What a memorable spring it was for Kansas University baseball - a stunning Big 12 Conference tourney championship and a berth in the NCAAs.
Yeah, but :
"We win 43 games, we get hot late in the year," KU coach Ritch Price said, "and all the predictions have us finishing ninth or 10th (in the league) this year. Our players are really upset."
Price, however, sees the snub from another angle.
"I view it as a statement," he said, "of how good the players were who left the program."
Surely, those doubting pundits pored primarily over Price's pitching before providing their prognostications because the Jayhawks - who open the season tonight - appear to be starting almost from scratch on the mound.
Price lost his top three starters - Kodiak Quick, Sean Land and Ricky Fairchild - and, even worse, reliever Don Czyz, the NCAA leader in saves with 19.
Yeah, but :
"Overall, we have the deepest pitching staff since I've been here," Price said. "Obviously, we can't replace Czyz, but we have a lot of options."
Price still has a Czyz on the roster, but Nick Czyz is not a reliever. Don Czyz's brother, a sophomore left-hander, is a starting pitcher.
The younger Czyz, who posted a 4-3 record and a 5.11 earned-run average as a freshman last spring, and Andy Marks, another sophomore southpaw, are the only returnees projected as probable starters this season. Marks was 2-1 with a 5.35 ERA as a freshman.
Three others in mix
The other front-line candidates are Zach Ashwood, a left-handed transfer from TCU; Andres Esquibel, a right-handed transfer from Palomar (Calif.) JC; and Wally Marciel, a left-handed freshman who was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Hawaii.
"Those are the five who will compete for the three starting jobs," Price said.
Ashwood will be on the mound tonight in the first game of the Jayhawks' season-opening series at Hawaii-Hilo. Czyz and Marciel will start in Friday's doubleheader. Marks is ticketed for Saturday's single game and Esquibel for Sunday's wrap-up.
Also under scrutiny will be the closer role. Price hopes to elevate Paul Smyth, last year's set-up man, to stopper, but Hiarali (pronounced Ya-da-lay) Garcia, a transfer from East Oklahoma CC, will challenge.
"Whoever doesn't close," Price said of that bullpen duo, "will be the set-up man."
In the field, outfielders Matt Baty and Gus Milner, first baseman Jared Schweitzer and shortstop Ritchie Price concluded their eligibility and took a bushel of glossy hitting stats with them. Of those four, only Baty wasn't drafted. The other KU players selected by major-league teams in June were pitchers Czyz, Land and Quick.
Yeah, but :
"We have six returning starters who were contributors," Price said.
Morrison shifts to short
Junior Erik Morrison led the Jayhawks in home runs last season with 14, and his shift from third base, where he led the club in errors, to shortstop should enhance his comfort zone.
At the same time, sophomore Preston Land has the potential to become a bona fide slugger at first base after hitting .314 with nine homers while serving mostly as the DH last season.
"He's a man," Price said of the 270-pound Land, younger brother of Sean Land. "He's at a whole different level than he was a year ago."
Two of Price's sons will fill half the infield slots. Junior Ryne Price returns at second base after missing more than half the '06 season because of a wrist injury, while Robby Price, the reigning Kansas prep player of the year after helping Free State capture the Class 6A state title, takes over for Morrison at third.
Junior John Allman, who hit .333 with 52 RBIs last spring, owns left field, and junior Brock Simpson, who had a team-high six triples in '06, takes over for Milner in right.
Price hopes Kyle Murphy, a defensive whiz, will fill the bill as Baty's replacement in center. Murphy filled in while Baty was hurt last season, but hit only .153.
"He's such a good fielder that if he hits .250," Price said, "I'll be the happiest coach in America."
If Murphy doesn't hit at least .250, junior-college transfer Casey Larson is waiting in the wings. Another juco transfer, Joe Servais, probably will be the DH.
Of the five catchers on the roster - including Servais - Buck Afenir has the early edge after hitting .278 as a freshman, but .391 during the postseason.
"Afenir has really improved," Price said. "He's not the same player he was a year ago."
Catching was the Jayhawks' weakest position in '06. The backstops provided little offensive punch and led the league in passed balls. KU also surrendered 75 stolen bases, the second-highest number in the Big 12.
But it wasn't just the catchers who had defensive woes. Kansas finished last in the league in overall fielding (.966) while committing a Big 12-high 90 errors.
Yeah, but :
"We'll have some peaks and valleys," Price said about the upcoming season, "but when it's all over, I think we'll be able to reach the 40-win plateau you need to make the NCAA Tournament."
In effect, that would be treading water, but at least the water would be warm.
"Our goal is to stay there," Price said. "We don't want to go backwards."