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Maryland baseball should have a talented infield in 2017

Our season preview starts with one of Maryland’s strongest position groups.

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kevin smith
Sung Min Kim/Testudo Times

If Maryland baseball hopes to get back to the NCAA Tournament this season, the Terps will have to get some serious contributions from the infield. The only departure from last year’s squad came from former third baseman Andrew Bechtold, who transferred to Chipola College over the summer. With that being said, this list should look very similar to last year’s group, with a few minor changes. Below is a breakdown of what you can expect from the Terps’ infield in 2017.

The starters

Catcher: Justin Morris, junior, 6’2’, 215 lbs.

2016 Stats: 41 G, .194 BA, .297 OBP, 7 XBH, 2 HR, 29 SO, 13 BB

Morris split time with Nick Cieri behind the plate last season. This year it looks like it’s Morris’ job full-time. While not as offensively capable as Cieri, the junior backstop is more reliable behind the plate. Once drafted in the 35th round by the San Francisco Giants a few years ago, Morris decided to go to school in his home state with the hope that he could further develop his game.

If he hopes to significantly improve his draft stock this go-around, his offense needs to get a little bit better. Hitting below .200 is not ideal, even with many other players picking up the slack in the rest of the lineup. A slight improvement would go a long way in solidifying the Terps’ lineup all the way around.

First Base: Kevin Biondic, junior, 6’1, 215 lbs.

2016 Stats: 57 G, .278 BA, .377 OBP, 15 XBH, 5 HR, 46 SO, 23 BB

A native of Oak Lawn, Illinois, Biondic was a first-time starter on last year’s squad and with much success. Showing both extra-base hit power and a solid all-around offensive game, Biondic proved that he could be a middle-of-the-order threat for manager John Szefc this season. Now an upperclassman, expect that Biondic’s game could continue to grow at first base. He appeared in all of the team’s games last season and held up quite well.

Biondic should maintain his role as the starting first baseman this season if everything goes to plan. Already an above average defender at his position, Biondic should be a stable right-handed bat that should provide a level of consistency to a lineup that is still relying on a couple younger hitters that set to play a big role again this year.

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Nick Dunn turned heads as a freshman.
Sung Min Kim/Testudo Times

Second Base: Nick Dunn, sophomore, 5’10’, 175 lbs.

2016 Stats: 57 G, .300 BA, .382 OBP, 18 XBH, 1 HR, 25 SO, 25 BB

Quite simply, Dunn, as a freshman, was the best hitter in the Terps lineup in 2016. It’s pretty amazing considering that Dunn wasn’t even drafted coming out of high school. He ended the college baseball season as a CBN/Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American and he was the third-team Big Ten second baseman. D1 Baseball ranked the sophomore was the fifth-best second baseman in the nation on their preseason list, and he was ranked as the top 2018 draft prospect in the Big Ten by Baseball America.

Expect Dunn to once again provide big numbers for a Terps offense that is looking to improve over an already-solid performance last year. Any freshman that can hit for a .300 batting average in their first season should merit high expectations in their second full season. Perhaps Dunn could improve on his power numbers this season, but that’s not the strength of his game. His consistency and overall hit tool is what the Terps value most and hope to continue to see in his second collegiate campaign.

Third Base: A.J. Lee, sophomore, 6’0, 175 lbs.

2016 Stats: 19 G, .172 BA, .273 OBP, 2 XBH, 0 HR, 9 SO, 4 BB

The lone newcomer to Szfec’s starting lineup, Lee is the unknown of the Terps offense. Last year’s primary third baseman, Andrew Bechtold, is out and Lee looks to pick up his solid offensive numbers. As a freshman, Lee appeared in 19 games, hitting for a meager .172 batting average. Lee did show solid plate discipline as his on-base percentage was over 100 points higher. Still, the sample size is small and the Terps really don’t know what they are going to get from their new starting infielder. At last week’s media day, manager John Szfec pointed to the third baseman’s growth through his play in the Alaska League over the offseason.

“He came back a way more mature player from that whole experience,” said Szefc. “He’s one of our best defenders and his offensive is catching up to his defense.”

At the very least, Lee looks to provide solid defense work at third base this upcoming season. He’s not as developed as a hitter at the moment, but he now has the opportunity to grow as he gets more frequent playing time.

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Kevin Smith might be Maryland’s best returning player.
Sung Min Kim/Testudo Times

Shortstop: Kevin Smith, junior, 6’0, 188 lbs.

2016 Stats: 57 G, .259 BA, .308 OBP, 18 XBH, 9 HR, 49 SO, 16 BB

Perhaps the most hyped player on the Maryland team coming into the season, Smith is looking to take national attention as one of the premier shortstops in college baseball. Ranked as the best overall 2017 draft prospect in the Big Ten by Baseball America, Smith could find himself being selected in the first round come June. He’s also considered one of the best at his position in all of college baseball as well, with Baseball America tabbing the junior shortstop as a preseason first-team All-American.

This may be a little odd considering that his 2016 offensive numbers don’t jump off the page. He hit for a solid batting average and was just one homer short of double digits. But there is much more to the junior’s game. He can be a magician with the glove with him and fellow infielder Nick Dunn forming one of the most dynamic middle infields in the country. Smith also has a good frame for the position, offering above average power for a shortstop. Smith is undoubtedly one of the key leaders on the team this season. He also has spoken highly about being able to play against some of the best players this summer in the Cape Cod League.

“When you go to the Cape and you are playing guys of that caliber, you either have to step up or you go home,” Smith said. “There isn’t really another option. Playing against the best in the country day in and day out was something that tells you that this is how good you have to be.”

Smith is an elite talent at his position, and how he performs will go a long way to showing whether the Terps will meet their high preseason expectations.

Designated Hitter: Nick Cieri, senior, 6’3, 250 lbs.

2016 Stats: 54 G, .256 BA, .379 OBP, 13 XBH, 3 HR, 25 SO, 31 BB

Yes, I may be cheating a bit. Technically, a designated hitter does not put on a glove, but Cieri does have a history of playing at multiple positions in the infield. In 2016, the senior started the season as the Terps’ primary catcher, but was eventually switched to the DH role in favor of a better defensive option in Morris. Cieri can also play first base if need be, but he is expected to be the sole designated hitter in 2017.

As one of the few senior hitters on the team, Cieri is a solid hitter who should give the Terps some additional production outside the likes of Smith, Dunn and outfielder Marty Costes. Cieri posted an outstanding strikeout-to-walk rate last season, showing patience that one would expect from an upperclassman. If he can find a way to drive the ball a little more this coming season, the Terps would be in a tremendous spot offensively.

The Bench

  • INF Brandon Gum (Redshirt Senior)
  • C Dan Maynard (Sophomore)
  • C Ty Friedrich (Freshman)
  • INF Patrick Hisle (Senior)
  • INF Barrett Smith (Freshman)
  • INF/OF Will Watson (Junior)

With the number of returning starters, it’s expected that the Maryland bench will not have a great amount of impact, barring injury. Redshirt senior transfer Brandon Gum looks to be the only viable threat to overtake a starting spot at some point this season. Once a starting shortstop for George Mason in 2015, Gum spent all of last year recovering from injury and then transferring to College Park. The transfer will continue to build up his strength in the early parts of the season, possibly getting some time at first base and as a designated hitter. However, Gum’s best shot at snagging everyday at-bats would be to shoot ahead of Lee at third base. Transitioning to a new position is always difficult, so if this were to happen, the switch would probably come in the middle to the final portion of the regular season.

The final word

Overall, the Terps’ infield holds both stability and intrigue. Smith and Dunn will be middle-of-the-order hitters who have the capabilities to carry the offense over a long period of time. Biondic and Cieri are older players who will be solid secondary options to compliment the team’s star middle infielders. Any added offense from Morris, Lee and Gum would be a cherry on top.

Keeping last year’s infield intact for the most part will be key for a Terps rotation that is losing its most acclaimed starting pitcher in Mike Shawaryn. Maryland’s infield is shaping up to be an above-average unit both offensively and defensively, which not many college teams can say.