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September 24, 2013
Through two weekends of fall baseball, we've learned quite a lot about who some of the players might be to replace the corner outfield spots and shortstop position in the field and a weekend starter, setup man and closer on the pitching staff. What's more, the news - right now, at least - looks very, very promising, with more answers than questions at this point.
At shortstop, that position is locked down by sophomores Marcus Mooney (transfer from Palm Beach State College) and DC Arendas. Talking with former player and current assistant coach Adrian Morales last week, he was amazed by how much Mooney reminded him defensively of his sensational older brother Peter, who played on the 2011 national championship team. Head coach Chad Holbrook also has praised Mooney's play at the plate, saying he can spray the ball to all fields and is a capable bunter.
Arendas is another multi-tool player with speed and slick defensive moves in the field. He also has a great deal of confidence, one shared by the coaching staff. My take right now is that Mooney is too good not to have on the field, but Arendas will play, perhaps a lot as a backup also capable of other positions in the infield as needed. He's basically a guy the coaches trust, and that's a very good thing to be on a baseball team.
Now, the outfield spots. If Holbrook were making a lineup out today, it's a safe bet one of those spots, probably right, would be held by freshman Gene Cone, who has been, along with Kyle Martin, the most productive hitter of the fall. Over the past weekend he was 5-for-10 with two walks and an RBI. A slender guy, all his hits were singles and he's no threat to hit double-digit home runs, but he's smart at he plate, hits well with two strikes, doesn't strike out much at all, uses the whole field and has the kind of baseball savvy you either have or you don't. On Friday, he reached base all five times he went to the plate on three hits and two walks and is looking like he could possibly be an answer at the leadoff position that the departed Graham Saiko also manned last year.
Cone's a player, and represents a different style of performer Holbrook is going after - fast, scrappy, tough outs who can advance runners, get on base, steal and play great defense. It's a formula for success in today's college baseball, and there's about four or five players in this most recent recruiting class who fit that bill.
Another of those players is Brock Maxwell, the most highly touted outfielder Holbrook signed. A week ago Sunday, Maxwell went 3-for-4 with an RBI and two runs scored hitting in the two hole behind Cone and ahead of Martin. That lineup scored eight runs and showed that Cone at leadoff and Maxwell behind him isn't a horrible setup for a meaty middle order that will feature Kyle Martin, Joey Pankake, Max Schrock and Grayson Greiner and a to-be-determined designated hitter to be culled from the ranks of Brison Celek, Elliott Caldwell, Ray Murphy, Anthony Paulsen or Patrick Harrington, if not one of the freshmen, perhaps a Wil Crowe or Jordan Gore.
And don't count out Paulsen for one of those outfield spots, either. He also fits the mold of slender, savvy and a tough out who can field all day long and loves to play the game of baseball. In short, Holbrook has some great options already here, and it will be fascinating to watch the rest of the fall and the spring who takes charge of those open positions.
On the mound, the most obvious candidate to contribute immediately among the freshmen is Wil Crowe. If any of the freshmen are SEC-ready, he is, both on the mound and at the plate. He's the first real pitching-hitting dual threat this team has had since maybe Lonnie Chisenhall, and he may be a better pitcher than Chisenhall was in his brief USC career. He's ferocious on the mound, changes speeds and has a fastball that he'll throw at your chin in a heartbeat - it's his plate, after all. From a purely spectator position, he looks every bit the part of a regular weekend starter to go along with Jordan Montgomery and Jack Wynkoop, but he may get some consideration in relief, too, if for no other reasons than his stuff and Matt Price-ish demeanor. He's an intimidating thrower who also will likely bat for himself when he pitches if he doesn't spot-DH here and there. Yes, he's that good.
In the relief roles, some interesting battles will continue to unfold. After looking strong in his first outing two weekends ago, Evan Beal couldn't throw a strike on Sunday, walking three of four batters in one stretch and the other, Harrington, swinging on a ball to end the inning. He's a player the coaches would love to see command a weekend or midweek starting role but who needs to develop a calmness and consistency for them to trust him as they were starting to last season when he was pitching on Friday nights when Montgomery was out. As it is, he remains an asset for whom a prominent bullpen role might not be such a bad thing.
Same for Hunter Privette, a sidearming righty who the coaches say did everything right his redshirt year in 2013 and is eager to contribute this spring. This is his third year with the program - he had 15 appearances in 2012 - so he's one of the few veterans at the back of the rotation and could take on a John Taylor-like role in late relief. Lefty Vince Fiori also could see expanded action after contributing in 2013, whether in long relief or midweek starts. He's getting a long look this fall, as is senior Josh Knab, who is quietly putting a nice fall together.
Of the freshmen, Jordan Gore (who also can play the infield and hit respectably - he's another of the slender types), Josh Reagan (who was superb in two scoreless innings Saturday), Tyler Haswell and Trey McNickle look like strong candidates for work thus far, though there's a long way to go between now and February. JUCO transfers Kris Nelson and Robert Lawhon also expect to contribute.
If you haven't been to a scrimmage yet, try to; the Saturday and Sunday scrimmages are open to the public and free, and the weather has been terrific. It's a great opportunity to see the future of the baseball program today and watch the position battles unfold before your eyes.
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