USF's Prado encouraged by recoveries, newcomers
USF baseball doesn't start practice in full until Jan. 27, with the Bulls' season starting in six weeks on Feb. 17, but coach Lelo Prado is encouraged by the progress he's seen on two fronts in the offseason: the recovery of key players from significant injuries, and the progress of several newcomers who could help the Bulls in 2012.
USF has been picked fourth in the Big East in a preseason vote of league coaches -- a solid endorsement for a team that missed the eight-team Big East tournament in Clearwater last spring.
"I'm not going to guess at what place we'll finish, but our ultimate goal is to win the Big East championship," Prado said. "The returning players have worked real hard all season, all fall. If they continue to practice and keep that same attitude, we'll be happy at the end of the year. They've done everything we've asked."
-- First, three pitchers who missed all or nearly all of 2011 are in solid position to resume major roles for the Bulls, starting with lefty Andrew Barbosa and right-hander Derrick Stultz, who could line up as USF's Friday and Saturday starters this season. Barbosa underwent Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow in March, and Stultz hasn't pitched since 2009 due to shoulder problems. What's more, reliever Ray Delphey, who missed 2011 with shoulder problems, is back and ready to take on a key bullpen role.
"They'll be ready," Prado said. "We'll bring them along slowly, but they'll be ready. All of them are ahead of where we'd thought they'd be. (Pitching coach) Chuck (Hernandez) feels good about it, and if he feels good about it, I feel good about it."
The No. 3 (Sunday) starter is still up for grabs -- Prado mentioned three lefties -- senior Matt Reed, who started nine games last year and had a 4.11 ERA; junior Kyle Parker and sophomore Nick Gonzalez -- as well as righty Joe LoVecchio, a junior college transfer who started his college career at Miami.
The Bulls lost two key starters in Randy Fontanez and Kyle Eastham, so there's a combined 167 innings to replace from those two. In closer Kevin Quackenbush and reliever Zach Pietrzyk, there's another 77 innings to replace in the pen.
-- The bullpen will start with the guys who don't make the rotation, but the back end looks to be some combination of Delphey and junior Austin Adams, who has thrown just 10 innings in his first two seasons. The Bulls are replacing an elite closer in Quackenbush, so it's a key area to find a reliable replacement early in the season.
-- As far as established returning players at the plate, the first two names Prado mentioned were Chad Taylor and James Ramsay -- both had great falls and are in position to step in at shortstop and centerfield. Daniel Rockhold can go at third, with Andrew Longley back at catcher. Alex Mendez should be in left. That leaves three positions spots -- first, second and right -- with good competition entering preseason practice.
Depth should be much improved -- USF essentially used only 12 hitters over the entire 2011 season, with few consistent bats on the bench for pinch-hitting or spot starts.
"We'll have more guys to play this year, which I'm really happy about," Prado said. "This is the first time we've had players that (if) somebody goes down, I'm not going to be too nervous about it."
-- Second base remains a "tossup," Prado says, between senior Luis Llerena and newcomer Kyle Copack, who made the team out of fall tryouts. Copack, a Newsome grad, played well at Hillsborough Community College last season -- led team with 40 runs and 63 hits, went for a .320 average and third on the team with 28 RBIs. Another new name we haven't mentioned is Matt Hart, who played at Mitchell in high school and starred at third for Pasco-Hernando CC last year -- team-best .404 average, seven home runs and 43 RBIs. "He's going to be a good power-hitting guy for us," Prado said.
-- More newcomers? Bartow's Buddy Putnam played all nine positions in high school, and Prado can use him at either corner or in right; another freshman, Leesburg's Kyle Teaf could help in the middle infield spots. Orlando's Jordan Strittmatter is an option in right, as is junior Jimmy Falla. New Smyrna Beach's Blake Sydeski will compete with Longley at catcher as well.
-- USF should be a faster team on the basepaths in 2012, this after finishing with just 34 steals in 2011, one more than last place in the Big East. Some of the key names stepping into bigger roles -- Mendez, Taylor and Ramsay, as well as newcomers Copack and Teaf, should put USF in position to have more steals this season. Mende led the team with six steals last spring, and the Bulls as a team were successful in just 64 percent of their steal attempts.
-- Senior Todd Brazeal is coming off ACL surgery after he hurt his knee sliding into third base in fall ball -- Prado said he's "a lot further than I thought. ... If he doesn't have any setbacks, he'll be fine." Prado said he might use Brazeal as a designated hitter early to ease his transition back.
Having lost three senior bats from last year's lineup in Jonathan Koscso, Sam Mende and Junior Carlin, getting Brazeal back is important from a veteran leadership perspective as well as production in the middle of the lineup.