On the surface, the lineup was the highlight of the 2019 Hoos’ baseball team. And while the Hoos finished second in the ACC in batting with an average of .292 and had five starters bat over .300, they still left a lot to be desired. Virginia finished 9th in runs scored and were dead last in home runs. While that might seem fairly trivial, it did result in Virginia going 5-8 in one-run games; three of which came against North Carolina late in the season in games that could have turned the tide of the year. You can’t argue that the pitching needs to improve if Virginia is to get back to the postseason, but the lineup can help too.
It appears they might have the pieces to make that happen.
Of the five Virginia hitters who hit over .300 last season, four return and are led by infield standouts Nic Kent and Zack Gelof. The two sophomores exploded onto the scene last year hitting .337 and .313 respectively. Kent played second base last year, but could move to shortstop with the departure of Tanner Morris. The key for Kent will be to maintain his average and speed (he led the team in stolen bases) but improve his power after only banging out nine doubles. To his right at third base will be Gelof who was second on the team in hits and doubles and has emerged as one of the top 2021 prospects in the ACC.
Kent’s double-play partner figures to be either JUCO transfer Walker Jenkins or Freshman Max Cotier. Jenkins, who could play short (keeping Kent at second), comes to Virginia by way of Madison College in Wisconsin where he hit .342 a season ago with 30 stolen bases on his way to First Team All-Region IV honors. Cotier was the top rated shortstop coming out of Connecticut and while diminutive in stature has the ability to hit way above his weight class.
Rounding out the infield, the Hoos will have a number of options. Devin Ortiz looks to have a first shot at the starting spot at first base. The two-way player has been more of a bright spot on the mound than at the plate, but after spending the entire fall off the hill and focusing completely on the offensive end, Ortiz could look to fulfill the promise he had coming in three years ago. It’s possible though that Ortiz fills the DH role leaving him able to pitch as needed. In that case, Alex Tappen would be next in line at first. Tappen is coming off somewhat of a down year that saw him bat .228 in 46 games, though he did hit three home runs. The Hoos will be looking for him to produce closer to his 2018 stat-line of .262 with 13 doubles and four home runs. Finally, look for first year Tate Ballestero to get some run at first. While he can also catch, Ballestero could play first allowing Tappen to play right field; a position he played all through his first year. Ballestero was the number one catching prospect from New Jersey and had a stand-out fall. He’s a switch hitter who can play multiple positions, so look for him to see plenty of playing time early and often.
Moving to the outfield, the Hoos will be paced at the plate by Brendan Rivoli. The third year left fielder from Pennsylvania was third on the team in average and tied for first in home runs with five, though that was a surprisingly low total. To his left, in centerfield, figures to be the highly-recruited first year Chris Nowell. Drawing comparison to Derek Fisher, Nowell was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Pennsylvania last year and was drafted by the St Louis Cardinals in the 37th round. Rounding out the outfield is still a question. As noted, it could be Tappen, but if not, look for another JUCO transfer in Marc Lebreux to start in right field. Lebreux hit .408 with nine home runs at Seminole State College in Oklahoma and can come in and provide some stability right away.
Behind the plate figues to be Logan Michaels. Michaels came out of nowhere a season ago batting .311 starting 39 games behind the dish. Like Jenkins, he transferred from Madison College and gives the Hoos a solid backstop at a premium position in the UVA program. When Michaels needs a spell, look for the Hoos to give Ballestero a look at catcher and a potential glimpse of the future.
Virginia starts the 2020 campaign Friday in Pensacola with a three-game series against the Oklahoma Sooners as they look to make their triumphant return to June baseball.