With the 2003 UM baseball season now upon us, the optimists and pessimists offer their answer to the question on every Hurricanes fan’s mind: How will Jim Morris’s most inexperienced team fare this season?
The optimists see the hordes of new freshmen and junior college transfers as a good thing. Sure, Miami rode a wave of unexpected post-season success last year in reaching the Super Regionals and nearly the College World Series. But the 2002 squad posted a subpar 34-29 record during the regular season, barely good enough to get a berth into the NCAA Tournament. And that team was chock full of with veterans and proven talent. How much worse can a Jim Morris coached team play?
The pessimists, meanwhile, say the answer to that question is “a lot worse.” That 34-29 squad certainly underachieved, but won tough regular season and post-season contests due to their experienced veterans, something that the 2003 ‘Canes lack.
Look at the Alumni Game last Saturday as an example. The current Miami team needed a four-run ninth inning to beat an opponent whose roster consisted of minor leaguers and other players who are out of shape and way past their prime. Meanwhile, the 2002 ‘Canes, the same team that would sneak through the back door of the playoff picture, won the Alumni Game by a narrow 20-3 margin.
So which side of the fence am I on when describing my expectations of the 2003 Miami Hurricanes? Well, both the optimists and the pessimists have a convincing argument. In fact, both arguments are so convincing that I’m not even going to attempt to be an optimist or a pessimist, but rather a casual observer.
Before you accuse me of being a cop-out, I’ll state very firmly that I have no idea what to expect from the 2003 ‘Canes. And following the conclusion of this weekend’s series against Campbell, I will not have a clue about this team. In fact, by the end of the month, when the 10th different starting lineup in 13 games steps onto the grass at Mark Light Field, I still won’t be able to offer much of a prediction.
There is one thing I can say about the 2003 ‘Canes. This team has an awful lot of talent and potential, possibly more than last year’s squad. Danny Figueroa, who hit a modest .300 during his freshman season, might be the best center fielder ever to wear a University of Miami uniform. Will he make his case among the school’s great outfielders this year? Probably not. But two years from now, watch out.
Third baseman Gaby Sanchez, who will likely see more time in the starting lineup than any other freshman in Coral Gables, has the tools to be a better player than Kevin Howard. Of course, Sanchez will probably make routine errors and go through several hitting slumps this season. But that’s what four years of college is for.
The wave of junior college transfers, something Miami lacked a season ago, has brought Morris several potential full-time starters. Outfielder Brian Barton has the starting job in right field. Another outfielder, Tom Shannon, looks to start opposite Barton in left. Adam Ricks gave Joey Hooft a serious run for the starting job at second base. Alex Perez may become Miami’s second left-handed starter in UM’s pitching rotation.
All of these players are at Morris’s service beyond 2003. Throw in proven veterans like first baseman Jim Burt (UM’s best hitter) and pitcher Dan Touchet (the staff’s ace), plus George Huguet, J.D. Cockroft, Andrew Cohn, Paco Figueroa, Richard Gianotti, Kevin Mannix, Vince Bongiovani, and Brandon Camardese and there is a reason to be excited about the current Hurricanes.
There are also several reasons to be worried. The batting order has no true power threat above Burt’s nine homers in 2002 and Sanchez and Braun’s ability to hit the long ball at the high school level. The pitching rotation has only one returning starter in Touchet, who crept his way towards the No. 1 spot and is just as capable of repeating Kiki Bengochea’s struggles in the same situation a year ago. Plus, there is youth and immaturity to contend with.
Again, we find ourselves at the crossroads. No one doubts the talent on Jim Morris’s squad this year, but that doesn’t automatically result to a significant improvement from 34-29. At the same time, the Hurricanes have rid themselves of several veterans that seemed to take away from the potential of team chemistry. But that doesn’t makeup for the significant loss of experience.
No one really knows how UM baseball will fare in 2003. However, I do know that this team will return to Omaha real soon. If not in four months, then in June 2004.
Jeremy Marks-Peltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org