|We're the defending national champs, y'all.|
You know you like it rough and fast, and that's the way I like to give it. So on the eve of the season opener against Kent State in Myrtle Beach, let's take a quick 30-second look at the 2016 edition of Virginia Baseball, defending national champions style...
Robbie Coman (Sr.) / Matt Thaiss (Jr.)
Thaiss is the elite-level offensive threat (and likely one of our best players) and Coman is the steady, experienced grinder who should excel at all of the defensive stuff and managing the staff. I'm expecting these two to split time behind the plate to stay fresh, with first base duties and the DH allowing for both bats to be in the lineup on an everyday basis. One key to the 2016 season will be Thaiss' ability to build on his .323 / 10 HR / 64 RBI season from 2015. He's the team's best slugger, and we'll need him to produce big-time numbers batting in the heart of the order. If he repeats his 2015 performance, great. If he improves on it, even better (and it bodes very well for a potential return trip to Omaha). If he regresses, it could spell trouble for the Hoos. No doubt, Matt Thaiss is a key player for the 2016 Hoos.
Pavin Smith (So.) / Matt Thaiss (Jr.) / Robbie Coman (Sr.)
Pavin Smith, the Ginger Avenger, is back to build off of a phenomenal freshman season. He had to battle through Tommy John surgery and the subsequent recovery this offseason, so we might see a bit of rust in the early season. Still, he should be featured in the meat of the order, and raking at .300+ with plenty of extra base power. Smith is probably our best slugger behind Thaiss. Look for Thaiss and Coman to see occasional spot duty at 1st, but this position belongs to Smith, one of the bright young stars on our team... and in college baseball.
Ernie Clement (So.)
Clement came from out of nowhere as a true freshman last season to provide great defense and clutch hitting to the title-winning effort. Now he's back as a seasoned sophomore, ready to offer steady defense, slick fielding, and dynamic double-play mojo. His .245 average from last season could stand to jump about 30-40 points, and if it does, look out. Even if it doesn't, I like the threat he provides toward the bottom of the batting order. Meanwhile, look for sophomore Jack Gerstenmaier to force his way onto the field a bit in 2016, which will likely eat into Clement's playing time. Gerstenmaier was injured for much of 2015, but is healthy and swings a better bat than does Clement.
Daniel Pinero (Jr.)
A rare draft-eligible sophomore, Pinero ditched his 36th round draft slot in order to return to Virginia for his junior campaign. That's absolutely huge for the Hoos, because this rangy, 6-5 condor gives us excellent defense and great production from the two-hole. If you're looking for major reasons for optimism in 2016, start with Pinero at SS.
Ryan Karstetter (Fr.)
Kenny Towns is leaving behind some enormous shoes (cleats?) that will be impossible to fill, but it looks like rookie Ryan Karstetter will be the guy to try it. Karstetter is said to play good defense and should be able to give us some additional pop at the plate. He is already garnering some serious preseason love, coming in at #22 on D1Baseball's list of Top Freshmen. I'm guessing we'll see Karstetter batting 6th or 7th in the order, which should be a nice boon to the Wahoos' offense. (It's also worth mentioning freshman Andy Weber, who might be a factor at 3rd if Karstetter struggles... but pedigree favors Karstetter and he's the one with the expectations thrust upon him.)
Adam Haseley (So.)
I fully expected Haseley to enter 2016 as our Saturday starter, leaving a hole in CF... but Brian O'Connor announced that it's Jones/Lynch/Doyle in the weekend rotation, which allows Haseley to focus on playing centerfield. He's a real talent who is great in the field. He swings a better bat than last season's .250 average lets on, and I'm expecting that part of his game to improve by leaps and bounds in 2016. Look for Haseley to lead off and produce lots of runs for the Hoos in 2016.
Left Field / Right Field
Doak Dozier (Fr.), Jake McCarthy (Fr.), Kevin Doherty (Sr.), Pavin Smith (So.), Cameron Simmons (Fr.)
I lump these two positions together, because it'll probably be a true platoon in the corner outfield spots. Doak Dozier is the blue-chip rookie (#26 on D1Baseball's list of Top Freshmen), with Jake McCarthy (Joe's little brother) not far behind on the hype train (#93). I'm thinking that both guys will provide good hitting and competent defense while they dip their wicks into college baseball with regular playing time. Meanwhile, Kevin Doherty was one of the heroes of last season's run to and through the CWS. K-Do is back for his senior season in 2016, and should provide stability in the outfield and on the mound in a relief pitching role. He's kind of the ultimate utility role player. Pavin Smith might moonlight in the outfield a bit to open up 1st for Thaiss/Coman. Finally, true freshman Cameron Simmons was one of the stars of fall ball, and I want to be sure to list him here as a darkhorse candidate for playing time this spring. (I also want to mention sophomore Charlie Cody, who swings a savvy bat and could quietly challenge the blue-chippers for playing time.)
Projected Batting Order:
1 - Haseley
2 - Pinero
3 - Thaiss
4 - Smith
5 - Dozier
6 - Karstetter
7 - Coman
8 - McCarthy
9 - Clement
Friday - Connor Jones (Jr.)
Saturday - Daniel Lynch (Fr.)
Sunday - Tommy Doyle (So.)
Okay, here's what I'm expecting out of this trio... Jones is our ace, and compares favorably to Danny Hultzen and Nathan Kirby in their best seasons as Hoos. He also ends up being a 1st round pick in the 2016 MLB draft. Lynch gives us what Brandon Waddell gave us as a true freshman -- calm confidence, veteran savvy beyond his years, and an insatiable appetite for eating innings. (Waddell went 6-3 with a 3.96 ERA as a true freshman in 2013.) Doyle is the physically imposing (6-6, 215) fireballer who can provide a shock to the system for opponents expecting a typical lazy Sunday.
Break it down, and this rotation is still an exclamation point and two question marks, but I try to never doubt the decision making of O'Connor and Kuhn when it comes to the construction of their pitching staff.
Alec Bettinger (Jr.), Holden Grounds (Jr.), David Rosenberger (Sr.), Tyler Shambora (Jr.)
It's closer-by-committee to open the 2016 season, but look for Oak to settle on someone to own the job sooner rather than later. My guess is Bettinger, but that's just a guess. JUCO transfer Holden Grounds provides an interesting x-factor in this race, while Rosie can boast 18 appearances for the Hoos in 2015. Shambora is the other JUCO kid added to the roster this offseason, but he seems to be behind fellow transfer Grounds in the bullpen scrum.
Bennett Sousa (So.), Derek Casey (So.), Jack Roberts (So.), Kevin Doherty (Sr.), Connor Eason (Fr.)
We have about a million freshman arms that could factor into this race, but I think Sousa, Roberts, and K-Do are in front of the youngsters in the pecking order. Meanwhile, Casey will be working his way back from Tommy John surgery, and might emerge as the mid-week starter before too long. Jack Roberts hasn't quite figured out this whole 'college pitching' thing quite yet, but leave the window open for him! Throwing darts at the freshmen, I think Eason has the best chance to see time out of the 'pen in 2016, despite his recently broken toe.
Plenty of questions, but considerable talent for U.Va. baseball