TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Arizona State baseball team held their first formal practice of the spring last Friday at Packard Stadium. Under partly cloudy, 70-degree skies, the team worked on little things such as transfers and leadoffs, showcasing the fundamentals of all the players that represent the program’s bright future and staying focused on the task at hand: bringing one last National Championship to Packard Stadium.
It is common knowledge amongst this team that in order to successfully complete that task, they cannot dwell on the players they lost after last season. The Sun Devils open the 2014 season on February 14, and not all of the starting spots have been determined. The program saw four pivotal players from last year’s starting lineup move on, and while some of those positions look filled, none are set in stone. Those four positions are:
Last year’s backstop, Max Rossiter, was drafted in the 15th round (449th overall) by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and for one reason or another, Rossiter retired after just one game with the Single-A Jamestown Jammers. But behind Rossiter sit two very capable catchers in junior Nate Causey and sophomore RJ Ybarra, both of whom saw significant playing time last season.
Causey hit .274 in 44 games with five home runs and 26 runs batted in, while Ybarra batted .313 with five homers and 22 RBIs in 37 games. Additionally, Causey lead Ybarra in on-base percentage (.407 to Ybarra’s .369) and walks (29 to five), while Ybarra’s .509 slugging percentage was 65 points higher than Causey’s.
Both players could play that position on a regular basis, making the choice very difficult for head coach Tim Esmay. Once the season starts, look for whoever isn’t doing the catching to be the designated hitter.
The Sun Devils lose James McDonald, their only position player to not only appear in each of the team’s 60 regular season games last season, but he also started every one. McDonald was a decent hitter (.257, 6 HRs, 41 RBIs) and a stellar infielder (.961 fielding percentage) that now plays in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league system.
His durability is the biggest asset the team loses, and the two candidates to fill the void are Tucker Esmay and Cory Bernard. Esmay, a redshirt junior, saw 12 at-bats in 17 games last season and was mainly used for his defense. Bernard is a junior transfer from Chandler-Gilbert Community College, where he hit .292 with 50 hits and 24 RBIs in 49 games.
Michael Benjamin, arguably the team’s best hitter last year, was selected in the 13th round of the draft (379th overall) by the Colorado Rockies. Benjamin started 59 games and led the team in batting average (.335), slugging percentage (.544), hits (83) and total bases (135) to go along with eight HRs and 47 RBIs.
It will be hard for the Sun Devils to replace him in 2014, but it will be even harder to find his long-term successor. Sophomore Dalton DiNatale is the top option from last year’s squad, and although he spend most of last season starting at first base, DiNatale is getting increased reps at third as sophomores Tony DiMartino and David Graybill see more time at first.
Two newcomers could also snag Benjamin’s spot.
One is Joey Bielek, a junior who attended Cincinnati his freshman year and Paradise Valley Community College his sophomore year. Bielek, a Scottsdale native, started all 56 games at third for the Bearcats in 2012, batting .330 with 28 runs and 31 RBIs. The other is freshman David Greer, another Scottsdale native who led his Desert Mountain High School team to their first AIA Division 1 Baseball title last May. Greer was a three-time All-State selection in high school. Both Bielek and Greer are brimming with potential, but with Bielek seeing the most time at third during fall practices, the spot might be his to lose.
If you consider Benjamin the team’s best hitter last season, then Kasey Coffman was arguably the team’s second best hitter. Coffman hit .332 with eight home runs and 44 RBIs in 59 games and was second on the team in hits (77) and slugging percentage (.534).
His team-leading .430 OBP and nine stolen bases will be deeply missed, and two players that will get the chance to replicate Coffman’s on-base presence are sophomore Johnny Sewald and redshirt senior Kyle Bilbrey. On top of starting nine games last season, Sewald was substituted in a team-high 18 times. He registered 11 hits in 46 at-bats.
Bilbrey, a reserve infielder last season, appeared in five games but managed just one hit in two at-bats. However, Bilbrey batted leadoff for two years at Salt Lake Community College from 2010-11, hitting .338 with 52 stolen bases. Bilbrey had a phenomenal fall, but Sewald has the best shot at winning the job given his experience at the position last season.
One noticeable difference between the Sun Devils of last year and this year is that this team has more positional flexibility for Tim Esmay to utilize. That flexibility will be seen both among the aforementioned batters and the pitching staff.
Sophomore Ryan Kellogg returns to fill Trevor Williams’ spot as ace of the staff, a rank he outright earned after going 11-1 last season with a 3.15 earned run average. Who will start after Kellogg remains a mystery, and there are plenty of options.
Sophomore Brett Lilek spent most of last season on the injury list with arm troubles, but showed promise when used out of the bullpen sparingly; Lilek appeared 11 times, pitching 20 innings and logging a 2-1 record with a 4.05 ERA. Junior Darin Gillies also spent time in the bullpen last season, appearing 28 times and pitching 34.2 innings.
Redshirt senior Zak Miller figures to be an early favorite for a spot in the starting rotation after ending last season with a 4-0 record in 11 starts. Sophomore Ryan Burr, who was last year’s closer, and freshman Seth Martinez are also in the conversation.
The Sun Devils begin the season on Valentine’s Day, Friday, Feb. 14 against Baylor at Packard Stadium.
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