Eckerd College 2008 Baseball Preview

The Eckerd College baseball team took on its fair share of lumps last spring, winning only five games in the Sunshine State Conference on the way to a 19-28 record. Headed into the Tritons' February, 2, 2008, season opener, however, a new wave of optimism has found its way to the Turley Athletic Complex, as head coach Bill Matthews returns several outstanding underclassmen position players.

The Eckerd College baseball team took on its fair share of lumps last spring, winning only five games in the Sunshine State Conference on the way to a 19-28 record. Headed into the Tritons' February, 2, 2008, season opener, however, a new wave of optimism has found its way to the Turley Athletic Complex, as longtime head coach Bill Matthews returns several outstanding underclassmen position players.

As always, of course, the Tritons' success on the diamond this upcoming spring will come down to starting pitching. And after losing ace Joe Sinicola, who led Eckerd in nearly every statistical pitching category in his final collegiate campaign, and front-line starter Josh Stroup, the status of Matthews' rotation is surrounded by question marks.

Initially, though, it appeared as if the answers to several of the pressing questions would fall solely on the shoulders of Stroup, a senior right-hander who established himself as one of the premier pitchers in the conference as a red-shirt sophomore in '06. But, due to some off-the-field issues, he will miss the entire season.

In his absence, returning seniors Tim Karkatselos and Phil Weylie, each entering the final stage of their college careers, and several promising newcomers are projected to fill out the bulk of the pitching staff.

Karkatselos, a talented lefty from Tampa, is coming off a strong showing in the Southern Collegiate Baseball League and appears to have put his struggles from last year—1-1, 10.98 ERA in 14 appearances—behind him.

Weylie, who finished with a 1-7 record and 6.65 ERA last year, is looking to end his college career on a high note at the front of the Tritons' rotation. A former local high school star, he turned in an impressive performance in the fall workouts, leading to some high expectations for the right-hander.

Tony Capoverdi, Brendon Elliot, Bobby Gibbons and Adam Whitlow, among others, will handle the primary relief duties.

Capoverdi, entering his fourth year on the varsity after making the team as a true freshman, was an effective option out the bullpen for Matthews in '07, posting a 3-1 record and 4.62 ERA (first among Eckerd relievers) while also leading an embattled relief corps with three saves. Standing only at 5-foot-9, he relies on deception more than overpowering velocity to get hitters out, coming from the side and very close to the ground, similar to Chad Bradford of the Baltimore Orioles.

Elliot has the pure stuff, including a fastball that has been clocked in the low-90s at times, to become an impact closer at this level. Still trying to fully rebound from Tommy John surgery last year, though, prevented him from truly contributing, as opponents batted .339 against him in 13 appearances. If the senior right-hander can improve his command and put his health issues behind him while harnessing his control, he provides Matthews with a clear-cut weapon in the late innings.

From an offensive standpoint, Matthews is expected to heavily rely on perhaps the strongest trio of juniors—Matt Heller, Jarrett Mackin and Wes Williams— to play at Eckerd in some time.

Matt Heller

Heller, recently selected as a Pre-Season "Player to Watch" in the NCAA Division II South Region by Collegiate Baseball, is already recognized as one of the most dangerous offensive players in the conference, perhaps in the entire nation. In his first full collegiate season, he produced one of the best campaigns by a shortstop in the history of the program, batting .370 with 45 runs scored and 17 RBIs. Equally impressive, though, he was among conference leaders in on-base percentage (.443) and OPS (.894, OBP plus slugging percentage) while playing above-average defense at such a key position, too. From the leadoff spot, he provides Eckerd with a consistent run-scoring threat who has shown the ability to frequently get on base, and, with his tremendous speed (13-for-16 in stolen base attempts in '07), he can change the course of a game just by using his legs.

Mackin, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound outfield transfer from Andover, Mass., was also recently recognized by Collegiate Baseball, earning the distinction as a "Newcomer to Watch," as he enters his first season with the Tritons. He comes to Eckerd from North Essex Community College, where he was regarded as one of the top junior college players in the state of Massachusetts during an impressive two-year career. In 2007, he led NJCAA Region XXI with a .547 batting average (47-for-86), becoming an easy selection for the All-Region First Team.

Wes Williams

Williams put his name into the North Carolina high school baseball record books, graduating in 2005 as the state's all-time hits leader after a standout prep career. As a teammate of top professional outfield prospect Cameron Maybin (one of the centerpieces, in the eyes of the Florida Marlins, in the blockbuster deal that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Detroit Tigers this winter) at powerhouse T.C. Roberson High School, and with such an illustrious high school baseball résumé under his belt, Williams, of course, was heavily recruited by several of the top Division I baseball programs in the country. Eventually, he decided to sign a national letter of intent with a perennial ACC power, the University of Virginia Cavaliers.

Due to a foot injury, which prevented him from ever fully showing his skill set to the Virginia coaches and other extenuating circumstances, however, it never worked out for him up in Charlottesville. Looking for a change of scenery, he then migrated south, transferring to Eckerd during the spring of his freshman year. And upon his arrival at his new school, while still dealing with the injury, there was a bit of uncertainty about whether he would ever fully reach his potential as a baseball player in a Tritons' uniform.

Shortly into the fall workouts, where he instantly showcased his plus speed, all of the doubts about Williams' status in the Eckerd program were quickly put to rest, however. Like Heller, he then enjoyed a fine debut spring season as a Triton, leading the team with a staggering .462 on-base percentage while finishing with strong overall numbers—.354, two home runs, 24 RBIs— in nearly every statistical category. A fleet-footed center fielder who has worked hard to improve his arm strength, he is also a capable defender at a key outfield position

Heller and Williams, arm Eckerd with the potential to consistently score more than its fair share of runs while shoring up strong defense up the middle.

Another transfer, first baseman/catcher Dan Branca, who comes to Eckerd from Central Florida Community College, provides the Tritons with some much-needed power in the middle of the lineup. Mike Sinicola, one of many other excellent juniors in the program, has yet to truly make the impact he is capable of, hitting just .252 with 11 RBIs in 37 games in '07. But Sinicola also has the offensive ability, including developing power, to help solidify Eckerd in the heart of the batting order. He is expected to start at a corner infield position. And, like his brother did before him, he will be given the opportunity to really contribute to the Tritons' success as he begins arguably the most important season of his young baseball career.

Senior infielder Jeff Bromley, who can play second base and shortstop equally effectively, returns to lead the Eckerd infield. Bromley has shown the ability to reach base, finishing fifth in team on-base percentage (.368) in '07 while chipping in a home run and 22 RBIs as the full-time second baseman. In addition, as a three-year regular at the varsity level who is coming off a solid experience in one of college baseball's prestigious summer wood-bat leagues, the Valley League, Matthews can count on him to help assist the development of the Tritons' diverse group of talented young infielders—Matt Abraham, Dillon Garback, Heller and Stephen Pelc, among others.

Junior outfielders Mike Alvarez, Daniel Kelly and Tyler Howard, catcher Cory Sylvester and a strong mix of transfers, led by Branca and Mackin, are all also expected to carry out important roles in an improved lineup.

With limited resources, playing in one of (if not) the nation's most competitive Division II conferences, which has produced the last three set of national champions (Florida Southern, '05, University of Tampa, '06 and '07), always sets the Tritons up with quite a challenge, of course. But depending on the production of the aforementioned junior trio and how quickly Eckerd's' rising young pitching corps can fully adjust to the next level, Matthews' squad has a realistic chance to compete in the coming months, perhaps ending the long wait for a .500 season or better (Tampa Bay Rays included) to find its way to St. Petersburg.

You can contact Tyler Hissey by sending an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.

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