Sophomore Charlie Lyons, a 6-3, 220-pound backstop from Northport, won the job midway through last season. He only hit .270 with one home run, but ranked as the fifth-best defensive catcher in the SEC. With the addition of hitting coach Todd Butler, Lyons should improve greatly from last season. The catcher who was originally supposed to redshirt last year could be on of the Tide's leading power hitters.
Lyons battled a hand injury, but needs to stay healthy because Wells doesn't feel comfortable about the backups.
"There is no real backup," Wells said. "We brought in a guy named David Ferrazza (mid-year transfer) but he hasn't gotten the job done so right now Bo Hannah and Nick Richardson are No. 2"
Hannah is a redshirt sophomore from Tuscaloosa Academy, and Richardson is a senior from Northport's Tuscaloosa County High School by way of Shelton State Community College and Troy State.
In the infield, the picture is clear at first base, where returning starter Zac Welch will be the mainstay at the position. At 6-3 and 225 pounds, Welch is a strong lefty, but hit only four home runs last season though he did hit .333. Wells would like to see more pop from his junior first baseman.
"We stay on Welch pretty good because we'd like for him to hit some home runs," Wells said. "We call him Wade Boggs (former Boston and New York third baseman who hit for a good average but rarely any pop) because he's always getting a single to left. He's one of the biggest guys on the team. All of the guys who hit homers last season are gone, so we'd like for him to hit a few."
Welch's backup will be either sophomore Evan Bush, a part-time starter at third last season, or freshman Matt Bentley. Bush has improved significantly from last season, where he hit only .152.
The double-play combination will feature two newcomers who have impressed in practice. The second baseman and leadoff hitter will be Mark Haske, a JUCO transfer from Daytona Beach, Fla. The shortstop will be Rocky Scelfo, another JUCO transfer who started some at LSU in the 2002 season.
"Haske will be the leadoff hitter," Wells said. "He is a guy who goes deep in the count, knows the difference between a ball and strike, and will foul off a few pitches. He has a little pop in his bat and runs real good, and he is a real leadoff type hitter."
Backups at that position include freshman Greg Paiml, sophomore Chris McIlwain, and senior Aaron Tennyson.
Junior Allen Rice started every game at second base last season, but this season might be moved back to third base. He has struggled with a nerve injury, but could end up being the starting third baseman.
"If you watch him play, he is not really able to throw the ball like he'd like but he plays with a lot of heart," Wells said. "He is swinging the bat better. He has been hurt since September, and it is not something they can treat."
The biggest infield return may be someone who ends up playing the DH position. Senior Carlos Sosa was slated to be the third baseman last season, but tore his ACL in spring practice. He can play third base or will be the designated hitter. Wells said that Sosa has a chance to be the Tide's leading home run hitter this season.
"You don't have (Beau) Hearod who was capable of hitting 20 homers," Wells said. "There is nobody that jumps out like that, but Sosa could hit 15 or so."
Jim Wells is happy. The Alabama head coach won't have to make a backup catcher his starting left fielder. That was the case last season, where converted catcher Al Hecklinski was the Tide's best option in left field at the start of the season. This season, there is more all-around depth and it pleases the coach.
"The outfield is much improved," Wells said. "Last season we had trouble catching the ball. Matt Grooms is a solid outfielder. Michael McCallister is a really good young player. We've got a couple of freshmen who can go get the ball in Emeel Salem and Brandon Belcher. The other guys are pinch-hitter types or DHs."
All four of the players mentioned are newcomers, and it's likely that those four could see the bulk of the innings in the outfield, giving the Tide a major upgrade defensively. Matt Grooms is a 6-2 junior who played at Chipola Junior College last season after transferring from Auburn. McCallister is a big 6-3 freshman who could remind many of former Tide star Dustan Mohr, now in the major leagues.
"You'd like to have guys who can go get it," Wells said. "Grooms is a guy who can play center. Playing Grooms in center would allow you to play some of these guys (Gabe Scott, Chad White, Ryan Beagle) and plug them in left for their bat. McCallister is a good defender. Grooms is a good defender. If you wanted your best defensive outfield, you'd have (freshmen) Salem or Belcher in center. There is some maneuverability as well."
White is a 6-2 left-handed junior who missed last season due to disciplinary issues. Scott is a fourth-year junior who has been a reserve for almost all of his career. Beagle started towards the end of last season, showing a good bat while hitting .311 with one home run. But Wells likes the possibilities of his newcomers starting in the outfield.
"Grooms is going to start (in CF or LF) and McCallister is going to start (likely in RF)," Wells said. "You can stick a bat in there and then put Salem and Belcher in there late for defense. Salem makes really nice catches. He made a nice one (last Saturday) today that you haven't seen much, a Jim Edmonds type catch. It is just, is he going to provide enough offense? Or do you play him anyway, and Belcher is right there with him. It's just we are going to rely on (Belcher) to pitch a lot so he doesn't get the reps that Salem does. But he is good enough that he could still go play outfield whether he practices out there or not."
The bat could be White, but it's likely he would be a DH.
"That shows how our outfield has improved because Chad would have started last year," Wells said. "But the other guys can run and go get it better. He is a good left-handed bat to have. He can go out there and play some outfield for you, but he is a pinch-hitter, DH type. We are blessed to have some guys that are older who maybe don't have the footspeed but can swing the bat a little bit."
Belcher is also a pitcher and has a very good chance to become the Sunday starter, but his bat has improved that it's going to be tough to keep him out of the lineup.
"Belcher is swinging the bat a lot better now," Wells said. "If he was not pitching, he'd probably be that third outfielder a lot. He is a tough kid and is going to be a good player for us. He will be a two-way guy for us. We are just trying to protect him (now) because of the pitching. He could be playing a lot more, I just don't want him to get his arm run down."
Beagle is also a two-way possibility, and junior college transfer Morrow Thomley from Bevill State via Tuscaloosa, can also play outfield and pitch.