(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/WCSN)
Today concludes the three-part series previewing the 2015 Arizona State baseball team. If you happened to miss the first two parts, Wednesday’s edition covered coaches’ and players’ takeaways from the first practices of the season and how the team is handling numerous off-the-field distractions, and Thursday’s centered on pitching and hitting outlooks.
What follows is arguably the biggest and most exciting source of preseason content for any sport in any league: position battles.
Which players have stood out in the early going? Which players, who were once considered locked in at certain positions, are now in jeopardy of riding the pine? And, is it a better coaching tactic to roll with a young, high-upside player who has shown the raw ability and potential to have a monster season, or is it wiser to chug along with an experienced, established and possibly less-talented veteran?
Remember, two weeks still separate now and Opening Day so these discussions will remain fluid for the time being and will be updated frequently by our baseball coverage team.
Instead of projecting which positions are up for grabs, here’s a look at which ones are currently being evaluated in the eyes of head coach Tracy Smith.
“First base is shaping up. Chris (Beall) and Joey (Bielek) are going at it. It’s probably going to go right down to the last on that,” Smith said. “The outfield is veteran and established, but with the addition of Coltin Gerhart, guys are going to really have to stay focused there. The catching, with the talented catchers that we have, it’s just a matter of consistency right now. I think that’s going to be one that we’d like to settle in on sooner than later but right now we’re not settled in on it yet.”
With Nate Causey departing for the MLB Draft last season, a gaping hole in the form of a .323 BA, .418 OBP and 65 hits was left at first base coming into the season.
As Smith alluded to above, junior Chris Beall and senior Joey Bielek are considered the frontrunners at the position, with Beall having a possible slight edge (just from the perceived larger quantity of reps received so far).
Though Bielek may profile as the more natural defender at first—he received seven starts there last season and has played at third extensively in his collegiate career while Beall has received the bulk of his starts in the outfield—Beall handles a more potent bat.
In regards to the outfield, Coltin Gerhart (the third-string quarterback for the ASU football team this season and brother of former Stanford star tailback Toby Gerhart) made an immediate splash when he took Brett Lilek deep in the team’s first scrimmage.
Still, given the fact that Johnny Sewald, Trever Allen and Jake Peevyhouse aren’t going anywhere, Gerhart’s ceiling for this season will likely be capped as a pinch-hitter and an occasional spot starter in midweek games.
Smith didn’t specify exactly how the catching race was shaping up, but common sense tells us that it will likely be a non-issue just like the outfield.
The Sun Devils log three catchers on their roster in junior RJ Ybarra, sophomore Brian Serven and sophomore Zach Cerbo.
It’s hard to envision Cerbo receiving much consideration, especially given the fact that he only appeared in three games, had two at bats and was the clear-cut third-stringer last season. Still, having serviceable depth anywhere, especially at catcher, is never bad.
It’s also rare for two catchers on the same team to receive ample playing time, but ASU features a slightly different situation.
The most likely scenario, or how I see this competition shaping out, is RJ Ybarra serving as the primary designated hitter this year and Brian Serven being in the squat for as many games as his knees can withstand.
Ybarra led the team in RBI last year and is simply too talented of a hitter to keep out of the lineup. Serven permitted only 21 stolen bases and threw out 15 runners last year as a freshman and is leaps and bounds ahead of his catching-mates defensively.
With Colby Woodmansee occupying shortstop and Dalton Dinatale presumably the starter at third base, second base remains the last position up for grabs.
Tracy Smith has vowed to use 5’5” junior Jordan Aboites more as a two-way player this season, both at second base and in a relief role out of the bullpen. The question marks arise on the occasions in which he is called upon to pitch.
Smith has various, though largely untested, replacement options in freshman Ryan Lillard, freshman Ryan Peep and sophomore David Greer, and admits that he has yet to reach a consensus with the rest of his coaching staff in regards to the matter.
“Still trying to figure that out,” Smith said. “It’s a good question. We were just trying to figure that out today.”
Reaction to the tough opening schedule
As we conclude this hopefully-comprehensive season preview for ASU baseball, the focus should start to be diverted to the actual action and not just the intriguing storylines.
An 18-game homestand to start the season and to break in Phoenix Municipal Stadium is a luxury for the Sun Devils, but 23 games against eight NCAA Tournament teams from a season ago will also dull the benefit.
ASU opens up its season with consecutive three-game series against the reigning Big-12 champion and 12th-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys and College World Series participant and 8th-ranked TCU.
On March 13, the Sun Devils begin Pac-12 play against Oregon State, the defending conference champions and top overall seed in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. ASU will also be tasked with three-game road series’ against No. 22 Oregon and No. 4 UCLA later in the year.
The sledding may look menacing for ASU as it prepares to embark on another season, but Ryan Kellogg and company are relishing the challenge.
“We’re ranked 24 in the preseason poll,” Kellogg said. “I think we’ll be a sleeper team this year. They’re giving us a little bit of credit, but not really enough to what we deserve. We have 23 games against all these teams that are very talented so we’re going to come out here and play hard and show them that we deserve to be right there with them.”