I've been busy covering basketball and preparing for next week's Super Bowl and recruiting run this week, I haven't had a chance to get back on here and share some thoughts or insight.
For those of you thirsty for baseball, here's the first blog of the season dedicated to breaking down what I learned yesterday from the nation's No. 2-ranked team according to Baseball America on media day. In a nutshell: they are freaking talented; yoaded; young and should be a lock to go back to Omaha and contend for the title. Of course, that is if they avoid the curse.
Apparently, according to my fellow writers, this team is infamous for being great when it isn't supposed to be and bad when it's supposed to be great. I don't buy any of that hogwash. I played baseball for 11 years growing up as a kid and when we were good its because we had talent on the team. And this Miami team does. Here's the breakdown of strengths and weakness and tid-bits on what to expect as the season progresses.
Pitching: Pitching coach J.D. Arteaga and I spoke for nearly 10 minutes yesterday at length at what he thinks his staff can do (HEAR THE AUDIO). Unlike last year, where it seemed the Hurricanes simply ran out of arms, this team has 14 pitchers on its roster -- that's not including freshman P.J. Fisher and Carlos Gutierrez who will miss the season after having Tommy John Surgery.
So, who is part of the rotation coach Jim Morris calls the strength of the team. Left-hander Scott Maine is the ace, followed by right-hander Danny Gil and left-hander Manny Miguelez. The trio basically closed out last season as UM's top 3.
Maine, though, is the guy Morris consideres special. He came out of high school as the No. 7 prospect in the nation, but had Tommy John surgery (freshan) and a life-threatening car accident (the summer before his sophomore year) that has basically kept his career on hold. This year, he's 100 percent healthy, 25 pounds heavier and supposedly a lot more mature. Maine has developed a one-seam fastball, which he compares more to a sinker. It's now his best pitch and he said it helped force groundball outs with regularity when he played in the Cape Cod League this past summer. He told me his second best pitch is his change-up and he's still working on his slider, which can be effective since he throws from a three-quarters arm slot motion.
Arteaga on Maine: "The big thing with him is he's matured an awful lot since last year. And it really started showing, maybe as soon as he got into that Friday night role. He's not a kid, early on his career he just wanted to throw hard and overpower guys and strike people out. Now that new pitch he's throwing is a ground ball pitch. And he wasn't 100 percent behind it when he first started throwing because he wasn't missing bats. But he kind of realized, I'm getting quick easy outs and being very effecient. I told him he'd last longer, go longer in the games and last more innings and be more effective that way. He's sort of bought into that know, similar to Cesar [Carillo]. When Cesar was here that's the pitch that he learned when he was here, it made him very successful. His biggest thing is maturing mentally, more than physically even though he has made some big strides physically. Mentally, he's becoming a man."
Gil, a senior, is a tough, tough pitcher who Arteage credits as the reason as the team made it Omaha. Arteaga also expects Gil to make the jump to a higher level along with Miguelez, a junior. The fourth guy in the rotation is freshman left-hander Eric Erickson, a stud from Sarasota. I saw Erickson pitch at the high school level, where he wnt 12-1 with a 0.50 ERA, and I can tell you the guy is a legit stud. He is the future.
As for the bullpen, the No. 1 question coming into the season is closer -- a spot UM has always found a gem of a talent for. This year with Chris Perez gone, UM has sets its sights on 6-5 junio-college transfer Enrique Garcia. Morris said Garcia hits 95 on the radar gun and has a nasty splitter. At Potomac State Junior College, he went 14-4 in two seasons and led his team to fifth-place finishes at the JUCO World Series. Last year, he went 9-1 with a 3.75 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 85.2 innings. If he's as a good as advertised, don't expect Garcia to be around past this season.
His setup man right now is a freshman Arteaga and Morris both love, little Killian High grad Michael Rudman. I covered Rud plenty during his high school years and even though he's only 5-9, 165 pounds, he has as nasty a curveball as I've seen. The other names I heard bouncing around were right-handed freshman Alex Koronis, a stud from Monsignor Pace, and Broward's pitcher of the year Anthony Nalepa. Morris also mentioned freshman David Gutierrez, the younger brother of Carlos Gutierrez. Most of the arms in the bullpen are right-handed because of injuries. But if left-hander Teddy Kaufman comes back healthy from his Tommy John surgery a year ago, he can be effective along with St. Thomas High grad and sophomore Dennis Raben. But even Arteaga admitted it will be hard to get Raben, who is expected to start in the outfield, to pitch much.
Infield: The right side of the infield is locked. There are two tremendous studs at first base and second base in sophomores Yonder Alonso and Jemile Weeks. Both will be at the top of the lineup and key contributors all season long.
But the left side and is far from decided and Morris said the incoming talent is really pushing to get in. Morris said he likely will start the season with veterans, but don't be surprised if freshman Ryan Jackson eventually wrestles the starting spot away from senior Roger Tomas. Jackson is bigger, stronger and has a much better bat than Thomas. His senior year at Florida Christian, Baseball American tabbed him the best defensive shortstop in the country. But his bat at UM has apparently impressed the most. He led the team in hitting in fall ball, which surprised me a bit. Third base will likely end up going to senior Gus Menendez at first, but Sarasota freshman Mark Sobolewski could push him out. He's also been a stud in the preseason.
Here's what Morris had to say about his two star freshman: "Mark's going to DH for us even though he is a freshman. He's probably hitting the ball as hard as anyone right now. Jackson was considered the pro people the best defensive shorstop in the country coming out of high school. He's actually leading our team in hitting right now in the preseason. If you just look at our stats, Jackson ought to be in the lineup. He's playing very, very well. So, we do have some good young guys like that that are pushing guys."
The catcher is senior Richard O'Brien's job to lose. Freshman Jason Hagerty was the Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year and is a switch-hitter who finds the gaps. "I think our defense, in our infield I think we got a chance to be as good defensively since I've been at Miami."
Outfield: This is the area that UM has its biggest holes to fill after losing 2nd-round pick John Jay to the draft and Tommy Gilees in right. Jay and Giles were the No. 1 and No. 3 hitters on the team.
The only returning starter is Blake Tekotte, who will move to center field. Morris said Raben, who hit .285 and started 50 games at DH, will start in right field. He said left field will likely belong to Nick Freitas, who has a lot to prove after hitting only .077 in 18 games. Freitas played well in the fall, but is still having strikeout issues.
So what are other possible options if Freitas can't hack it? Dave Dinatale, a sophomore transfer from Central Florida, who led the Knights two seasons ago with 18 doubles and just one error in the outfield where he earned All-Conference USA Freshman honors. Then, there is freshman Kevin Diego, who earned All-State First Team honors at Columbus High.
Overall outlook: This team has 23 freshmen and sophomores on it and lost some big bats from its lineup a year ago. But the fact the starting pitching returns intact and appears to be finally healthy and is also improved gives me a good feeling this team can do special things. The bullpen doesn't look like as big a question mark as one might see it to be from the outside. Garcia has pitched two years at the collegiate level and apparently has great stuff. And the freshman pitching class UM pulled is special. Rudman, Nalepa, Erickson and others are no joke.
The bats are the one area for concern because the guys who are expected to carry the weight are all sophomores. But if there is none, then the sky is the limit with this team. The fact they were able to make it Omaha last season with the pitching problems they had and the fact they are improved and loaded with more arms and more talent makes me feel like Omaha is a lock. And once you get there, it's just a matter of being hot.