Let the countdown begin. With just 15 days until the opener at Vanderbilt, we kick off our Long Beach State Dirtbags 2013 season preview. Today we take a look at the team's catchers and outfielders. There'll be regular posts from now until opening day (and beyond, of course) so be sure to check back often.
Summary – Backstop was an Achilles’ heel for the Dirtbags last season. Although anchored by senior Kellen Hoime, the position was the weakest spot in the Long Beach lineup and at times the defense was inconsistent. Junior Royce Murai, who has shared duties each of the last two years, is back but the starting position will be up for grabs.
Eric Hutting, Freshman – The younger brother of current Cal State Fullerton Titan Anthony, Hutting is one of multiple Dirtbag rookies who could be starting this year. A solid hitter in high school, with a strong batting eye, Hutting is also “very polished defensively” according to Troy Buckley. Hutting had a reputation at the prep level for being a good team leader who worked well with his pitchers, so it’ll be interesting to see how that carries over to the collegiate ranks as he handles a largely unproven starting rotation.
Zach Miller, Senior (2012: 0-for-5 in 5 games) – Miller will likely reprise his role as a backup catcher in 2013 after making only a handful of appearances last season (his first year at the Division 1 level).
Royce Murai, Junior (2012: .109/.180/.130 in 26 games) – Hats off to Murai, who was given one of the most difficult tasks a baseball player can get back in 2011; convert to the catcher position then, almost overnight, become a regular starter. Murai, a former pitcher, likely isn’t going to be the Dirtbags answer this year behind the plate. Though his defense made some big strides last season, it’s still sub par and the native Hawaiian has always had a light bat at the college level. Muari looks like he’s bulked up a little and he enters 2013 as the only player on the team with Division 1 catching experience (aside from the cup of coffee Zach Miller had last year), however, he’ll most likely be relegated to backup duties this year.
Projected Starter: Hutting
Summary – Center fielder and de facto team MVP from 2012, Brennan Metzger, is gone and left fielder Johnny Bekakis has been sidelined for academic reasons, but right fielder Richard Prigatano and fourth outfielder Josh Guerra are back. Senior Juan Avila has also spent time in the outfield and looks likely to be moved off his regular spot at third base, so he may also factor into the outfield equation this season.
Juan Avila, Senior (2012: .288/.364/.369 in 54 games) – I’ll have a more comprehensive look at Avila in the infield preview, but for now let’s just take a look at the impact the senior could have in the outfield. With Bekakis’ sudden ineligibility Avila could be called upon to fill a spot in the outfield, which he did for much of the 2011 season. Prior to the Bekakis issue, the Designated Hitter role seemed possible for Avila, who has struggled defensively for much of his college career. Moving him back to the outfield would open the DH spot back up with no obvious alternatives, though the coaching staff could always elect to alternate between the “hot hand” or simply use the DH spot to spell a regular starter.
Johnny Bekakis, Junior (2012: .290/.353/.355 in 49 games) – Ineligible for the 2013 season, Bekakis spent most of the 2012 campaign as the team’s primary left fielder and lead-off man, tying for second on the team in steals (seven), and had the highest batting average of the returning Dirtbags. Despite a solid on-base percentage Bekakis wasn’t the ideal lead-off man, K’ing 38 times with just 11 walks last year, so his status atop the lineup could’ve been in question anyway with the arrival of Colby Brenner. He's not a top draft prospect, so he'll presumably be back in 2014.
Zack Belanger, Red Shirt Freshman – Despite a good high school career and a solid showing in fall ball, Belanger seems unlikely to start in 2013, though if Avila remains in the infield or DH’ing, Belanger could see significant time as the team’s fourth outfielder.
Colby Brenner, Junior (2012: .272/.412/.314 in 44 games with Cosumnes River College) – Brenner joins the Dirtbags after spending two distinguished seasons at the top of the lineup for Cosumnes River. There he was the ideal center field/lead-off type, reaching base (including getting plunked by 20 pitches last year), stealing bases (29 in ’12), and playing great defense. He also struck out just 11 times in 214 plate appearances. If his skills carry over to the D1 level, Brenner could find himself at the top of the Dirtbags lineup in 2013.
Brennan Fulkerson, Junior (2012: .278/.297/.333 in 21 games) – A lefty with some occasional power, Fulkerson will likely continue to serve the pinch hitter/DH role he’s played each of his first two years for Long Beach.
Josh Guerra, Sophomore (2012: .282/.370/.380 in 31 games) – After a surprisingly solid freshman year, Guerra had a rather pedestrian summer in the Northwoods League with over double the at bats. His OPS dipped to .670 in the NWL and his strikeout to walk rate was a disconcerting 44 to 18. Despite that, Guerra’s strong rookie season and Bekakis’ absence in left field could very well result in an everyday job for the sophomore.
Richard Prigatano, Sophomore (2012: .278/.335/.329 in 47 games) – The club’s top position player prospect coming into last season, Prigatano had a decent rookie year but posted uninspiring power numbers (.329 slugging percentage and .051 isolated power). He was also something of a free swinger with 45 strikeouts and just nine walks. However, Prigatano put together a strong summer in the Northwoods league, clubbing 15 doubles, 11 homers, stealing 21 bases, and slightly improving his pitch selection with 55 strikeouts and 27 walks. His power potential should keep him in the middle of the lineup, likely while manning right field and occasionally serving as DH.
LF: Guerra/Avila (also DH)
RF: Prigatano (also DH)/Guerra
Up next: We take a look at a Dirtbag infield that returns three-quarters of its starters but still could see some big changes in the coming year...