Last season saw the Bearcats, who finished 32-26 on the season, rely heavily on seniors, but, also, a group of upstart first-year players that helped carry the ball club to the Big East Tournament in its inaugural campaign in the conference. Having players like Steve Blevins (SP) and Josh Harrison (UT), both of whom earned Big East All-Freshman Team accolades, as well as collegiate newcomers Adam Yeager (SS), Dan Osterbrock (SP) and Cory Hodskins (UT), have exceptional success during the season-long college debuts helped UC makeup for a relative lack of depth and a whole lot of uncertainties about last year's team.
The Bearcats were also benefited by bringing in veteran ballplayers such as Nick Maragas and Kyle Rapp, players with JUCO backgrounds that helped fill many of the voids left by holes in recruiting or graduation. Rapp and Maragas used their experience of lower-level college baseball to serve as humbled veterans, serving as leaders and team players that brought depth and a spark of energy to help facilitate a successful season for the team.
With the graduation of team MVP and current Cincinnati Reds farmhand Logan Parker, a player who put fear into opposing pitchers and a sense of confidence in the Bearcat faithful, the ‘Cats will be left with a sizeable hole in their offense and statistical output. Parker's loss is further exacerbated by the departure of Bearcat long-stays like Jon DeLuca, Jack Nelson, Mark Muscenti, and LaFringe Hayes, who, while not all-stars, were the type of reliable, scrappy ballplayers that helped to usher in a new era of UC baseball. While none were five-tool players destined for professional glory, each brought exceptional defense, timely offense and an unrivaled passion and yeoman-like work ethic to the game that helped elevate the Bearcat program into a potential perennial Big East contender.
Just how much of a contender, or pretender, Cincinnati will be this season will be largely contingent upon how this most recent rendition of Bearcat baseball team comes together during the early part of the schedule. Consisting almost entirely of sophomores, newcomers and a collection of players that are either making position changes or looking to rebound from difficult season a year ago bond together, the Bearcats roster has far more uncertainties then it does guarantees. There are many unanswered questions for the squad coming into the season, mostly regarding the makeup of the everyday lineup. It can be argued that each of the nine position players (including DH) that will makeup the ‘Cats starting lineup will fall into one of the categories mentioned above. Newcomers Tony Campana (centerfield, Jr.) and Cameron Satterwhite (right field, So.) will be found patrolling the outfield, while newbies Jamel Scott (INF, Fr.) and Michael Earley (INF, Fr.) will help fill the voids left at second and third base by DeLuca and Muscenti, a pair of sure handed, savvy vets; one of those spots will be filled by Harrison.
The Bearcats will also have returning veterans that will look to reinvent themselves this year. For instance, Hodskins, who was used in the corners of both the infield and outfield on occasion last season, could see serious time at both first and third base respectively. This will most definitely be the case if expected first baseman Neall French struggles as much defensively as he has during fall practice and the early portion of this season. If French's mishaps with the glove persist, he could very well wind up receive a large portion of time performing as the team's designated hitter, as his powerful bat will be desperately needed in the lineup with the departure of the middle-of-the-lineup power from last year's squad.
If French does win the job as Parker's full-time replacement picking the balls out of the dirt at first, opportunities will open up for oft-injured backstop Dustin Alvey (missed all last season) to use his prowess in the batter's box while his arm heals. Hodskins and Rapp (if he is healthy), as well as newcomers Michael Obyc (OF, Jr.) and Ryan Baker (C, Jr.) will all conceivably earn time as the full-time hitter in the ‘Cats in a platoon situation. At least three of those player could also see time from power-hitting left fielder Brian Szarmach, who is looking to recover from a horrendous season-long slump last year.
The previously mentioned duo of Baker and Alvey (when he heals) will also share in the catching duties this season, which will give last year's everyday backstop, Maragas, a chance to recover from the daily grind of playing four to five games per week. However, while having depth at the catching position will obviously provide its share of advantages, it could also hurt the team in the short term as well. Having a rotating set of catchers will require the pitching staff to adjust to their new best friends behind the plate, trying to develop a rapport with one of the three (or four if French catches) players that could see time at catcher. A lack of communication in the pitcher-catcher dynamic can seriously affect performance on the diamond, particularly with regard to unnecessary cross-ups in signals that will often lead to pastballs, wildpitches, and runners in scoring position, something that plagued the Bearcats entirely too often last year.
In addition to new receivers of the pitches, the ‘Cats will place a lot of their hopes in those delivering them. The ‘Cats have a young but talented pitching staff featuring Blevins, a National Player of the Year candidate, and Osterbrock, who had great success beginning with his inclusion into the staff midway through the season. This pair of second-year performers had great success during the 2006 campaign and will look to avoid the infamous "sophomore slump" this time around. They will be asked to carry the staff this year from the start of the season during a year where teams will have a better understanding of who they are as pitchers and what they bring to the mound.
Though two parts of the three-man rotation are decided, the rest of the staff is still up in the air. Rapp, a multiple-time draft selection and highly-coveted transfer when he committed to UC, was injured much of last season after a successful beginning to his career in Cincinnati. Due to the fact he is coming off injury, Rapp will likely miss time throughout the season, particularly during the early going. With Rapp's short-term status up in the air, the ‘Cats, the team will have to rely on youth - both in terms of age and experience - to be successful. Freshman Josh Baird, a potential Blevins-like player in the making, will likely begin his career at UC as the third arm in the his new team's starting rotation. Unlike the player to whom he is likened, Baird has the opportunity to ease himself into the spotlight. As a third starter, expectations on him will not be those of becoming the staff ace right away, taking some of the pressure of him during his early career.
In terms of the midweek hurler, there are roughly four to five players the will likely pitch at some time during the season. Players such as the surgically repaired Rapp, Billy Welsh, Adam Calez, and Nick Buscemi are all potential options. However, much will be predicated on the success of the 'Cats' top three arms, as there ability to perform will greatly determine the makeup of the bullpen for the week.
While much of the attention on the pitching staff is paid to the starters, college baseball places a great emphasis on the bullpen. Due to short rest in between starts, high scoring games and doubleheaders, a reliable relief corp can be a college coach's best friend. Unfortunately for Coach Cleary, this year's staff will be very unpredictable early because few of these athletes have major collegiate experience, let alone established roles in the ‘pen. A.J. Upton is forecasted to be the closer early in the season, but expect Sean Munninghoff to get some work at the spot. Players such as Michael Hill (who may have the best "stuff" of the young relief pitches), Kevin Johnson (LHP/IB), Jake Geglein, Matt Heber, Evan Sanford, and a host of others will also pitch. In addition, youngsters such as Scott Brothers and Ryan Thompson may see team as either mid-week starters or action coming in during a relief effort.. Thompson, Brian Garman and Brandon Bouley could also find a niche on the roster as the "lefty specialist" that is rarely utilized at the collegiate level, of which UC may be able to take advantage.
While all of this is speculation about the upcoming season, it almost entirely comes from the mouth of the head of the Bearcat baseball program, Brian Cleary. Attached is part 1 of a five part series with Cleary, UC's skipper from the past 10 years, who ranks second on the school's all-time wins list (239) behind only the legendary Glenn Sample after taking over a struggling UC program in 1997.
Premium Members are able to listen to Part One of Casey talking with Coach Cleary about the start of the 2007 season in this audio interview. If you're not a Premium Member of Bearcat Insider sign up for our "Free" 7-Day Trial to see why Bearcat Insider has become the best independent website covering the Bearcats.
Coach Brian Cleary
Link For 2007 Roster