Big Blow, Big Opportunity

The Miami Hurricanes baseball team suffered its first big loss since their elimination from the 2008 College World Series. Unfortunately for the Canes, they lost a player and not a game.

Miami pitcher Eric Erickson's season is over after he underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his left elbow. That elbow has flared up a few times in Erickson's career and has led to skipped starts and ineffectiveness from the junior from Sarasota High. The surgery comes at a difficult time for Erickson and the Canes but was necessary for the long-term success of the lefty's career.

For Erickson, he will be sitting out his first draft-eligible season since his senior year of high school. This is difficult for any player of high caliber because they all dream of joining the professional ranks and Erickson's dream has been put on hold for the time being.

The Hurricanes suffer a big loss as well with the southpaw's season-ending injury. Miami loses its number two starter who has been one of the best pitchers in the country in his two collegiate seasons. The lefty has excellent command of his three pitches and will be difficult to replace in the weekend rotation. He was 9-1 in his sophomore campaign with a 4.15 ERA. Erickson's ERA ballooned in the second half of the season after his elbow began to give him trouble.

In his two years at Miami, Erickson received numerous accolades include being named to the preseason watch list for the 2008 Brooks Wallace Player of the Year Award, receiving 2008 NCBWA third team preseason All-American honors, and Freshman All-American honors by Baseball America and Louisville Slugger. He was the first UM freshman in the history of the program to be named first team All-ACC.

The loss of a quality starter like Eric Erickson puts a rotation that was supposed to be a strength in some doubt as it has lost what many considered an almost automatic win on Saturday night.

Beyond lefty ace Chris Hernandez, Miami's starting pitching is viewed by most as a question mark. Miami brings back three pitchers who started games last season in senior Jason Santana and juniors David Gutierrez and John Housey but none are at the level of Erickson.

Santana is a right-hander who has excellent movement on his pitches and may arguably have the best stuff on the staff. Last season, he was 3-0 with a 2.29 ERA but was only able to throw 19.2 innings as a shoulder injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. The senior from Coral Gables has had numerous elbow and shoulder injuries while at Miami. It is unknown if he will be ready to contribute in the spring. Gutierrez was a reliever who was forced into a mid-week role due to ineffectiveness by other Miami mid-week starters. He performed fairly well last season compiling a 5-0 record with a 4.75 ERA. Gutierrez is a decent option for a mid-week starter but is not an ideal candidate for a weekend starter.

Housey has received rave reviews for his performance this fall but has mostly struggled in his Miami career. The right-hander from Davie, FL began the 2008 season as the 4th starter but struggled mightily in his five starts. While his record 3-1 record was positive, his 7.06 ERA and .339 batting average against him are indicative of Housey's struggles. After another impressive fall, the junior will be expected to step up and challenge for one of the weekend rotation spots behind Hernandez. However, judging from Housey's track record, I would temper expectations for now.

There are several newcomers that could also step in and take a spot in the rotation in transfer Taylor Wulf, red-shirt freshman D. J. Swatscheno, and true freshmen Danny Miranda and Sam Robinson.

Wulf is a hard throwing right-hander from Texas who comes to Miami from Alvin Community College. The six-foot, 235 lb has earned rave reviews for his performance this fall and is a likely front runner to take a weekend rotation spot. A closer at Alvin CC, Wulf went 10-1 with a 3.82 ERA and 74 strikeouts last season on the way to earning unanimous all-conference honors.

Swatscheno is another unknown to most Hurricanes fans. The southpaw from Pembroke Pines, FL missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery but is an extremely talented pitcher who should be ready to go this spring. His junior season at Flanagan high school, Swatscheno went 12-2 with a 0.87 ERA and struck out 142 batters on the way to his second state title. If healthy, expect Swatscheno to challenge for a weekend rotation spot.

Miranda is a local product out of Miami Killian High School. At 5'11" and 220 pounds, the lefty is not the most physically imposing pitcher but his pinpoint control makes up for his lack of ideal velocity. The southpaw could compete for a starting spot but I expect him to pitch primarily in relief in his first year at Miami.

Robinson was teammates with Miranda at Killian and is another lefty arm competing for innings. He was named first-team all-county as a senior after going 5-2 with a 1.11 ERA and 50 strikeouts. Robinson is another long shot to make the rotation but has experience as a starter.

Two names that some Hurricanes fans may not expect to be in the running for spots in the starting rotation are Anthony Nalepa and Iden Nazario. Both were relievers in 2008 but could be asked to join the rotation in 2009 to help fill the void left by Erickson.

Nalepa was a starter in high school and possesses a live fastball and a plus curveball. Control has been an issue for Nalepa while at Miami but Nalepa's experience opening games could make him a challenger for a starting spot. However, it is unlikely that he make the move back to starting as pitching coach J.D. Arteaga feels Nalepa is finally getting comfortable with his move to the bullpen.

Nazario is a serious challenger for a rotation spot after his success on the mound as a freshman. The hard-throwing lefty from Miami Southridge High posted a 1.59 ERA over 11.1 innings of relief work before an arm injury shut him down until the College World Series. The lefty has been throwing increased innings in the fall which could signal a move towards a starting role. Either way, he will likely be a major contributor on the mound in 2009.

Whether it is a returning starter, a newcomer, or a converted reliever joining the starting rotation, the Hurricanes will have to step up to fill the void left by Erickson. The two pitchers who join Hernandez in the weekend rotation will have large shoes to fill. The offense will also have added pressure to score runs for their pitchers.

As for Erickson, don't count him out just yet. While he will miss the 2009 season, he is likely to come back better than ever following his year of rehabilitation. Miami has had several pitchers come back to be more successful after Tommy John surgery including last year's closer Carlos Gutierrez. Erickson's work ethic and determination to renew his success on the mound almost guarantee that he will rehab diligently and get healthy for a return to dominance in 2010.

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