In the second installment of three previews, GoHuskies.com takes a look at the Washington baseball team’s infielders and outfielders.
SEATTLE – For the first time in five years as Washington’s baseball coach, Lindsay Meggs will have a unique problem to deal with during the upcoming 2014 season.
No, it will not be figuring out where everything is after moving into a newly built Husky Ballpark; that is a welcomed logistic that will fall into place after the team debuts at their new digs on March 21 against Arizona. Meggs and his coaching staff consisting of Tanner Swanson, newcomer Donegal Fergus and pitching coach Jason Kelly will have to fill out the lineup card every day knowing that some very capable players will be sitting on the pine.
“That is a great problem to have,” Meggs said from the Omaha Room inside the two-year-old Wayne Gittinger Team Building that sits down the first base line overlooking the ongoing construction process of Husky Ballpark.
“It is the first time since we have been here that it is going to be difficult for our first year guys to get on the field. In the past, the guys that we have brought in the last three years were probably a little bit more capable and a little bit more athletic than the people we had returning.”
Out of the gate, the Huskies’ lineup will be dominated by upperclassmen. The roster is now chalked full of players that all signed up to play under Meggs. All but one player on the roster – fifth-year senior Brian Wolfe – was recruited to Washington by the coach.
What it means for the Huskies is that on any given game day, the nine players on the field are going to be battle-tested at the collegiate level. Considering Washington finished sixth in Pac-12 play with a 15-15 record (its best during the Meggs era), the Huskies are hopeful to continue building on the momentum they established at the end of last season.
“For us to be able to do what we did in the second half of the season with the injuries that we had I think has everyone excited. We have proven that we can compete with anybody and now we are healthy,” said Meggs.
Washington started last year 4-16 through the first 20 games, but finished the season strong going 20-16 the rest of the way.
“In this conference, seven times out of ten, if you finish with a .500 record in the conference you are going to play in the post season,” Meggs said. “We had gotten off to such a bad start in the beginning of the season last year, and we kind of shot ourselves in the foot, but that it has everyone excited and wanting to pick it up back where we left off.”
Let’s take a look at the Huskies’ infielders and outfielders:
The Huskies’ infield will have a different look in 2014 but there is still plenty of experience around the horn. Junior Trevor Mitsui returns to man first base, a position in which he made 46 starts at in 2013. His 18 RBI represents the second-most returning from last season and after a promising fall and better protection around him in the lineup, you can expect his numbers to improve.
Andrew Ely, who is the Huskies leading returner in batting average (.338), hits (68), runs (29) and slugging percentage (.368), moves from third base to second base. The change opens up third base for Alex Schmidt, who is returning from an injury that cut short his 2013 season, and gives Meggs some diversity in the lineup.
“We feel like Andrew Ely is more suited to compete for the job at second base,” said Meggs. “Alex Schmidt, a left-handed hitter that was not healthy last year but is healthy this year, is ready to play and can be an RBI producer. He is more than capable of playing third base and that gets us two left-handed bats in the lineup right there. “
Erik Forgione has earned the job at shortstop, replacing Ty Afenir. Forgione is a table-setter that will strain the defense on the base paths. He tied for the team lead last year with six stolen bases and should get more opportunities after making just 10 starts at shortstop last season.
Behind the projected starters in the infield awaits a fine selection of players for Meggs to choose from. Wolfe, the lone fifth-year senior, can back up several positions, including first base, right field and serve as a designated hitter. Wolfe is the Huskies leading returner with two home runs last season and played exclusively this fall at first base.
Brandon Berry started 20 games at first base as a freshman in 2012 and batted .292 with two home runs, 26 RBI and a slugging percentage of .385. He returns after missing all of 2013 with an injury to his throwing shoulder. While he served solely as a designated hitter in the fall, Berry could see time at both first base and in the outfield. No matter what, if he returns to his freshman form, Berry should find a home in the meat of the lineup.
“Berry was one of the best hitters in this conference as a freshman,” said Meggs. “He is back and if he is healthy we expect him to be in the lineup somewhere in the middle of the batting order.”
Redshirt sophomore Matt Jackson tore his ACL last season and missed the entire year, but is back and ready to contribute. The speedy Jackson will back up Ely at second base and can expect to see significant action as a pinch runner late in games.
Redshirt freshman Josh Cushing will back up Schmidt at third. He is another player that missed the entire year after injuring himself early in 2013.
A trio of freshmen will wait in the wings to make their mark in the infield rotation. Chris Baker saw lots of action at shortstop in the fall, Garrett Anderson can play both second base and shortstop and Mitch Bevaqua can play both corner outfield spots as well as third, second, and first base. Bevaqua will also compete for at bats in the DH spot.
“We love our freshmen,” said Meggs, “and they are going to help us down the road and are going to have to contribute for us if we are to have the success we want, but it is going to be difficult early to get those guys on the field because what we have coming back.”
The Huskies’ outfield, like the infield, is loaded with as much talent as the program has seen in the last five years. Again, it will be tough for the youngsters to displace the returning players, giving Meggs lots of depth.
Robert Pehl moves from second to left field, a switch which should increase his comfort level in the field and put his right-handed bat in a traditional power position. Pehl is the Huskies leading returner in at bats (218), doubles (14) and RBI (32). He could also serve as a designated hitter and proved the past two seasons he can could play in the infield. He also will try his hand at pitching this year, coming out of the bullpen.
To Pehl’s left in centerfield is Braden Bishop. Bishop, the youngest projected starter in the lineup as a sophomore, was the MVP of the Purple and Gold World Series during the fall. The speedster batted leadoff and was stellar setting up the rest of the lineup. He played in 42 games as a freshman, with 29 starts, and will be counted on heavily to improve on his numbers (.270, 0, 13).
Right field could be a rotating position, depending on whether a right-handed or left-handed pitcher is on the mound. The leading candidates to start in right are big hander junior Will Sparks and the left-handed hitting Wolfe. The right-handed hitting Bevacqua could also sneak in there, as could left-hander Jack Meggs, son of the head coach.
Other backups include freshman Kyle London and sophomore Duncan Hendrickson. London and Meggs are both speedy and will certainly see action as pinch runners, but both could also prove useful in the outfield. Hendrickson is versatile enough to play outfield and catcher. He batted .364 in limited action last season and backed that up with a strong fall as one of the left field starters during the Purple & Gold World Series.
After a couple of up-and-down seasons, Meggs thinks his team is ready to turn the corner.
“The crazy thing is that last year with the injuries and an awful start, we had a very productive finish,” Meggs said. “It was a roller coaster ride for everybody and I think it taught everybody that regardless of how you start or regardless of how you finish, you have to play all nine innings.
“That is one of the things we talked about this fall, and it was one of the things we talk about every day. Everything is important and everything counts. I think our guys understand that and I think we have a level of maturity based on some of the hard knocks these guys have endured here.”
Check back on GoHuskies.com for a preview of the pitching staff and catchers in the third and final installment of the 2014 UW Baseball preview.