Big Red Bats Looking to Break Out in 2014
The 2013 season became a rebuilding and development season for the Big Red after a slew of injuries sidelined some of the team’s returning stars from the 2012 Ivy League Championship team, including the likes of Chris Cruz, Connor Kaufmann, and Kellen Urbon. The team only fielded their expected opening day starting lineup during the final weekend of the season and came up short of back-to-back Ivy League Championship Series berths. Despite the injuries, the Big Red finished the year 23-17 (11-9 Ivy League).
Coming off of two of the most successful seasons in the program’s rich 100+ year history, the team is poised to return to the top of the Ivy League in 2014, and has their sight set on even more illustrious goals like making a splash in the NCAA Regional tournament. While the goals may seem lofty, the 2014 Big Red Baseball team, infused with a strong incoming freshman class and a group of more polished returning players, may be one of the best teams the program has ever yielded.
This season the coaching staff is faced with the problem of not having enough positions in the lineup and rotation to accommodate the players deserving of a starting role. It is an enviable position to be in, and the Big Red hope that the all around depth of the team can bring them back to the promised land of Ivy League Championship baseball.
It is hard to mention Ivy League Championship baseball without remembering Chris Cruz’s walk off blast to clinch the series for the Big Red in 2012. Since then, it has been a long battle with injuries for the Big Red right fielder that he hopes to put behind him in his senior campaign with the Big Red. Following up on a record breaking 2012 season, Cruz boasted an incredibly strong summer in the Perfect Game College Baseball League. Leading into the 2013 season, there was speculation that Cruz could even be drafted following his junior season with the Big Red, but just before the start of the season he went down with a hand injury that required surgery. Since then, Cruz has gone undergone wrist surgery one additional time and has yet to recapture his success from 2012.
Almost a year to the day from his first wrist surgery, Cruz is primed to start the season in right field for the Big Red. His bat speed is finally back to where it once was and he has been hitting the ball especially well over the past few weeks leading up to the season. What Cruz brings to the team aside from pop at the plate is a strong arm in right field that helps to hold runners. His speed and athleticism allow him to track balls well in a spacious Hoy Field outfield. A full season of Cruz could be the first step towards recapturing an Ivy League title
In centerfield, the Big Red will see JD Whetsel return to the position he played so well in 2013. Replacing four year starter Brian Billigen seemed to be an impossible task going into the 2013 season, and no one expected Whetsel to replicate Billigen’s senior year. All Whetsel did was win the Big Red’s most valuable player award for 2013 (2012s winner was Brian Billigen). In his first season as the fulltime centerfielder, Whetsel led the team in virtually all offensive categories aside from homeruns. His speed made him a constant threat on the base paths helping him beat out an occasional infield hit to work towards his .300 batting average, steal a base en route to 19 on the season, or turn a single or walk into a double. With more offensive weapons in the lineup, there will be less pressure on JD in 2014, which could make an already great hitter even better.
Whetsel was also the best defensive player on the team in 2013, making just one error and taking away hits from the opposition using his speed to track down balls that many players could not catch up to. Both his speed and ability to track the ball make him a great candidate to roam centerfield, which is incredible considering he flashed the leather in centerfield last year having just recently made the full time transition to the outfield after being recruited as an infielder. Whetsel is a gamer in every since of the word, and his spark at the top of the lineup and in the outfield will be crucial in this team’s overall success.
The left field position will be fielded at least to start the season by incoming Louisville transfer Ryan Karl, who has become a part of a triumvirate of top tier first base bats that must be accounted for using other positions. Karl, junior college transfer Spenser Scorza and returning first baseman Ryan Plantier have all impressed with their hitting throughout the fall and into the weeks preceding the season.
Karl possesses the athleticism to move to left field with the least difficulty. A left-handed hitter (throws right handed), Karl provides the ability to hit for both power and average. He can also hit the ball with power to both sides of the field, making him a serious threat in the lineup and his bat could potentially play similarly at Hoy Field to Brian Billigen.
Scorza, another newcomer, will see a lot of time in the DH spot. Another power bat in the middle of the lineup, the right handed power bat will slot well behind the lefties Karl and Cruz. At 6-5, he is the tallest position player on the team and amongst the tallest players on the team.
At first base, the incumbent Plantier brings familiarity with the first base position and strong defense at the position from 2013. In his first full season as a starter last season, Plantier was a run producer, leading the team in RBIs with 24 (Matt Hall was second with 16) and was second in home runs with 3. He struggled with getting on base and putting the ball in play at times last season (second on the team in strikeouts in 2013 with 27) but has been working on his effectiveness as a hitter.
Over the summer, Plantier was an all-star playing in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League, and has continued his development into a more mature hitter throughout the fall. Going into the season opening weekend, Plantier is currently the team’s hottest hitter.
Moving over to second base, the left handed swinging and right handed throwing Kevin Tatum will be taking over the position from Brenton Peters who graduated in 2013 and had previously held the position for the past three seasons. Tatum has been working on his defense at second after playing mostly third and left field over his first two seasons with the Big Red. As a freshman, Tatum was one of the team’s most consistent hitters, finishing the season with a .300 average, .404 on base percentage and 18 RBIs.
Last season he flashed some more gap to gap power but saw his average drop to .254. Much of that was attributed to bad luck, as Tatum was hitting the ball well for most of the season and did not start to see results until the second half of the season. His ability to get on base, do the little things right, and flash some power have made him a valuable asset in the lineup.
The left side of the infield is manned by the team’s two captains in 2014. At shortstop Tom D’Alessandro has developed into a true leader both on and off the field. He plays solid defense and is the unquestionable leader of the infield. His awareness of the game and ability to communicate with position players and pitchers make him a great shortstop.
Offensively, D’Alessandro provides an ability to hit for power, get on base, and even provide some speed on the base paths. Last season his three slash line was down from where he wanted it to be (in a smaller sample size in 2012 D’Alessandro hit .312/.398/.519) but with more playing time under his belt expect his offensive numbers to approach his 2012 success. Despite a lower average and slugging percentage in 2013, D’Alessandro still showed his ability to get on base with a .377 on base percentage and was third on the team with stolen bases with 11.
At third base, Ben Swinford returns in his second year as a Big Red team captain. His 2013 season was shortened when he separated his shoulder sliding into second base versus Harvard. Swinford plays strong defense at third base and can hit for power while still maintaining an ability to get on base. His offensive numbers dropped slightly off pace last season, but at the time of his shoulder injury he was swinging a hot bat.
Swinford has spent a lot of time this off season working at the catcher position to give the team more overall flexibility, and of late he has been working out with the catchers since Colin McGee went down with an injury and will not be ready for at least another three weeks.
At the catcher position, Matt Hall will be the starter in 2014 and will be given occasional days off where either Swinford or freshman Jaime Smith will work behind the plate. In the event that Swinford is catching, the Big Red have a wealth of infield talent waiting in the wings to replace him at third base. Among them are returning players from last season Eliot Lowell and Dan Morris, pitcher turned hitter Jimmy Sikorski, who impressed with his bat in the fall, and freshmen Tommy Wagner and Francesco Padulo.
Behind the plate, Hall has continued to develop into a strong backstop for the Big Red. He works well with the team’s pitching staff, which will be important for the staff’s 2014 success. At the plate, Hall is another middle of the lineup bat who can hit for power and for average. He puts the ball in play with regularity and can make pitchers pay with gap power to left center field.
The Big Red have more depth in 2014 than they had in 2013 which will allow them to play the hot bats and give players days off when they are struggling. It will be key for every player to understand their role and execute that role; something the team has done exceptionally well the last two seasons. The lineup is reminiscent of the 2012 lineup that won the Ivy League Championship with middle of the order bats sprinkled throughout the lineup with perhaps even more overall power and speed on this team.