Saturday, March 13, 2010

baseball season preview

Three weeks into the season might seem like an odd time to preview the team's prospects for it, but the real point here is the ACC season because the rest, except for the ECU series, is mostly just filler. Besides, having just won the first game of the Florida State series - maybe the biggest one of the season - means I get to feel good about the overexcited things I say about this team.

You already know all about our ACC opposition this season because I already told you about them. The other aspect to a season preview is, you know, our own damn team, so position-by-position is how we do it. The first thing to know is that, if you remember last season's lineups, this one's going to look awfully similar. With only a few tweaks here and there, this team is almost the exact same one that went to Omaha last year - in fact, every single player who started a game in the field (pitchers excepted) during ACC play returns. And that team was a terror at the plate. It was the only team to touch up San Diego State's #1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg for a loss, and they led the ACC in hitting with a team BA of .327, as well as pitching with a team ERA of 3.23. The latter stat was helped by a performance at the Irvine regional that allowed only two runs to cross the plate in 27 innings of play.

The big home run isn't the preferred weapon in Brian O'Connor's arsenal - he prefers the stolen base. Not only did UVA attempt more stolen bases than any other ACC team - more than twice as many as some - the Hoos were also the most successful, on more than 82% of attempts. It's a deadly combination for opponents. If you're a singles and doubles kind of team, getting out of a double-play situation and into scoring position is paramount, and if you're as successful as .327 at the plate (and with an OBP of better than .400) then getting caught isn't really a big deal - you're likely enough to get another runner on base pretty soon.

Alright, so like I said, around the horn we go (to coin a phrase.)


By about a 2-1 split, senior Franco Valdes gets the majority of the starts here, with John Hicks and newcomer Kenny Swab spelling him. If you had to pick a single player on the roster who just looked like a ballplayer, Valdes would be the guy. More to the point, at 5'11", 205, he looks like a catcher. Valdes hit "just" .292 last year, but tends to be one of the best clutch hitters on the team and had a terrific run through the NCAA tournament last year, driving in nine runs to lead the team. Hicks is a little bit of a jack of all trades - catching isn't really his day job but to keep his bat in the lineup and to keep Valdes fresh, he mostly ends up behind the plate when he's not at first base. Swab is a juco transfer and almost entirely a singles-type hitter, and he fits the definition of utilityman. Not going to start many weekend games as the season rolls on, but you'll probably see plenty of him in the later innings when O'Connor needs to shuffle the lineup a bit.


Last year this was generally the territory of Danny Hultzen on days he didn't pitch, on which days Hicks would step in. Now the position belongs more to Hicks than Hultzen; Hultzen's main value is as our giant-killing unhittable ace pitcher, so O'Connor tends to split Hultzen's duties between DH and 1B on his non-pitching days to keep him a little fresher. Kenny Swab replaces Jared King as a spot starter and late-inning replacement here; Swab's bat will be an improvement over the light-hitting King.


Phil Gosselin is more or less the semi-regular starter here, but O'Connor's problem is that Keith Werman is the kind of scrappy little ragamuffin that it's impossible to keep off the field. So the duties get split, with Gosselin moving out to left field when Werman starts. Both are terrific glove men (Gosselin especially) and would stand out with the bat on any other team. Here they're just members of a long modern-day murderer's row, although to say that might be to belittle Werman's absurd start with the bat: he's hitting .636. (!!!) Gosselin is also the team's stolen base leader and one of the best pilferers in the league, successful on 24-of-27 last year, and whether playing in left or at second, he's the leadoff hitter.


No doubt about it here. Sophomore Steven Proscia started all 28 ACC contests last year and hasn't missed a start this year, either. Proscia's prodigious bat more than makes up for his average glove. He's as entrenched in the coveted cleanup spot as he is at third, and he was the team doubles leader last year (his 22 was good enough to land him second on the all-time list) and was one of only two players in double figures in home runs. His line last year: .333-10-58, and those RBI numbers are going to skyrocket as he's already racked up a whopping 24 in just 13 games. Proscia's well on his way to a breakout sophomore campaign much like Jarrett Parker's last year, and he'll probably end up with similar all-American accolades.


Rounding out the left side of the infield is another entrenched starter, Tyler Cannon. Cannon, too, can occasionally be shaky with the glove (though he's also capable of some outstanding athletic plays - witness the robbery of a base hit he made to help preserve the lead against Irvine in the final regional game) but he's a tremendously consistent, solid line-drive doubles hitter who hits extremely well for average and can usually be found either setting the table at the #2 spot in the lineup or protecting the all-Americans at the #6 spot. One of just three seniors on the team, and last year's first-team all-ACC shortstop.


As mentioned, when Gosselin isn't playing second base, this is where you can find him; when it's not him, junior John Barr is the usual starter. Barr is almost purely a singles hitter but (watch me go ahead and jinx this) he hasn't committed an error since his freshman year. That year he earned just enough at-bats to be eligible and therefore led the team in hitting at .325; his .375 start this year should be enough to show that his failure last year to top .300 (missed it by two points) was an unlucky fluke.


Here's the territory of one of our most acclaimed players: Jarrett Parker. Parker had an absolutely stellar sophomore season last year, going .355-16-65, which landed him on a ton of all-America lists and this year's Golden Spikes watch list. Parker's hitting .360 from his #5 spot in the lineup, and probably the only reason he doesn't have more RBI's than he does is because Proscia's hogging them all. Nevertheless, Parker's the reason Proscia gets so many nice pitches to hit, and by the time the season's over he'll be right up there at or near the top of the stat sheet where he belongs.


Dan Grovatt has this spot on lockdown, as well as the big-time 3-hole in the lineup. A junior, Grovatt has sat for maybe one or two games his entire UVA career. He was the team's leading hitter last year at .356 and is off to a torrid .420 start this year. Grovatt is a top-notch all-around hitter with some power to go with that average, and a very strong arm to boot. Strong enough, in fact, that O'Connor has tried him out on the mound a little bit this year, although that experiment hasn't produced quite the best of results. Still, as the #3 hitter, Grovatt is right in the middle of this station-to-station lineup; he'll be counted on to score as many runs as he drives in.


Kenny Swab doesn't really have a starting position to call his own; this is where he's best classified. Both he and John Barr have been regular pinch-hitters as well as spot starters. The other name to let yourself get excited about is freshman Reed Gragnani. Gragnani was also drafted by the Red Sox before coming to UVA (although as a 27th-round selection, it was a little easier to turn down) and he's done a nice job of hitting his way into a few starting lineup selections as the DH. In 16 at-bats this season he has seven hits, all singles, and he's added four walks to that. Gragnani is one of a very few switch-hitters in the lineup (the others are Cannon, Shane Halley, Valdes, and the likely-redshirting Ryan Levine) so look for him to be one of the first pinch-hitting options off the bench this year, and perhaps to continue to receive an occasional weekday DH start.


It all starts with Danny Hultzen. Hultzen can more than hold his own at the plate, but he makes his name on the mound. His 2.17 ERA, 9-1 record, and 107 K's would have been good enough on their own to earn him his ACC Rookie of the Year honors, but the .327-3-37 at the plate sure didn't hurt. Hultzen gave up a pair of earned runs in the very first inning of the season against East Carolina; since then, he has commenced the domination. His ERA is 1.04, and the three walks he issued against ECU were the only three he's handed out all year; they're matched up against 31 K's. The only reason there's a blemish in his loss column is because his teammates forgot to give him any run support against Wright State. He's just coming off an absolute gem against Florida State, where he held one of the best-hitting teams in the nation to two crummy little hits, no walks, and no runs in six-innings enroute to the 5-0 victory. Simply put, Hultzen is an ace in every sense of the word and probably in the running for the best pitcher in the country, and would be even if LSU's Anthony Ranaudo wasn't hurt.

After Hultzen, Robert Morey is plenty solid in his own right. Morey will be the #2 starter after mixing it up between the pen and the rotation last year. Opposing batters hit .210 against him last season, and he was the second leading strikeout man after Hultzen. He's picked up where he left off last season, posting a 3.63 ERA so far. Today's FSU game will be his biggest test of the season; he was a tad shaky against ECU, earning the loss, but he'll be good enough to beat most if not all ACC lineups on any given day.

The third weekend starter remains up in the air. Cody Winiarski has hung on to the job, but largely that's because nobody's really stepped up to take it. His 6.43 ERA is troubling, but he's improved on every outing so far (notwithstanding the fact that the competition has steadily gotten worse until this weekend.) Winiarski has got to get better if he's going to hold up against ACC competition, because if he doesn't, the #3 starter job could be extremely difficult to fill. This is where we most feel the impact of departures; we could really use departed senior Andrew Carraway here.

Vying for that job would be regular weekday starter Will Roberts and superfrosh Branden Kline, neither of whom have stood out much. Roberts had an excellent summer campaign in the NECBL, but hasn't been good in his two starts this year. Kline made a splash when he turned down sixth-round money from the Boston Red Sox to come to UVA, and in relief this year he's done quite well, but he and reliever Neal Davis had to be bailed out of a loss in his first start against William & Mary by some later-inning batwork. Both will likely see a start this week as we rematch against W&M and travel to JMU, as well as two weeks from now for a two-game weekday series against Towson. The audition continues.


Another part of the team feeling the hit from the departures, as Robert Poutier graduated and Matt Packer decided to try his luck in the minors. Long reliever Tyler Wilson and closer Kevin Arico have been their usual lights-out selves so far, and other than that one shaky outing against W&M, Neal Davis has been very good also. You need more arms than that, though, and so O'Connor has tried position players Grovatt and Corey Hunt on the mound; the results have been poor. Unless he moves into the rotation, Kline is also likely to see some ACC innings out of the pen in long relief. Two names to keep an eye on: Whit Mayberry and Justin Thompson. Neither have given up a run in very limited action this year. Mayberry is a freshman who went undrafted, while Thompson is a sophomore who made seven appearances last year and also didn't allow a run. There could be a bigger role for them in the future. Shane Halley's shoulder injury hasn't exactly been a help to a thinnish bullpen, but if he returns and can pitch at the same level as last year, it'll be a big boost. Otherwise he might get a redshirt year.

No comments: