Aggie Baseball Preview: Hitting

It's time to take a look at the A&M batting crew, who brings back several high profile players from last year but must answer some questions before the season begins. Websider's Lanny Hayes takes you inside the starting lineup.

Excitement abounds the Aggie baseball community for 2009, and there's plenty of good reason for that – given the preseason rankings and potential of the pitching staff. Those thoughts have given penchant to forgetting about the hitters, for better or for worse.

For those with trepidation about the team, the bats are the biggest reason why. Gone are five every day starts from 2008, including Big 12 MVP Jose Duran, All-American Blake Stouffer, Dane Carter, Darby Brown, and Brian Ruggiano. That group combined to hit well over .300 last season, with 40 home runs and 284 of the team's 477 RBI.

Rob Childress and offensive coordinator Matt Deggs are charged with filling those gaps in, and recent history suggests that they can do just that. The 2008 team faced a similar turnover from 2007; and that club saw Duran and Carter give their only real year of production, while Brown and Ruggiano elevated their game from the season before and Stouffer failed to duplicate (which, to be fair, would have been extremely difficult – his 2007 was among the best few seasons in school history).

They'll need to fill those holes are a very solid returning nucleus that features All-Big 12 CF Kyle Colligan (.317-14-39, .421 OBP) and 1B Luke Anders (.349-16-58, .486 OBP). Colligan is likely to continue as the team's leadoff hitter, while Anders will serve in the four hole and cleanup the mess that Colligan and friends create on the basepaths before him. Also returning to the starting line-up is catcher Kevin Gonzalez (.261-3-29), who was a capable backstop throughout 2008 and improved his bat steadily as the season went along. Brodie Greene (.290-4-27) was a utility spot-starter on last year's club, and has sufficient talent combined with a new switch-hitting approach that will not only land him in an everyday role at 2B, but probably toward the heart of the Aggie batting order. Gonzalez figures into the bottom third of the order.

The corner outfield spots are among the hottest competition, and Aggies are likely to see a pair of new faces there on opening day. Dylan Petrich brings speed and a quality contact / gap power bat and will likely start in left field on Friday night, while Brett Parsons will bring a similar sweet swing with a bit more pop into right field. When he's not pitching, Brooks Raley is likely to see time in one of these corner outfield slots. The Anders blood runs thick with maroon, and that will be no more evident than when Luke's younger brother, Nick, starts at third base on Friday night. Nick was a prolific JUCO hitter in his own right, and despite a stature quite different from his brother's, you're likely to see a similar type bat when he's at the plate. Just to Anders' left will be freshman Adam Smith, who will likely draw some comparisons to recent Aggie legend Cliff Pennington. Smith's fall indicates that he's a slightly different type of player than Pennington, with a little less overall speed and a bit more pop, but the flair for the dramatic may well be in order. Like Pennington did in 2003, expect Smith to start the year at the bottom of the order...but maybe not stay there all that long.

Nick Fleece, who first wowed Aggies with a moonshot homerun at last year's Big 12 tournament and followed it up with a very good fall, will open the season as the Designated Hitter. Childress stated his initial goal, entering the spring, was for Fleece to learn the third base position, effectively allowing Nick Anders to move back to second, Brodie Greene back to the outfield, and free up the DH slot for another big-time bat (like Joe Patterson), but an injury has slowed Fleece's progression at that spot. If Fleece carries over his outstanding last few months, it will be impossible to get him out of the lineup.

There are many more capable bats that won't crack the opening day line-up, and will continue competing towards starting roles as the season moves along. One already mentioned is Joe Patterson, who hit over 30 home runs towards earning the JUCO player of the year award last season. Patterson is a backstop who is defensively behind Kevin Gonzalez, but brings a pure bulldog mentality to go along with a well above average bat, and Deggs will be challenged to find a way to get him into the lineup. Caleb Shofner can play almost anywhere on the infield, and should see good playing time all season and potentially push his way into the starting lineup. Scott Arthur and Zac Luther are middle infielders who both had flashes of potential this fall, and Arthur has also followed up with a solid spring campaign. Randall Thorpe and David Alleman are both speedy freshman outfielders who are finding themselves a bit buried on the depth chart, but with plenty of talent and history has shown that this coaching staff is unafraid to put any pieces in play, when necessary, to win (see Kyle Colligan in 2006, Clayton Ehlert in 2007).

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