As the dog days of summer wear on, summer baseball assignments and commitments are beginning to wind down. Soon, players will be returning to Grounds or reporting there for the first time.
Before too long, Fall Baseball will begin. We'll have scrimmages against other teams, the Orange And Blue World Series, the Iron Cavalier Challenge, and the schedule release to hold us over until the beginning of the 2020 season in February.
Until then, however, all we have left is our imagination. And any serious baseball fan will tell you that there's little more fun than a little offseason lineup projecting. That we aren't even entirely sure of the team's composition for 2020 makes this exercise even more fun. Although, those players on the bubble aren't likely to find themselves near the starting lineup. We have had offseason surprises before, however.
I'll take a look at the defensive alignment, the weekend rotation, the top midweek starting pitcher, and the projected closer. I'll also list the candidates considered for each spot.
Candidates: Logan Michaels (SR), Tate Ballestero (FR), Brendan Rivoli (JR), Drew Hamrock (SO)
Choice: Logan Michaels (SR)
Michaels is the easy choice here. His first season behind the plate for the Hoos was a nice surprise. He's following it up with an excellent season for the Madison Mallards in the Northwest League.
I thought Rivoli was done behind the plate, but this past week he's put the gear back on for his team in the Cape Cod League (Bourne Braves). Rivoli figures to see time elsewhere but he's showing that he can still be an emergency option at minimum.
Incoming freshman Ballestero has the potential to be the future at the position, but in his first college season it's hard to see anything more than backup innings or spot starts when Michaels requires some rest.
And finally, Drew Hamrock is still technically a catcher. He's a little small for the position and seems to have shifted to the outfield. But he caught a bit in 2019, so he could be an option in 2020 if problems arise.
Candidates: Alex Tappen (JR), Christian Hlinka (JR), Tate Ballestero (FR)
Choice: Alex Tappen (JR) / Christian Hlinka (JR)
This has the makings of a classic platoon.
Hlinka, recovering from a fractured talus bone in his right ankle that caused him to miss the 2019 season, is the surprise hit of the summer for the Hoos. As of July 24, he's among the Charlottesville Tom Sox's team leaders in batting (.367 - second), RBI (21 - fourth), and homers (3 - tops). If he carries that over into the fall, he'll earn some playing time and first would be a natural fit.
This is a completely speculative choice, but given the bounty of outfielders on the roster, I could see Alex Tappen logging significant time at first as well. Recall that Tappen is a natural infielder and only showed up in that outfield at UVA when Cameron Simmons went down for the season prior to the 2018 opener. Fully recovered from his own injury, Tappen surfaced on the roster of the Duluth Huskies of the Northwoods League late this summer.
After a slow start to his summer season, Tappen is on fire now. His average is up to .295 as of July 29 and he's rarely striking out. Given his struggles during the 2019 season, that is a welcome development.
Candidates: Nic Kent (SO), Walker Jenkins (JR), Devin Ortiz (JR), Cayman Richardson (SR), Max Cotier (FR),
Choice: Walker Jenkins (JR)
Jenkins is a junior college transfer from Madison College in Madison, Wisconsin. It's the same school where Logan Michaels and former UVA pitcher Cody Winiarski began their careers. Jenkins will be a junior when he arrives on Grounds. This past season at Madison, he impressed with the glove and bat. He won First Team All-Region IV honors after batting .342 while stealing 30 bases in as many attempts. Jenkins also won a gold glove for Region IV with a .923 fielding percentage.
Jenkins was a really late add to the class but I like him over Richardson here because he'll have another year on Grounds plus I want that speed in the lineup.
And if Devin Ortiz is going to get as much work on the mound as I hope, he'd be better served at DH than playing in the middle infield.
Freshman Max Cotier figures to provide depth behind both Nic Kent and Jenkins as he can play either position.
Candidates: Nic Kent (SO), Walker Jenkins (JR), Cayman Richardson (SR), Max Cotier (FR)
Choice: Nic Kent (SO)
It would be a monumental upset if anyone other than Kent wins this job.
Candidates: Zack Gelof (SO)
Choice: Zack Gelof (SO)
Running unopposed, Gelof gets the nod. Along with catcher and shortstop, third base is the other position that is already "settled" heading into 2020.
Candidates: Alex Tappen (JR), Cayman Richardson (SR), Marc-Antoine Lebreux (JR), Evan Sleight (FR)
Choice: Alex Tappen (JR) / Marc-Antoine Lebreux (JR)
Our second platoon as both players will have opportunities to play.
Tappen is covered above at first base.
And the Hoos did not bring in Lebreux from Seminole State College in Oklahoma to sit the bench. During his sophomore season at the junior college, he hit .376 over 52 games. He also completed the season with an OPS of 1.127. That's impressive no matter the competition. Lebreux contributed 15 doubles, 5 triples, 9 homers, 32 walks, and 20 stolen bases. He also drove in 57. The Hoos will find a way to get his bat in the lineup.
Candidates: Chris Newell (FR), Cayman Richardson (SR), Marc-Antoine Lebreux (JR), Jimmy Sullivan (R-FR)
Choice: Chris Newell (FR)
It would be easy to lean on Richardson here. He logged almost an entire season in CF during his sophomore campaign when he filled in admirably for the injured Jake McCarthy. As a junior, he followed that up with a lot of time in right.
But Newell is a top one hundred recruit with the upside and athleticism to handle the position from day one. The coaches have shown that they are not shy about playing a first year. Ultimately, they'll do that here with Newell.
Jimmy Sullivan is a sleeper to get time in center as well.
Candidates: Brendan Rivoli (JR), Cayman Richardson (SR), Marc-Antoine Lebreux (JR), Jimmy Sullivan (R-FR), Evan Sleight (FR)
Choice: Brendan Rivoli (JR)
Last season, Rivoli did a nice job in LF in his first season playing the position. He also saw a bunch of time at DH.
It wouldn't be surprising if he saw stints there as well in 2020. The Hoos have a lot of playable options in the OF this season. It's a good problem to have after being thin there lately. Giving Rivoli occasional at bats at the DH spot will allow the coaching staff to give players like Jimmy Sullivan (having a break out summer for the Kalamazoo Growlers), true freshman Evan Sleight, and senior Cayman Richardson (also having a fine summer for the Charlottesville Tom Sox) some playing time.
Candidates: Brendan Rivoli (JR), Alex Tappen (JR), Devin Ortiz (JR), Marc-Antoine Lebreux (JR), Cayman Richardson (SR), Christian Hlinka (JR)
Choice: Devin Ortiz (JR) / Brendan Rivoli (JR)
Our third platoon of the lineup. It almost feels like a cop-out. I could honestly see any of the options listed getting starts at DH but Ortiz and Rivoli are my main two.
Objectively, Rivoli was the second or third best bat in the lineup last season. He has to play nearly every day.
And call it a hunch, but I think that Ortiz's bat will play given chances. He won the home run derby at the Florida Gulf Coast collegiate summer league All Star Game. And while he won't put up the crazy batting numbers he did in Florida (.540 plus batting average), he will be a more than credible ACC bat for the Hoos. The DH position is a great place to work around his pitching responsibilities.
The staff can also use the DH position to get other worthy players at bats while they see who rises to the occasion throughout the season. The outfield spots and first base have many viable options without a ton of separation at the moment. That sort of competition among the players will be fun to follow this fall. And it makes sure that those players in the lineup have earned their keep.
Candidates: Griff McGarry (JR), Mike Vasil (SO), Andrew Abbott (JR), Zach Messinger (SO), Chesdin Harrington (SR), Devin Ortiz (JR)
Choices: Chesdin Harrington (SR), Devin Ortiz (JR), Mike Vasil (SO)
By the close of the 2019 season, Harrington was the best pitcher on the staff. And he had entered the weekend rotation. He finished the regular season with an excellent start in Blacksburg. Then he followed that up with another excellent start against UNC in the ACC Tournament. That looked to be Harrington's swan song as a Hoo but he elected to use his final year of eligibility. It will be a huge upset if Harrington isn't in the weekend rotation.
Another pitcher that became a revelation late in the season was Devin Ortiz. The staff has their reasons but they've been slow to put Ortiz on the field. When he began to get opportunities late in 2019, he almost always delivered. Ortiz was an effective long reliever whose arm had the goods to compete at the ACC level. He parlayed that late run into MVP honors with the Bradenton Mafia in the Florida Gulf Coast summer collegiate league. After his season with the Mafia was done, Ortiz got a shot in the Cape Cod League with the Harwich Mariners. Perhaps the staff will see Ortiz as a reliever again, but as one of the better arms on the team I'm more comfortable with him starting because the Hoos need ACC series wins if they hope to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2020. And starting is how Ortiz will make his biggest impact with the pitching staff.
It's okay to admit that Mike Vasil's freshman season was a disappointment. I think we all expected more. Was it the jump in competition from high school ball in Massachusetts to D1? Was it the lack of a true out pitch? Was it a square peg in a round hole when trying to make Vasil pitch the UVA way? Who knows? But a strong rebound is expected. And there's every reason to think that he'll nail down one of the three weekend spots.
Candidates: Griff McGarry (JR), Mike Vasil (SO), Zach Messinger (SO), Billy Price (SO), Griffin Agee (FR), Paul Kosanovich (SR), Blake Bales (JR)
Choice: Griff McGarry (JR)
McGarry has stellar stuff. But until he gets those walks under control, you cannot trust him during the weekend. Let him work on his craft against the midweek slate while building confidence and good habits. Should the team make the regionals in 2020, McGarry will be a very important arm in the staff's tool chest.
Candidates: Kyle Whitten (JR), Andrew Abbott (JR), Stephen Schoch (SR)
Choice: Stephen Schoch (SR)
The right-handed graduate transfer from UMBC gets the call. He has the requisite closer experience you want at the position with stuff that's better than Whitten's.
And with Andrew Abbott, you want to use a pitcher of his caliber in a bigger role than he'd potentially get as the closer. As we saw in 2019, Abbott initially struggled in the closer spot when the opportunities to pitch were few and far between. To be deployed at his maximum effectiveness, Abbott needs a guaranteed three to five innings of work each weekend. He's too good and too important to the team to take on any other role.