Jan. 25, 2008
As you delve into the 2008 Washington baseball team, it's difficult to come up with a consistent theme. In fact, the more you look at the Husky roster, the more questions you develop.
Even Coach Ken Knutson, who enters his 16th season in charge of his alma mater's baseball team, will head into the spring season with much yet to be determined when it comes to what his team will look like when the Dawgs open the 2008 campaign Feb. 22 at UC Riverside.
"We have a lot of experience on the pitching staff and a lot of new talent that has come in to the program, primarily in the infield," Knutson says. "And we have a lot of experience in the outfield. It's sort of a mix this year. It's unusual. We're really experienced, but the glaring thing is that we're going to have three new starters in the infield."
Due in part to injuries, both last season and during the fall practice season, the '08 Diamond Dawgs are an unusual mix of youth and experience. On the one hand, the Huskies will need to replace those three starters in the infield. On the other, some of those replacements might be veterans with a good deal of playing time under their belts, though perhaps at other positions.
In the outfield, you could point to six different players who have been starters there for a significant portion of their career. And, while six pitchers from last year's team are no longer on the roster, six of the seven who do return have all served as starters at the UW.
It's a wealth of experience and depth that has to be looked at as a plus, especially with rule changes to the schedule that should favor teams with good depth. The downside, if there is one, is that Knutson and his staff will have difficult decisions to make each day when they fill out the lineup card. And, the way that fall practice and off-season work went, the coach is confident that whatever decisions are made, the result will be success.
"We're really excited about how the team has been working and about its potential," Knutson says. "There's really a great amount of talent. Just like most seasons, if it comes together and we stay healthy, we'll be pretty good."
Last fall, a handful of the Huskies' most experienced players were unable to fully participate while recovering from off-season surgeries, but that opened the door for the younger players to get more chances.
"We were beat up coming out of last year and we hadn't recovered from all of those injuries," says Knutson. "It did give other guys the chance to play, especially on the infield. The thing I'm most optimistic about is how well we played defensively in the fall. We understood the concepts and everybody played well."
Here's a look at the 2008 Husky baseball team:
On the surface, the new scheduling rules should make the largest impact in how teams handle their pitching. In 2008, for the first time, the college baseball season has a uniform start date (Feb. 22), whereas in years past, many teams (mostly southern and/or West Coast teams) would start their season two, three or even four weeks before others.
So, while all teams are now and have been in the past limited to 56 games during the regular season, now all teams must schedule those 56 over the same number of weeks. What that means is that teams that were once able to limit their midweek games during the conference season are now in the same boat as those who started their seasons later.
How does this affect Washington? Before, the Huskies would often play their first game in mid-to-late February, while other, more southern Pac-10 teams might have as much as a four-week head start on the Dawgs. During the conference season (when there are three games played each weekend), those teams that started earlier would be less likely to have a midweek game (or, more specifically, two midweek games) than Washington, which meant that they could save a larger portion of their pitching staff for the weekend series.
Additionally, while teams like Washington needed to come up with five starting pitchers for a good part of the season, most southern teams rarely needed more than four. And that would-be fifth starter was better able to contribute on the weekend.
How the various college coaches deal with this new reality should be interesting. Knutson, who faces a stretch of 11 games in 12 days just prior to the start of the Pac-10 season, is toying with the idea of using a more pro-style starting rotation.
"We have to have five starters a lot of weeks," Knutson explains. "You could see something this year where we don't necessarily set things up for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but instead we just roll through five guys in order and as they come up, they pitch."
Who those five guys will be, and in what order, is the larger question.
Six pitchers who spent time as starters last year return for the Huskies. Right-hander Jorden Merry and lefty Nick Haughian, both juniors, spent the majority of the year as starters and certainly are front-runners to return. Junior righty Jason Erickson spent the second half of the year as probably the UW's top starting pitcher and is also a very strong candidate for that role again.
Additionally, senior Elliott Cribby, who has also been the UW closer, and versatile junior lefty Tyler Cheney have starting experience while sophomore righty Cam Nobles' only two outings last season were as a starter before his year was cut short by injury.
"They have experience and they've been in those roles," Knutson says of his veterans, "but they're going to get pushed from some of those younger guys. That's the way it's supposed to be."
The other returning veteran on the pitching staff is sophomore righty Brian Pearl, who is also in the mix to be the starting third baseman. He's likely a late relief specialist, and Knutson is confident that his innings will increase drastically from the mere two that he threw last season.
After those returners, there's a long list of incoming players who will be given a chance to earn innings.
Junior righty Paul Dickey, a transfer from Lower Columbia CC, spent much of the fall as a starter and profiles in that role. Freshman southpaw Geoff Brown also started in the fall, but Knutson likes his makeup as a possible closer and he'll likely begin the year in the bullpen.
Redshirt freshman Jacob Clem, who also plays first base, is in line for regular bullpen work, while classmate Ben Guidos, who missed 2007 due to elbow surgery, recovered in time to spend last summer and fall as a starting pitcher.
After them, it's a big group of newcomers vying for innings: freshmen Ricky Denham, Dustin Horsfall, Sean Meehan and Forrest Snow from the right side and freshman Kirk Wetmore and senior transfer Josh Scofield from the left side. Freshman lefty Nate Burgher will sit out the season after elbow surgery last fall.
Knutson is hoping that this large group will yield a big crop of able pitchers, one that can pace itself over the long season. And, now that most of the frontline pitchers have a year or more under their belts, their experience will pay dividends.
"Last year, the pitching staff started out really good," Knutson recalls. "For 25 or 30 games, they were excellent. But then we got into league and we sort of got beat up. I thought it was mostly just a confidence issue and that it was the first time through a full season for most of them."
At first glance, catcher might be the UW's most settled position as senior Joey Dunn, who was the primary starter last year, returns.
However, Dunn sat out the fall due to injury and as the calendar turned to 2008, his ability to play everyday was still up in the air.
"How Joey comes off his injury will be critical," says Knutson. "He's a senior and he's a leader on the team. We feel like we have a lot of help behind him. There's going to be a lot of competition for the top two, or maybe three, catchers."
The Huskies are fortunate to have three other returners behind the plate. Junior Brett Wilcox transferred to the UW halfway through last season and ended the year with 12 starts and a healthy .395 batting average. Junior Max Kwan played in only two games last season, while fourth-year junior Ryan Scott sat out his first year at the UW due to injury.
"We have a couple of left-handed bats in that mix," Knutson says, referring to Wilcox and Scott. "Certainly, it's a defensive position. All of them bring something to it."
Junior Bradley Boyer, eighth in the Pac-10 with his .363 average last season, is the only true returning starter in the infield. However, Pearl started a total of 38 games, mostly at shortstop, last season. But, despite the loss of starting first baseman Curt Rindal, shortstop Danny Cox and third baseman Matt Hague, the infield cupboard is far from bare.
At first base, there are several options. Fourth-year junior Matt Stevens, who belted 17 homers as the Huskies' starting third baseman two years ago, enters the spring as a top contender at first. He'll get competition from sophomore Ty Rasmussen (who figures to see a good deal of time as the DH), redshirt freshman Jacob Clem (likely to see action as a reliever) freshmen Troy Scott and Brock Gates.
"There's going to be a good productive player there will all those options," Knutson says. "Plus, they're all good defenders. There's a lot of athleticism."
At second base, Boyer is the front-runner, having missed last summer and fall recovering from an injury that plagued him for much of last season.
"In a lot of ways, Boyer was our best player last year," Knutson says, "and he was playing most of the season on one leg. But he's ready to go. Watching him run, it's a lot better than it was."
However, the development of sophomore Doug Cherry could give Knutson the option of using Boyer at third base, shortstop or in the outfield.
"Cherry might have played as well as anybody in the program during the fall," Knutson says. "He deserves an opportunity to somehow get on the field. We have to make room for him."
"Rankin's going to be a bigger-bodied type of guy," Knutson explains. "He could also catch and play third base. Bentrott is explosive and strong, a little guy with a lot of power. He's going to be a base-stealer and an offensive catalyst."
"Going in, we're mixed on who has the edge," says Knutson. "It's close, but they're all going to get an opportunity. We want to use Pearl on the mound too, so if he's the guy, we know we'll need someone else behind him. I like all of their tools. They all improved. Whoever plays best will be in the lineup."
Lastly, freshman Julien Pollard could figure into the mix at any of a number of positions. Primarily a second baseman, he spent a lot of time in the outfield last fall.
"Pollard hits well enough to play anywhere on the field," says his coach. "He's going to be a good offensive player. He could compete at second base, he could move to the outfield and sometimes I wonder if he's a third baseman."
Due to injuries and a regular rotation, the 2008 Husky team comes into the season with a wealth of experience in the outfield. With everyone healthy, it's going to be a heck of a fight to make it onto the lineup card in one of the three spots each day.
The player who was in the lineup on the most consistent basis last year was center fielder Michael Burgher, a senior. A speedster who stole 18 bases in 18 tries last season, he also showed great skills in the field and a deadly arm.
However, fellow senior Andy Lentz, who injured a knee partway through last season, has spent time as a starter in center field (and the other two spots as well). He's ready to go once more and will give Knutson another option in center.
Third-year sophomore Kyle Conley also missed most of last year, but has the ability to be the top offensive player on the team now that he's healthy. He could figure in the lineup in left or right field. Jake Rife, a left-handed hitter, started 27 games in left field last year and batted a solid .312. And, Rasmussen, who can also play first base, started a number of games in left last year, but will likely serve as the Huskies' top right-handed DH. There's also Stevens, who might start at first base, but has been a regular in the outfield in years past as well.
"It's crowded out there," admits Knutson. "There's experience and talent. Sometimes I think there might be a really nice mix with platooning and so forth. Sometimes I think someone will just win all the jobs and take over. A bunch of those guys could play every day and have."
Additionally, the Huskies have some talented youth in the outfield with players that certainly have a great future at the UW, even if they struggle to get on the field this season. Freshmen Brendan Gardner-Young and Meehan (who also pitches) both impressed in the fall as they took advantage of all the players recovering from injury to show what they can do.
"Gardner-Young plays hard and he gets it," Knutson says. "He'd be fine if we put him out there every day. The only thing against him is that there's a lot of experience in front of him.
"Meehan was very good too," Knutson continues. "If you say that Cherry was our best guy in the fall, you can say Meehan was right there too. He hit the ball out of the park. He's big, he's athletic, he can throw, and he can defend."
So, questions abound as the start of the season draws near. It's hard to say which four pitchers might comprise the starting rotation the opening four-day weekend at UC Riverside. It's even more difficult to guess at pretty much any of the nine starters in the opening day batting order.
What's more is that the new schedule rules add more mystery. Regardless, Knutson is happy to be jumping back in to a new season, uncertainty and all. Maybe all these questions are more a function of the Huskies' large and talented roster and will actually end up working out to the UW's favor.
"I guess that's the way we want it," Knutson says. "I'm hoping that it works out that we have flexibility and that we can keep guys fresh. I feel like if we concentrate on improving everyday, we'll have pieces that will allow me to do different things with the lineup. We're going to need that. We're going to play a lot of games in a short period of time."
As always, the new season - and springtime in general - breeds optimism, but thankfully, Knutson has adequate reason to back up his confidence.
"I think this is as big an influx of talent as we've had in our program in many years," he concludes. "The pieces have come together very nicely and we're really excited about the the upcoming season."