First base was a committee project last season with Evan Button and C.J. Ketchum, the situation mostly depending on righty/lefty match-ups. Ketchum struggled to a .267 average after hitting around .350 in 2006. Button was at .278 after moving over from the left side of the infield early in the season. The position was a trouble area because of a lack of offensive production at a spot where power and offensive capability are expected. Defensively, Ketchum and Button both played well, but Mike Bianco will look for more in 2008.
Cliff Vaughn led the city of Houston in home runs during his final year of prep action. The freshman is a power bat and is already being billed as the first baseman of the future. However, the future doesn't appear to be now, as Vaughn is a great candidate to redshirt and add bulk for next season and beyond. If the situation was similar to 2007, Vaughn may be more of a viable candidate, but a couple of older guys are familiar to the system and more seasoned. But make no mistake, his tools are talented, and he will be expected to be a team leader down the road.
Cullan Kight entered the scene late last season as a freshman and gained a few starts in the designated hitter role. Kight hit .316 with a double during the limited action and is one of the main possibilities at DH this time as well. He has power from the left side and does a decent enough job defensively. It was a dead-heat battle before Kight's off-the-field trouble may have put him behind. The sophomore was arrested last month for public drunk and fake ID in downtown Oxford. No official decision has been made, but past precedent says that a suspension could be looming. Miles Franklin missed the first couple games in 2004 and never regained his centerfield position from Alex Presley. Mark Wright suffered the same fate in 2006 but played well and turned in an All-SEC effort during his final season. Kight has the chance to make a difference and be productive, but he needs to escape the doghouse first.
Matt Smith's career path is similar to what I expect from Vaughn because Smith redshirted in 2007 and didn't waste a year of eligibility for limited work. Smith used the season to become more disciplined and switch from the outfield to first base. He was an All-Star in the Great Lakes League over the summer and has adapted well to the new position, considering he has only played around 20 games in the infield. Smith can absolutely mash and will have a spot in the lineup due to his bat. He has double-digit home run potential and can hit for a decent average if he doesn't get overly anxious. His one drawback at the plate is being too aggressive and chasing pitches out of the zone. Getting past that will come with experience, thus Smith can be a serious run producer right away while featuring a tremendous upside.
Cullan Kight and Matt Smith are extremely close in this race, but I give the nod to Smith because of the likely possibility that he will get a chance to jump ahead due to Kight sitting for a weekend or so. However, if Kight doesn't get some time off, then the two players could split time at first base until the clear winner becomes apparent. Look for the occasional DH and pinch hit possibilities for whoever loses this competition. Vaughn has fought hard and played well, but the option is there to redshirt, so all indications lead to that being the most likely route.
The possibility still exists that third baseman Cody Overbeck could move across the diamond to first. This isn't expected to happen, but if Overbeck struggles defensively or another infielder starts swinging it really well, the coaches have planted the seed that Overbeck could experience the move.
Position Preview: First Base
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