Whit is in the weekend rotation before the season is over. He will serve a key role in the beginning of the season as the long relief guy since two of the three starters are unproven. Should one of them find trouble, Whit and his experience will be there to pick up the pieces, but when the ACC season rolls around, if Kirby or Sborz aren't measuring up to what Oak wants to see, I expect Whit might get a chance to take one of those positions.
I also wouldn't be surprised to see Connor Jones be inserted into the weekend rotation. If he shows that he is too good to be a weekday pitcher, and one of the weekend pitchers falters, Jones could take over and hopefully live up to the lofty expectations many have set for him.
In all, even though the pitching staff might be the "weakest" link of this Cavalier baseball team, it is certainly not short on talent or depth. If they all live up the their expectations and show during the regular season that they deserve the positions Coach O'Connor has given them, they could be a dominant force in the NCAA tournament come June.
Since the season starts on Friday, we'll be doing all sorts of previews this week. Check back each day for a new preview
Tuesday: Schedule Preview
Wednesday: Pitchers Preview
Thursday: Position Players Preview
Friday: Season Outlook & Weekend Preview