This is the first of two columns that will preview the 2015 Maryland baseball team. In this article, I'll cover the position players, while the second article will focus on the pitchers and overall outlook.
Players departing: Andrew Amaro, Kyle Convissar, Krysthan Leal, Michael Montville, Blake Schmit, Charlie White.
New players (all freshmen, no transfers this season): Andrew Bechtold, Kevin Biondic, Zach Jancarski, Kengo Kawahara, John Mazza (RS), Justin Morris, Matt Oniffrey (RS), Kevin Smith, Jamal Wade.
I'll go through each position, giving the projected starter and players who should see significant playing time.
Third Base: Jose Cuas (.279 avg, 5 hr, 42 rbi) will be returning at third base. Cuas led the team in HRs last year and improved his batting average by 97 points over his first year. As the 2014 season progressed, Cuas seemed more and more comfortable fielding the position, to the point where he made himself one of the best defensive players in the ACC at third base. I expect Cuas to once more lead the team in HRs, although Anthony Papio will press him there. Behind Cuas, freshman Kevin Biondic will be available.
Shortstop: Probably the most competitive contest this past fall was between two freshmen vying to take over at shortstop: Andrew Bechtold and Kevin Smith. Each is capable of starting. Regardless of who's in the line-up on Opening Day, both players will see action this year.
Second Base: Brandon Lowe (.348 avg, 42 rbi, .464 obp) led the team in hitting in 2014 (second in the ACC). Lowe showed no signs of slowing during summer ball in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, where he led the league in RBIs and was in the top five in BA and HRs. He'll probably be slotted as the lead-off hitter, as he possess a keen batting eye and has decent speed. Backing up Lowe will be Patrick Hisle.
First Base/Catcher/DH: I lumped these three positions together as there is a surfeit of talent that will enable head coach John Szefc to try many combinations. Expect junior Kevin Martir (.269 avg, 4 hr) to see plenty of time behind the plate. Martir strung together an impressive final third of the season and was an important reason why the Terps caught fire late. Nic Cieri has a gun for an arm and should vie for time behind the plate. Although he only hit .248 in 2014, Cieri tore up summer ball while demonstrating some pop in his bat. Freshman Justin Morris (Zach's brother) is a player to watch. He had an excellent Fall World Series and might be starting at first base. Two redshirt freshmen, Matt Oniffrey and John Mazza should also get some action. Oniffrey was injured just prior to the start of the 2014 season and is completely healed. He was voted "most improved position player" in the fall by his teammates.
Left Field: Tim Lewis (.270 avg) played sparingly at the start of the 2014 season, but hit his way into the starting line-up. His 15-game hitting streak was tops on the team last year. He'll continue as a starter in 2015 and will be backed up by freshman Jamal Wade (LaMonte's brother). Wade's natural position is third base, but the backlog there means he'll be in the outfield, perhaps playing alongside his brother at times.
Center Field: LaMonte Wade, Jr. (.247 avg, 37 runs, 36 walks) makes the transition from first base to the outfield, which was his predominant position in high school. Wade will be primarily joined by freshman Zach Jancarski. I expect to see Wade attempt more stolen bases this year, as he's demonstrated some proficiency at it during his first two seasons. His average dipped slightly from what it was in 2013, but his good plate discipline allowed him to lead the team in walks for the second consecutive year.
Right Field: Anthony Papio (.271 avg, 7 sb, 2 hr) is a fixture in right. His average bumped up 26 points over the 2013 season. Papio is a streaky hitter, and it would be nice to see him be more consistent at the plate. He's my projected first or second on the club in home runs, and could end up leading the team in slugging percentage. His fielding has improved to the point where his glove can be considered a real asset. Backing up Papio will be freshman Kengo Kawahara.
Something lost, something gained
Maryland loses much of their base running speed from the past two years, along with clutch hitters such as White, Schmit, and Convissar. However, this year's team provides more power. This could be an important factor if the low-seam baseball does indeed travel further. I also believe that the team's batting average will increase as Martir, Wade, and Cuas really hit the ball well later in 2014, which should spill over into 2015. Cieri seems poised for a big year, as does Papio. If Lowe can come close to replicating his 2014 average and add a few more home runs and stolen bases, Maryland's bats could be among the best in the B1G. Then, there's these talented freshmen who might play beyond their years...