Fall baseball can’t answer every question. After all, when the pitchers look good, it’s at the expense of hitters. For Wichita State, fall practices gave coaches and fans some answers, while also raising important questions. WSU’s lineup and rotation in February could dramatically change from options we saw this fall.
The Shockers are waiting on outfielder Garrett Bayliff (ankle injury) and transfer shortstop Cody Bobbit (shoulder surgery) to rehab and recover. Coaches think both are top-of-the-order-type hitters who can make a big difference, offensively and defensively, with their speed. They need to be healthy, and that is no guarantee. There is also no guarantee they can make an immediate splash. Bayliff played little the past two seasons while recovering from ankle and knee injuries suffered in 2011. Bobbit is a sophomore who came to WSU after one season at a junior college. Neither has a track record of high-level Division I production to lean on.
“Those are two big, big factors and question marks,” WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. “We might not know until February whether both of them, or either of them, will be 100 percent.”
Then there is the health of pitcher Zach Beringer, injured in a car wreck in November. His rehab progressed to the point he threw an inning in the fall scrimmage series. It is impossible to know what role, if any, he will fill this spring. Before the wreck, Beringer had the potential to be a weekend starter. After two knee surgeries and back surgery (he has two rods and five screws in his back), he may never be that guy again. But he is working hard to return and coaches are impressed.
“If he continues to progess like he has, that’s a nice little piece we didn’t think we would have,” WSU pitching coach Brent Kemnitz said. “I wouldn’t count it out by any means. The big key with him is going to be mobility with his knee.”
Observations from the fall (Remember, take statistics with a grain of salt. The fall is a small sample size and practice situations aren’t the same as game situations) :
- WSU played about eight fewer scrimmages than most falls to give coaches more time to work on fundamentals. Base-running received a lot of emphasis. During games, the Shockers returned to first after getting thrown out (or stealing) to encourage them to be aggressive and experiment with leads. “It was good for the catchers, it was good for the pitchers and it was good for the base-runners,” Stephenson said.
- Chase Simpson, who likely will redshirt this season due to NCAA transfer rules, will be a solid addition to the lineup at some point. Simpson played third and first and hit with authority. He hit .406 in 13 scrimmage games with 11 doubles and a home run.
- Stephenson said he is leaning toward keeping Casey Gillaspie at first base and DH in the spring. Gillaspie played a lot of right field during the fall and demonstrated a good arm and a solid ability to run down balls. Stephenson, however, is thinking speed and defense in the outfield.
- Centerfield is a spot up in the air after the fall. Taylor Doggett owns the most experience, but struck out way too much in the fall. Mikel Mucha can play center, but Stephenson prefers him in left or right. Freshman Daniel Kihle impressed Stephenson with his speed. Strikeouts are also a problem for Kihle, who hit .293 in 14 games with 23 strikeouts and five walks. Freshman Joe Haddox is another option in center. Freshman Tanner Dearman may also get a look in the outfield. “(Kihle) must put the ball in play better,” Stephenson said. “But I thought he did a really good job of base-running and hitting when he did put the ball in play.”
- I have no worries about the middle of the order with Gillaspie and Johnny Coy. Coy looked great every time I watched practices. He hit .339 with two home runs. Gillaspie hit .379 and walked 13 times to five strikeouts. Stephenson is mildly concerned about a lack of power (no home runs). WSU’s offense needs to improve and those two are a good start.
- Junior outfielder Micah Green continues to mystify coaches, one day flashing good skills and fading the next day. “I keep thinking that one of these days the light is going to go on and he’s going to really blossom,” Stephenson said. “He has to be much more consistent than what he has been.”
- Catcher is WSU’s most-improved position from the 2012 season. Sophomore Tyler Baker is stronger and hitting the ball with pop. He led WSU with four home runs in 13 scrimmage games, hitting .369 with six doubles and three triples for a team-leading .738 slugging percentage. Junior Bob Arens and freshman Parker Zimmerman are also solid defensively. Arens hit .283 with a home run and six doubles.
- Stephenson and Kemnitz both approved of Cale Elam’s work as a starter. Elam, who spent his first two seasons as WSU’s closer, showed enough for Kemnitz to write him into the weekend rotation. “He proved to everybody he’s going to be fine,” Kemnitz said, comparing his stuff to past pitchers Tim Kelley and Jordan Cooper.
- Even without Elam, WSU’s bullpen appears to be strong. Foster Vielock looked dominant for much of the fall before struggling in the best-of-7 series. Albert Minnis pitched well in limited innings, as did T.J. McGreevy. Aaron LaBrie made the biggest move and his strikeouts (22 in 231/3 innings) led the team. That’s four pitchers with experience and versatility. Transfer Drew Palmer got off to a slow start while getting back into shape before finishing on a better note.
- Sophomore A.J. Ladwig moved in and out and back in the weekend rotation last spring. Kemnitz wants Ladwig to close down batters with two strikes, if that means moving them off the plate or showing confidence to throw a ball in the dirt and tempt them to chase. Ladwig throws strikes, sometimes too many strikes. “He needs to get a little meaner and elevate his own expectations,” Kemnitz said. “He had a good fall, but he needs to think great.”
- Junior-college transfer Brandon Peterson could find himself in the mix for a starting spot after a solid fall. The right-hander throws in the upper 80s mph and low 90s and scouts who saw him late in the fall were impressed, Kemnitz said. He wrapped up the fall with one of his best outings in game 5 of the fall series, striking out six and allowing three hits and one run in five innings.