Thursday, February 13, 2014

2014 Dirtbag Position Preview: Outfield

Johnny Bekakis – Outfielder; Red Shirt Junior; Bats: Right; .290/.353/.355, 49 (2012 season; academically ineligible in 2013)
I don't pretend to know the details behind Bekakis' lost 2013 season, but one can only hope Johnny B will be playing with something to prove in 2014, and that that attitude will be enough to overcome the fact that he hasn't play in a Division 1 baseball game in 21 months.

Last time we saw Bekakis he was finishing up an All-Big West Honorable Mention 2012 season in which he grabbed the lead-off spot early in the year and never relinquished it, ultimately finishing second on the team in batting and stolen bases (7) as the everyday left fielder. Though his .353 on-base mark was solid, especially for the 2012 Dirtbags, he wasn't the ideal lead-off man, K'ing 38 times with just 11 walks. Still, Bekakis entered his true junior year looking like a key part of the 2013 Dirtbags. Then the bombshell dropped.

Bekakis hasn't totally disappeared from the baseball field during that time, however. He spent this past summer in the Northwoods League, teamed with Jeff Frye and Zack Rivera with the La Crosse Loggers. There he had a solid, though hardly spectacular summer while manning centerfield and primarily batting in the middle of the order. While a .993 fielding percentage in CF would seem encouraging, it's worth noting straightaway center at the Loggers' home ballpark is a paltry 365 feet, a centerfield distance I didn't know existed east of Sam Lynn Ballpark.

At the plate Bekakis put up a slashline of .263/.359/.382, numbers that probably aren't too far off what he should put up for the Dirtbags, save for maybe a better batting average since his BABIP was fairly low playing in such a small ballpark (even if his average goes up, his slugging will probably stay about the same; it's unlikely he'll be able to hit six homers playing in Blair Field – which is how many he hit in the NWL). Bekakis also collected 12 steals on 13 attempts and drew a somewhat encouraging 34 walks and with a somewhat discouraging 64 strikeouts.

Johnny was selected to play in the NWL all-star game, though he went unrecognized on Baseball America and Perfect Game's top prospect lists. He had a heavy workload for the summer, playing 66 games with 251 at bats and after peaking with a .830 OPS in early July he began to struggle in the last half of the season.

Bekakis could be poised to re-claim his spot in left field for the Dirtbags, though he could be pushed for playing time by Loggers teammate Rivera. It'll be interesting to see if Bekakis is ever asked to handle spacious centerfield at Blair, or at least play center during road games, as he poses a bigger threat at the plate than incumbent CF Colby Brenner. Without an ideal alternative for the spot, Bekakis also has a solid chance to reclaim the lead-off role.

Zack Belanger – Red Shirt Sophomore; Bats: Left; .250/.291/.346, 25 games
In his first season playing on Blair Field, Belanger struggled while playing sporadically, though he did show some promise by season's end. The-then redshirt freshman posted a poor K/BB of 20/1 and collected just four hits, all singles, in his first 24 at bats. He began to turn things around in the season's final month, slugging a home run against Cal State Fullerton, one of just 12 blasts the Dirtbags had on the season, before closing out with nine hits in his final 27 at bats (.333). Belanger ended up starting as the Designated Hitter more often than not for the hobbled Dirtbags over the final weeks.

Belanger would end up being the regular first baseman for the Wisconsin Rapid Rafters in the Northwoods League; though he continued to strike out with alarming frequency, K'ing nearly as often as he reached base.

Well-recruited out of high school with strong blood lines, Belanger will be interesting to watch as his college career progresses. He could fight for playing time at first base or DH and has enough power potential in his bat to be an impact player in the Dirtbags' lineup. The question is will he be able to plug the hole in his swing.

Colby Brenner – Senior; Bats: Left; .162/.333/.210, 46 games
In the wake of Johnny Bekakis' disappointing academic issues, I think I got a little too optimistic about the 2013 Dirtbags' alternatives at the lead-off spot last winter. Colby Brenner offered the total package in an outfielder playing JuCo ball; a good on-base percentage, excellent speed, and a strong defensive track record. As a result I was one of Brenner's biggest proponents last season and probably had some unfairly high expectations.

After striking out just 11 times in 214 plate appearances in 2012, Brenner opened his Division 1 career with a strike out; after 154 total chances in the field without a single error, Brenner committed an E in his first start of the year; and by the time conference play began he was hitting .077 and had seen his playing time drop exponentially. The one constant for Brenner was getting hit by pitches. The ball-magnet was plunked a team-high 13 times and once was hit in four consecutive games.

Ultimately Brenner's defense would be fine, as he committed just one more error the remainder of the season. With the exception for a great series at Pacific in which he went 4-for-8 with three doubles, Brenner's offense never fully came around. The boney-armed outfielder had just one extra base hit outside he Pacific series (a game winning triple in his last at bat of the year) and struck out 28 times.

Brenner's strong defense, speed, and adequate ability to get on base via walk or HBP still makes him a strong candidate to retain the CF job in 2014, though it's possible Bekakis could be shifted over from left. As a lefty-swinger, Brenner could also be a put in a platoon as well. If Brenner does start he'll probably bat ninth, as the so-called “second lead-off hitter,” until he can work his way higher in the order.

Nolan Meadows – Outfielder; Junior; Bats: Left; .299/.399/.424, 36 games (LA Habor Community College)
Meadows is one of two newcomers to the Dirtbag outfield that will be heavy on left handed hitters in 2014. The junior spent the first two years of his college career enjoying modest success with the LA Habor Seahawks. Meadows apparently can also play some infield, though he seems to have spent virtually his entire collegiate career, both spring and summer, as a corner outfielder.

Meadows ended his junior college career on a roll, finishing with a nine-game hitting-streak that included seven multi-hit games. On top of that he had a respectable K/BB mark of 24/22. However, he followed that up with an unspectacular performance in the Alaska Summer League, posting just a .681 OPS. For what it's worth, he consistently hit near the middle of the lineup for the league-champion Goldpanners. Meadows will likely serve as a bench piece on the 2014 Dirtbags.

Tristan Mercadel – Outfielder; Freshman; Bats: Left
Mercadel joins the Dirtbags as an unpolished prospect coming off a highly successful high school career. A solid overall player, Mercadel has the range to patrol spacious center field at Blair Field, though he'll likely be doing so only as a backup in 2014. Look for the speedy Mercadel to also get some pinch running appearances.

Mercadel has a smooth, easy swing but occasionally has trouble keeping his head down, though coach Buckley says his skills “lend (themselves) to being productive at the plate.” Assuming Mercadel's offensive approach continues to develop he would seem to have the inside track on the center field job heading into 2015.

Richard Prigatano – Junior; Bats: Right; .302/.362/.415, 44 games (though by my count the LBSU website has shorted Prigatano a double. I've tallied his slashline as being .308/.368/.428)
Projected to be picked within the top five rounds of the 2014 MLB draft, Prigatano is almost certainly entering the final year of his Dirtbag career. He career has progressed nicely thus far, although big Blair Field has suppressed his numbers a bit (College Splits calculates his OPS as improving by nearly 70 points when factoring park adjustments). Despite having his sophomore season cut short with a wrist injury, Prigatano managed to garner a All-Big West second team honor for the year.

After a solid freshman campaign and a great summer in the Northwoods League, Prigatano opened the 2013 season on a roll. He collected a double in each of the opening series games at Vanderbilt and by the end of the second weekend had a .323 average and was slugging .452. Prigatano remained consistent for much of the season, only once going so many as three consecutive games without a hit. He reached his peak for the season between March 24 and April 12, when he went on a nine-game hitting streak in which he batted .541. That coincided with the start of a Big West season in which Richard would be the toughest out on the club.

In 17 Big West games Prigatano would hit .362/.439/.431 before a broken hamate bone in early May ended his season, and shortened his time in the Cape Cod League.

When back on the field up at the Cape, he played in just 22 games hitting .204/.434/.278. That middle number is an encouraging sign, as Prigatano had never before showed such strong plate disciple. For the summer he drew 21 walks against 25 strikeouts; that was after receiving just 13 free passes with 33 K's in the spring. He was ranked the 92nd best prospect in the league by Perfect Game.

Despite his ever growing size (he's added about 25 pounds since arriving on campus), the supremely athletic Prigatano continued to be a strong base runner in 2013. The 6'4”, 220 pound outfielder swiped seven bases in the spring before going a perfect five-for-five in his brief summer season.

Right field and the middle of the order will belong to Prigtano in 2014 (and 2015 if he so chooses). His power should continue to develop, and if he can have the same control of the strike zone he held in the Cape he could turn into one of the most dangerous hitter in the conference.

Zack Rivera – Sophomore; Bats: Right; .283/.353/.407; 42 games
Rivera is still listed as an infielder on the Long Beach State website, despite logging all of his field time last season in the outfield. As a true freshman, Rivera alternated most of the first two months of the year between designated hitter and left field before moreorlesss taking over the 7-position full time in May, after season-ending injuries to Richard Prigatano and Michael Hill thinned out the lineup.

After opening the season with a revolving door of DH's that featured, among others, Ino Patron and Brennan Fulkerson, the Dirtbags quickly began giving many, but sporadic, starts to Rivera. Lacking regular playing time Rivera got off to a slow start, going 7-for-34 (.206) to start the year. It wasn't until the April 12-14 series against UC Davis that Rivera started an entire weekend. He responded with a 3-for-8 series that featured a double and a stolen base.

Finally on April 28, in the middle of a stretch in which Rivera would hit safely in five of six games including three doubles and a triple, Rivera joined the starting lineup for good. Prigatano would suffer a broken wrist and be shut down for the season and as a result Rivera manned left field in every game going forward (except one in which he DH'd).

With the opportunity to start the final 16 games of the season, Rivera didn't disappoint, posting a line of .286/.344/.464 with three steals in four attempts. Rivera came to Long Beach with the expectation of providing the Dirtbags a solid power/speed combo from the second base position, so those numbers are probably a reasonable reflection of his talents, which will hopefully only improve going forward. It remains to be seen if he will indeed end up patrolling second base at some point.

Colton Vaughn returns after inheriting the 4-position last year from another infielder-turned-outfielder, Jeff McNeil, but so does 2012 left fielder Johnny Bekakis leaving Rivera's position entering 2014 uncertain. Regardless, Rivera's bat should play almost anywhere and he's likely to find himself batting near the middle of the lineup on a regular basis this spring.