Baseball Preview Part Two: Trying to Corner the Corners

USA TODAY Sports

Who's on first? I Don't Know's on third.

Entering the season with holes to fill at the infield corners is nothing new for Elliot Avent, as last year Trea Turner moved from the hot corner to shortstop to replace Chris Diaz, who had moved on to the Pirates' organization, and longtime stalwart Andrew Ciencin exhausted his eligibility, opening up first base. Senior Tarran Senay broke out in a big way after moving from a part-time outfielder role to first base, and fellow senior Grant Clyde eventually emerged to solidify third base. Now both Senay and Clyde are gone, and it seems likely that it will be a youth movement, rather than an upperclassman stepping up, when Avent tries to fill the void on the corners.

Who's gone:

  • 1B Senay: .288/.365/.459, 8 HR, 59 RBI, 3/6 SB
  • 3B Clyde: .282/.373/.426, 4 HR, 26 RBI, 4/5 SB
  • 2B Matt Bergquist: .169/.261/.203, 0 HR, 7 RBI, 1/1 SB

As noted during part one of the preview series, the Pack managed just 29 home runs as a team last season, and Senay and Clyde accounted for nearly half of those. Both were pleasant surprises, as Senay increased his OPS by 86 points over his junior season and Clyde came out of nowhere to offer excellent defense at the hot corner and a steady bat that produced 16 doubles, tied for second best on the team. Bergy, whose bat died with the more stringent BBCOR regulations, was beaten out at second base by then-sophomore Logan Ratledge. It didn't help that the senior made 6 errors in 59 chances, or the same number Rat made in 224 chances.

Who's back:

  • SS Trea Turner: .368/.455/.553, 7 HR, 42 RBI, 30/36 SB
  • C Brett Austin: .251/.333/.361, 2 HR, 37 RBI, 13/19 SB
  • 2B Ratledge: .250/.309/.307, 0 HR, 17 RBI, 11/16 SB
  • DH Jake Armstrong: .266/.440/.370, 1 HR, 30 RBI, 7/7 SB
  • 2B/3B Sam Morgan: .254/.296/.377, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 2/3 SB

Would you have guessed that Austin's batting average was just a singular point higher than Ratledge's? Austin started every game last season, nearly all behind the dish (John Mangum had 35 chances to Austin's 626), and faded badly down the stretch. While finding new starters at the corners is of the utmost importance, spelling Austin regularly throughout the season has to be among Avent's goals. He simply didn't trust Mangum, who allowed four passed balls in his scant time spelling Austin and went just 2-for-13 at the plate. Austin, a guy that was a supplemental first round pick out of high school, needs to greatly improve his performance at the plate if he is going to continue to bat in the middle of the order (he typically batted third last season) and recuperate his draft stock.

Ratledge's numbers do not jump off the page, but remember that he was playing through a broken hand that caused him to miss much of the early part of the season. He became a pretty tough out down the stretch, hitting .316 with a .381 OBP over the Pack's final 10 games. Ratledge should continue to provide solid defense up the middle while hopefully becoming a guy that consistently gets on base at the bottom of the order to turn the lineup over to the team's best sticks.

Morgan may get another shot at the hot corner, but that 22-to-3 K-to-BB ratio and sub .300 OBP does not inspire much confidence. Armstrong did see time at 3B last year, but I believe his future will be either at DH or RF.

Who's got next?

  • Freshperson infielders Skyler Bean, Andrew Knizner, Preston Palmeiro, and Matt Vernon
  • C Luke Voiron: .369/.474/.476, 2 HR, 22 RBI, 1/2 SB (@ Delgado Community College)

Austin's knees are probably glad to see Voiron, an on-base machine who nailed over a third of the runners trying to steal against him last year (Austin nabbed just 20%). Voiron was even better against the run game as a freshman, when he gunned down 25 of 43 (58.1%) would-be thieves. Avent is effusive with his praise for Austin, but I don't see how he keeps Voiron, who spurned getting drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates to come to State, out of the lineup. My guess is that Voiron will get about 25% of the innings behind the plate, allowing Austin to take some ABs at DH or the outfield, where he has looked good in brief stints in the past. If Voiron hits like he did at Delgado, he could also see time at DH or even at first base if he has that mitt in his bag. He's a big target at 6-2, 210.

Given Palmeiro's lineage, one would expect to see him get the first shot at the first base job. Like his pop, the 6-1, 190-pound Palmeiro throws and swings from the left side. He entered his senior season as one of Perfect Game's top 15 first base prospects nationally, though he disappointed a bit with just three home runs. He did reach base well over 50% of the time and projects as something of a Danny Canela type (with a lot more athleticism) at the plate: great on-base skills with gap power. Rafael Palmeiro (quit your PED whispering) never hit more than 12 home runs in a season in the minors and didn't top 20 in the majors until his age 26 season. Preston is bigger than his dad was at the same age, but it may take time for his power to come. If he can field his position competently and get on base, that's enough for now.

Third base is probably the biggest question mark. Vernon has as good a shot as anyone to take the job, as his pedigree is a strong one: he had a 1.054 OPS as a senior at Davie High and recruiting services pegged him as high as the 32nd best high school hot corner prospect in the country. Knizner also had an impressive prep pedigree and is probably the program's shortstop of the future. He could take the Turner path and play third for a season before moving up the middle after Turner gets drafted.

The switch-hitting Bean's gopack bio photo looks like a shot of a Little League World Series player, and he's about that size at 5-9, 165. Of course Turner looked like a little kid before he exploded on the scene as a freshman (and Turner came to State with much less fanfare than Bean, who Baseball Draft Report ranked as the 27th best senior SS in the country last year). I expect Bean replaces Ratledge in 2016, pairing with Knizner up the middle, but I wouldn't discount the possibility that he gets a shot much sooner. Avent loves him some little scrappy guys.

Here we are over 1,100 words into this section of the preview and we've only mentioned Turner in passing. The bent of the piece, and preview series in general, is to try to anticipate the unknowns. The only question regarding Turner is whether he will give the Pack both the top pitcher and the top position player taken in the June draft. Carlos Rodon, barring injury, is a lock for #1 overall unless some lesser talent is willing to take much less than slot to sign. (Even then, would you want to be the GM that said no to Los?) Turner will go in the first round, probably no lower than 10th, and some prognosticators see him in the top five. Baseball America has tabbed him as the best position player in all of college baseball. While there may be a lot of unknowns heading into the season, Rodon and Turner are a damn fine foundation, and we'll have all season to sing their praises.

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