“What’s different from last year?”
“How do you move on from the disappointment of the last few seasons?”
“How hard is it to face the high expectations at Miami considering the events of the past two seasons?”
These are some of the questions that face Hurricanes baseball ahead of the 2019 season.
They are the same questions that Miami faced in 2018.
This year the answer has to be more complete.
What has happened to Miami baseball in the last two years was a shock to the system. Something that no one could have imagined; something that hopefully has brought change to a program that desperately needed it.
“We’re not gonna shy away from the expectations,” that’s how Gino DiMare answered those questions and others ahead of his first season in charge for the ‘Canes. Coach DiMare faces not only the challenge of turning around a program that has been on the downslide for two seasons, but also the challenge of following two of the greatest college baseball coaches of all time.
Coach DiMare inherits a roster with no seniors, and only seven juniors. Fortunately for him and the Hurricanes the younger players on the roster gained a lot of experience last season. However, this is a team that is going to be led by a handful of upperclassmen. Something that will be a huge challenge for team captains Evan McKendry and Michael Amditis.
Miami faces one of the toughest schedules in the nation. The Hurricanes play four series against consensus Top-10 teams, with three of those series coming on the road. Including an early season test with a series against No.6 Florida the second weekend of the season.
However, while the challenges might be great for Gino DiMare and his coaching staff, there are several reasons for optimism in 2019:
The strength of the team is the pitching staff. The rotation is led by junior right-hander Evan McKendry, one of the best pitchers in the ACC. Last season, McKendry developed from a Sunday starter into a legitimate ace, a role which any contending team needs to find a player to fill. The rest of the rotation is talented too. The Saturday starter will most likely be Christopher McMahon, a talented sophomore who saw late season action last year after recovering from an injury. McMahon has the talent to become a tremendous pitcher for the University of Miami, and feels like he’s “gotten a lot better,” over the last year after his injury. A plethora of other arms are battling it out for the role as the Sunday starter, but the favorite looks to be Slade Cecconi, a talented freshman out of Trinity Prep in Oviedo that dazzled in the fall game against FAU. Cecconi has the staff commenting that “he could be one of the best pitchers to come through the University of Miami by the time his career is over,” a sentiment Gino DiMare shared on Hurricane Hotline last week.
The bullpen is nothing to scoff at either, with a mix of experience and new players playing important roles off the bench. Freshman JP Gates will be the closer for the Hurricanes as a freshman. Gates was dominant in high school, and his makeup should be perfect for that of a closer at the college level. Elsewhere, Daniel Federman, who was quite possibly Miami’s best pitcher last season, will look to return to his jack-of-all trades role on the pitching staff. Gregory Veliz and Brian Van Belle can serve in long relief and will battle for the Wednesday starting job, and Albert Maury Jr. returns from Tommy John surgery with hopes for a return to form as one of the ‘Canes best pitchers.
The pitching staff is undoubtedly the strength of Miami’s team. It’s where most of the experienced players on the roster play, and hopefully the mantra that pitchers and defense win games will hold true for the Hurricanes in 2019.
On offense the Hurricanes are in high hopes that player development and new talent can solve the problems that have caused Miami to have one of the worst offenses in college baseball over the last two seasons.
Freddy Zamora enters 2019 after a freshman season that earned him team MVP honors in 2018. The shortstop has reportedly added a lot of power to his swing, and will anchor the lineup for Miami this season. Adrian Del Castillo enters Miami with high expectations, with Gino DiMare repeatedly praising the young catcher ahead of the season. At the corners of the infield Miami will hope for offensive improvement after struggling at both first and third for years. Ray Gil had a great year in summer ball, which gave many surrounding the program hope for him to turn a corner this season, but he missed all of fall ball due to a hand injury. It seems likely that Willy Escala will move to third base due to another freshman, Anthony Vilar, showing promise at second base. First base could be filled in by the aforementioned Del Castillo, or by Alex Toral, a once highly touted draft prospect who hopes to forget a dreadful freshman season last year. Toral has as much pure talent as anyone on the Hurricanes’ roster, and him turning into an impact player for Miami in 2019 would be a big boost for the ‘Canes.
In the outfield Dylan Cloonan is another talented sophomore that will play an important role for the Hurricanes in 2019. Tony Jenkins will play centerfield, and also seems an early favorite to lock down the leadoff role in the lineup, a role he’ll perform well in if he can cut down on his strikeouts. Chet Moore and Jordan Lala, two freshmen, will compete for the third outfield spot against Gabe Rivera and Chad Crosbie, two more experienced players. There will be a lot of player rotation in the outfield as Gino DiMare looks to find out who fills in the third spot the best. It’s also possible that Cloonan could play as the DH, opening up another spot in the field.
The Hurricanes have a roster that can, and should, make the NCAA Tournament this season. The biggest obstacle on that path is the schedule, which is made yet more difficult when you consider the youth on Miami’s roster. The Hurricanes have very little experience playing in series as big as the ones they’ll play in this season.
There are a lot of question marks surrounding this team, especially in the lineup. The whole season relies on the strength of the pitching staff. Miami will need the rotation and the bullpen to perform well week in and week out to have success this season.
Most Valuable Player: SS Freddy Zamora
Freddy Zamora was the best player on the team last year, and there’s no reason to suspect that won’t be the case this year. He has improved on his talents from last season, and that should propel him to yet another year as the centerpiece of the Hurricanes’ team.
Freshman of the Year: C Adrian Del Castillo
Adrian Del Castillo has been repeatedly praised ahead of the season. He should see a lot of playing time throughout the year, and he should provide a lot of offensive production for the Hurricanes in what he hopes will be an outstanding freshman year.
Most Improved Player: 1B Alex Toral
After a very disappointing freshman campaign it is very easy to forget about the talent that Alex Toral possesses, but he still has it. With a few tweaks to his swing and an improved approach at the plate Toral could be poised for big things in 2019.
Most Valuable Pitcher: Evan McKendry
Your ace is always one of the most important parts of the pitching staff, and the Hurricanes have one of the best pitchers in the ACC to fill that role. McKendry had a breakout year last season, and he’ll hope to continue that in 2019.
ACC Coastal Finish: Third
The Hurricanes will be in a battle with Duke, Georgia Tech, and Virginia in the tier below North Carolina in the ACC Coastal. The Tar Heels are the odds on favorite to win the division, with a great rotation and a plethora of talented players on their roster.
Record Prediction: 35-21
This may be a bit optimistic for the Hurricanes in 2019, but this year should see improvement over last year. Getting off to a good start will be crucial this season. Miami will need to stack up the out-of-conference wins ahead of a very difficult conference slate.