Bumped to the top throughout the weekend.... RCT is still being updated, look below the tremendous interview with coach Ritchie Price himself... ROCK CHALK!
KU Baseball has been a new type of animal since the arrival of Ritch Price five years ago. When Price inherited the program the Jayhawks had struggled through five straight losing seasons and not made an appearance in the NCAA tournament since 1994. Under Price the Jayhawks have a record of 171-144-1 and fought their way back into the post-season by winning the Big-12 tournament in 2006. During this time Price has overseen tremendous improvements to the baseball facilities (almost entirely financed by private donor contributions) and watched two of his former players quickly reach the majors. Last month Price received a national pat on the back by being named one of Team USA's coaches. KU has a nationally respected baseball coach who has transformed a dormant program into a player on the national scene.
Price has led four of his five KU teams to 30+ wins.
Ritch Price was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview this week. Much of our talk centered upon specific players and what roles they were expected to fill in the 2008 season. Five season preview articles will be posted in January coving the Catchers, Infielders, Outfielders, Staring and Relief Pitching.
Beyond specific players we also talked about the direction of the team and college baseball in general. Before moving into those areas, in brief, Price sees the 2008 team shaping up along these lines:
Starting Pitchers - Andy Marks, Nick Czyz, Wally Marciel, Andres Esquibel and newcomer Shaeffer Hall. Price also expects games to be started by Hiarali Garcia and possibly Thomas Marcin.
Price hopes there might be as many as two more mid-year transfers eligible for play in 2008. These players, whose transfers are still not finalized, would be pitchers and would compete for roles on the staff immediately.
Bullpen - Paul Smyth will close. Brett Bollman, Brett Bochy, T.J. Walz, Max Ellenbecker and Matt Lane will all see action.
Infield - Buck Afenir (C), Preston Land/Justin Ellrich 1B, Robby Price/Matt Berner 2B, Tony Thompsom (3B) and Erik Morrison (SS). Ryne Price, Joe Southers and Eric Snowden will back up Afenir.
Outfield - John Allman (LF), Nick Faunce (CF) and Ryne Price (RF). Casey Larson, Brian Heere, Jimmy Waters and Blake Slagle to see time in the field and as DH.
Jordan Jakubov, Zach Sperry Chris Dabbs, Greg Herbst, Phil Parrish and Casey Lytle are all candidates for possible red-shirts.
More detailed breakdowns of these positions and players will be posted in January.
Given recent events I asked Price what his thoughts were on Performance Enhancing Drug usage in the NCAA, and if he thought the current testing and penalty programs were effective. Price said he found the current program "very strict. It makes sure the kids stay away from drugs. They absolutely are effective. If a player tests positive they are suspended for the whole year." He explained that last month the team received three separate calls for random tests. Twelve players were called at 6AM and had to report.
This year the NCAA has instituted several new rules intended to eliminate advantages currently held by warm weather schools and the more established programs. This year all NCAA schools have a uniform start date of February 22nd. This new date effectively eliminates three weeks from the schedule. The purpose being to eliminate an advantage the southern schools held over the rest of the nation. Price explained that, "even though this new rule benefits cold weather states like Kansas I am opposed to it. As a baseball guy I am all about what is best for baseball. This change has also made scheduling more difficult of us." Unlike many schools KU has few regional opponents so must travel for games. By compressing the season KU is now forced to play a very intense weekend schedule often including double headers. There just are not enough teams located close enough to KU that enough mid-week games can be scheduled without forcing the players to miss class time. The university only allows the players to miss a total of ten class days per year.
Effective in 2009 NCAA teams will be limited to 35 man rosters and each player receiving financial assistance must be awarded a minimum of a 25% scholarship. Price had no problem with the 35 man roster as that is the limit KU has already been operating under. He was opposed to the new scholarship restrictions. "Baseball players are almost always on partial scholarships. In the past I could reward players by at least paying for their books. That will no longer be possible."
Also in 2009 transfers will have to sit out one year before joining their new teams. This rule will apply to both players coming in with a scholarship and walk-ons. Price was also opposed to this change. "I think it is not fair to the players. I believe that one hundred percent." He did agree that this rule was probable instituted to discourage larger programs from pulling talented players out of smaller schools but he believed that this rule really hurts the players the most.
Do you see KU finishing in the top five of the Big-12 this year? "I think there is a good chance. We have great pitching depth. If Marks is healthy we have an outstanding chance."
When do you think Andy Marks will be ready to pitch? - "He should be 100% by April 1st. He is ahead of schedule and we are very encouraged. He has had no setbacks."
Outside of Texas and Missouri who do you see as the strongest teams in the Big-12 this year? - "Missouri has phenomenal pitching but the jury is still out regarding their offense. I think Texas A&M is as good as anyone in America. I also think Bayor will be really good."
What is an underappreciated strength of the 2008 Jayhawks? - "The bullpen. The hardest thing to do at this level is to have depth in the bullpen. With Esquibel, Bollman, Marcin, Garcia, we just have more bullets to shoot this season."
"To make the NCAA tournament you must win ten Tuesday games. We have the depth to do that."
Are there any players you expect to surprise the public this year? - "Tony Thompson and Jimmy Waters. Thompson will remind Jayhawk fans of Travis Metcalf. He can hit double-digit home runs this year. Jimmy Waters is like a poor man's Alex Gordon. These two are the best pair of hitting recruits I have had in any one class since I came to KU. John Allman may surprise also. He may put up some more power numbers this year."
The 2009 class looks great. What has been key in enabling you to step up recruiting recently? - "It really is the culmination of a five year effort. We have made phenomenal progress in upgrading the facilities. This year we won the recruiting battle in Kansas for the first time in the five years I have been here. Four of the six best Kansas players have signed. The other two are going to Wichita State. For the last twenty five years Wichita State has ruled Kansas recruiting. The bottom line is we must sign the best pitchers in the mid-west."
"Plus the players like the style of play here at KU. We are physical with the bat. Aggressive early in the count. And we play freshmen. Also the recruits see the success we have had in placing players in the major leagues recently. Our schedule is very attractive also. We play some of the best teams in the country and travel to the South, California, Hawaii..."
You must take a lot of pride in the major league success of Travis Metcalf and Mike Zagurski. - "I am so proud of those guys it is incredible. Zagurski graduated after leaving. He told me he is one of about twenty five guys in the big leagues with a college degree now."
How is Ritchie Price (his son and former KU shortstop great) doing at South Dakota State? - "Ritchie is doing great. He is the infield coach and has been spending a lot of time recruiting."
Given events in Oregon, is there any reason for increased hope that Iowa State and Colorado will restart their programs? - "There are rumors about Iowa State."
Once more a big thanks to Ritch Price for spending the time to give this interview. The quotes are based on notes I took during our talk. Hopefully no error were made. Baseball gets under way February 22nd when the Jayhawks open the 2008 campaign at Hawaii-Hilo. Hawaii sounds pretty good right about now.