Curb your enthusiasm
At this time a year ago, Davenport Field was shrouded in a cloud of optimism. The Virginia baseball team was returning from Alabama after sweeping the Auburn Tournament with a three-game run differential of 27-8. The Cavaliers had the future second overall pick in the MLB Draft, pitcher Danny Hultzen, back in their rotation, as well as two of their top-three overall hitters from 2010 in Keith Werman and John Barr. Third baseman Steven Proscia was coming off a year when he led the team in runs batted in and finished second in home runs.
In total, the Cavaliers featured a lineup which included seven future Major League draft picks. Throughout the program, there was a palpable sense 2011 had the potential to be a special season, and that hunch was validated when the team's season eventually ended in Omaha, Nebraska at the College World Series.
Flash forward to present day and the Cavaliers have stumbled out of the gate to a 1-1-1 record - don't ask me about the tie game, but I could have sworn I saw Bud Selig on the sidelines. Picked to finish tied for fifth by the ACC Baseball Coaches Preseason Poll, Virginia has done little in an admittedly small sample to disprove accusations of mediocrity.
After losing the season opener to Boston College, a team predicted to finish last in the same poll, the Cavaliers needed a late game rally to defeat Coastal Carolina in a game much closer than its final 9-3 score would indicate. Virginia had a chance to escape its final contest of the tournament against James Madison with a victory in the pouring rain, but coughed up a late lead in the eighth and final inning in a game which would end with a tie because of the weather.
The optimism which encompassed Davenport Field a year ago has evaporated and been replaced by a field of question marks. Can the Cavaliers repeat last year's success? Will the loss of talent be too much to overcome? Will the program finally right last year's wrong and let students sit behind the baselines again?
So, as the Cavaliers take the field today in front of the home fans for the first time this season, let's take a deeper look at the 2012 squad and find out if we can't look past those pesky punctuation marks to see the true potential of this new team.
The biggest question mark for the Cavaliers this season stands exactly 60 feet, 6 inches in front of home plate on the pitcher's mound. While it would be difficult enough to replace Hultzen alone, coach Brian O'Connor has the unenviable task of trying to break in an entirely new starting rotation. Each of the four pitchers who started more than two games last year for Virginia - Hultzen, Will Roberts, Tyler Wilson and Cody Winiarski - have moved on from the program. The three pitchers who started for the squad last weekend started a combined three games last season.
A baseball team only goes as far as its starting pitching takes it, so the Cavaliers better hope the new stable of arms matures quickly. Virginia's opening day starter, junior Branden Kline, should be reliable at the front of the rotation after posting a sub-2.00 ERA last season. Whit Mayberry looks to be a solid number two after winning all five of his decisions in 2011. But neither starter threw more than 43 innings last year, which means it's a distinct possibility the wear and tear of a full season could prove disastrous for Virginia at the end of the year, when it needs to ride its starters into the postseason.
Offensively, the Cavaliers need to rely on senior Jared King to replace much of the production lost from the departure of Proscia and John Hicks. King is off to a hot start this year, with five hits in his first three games, including a home run and a triple.
Besides King, however, Virginia may be in some trouble. After hitting more than .400 two years ago, Werman struggled to a .223 average last year and has yet to record a hit during the current campaign.
O'Connor is known for his small ball, grind-it-out style of offense, but it's unrealistic to expect the current rotation to win many 1-0 ballgames. Unlike the past three seasons, Hultzen won't be taking the mound once every series to bail out the offense if it suddenly becomes anemic. The offense needs to score runs, but looking at the lineup it's difficult to see where they are going to come from.
I know the season is just starting, but that doesn't mean warning signs aren't evident. The team had many question marks surrounding it entering the season and a rocky opening series will do little to silence the critics. As any sabermetrician will tell you, future success can be judged fairly accurately based on past results. And there's just not that much positive history to warrant a lot of optimism for this season.
A lack of experience on the mound combined with a depleted offense is not a recipe for success at any level. The Cavaliers may still surprise some people and put together a nice season, but those fans expecting a return to Omaha this year might do well to curb their enthusiasm. I can't believe I'm saying this, but it looks as though the preseason predictions may actually be right for once. Fifth place in the ACC seems fairly accurate for the Cavaliers this year.
For one of the few times in my life, though, I really hope I'm wrong.