With fall ball starting in just a few days I thought I would weigh in a few random thoughts and tidbits on the upcoming season ...
- Getting Jeremy Guthrie back is a huge lift as that goes without saying. He is the only pitcher with a guaranteed spot in the rotation. Whoever emerges in fall ball and preseason practice should become the #2 and #3 starters so we'll have to wait and see. My early guesses are John Hudgins and Tim Cunningham. Hudgins finished strong last season and of course had that masterful outing in the regionals versus Texas. Cunningham has been in-and-out of the the rotation the last two seasons. He's got the stuff to be a regular starter he just needs to start throwing strikes on a more consistent basis. With a good year, Cunningham could be a very high draft pick this June. Also watch for Ryan McCally, Drew Ehrlich, and J.D. Willcox as they should all contend for starting spots. Don't know much about the freshmen because I haven't seen them yet, but will no more when fall practice concludes.
- The starting nine in the field is also a mystery. There is a good possibility that the same nine that were starting at the end of the year last season will be in the lineup come opening day. Then again, it could be very different. I would say that the only players that will be in the lineup no matter what are: Chris O'Riordan (2B), Ryan Garko (C), Sam Fuld (CF), and Carlos Quentin (RF). Andy Topham will also be in the lineup somewhere the question is will it be at third or short.
- The rest of the lineup should be interesting. Again, I'm just speculating as practice hasn't started yet, but I see many different possibilities. The shortstop position is Scott Dragicevich's to lose as he kind of tailed off at the end of the year. I know he was having some health problems at the end of the season, so if he's better, he should be a very steady player up the middle and batting around #7 or #8 in the order. Watch for Brian Hall to sneak in at third if Dragicevich does not hold on to the starting job. This would move Topham over to short (his natural position). Hall came on strong in the closing months of the season last year and could also start in left. Yet another possibility at third could be Jonny Ash. Ash hit over .300 last season as a freshman and became the full-time DH during postseason play. Ash could go back to DH, start at 3rd, or be the odd man out. We'll see.
- Over at first, Arik VanZandt returns for his senior year. VanZandt was very solid defensively at first last season, but struggled at the plate for much of the year. Like Dragicevich, I see this as VanZandt's job to lose. You need more than a .262 average coming from first base, so VanZandt needs to pick it up with the bat. On the other hand, if Coach Marquess feels that the rest of the lineup is fine and potent enough then he may sacrifice some offense for an above-average defender at first. But, you can never have enough offense in college baseball. If VanZandt doesn't start at first, look for two freshman, Billy Paganetti or Chris Carter to get a look. Both are top flight recruits and easily could contribute this year. Jason Cooper also has some experience playing first base. Keep in mind also that first base is not VanZandt's natural position. He played shortstop all summer in the Cape Cod League, so although I don't think it is likely, we could see VZ move over to short.
- For the third consecutive year, Chris O'Riordan will be the starting second baseman. There is not much this guy hasn't done as he led the team in runs, hits, doubles, homers, RBI, walks, and stolen bases last season. Not to mention playing well above average defense at second base. I guess that wasn't enough to be drafted so he's back for his senior year and hopefully will build on those numbers.
- In the outfield, things are a little clearer. Sam Fuld and Carlos Quentin both had outstanding seasons last year as freshmen and should build on that. Fuld is a .350+/20 stolen bases guy while Quentin could easily hit at least 15 homers in the middle of the lineup. Left field is much more of a mystery. Jason Cooper saw a lot of action out in left last season and it's tough to keep a bat like his out of the lineup. He struggled at the plate toward the end of the year, but if he is able to straighten everything out, he could be a 15 homer guy. Also remember that Cooper hasn't participated in fall practice the past two seasons (football in '00, injured in '01), so the more time put toward baseball should help him. Brian Hall also saw some time in left (including a start in LF for the champ. game) and his emerging bat and great speed could be tough to keep out of the lineup. Paganetti and Carter can also play OF, so watch for them as well. Danny Putnam, another freshman, could also contend for a spot in the outfield. Look for the odd man out here to possibly become the starter at DH (with Ash also in the mix).
- Ryan Garko is back as the starting catcher. Garko emerged as a very dangerous #3 hitter in the second half of last season and finished the year with a team leading .368 average. He hit two homers in the CWS and hopefully will be able to build on that to become a 15 homer guy. A big year from Garko should translate to a good standing in the June draft. Donny Lucy, a freshman, was one of the top high school catchers last season and will serve as Garko's back-up.
Unlike last year, this is a very experienced ball club. There are six seniors on this team (as opposed to none in 2001). Even with some uncertainty in the starting rotation, this team is a top ten team (probably even top five) and if some pitchers emerge as quality starters in the rotation this team should once again contend for a National Championship.
GO CARDINAL !!!!