That doesn’t mean he is ready to concede any drop-off in wins, though, even after saying farewell to national player of the year A.J. Reed and a few other key components from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad.
Entering his seventh year as the head coach at Kentucky, Henderson made it clear Monday that the Wildcats will have to find different ways to win this season without leaning on the long ball. Reed moved on to the Houston Astros organization after leading the nation with 23 home runs last season. UK also lost some pop at catcher and third base, where Max Kuhn and Micheal Thomas each hit eight home runs.
“I’m not sure you’re going to replace AJ with one guy,” Henderson said. “Clearly, we’re going to have a different team offensively. We were old and strong last year. We had several kids that were physical. We’ll have a different club.
“You can win a lot of different ways in baseball, which is one of the great things about it, but pretty safe to say, we’re not going to lead the league in home runs or have the home run leader in the program this year. And that’s fine.”
The Wildcats’ M.O. is expected to shift to high on-base percentage and speed, offensively, enhanced by the addition of new hitting coach Rick Eckstein. They lost Austin Cousino’s club-leading 19 steals, but return a pair of double-figure base-swipers in junior outfielders Ka’ai Tom (14) and Kyle Barrett (10) to go along with a number of other players capable of making things happen on the basepaths.
“We have a group of people who can get from home to first quickly,” Henderson said. “… I think we’re going to have kids who hit for a high average and are very competitive in the box.”
Junior second baseman JaVon Shelby could be a big key to UK’s offensive hopes. He batted .250 with four home runs and 21 RBI last season, but could be poised for a breakout season.
“He’s got a chance to be a very good player, the center of our club. He’s got a charisma, a leadership capability,” Henderson said.
Tom is the team’s leading returning hitter, having posted a .328 average with 13 doubles, three home runs and 41 RBI in 2014. Senior infielder Thomas Bernal (.305, 1 HR, 32 RBI) is also back, making the shift from first base to third base. That move helps UK get a talented young bat in the everyday lineup in the form of freshman first baseman Evan White. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Ohio product showed some nice pop in the fall and is being hailed by Henderson as the Cats’ most gifted defensive first baseman since 2006.
Freshman Riley Mahan and sophomore Connor Heady are expected to compete for the starting nod at shortstop, while Zach Arnold (.542 in 24 ABs) and Greg Fettes will likely platoon at catcher.
Sophomores Storm Wilson and Marcus Carson and junior Dorian Hairston (.400 in 25 ABs) could all be in the mix for the third outfield spot.
They’ll all be playing behind a deeper pitching staff than the one UK featured a year ago.
“One of the things we’ve got a chance to do this year is have really good (pitching) depth,” Henderson said. “It will take a little while to sort itself out and find out what the roles are and who’s going to be able to do well in what situations.
“We’ve got a bunch of strike-throwers… That’s a part of our club I feel really good about.”
Henderson’s first priority will be finding the critical “Friday night starter,” the arm that will open each SEC series. Several names are in the mix, including right-hander Kyle Cody (4-0, 2.84 ERA), who was a starting pitcher in the Cape Cod League’s All-Star Game last summer and has earned multiple preseason All-American honors. Junior college transfer Dustin Beggs and sophomores Zack Brown and Robert Zeigler, all right-handers, are also in the mix.
Senior right-hander Spencer Jack (4-1, 1.16 ERA, 4 SV) anchors a bullpen that should “matchup left and right a little bit better than we have in the past,” Henderson said. Veterans like Andrew Nelson (2-5, 3.94 ERA), Taylor Martin, Ryne Combs, Logan Salow and Dylan Dwyer contribute to the depth, while freshman lefty Zach Logue is a newcomer to watch.
The Cats open the season Feb. 13 against Ball State in Wilmington, N.C. They’ll also face Richmond and UNC Wilmington over that weekend before heading to Los Angeles to face tradition-rich USC on Feb. 19 and a three-game series at UC Santa Barbara from Feb. 20-22. The home opener is Feb. 25 against Morehead State.