While college football's National Signing Day marks a time for many things in the landscape of college athletics, one that doesn't get mentioned enough is that the ending of the ridiculous hat parades means we are oh-so-close to one of the most important dates of the year. No, not Valentine's Day you love struck losers, but something much more emotionally inspiring; the opening weekend of college baseball. Yes folks, the 2013 season for the Miami Hurricanes has finally arrived.
February 15th marks the first regular season game of the year against visiting Rutgers, but it also represents a new chapter in Hurricanes Baseball that hopefully reads much differently than the 2012 chapter. If you remember how last season ended, (I have blocked much of last season from my memories, before weaving most of what's left into some sort of baseball themed version of Reservoir Dogs.) you probably still have a foul taste in your mouth. The Canes underachieved most of the year before going 0-2 in their own regional, something that hasn't happened since 1990 and seems inconceivable given the history and standard of excellence within the Miami program.
Will the 2013 season mark a turnaround for the Canes? That remains to be seen, but the pre-season polls offer a glimpse that this year might be another year filled with disappointing endings and frustrating results. For the first time in recent memory, the Hurricanes begin the season unranked the major polls, and most have tabbed them for a third or fourth place finish in the ACC. When I was at the American Baseball Coaches Association Convention this past January in Chicago, I conducted an informal poll among coaches and writers I spoke with. ‘Inexperience' and ‘youth' were the most common terms used among these fine gentlemen, and most stated they would be ‘shocked' if the Canes made a run at Omaha, the home of the College World Series.
While all signs point to the Hurricanes continuing their NCAA record of consecutive (this would be their 41st, for those counting at home) trips to Regionals, that's not what the Hurricane program is known for. Simply making the postseason is as minimal of an expectation of Hurricanes players as is showing up on time for practice. The real expectation within this program is to return to a place they haven't visited since 2008, the College World Series.
Alright, enough dribble from some rambling loud mouth guy- let's take a look at the roster, shall we? First let's take a look at the players not returning.
Peter O'Brien- Catcher- Drafted in the 2nd round by the New York Yankees, O'Brien's power and leadership will be two large holes the Canes will have to fill in 2013. No player might be missed more during 2013 than O'Brien.
EJ Encinosa- RHP- Drafted in the 7th round by the San Francisco Giants. Encinosa has some command issues and has battled injuries, but had some of the nastiest stuff you'll find in a college arm. Encinosa could move very quickly in the Giants system.
Stephen Perez- SS- Drafted in the 8th round by the Washington Nationals. The highly rated and talented recruit never seemed to put it all together in a Canes uniform, but hopefully he can turn the corner in pro ball.
Steven Ewing- LHP- Drafted in the 20th round by the Seattle Mariners, Ewing led the Hurricanes with 16 starts in 2012. Replacing his consistency and veteran presence will be a chore for Miami in 2012.
Eric Erickson- LHP- Drafted in the 34th round by the New York Yankees, Erickson was one of the most prolific pitchers in Miami history and battled back from two season ending arm injuries to do it. His leadership and accomplishments are now a part of Canes lore, and though he offers little in the way of projection, pitchability left handers have a way of sticking around pro ball for a long time.
Rony Rodriguez- OF- NDFA Quebec Capitales, Rony never quite adjusted to the new BBCOR bats, and had a serious power outage in 2012. Signed as a Non Drafted Free Agent by Quebec of the independent Can-Am League.
Cade Krueter- 1B- NDFA San Diego Padres, Krueter, a transfer from USC after his father (and coach) was fired never did much for the Canes, and was injured for most of the 2012 season. However, his size and power potential was enough for the Padres to take a chance and sign him as a Non-Drafted Free Agent after the season.
Short Stop Carlos Correa (Houston Astros), Outfielder Albert Almora (Chicago Cubs) and RHP Nick Travieso (Cincinnati Reds) all were drafted in the 1st round and signed with their drafting clubs. First Baseman Keon Barnum (1st Supplemental, Chicago White Sox), RHP Walker Weikel (1st Supplemental, Cincinnati Reds) and Short Stop Adrian Marin (3rd, Baltimore Orioles) are also Cane recruits who signed professional contracts.
While it can be frustrating to lose big time recruits, the fact of the matter is, getting any draftable high school player to campus is a crap shoot, and the Canes have had bad luck in the past few years with some recruits developing serious draft helium late and getting picked far higher than they were projected during the recruiting process.
Barnum, Marin and Travieso are examples this year, with Luke Jackson (RHP in the Texas Rangers org) being another example. At the same time, the players that actually did end up on campus were good enough collectively to garner a ranking of the 9th best recruiting class, according to Collegiate Baseball. Throw a little bit of luck the Canes way, and that class was a Top 5 class rather easily.
In the Outfield, Seniors Chantz Mack and Michael Broad return along with Jr. Dale Carey. While Birmingham Southern transfer John Lawroski has some college experience, the rest of the options for the Canes are true freshman. Grant Heyman and Ricky Eusebio come in as true Outfielders, with David Thompson, Christopher Barr and Eric Neitzel are listed as Outfielders among other spots. There is depth and athleticism in the Canes Outfield, and some shuffling might be needed to get consistent playing time for several players. Carey, Mack and Broad have not lived up to their potential and must produce quickly as Thompson and Heyman offer true impact potential offensively and need to be in the lineup in some capacity. Heyman has some kinks to work out in his swing, but offers easy plus power, (it could be borderline plus-plus by the time he's an upper-classman) something this team is sorely lacking.
It's important to note that Thompson's position is somewhat of a fluid situation as he is versatile as well as coming off shoulder surgery. How his arm recovers and what the team needs are will dictate whether he's an Outfielder, Third/First Baseman or DH, but the most important thing is that his bat is in the lineup. The Florida High School All-Time Home Run leader has immense bat speed and plus power, and needs to be allowed to show it off. In my opinion, I would let Thompson get most of his reps at First Base, as the Canes not only lack a true option there, but as a former shoulder surgery survivor myself, letting a recovering player not have to put a premium on his arm/defense allows him an easier transition back to full health and production.
Freshman (and 2012 34th round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays) Brandon Lopez and Palm Beach Central (JUCO) transfer Alex Hernandez figure to make up an athletic middle-infield for the Canes. Both reportedly played extremely well in the fall, and could make a dynamic double-play combo. Junior Brad Fieger returns and should hold down the hot corner with Sophomore Esteban Tresgallo returning with experience at both corners of the diamond. Depending on other roster moves, Freshman Chris Barr could compete at First Base. Newcomers Lawroski and Edgar Michelangeli round out the rest of the infield options along with Mr. Playsalloverthedamnplace Tyler Palmer figuring to fill spots as needed.
With Half-Man, Half-Hitting Machine Peter O'Brien having departed to professional baseball, the Canes catching corps is....how do I say this.......thin. Let's go with thin. Sophomore Garrett Kennedy filled in while O'Brien battled injuries last season and has some game experience. Offensively Kennedy wasn't ready to contribute as a freshman, and it showed in his .165 batting average. He won't be a juggernaut at the plate, but he has to be more than a black hole with the bat if the team is to be successful. Senior Alex San Juan also returns, though he might end up doing more pitching than catching. Freshman Roger Gonzalez is unproven, but given those ahead of him, Gonzalez could compete for playing time right away.
Overall, the Hurricanes' offense lacks raw power as a team. The only two players with enough power potential to top the 10 home run mark are freshman in Thompson and Heyman and both players have question marks in their game. Relying on them to be main run producers might be too much to ask at the start of the year, though it wouldn't shock me to see them in that roll come June. This team will have to rely on speed and capitalize frequently when run scoring opportunities present themselves. The 2008 wall-banger squad of Alonso, Weeks and Raben this team is not. The 2013 version must rely on hitting behind runners, stealing bases and stringing together quality at bats to compete in the always tough ACC. Yes, they'll even need to rely on my least favorite thing in all of baseball; bunting. *shudders*
Defensively the Canes should be much improved, and must be solid here to be competitive. Unearned runs are runs no team can afford, but with this team not having a quick strike offense they have to make every routine play possible and limit long innings. This team might not recover from a single damage inning.
On the bump, Lefthander starters Bryan Radziewski and Andrew Suarez return from injuries and should be ready to resume their roles atop the Hurricane rotation. Junior Javi Salas and Senior Eric Whaley could compete for the Sunday starter position, with the other moving to the midweek role, though who is the Friday starter is still unreported. My guess it would be Radziewski, given his arm is ready for it. Lefty A.J. Salcines and RHP's Eric Nedeljkovic and Adam Sargent form a strong bullpen, though who is the closer remains to be determined. Brandon Lopez could compete for a spot there as well as play the infield.
Returners Alex Fernandez, Jace Herrera, Sam Abrams, Ryan Otero and freshmen Enrique Sosa and Frank Grandinette round out the staff from the right side. Chris Diaz figures to get plenty of time again as a left handed reliever and freshman Thomas Woodrey could get innings right away as the team is lacking options from the left side in the bullpen. As a whole, the pitching staff figures to be a solid as usual, though an absolute lock down arm as a starter or reliever is lacking. With the questions offensively, the pitching staff is going to need to consistently pitch their collective asses off.
Though the season officially starts on February 15th when Rutgers visits for a three game weekend set, the 2013 season doesn't *really* begin for the Canes until a March 1st trip to Gainesville. A second weekend series against visiting Milwaukee and mid-week games with FAU, St. Francis and Barry may provide game reps for the Canes, none of their early season games will give an indication where they stand like the series against Florida will. While UF lost a ton from last year's College World Series qualifying team, they bring back a seemingly endless assortment of power arms and plenty of talent at the plate. I don't think I need to mention Miami's recent, ahem, struggles with Florida as motivation for the Canes to show they are not the teams of recent years.
ACC Road Series-
In order, Miami visits North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Boston College and Wake Forest. The good news is that other than North Carolina (Baseball America's pre-season #1 team), the other teams are either rebuilding or declining. The bad news is that Miami's northernmost opponents also happen to be their road series, which means a whole lotta' travelin' goin' on. As a team that will rely on a lot of youth, Miami could face some issues handling the long travel and preparation. At the same time, this could be a blessing in disguise for the young Canes as their toughest games will be in the friendly confines of The Light.
ACC Home Series-
Starting with Duke; Virginia Tech, Florida St., Clemson and Georgia Tech all come to town for a weekend series. This sets up nicely for the Canes as having your toughest conference games at home is a great boon for a young team. Plus, I don't think I need to mention that any year not having to travel to Tallahassee is a good year. Missing North Carolina St. is a plus in my opinion, as they are my sleeper pick for not only the conference, but a run at Omaha.
Three game sets include visits from the aforementioned Rutgers and Milwaukee, but also a late season visit from St. John's. Mid-week opponents include a home and home set with Florida Atlantic along with locals St. Thomas, Barry and UCF. Maine and Stetson visit for some sunshine, a trip to the Shake Shack and a little bit of baseball during their single game mid-week sets, while Illinois St. and Columbia visit for two games apiece. To round out their non-conference schedule, Miami plays host to Bethune-Cookman on two separate occasions. (I'm assuming the second trip will include a ‘Thank You' ceremony for sending Peter O'Brien our way last year.)
This team will need a number of breaks to achieve a trip to the College World Series, and the schedule could be one of them. Playing your toughest opponents at home is always a huge advantage, and while the non-conference schedule is relatively weak, Miami will need to grab every win they can as they jockey for postseason seeding. All-important RPI notwithstanding, this young Miami team could run into some rough patches and growing pains and ‘easy wins' are still ‘wins' no matter how you slice it.
For this team to be successful in 2013, the Canes will need to limit their mistakes and become more aggressive in critical situations. The biggest knock on teams from previous years not only has been a lack of a consistent offense, but a seeming willingness to wilt defensively under pressure. In fact, one could argue that the only consistency has been inconsistency. Reports from the fall and spring practices however, have been painting a different picture. Reports of such nonsensical things like ‘enthusiasm' and ‘passion' and ‘reliability' have permeated the coach speak filled snippets we receive from the coaching staff. The difference this year is that it's almost believable.
While being outsiders doesn't allow us a look into the practices to see if the coaches are saying what they have to say or actually believe it, I will say this- Coach Morris seemed to have a bit of a skip in his step when I bumped into him at the ABCA Convention. While I didn't get a chance to speak with him, I did notice a certain strut that only appears in a coach when he is happy about his team. Keep in mind, we were in Chicago. In January. 3 sure as heck wasn't in Strut Mode* because of the weather.
*For those of you wondering what 3's ‘Strut Mode' looks like, take this Sex Panther fueled picture of Al Golden. Then multiply it eleventy. Now divide it by bacon and you're in the ballpark.
Now, let us take a moment to remember longtime UM Baseball coach Ron Fraser, who passed away in January at the age of 79. No one had ever done as much for the program as Coach Fraser did during his 30 year run as Head Coach. Fraser was the coach of the 82' and 85' National Championship teams and architect of modern college baseball as we know it. The man was nicknamed 'The Wizard of College Baseball' for a reason, and will be sorely missed not only at UM, but by all of college baseball.
There will surely be some growing pains for this year's Canes. But there is talent and potential at work here. And unlike previous teams, this one might have the chance to actually apply it on the field. Of course, if the team underachieves again, they will at least give us an early look at what two potential football players look like athletically. David Thompson will be a quarterback on the 2013 squad, and Grant Heyman has had some talks with the football staff about going out for the team in the fall. Normally I'm not a fan of players splitting time at this level, but Thompson's on field badassery is well known and Heyman likes to kick 57 yard field goals just for the hell of it.
In my opinion, this team could end up pushing 40 wins on the year, with 35-38 being the most likely result. Finishing 2nd in the Coastal Division of the ACC isn't out of the question, as I'm not quite sold on Georgia Tech and Virginia has some questions to answer. North Carolina is top dog in the division, unless they fall curse to the Baseball America pre-season #1 jinx that has plagued many teams before. At the same time, this team could easily cause heartburn for any serious fan as there are sure to be plenty of bumps along the way.
Poorly done half-jokes aside, it's time to get excited people. Hurricane Baseball has returned. See you at The Light!