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Maryland baseball 2016 season preview, part 1: Terps aim for third-straight NCAA Tournament

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Maryland has been to the NCAA Super regional round in consecutive years. However they lost eight solid players to the 2015 draft. How will 2016 shape up? Let's dig in.

Head coach John Szefc
Head coach John Szefc
Courtesy: Maryland.

The Maryland baseball program has a big year ahead. Let's get into explaining it:

Terps projected to make third-straight NCAA appearance

It's a new season with a new look. Extensive renovations have taken place at Bob ‘Turtle" Smith Stadium. There's also a host of new faces on Maryland's baseball team. Heck, there's even a new strength/conditioning coach (Esteban Doria; Seth Diters took a position at Florida State). But one thing has remained constant: The Terrapins are once again a team with national recognition.

Just about every poll has Maryland slotted between Nos. 20 and 30, with the very real possibility that the Terrapins will make a team-record third straight NCAA appearance. The only other B1G team ranked is Michigan. The Wolverines are predicted to win the conference title by most columnists, the exception being D1Baseball; it picks Maryland.

In previous years, supporters of Maryland baseball would have been overjoyed by these preseason expectations. But Maryland is coming off of winning two straight NCAA Regional rounds, as well as playing in their conference tournament finals. Maryland had a team-record eight players selected in the 2015 MLB draft. So the program's success bar has been raised to the goal of reaching Omaha this season for the first time in the program's history.

Outfielders

Anthony Papio brings a reliable presence to right field.  He has "sneaky" speed, as evidenced by his 14 stolen bases over the last two years. Papio has shown quite a pop in his bat, and will probably be among Maryland's leaders in home runs. An under-appreciated aspect of Papio's play is the amount of ground he can cover in the outfield, along with a strong throwing arm. Along with southpaw relief pitcher Rob Galligan and right hander Jared Price, he'll be called on to supply senior leadership this year.

The Terps have been blessed with having Charlie White and LaMonte Wade play center field the last few seasons. Filling those big shoes will be a combination of players. Junior college transfer Madison Nickens, who played at LSU-Eunice, brings speed and an ability to get on base. He's being contested by Zach Jancarski. The latter saw limited duty last year, mostly as a pinch runner. He's made significant strides in the off-season and will likely see his role increased this year. Jancarski is probably the fastest guy on the team, and could be a table-setter at the top of the lineup. Not to be forgotten is sophomore Kengo Kawahara. He was pressed into action last year after Wade's hamate bone injury, and acquitted himself quite well.

Left field might also see a number of different players patrolling there. Sophomore Jamal Wade hopes to increase his batting average; his power numbers have already been established. Freshman Marty Costes might also see time there, as could fellow freshman Nick Dunn (more about Nick below). Costes was an All-Star in the 2015 Cal Ripken League summer league. Another Nick, freshman Nick Browne could also vie for playing time.

Infielders

Redshirt freshman Andrew Bechtold will be starting at third. Bechtold was a highly touted freshman and was drafted in the 37th round by Texas in 2014. Last year he was waging an intense battle for shortstop with Kevin Smith. The competition became moot when Bechtold seriously injured his thumb diving into first base, subsequently requiring surgery; Bechtold ended up missing almost the entire 2015 season. He's a player who may not be on many people's radar right now but could end up being an important piece of Maryland's offense. Peyton Sorrels is a freshman who can be a capable back-up to Bechtold. He made some pretty nifty plays during the Fall World Series.

Kevin Smith had an outstanding freshman year at shortstop, being named first-team Freshman All-American by Perfect Game and second-team by D1baseball He hit .273 with 7 home runs and 11 stolen bases, the latter the best mark on the team. Recently he was named the 52nd best 2017 draft prospect by D1baseball.  Not only does Smith produce at the plate, but he continues Maryland's streak of having slick-fielding shortstops. Backing him up will be the reliable Pat Hisle.

It will be interesting to see who ultimately takes over the drafted Brandon Lowe's spot at second base. Freshman Nick Dunn has a sweet swing and almost always makes contact. He's coming off a summer where he hit .321 in the Cal Ripken League, good for fifth overall., and being named to the league's first-team. I saw Dunn play in the Fall World series and he can spray the ball to all fields. Fellow freshman A. J. Lee is a bit better defensively, so he might play second base at times with Dunn shifted to left field.

First base could be a carousel of Kevin Biondic, Brandon Smith, and Nick Cieri. Biondic was originally a third baseman, but warmed up to the first base position as the season wore on last year. Smith is a transfer from Harford Community College, where he had a slash line of 420/.510/.663. Cieri will mostly see time behind the plate or as DH, but could see action at first when Justin Morris is catching.

Catchers and DH

Nick Cieri had a terrific 2015, even if it was marred by a hamate bone injury in April. D1baseball rated him as one of the top 200 draft prospects this year. Cieri hit .299 last season, then had a stellar summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League where he hit .319 and made the All-Star team. Behind Cieri will be sophomore Justin Morris, who looks sharp behind the plate. Morris's bat started off slowly last year and never really got going, but the talent is there. I expect Morris to significantly up his offensive production this year. Freshman Dan Maynard hails from the same area as Kevin Smith. He's impressed the coaching staff with his play this fall.

There's lots of options for Coach Szefc to use at DH. Cieri, Wade, Nickens, Costes, Dunn: take your pick.

It seems like a number of positions are still up for grabs, which is a reflection of the quantity of talent, not lack thereof. The bats may not have the deep ball threat (yet) seen in the past couple of years, but there are plenty of players who can get on base, and really motor once there. The line-up will probably be fluid until conference play begins, when certain players will have established themselves as regulars.