Brandon Waddell is gone. Nathan Kirby is gone. Connor Jones is gone. For the first time since 2013, the Hoos enter the season without a definitive Friday night starter. Adam Haseley is the team’s ace, but will play centerfield the first two nights of the weekend. That leaves some big question marks to what already appears to be the weakness of this Cavalier ball club. Talent is there, but a lack of experience will make this season very interesting at the top of the rotation. In the bullpen, experience is there, but it was no doubt the biggest weakness of last year's team, so whether that experience turns into a plus is yet to be seen. So what can Hoos fans expect when the team hits the diamond on Friday? Let’s take a look at the staff.
Adam Haseley - Haseley is hands down the most experienced of Virginia’s probable starters having gone 9-3 with a 1.73 ERA. His stuff isn't incredible and he doesn't strike out a lot of batters, but he is a gamer. All that said, he doesn't project to be a high draft pick like his predecessors, Nathan Kirby and Connor Jones. He doesn't even project as a pitcher at the next level. But he will give Virginia one of the, if not the best Sunday starters in the league.
Daniel Lynch - Lynch will get first crack at the Friday starting gig as he has been announced as the opening day starter against Liberty. The sophomore lefty went 1-3 with 5.48 ERA in nine starts a year ago, mostly in mid-week games. He has an ability to miss bats having struck out 8.12 batters per nine innings, and given another year in Coach Kuhn’s system hopes to show significant improvement over last year.
Evan Sperling and Derek Casey - These two are grouped together as they both sat out the 2016 season after having Tommy John surgery. Sperling is a highly touted redshirt freshman and has been slotted as the Saturday starter for the opening weekend. The 6’6” righty can touch 95 with a nice slider. Casey is in his third year in the program and made ten appearances, six of them starts in 2015. Up until his injury in late April, he was actually one of Virginia’s best mid-week pitchers, and his injury contributed to the serious lack of depth that season that made their CWS run all the more inporobable. He doesn't throw as hard as Sperling, but he has great command. He’ll probably start the year as the mid-week starter, but don't be surprised if he’s in the weekend rotation should Lynch or Sperling struggle.
Noah Merdock - Merdock will be in the mix early for mid-week starts or could be an option out of the bullpen for long relief. The 6’8” right hander might have gotten lost while looking for JPJ, but can throw in the low 90’s. He was a 38th Round draft pick in the MLB Draft last season, so the talent is intriguing.
Tommy Doyle - Doyle had moments of brilliance last year, showing some filthy stuff and had an impressive summer where he earned Top Pro Prospect and Top Starting Pitcher in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. However, for as many flashes he showed, he was inconsistent at best going 2-7 with a 5.06 ERA. He notched three saves, but was infamously on the wrong side of a five run ninth inning capped off by a three run walk-off homer against East Carolina in the NCAA Regional that all but ended the Cavaliers season. He could be the key to Virginia’s season this year. If you really think about it, last year’s team wasn’t incredibly different from the 2015 team that won the College World Series. The big difference was Josh Sborz at the back end of the bullpen. Doyle, like Sborz was a starter early in his career, but really took off once he was the focal point at the back end of the bullpen. If Doyle can show the improvement that appeared this summer, the Hoos could surprise a lot of folks out there.
Alec Bettinger - It feels as if Bettinger has been around for 12 years making him easily the Hoos’ most experienced arm. Like Doyle, the senior bounced between the starting rotation and the bullpen a year ago posting 3-5 record and a 5.43 ERA. He also was on the losing end of four games where the Hoos were either leading or tied in the ninth, only to fall in the final frame. Bettinger struggles with command at times yielding a 4.4 walk per nine inning ratio. He led the team in saves a year ago and gives the Hoos a guy whose been in pretty much every situation, but how much he can improve over his first three years remains to be seen.
Tyler Shambora - While he didn’t profile as one of Virginia’s most visible relievers last season, he was arguably their best. The transfer from St. Petersburg College went 5-1 last season with a 3.22 ERA and a 2.69 strike out to walk ratio. If he can provide a consistent presence in the middle of the pen, he could be a bridge to Doyle, or a guy who can come in and spell the starters when they are ineffective.
Bennett Sousa and Jack Roberts - Sousa and Roberts epitomized Virginia’s struggles in the bullpen last season. Sousa allowed 19 walks in 25 innings, while Roberts surrendered 19 free passes in 19.1 innings. When Roberts wasn’t walking guys, he was effective though, only allowing opposing batters to hit .117. These two have the ability to match up with opposing batters, but will have to be better than last year should the Hoos hope to go far.
With a star-studded lineup, pitching will no doubt be the determining factor in whether or not the Hoos are able to extend their streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. There is talent, but much of it unproven. But should that talent be realized, and some of these guys make improvements over last year, this team could be really, really good.