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2011 record: 56-12 (College World Series)
Final 2011 PG ranking: No. 4
Top returning players: P Branden Kline, P Kyle Crockett, P Whit Mayberry, 2B/C Keith Werman, 1B Jared King, SS Chris Taylor
Notable departures:P Danny Hultzen, C John Hicks, P Will Roberts, 3B Steven Proscia, P Tyler Wilson, C Kenny Swab, P Cody Winiarski, OF John Barr, OF David Coleman
Areas of concern: Cavaliers must replace three outfielders, plus an entire weekend rotation, consisting of Danny Hultzen, Will Roberts and Tyler Wilson.
What we think: There’s absolutely no doubt the Cavaliers have some tough holes to fill this fall and in the spring, but coach Brian O’Connor has always proven he’s able to quickly reload as opposed to needing a complete rebuild. Time will tell if that’s the case again this season, but the Cavaliers have the talent to be a national contender. A sub-par 2012 campaign certainly isn’t expected.
What they’re saying: “This is an exciting team that really feels like it has something to prove. We certainly lost some star power on the mound and position-wise, but it kind of makes things exciting for us.” – Virginia coach Brian O’Connor
CB TICKET: More inside scoop on Virginia
Virginia will be more than ready for new challenges when the 2012 season arrives. After all, it’s already dealing with plenty of them this fall.
For the past few seasons, the Cavaliers have had the luxury of possessing premier pitchers such as Danny Hultzen, Tyler Wilson and Will Roberts. Hultzen is gone after signing with the Mariners as a first-round pick this past summer, while Wilson and Roberts are in the Orioles and Indians organizations, respectively.
In addition to their massive losses on the mound, the Cavaliers also have a tough third baseman to replace in departed slugger Steven Proscia, a catcher to replace after the departure of John Hicks and an entire outfield to replace after losing David Coleman, John Barr and Kenny Swab.
Despite those personnel losses, Virginia coach Brian O’Connor remains confident -- and cautious -- about what this team is capable of accomplishing.
“I think this team has some really good talent, and I think the freshman position players are very, very talented. These are guys that are going to help the program compete at a high level for the next three or four years,” he said. “With that said, this is an exciting team to coach because of the challenges ahead. The challenge is we’ve lost so many guys over the course of the past two seasons. There are a lot of new names out there.”
Though the Cavaliers have plenty of positions of need this fall, the pitching staff, particularly the weekend rotation, is the most important area of concern. Virginia must replace 70 percent of the innings pitched from a staff that finished last season with a fantastic 2.24 ERA. Accomplishing that goal won’t be easy, but it’s at least partly doable.
The Cavaliers welcome back right-handed pitchers Branden Kline and Whit Mayberry and left-handed pitcher Kyle Crockett as primary candidates to start.
Kline started several games as a freshman two seasons ago. However, he made 32 appearances and no starts for the Cavaliers last season, earning Perfect Game All-American honors with a fantastic 1.88 ERA. His role is expected to convert back to a starting pitcher, as he’ll enter the 2012 campaign as one of the nation’s better prospects.
“We’re definitely grooming him as a starter this fall,” O’Connor said. “He started seven games as a freshman and he has plenty of experience as a starter.”
O’Connor also expects big things from Crockett and Mayberry. Both pitchers have begun fall workouts on a positive note, with Crockett earning headlines in last season’s College World Series with a pair of solid relief performance against South Carolina. Crockett, who patterns his mechanics after Hultzen, finished last season with a 1.97 ERA in 32 innings, while Mayberry had a 3.00 ERA in 33 innings.
“I think Crockett has a real viable chance to be in our rotation. He could’ve been in a lot of rotations last season, but wasn’t in ours because of the talent and experience we had. He got bigger and stronger while staying in Charlottesville this past summer. He needs to emerge.” O’Connor said. “Mayberry, meanwhile, has a pretty good arm and pitches in the upper 80s, lower 90s, and it’s time for him to emerge this fall.”
Also keep an eye on emerging sophomore right-handed pitcher Artie Lewicki, who made nine appearances as a freshman last season with a 0.96 ERA in 9 1/3 innings.
In terms of position players, catcher features the most competitive battle with four players fighting for the starting job. Veteran second baseman Keith Werman is getting a look at catcher. But don’t be too surprised by that, as Werman was a catcher in high school. Additionally, keep an eye on JUCO transfer Chase Mitchell and freshmen Nate Irving and Brandon Downes.
“Mitchell is really experienced and is a very solid defender back there,” O’Connor said. “Downes didn’t catch his senior year of high school, but he kind of looks like John Hicks with a wiry, 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3, type of body. As for Werman, we’re just kind of toying around with him back out there. We know he can play second base, so we’re seeing how he performs behind the plate.”
Third base and each outfield position are the other big question marks.
Junior Reed Gragnani played third base at the Cape Cod League this past summer and had a productive campaign. Stephen Bruno, who has had some injury issues, also is expected to be a heavy contributor on the left side of the infield, while talented freshman Nick Howard already is raising some eyebrows with his impressive 6-foot-3, 215-pound, frame.
“The wild card in our position player situation is Stephen Bruno. This is the year where he needs to put everything together. He can also play a pretty good shortstop, so it’ll be interesting to see how everything shakes out with him,” O’Connor said. “Gragnani had a really solid summer and Howard is a kid who is going to be a very good player for us.”
In the outfield, the Cavaliers expect more contributions from Colin Harrington and speedster Mitchell Shiflett. Harrington finished last season with a .353 batting average in 51 at bats, while Shiflett hit .237 in 38 at bats.
Newcomers Derek Fisher and Mike Papi also are expected to make statements this fall, while Brandon Downes, who is in the mix at catcher, also could factor into the equation in the outfield. Fisher is the headliner out of the trio after spurning the Texas Rangers as a sixth-round pick in the MLB draft this past summer.
“Fisher is a left-handed power bat type of guy who will be a middle of the lineup type of hitter at some point, while Papi is another left-handed hitter with an impact bat,” he said. “Harrington is a really tough kid and Shifflett can really run and a true center fielder. It’s just a matter of whether he can improve at the plate.”
The Cavaliers have been in fall workouts for a couple of weeks now. And though the team currently looks like a puzzle with pieces scattered around, O’Connor is confident the pieces will come together by the time spring arrives.
Virginia will be without some big-time players in 2012, but don’t expect that to end its string of NCAA postseason appearances.
Kendall Rogers is the managing editor of college baseball for Perfect Game USA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org