Baseball Season Preview
UK Baseball Season Preview Coverage on Cat Scratches
2010 UK Baseball Season Preview
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- With four consecutive winning seasons for just the second time in the over 100-year history of the program, an outside observer could make the claim that the Kentucky baseball program has turned the corner.
Yes, Kentucky has won a school-record 44 games and advanced an NCAA Regional Championship game twice in the last four seasons. Yes, the Wildcats have had four first-team All-Americans in the last four seasons. And yes, UK continues to churn out top-round MLB Draft selections year after year.
But Kentucky is not satisfied. Under the direction of second-year head coach Gary Henderson, the Wildcats have high expectations and an unyielding desire for unprecedented success.
"This program has come a long way in the last few seasons, but we have a lot to accomplish to get to where we need to be," Henderson said. "The club is hungry to compete for another SEC title and make a run at Omaha. We have a group of talented, highly-competitive student-athletes who are driven to reach their goals and a coaching staff that is committed to the development of the players. We are excited to get the 2010 season underway."
Last year, in Henderson's first year at the helm of the program he helped build as the associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, the Wildcats posted their fourth straight winning season, despite a lineup full of young, inexperienced talent and a roster decimated by injuries.
Entering the 2010 season, the outlook appears much more clear, as Henderson and UK's players have adapted to his head coaching style and the young players have been acclimated to the rigors of the top college baseball conference in the nation.
"What you hope is that the experience that the young players gained last year will give them the confidence and perspective to continue to improve their game," Henderson said.
With two straight top-six recruiting classes (No. 4 in 2009, No. 6 in 2010), the Wildcats have replenished the talent and experience and have high expectations entering the 2010 campaign.
With eight of nine position starters returning from a year ago, UK is loaded at the plate and in the field, particularly in the outfield where UK returns its entire starting three.
There won't be many teams in the nation that can match Kentucky's combination of speed, athleticism and defense in the outfield, as returning starters Keenan Wiley and Chad Wright will anchor the lineup and outfield.
Wiley and Wright saw the most extensive playing time with Wiley in his fourth-year as the starter in center field. Over his three previous seasons, Wiley has played in more than 150 games and charted a .300 career batting average, with his speed and range in the outfield serving as a major defensive weapon.
"We are hoping that what Keenan does is continue to provide us with outstanding defense and leadership in center field," Henderson said. "We also need him to improve his ability to get on base, have competitive at bats and utilize the whole field when he is hitting. He has the ability to really develop as a multidimensional threat at the plate."
In a recruiting class that was highlighted by five High School All-Americans last year, Wright was a bit overshadowed, but that didn't last long, as the Paducah, Ky., native forced his way into the Wildcat lineup and became one of the top outfielders in the Southeastern Conference. Wright batted a robust .343 with four homers from his left-field post, primarily hitting leadoff.
"Chad Wright is on the verge of being an extremely good player in the SEC," Henderson said. "He had an outstanding freshman year, he has improved his speed and his strength. He had a very good summer and he is a tough competitor that shows up every day to get better. We expect him to be a very good player in the top of the order."
Cory Farris will be joined by a host of talented player competing for the right-field post, including Gunner Glad, sophomore Navarro Hall, speedster Neiko Johnson and newcomer Lance Ray. Last year, Farris got off to a hot start and cooled down as the SEC schedule bagan, before turning his bat on for the UK post-season push. The Florence, Ky., native totaled a .310 average in 29 games as a true freshman, belting two homers and adding 16 RBI.
"Cory is a guy with tremendous potential that continues to get better," Henderson said. "His swing and pitch selection are continuing to improve. He provides a combination of strength and speed that you don't often see in college baseball. Everything about Cory Farris is getting better."
Ray, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound left-handed hitter, comes to UK from Las Vegas, out of Western Nevada College and brings the versatility to play several positions.
"Lance is going to have the ability to play in left, right or at first," Henderson said. "He has a very good swing. By the time he is done, he is going to be a very good player here."
A reoccurring theme for the Wildcat position players in 2010 is returning starters and the infield is no different, as UK returns starters at first, second and third base.
While the Wildcats must replace two-year starting shortstop Chris Wade, who took his defensive prowess to the Florida Marlins organization, Henderson feels comfortable with his returning starters, including All-SEC second baseman Chris Bisson. Last year, Bisson led the team in nearly every category, including average (.360), hits (80), runs (49), triples (three), walks (20) and RBI (52).
"Chris continues to improve his pitch selection at the plate and he continues to improve his ability to hit the ball to all fields," Henderson said. "I would expect him to show a little bit more power and have more stolen bases. Although he played extremely well at second base, he is probably going to be a better defensive player and he is certainly going to provide more leadership now that he has a year of experience as an all-conference player."
A 6-foot-2, 190-pound sophomore, Andy Burns was the position-player gem of the 2009 school-record ranked freshman class. After a freshman season that saw him hit .287 with seven homers and 33 RBI, while manning third base, Burns will be relied upon as a middle-of-the-order run producer, a defensive presence and veteran leader in the infield.
"Andy had a really good fall. He is much stronger, faster and he is much more confident defensively," Henderson said. "His pitch selection will be dramatically improved this year. He is a much more confident player and he has shown much more poise."
At first base UK will have several options, including returning starters Glad and Braden Kapteyn, in addition to Ray. The Wildcats relied upon Glad and Kapteyn in 2009, with Kapteyn often serving as designated hitter to maximize his value as a late-inning reliever. Glad played in just 38 games due to injury as a junior and hit .303 with nine homers and 38 RBI, while Kapteyn led the team with 11 doubles, adding a .319 average with four homers and 27 RBI.
"What we need Gunner to do is drive in runs, provide power and a mature competitive presence in the middle of our order," Henderson said. "His ability to play in the outfield, first base or fulfill the DH role provides some options for us that can be very beneficial. Hopefully Braden will get comfortable with both of his roles as an offensive presence and key member of our pitching staff. He will provide us with a solid defensive option at first base and be a threat in the lineup."
With Wade gone at shortstop, UK will turn to junior college transfer Taylor Black, a Freshman All-American honoree in 2008 at Charleston Southern. Black, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound right-handed hitter, will be counted on to anchor a traditionally skilled UK defensive infield.
"Taylor Black will start the year as our shortstop," Henderson said. "He has been very good since he got here. He is an extremely hard worker and he has improved a great deal in the five months that he has been on campus. He is stronger and his hitting has improved a great deal. We are optimistic that he is going to be a very good player."
After a breakout summer in the New York Collegiate Baseball League, junior Neiko Johnson is poised for to emerge as a primetime performer in 2010 and could see playing time at any infield or outfield position.
"Neiko has dramatically improved his strength and his level of concentration," Henderson said. "He has gotten much stronger, improved his ability to concentrate and the quality of his at bats."
Having a solid, veteran catcher is piviotal to a college baseball team, and UK has just that in fifth-year senior Marcus Nidiffer, a two-year starter.
Nidiffer was in the midst of a breakout season in 2009, leading the SEC in hitting entering conference play. The physical and emotional leader of the Wildcats, Nidiffer displayed his toughness when he broke the thumb on his catching hand early in the year, electing to play through the pain in order to give his club an experienced backstop for the postseason push. In games UK won, Nidiffer batted .395 and in games UK lost, Nidiffer hit .211, proving how important he is to the success of the UK offense.
In addition to Nidiffer, UK will have some depth behind the plate, with sophomores Michael Williams and T.J. Daugherty, in addition to Kentucky Mr. Baseball Luke Maile. Williams saw some playing time in 2009, hitting a homer and batting .222 in 11 games and four starts. Maile enters the opener of his collegiate career as a highly-touted recruit, who has impressed coaches with his work ethic, competitiveness and intelligence.
"We feel like we have one of the better catchers in the conference in Marcus Nidiffer," Henderson said. "Marcus is a fifth-year senior who is going to provide outstanding defense and will be an improved offensive player coming off a year where he hit .312 with 10 homers. We feel like we have very good depth in T.J. Daugherty, Michael Williams and Luke Maile."
A year after setting the school record for strikeouts in a season, UK returns two of three weekend starters and is widely considered to have one of the best 1-2 starting pitchers in the nation.
With the return of James Paxton in 2010 after being drafted in the first-round of the 2009 MLB Draft, UK has the highest drafted college returning player in the country and a future top 10 overall pick. A dynamic left-hander, Paxton ranked third in the NCAA with 13.22 strikeouts per nine innings pitched last season.
"James will be one of the dominant pitchers in the SEC," Henderson said. "His skills have gotten much better since last fall. The command of pitches and his ability to repeat his delivery have improved and his secondary pitches have been great. We are looking forward to James having a great year for the Wildcats."
Behind Paxton, Alex Meyer takes his place as one of the top prospects available in the 2011 MLB Draft, a candidate for the No. 1 overall selection. A 6-foot-9, 220-pound right-hander, Meyer possesses electric stuff that saw him check in sixth in the nation in strikeouts per nine inning, fanning 80 in 59.2 innings.
"Alex has done a really nice job in the weight room. After putting on 20 pounds, he is much stronger then he was a year ago," Henderson said. "He is more confident. He is able to control his body throughout his delivery and on the mound. He has improved drastically and we expect him to continue to grow and mature and become one of the better pitchers in the conference."
UK will have a host of other pitchers competing for the third spot in the rotation, with roles to be defined early in the season. Among the pitchers competing for the third starting spot will be southpaw Logan Darnell, right-handers Matt Little and Sean Bouthilette, Kapteyn and several newcomers, including Kyle Jackson and Matt Little.
"I am really happy with the new group of pitchers," Henderson said. "Sam Kidd, Jordan Cooper and Taylor Rogers are all going to pitch for us this year and we are excited about their talented and competitiveness."
After injuries struck the UK bullpen in 2009, Henderson and his coaching staff went to work to shore up the relief corp for the Wildcats, adding a host of talented arms with the ability to contribute immediately.
"The depth of the 2010 pitching staff should be noticeably improved from last year," Henderson said. "We might not be as deep as we were in 2008, but certainly we should be able to go deeper than we were last year and be more effective out of the bullpen."
Darnell and Kapteyn return after leading UK with five relief wins each, with Kapteyn totaling a club-best four saves and Darnell adding three saves.
"Logan had a very good summer," Henderson said. "He has really improved his ability to throw his offspeed pitches as well as command his fastball. His delivery is under control, he has more confidence than he did last year. We expect him to provide leadership and be one of the strengths of the UK pitching staff."
After submarine right-hander Nick Kennedy's season was ended by injury in 2009, UK expects Kennedy to be a key member of the bullpen, which may include talents like junior Mike Kaczmarek and sophomores Sean Bouthilette and Chase Greene. Newcomers Kyle Jackson, Walter Wijas, Joe Devine and Jon Carlson will all add depth to the pitching staff.
"We are very pleased with the progress of last year's freshmen," Henderson said. "They all had good summers and came back better. We are eager to see where their development takes them. We are optimistic that Nick Kennedy can be a factor in the bullpen this year, which would be a major asset."
For the second year under Henderson, UK has created an unprecedentedly challenging schedule, including non-conference action against some of the top teams in the country, in addition to a grueling 30-game SEC schedule.
"We are very excited about our 2010 schedule. It is one of the best in the country," Henderson said. "It is important to us to play a challenging non-conference schedule in order to prepare us for the weekly grind of playing in the SEC. Our schedule has some great teams and there will be some great games for our fans at Cliff Hagan Stadium this year."
UK will open the year with the Caravelle Resort Invitational for the second season, facing Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Coastal Carolina before returning home for a homestand with Murray State and Bowling Green. Following the home openers, UK will hit the road again with a quick trip to Morehead State before traveling to San Diego to play San Diego State, San Diego and Monmouth.
"I thought it was important that we test our kids early and get them ready for 10 weeks of SEC play," Henderson said. "When we got the extra week of competition in the schedule, we were able to add the trip to Coastal Carolina, which we are really pleased about. It is obviously three very good teams and we are going to be tested early in the season."
After the trip to San Diego, UK will host Evansville, IPFW and Wright State before opening up the grind that is the SEC with defending league champion Ole Miss. UK will host Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and LSU at Cliff Hagan Stadium, traveling to Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia.
"The conference is going to be extremely competitive again," Henderson said. "We are going to have as many returning players as ever in the league. When you look at the rosters and stats from around the conference, there is no weak team. It is going to be a great challenge from week to week. It is an absolute grind, 10 weeks of tremendous competition in great environments for college baseball."
In addition to 30 games in the best conference in the nation, UK will have non-conference tilts with rivals Western Kentucky, Louisville, Indiana and Lipscomb sprinkled throughout the second half of the schedule.
UK's matchups with WKU, Louisville, Morehead State and Murray State have been entertaining competitive meetings over the last few seasons, speaking to how college baseball in the state has grown.
"I think when you have as many good programs as we do in the state, it is important that everyone plays each other," Henderson said. "The series that we have had in state have been extremely competitive and have created a lot of excitement and interest. As the programs continue to get better, the rivalries and fan support continues to grow, which makes for some great environments in the in-state contests."