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Baseball Season Preview: Chairbacks? Yes! Shade? You bet! NCAA's??

Senior Randy Fontanez gets the ball tomorrow night to open a new era in USF Baseball against Elon.
Senior Randy Fontanez gets the ball tomorrow night to open a new era in USF Baseball against Elon.

Tomorrow night the Bulls open one of the finest baseball facilities in America. But can USF use the momentum of the new ball park to turn the corner under fifth year coach Lelo Prado, and get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years? This would seem to be a team that has the pitching to compete to win, with a pair of legitimate senior aces leading the way. But for the Bulls to succeed, they’re going to need to hit the ball better than in 2010. A  .796 OPS as a team might be acceptable for a major league club with some pitching, but not nearly good enough when you’re using aluminum bats. The ability to generate offense will most likely determine success this year. Cutting down on 84 errors in 58 games would help as well.

Prado made some changes after a disappointing 26-32 season last year, and turned over his entire coaching staff. He brings in former Bull and Minnesota Twin Chris Heintz to work with the hitters, and former Tigers, Rays, and Angels pitching coach Chuck Hernandez to mentor the pitching staff. Prado also adds former University of Tampa coach Frank Maldonado as a volunteer assistant. Will the changes help spark a veteran club that started only one freshman during their opening weekend series against the Florida Gators?

(Note: You’ll never see any member of the Voodoo staff reference a batting average or RBI’s. If you don’t know how worthless those numbers are in the 21st Century, go here. We'll take it a step further, taking batting average completely out of slash lines , so ours are OBP/SLUG/OPS). And if you want to help us get BABIP’s and FIP’s for our team as well as the rest of the Big East so we have something to compare it to, we’d love your help. Also feel free to create a VORP/WARP type stat for college baseball. We promise to print it).

The rotation:

In college baseball the three most important positions are Friday night starter, Saturday night starter, and Sunday afternoon starter. The Bulls would seem to be in good shape with Randy Fontanez and Andrew Barbosa leading the charge. Coming off an unlucky 5-7 record with a 3.59 ERA last season, Fontanez passed on being a 23rd round pick of the Reds to return for his final campaign. His 105 strikeouts in 110.1 innings shows he has the kind of power to make hitters miss when needed, but his location might be his best asset, as he is usually around the plate. His fastball has been clocked as high as 92 on the radar gun, with an excellent over-the-top curve ball. Fontanez earned all sorts of conference honors last season, but the one he won’t forget is a no-hitter to open the 2010 Big East season against Notre Dame.

Andrew Barbosa is the left-handed piece of the 1-2 punch leading the Bulls staff. The southpaw was 8-2 last year with a gaudy 2.40 ERA, and 95 K’s in 86.1 innings pitched. The Reds selected Barbosa in the 15th round, but he also chose to come back for his final season with the Bulls. Barbosa’s 6’8" frame can give batters fits with his over-the-top delivery, and his command is outstanding, relinquishing just 22 walks last season. He also had a team best 1.09 WHIP. The former walk-on also got better as 2010 progressed, going 6-1 with a 1.66 ERA in Big East play.

The rest after the jump.

Freshman Nick Gonzalez saw the Phillies unstoppable rotation in 2011, and deciding he had no chance to crack it, passed on being the Phightins 30th round pick. He begins 2011 as the Sunday starter, and the 6’4" southpaw from Tampa’s Leto High School seems to have unlimited potential. He’ll also get a chance to learn from two outstanding pitchers that currently sit in the rotation spots he plans on occupying next year.

The Infield:

Todd Brazeal just looks like a baseball player. At 6’3" and 230 lbs., he is a hulking presence at first base, but seems to defy his size with outstanding hands and feet as a fielder. No one looks more comfortable in the batters box, and the junior from Chamberlain High is a lock to be drafted after this season. Brazeal’s .382/.424/.806 line last year belies his ability, and his numbers were down in 2010. Look for a bounce back year from the local product as he gets ready to start taking offers from the next level of baseball.

Luis Llerena maintains his spot as the everyday second baseman. The transfer from the Manhattan Jaspers led the Bulls with a .431 OBP last year, but committed nine errors in just 33 starts at 2nd base. Look for Daytona Beach College transfer Peter Brotons to also get time at second as well.

Junior Sam Mende will be the starting shortstop, and has started all 106 games he’s played as a Bull. He’s a career .395/.455/.850 hitter, including 11 career home runs on a team that will need his power to grow. His 16 errors last season are an issue, but Mende can also steal a base now and then, with seven career swipes in ten attempts.

Senior Jonathan Koscso will start at 3rd base again this year. The four-year starter showed his versatility last year with 34 starts at the hot corner, 14 at short, and 10 at second base. The Bulls always lead the planet in getting hit by pitches, getting dinged an incredible 113 times last year, and the next time Koscso gets plunked will be the 56th of his career, setting USF’s career record.

The outfield:

Junior Carlin takes the every day leftfield job for the third year running. Carlin’s numbers were off in 2010, belying his career .400 OBP, and is not much of a threat for power with just two career home runs and a slugging percentage of .403. The senior from Riverview High will be called upon to provide some offensive spark from his corner outfield position, and will need to be closer to his .873 OPS from 2009 for the Bulls to be successful.

Sophomore Chad Taylor seems to have kept the centerfield job, starting all three games there in the opening series. Taylor started 38 games last year between second base and centerfield as a freshman, but with just a .331/.373/.704 slash line. He is solid defensively, and will be asked to chase down a lot of balls in what is a thin outfield.

Freshman James Ramsay wins the job in rightfield, and he looks to be a good one. The St. Pete Times Hillsborough County Player of the Year in 2008, a knee injury ended his 2009 season before it got started. But Ramsay won the coveted Saladino Award in 2010, and looks to have a promising future for the green and gold.

Look for Alex Mendez to be the first outfielder off the bench. Mendez started 22 games in 2010, with a .359/.393/.752.

The Bullpen:

Kevin Quackenbush will be the closer, hopefully settling down a bullpen that struggled in 2010. They recorded only eight saves (in their defense, many of USF's wins were blowouts so their save situations were limited), and only Quackenbush, Jimmy Moran, and Matt Stull finished the season with an ERA under 5.00 among the bullpen regulars. Quackenbush, a senior RHP, struck out 49 in only 33 2/3 innings last season, highlighted by his final appearance of the regular season in Pittsburgh. Pitching in extra innings and in a notorious bandbox, Quackenbush went four innings, allowing no runs and striking out eight to claim the win for the Bulls.

Moran is the setup man. He starts his second year with USF after transferring from CCBC-Catonsville, a junior college in Maryland. As injuries affected the Bulls' rotation last year, Moran was pressed into service in May as a starter, but with renewed health he should resume his normal bullpen role. Moran showed a worrying tendency to get himself in trouble (32 hits and 33 walks allowed in 32 1/3 innings) but also an innate ability to then get himself out of trouble (28 strikeouts, only five XBH allowed). More of the latter and less of the former would be very useful to the bullpen.

The Bulls' middle and longer relief options include Trey Dahl (who pitched fairly well as a freshman last year and picked up two saves), Doug Wagner (returning from a broken wrist suffered last April), and sophomores Adrian Puig and Kyle Parker (both of whom were a bit unlucky last year with high XBH rates). Keep in mind that the middle and long relievers are also called upon for midweek starts and may also step into a weekend spot if injury demands it.

The Prognosis:

The new coaching staff is already making a difference. Check the starters pitch counts from the opening series from the last three seasons, comparing the last two years of Lazer Collazo to the first year of Chuck Hernandez and his decades of MLB experience.

'11 vs. UF
Fontanez 73
Barbosa 70
Gonzalez 56

'10 vs. UF
Fontanez 92
Delphey 114
Barbosa 96

'09 vs. Michigan/Purdue/Indiana
Fontanez N/A
Stultz 83
Sanford 93

That kind of reduction leads me to think that this is a team preparing for the end of the season now, and also one that won’t be showing up in the pitcher abuse stats on anymore.

But the staff needs to be more than Fontanez and Barbosa. Someone else will need to step up to bring the team ERA down from last year’s 4.99. An earned run a game less is probably the difference between being middle of the road again, or making a run at a Big East title.

They'll also need to generate more runs. In a 12 team conference, the Bulls finished 9th in slugging and 7th in on base percentage in 2010. Those numbers simply aren’t good enough. But there are returning starters at seven of eight field positions, all of whom are juniors and seniors. If they want to be competitive, they’ll need to show they’ve improved and become better hitters while in college. Let’s hope Chris Heintz and Frank Maldonado can put the finishing touches on a team filled with experience.

Fans can’t get discouraged by a sweep in Gainesville to the #1 team in the country to start the season. The Gators pitching is ridiculous, as their Sunday starter turned down millions as the 9th overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft to be a freshman at UF. Competing with the best teams in America isn’t realistic for this ball club, as evidenced by the .333/.333/.666 and just three runs in three games as a team on opening weekend. Prado continues to talk about Omaha in the publicity materials for the team, and that needs to be the long-term vision for the program. But making a Big East Championship run is probably a more realistic goal in 2011.

The Bulls were picked 4th in the league preseason poll, but with apologies to Voodoo, who gleefully takes the roll of #blackhat to my #whitehat about USF Baseball on Twitter, I’m going up scope with my prediction. 34-22 for the 56 game regular season, with a 17-10 record in the Big East. That should get the Bulls a three seed in the conference tournament at Bright House Field in Clearwater. And with Fontanez and Barbosa starting, it will be a team no one wants to play that third week in May. Barring a tournament win in Clearwater, I see the Bulls sweating out the NCAA Selection Show, beholden to the whims of fate and how many dominant teams in lesser leagues won their conference tournaments. The bubble would be a successful year for a team that hasn't had a reason to even sweat the brackets since their last NCAA berth in 2002.

No matter the outcome, this will be the most exciting season for USF Baseball in recent history. I spent some of my favorite days in college as the scoreboard operator at the old ballpark, and all of us in that press box wondered what could happen for this team if they had an appropriate facility for their level of competition. Tampa has outstanding baseball players growing like weeds on its high school fields, and now they can play in one of the best ball parks in the NCAA in their own back yard. That should signal a fundamental shift in recruiting and the caliber of player we can attract in the future.

But is 2011 the season where the Bulls start to fully reap those benefits? Probably not. Heck it 'll be a minor miracle if the paint will be dry in time for the first pitch. But No More Excuses Field opens tomorrow, and the future begins. I can't wait to see it.