2012 Baseball Preview: Infield
Feb. 15, 2012
By Sam Hickman
If the Pirates can take any consolation in losing one of the best casts of pitchers in the program's history, it lies in the return of eight positional starters from a year ago. However, the single piece East Carolina is left with replacing is Trent Whitehead. The center fielder, who chased down fly balls in center field for the last four years, played his final out in a Pirate uniform in last season's Regional Final loss at Virginia. While the gaping hole left in center field and the leadoff spot will be tough to fill, the infield remains intact and possesses several weapons heading into the 2012 campaign.
Arguably, the most integral piece of any starting nine is the signal-caller behind the plate. The Pirates welcome back Zach Wright, who decided on returning to ECU rather than becoming a member of the Philadelphia Phillies organization, which drafted the Goldsboro, N.C. native in the sixth round of the 2011 MLB Draft. Wright, who is a two-time Johnny Bench Award Watch List candidate and a Preseason First-Team All-Conference USA selection by the league coaches, is responsible for an even greater leadership role this year as the pitching staff lost many faces the 2011 roster. Opponents don't enjoy the luxury of swiping bags against the Pirates as he threw out 19-of-43 potential base stealers a year ago. He finished his junior season with a .272 batting average, a team-best 13 home runs, and 62 RBIs. Wright will be backed up by Joshua Lovick, who experienced most of his action in 2011 as a pinch runner and junior college transfer Sam King.
Hitting coach Nick Schnabel said that the return of Wright solidifies a lineup which already has speed and the ability to "grind out" runs.
"Having Zach back certainly helps. He gives us some more pop in the middle of the lineup," Schnabel reiterated. "Hopefully we can put the guys on base for guys like Zach and Chase (McDonald) so they have the opportunities to drive in runs."
Wright knows that his role will be altered in some fashion, but is set on taking the same approach he has for the first three years of his decorated career.
"I'm just glad to be back," he beamed. "With all the pieces we have back, this could be a special lineup. I can't wait to catch the pitchers and I can't wait to be a part of this offense. We have so many weapons; I know we can put it all together. It's just a matter of doing it. The goal is to win games, that's it."
Junior John Wooten, who earned Charlottesville All-Regional honors last season, will occupy first base once again in 2012. Wooten shrugged off a slow start in 2011 to record 73 hits, which ranked third on the team. He also collected 16 doubles trailing only Whitehead in that department. The versatile right-hander also brings a certain durability and dependability to the lineup as he was only one of three Pirates to start in all 62 games last year (Whitehead and Wright).
While you may not see him in the defensive nine every game, don't be shocked to see Chase McDonald's name somewhere on the lineup card. The brawny Greenville, N.C. native started 49 games in 2011, primarily serving as the squad's designated hitter. He also saw time at first base where he could see increased playing time in 2012. During his freshman season, McDonald hit an impressive .318 with four homers and 31 RBIs. It set the tone for what turned out to be a remarkable summer for the J.H. Rose graduate. Playing for the Morehead City Marlins of the Coastal Plains League, McDonald belted 13 long-balls (second-best in the CPL), and hit .403, a ledger that ranks as the second-best all-time in the prestigious summer league. For his efforts, McDonald was awarded the CPL Offensive Player-of-the-Year honor.
The Pirates may lack depth in certain areas but the middle infield positions are stacked with talent. East Carolina will have many options at second base as Tim Younger, Mike Ussery, and Bryan Bass look to complement sophomore Jack Reinheimer who is expected to start at shortstop. Younger, who was awarded the honorary No. 23 Keith LeClair jersey at this year's `Meet the Pirates' started in 29 games in 2011 and Ussery got the nod in 37 contests. Ussery finished 2011 with an impressive .995 fielding percentage committing just one error in 195 chances. ECU also expects the return of Bryan Bass, who sat out his sophomore campaign. Schnabel, who enjoyed a stellar career as a middle-infielder for the Pirates from 1999-2000, noted the stable of guys up the middle is a "nice problem to have".
"We have a lot of options with our second base and shortstop positions," he stated. "All three guys have some experience and that's great. We're versatile in those areas. A couple guys can play both spots so we have some flexibility there."
Expect Reinheimer to grab the majority of time as the "quarterback" of the infield at shortstop. The Charlotte, N.C. native burst onto the scene in 2011, finishing with a .311 batting average, fourth-best on the team. He also tallied a .383 on-base percentage, which eventually catapulted him to a spot near the top of the lineup. Schnabel was excited about the prospects of seeing the younger players in 2012 after experiencing their first action at the Division-I level a year ago.
"I've seen a lot of progress from last year. These guys have matured physically and mentally. They had great seasons last year and we look forward to them getting better and better."
Senior Corey Thompson is expected to once again hold down the hot corner for the Pirates. Thompson led the team last year with a .328 average and belted six round-trippers. The Apex, N.C. native also strung together a career-best 15-game hitting streak and led the club with eight game-winning RBI. The stellar 2011 campaign helped him gain 2012 Preseason First-Team All-Conference USA honors.
Utility player Drew Reynolds will also provide ECU with versatility as it settles into a lineup early in the season. Reynolds saw time last year at second, third, and on the mound. Schnabel indicated that the coaching staff has even flirted with the idea of playing him in the outfield.
A pair of newcomers could play vital roles on the Pirates' infield. Brunswick Community College transfer Jay Cannon is a viable candidate to experience time both in the infield and outfield as the season goes along. An all-region performer last year for BCC, he batted .327 with five home runs for the Dolphins. With his athletic ability, speed and solid defense, Cannon is expected to battle for the last starting position in the outfield.
Freshman Nick Thompson will offer the Pirates yet another dynamic. The Chesapeake, Va. native earned the Gatorade Baseball Virginia Player-of-the-Year Award in 2011 after closing out his senior season with a .424 average at the dish. During preseason action, he has shown great defensive promise at both the corner infield spots.
East Carolina, most recently tabbed preseason No. 22 nationally by Perfect Game, heads into this weekend's series against UW-Milwaukee with several unanswered questions. However, its infield undeniably sports enough experience and firepower to bolster a youthful pitching staff.
Schnabel, in his third year as hitting coach, is excited about the potential of the 2012 lineup.
"The offense has a ton of potential. The kids have come back, worked hard, and really grinded it out. There's a lot of talent on this roster and some of the kids who haven't experienced a lot of action have been pushing the starters for playing time. That's healthy and great to see. We have some speed, power, and guys that can hit for average. We have a lot of potential. It really has the making of a special group."
Tomorrow, Part III (final installment) of the baseball preview will take a look at this year's outfield.