Aggie Baseball 2008: At the plate

Aggie Websider's Lanny Hayes takes a look at the Aggie baseball team heading into Friday's season opener. What might the lineup look like? Who is leading in the race at shortstop and catcher? Hayes answers this and more in today's season preview.

The 2007 Aggie baseball team put up offensive numbers not remotely approached since 1999 and, in some cases, ever. The combination of great team speed, solid power and an almost ridiculously aggressive strategy implemented by Matt Deggs have given Texas A&M a new hold on an old label – an offensive powerhouse. The 2007 squad entertained fans by setting the team record for stolen bases and having five starters reach double digits in homeruns. Many single season individual records were put in serious jeopardy.

Graduation and the MLB draft, however, were not as entertaining. Catcher Craig Stinson (.332-12-50, 15 2B) and second baseman Parker Dalton (.356-5-37, 18 SB) were lost to graduation, while All-American shortstop Brandon Hicks (.338-10-59, 75 R, 21 2B) left for the Atlanta Braves organization as their 3rd round pick. The heir apparent at shortstop, all-world High School product Will Middlebrooks, took the signing deadline money and ran into the Red Sox organization.

As painful as those losses were, many key parts of that nucleus remain for the 2008 campaign. Leading that group is first team All-American Blake Stouffer (.398-12-85), whose '07 season places in the all-time Top five in doubles (23), RBI, and on-base percentage (.487). Despite being a fourth round pick of the Cincinnati Reds, Stouffer returned to school to improve his draft stock. A season hitting .398 with 85 RBI with solid power is typically the stuff of the top two rounds, not the fourth, but Stouffer fell out of scouts' graces as he did not project at particular position. A move to second base not only gives Stouffer that position, but allows greater flexibility to fit in two strong bats his old spot, first base.

That first base job will likely be a platoon (with the DH job) between Luke Anders (.336-11-46) and Darby Brown (.322-1-27). Anders, in his first year working purely as a hitter, became an above average power and run producer in the middle of the lineup. Brown hit for a solid average, but injuries virtually ended his performance over the last half of the season. Though 32 of his 38 hits were singles, he was a significant gap power threat at Howard College and figures more into that role this year.

The center and left field jobs will stay with familiar faces Kyle Colligan (.284-10-37, 17 SB) and Ben Feltner (.303-1-24, 34 SB). The opening day lineup will likely feature Colligan at the top of the order, a role the staff feels strongly about despite Colligan's '07 performance in key lead-off metrics (41 K, 25 BB, .370 OBP). Feltner is likely to start the year in the ninth spot, where Dalton flourished last year with the protection of another non-traditional lead-off hitter (Hicks).

Dane Carter (.203-1-11) and Brian Ruggiano (.255-1-14) both saw extended playing time during last year's postseason run and figure prominently into this season's opening day line-up; but in places they may not have been expected to be.

With the dual headed Stinson-Monster of Craig and Josh graduated, A&M went from a significant luxury to utter despair behind the plate – at least in terms of experience. Ruggiano has prior experience behind the plate and his lively bat and capable arm have impressed Childress in practice, so he may have the edge over Kevin Gonzalez heading into the season.

Expect to see Ruggiano's bat in the bottom-middle of the order.

Carter moves from his utility role to a pure third baseman, filling the spot that Ruggiano filled most of last season. Gonzalez and Andrew Nettune each bring a little different game behind the plate, as Gonzalez is more defensively accurate while Nettune has seen praise for his active bat, and both will see time spelling Ruggiano.

The two most active contests for starting spots come at shortstop, where the competition has narrowed to two, and the battle royale that continues in right field. At short, Junior transfer Jose Duran and sophomore Brodie Greene (.312-0-8) have locked into a strong battle.

Duran had a standout JUCO career, while Greene dazzled Olsen fans with his rocket arm in right field and seemed destined for a continual starting role before being hit in the face with a pitch during spring workouts. This contest will probably not be settled for the first 10-15 games and, even then, the score may not be settled and both find extended playing time in a platoon situation.

The list of potential suitors in right field is almost as long as a Rob Childress stroll to the mound, and there's likely to be no quick decision on the winner in this contest, either.

Senior Daman Aaron (.205-0-5) figures in as the veteran leader of that group, but three new names also figure into the mix: sophomore Keith McInnerney plus freshmen Brooks Raley and Nick Fleece.

The race seemed to be amongst the first three as the semester began, but Fleece has come on strong in the last three weeks and will get early playing time as well. Whoever doesn't win the starting role in RF will be among the first to fill in the depth chart in left and center.

The battles at these two positions plus quality depth across the diamond give Childress and Deggs a much needed weapon – depth.

While the parts are not perfectly interchangeable, a team can only overcome slump or injury when talented depth is available. Not only will this team need that depth if they want to send A&M to the College World Series for the first time in a decade, but the new condensed schedule will let everyone know how good that depth is quite early in the season.

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