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ASU Baseball: Providing protection and finding bench depth critical for Tracy Smith

(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/WCSN)

If there’s one thing we’ve learned by now about Arizona State baseball coach Tracy Smith, it’s that he’s a perfectionist.

His team is 9-5 and has beaten some high-caliber opponents, and yet he still echoes two constant displeasures in post-game press conferences.

The first, “We’re thin right now,” Smith succinctly states. And the second, getting protection for Colby Woodmansee and RJ Ybarra, his three and four hitters, is vital.

A few weeks ago, I examined the wealth of depth ASU has stockpiled in its bullpen—most of which comes in the form of freshman arms. Thankfully, Smith’s assertions don’t refute the stance this article takes, as this isn’t what he’s referring to when he says that his team is “thin.”

Rather, the depth of position players for the Sun Devils is dwindling right now.

For starters, Dalton Dinatale, the starting third baseman and a key cog in the middle of ASU’s lineup, has been diagnosed with a fractured thumb after he slipped while taking infield before the exhibition match against the Diamondbacks. The initial evaluations indicate that he won’t require surgery, but he’ll still be sidelined for around three weeks.

Freshman Ryan Lillard also sustained a concussion after taking a fastball to the helmet in the same game against the Diamondbacks. He is out until he can pass concussion protocol.

Aside from the injuries to Dinatale and Lillard, the remainder of ASU’s positional depth issues stem not from a lack of bodies, but from the fact that no one on the bench is swinging the bat that well.

Outfielder Coltin Gerhart has struggled out of the gates, and his .133 average is evidence that he’s looked overmatched at times. The Chris Beall-Joey Bielek platoon at first base has had to scramble to get hits —neither is hitting over .220, despite both having the luxury of rarely facing a same-handed pitcher. Jordan Aboites revitalizes the dugout energy whenever he gets on base, but his .234 on-base percentage shows that that’s not happening enough. The problem is even bigger, considering that no bench player has played well enough to come close to challenging his stranglehold on the starting second base job.

In the series finale against Long Beach State on Sunday, Smith got creative with his lineup. RJ Ybarra slotted at first base, Brian Serven got the start at DH, and Zach Cerbo was in the squat behind the plate.

Though Sunday likely represented an off-day for Serven at catcher and Cerbo is probably best utilized as a late-inning pinch-hitter or emergency defensive substitution, moving Ybarra to first base and out of the designated hitter spot puts both Beall and Bielek on the bench. The lineup construction for Smith thus turns into a quest for a capable DH and not a capable first baseman—a solid idea given the fact that first base is obviously a more specialized position than DH.

But still, the player pool to fill this role has dwindled since the start of the season. Who’s going to be the player who lights a torch in his bat and starts raking?

David Greer was the ideal candidate.

Though the sample size is very limited, he’s shown he can certainly hold his own at the plate. He’s 7-for-19 (a .368 AVG), blasted a home run, and has also collected 6 RBI.

But now with Dinatale hurt, he’s going to be the everyday third baseman.

Perhaps Andrew Snow?

He’s had two hits in seven at-bats and collected and RBI on both occasions, so he definitely hasn’t spoiled his opportunities like other members of the bench.

At the same time, the coaching staff may be better off looking elsewhere since they need Snow as a defensive replacement in case Aboites goes straight from second base to the mound.

With the list of possible candidates now exhausted, it’s clear that this task is easier said than done. It gets even tougher when taking into account Smith’s second demand from his team: protection for his sizzling middle of the order.

“The biggest challenge for us moving forward with this lineup is providing some protection for both Woody and RJ. Finding that consistent protection in that five-spot, we got to turn it on back there,” Smith said after a Friday night win over LBSU.

While the value of protection is historically hard to prove (“protection” being defined as No. 2 and No. 5 hitters that punish the strikes they see because of pitchers reasoning that it’s better to throw these hitters strikes than strikes to the No. 3 and No. 4 hitters), Smith is presumably more concerned about the overall lack of production from his No. 2 and No. 5 hitters.

Digging into the numbers, ASU’s No. 5 hitters this year are an abysmal 10-for-59, a .169 AVG. The two-spot has been better, hitting .268, but still has been a detractor to the overall team batting average of .307.

So, not only is Smith in search of a hitter to step into the DH position (of course, if Ybarra sticks at first for now), but he’s also in search of No. 2 and No. 5 hitters (both of which will likely be current starters) who can shoulder the tough task of providing protection to the middle of the order.

The situation gets a lot easier once Dinatale returns from injury, as he would certainly be a candidate to slot into the No. 5 spot. My prediction though is that Greer will flourish at third base and with the bat and will remain in the starting lineup. This will then push Dinatale to first base, a position in which he has extensive experience and excelled, and Ybarra back to DH. We’re still at least three weeks away from that possible lineup, but it’s a fun one to envision.

For now, the focus is finding the next breakout player from the bench to fill the DH spot and the most effective combination of No. 2 and No. 5 hitters to provide at least a semblance of protection.

Again, this all to satisfy Smith’s obsessive and perfectionist desire to formulate the perfect lineup card.


Follow Jacob Garcia on Twitter @Jake_M_Garcia or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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