UVa baseball fans who subscribe to the print edition of The Roanoke Times were provided with a fairly lengthy wrap-up of the Cavaliers’ 2012 baseball season this morning and I’m not going to say I was saving my best stuff.
But, there’s a lot that goes into sustaining a Top 25 baseball program and it’s clearly a 12-month a-year job. Virginia Tech coach Pete Hughes says there’s a one-month period after signing day in November when coaches can catch their breath, but you can bet they’re still thinking about baseball.
Among the observations that UVa coach Brian O’Connor shared with me Wednesday was, that while the Cavaliers should be good in 2013, he thinks they have a chance to be really good in 2014.
That’s when the current cast of freshmen will be juniors.
The starting lineup for the season finale Sunday against Oklahoma included four freshmen: catcher Nate Irving, left fielder Derek Fisher, center field Brandon Downes and designated hitter Kenny Towns.
A fifth freshman, Branden Cogswell, had been the designated hitter against opposing right-handers in UVa’s first two games of the Charlottesville Regional. Cogswell swings left-handed and Towns is a right swinger.
A sixth freshman, Nick Howard, did not give up an earned run in 3 1/3 innings in UVa’s final game, a 5-4 loss to Oklahoma.
SO, THAT’S SIX FRESHMEN who played a meaningful role in the Charlottesville Regional and that doesn’t count Mike Papi, who played in each of the Cavaliers’ first 25 games and 35 of the first 40, with 28 starts.
Papi has a back issue, O’Connor said Wednesday, but batted .283 in 106 bats (the same as Downes and six more than Cogswell). Papi wasn’t the same kind of outfielder as, say, Downes. But, at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Papi has the potential to bring some power to a lineup that did not produce a home run in its last seven games.
Fisher led the Cavaliers in home runs with seven, first baseman Jared King had four and no other returning UVa player had more than one (Downes and Papi).
That doesn’t count third baseman Stephen Bruno, who had six home runs and led the team in RBI with 54 and in slugging percentage at .559. Any of the 11 ACC coaches who did not pick Bruno for the All-ACC first or second team, neither of which he made, should have his head examined.
O’Connor is optimistic that Bruno will return; in fact, while my tape had a misfunction, I believe he said that Bruno should come back. One way or another, I think it’s highly unlikely, which creates some big holes in an infield that already loses second baseman Kyle Werman and Bruno’s fellow MLB draftee, shortstop Chris Taylor.
O’Connor noted in Thursday morning’s print edition that Howard, whose last at-bat of the season came April 30, was recruited primarily as a position player and would be a position player exclusively in the Cape Cod League this summer.
He started 11 games this season – most, if not all, as a designated hitter.
Howard could play a corner infield spot, as could Towns, the Virginia state player of year in high school. Papi, a 30th-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers, also has some experience at first base and it’s unlikely that King will start every game – all 59, as he did this year.
O’Connor concedes that at least part of King’s issues at the plate late in the season may have been the result of fatigue.
THE WILD CARD in the infield sweepstakes is Reed Gragnani, who came in the same year as Taylor and Bruno and was accompanied by similar accolades.
Gragnani missed all but 20 games of the 2012 season with a quadriceps injury. He had started 41 games as a sophomore on UVa’s College World Series team in 2012 and batted .272, mostly as an outfielder, though he started two games early this year at second base.
So, if Bruno does not return, UVa could send out an infield of King, Gragnani, Cogswell and Howard, which does not take into account the two middle infielders that O’Connor said he has signed.
As for the pitching staff, rising junior Artie Lewicki will remain in one of the weekend spots. O’Connor thinks that lefty Scott Silverstein, like King, will return for a fifth year. Silverstein had eight consecutive weekend starts and also started against Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament, although he struggled for the most part.
Presumably, Silverstein would get another shot at a starting role,.Then, what? UVa will need another weekend starter, at least one set-up man and a closer.
Lefty Kyle Crockett (5-2, 2.25 ERA) is likely to fill one of those roles. Given Howard’s numbers, he’d have to merit some consideration. He could be like ex-UVa standout Sean Doolittle, called up by the Oakland A’s this week. While at UVa. Doolittle would start and bat in one weekend game, then start in the field the other two.
Austin Young, a 6-4, 225-pound rising junior, made 21 relief appearances, striking out almost a batter an inning. He could be a factor. So could rising sophomore Barrett O’Neill, who got four midweek starts and was 2-0 but eventually had to be replaced in that role.
None of that takes into account a freshman class that includes eight pitchers, four right-handers and four left-handers. Danny Hultzen was a weekend starter as a freshman; Branden Kline was a mid-week starter and set-up man who had eight starts in 22 appearances as a freshman.
Freshman lefty Carlos Rodon was nearly unhittable for N.C. State this year.
Left-hander Nathan Kirby almost certainly would have gone high enough in the MLB draft for professional ball to be a consideration, but he let it be known that he was firm in his decision to play for Virginia.
Plus, there’s Whit Mayberry coming back from Tommy John elbow surgery. There are ample set-up men and potential starters from both sides, but the closer job is a little problematic.
But, isn’t it always? You had to figure Justin Thompson would be in the mix following the 2011 CWS and with the anticipated move of Kline to the rotation, but Thompson was anything but a sure thing and look what he did (4-2, 2.27 ERA, 12 saves).
It’s hard to make the NCAA without a closer, at least coming out of the ACC, and on that front O’Connor is 9-for-9.