Dearest STL baseball followers, I apologize for being so absent the past few months. Brian has nearly disowned me and physically accosted me because I haven't blessed you all with a season preview. BUT, never fear! I have returned with a vengeance just like the Hoos baseball team has to provide you with all the snarky comments and 9th inning comebacks your hearts can take! (And let's be honest, we've all been satisfied with basketball and football this year that we haven't needed spring sports like others! Chick Fil-A Bowl! Mike Scott! JOE "WILL CAMPBELL WANTS TO MARRY MY SISTER" HARRIS!)
We all know how last season started, continued, continued some more, nearly ended in a 9th inning against UC Irvine, continued against a Cal team that was almost gotten rid of, and then ended against the eventual National Champion South Carolina Gamecocks.
There is no Danny Hultzen this year, John Hicks won't be behind the plate, Steven Proscia won't drop and drive on every fastball he sees, and Tyler Wilson won't be leaping over the foul line as he lets everyone know how pumped he is, but that has never stopped the Hoos before.
Let me start with what positions and players we are familiar with and the spots they will man.
4th year Jared King will man first base. King had a breakout year last year batting .321 while scoring 39 runs and amassing 29 RBIs. King provides the senior leadership the inexperienced team will need and will be a key piece of the infield.
The only other 4th year in the starting 9 will be second baseman Keith Werman. Explanation not really all that necessary because I am pretty sure all of Charlottesville would adopt Keith if given the opportunity.
Chris "Irvine Killing" Taylor cemented himself in Cavalier lore with that 2 out hit in the 9th to punch the ticket to Omaha. He cemented himself in the shortstop position with the coaches last year after Stephen Bruno was nagged by injury. Taylor stepped up and played a great shortstop while providing quite a spark at the top of the lineup.
The only other position I am certain of heading in to next Friday is third. Everyone has waited to see Stephen Bruno get a full season in the lineup and I think this is the year we all get it. Injuries kept him out last year and too much depth kept him off the field in his first year but this is Bruno's year. Look for Bruno to be in the 3 hole and rack up the RBIs as he makes his push to be drafted high in this June's draft.
As for the pitching staff I can tell you this: Branden Kline will take the position that has been held by Danny Hultzen the last three years as the Friday night starter, Justin Thompson will likely remain as the set-up man, Whit Mayberry will look to build off his stellar end of the year performance from last year likely in the Saturday starter spot, and Kyle Crockett or Scott Silverstein will toe the rubber every Sunday with the other serving as a key piece of the bullpen.
That leaves a lot of questions you say? Trust me, I know. I imagine Coach O'Connor, Kuhn, and Mac feel the same way.
Replacing the entire outfield will be no easy task. I think third years Reed Gragnani and Colin Harrington will likely begin the years in the corner spots while second year Mitchell Shifflett will be in center. There is also a good possibility that 1st years Mike Papi and highly recruited Derek Fisher could get the nods from the beginning. Both are very reliable in the field and Fisher apparently has a large amount of power. Your guess is as good as mine. If Fisher and Papi are in the outfield, I expect Reed will be put in the DH role. He proved he could hit last year and deserves that spot if he's not in the field.
Catcher is going to give people the most heartburn this year. Replacing a catcher in the UVa system is quite an undertaking. The amount of information that catchers are expected to learn in such a small amount of time is next to impossible. Expect to be frustrated and don't expect John Hicks, Franco Valdez, Beau Seabury, or Will Campbell consistency this year. Having said that, I give the early nod to first year Nate Irving. JUCO transfer Chase Mitchell could mix in for time as well but the dark horse to be the everyday catcher is Brandon Downes. He's got a similar body type to Hicks and an absolute cannon for an arm. He's fairly new to the catcher's position but if he can grasp the system and get truly comfortable behind the plate he could be great for the team.
God only knows how the rotation and bullpen will look by the end of the year. Every year it starts out one way and ends another. Austin Young will likely be the weekday starter along with 3rd year JUCO transfer Joel Effertz. He didn't appear too often last year but that is the price you pay when you have so much depth in a staff. Artie Lewicki likely would have played more often last year but an injury sidelined him for much of the beginning of the year which put him behind the 8-ball. I think Artie could take over for Branden Kline and become the closer for the Cavaliers this year.
That still leaves a lot players on the roster which we just don't know about. As the season progresses, injuries will occur, people will get hot, and others will get cold. This season could be a lot like the 2009 season which saw us enter the year unranked and unproven. I think we all remember how that turned out. I am not saying this team is going to win the College World Series, but I am saying "Ya never know".