The biggest question mark facing the KU baseball team as we move into the 2009 season is how the outfield will shape up. Who will play? Is there enough talent in these key offensive positions? Through the first five games the results have been fairly promising.
Nick Faunce (Sr., Centerfield) The only member of the 2009 outfield with significant NCAA experience is starting centerfielder and lead-off batter Nick Faunce. Everyone who has watched Faunce play knows he is a good fielder. Coming into last season the question dogging Faunce was could he hit? He seemed to put those fears to rest last season while splitting time with now departed Casey Larson in center. In 141 at bats he hit .326/.401/.482 (Batting Average / On Base Average / Slugging Percentage). Pretty damn impressive. Faunce is off to a slow start so far in ’09 (.268/.300/.368) but I think we can feel pretty secure that, at worst, Faunce is going to be a good glove man in center and hold his own as a guy who gets on base.
One area of the game in which Faunce is still struggling is stealing bases. Statistics tell us that unless a player is successful about 70% of the time when stealing their running is doing more harm than good. In his career Faunce has only been successful two out of seven attempts. While it certainly is not a necessity, you like to have a leadoff batter who can swipe bases and divide the pitcher's attention when he is facing the heart of the KU lineup. Hopefully Faunce will improve in this area in 2009. In the first five games he went one for two.
After the jump, previews of Jimmy Waters, Brian Heere, Jake Marasco, Jason Brunansky and Casey Lytle.
Brian Heere (Soph., Outfield) Heere played sparingly last year as a redshirt freshman but looks to be one of the foundations of the ’09 outfield. Heere is a local product. He made second team all-state as a baseball player at Lawrence High and also was the team’s starting quarterback, so he has skills. Small for the outfield (5’8, 168 lbs) Heere will not likely provide near the same level of power as KU fans have seen coming out of right field in recent seasons.
In 2008 Heere played in 21 games but only collected 21 at-bats. The sample size is too small to carry much weight. Heere hit .238/.360/.286 for the season. Perhaps more meaningful is his performance over the last two summers, which has been good. Last summer Brian hit .256/.385/.354 against competition roughly at the same level he is likely to see this season at KU. The OBP looks great, especially when it is further reinforced by his performance during the summer of 2007 when he reached base at a .429 clip.
Coach Price called Heere the “most pleasant surprise on the team” after fall practice. Brian started three of the team’s first five games, hitting .154/.294/.308. Hopefully those numbers will climb. If Heere can play good defense, run the bases smartly, and get on base more than 35% of the time, he will stay high in the outfield rotation. Like Faunce Heere has not yet developed into a real base-stealing threat. This summer he went two for five, and has gone one for two in his collegiate career. This would be a good skill for him to add.
Jimmy Waters (Soph. OF) Jimmy Waters will mostly DH to start the season but will move into left field as he regains strength in his surgically repaired shoulder. Waters was a very highly recruited prospect when he joined KU last year but he struggled so badly early in the year that he sat out about half the season regrouping on the bench. When Waters returned to the lineup in April he resembled the advertised product. Waters 2.0 hit for average and power and played smash-face on the base pads. He will not be well liked by opposing catchers.
His final line in 66 at-bats was not bad at all, .242/.351/.424. Waters, Tony Thompson, Zac Elgie, Preston Land and Buck Afenir make up the diminished group of power threats on the team this year. I actually expect Waters to lead the team in round-trippers. I don’t think it is unreasonable to hope for double digits out of Jimmy Smash-Face (what do you think? Good nickname?)
In high school Waters was a power hitter, a double-threat starting quarterback and an All-American wrestler, so yeah, he’s a stud. I think the biggest variable in Water’s performance this year is his health. Hopefully his shoulder will heal and he’ll emerge as a season long impact player. Jimmy played in all of the team’s first five games, but only started two. He went 3-12 with a double and a stolen base. I probably have higher expectations for Water than most. I guess I just like his approach to the game.
Jake Marasco (Freshman, OF) Marasco is a true freshman so I am limited on what I can pass along on him. Marasco will see a lot of playing time in left field early this year. Jimmy Waters will also play in left but is recovering from a shoulder surgery so will mostly DH through the first month. Marasco has mass, 6’3, 206 lbs. He played linebacker in high school. Marasco comes out of Maize High School near Wichita, the same school that produced the Baty brothers. Price described Marasco as “physical with the bat, but not a home run hitter,” at least yet. He sees Marasco as similar to John Allman in many ways, which might be high praise. “He is a good runner” but not yet a good defender and will be replaced in the outfield for defense late in some games. Marasco played first and third in high school and was named to the 6A all-state team twice. He looks like a good catch. Marasco started four of the first five games, going 3-12 with a double and a stolen base.
Jason Brunansky (Freshman, OF) Bruanansky is the other true freshman who will see quite a bit of time in the outfield this season. Jason is the son of former major league slugger Tom Brunansky. Unlike his father Jason will be more of a line drive hitter. Price called Brunansky a “very good runner with gap to gap speed” so he will be used as a defensive replacement in some games which he does not start. Brunansky comes to KU from Poway, California, so the CA – KS prospect highway Price set up remains open. Jason has started the season hot, going 4 – 13 with a double and an RBI.
Casey Lytle (Soph., OF) Lytle enters his second season at KU and will share time in right field with Brian Heere. Lytle has only seen a small amount of playing time since arriving at KU but has made the most of his opportunities. Last year he went three for seven at the plate and drew two walks. He has been on fire in ’09. In three appearances he has gone 4-5 and drove in a key run. Lytle is a much bigger player than Heere and Brunansky (6’2, 200 lbs) and, if he continues to hit well, might see a lot more action this year. The team has to score runs and Lytle might prove to be an overlooked source of offense. Lytle produced this summer, hitting .303/.363/.380 but it looks like he struggled in the field and was almost never used against left handed pitching.
Summing it up, KU goes into 2009 with very little experience in the outfield. As a group the outfielders should provide good defense and get on base at a reasonably high clip. Outside of Waters there is little power out there. If all goes well Faunce will lead, Waters will hold his own in the field and provide smack, and out of the group of Heere, Brunansky, Maraso and Lytle at least two will establish themselves as strong D-I caliber players by mid-season.