Monday, February 13, 2012

acc baseball preview, part 3 - and a lot more

We begin the second week of our spring preview bonanza by finishing up the ACC's baseball preview, and quite a bit more besides.  Truly a post worthy of returning to the weekday drudge after the weekend.


Last year:

Record: 35-27 (15-15)
ACC tournament: 7th seed; 1-2
NCAA tournament: regional 3 seed; 1-2, eliminated in regional

2012 schedule: skips Miami
Names to know: 3B Andrew Ciencin, SS Chris Diaz, LHP Carlos Rodon

Last year, NC State had enough hitting to get themselves into the ACC tournament, and not enough pitching to do anything else.  And to make a long story short, this year could shape up the same way.

You have to like what NC State returns; though they lose their two best hitters, enough players return to make the lineup solid at least.  Most of the infield returns; the only loss is at first base, but 2B Matt Bergquist and SS Chris Diaz return, along with 3B Andrew Ciencin.  Bergquist and Diaz are what they are; decent-to-good hitters and fielders, but Ciencin is an X-factor that could determine a big chunk of the Wolfpack's fate.  He was a very good producer in his sophomore year (2010), but the new clankbats took away most of his mojo.  And he's not a good fielder.  If he can return to form he'll be a very good middle-of-the-order hitter; if not, it'll leave a hole.

In the outfield, steady producer and excellent producer RF John Gianis returns for his senior year, as does CF Brett Williams.  If Tarran Senay can seize the LF job after moving in and out of the lineup all season in 2011, it'll mean the Pack only have to replace two regular positions in the field (1st and catcher) and one of those could be filled by power hitter Danny Canela, who mostly DHed last year.  Likely first base, as NC State recruited a top catcher in Brett Austin.

But....the pitching.  With Cory Mazzoni moving on after being selected in the 3rd round, the Pack have to turn to freshmen.  Baseball America calls Carlos Rodon the top newcomer (NC State, in fact, has the top two prospects in the conference according to that listing, and three of the top 10) and he'll have every chance to earn the Friday job.  The rest of the rotation will be filled by returning veterans who bounced back and forth from the rotation to the pen in 2011; Ethan Ogburn is probably the front-runner for Saturday, with Vance Williams and lefty Grant Sasser also getting looks.  It's not an encouraging group overall, though, and Wolfpack baseball games will probably end up looking like lacrosse scores again.

This could be one of the toughest teams in the ACC to peg, because of their excellent recruiting class that could start to usurp starting roles.  But the best guess is another season that looks a lot like last year's 7 seed, because pitching is pitching and the Pack, for the most part, lack it.


Last year:

Record: 30-25 (11-19)
ACC tournament: no
NCAA tournament: no

2012 schedule: skips Clemson
Names to know: LF Andrew Rash, 1B Ronnie Shaban, OF Tyler Horan, LHP Joe Mantiply

Ah, Virginia Tech.  Leave it to the Hokies to wear the ugliest colors in world history, and then, just to be Hokies, troll the world with unis that look like this and this.  Fortunately, they're not a threat to appear on national TV in Omaha any time soon, so baseball fans everywhere have that going for them.

To talk about VT baseball is to start with LF Andrew Rash, who finished last year with a fantastic .335-18-53 stat line.  18 HRs in 191 ABs is ridiculous, especially with a clankbat and not the old pingbats.  It translates to 56.5 dingers in a typical MLB season.  With 1B Ronnie Shaban and contact-hitting utilityman Jake Atwell in the lineup, Tech at least has a viable middle of the order.  Also expect OF Tyler Horan to play a big role, probably in right; Horan hit .396-3-12 in only 48 at-bats last year and slugged a whopping .771.  (Even Rash "only" slugged .707.)  3B Johnny Morales returns, though he's nothing special really, and IF Chad Pinder should also move into a bigger role after hitting .310 as a semi-regular last year.

The pitching is decidedly mediocre, though.  Veterans Joe Mantiply (lefty) and Marc Zecchino (righty) anchor the rotation, but neither is all that frightening.  DIII transfer Andrew Aizenstadt is the likely choice for the third weekend spot.  Mantiply and Zecchino were Friday and Saturday last year, respectively, but it shouldn't surprise if the order is shaken up a little this year.  Tech has no designated closer; in fact, one of the players tying for the saves lead last year (with three) was Shaban.

VT has a good lineup with the potential to be a very good one.  But like NC State, they'll only go as far as their pitching takes them.  To the ACC tournament?  Possibly - skipping Clemson certainly helps.  But they play in a tough division and won't have much margin for error.


Last year:

Record: 25-31 (15-15)
ACC tournament: 8 seed; 0-3
NCAA tournament: no

2012 schedule: skips Duke
Names to know: LF Mac Williamson, 3B Carlos Lopez, LHP Tim Cooney

Surprise!  Wake Forest has spent some time recently sucking at baseball - especially in 2010 when they were positively horrible - but there they were, a surprise 8th seed in the ACC tournament in 2011 with a respectable .500 record in the conference despite a losing record overall.

How'd they do it?  Great question!  Outside of LF Mac Williamson and 3B Carlos Lopez, the hitting was pretty bad.  As a team they hit .225; the best average was Williamson's .273.  Wake relied on the long ball and timely extra-base hits to score runs; Williamson and Lopez combined for 23 home runs.  Practically the whole team returns; center field is the only significant gap to fill.  Whether that's a good thing goes back to that question about returning bad players; the second-base righty-lefty platoon of Connor Keniry and Mark Rhine batted .197 and .170, respectively.  Brett Armour caught every game and hit .185.  Williamson and Lopez are good players but if you have any kind of decent pitching, Wake's lineup won't scare you.  Or even cause you much stress.

Pitching is why they didn't suck last year; lefties Brian Holmes and Tim Cooney ended up as the Friday-Saturday combo (and will do so again this year) and both were very solid, with ERAs of 3 each.  Cooney is the better strikeout pitcher with 91 last year, but Holmes allowed a .233 BA to Cooney's .265.  And Sunday pitching is guaranteed to be better no matter who it is; they can't possibly have anyone worse than Austin Stadler, whose 8.63 ERA, 2-9 record, and .364 opponents' BA was simply jaw-dropping.

So we've looked at two teams with good lineups and mediocre pitching that will contend for the bottom seeds in the ACC tournament; Wake will be a contender for same with good pitching and miserable hitting.  It'll be interesting to see which results in a better season.


Now that you've gotten through all that, you're probably wondering: what the hell about our own team.  Your reward for sticking through all that is to hear what the hell about our own team.  Like any coach with national title aspirations, Brian O'Connor doesn't like to speak of "rebuilding," and in fact I think it's perfectly fair to apply the "reloading" label to this team.  We lost a lot of talent to the draft and graduation: Steven Proscia, the school's career RBI leader; David Coleman, an out of semi-nowhere hitting story; John Barr, a steady and extremely consistent left field presence; John Hicks, a terrific defensive catcher who could really mash; Tyler Wilson, the Lowe's Senior Class Award winner; Will Roberts, who tossed the first 9-inning perfect game in UVA history; and some other guy who could also play a little baseball.  Our loss was the Seattle Mariners' gain; the way they drafted they might as well just call us their mid-A minor league team in Charlottesville.  I probably forgot some by accident, but I got work to do so we're moving on.

But this year's group oozes potential, even if it's a little light on accomplishment in places.   Been thinking of what the best way to do this is, and I settled on the old position-by-position standby.  Let's go in reverse order of position numbers, starting with....


Incumbent: David Coleman (departed)

Likely starter(s): Colin Harrington, Mike Papi

Harrington hit .353 last year in limited time, and is on the cusp of becoming a daily player in this lineup.  But what I wrote about Papi in last summer's baseball recruit post is on the verge of becoming true: "One of the higher-profile players coming to UVA in the fall.... Rated the #84 high school player in the country by Baseball America, Papi will be the biggest freshman hitter coming in the fall if Derek Fisher signs with the Rangers.... look for Papi to be a well-known name this spring."  He hit well in the Orange & Blue WS last fall, he's kept on hitting, and he'll be tough to keep out of the lineup himself.  To start the season, they at least make a good righty/lefty platoon (Papi is the lefty) and if they're both hitting, could be excellent candidates to DH as well.


Incumbent: Kenny Swab (departed)

Likely starter(s): Mitchell Shifflett, Reed Gragnani

Gragnani played the position for most of last year, actually, but was bumped for Swab (who, amazingly, moved out there from playing catcher and proved pretty decent.)  Swab had a better arm and was hitting better as well.

Gragnani is a versatile player and a decent (but unspectacular) hitter who, if truth be told, will be a man without a position if everyone produces to their potential.  He's a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type who could play just about any infield or outfield position in a pinch, but will more often than not find himself outmaneuvered.

However, Shifflett is an enigma.  He had just nine hits in 38 at bats last year - a .237 average - and more of those were bunts than not.  Shifflett was blessed with amazing speed, and was used extensively as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement last year.  But if he fails to master his craft at the plate - and there's been little indication that he'll do so - Gragnani will likely be the regular center fielder.  Shifflett will get first crack at the job, and if he simply hits .240, .250 or so, he'll stick.  But just as likely a possibility is that he'll fail to reach the Mendoza Line.


Incumbent: John Barr (departed)

Likely starter(s): Derek Fisher, Reed Gragnani

Fisher, you probably have heard of, even if you haven't heard of any of the other recruits.  His reputation as a hitter precedes him, and he's done nothing to belie it.  If you believe in this kind of symbolism - and there's no doubt something to it - he was given Danny Hultzen's old #23.  The real deal.  But Fisher is also a top candidate to DH, just to make sure his hitting is in a groove, and if he does, Gragnani is the likely choice to field this spot.  Keep in mind, Gragnani earned a gutsy four-pitch walk at a crucial point in last year's RALLY TO OMAHA.  He's the kind of hitter BOC really likes, so there'll be a spot somewhere.  Depending on who's hitting and who isn't, you might also see Harrington or Papi moved out here.


Incumbent: Chris Taylor

Likely starter: Chris Taylor


DAMN RIGHT YOU REMEMBER. Taylor is maybe the best defensive shortstop in the league and a great leadoff hitter.  As a bridge between the last group of stars and the next, Taylor is one of the most important players on the team.  Expect him to play every game at short, minus a couple possible rest games midweek.


Incumbent: Steven Proscia (departed)

Likely starter(s): Stephen Bruno, Reed Gragnani

Yes, Gragnani could play this spot too.  However, Bruno is the guy for now, and would probably have to play his way out of the role.  Remember, he won the starting shortstop job last year before injury forced him out of the lineup early in the year; it was only then that Taylor took over.  Bruno is one of the quintessential players that I mean when I say this team has a ton of yet-to-be-realized potential.


Incumbent: Keith Werman

Likely starter(s): Keith Werman, Reed Gragnani

There's Gragnani again.  Why is he here?

Well, in an ordinary world, Keith Werman - Ninja, the Werm, the Wermanator, or simply one of the straight-up ballplayerest guys around - would take every ground ball, every DP turn, every pop fly, at his accustomed position, second base.  However, because he's so friggin' ballplayer, and we have nothing but rookie catchers (at least, rookie to this team) Werman will probably see a few turns behind the plate.  (That'll be pretty cool, too.) When he does, Gragnani is the likely choice for second base.


Incumbent: Jared King

Likely starter: Jared King

Practically no controversy here.  King is a solid fielder and an excellent hitter, and likely to play out almost the entire season here.


Incumbent: John Hicks (departed)

Likely starter(s): Nate Irving, Keith Werman

Irving, a freshman, greatly outhit juco transfer Chace Mitchell in the fall, and will be the guy taking the most turns here.  Mitchell will probably get a few chances, but the pecking order right now has him third.  Ideally, Irving and/or Mitchell will earn the complete trust of the coaches and Werman can stay at second for good by the end of the season, but it looks likely right now that Irving will take half to two-thirds of the pitches, and Werman will take the rest to start off the season, with Mitchell getting in a midweek game here and there to keep him sharp.


Incumbents: Danny Hultzen, Tyler Wilson, Will Roberts, Cody Winiarski (all departed)

Likely starters: Branden Kline, Whit Mayberry, Scott Silverstein, Joel Effertz

If we were to simply put the best arms in the rotation, Kyle Crockett would be here in place of Silverstein or Effertz.  But those in the know say he's in the pen to start the year.  Either that's a commentary on the other lefty arms in the pen or a commentary on the indispensibility of Silverstein and Effertz, and I sure hope it's the latter.

Kline is the Friday starter, without a doubt.  He's worked his way through the hierarchy; as a freshman, he began in the bullpen and nudged his way into the tournament rotation at the end of the year.  He was the full-time closer as a sophomore, and gave us a classic pitchers' duel with South Carolina reliever Matt Price in the final game of last season.  Now he's coming into his own as the staff ace, a role envisioned two years ago when he spurned the Boston Red Sox and 6th-round money to fulfull his UVA pledge.  Nobody is Danny Hultzen, but Kline will battle the league's best and his bulldog mentality will make life very tough on opposing hitters.

Silverstein will probably be the Saturday guy, if for no other reason than to go righty-lefty-righty in the order.  He's a guy you have to root for: a rare senior, he came in with great stuff and then never pitched in either his freshman or sophomore seasons, the victim of recurring shoulder trouble.  It would be the story of the year if he could give the scouts something to think about.  That leaves Whit Mayberry for Sundays.  Mayberry doesn't have overpowering stuff, but he's got occasional starting experience and he's always been a steady hand.  He's an inexplicable favorite of mine, and a favorite of BOC's too, because he always attacks the strike zone, which he couldn't get away with if he didn't have terrific control.  Finally, your weekday starter will be Joel Effertz, a perfect replacement for Cody Winiarski because he transferred from the same juco. 


Incumbent: everyone else

Likely starter(s): "starting reliever"?

To kick things off, the likely closer is Justin Thompson, who's seen quite a few innings of long relief in the past and, as a senior, should have the necessary mentality to get that job done.  Thompson was generally the first guy out of the pen last year (if the ball wasn't handed straight to Kline); that role will likely now fall to the lefty, Kyle Crockett.

Another player who's been talked up by BOC (and BOC is not one to idly talk someone up): Artie Lewicki.  He didn't pitch much last year - only 9.1 innings.  But in that time he only gave up one hit, one run, struck out 10, and pitched in a few very crucial situations to boot.  Lewicki is probably the bullpen's prime right-hander (besides closer Thompson.)

After that - well, your guess is as good as mine.  Or anyone's.  Other than senior Shane Halley, all the other options are either freshmen or sophomores who didn't get much time last year.  Halley isn't really a solution; if he were, he'd've shown out by now.  After Crockett and Lewicki, there's about, oh, 35 innings or so of relief work to be doled out, and it'll be fun to see who steps up.

The season officially starts on Friday in South Carolina; UVA will play games against Boston College and Coastal Carolina on the campus of CCU, and then a game against James Madison in Myrtle Beach.  Assuming BC starts a right-hander, this is what the lineup might-could look like:

SS Chris Taylor
LF Reed Gragnani
DH Derek Fisher
1B Jared King
RF Mike Papi
3B Stephen Bruno
C Nate Irving
2B Keith Werman
CF Mitchell Shifflett
SP Branden Kline

All that said, where does UVA end up in the pecking order?  Here's how I see the tournament pods breaking out:

1 North Carolina
4 Florida State
5 Virginia
8 Wake Forest

2 Clemson
3 Georgia Tech
6 Miami
7 Virginia Tech

5th seed is a real let-down from years past, but you gotta remember what a cliff there is between the top six and bottom six.  If we don't host a regional, don't sweat it; this is a bridge year.  That freshman class could nose its way into some playing time, and by the time those guys are juniors, it'll be time once again to be thinking CWS.  Hell, that's the goal anyway.  I think this team is good for 18-19 wins in the ACC; we'll probably hear some sniping from the peanut gallery about our OOC schedule like in years past, but the tradeoff is a whole bunch of wins.



-- I need to make some updates to the recruiting board, but that'll have to wait til tomorrow. 

-- In the we-can't-have-nice-things-around-here department, Joe Harris has a broken bone in his left hand.  Well ain't that fantastic.  He'll keep playing, and it probably won't affect him too badly; he came out with his hand taped up in the second half against UNC and hit his first shot, but since this is Virginia, and we can't have nice things around here, the key word is "probably."  Just wait til someone makes a point of thwacking his hand when he thinks he can get away with it.

-- Last week we had to put up with the rumors flying about Bill Lazor being a candidate for the OC job in Tampa Bay, under the Bucs' new coach Greg Schiano.  He didn't go, of course.  I tell you this not because I think you don't know about it, but just to remind you that this is now officially our little annual heart attack.  As long as the UVA offense is any good, that's how it's gonna be.  Don't set yourself up for disappointment by demanding to know why London doesn't hire the next Bud Foster, who's been with Tech forever, because Foster is one-of-a-kind.  You know the old saying about how you can have a job done three different ways (good, fast, or cheap) but you can only pick two?  It's like that with coordinators.  You can have young, loyal, or good, but you can only have two.  Good, loyal coordinators are almost always old.  Think Jim Reid.  Good young coordinators, the kind with a long career ahead of them, are upwardly mobile and ripe for the picking at any time.  Think Bill Lazor.  You don't want a young and loyal one.  Think Mike Groh.

-- Want to write a guest column?  Scroll down to Saturday's call for submissions for details.


Sandmeistr said...

It's a shame that Shifflett (so far) has shown no signs of being able to hit. I can't remember the last guy the Hoos had with that kind of speed. I like CT at leading off, but imagine MS there with a .400 OBS; opposing pitchers would mess themselves.

Anonymous said...

Bruno's still fairly under-rated, I think. Here's a kid who has a lot of MLB scouts looking hard at time, and he might be the 2nd best pro talent that could turn pro this year (Kline is the clear-cut top possible pro on the roster, in terms of potential). I still wonder if he's the better shortstop than Taylor, but it's Taylor's position.

Still a bit shocked at Crockett in the pen.

Anonymous said...

Its going to come down to pitching no question. Hopefully SS can stay healthy because he did have a ton of upside coming in. KC in the pen is fine because it gives you a reliable lefty out of the pen that can throw a bunch of innings if needed, and can go right into the rotation if SS can't stay healthy. Only time will tell and its fast approaching, can't wait.