Fall Ball Review: Hitters

The Cardinal offense is looking to bounce back in 2006 with eight regulars returning plus a deep and talented freshman class. Read on for a complete review of fall ball from the hitting perspective. A number of players showed tremendous improvement and are poised for breakout year's while multiple freshmen will vie for immediate playing time.

For the first time in ten years, a Stanford Baseball team did not hit at least .300 when last season's club staggered to their .287 mark.  A decrease in offense was expected with just three regulars returning from the '04 club that ranked among the top hitting teams in Cardinal baseball history.  Last year also proved to be one of Stanford's toughest non-conference slates ever not to mention that '05 was a pitching-heavy year in the conference.  Still, despite all of these factors, to drop all the way down to .287 as a team with little power was not something Cardinal fans were used to seeing.  The result was a club that finished at .500 in the Pac-10, limped into the NCAA Tournament, and despite a valiant effort, wasn't able to reach the super regionals.

One of the main themes of 2005 at the plate for Stanford was the lack of depth.  The Cardinal played a total of 59 games a year ago with eight offensive regulars starting 57 or more of those contests.  The ninth and final spot in the lineup was held down by three different players who combined to hit just .221 with very limited power.  Quite frankly, there wasn't much else the coaching staff could have done in terms of altering the starting lineup.  Fast forward to 2006 and if he wants, head coach Mark Marquess should have plenty of options with how he fills out his lineup card.  The theme of 2005 may have been lack of depth.  But if fall ball was any indication, the theme of 2006 may be the impressive amount of depth on the club.

"You couldn't do a lot practice-wise (last year)," says Marquess.  "You didn't have numbers and so couldn't do the reps.  Now, you hope nobody gets hurt, but if somebody does get hurt, you have someone at every position that can come in and at least play and be competitive.  That'll make practices better and should make us a better team."

The main reason for the much-improved depth is the large and talented freshman class, but the fact remains that the Cardinal do return eight regulars from a year ago.  And while these veterans will certainly be pushed a lot more this season, they should be expected to carry the load offensively.  A number of players showed nice improvement during fall ball, but perhaps none more than sophomore right fielder Michael Taylor.

The highly touted recruit upon his arrival at Stanford (rated the top high school prospect in the country by one service), Taylor impressed enough last fall to earn an everyday spot in the starting lineup for the Cardinal.  It was a solid freshman campaign for the Florida native as he hit .289 with 14 doubles, four home runs, and 28 RBI starting all but one game in right field.  Watching Taylor play, it was quite obvious that he has all of the physical tools necessary to succeed at the highest level in college, it was just a matter of gaining more experience and settling in.

Taylor left Stanford in June to play up in Alaska for the summer and the numbers would seem to indicate he has arrived.  Taylor hit over .300 with power in the high-profile wood bat league.  He also stole 25 bases and earned the distinction by Baseball America as the top prospect in the entire league.

Taylor has clearly bulked up checking in at a massive 6'6", 250 lbs.  His fall performance at the plate definitely showed that he's ready to take the next step and that his summer in Alaska was no fluke.  The sophomore hit for power, hit for average, and can use his outstanding speed in many different ways.

"He's matured," says Marquess.  "He's big and strong.  There's nothing he can't do.  I think he's developed into what should be a very dominant college player.  He had a good year last year and we expect him to be even better this year - and I think he will.  I would expect him to be one of our better players."

The only losses offensively from last year's team were the star-power of Jed Lowrie (.317, 14 HR, 66 RBI) and John Mayberry, Jr. (.303, 8 HR, 53 RBI).  For Stanford to succeed this year, overall offensive production definitely needs to improve.  But a player or two has to step up and become the dominant, middle of the order hitter that's found on the College World Series-caliber Cardinal teams.  Taylor ripped the cover off of the ball during fall intrasquad games and that combined with his eye-opening summer should make him a leading candidate.

Joining Taylor in the middle of the lineup will be senior catcher John Hester.  Hester was a first-year starter last season as a junior and had an up-and-down campaign hitting .282 with five home runs and 41 RBI.  A couple of months to rest appeared to do his body good though as the veteran looked refreshed and ready to lead with his output during fall practice.  Hester, like Taylor, hit for a high average, but with slightly more power.  The backstop led the team with 17 RBI (in just 14 games) while blasting three home runs. 

Hester hit clean-up, just behind Taylor, toward the end of fall ball during intrasquad games.  Taylor probably has a better chance to hit for a higher average with Hester more likely to lead the club in home runs and RBI.  Having a senior catcher at your disposal is a tremendous luxury and while it's unrealistic to expect Hester to match the senior year of Ryan Garko, he, along with Taylor, showed during fall ball that they can be a dominant middle of the order combo and are each primed for breakout seasons.

While last year's team was without any scholarship seniors, the 2006 edition will not suffer the same fate.  In addition to Hester behind the plate, a pair of seniors should man the two middle infield spots.  Chris Minaker started every game at shortstop last year and isn't going anywhere in 2006.  He hit just over .400 during fall ball with just one strike out.  His ability to put the bat on the ball should make him an attractive candidate to bat second in the lineup in front of Taylor and Hester. 

His middle infield partner should be classmate Chris Lewis.  A power hitter at second base should not be a surprise for Cardinal fans and it appears Lewis is ticketed for a return back to the infield.  His eight home runs last year are the most for any returning Stanford player and like Minaker, looks improved and ready for a big senior year.  The questions with Lewis are if he can bump up his average (.266), become a go-to run producer and how he adjusts to yet another position switch.  Lewis played left field all of last year, but did originally come to Stanford as an infielder so the coaching staff has high hopes he'll be able to settle in and play a capable second base.

Junior Adam Sorgi is yet another returning starter on the infield.  A natural shortstop, Sorgi spent all of last year at third base.  With Minaker returning for his senior campaign, remaining at third base is the most likely destination for Sorgi in 2006.  It is interesting to note though that Marquess did not hesitate to rotate his two experienced infielders between third and short toward the end of fall ball.  Once January practices begin, we'll certainly have our eye on Minaker and Sorgi and whether a switch on the left side of the infield could take place. 

Sorgi led Stanford in hitting last year with a .322 average.  Marquess has experimented with Sorgi in the leadoff spot in the lineup in the past.  He's doesn't have nearly the speed of a Jim Rapoport, but again showed in the fall that he'll make a lot of contact and has a nice line drive stroke.

Speaking of Rapoport, the Cardinal will be helped by his return in center field.  Rapoport spent all of fall ball hitting in the leadoff spot in the lineup and he excelled.  Rapoport struggled mightily down the stretch a year ago as he saw his final average slip under .300 by the end of the season.  He struggled tremendously at the plate over the summer in the Cape Cod League, so 2006 becomes a "something to prove" year for the speedy outfielder.  If Rapoport can maintain a consistent output at the plate, he'll be the logical candidate to hit leadoff this season.  When he gets on base, he's an automatic threat to run and proved nearly impossible to throw out on the base paths during fall ball.  If he wants (and is allowed), Rapoport could steal 30 bases this season.

Those six players leave fall ball pretty set in their positions: Hester (catcher), Minaker (shortstop), Lewis (second base), Sorgi (third base), Rapoport (center field), and Taylor (right field).  They'll be pushed by some of the younger players, but now they have the experience that was definitely lacking for a good portion of last year.

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Sophomore outfielder Brendan Domaracki had a solid fall season at the plate finishing with the third most extra base hits on the club (seven - four doubles, three triples) and hitting over .300.  The contact hitter looked much improved from the player we saw a year ago (.208, 1 HR, 14 RBI) and is probably the leading candidate to take over for Lewis in left field.  Junior Ryan Seawell also has a chance to contend for playing time in left.  Seawell, along with Domaracki, saw time at DH last season but is now looking for a regular role on the team.  Seawell struggled toward the end of fall ball as he slumped at the plate, but provides the coaching staff with much versatility.  In addition to being able to play all three outfield spots (quite well), Seawell learned a new position during fall ball: first base.

First base remains a hotly contested position on the field for Stanford with Seawell and a pair of freshmen vying for time.  Jason Castro was drafted last June as a catcher out of high school and features a beautiful left-handed, line drive swing.  Castro came on strong at the plate during the second half of fall practice and settled in nicely at first base during games (probably his only chance to see the field this year with Hester behind the dish). 

Brent Milleville though was the star of fall ball at the plate for the Cardinal.  The 6'4", 240 lb. two-time Kansas Player of the Year led Stanford in most offensive categories during intrasquad games.  He has probably the most raw power from a right-handed hitter at Stanford since Ryan Garko and is at the top of the list among freshmen to contribute immediately.  Milleville, like Castro, was drafted last June out of high school as a catcher.  He has a chance to have a Garko-type impact behind the plate (in all facets of the game) eventually.  But with Hester back for his senior year, it'll have to be first base or DH for Milleville to see the field in 2006.

"He's going to be a good player," states Marquess.  "The nice thing about him is that he can play more than one position.  He's a good catcher, can play first base, and could even play outfield.  He's a big kid, but he's not slow.  He runs well and is athletic, has power and can hit for average.  He should be a really fine player for us."

While Milleville and Castro are probably most ready to jump into the starting lineup as early as February and make a significant contribution, there are a handful of other freshmen that aren't far behind.  J.J. Jelmini is a smooth fielding middle infielder with a nice stroke at the plate and should eventually be a successful starter on the Farm.  Joey August and Jeff Whitlow are a couple of outfielders who had plenty of nice moments during fall practice.  Each could push for time in left field as soon as this year.  Austin Yount (infield) and Sean Ratliff (outfield) are a pair of two-way players who should see the field this season.  Yount especially impressed at the plate during intrasquad games proving to be one of the most difficult players on the team to strike out while also hitting for a high average. 

"I can put a team on the field of all freshmen - pitching and at each position - and we'd be competitive with the other guys," says Marquess.  "It wouldn't be a situation where the older guys would win five out of six.  That'll make for more competition which will make us a better team."

In addition, other returnees in sophomores Brian Juhl and Jeff Boes played well in the fall and are in the running for starting spots.  Juhl spent all of his time in the fall at catcher and is finally healthy after an injury-plagued freshman season that limited him to one at-bat.  Juhl is an attractive option at DH with his excellent eye at the plate, ability to switch hit, and improved power.  Meanwhile, with the sudden massive amount of depth at catcher, Boes is spending most of his time in the outfield or third base.  Boes went 3-for-12 in limited time last year, but can hit for some power and will push the regulars this season.

This year's Stanford team probably doesn't have the boppers of the club two seasons ago that smacked 96 home runs.  The home run totals may not be that much different from last season.  But from watching fall ball, it was quite evident that there were A) more bodies on the field, B) more experience and C) more hitting depth.  This should lead to a better season offensively for the Cardinal, but will it be enough to carry Stanford to the College World Series?  For that to happen Stanford will probably need Taylor and Hester to duplicate their fall ball production and become impact, All-Conference players.  They'll need the seniors to breakout like many seniors at Stanford seem to do.  They'll need a capable leadoff hitter who can get on base and provide stability at the top of the lineup.  And they'll need a freshman or two (or more) to actually push the regulars for playing time and possibly become solid contributors in the lineup.

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