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College : : Story
Some Teams Rely Heavily on Freshmen Early
Published: Monday, March 08, 2010

Most colleges have played 10 to 12 games so far this spring and patterns are beginning to emerge. One that I always look at is which freshmen are playing early in the year and how they are doing.

College coaches over the years have continually told potential recruits that they will get a chance to start as freshmen regardless of the likelihood of that happening. Of course, I theoretically have a chance to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, too, as far as that goes. The truth is that relatively few freshmen start right from opening day during their first year. The biggest determining factor isn’t necessarily the individual player’s talent but what the school has coming back at what positions.

For instance, the chances of a freshman stepping into the starting lineup at schools such as Georgia Tech, Texas, LSU and Virginia this year were very slim. Each of those highly ranked programs had basically its entire starting lineup set, barring injury, from the last inning of 2009.

Take a look at Virginia (9-2), for example. The Cavaliers have their middle infield of the future in freshman SS Stephen Bruno and Reed Gragnani. Bruno is a very impressive 5-for-6 (.833) in early action with a home run and 7 RBIs. Gragnani is 5-for-12 (.417) with 6 RBIs. Neither is going to see his name written on Coach Brian O’Connor’s lineup card much this spring, though, with senior SS Tyler Cannon and junior 2B Phil Gosselin having started a combined 282 college games between them.

With Georgia Tech (10-1), the starting lineup and weekend rotation are set and they have a potential first-round draft pick in closer Kevin Jacobs. That leaves middle relief and some mid-week spot starts as the only potential openings. With Jacobs struggling early (7.11, 2 SV, 9 H in 6 IP), there may be more opportunities for freshmen RHP’s Luke Bard (0.00, 1 SV, 6 IP) and Buck Farmer (2.45 in 7 IP, 1 start) as the spring goes on.

There are a number of schools that due to graduation and unusually strong freshman classes are dependent on first-year players. Here are a couple that stand out.

Florida (7-2):
Florida couldn’t have counted on both Austin Maddox and Mike Zunino, two of the top catchers in the 2009 class, coming to campus after the draft, especially with top 2008 catcher Ben McMahan waiting in the wings already. But both did end up in Gainesville, with Maddox (.316-2-9) now starting at DH and Zunino (.269-1-7) handling the majority of the catching duties. The Gators also have a freshman starting at shortstop in Nolan Fontana (.400-1-4, no errors in 9 games) and two freshmen in the starting rotation in RHP Hudson Randell (1-0, 2.59) and LHP Brian Johnson (1-1, 3.27).

Stanford (7-4): The Cardinal have three freshmen ranked among the top-5 in the PG Crosschecker freshman class rankings in 2B Kenny Diekroeger (.364-1-8), CF Jacob Stewart (.208-1-4) and RHP Mark Appel (1-0, 2.70). 3B Stephen Piscotty (.302-0-8) has been just as impressive in the early going and RHP Chris Jenkins (1.80, 8 K’s in 5 IP) has adapted to college baseball much faster than many had thought possible.

Tulane (6-5): LF Blake Crohan (.500-0-7, 23 for 46) was a catcher throughout high school and may return to that position later in his college career. Right now he is getting attention for his hitting. The Green Wave have an all-freshman middle infield that is playing as well as any duo in the country in SS Garrett Cannizaro (.381-0-6) and 2B Brandon Middleton (.316-1-6). They have combined to make only three errors thus far.

North Carolina State (10-1): The Wolfpack are off to a strong start in pre-ACC play, much of that due to a .387 team batting average. Three freshmen are in the starting lineup, 1B Danny Canale (.333-2-14), IF Matt Berquist (.333-0-10, 14 R) and OF/DH Terran Senay (.345-1-4, 13 R).

North Carolina (10-1): The Tar Heels have matched their Carolina neighbors early in the season with their own set of youngsters, although both teams do feature a coach’s favorite set of veterans: starting pitching. OF Brian Goodwin (.282-2-10) has been very productive right from the start, while 2B Tommy Coyle (.237-0-3) is second on the team in runs scored (11) and leads in steals (5). Freshman Mike Morin (2-0, 3.52, 2 SV, 12 K’s in 7 IP) has supplanted fellow freshman Chris Munnally (5.23, 10 IP) as the closer after only three weeks.

Central Florida (7-5): Much heralded freshman CF Ronnie Richardson (.227-1-9) and SS Darnell Sweeney (.224-0-3, 7 E’s) have gotten off to uneven starts but have been picked up by the contributions of fellow freshman LHP Joe Rogers (1-0, 2 SV, 0.00, 7 IP, 0 BB, 15 K).

Arizona State (11-0): The Sun Devils have enough depth among their position players that SS Devin Marrero (.333-0-5) and OF Andrew Alpin (.353-0-5) are only playing part-time, but both have gotten off to excellent starts. RHP Brady Rodgers (1-0, 1.59, 1 SV, 14 K’s in 11 IP) has been outstanding in the bullpen, as has RHP Jake Barrett (1.80, 10 K’s in 5 IP).

Texas Christian (8-2): Everyone has had their eyes on 2009 first-round pick LHP Matthew Purke and with good reason. Purke has had two solid starts and one rougher one and checks in at 1-0, 5.68 with 17 K’s (and also 17 hits allowed) in 12 innings pitched. I talked to a scout who was at Purke’s rough outing and he said there was nothing wrong with his stuff, just a combination of too many pitches in the middle of the plate and some bad-luck metal bat hits. Purke has been overshadowed in the early going, though, by OF Josh Elander (.475-0-10, 7 SB’s).

Florida State (10-0): Florida State always seems to get off to outstanding starts and this year is no exception. 1B Jayce Boyd was the program’s highest profile recruit and he’s off to a very strong start at .371-1-5. He’s being outhit, however, by the relatively unheralded 3B Justin Gonzalez (.448-2-12), a fellow freshman from Columbus High School in Miami.

Arizona (6-4): Arizona’s record includes a series win over Cal State Fullerton this past weekend, which they undoubtedly are very encouraged by. Coach Andy Lopez is also no doubt encouraged by the play of freshman CF Joey Rickard (.333-2-11) and freshman RHP Kurt Heyer (1-0, 3.72, 26 K’s in 17 IP).