2003 Georgia Baseball Preview

The chill in the southern air, the sounds of leather popping and aluminum bats pinging. It all can mean only one thing: It's college baseball time in the southland. For <b>David Perno</b> and his Georgia Bulldogs, this season could not begin too soon.</p>

After experiencing the ups and downs that usually characterize seasons with new coaching staffs and young players, Georgia players and coaches are prepared for what may be the breakthrough season of Perno's term at Georgia. At the very least, it is a crossroads season. While Georgia did sneak into the NCAA tournament last year with a 32-29 record, Perno has yet to translate success on the field into a recruiting class that has rivaled either his SEC and ACC foes or Ron Polk's 2000 signing class, his last at Georgia before turning the reigns over to Perno. Georgia did not have a signee drafted in last June's amateur draft, and it does not look as if anyone in this year's signing class, which does not yet contain a player from the Cobb County area, will be a high draft pick.

If Perno has struggled in recruiting the high school ranks, however, he has made up for it so far in recruiting JUCO players and in attracting transfers to his program. Last year JUCO CF Chaz Lytle sparked Georgia's offense and wound up a mid-round draft pick last June. 1B Justin McClain, a JUCO transfer last year, will be relied upon to produce runs from the middle of the lineup this year, and Justin Holmes, another JUCO transfer, will provide depth in the middle infield. Georgia also adds OF Jasha Balcom, a transfer from College of Charleston, LHP Paul Lubrano, a transfer from Central Florida, RHP Sean Ruthven, a transfer from Fresno State, Jordan Gerheim, a transfer from Gardner Webb, and JUCO transfers SS Zeke Parraz, OF Greg Adams, RHP Eric Roberts, and OF Michael DeRosa. Freshman newcomers who could see action this season are RHP Brent Benefield, LHP Will Startup, RHP Mitchell Boggs, RHP Chas D'Huyvetter, OF Kyle Keen, OF Greg Adams, and RHP Jake Baker, who was the best prospect in the incoming freshman class.

Georgia will have to overcome the losses of CF Chaz Lytle, LF Adam Swann, and LF Kris Edge, who were three of their top four hitters last year average-wise, as well as 1B Matt Cavender and CF Darryl Blaze. The pitching staff took a hit with the losses of RHP Bill Sharpton, RHP Jeff Carswell, and LHP Jason Fellows.

While Perno will be pressed to find a replacement for Lytle, whose position in the batting order will likely be filled by Parraz and his position on the field filled by Jon Armitage, who has moved to CF from SS, it is likely that the Dawgs will rely more on the long ball this year. Gone are speedsters Lytle and Blaze, and in are sluggers 3B Lee Mitchell, McClain, and David Coffey. Mitchell is the most heralded of the returning Georgia players, coming off a season where he hit 14 homers and drove in 55 runs, followed by a summer in which he surprised Cape Cod League scouts with his wood-bat power. Mitchell will likely be a top 5-round draft pick in this June's draft, and has received pre-season All-SEC and All-America honors from Baseball America. If he can improve his .286 average this season and show scouts he can make consistent contact, his draft stock will continue to rise.

Mitchell will start at third base for the Dawgs and likely hit third or cleanup in Perno's batting order. Either Parraz or Josh Smith, who hit .417 last year in limited action, will start at shortstop. Marshall Szabo and Holmes will play second base, with Szabo probably getting most of the action there. With McClain backed up at first base by hard-hitting redshirt freshman Chad Thornhill, Georgia returns the best infield in the conference.

While Coffey is entrenched in right field for the Dawgs, the rest of the outfield, and the designated hitter position, are up for grabs. Armitage will get the first shot in center field. The redshirt junior, originally recruited by Polk for his glove at shortstop, showed surprising pop in his bat last season and was moved by Perno to center field to create playing time for Parraz and Smith at shortstop. Armitage made the adjustment well in fall practice. In left field, it looks like Balcom, a transfer from College of Charleston who did not play this fall because of a shoulder injury, will get the nod, but freshmen Adams and Keen could see significant time as well. Look for one of those three guys to be the designated hitter for the Dawgs. At catcher, Georgia returns Clint Sammons, probably the best defensive catcher in the conference and one of the best in the nation. Sammons played sparingly on Team USA this summer before suffering an injury. He'll be backed up by Ned Yost, son of the Atlanta Braves third-base coach, and freshman Jason Jacobs.

Despite the loss of Fellows and three solid senior pitchers who filled many innings for the Dawgs last season, Georgia returns a solid pitching staff. LHP Mickey Westphal was a Friday starter his entire freshman year and, despite getting banged around last year and finishing with a 6.35 ERA, figures to be Perno's Friday starter this season. RHP Matt Woods will likely start in Saturday games once the season begins. The Sunday starting spot looks like a battle between Michael Hyle, who is a very talented RHP and who was redshirted last year while he recovered from Tommy John surgery, true freshman lefty Will Startup, and transfer Paul Lubrano.

Former draft pick Brandon Moorhead, who is back for his fifth season at Georgia, will take over for Carswell as a closer. Perno will have plenty of talent from which to draw at set-up man, and will likely use the early part of his schedule to determine his bullpen rotation. It would not be surprising to see freshmen Boggs and Benefield get significant action out of the bullpen.

This time last season, the only thing that appeared certain for the Dawgs was that their bullpen would be experienced and strong. Their infield was entirely new. Their weekend rotation was clouded with question marks. And their coaching staff was the youngest in the league. This year, the Dawgs can point to their infield and their starting rotation as the strengths of their team.

Georgia has been picked by coaches and most media outlets to finish second on the SEC East, behind South Carolina. With Florida rebuilding, the SEC East is weaker than it has been in years. The SEC itself is not as top-heavy and not as deep with quality teams this year as in past years. The table appears set for Perno to make his mark this season, to turn the recruiting tide and prove to high school players and coaches that his program is still headed in the direction that Coach Polk charted.

Perno has continued at least two Polk traditions: carrying more players than college teams usually carry and starting their season later than most teams. While practice began on January 25, the Dawgs opened their schedule on February 14, when they played Gardner Webb in Athens. Overall, the non-conference schedule appears decidedly weaker than in past years, with Georgia not being tested by another D-I power before it opens its conference schedule against Alabama on March 14. While the schedule should allow Georgia to cushion its record and rankings going into conference play, it will not help in its quest for a return trip to the NCAA's, which uses its own RPI rankings to seed teams.

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