New Faces In The Outfield

It's a time of transition for the Cardinal outfield. While Stanford returns a pair of First Team All-Americans on the infield, their regular shortstop, and a premium talent at catcher, the outfield will see three brand new starters in 2005. Read on for notes and commentary about the new faces plus an intriguing outfield candidate you may not have considered.

Stanford's starting outfield last season of Danny Putnam, Sam Fuld, and Brian Hall was about as good as it got in terms of talent and experience.  All three players had seen significant action in the College World Series and they all performed quite well during their respective careers.  Putnam was a First Team All-American last spring when he hit .378 with 16 home runs and 62 RBI's as Stanford's #4 hitter.  Fuld was a two-time All-American and a three-time All-Pac-10 selection during his four-year career on the Farm.  He struggled to a .273 average last year (a broken bone in his hand certainly didn't help matters), although he still posted an on-base percentage of close to .400 and supplied plenty of leadership from his center field position.  Meanwhile, Hall broke out in 2004 earning All-Pac-10 honors when he hit .356 with nine home runs, 52 RBI to go along with a team-leading 15 stolen bases. 

Fast forward to January of 2005 and all three of these players have moved onto professional baseball leaving three open spots in the Cardinal outfield. 

Quite frankly, it's unrealistic to expect the same kind of production from this year's outfield threesome when compared to some of the trios of the past five seasons.  In addition to the three players listed above, guys such as Carlos Quentin, Jason Cooper, Joe Borchard, and Edmund Muth have roamed the green pasture at Sunken Diamond while doing their fair share of damage at the plate.  However, when examining this 2005 Stanford Baseball team, you would think that same kind of production won't be needed from this year's trio to produce another high-quality baseball squad.  After all, the Cardinal boast a pair of First Team All-Americans on their infield, return their starter at shortstop, and also plug in a hole at catcher with what should be one of the top power hitters in the Pac-10.  Steady production and, of course, solid defense is what is expected this year from the Cardinal outfielders by the coaching staff.  So who exactly will be taking the place of the three All-Conference standouts?

The one player who appears to have a position completely locked down entering preseason practice is sophomore Jim Rapoport.  Rapoport is a natural fit for the center field position and should remind many of the graduated Fuld this season.  The Southern California native bats and throws left-handed and is hands down the fastest player on the team.  Rapoport handles the bat well, has a good eye and should begin the year batting leadoff in the starting lineup.  He even has some surprising power and should pop a few home runs this year.

Rapoport entered Stanford during the fall of 2003 as one of the top outfield prospects in the country, so he doesn't lack for pure talent.  Standing 6'0" tall (which may be a little generous), Rapoport was a consensus top 100 national high school baseball prospect during his senior campaign.  Despite last year's veteran outfield lineup, he still managed to start 12 contests gaining playing time at DH during the first half of the season for a struggling Chris Carter and also sliding into the right field position when Hall was forced into the infield on occasion.  Rapoport finished the season with a respectable .250 batting average in 60 at-bats with one triple and nine RBI. 

This speedster was clearly overshadowed last season behind the trio of experienced outfielders.  Had Fuld or Hall turned pro after their junior season's, Rapoport would have likely been an everyday starter last year and performed quite well.  Now it's his turn to step in and be the leader of the Cardinal outfield corp despite such little game experience at the collegiate level.

Over in right field, the player who received the bulk of the playing time during fall intrasquad games and played quite well was freshman Michael Taylor.  While Rapoport was a consensus top 100 player during his senior season of high school, Taylor had no problems placing in the top 25 on every such listing last school year.  In fact, the 6'6", 235 lb. Taylor was even rated the top high school baseball prospect in the entire country last winter by TeamOne Baseball.  A potential first round draft pick last June after picking-up First Team High School All-American honors, Taylor was passed over by all 30 MLB teams thanks to a strong commitment to Stanford.

Folks, he's the real deal.

"He's going to be a great player," remarked Cardinal head coach Mark Marquess to The Bootleg back in October.  "But how quickly he becomes a great player, I don't know.  Can he have a good year as a freshman?  Yeah, he can.  He's very tooled and talented and is a hard-worker.  Ability-wise, there's nothing to keep him from being successful."

Taylor has the ability to be a legitimate five-tool player while here at Stanford.  Think of a bigger bodied Joe Borchard out in right field.  And even in just the three weeks worth of intrasquad games this past fall, Taylor was showing improvement to the point where it was becoming obvious that he was going to see a substantial amount of playing time as a freshman.

"He's just a really good athlete," observes starting shortstop Chris Minaker.  "You look at him and think, wow, this guy has a chance to have a big impact just because of the way he can run, the way he can throw, and his potential to hit for power."

The only thing that's really stopping Taylor is the adjustment process that all freshmen have to go through at this level.  Meanwhile, there aren't many freshman at Stanford that move into the starting lineup from day one of their first year so how will Taylor handle that pressure?  In practice reports, I've often described Taylor has having very raw skills.  From my observations, there is probably a way to pitch to Taylor to get him out (similar to John Mayberry, Jr. during his freshman year).  But you still don't want to make a mistake to this slugging right fielder because he will make you pay. 

"He showed all fall that he wasn't overmatched by the pitching in the sense that he didn't strike out a lot," continues Minaker.  "And that's huge for us because even if it's hard for him to adjust to the college power game, he has the speed and the tools to get on base.  He knows how to hit the ball hard and put it in play and he knows how to hit with two strikes.  I think he showed that he can handle the bat well enough that he won't be overmatched.  And defensively in right field with his speed he can get to so many baseballs.  And then he has a big-time arm.  I think he brings a lot to the table defensively in the sense that guys won't be able to run on him."

Over in left field, sophomore Ryan Seawell looks like he will be given an opportunity to win the job.  Seawell didn't have nearly as much hype as a Rapoport or Taylor during the recruiting process, but may prove to be a diamond in the rough for Coach Marquess.  Seawell impressed during limited playing time last season when he hit .333 in 36 at-bats with a pair of doubles and seven RBI.  He made six starts overall and was one of Stanford's top pinch-hitters off the bench.

Seawell was, in fact, a shortstop in high school while playing for Menlo School in the Bay Area.  Last year in practice allowed him to fully make the transition to outfield and from watching him play out there you would think he's been doing it all of his baseball life.  He may not have the speed of a Rapoport or the arm of a Taylor, but Seawell should be a steady performer defensively.  The question will be if he is able to continue the momentum of a strong freshman season with the bat?

Seawell will likely hit toward the bottom of the order, but in the college game with the aluminum bats, the very best team's in the country are able to field nine hitters who produce.  What determines whether Seawell (and Taylor, for that matter) stay in the lineup will ultimately be their hitting.  If they struggle or if Coach Marquess decides to go in another direction then these two other players are the most likely candidates to have an opportunity to play.

One is freshman Brendan Domaracki.  Domaracki fits the mold of a Rapoport with how he plays the game.  He runs well and can handle the bat to the point where he may find himself in the leadoff spot in the lineup in the future.  He showed flashes of being ready to contribute immediately during fall workouts and is clearly a player with a very bright future in the program.  Domaracki (pronounced DOM-uh-roski) is a native of Florida and should push both Seawell and Taylor for playing time at corner outfield all season.

The other intriguing possibility in the outfield is junior Chris Lewis.  At this point in time, Lewis is the most likely candidate to start at third base for the Cardinal but still may get a look at a corner outfield position.  Lewis played very little in the outfield during October full-team practices, but Coach Marquess has been clear that he's definitely a possibility.

"I'll throw Lewis out there too," states Marquess when asked about his outfield candidates this season.  "He's played there a little bit and is capable."

A highly touted player upon his arrival on the Farm, Lewis has been used as primarily a bench player during his first two seasons.  He filled in nicely for the injured Jonny Ash for four weeks last year before finishing the year with a .233 average (13 total starts).  Lewis also smacked an impressive four home runs in just 43 at-bats.  He had an excellent fall with the bat and showed he's ready to be a full-time player in 2005.

"With Lewis, I see a lot like how I used Brian Hall," continues Marquess.  "He's a very good athlete.  He's played second and can play third, short, and outfield.  I think it's important we try to get him in the lineup, but I'm not quite sure where that will be right now.  He's versatility allows me a lot of different ways to get him in the game.  He had a good fall offensively and he'll be a big part of our team offensively and defensively, I'm just not sure where he'll play."

It's this writer's opinion that we'll see Lewis at third base, at least to begin the season.  A move to a corner outfield spot could be in the cards if Seawell or Taylor struggle with the bat.  Lewis has struggled at times defensively, so how he performs with the glove at the hot corner will be focused on early in the year.  In terms of January intrasquad games, it will be interesting to see how much playing time Lewis sees in the outfield.  If Lewis does leave his third base position, sophomore Adam Sorgi (a natural shortstop) would likely slide in at third base.  Freshman Randy Molina is also an exciting young prospect over at third base and may see some action over there in the future.

While the Cardinal infield and catching positions are basically set in stone right now, it's a time of transition for the Stanford outfield.  There is plenty of optimism that the brand new outfield will be able to provide steady production this season, but until it happens, this aspect of the team has to be a primary concern for the coaching staff.  Rapoport, Taylor, and Seawell all hit over .300 during fall intrasquad games (granted it was only in anywhere from 30-to-35 AB's) and there's no questioning the talent they bring to the table.  But the time is now to make that giant leap forward and we will see early on who is up to the challenge. 

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