Spring season begins this weekend. I always think that's weird, but it happens this way every February so you'd think I'd get used to it. Spring means baseball, and UVA starts their quest for Omaha this week with a trip to Greenville to take on East Carolina. Usually around this time of year I have a three-part ACC preview as well, which obviously hasn't happened yet and may or may not, depending. InsideTheACC is doing a very nice job of this, however, so you can get your fix with that if you so desire.
Previewing our own team is always a challenge. Brian O'Connor isn't one for pigeonholing a player to a position and he rarely has a lineup or a rotation fully in place right at the beginning of the season. And when he does, he doesn't tell anyone. This year more so than usual. There's an excellent freshman class this year, following another really nice-looking freshman class last year, and the competition is as legitimately fierce as it's been in a while. Things are bound to change from where they sit, so please don't come back in May and be all like "nice preview, dumbass."
I like to go in reverse numerical order because it saves pitching til last, so let's start with #9.
Incumbent: Colin Harrington
Likely starter: Harrington
Others to watch: Mike Papi, Joe McCarthy
Outfield is a little more settled than the infield and the pitching situation. Colin Harrington settled into the right field role roughly a third of the way into the season and didn't give it up. The guy he took it from was Mike Papi, who got hurt midseason and was slow enough returning that Harrington stuck the rest of the season. Not to imply Harrington wouldn't have kept the job. He's a very BOC type of player. Not a lot of pop, but he's a good contact hitter who doesn't strike out much and defends his position very well. Harrington was second on the team last year (among those who qualified) with a .305 average, and made only one error in the field. A very steady, dependable player, and, very importantly in BOC's book, an excellent bunter. Harrington should be a lineup fixture, and could settle in at second in the order or perhaps in a place like seventh; if the latter, UVA probably has a pretty nasty lineup.
Papi got off to a very nice-looking start last year but cooled down before his injury. At his best he hits with a little more power than Harrington, but overall probably won't be as good a contact hitter. There's some potential for an occasional platoon or pinch-hitting situation here as Papi is a lefty hitter and Harrington a righty. Freshman McCarthy could get a few looks here as well; McCarthy is a big lad with potential for some serious power, and of all the freshmen without set positions, is the most likely to hit his way into a regular or semi-regular DH role.
Incumbent: Brandon Downes
Likely starter: Downes
Others to watch: none for now
With the speedy Mitchell Shifflett leaving the team (but staying at UVA) Downes gets the starting job in center field without much of a competition. Downes missed about a month early in the season last year - his freshman year - with a broken hand, but came on awfully strong in the hitting department when he returned. He ended the season batting .321 and slugging .453; good pop for a center fielder. Despite his position, probably not a leadoff candidate unless he cuts down on strikeouts, but could hit fifth or even third - most likely is that he starts the season a little lower on the pecking order and moves up as appropriate.
Incumbent: Derek Fisher
Likely starter: Fisher
Others to watch: Colin Harrington, Rob Bennie
Don't get too caught up in who'll play left in place of Derek Fisher, because Fisher isn't gonna miss too many games. He's the closest we got to a sure thing, and has easily the most power on the roster. He'll be expected to improve his .288 average and cut down on his strikeouts, but he's got good wheels to go along with his power; he ripped eight triples last season in addition to his seven homers. UVA's closest thing to a marquee player. An obvious choice for the third or cleanup spot in the lineup.
If Fisher gets a day off, it's most likely that Harrington slides over from right rather than seeing BOC dip too far into his bench. If we see anything of freshman Rob Bennie this year, it's probably here.
Incumbent: Chris Taylor (departed)
Likely starter: Brandon Cogswell
Others to watch: Reed Gragnani, George Ragsdale
Cogswell came on strong near the end of last year and got slotted as the DH more often than not by the time May rolled around. He's being given big shoes to fill this year. In truth, there's actually a chance he ends up a better defensive shortstop than Chris Taylor was; Taylor fell off in that regard last season. Taylor's clutch hitting will be tough to replace, though. Cogswell can drop a bunt and has a good knack for getting on base without swinging the bat; his 16 walks and 12 HBP from 2012 are good numbers for a guy with only 100 at-bats. If he boosts his .260 average he could be a good leadoff candidate; else he might fit well batting ninth, in order to set up the top of the order.
If Cogswell ends up faltering, the likely option is that Reed Gragnani moves over from second, where he'll start the season. George Ragsdale is a promising freshman whose been generally projected as a third baseman, but for whom SS can't be ruled out.
Incumbent: Stephen Bruno (departed)
Likely starter: Nick Howard
Others to watch: Kenny Towns, George Ragsdale
Howard is such a versatile guy that he's also found his way to the starting pitching rotation, which means third base will be a little bit of a revolving door. Both he and Kenny Towns, who'll start the season manning 3B when Howard pitches, flashed a nice bat last year in semi-limited time (about 50 at-bats each) and should continue to hit well. Their gloves are another question; there just isn't enough data to go on for them and so until proven otherwise, third base probably will be the biggest defensive question mark to start the year.
Incumbent: Keith Werman (departed)
Likely starter: Reed Gragnani
Others to watch: none for now
The enormously popular Werm is no longer around the clubhouse, something that'll take some getting used to for UVA fans. On the other hand, it's nice to see Reed Gragnani finally getting a position of his own. Gragnani hasn't been the healthiest of players; he was off to a great start last year with 25 hits in 69 AB and then promptly lost the rest of his season to a slow-to-heal quad injury.
Gragnani is a little bit of a free swinger that doesn't walk a great deal, so I'm not expecting him to hit at the top of the lineup. He's tailor-made for a fifth or sixth spot, where you like to have a contact-hitting guy with little inclination to hold the bat still, because the idea is for him to try and drive in some ducks with two outs.
Incumbent: Jared King
Likely starter: King
Others to watch: Mike Papi, Joe McCarthy
One of UVA's steadiest presences is kind of occupying one of those spots you like to try out new hitters in. Oh well. King is absolutely not going anywhere; he's a slick fielder at first base and UVA's most veteran presence. He's a rarity in college baseball: a fifth-year senior. He's a rarity in another way too: a patient power hitter who can steal bases. King's power isn't overwhelming, but if he gets hold of one it flies, and better yet in the BOC book: he developed an excellent eye for the strike zone last year and walked 51 times. His average dropped from .321 to .263 because he had 40 more ABs but only one more hit than in 2011 (and if truth be told was ice-cold late in the season), but the spike in walks made up for that in the OBP department. He'd be a good candidate to hit 3rd if he can even just put his average somewhere in the middle of that range.
Incumbent: Nate Irving
Likely starter: Irving
Others to watch: Robbie Coman, Scott Williams
Irving beat out a couple other challengers in the competition for the backstop job last year and turned out to be a pleasant surprise. His hitting was better than expected: solid if unspectacular. Irving probably catches 90-95% of this year's innings, as he's built to take the punishment and has earned the trust of the coaching staff. Anyone else in the job will be in spot duty only. He'll likely bat 8th in the lineup.
Rotation incumbents: Branden Kline (departed), Artie Lewicki (injured), Scott Silverstein
Likely starters: Brandon Waddell, Silverstein, Nick Howard
Others to watch: Nathan Kirby, Cameron Tekker, Josh Sborz, Whit Mayberry
Talk about up in the air. In fact, let's. We already expected a crowded field of candidates for the rotation with all these talented freshmen rolling in, but injuries made a mess of everything else. Whit Mayberry, we knew about; he was shut down during the FSU series last year after leaving his start early with an elbow twinge that turned out to require Tommy John surgery. Artie Lewicki had to have the same thing after an injury suffered in summer ball. Mayberry might be back at some point this year; Lewicki probably won't.
So that opened the door for a lot of rookies. And if you'd told 100 knowledgeable UVA baseball fans a couple months ago that a true freshman would start the opener and asked which it would be, all of them would have said "Nathan Kirby" and 20 would've said, "but maybe Josh Sborz." And then maybe five might have also tossed out Cameron Tekker as a name. Nobody but nobody would've said Brandon Waddell.
But here he is, the first freshman to start the season's opening game for UVA since 1986. Karl Kuhn has always put a big emphasis on a pitcher's mental makeup, which is impossible to guess at from our perspective, and he and BOC must like something about Waddell. I have no idea how this will go.
Silverstein gets the call on Saturday this weekend, and Howard on Sunday. I have to admit I have higher hopes for Howard, who looked undeniably good in 19 relief appearances last year, most of them long relief. Silverstein worries me, as his tenure as a starter in 2012 was filled with inconsistency, and he didn't last long in his later starts. This rotation, though, does give UVA two lefties for the weekend, with Howard the lone right-hander, and Silverstein was said to have a pretty dynamic arm before injuries tore it to pieces. A year of strengthening and seasoning could easily help.
The William & Mary game next Tuesday will shed a little light onto who's next in the pecking order, and when (maybe if, but probably when) Mayberry returns, there might be some tough decisions.
The bullpen anchor will be Kyle Crockett. Crockett has the stuff to be a potential starter, but the coaching staff likes him out of the pen. Since Crockett's a southpaw, Austin Young will get the first shot to be the pen's top righty. Closer, at the moment, is a mystery for the ages, and BOC is keeping his mouth extremely shut on that topic. I've seen all sorts of speculation on that. My guess: One of the better freshmen who doesn't win a starting role will get it.
Overall, potential oozes from this team. Just drips from it like a full sponge. It's short on proven talent. King, Harrington, Fisher, and Irving are the only ones where I think we can say we know with a good amount of certainty what we'll get out of them. Gragnani, Cogswell, Downes, and Silverstein might be the next rung down on the provenness scale. This doesn't bother me, though. It's fun watching new players break out of their shell and there's too much potential for it all to fail at once. Even with changes to the opening day lineup, something that resembles the UVA teams of the recent past will shake out by season's end.
Speaking of that opening day lineup, here's one best-guess, guaranteed to be wrong somewhere:
RF - Harrington
DH - Towns
LF - Fisher
1B - King
2B - Gragnani
3B - Howard
CF - Downes
C - Irving
SS - Cogswell
We'll probably see quite a few different players - Towns, McCarthy, Papi, maybe Ragsdale - move in and out of that DH spot early. BOC tends to settle on one as the season goes on.
The final word is that the 2013 baseball season is going to be like this year's basketball season: a setup for next year with hopefully plenty of eye-opening successes along the way. ACC champs? Probably not, but you never know. Super-regionals? Probably not, but you never know. I'd call it a pure 50/50 toss-up as to hosting a regional ourselves, which isn't a bad place to be. It's like, even though we expect success, we'll be pleasantly surprised to have it.