Thursday, February 13, 2014

2014 baseball preview

Expectations, yo.  Par for the course for the baseball team, which has been at this long enough to play out in cycles; in the down years, we think to ourselves "if things go our way we could host a regional"** and in the up years, "if things go our way I'm taking a two-week vacation to scenic Nebraska."

This is the latter.  Two of the five baseball polls made UVA their preseason #1, the first time that's ever happened.  "They're just loaded," saith Aaron Fitt of Baseball America in an interview with the Progress.  It's the lineup that's got the pundits all worked up.  The pitching is a little behind in terms of proven talent, but there aren't many better coaching staffs at handling pitchers than this one, and nobody's especially worried at this point.  Karl Kuhn's track record (plus the glimpses of potential we've seen so far) are enough to make us need to see the collapse happen before we'll believe the pitchers will be an Achilles heel.

With Opening Day just a few hours away (Friday, against Kentucky in Wilmington, if the teams ever make it through the ice blizzard) it's time to do this year's preview in the traditional style.  We'll see if this year I can avoid being flamed by any players' dads.  I no longer have a perfect record in that department.***

**To put this in perspective, you have to be one of the top 16 teams in the country, more or less, to host one.  Whereas, Please Let's Get Back To The Sweet 16 It's Been Like Twenty Years is the working title of the documentary chronicling our best-since-1982 basketball season.

***I only suspect this is what happened last year, but it's a strong suspicion nonetheless.


Incumbent: Joe McCarthy

Likely starter: McCarthy

Others to watch: Mike Papi

Saying there's a specific incumbent at either of the corner outfield positions is a little bit dicey, as there was a lot of rotation between them and the DH slot, but let's just say McCarthy here for giggles.  McCarthy burst on the scene last year as a freshman, leading the team in walks with 54 and hitting .336, third on the team.  Besides having a good old-school baseball name**, he's a combination of good speed and good power, and committed only one error in 99 chances last year.  Considering his excellent on-base tendencies - second on the team in OBP at .469 - he's a likely candidate to hit third and place a ton of pressure on an opposing starter after already having to face two on-base machines in the first two slots.

**A humorous story about the "original" Joe McCarthy - a Hall-of-Fame manager in the '20s, '30s, and '40s - involves a baseball writer who was speaking at an engagement of some kind and was informed that Joe McCarthy had died; the writer immediately gave a lengthy, moving, and flowery tribute to the manager and was afterward told that the manager was still perfectly alive and kicking and just for clarification's sake it was the famous anti-Communist senator who had kicked it.


Incumbent: Brandon Downes

Likely starter: Downes

Others to watch: None

College baseball is a funny business; it's rare in the pros - scratch that, almost entirely nonexistent in the pros - to see a roster listing of "catcher/outfielder", particularly when that outfielder is your center fielder.  This isn't even the first time in recent memory, for anyone who remembers Kenny Swab.

Neither is it all that often that a major league team's center fielder is their terrorizing power hitter, but that's Downes too - the team leader last year in homers, triples, doubles, RBIs, total bases, and hits.  He was written in stone as the CF, except for one start at catcher, and just as strongly written in as the cleanup hitter, which he'll likely do again this year.  Downes could stand to cut down a little on his strikeouts, but as long as he continues to rake, it might not matter.


Incumbent: Mike Papi

Likely starter: Papi

Others to watch: Derek Fisher

Like right field, this was sort of an unsettled position, and didn't fall immediately to Papi at the start of the year.  Papi didn't even open the season as a starter, which is a funny thing to say about the guy who spent the whole second half of the season as the national OBP leader until just slipping out of the top spot at the very end of the year.

Once he got into the lineup, Papi got off to a torrid start, and was hitting well over .400 for a while before settling at .381 for the season.  He was a deadly combo of contact and power, slugging .619 and ripping 15 doubles and 7 home runs.  It's asking a lot to repeat that run as the national leader in such an important stat, because getting on base more often than failing to get on base is a mind-blowing thing to do, but BOC clearly expects him to at least come close, as he's penciled in as the leadoff guy.


Incumbent: Brandon Cogswell

Likely starter: Daniel Pinero

Others to watch: John LaPrise

Here is where a freshman is most likely to make a mark outside of the pitcher's mound.  With the need to replace the smooth-fielding Reed Gragnani, BOC turns to the freshman class to find a fairly tall shortstop and moves Brandon Cogswell to second base.  Players with Pinero's 6'5" stature don't usually play short, but Pinero wouldn't be getting this assignment if he were a clumsy fielder, and his height will be a plus at times too.  He'll likely start the season near the bottom of the order, perhaps as a #7 or #8 hitter.

As a freshman last year, John LaPrise only hit .171, and isn't a likely threat to take anyone's starting job, but he's begun to emerge as a likely-looking utility man who could play any of the four infield positions in a pinch (pun semi-intended - LaPrise is a lefty hitter and the only such player in the infield other than Cogswell), which will be awfully handy at times.


Incumbent: Nick Howard

Likely starter: Kenny Towns

Others to watch: John LaPrise, Nick Howard

Howard is a good hitter whose bat you don't want to keep out of the lineup, but the coaches want to focus on his pitching, too, so he hasn't been mentioned in connection with his old position much this year.  So third base falls to Kenny Towns, who served mainly as the DH last year with time at third as well.  Towns could very well be a defensive improvement over Howard, who wasn't a great glove man, and he brings a lot of pop to the plate.  He was second on the team in triples and third in SLG, and though you'd like him to maybe walk a little more, you can't argue with all the extra-base hits - 23 of them out of 54 total.  He shapes up to be perhaps a #6 hitter - the kind of guy you want to have putting a cherry on top of a big inning.


Incumbent: Reed Gragnani (graduated)

Likely starter: Brandon Cogswell

Others to watch: John LaPrise

BOC has done everything but come right out and say that Cogswell is moving to second base to complement Pinero's appearance at short.  His fielding assignments are flexible like that sometimes. Cogswell was last season's primary leadoff hitter, too, sporting a shiny .464 OBP and .346 batting average. He's no power hitter - he was one of only two regulars not to leave the park - but he swings for a lot of contact, rarely strikes out, and has the speed to stretch out for the extra base.  Cogswell shapes up as a #1 or #2 hitter this year.


Incumbent: Jared King (graduated)

Likely starter: Nick Howard

Others to watch: Mike Papi, Joe McCarthy, John LaPrise

If we call Howard the starter at first base, then this will have to be the most flexible position on the team, as we'll go back to more of a Danny Hultzen situation where we'll need a solution for when the first baseman is pitching.  We lose one of the slickest-fielding first basemen we've ever had in Jared King, so there'll certainly be a downgrade in that department, but Howard hit .323 last year and with quite a bit more power than King.

When Howard's pitching, either Papi or McCarthy will probably grab a first-baseman's mitt.  I suspect BOC will settle on one or the other at some point this year, March or whenever.  For what it's worth, Papi is a right-handed fielder, somewhat of a handicap for a first baseman, but whether that affects the decision, I have no idea.


Incumbent: Nate Irving

Likely starter: Irving

Others to watch: Matt Thaiss

Nate Irving is a junior who won the confidence of the coaches as a freshman, and got the keys to the pitching staff.  He's one of the elite fielders in the conference, too; few if any catchers are better at throwing out basestealers, and teams often just don't bother.  He threw out over 40% last year.  And he's a consistent hitter, batting .279 in 2012 and .284 last year, and is one of the team's better bunters, too.

Knowing how BOC feels about handling his pitching staffs, then, it really says something that freshman Matt Thaiss keeps getting talked about as a real threat to take some playing time.  Thaiss's bat has raised a few eyebrows.  If you held the proverbial gun to my head, I'd bet on Irving to start the season without really having to think about it.  The lineup is deep enough that it doesn't need another .350 hitter, fun as that might be, and Irving presents a formidable challenge in the intangibles department, not to mention with his glove and arm.  But UVA is in fantastic shape here where the worst that can happen is Irving keeping his job.  That's a highly enviable situation.


Incumbent: Derek Fisher

Likely starter: Fisher

Others to watch: Nick Howard, Mike Papi

The really scary thing about UVA's lineup is how much room there is for a guy like Fisher to improve.  He hit seven home runs but "only" batted .293 last year.  Granted, the college season is short enough that it only would've taken two more hits all season to boost over .300, but Fisher is still a partly untapped mine of talent.  Contemplating what a breakout season might look like for him is a nightmare for opposing ACC managers.


Incumbents: Brandon Waddell, Scott Silverstein (graduated), Nick Howard (moved to closer)

Likely starters: Waddell, Nathan Kirby, Josh Sborz

Others to watch (rotation): Whit Mayberry, Artie Lewicki, Connor Jones

Bullpen: Mayberry, Lewicki, Jones, Austin Young, David Rosenberger, Howard (closer)

Those aren't really the "likely" starters - those are the starters, as announced by BOC this week.  A rotation full of sophomores.  Waddell emerged as an unlikely ace last season, a left-handed control artist who didn't throw hard but kept the walks down and scattered hits.  His velocity should be up slightly this year, and up against a lot of competition he's kept his hold on the Friday job, at least for now.  Oak has more than alluded to the likelihood of the rotation changing as the season goes on, so he clearly expects that that competition isn't over yet.

Kirby was a hotshot name as a recruit but a disappointment as a freshman, with a fastball that kept straightening out on him.  But - and remember that summer ball is really just an extension of a player's season rather than a new year with an offseason program and all that - he dazzled in the Cape Cod League.  And apparently in fall ball, too, because he's the newly minted Saturday starter with a fresh chance to show the world why he was such a big deal as a recruit.

Fellow sophomore Josh Sborz, the only right-hander in the rotation, takes the ball Sunday.  He was a lot better than Kirby last year, mostly out of the pen, where he mowed down hitters with aplomb.  His final ERA: 1.98, in 50 innings of work.  Other than closer Kyle Crockett, Sborz was the top bullpen arm, but starting is what he's been groomed for.

Nick Howard looks likely to move the other way; BOC has said the first crack at the closer role goes to him after being last year's Sunday starter.  Howard has a chance to excel, as he throws a pretty heavy fastball when it's on.  O'Connor has always wanted starter-quality pitchers in the closer's role, using guys like Branden Kline and Crockett there in the past, and his instincts usually prove pretty good.

Despite the potential at the bookends, though, middle relief could still make a case as the strongest part of the staff.  It's a very deep bullpen.  Whit Mayberry (who's been around since forever, as 5th-year seniors are exceedingly rare in baseball) has bounced between starting and relieving in his career and gives you the kind of flexibility that's absolutely crucial postseason play.  Artie Lewicki got kind of Wally Pipped thanks to shoulder surgery, but turned in a strong season as a starter in 2012 and could be the weekday starter or a long reliever.  Austin Young was dead unhittable as a one-inning guy, with an opponents' BA of .195.  David Rosenberger, as the primary lefty option, had a very strong freshman year as well, and Connor Jones - this year's top pitching freshman - is an X-factor in the whole discussion. 


A sure-to-be-wrong crack at the lineup looks like this:

Papi - LF
Cogswell - 2B
McCarthy - RF
Downes - CF
Fisher - DH
Towns - 3B
Howard - 1B
Pinero - SS
Irving - C

That said, there's a little more certainty this year in a guess like that, because last year cemented a lot of reputations.  That's a scary lineup for any pitcher.  That top three all had OBPs of .464 or better - if they each "regress" to .450, an opposing pitcher has less than a 17% chance of getting a 1-2-3 first inning.  It's more like 14% using their actual OBPs.  The next three are sluggers that would form the 2-3-4 core of 97% of the teams in the country.  What team has a .323 hitter like Howard batting 7th?

So this team will explode at the plate.  So much depends on the pitching, which is incredibly deep but lacking a proven ace.  No disrespect to Waddell, who technically holds that designation as the Friday starter, but Hultzenesque star power has not yet revealed itself on this pitching staff.  That said, if you thought this lineup was a freak sight, imagine what this team could look like if the whole starting rotation pitches up to its full potential.  It's asking a lot, but that's because there's a lot there for the asking.  The potential is simply staggering.  Some of it's been scratched on the surface already - Sborz's performance as a reliever, Kirby's outings in Cape Cod, Waddell's surprise year followed by an offseason of conditioning and strengthening.  But those are just glimmers.

Ultimately, this team will be judged by what happens in the postseason.  I'll just go ahead and talk about the super-regionals now, because if they don't make it even that far then something went freakishly, terribly wrong.  That's a three-game series that will determine the legacy of this year's team.  There is serious national championship potential here, but let's also remember that baseball's postseason is occasionally a randomized mess - witness Fresno State's championship as a four seed, the equivalent of a basketball 13 seed at best.  The main thing is to get to Omaha and see what happens.  If this team doesn't get there, it's fair to say even in February that that would be a big disappointment.  No pressure now.

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