No more turf talk. I’ve had enough of infill, backing, ball roll and antimicrobials. Wichita State started fall practice on Thursday, about four months removed from its worst season under coach Gene Stephenson. What I’m looking at this fall:
Offense, offense, offense. Then some more offense. We don’t really need to recount WSU’s dismal numbers, but here goes: .275 batting average, 33 home runs, .362 on-base percentage, .387 slugging percentage, 423 strikeouts and 220 walks. No power and no command of the strike zone is a bad way to try to score runs. A lot of those same players are back. Will they improve? Things should get better in 2010, and not just because they can’t get worse. For starters, WSU appears to be much deeper than last season with legit players. There will be competition in practice. The coaches have options if players aren’t hitting. Last season’s roster was so thin, there just wasn’t much of either. WSU essentially had one infield reserve – Taylor Brown – and he ended up playing some left field. Pitcher Chance Sossamon ended the season playing third base (quite effectively). The second plus is the addition of left-handed bats. In 2009, the Shockers had Ryan Jones and Chris O’Brien (a switch-hitter). This season, Jones and O’Brien are back and outfielder Travis Bennett, infielder Preston Springer and outfielder Garrett Bayliff are lefty newcomers. Erik Harbutz is a switch-hitter. The effect of deeper roster should mean a more complete batting order. Of course, that also depends on returners shaking off last season and improving. Visions of an improved bullpen depend on the health of seniors Tyler Fleming and Logan Hoch (shoulder surgery sidelined both in 2009). Unfortunately, Fleming won’t throw this fall and Hoch’s return will be later this fall. If both are ready this spring, WSU should have a good bullpen. Fleming, when healthy, gave the Shockers a lockdown guy out of the pen in 2008. Hoch wasn’t as good as Fleming in 2008, but he showed plenty of potential. If their recoveries aren’t satisfactory, it’s a big problem for the staff. I like Chance Sossoman as the closer, a role he grabbed late last spring. I like Clint McKeever as a closer if he can get enough innings to get comfortable as a reliever. Beyond that, the bullpen is a question, although I will add the brief looks I got at Cobey Guy in the NBC World Series were encouraging. He may be a junior-college guy who figures out it in his senior season. Fleming will give second base a shot, which seems like a good idea. He played third and short in junior college, so he is not totally unfamiliar with the infield. If nothing else, Fleming gets to practice this fall instead of sitting and watching. I’m not sure if Johnny Coy will play in Saturday’s public scrimmage. He tweaked a hamstring during Thursday’s sprints and didn’t practice. He needs all the baseball time he can get. Entering the school year, I think coaches regarded him as a player with great potential who was probably a season away from being a big-time contributor. It will be interesting to see if he can speed that timeline now that he is a one-sport athlete. Third base and catcher appear to be the positions most interesting to watch. Coy is working at third and first. Freshman Nate Goro is impressing people with his defense at third. Juco transfer Preston Springer can play first and third. O’Brien will devote his energies to catching after playing much of last season at third. Cody Lassley returns as the incumbent starter. Sophomore Ryan Hege and junior Ryan Engrav caught on Thursday. Speaking of Engrav, he came on late last season and won the job in right field. He hit and played better-than-expected defense. It all came together for him with MVP honors in the MVC Tournament. Engrav hit .281 with only four extra-base hits in 64 at-bats. Can he add some more power? The outfield also has some competition. I would figure Ryan Jones will play, either in center or right. I would guess Kevin Hall’s speed gives him an edge. Northern Iowa transfer Travis Bennett, Bret Bascue, Mitch Caster and Engrav are also options. Second baseman Will Baez had a great fall in 2008. He struggled through much of 2009 before picking up his performance offensively and defensively late in the spring. He is a guy I think could really improve his numbers next spring. It will be his second season after transferring from juco (where he played catcher). He also played through a wrist injury last season.