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2007 KU Baseball Preview - Outfielders

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

Departed Talent Career (Batting Average / On Base Percentage / Slugging Average)
Matt Baty - 221 games (.320/.402/.416) 5 HR, 97 RBI, 78 SB.
Gus Milner - 128 games (.314/.395/.518) 16 HR, 103 RBI, 15 SB.

Returning Talent 2006 stats (Batting Average / On Base Percentage / Slugging Average)
John Allman (Jr.) - 237 At Bats (.333/.420/.485) 6 HR, 52 RBI, 7 SB.
Brock Simpson (Jr.) - 205 At Bats (.293/.360/.463) 5 HR, 33 RBI, 5 SB.
Kyle Murphy (Sr.) - 98 At Bats (.153/.215/.286) 2 HR, 9 RBI, 4 SB.
Nick Faunce (So.) - 13 At Bats (.154/.154/.154) 3 RBI.

Casey Larson (Jr.) - Transfer from Cuesta CC.
Joe Servais (Jr.) - Transfer from Garden City CC
Brian Heere (Fr.) - Lawrence High School
Blake Slagle (Fr.) - Eureka High School, Wildwood Mo.

The KU outfield will enter 2007 missing two of last year's leaders.  For four years Matt Baty provided the team with absolutely stellar centerfield defense and one of the most effective lead-off bats in the Big-12.  Baty leaves quite an imprint on the KU record books.  Third all time in games played (221) and at-bats (818); fourth in hits (262); fifth in runs scored (177); seventh in doubles (51); and, tied for sixth in stolen bases (78).  Numbers like that are hard to replace, as will be Baty's leadership.  From the fan's perspective Baty appeared to have the ability to inspire those around him to give their best.  I don't think many people who were at Hoglund on Sunday morning, May 8th, 2005, will forget Matt's game saving catch that sealed the Texas series.  It was a defining moment in the season and, I don't think it would be much exaggeration to identify it as the precise second in which the rest of the Big-12 came to understand that the Jayhawks were no longer going to be one of the conference's lightweights. Last year Baty overcame a serious game injury to his spleen to return in time for the postseason tournaments. As I understand his return was against medical advice, and given that he had already decided he was not going to pursue a professional career, an emotional boost to an already surging team. A few weeks later Baty was named the MVP of the Big-12 tournament.

Gus Milner's stay in Lawrence was briefer than Baty's, but he was the heart of the batting order last year.  The guy simply produced runs.  Nothing about him on paper jumps out, but about half way through last season I had come to accept him as the player most likely to produce results when the game was on the line.  Gus has taken this same style into pro ball, driving in 39 runs during a half season of rookie ball in the Philadelphia organization (14th round selection).

These are big holes to fill, and at this point it is not at all clear that the Jayhawks will be able to do so.  John Allman returns for his junior year, providing continuity and production in left field.  Brock Simpson moves from DH to right field to replace Milner.  However, there is no one to step up into Baty's position capable of producing his same level of offensive output.  

Projected Depth Chart
LF - Allman - Servais (?)
CF - Murphy -  Larson - Faunce
RF - Simpson - Servais (?)

Allman and Simpson provide KU with two very good corner outfielders.  Both are high On Base Percentage players who also have the capability of delivering runs and fielding their positions competently.  They should hit #2 (Simpson) and #3 (Allman) in the batting order.  With the heart of the line up looking like:

#2 - Simpson (2006 OPS .823)
#3 - Allman (.905)
#4 - Morrison (.866)
#5 - Land (.994)
#6 - Ryan Price (.890)

...the Jayhawks are going to put up a crooked number in one or two frames most nights.

The top reserve backing up Allman and Simpson appears to be Joe Servais.  Servais is also slotted in as one of the team's catchers, and for more information on him best to visit this section of the team's preview.  Barring injury I do not expect Allman and Simpson will be out of the starting lineup many nights.

This leaves only centerfield as a question mark.  Last year Baty filled two roles on the team.  His high OBP and base running skills made him an ideal lead-off man, and his excellent fielding skills allowed him to cover centerfield as well as anyone in the Big-12.  There simply is no obvious candidate to fill these two roles this year.

Kyle Murphy is the leading candidate to take over in centerfield.  Last year he demonstrated his defensive excellence, but surprisingly his bat remained cold throughout the season.  

At this point last year Murphy appeared to be the heir apparent to Baty.  Murphy transferred in from Indian Hills Community College where he was an honorable mention All-American.  His batting average was north of the Ted Williams line (.444), and those hits were not just annoying singles.  Thirteen of his 63 hits left the park and he drove in 51 runs.  2005 did not look like a fluke either as Murphy had hit .349 in 2004.  Add to this his base running (32 stolen bases in two years) and his unquestionably excellence in the field, and Murphy pretty well looked like the Second Coming entering last season.  Somehow all these impressive skills translated into a batting line of .153/.215/.286 during his first year in Lawrence.  By the end of the season Murphy was seeing most of his playing time as a late inning defensive replacement, appearing in 35 games in this role.

Backing up Murphy is Nick Faunce, who played too infrequently last year to reveal his skill-set and thus remains a question mark.  If neither Murphy or Faunce can hold down the position it may fall to incoming Juco transfer Casey Larson.

Casey, the son of former major leaguer Dan Larson, spent the last two years at Cuesta community college were he hit for decent average (.307)  and power (9 homeruns).  He was drafted by the Baltimore organization in 2004 but turned down the offer to play college ball.  This earlier draft in a strong indication of his potential.  As the example of Murphy demonstrates it is hard to project how well a Juco player will perform after he makes the jump so, at this point, it is best to keep expectations moderate, but there is a lot to like in Larson's background.

Hopefully Murphy will regain his stroke at the plate and put together a solid offensive year.  Even if he only brings his batting numbers up to a level around .250/.320/.400 his other skills will ensure he receives the bulk of the playing time in center. If Murphy cannot get on base consistantly, and neither Casey or Faunce steps up, this leaves the Jayhawks without an obvious leadoff hitter. If this situation arises the whole batting lineup listed above might have to shift down one rung each. This situation would not be ideal as the lineup would be front loaded with power, and be fairly light-hitting from the #6 to #9 slots. This solution would work, but the emergence of one of the CF candidates as a good lead-off option would make the line-up significantly more potent.

The KU outfield does not project to be as productive offensively in 2007 as it was last year, but if Murphy emerges as an improved hitter the decline should not be drastic.  Defensively the outfield should he every bit as solid in 2007 as it was in 2006.

Earlier preview chapters