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2007 KU Baseball Preview - Infielders

Leading up to the baseball season Rock Chalk Talk will preview the 2007 KU baseball team position-by-position.  Today the Infielders.

Departed Talent Career (Batting Average / On Base Percentage / Slugging Average)
Jared Schweitzer -1B/2B 167 games - (.349 /.434 /.541) 23 HR, 88 RBI.
Ritchie Price -  SS 255 games - (.305 /.412 /.376) 5 HR, 134 RBI, 25 SB.

Returning Talent 2006 stats (Batting Average / On Base Percentage / Slugging Average)
Erik Morrison (Jr. 3B) - 245 At Bats (.290 /.344 /.522) 14 HR, 52 RBI, 7 SB.
Preston Land (Soph. 1B) - 159 At Bats (.314 /.422 /.572) 9 HR, 33 RBI.
Ryan Price (Jr. 2B) - 86 At Bats (.256 /.377 /.581) 9 HR, 24 RBI.
Matt Berner (Jr. 2B/3B) - 60 At Bats (.233 /.309 /.267), 5 RBI.
Justin Ellrich (Soph. DH/OF) - 48 At Bats (.208 /.278 /.333) 1 HR, 4 RBI.
Ross Kelling (Sr. 1B/DH) - 12 At Bats (5-12), 1 HR, 2 RBI.

Robby Price (Fr., SS)
Brett Bochy (Fr., relief pitcher and infielder)
Steve Cochran (RS Fr.)
Casey Larson (Jr. Transfer from Cuesta CC, OF/3B)

The MLB draft claimed half the KU starting infield last June.  Ritchie Price, KU's starting shortstop for the last four years and the school's all time leader in games played (255), Hits (312), At Bats (1,022) and Runs (204) was named the "Best Defensive Player" in the Mets minor league system by Baseball Weekly after half a season of low-A ball.  There were times last year when Jared Schweitzer was so in control in the batter's box that it seemed like he could have laced line-drive doubles down the line with a whiffle ball and a broomstick.   Schweitzer leaves KU as the owner of the longest hitting streak in school history (24), 7th all time in homeruns (23) and 9th in career slugging percentage (.541).  Amazingly, the 2007 infield may actually be as solid as the 2006 version.

Erik Morrison, KU's likely clean-up hitter, is one of the team leaders.  He was drafted by the Yankees out of high school but turned Steinbrenner down to play in Lawrence.  In 2007 he will move from 3B, where he has been the last two years, to SS.  Morrison played short throughout high-school, moving to third when he arrived at KU only to keep both he and Ritchie Price in the lineup.  Morrison's defense at the hot corner had its interesting moments (48 errors over the two years) but, numbers aside, in my estimation he did seem improved.  Late last season he made several highlight reel stops.  Due to the speed of the balls off the metal bats third base is probably the most difficult defensive position in college so Morrison's .893 fielding percentage is not as bad as it might look to those unfamiliar with the college game. It is on the low side, but not by a large margin. As a point of comparison, Alex Gordon, generally considered to be a good third baseman, had a .935 fielding percentage in 2005 at Nebraska when he won National Player of the Year.  While Morrison's fielding was a concern, his offensive production established him as one of the team's most valuable players.  His 14 homeruns last year are the 4th highest total ever achieved by a Jayhawk (Travis Metcalf holds the record with 18 in 2004), and his 52 RBI's tied him with John Allman for 2nd place on the team (Gus Milner led last year with 58).  Morrison will presumably be more comfortable at SS than he was at third, hopefully increasing the chances his bat will remain loud throughout 2007.  He has a fair chance of making the All Big-12 team.

Preston Land is another bright spot in the infield.  Land will be taking over first base and, while his defense will not be at the same level established by Schweitzer, his bat may actually be better. That is saying a lot.  Land set a freshman record last year by hitting 9 homeruns.  The guy is large.  I don't care what his bio says, the dude is eight feet tall.  He has a powerful uppercut swing which resulted in a high K rate (28% of plate appearances) but he partially compensates for this with patience (27 walks) and a willingness to shorten his stroke with two strikes (.314 batting average). Land had a fly ball/ground ball ratio of 2.4 last year, which led the team. His ability to elevate the ball plays to his strength.  Baseball America named Land a pre-season All Big-12 pick this week.  It would not come as a surprise to see him challenging run production records next year if he stays healthy.  His status as a freshman last year limited him to 49 starts and only 159 at bats.  He will get more this year.  Hopefully his defensive positioning will improve. There were a few plays last year in which he found his role too late to make the play.

Ross Kelling, Joe Servais (catcher primarily), Justin Ellrich and Brett Bochy will presumably split time at DH.  Kelling seems to be the front runner.  His very limited playing time last year does not leave a lot of clues as to what we can expect from him, but the hints that are there are all positive.  He hit .417, drew five walks to only one strikeout, and three of his five hits were for extra bases.  Joe Servais and Bretty Bochy are both newcomers to the team but both arrive with impressive resumes.  Servais hit .356 in Juco last year, and Bochy (son of former major leaguer Bruce) comes in as a highly regarded freshman recruit.  Ellrich's work in high school and in summer leagues indicate he is capable of producing good power and average, probably meaning he will improve on his 2006 production.  This summer in the Jayhawk league he slugged .646 and drove in 30 runs over a 32 game season.

Morrison moving to SS opens up 3B to the latest member of the Price family to play at KU, Robby.  Robby Price led Free State High School to the 6A state championship last year while winning the Kansas High School Player of the Year award.  It is hard to predict how well Robby will do in 2007 as the gap between Kansas high school and Big-12 baseball is enormous, but I think it is reasonable to hope for a pretty solid year from him at the plate.  Robby, like his brothers, will arrive with the benefit of years of coaching in defense and fundamentals, and so may progress more rapidly than most 19 year olds.

That leaves only second base unaccounted for, where Robby's older brother, Ryan Price, will start.  Ryan had a very solid freshman year in 2005 (.256 /.409 /.405) with 5 homeruns and 40 RBI; however, injuries cut down his playing time from 60 to 28 games in 2006.  Just the same Ryan improved his batting numbers his sophmore year - (.256 /.377 /.581), 9 homeruns, 24 RBI's.  If Ryan can play a full season he might force the Big-12 to consider three Jayhawk infielders for the All-conference team.

Matt Berner stepped up and filled in for the injured Ryan Price last year.  Berner's defense was generally solid, if not spectacular, at both 2B and 3B.  He started off hot at the plate, but fell into a long slump near the end of the year.  He will not challenge to supplant any of the above players in the starting rotation, but he provides the team with a capable backup at second and third base.  Steve Cochran is another infield reserve.  Cochran was red shirted last year and has yet to play in his first college game, so he is a bit of a mystery still.  He was a good defensive shortstop in high school where he also hit for average and power.  He looks to be a candidate as a surprise contributor in 2007.

Expected Depth Chart
1B - Land - Kelling
2B - Ryan Price - Berner
SS - Morrison - Steve Cochran
3B - Robby Price - Berner - Casey Larson
DH - Kelling - Servais - Ellrich - Bochy

Being Optimistic
Land - .350 Batting Average, 16 Homeruns, 60 RBI.
Ryan Price - .400 On Base Percentage, 12 Homeruns, 50 RBI.
Morrison - .600 Slugging Percentage, 15 Homeruns, 60 RBI.
Robby Price - .300 Batting Average, 10 Homeruns, 45 RBI.
Kelling - .400 On Base Percentage, .400 Slugging Percentage, 10 Homeruns.

If even a few of these players reach these levels the Jayhawks should be able to score more than six runs a game again in 2007.  Last year KU terrorized their opponents to the tune of 6.4 runs per outing, and I do not see much of a drop-off happening in 2007 despite the loss of two special players who are all over the KU record books.  From an offensive stand point head coach Rich Price has reloaded the team well. If there are going to be problems next year they most likely will be on the mound. But that will be covered in future preview chapters.

Earlier 2007 KU season preview articles: