Five things to look out for this baseball season

1.       What impact will new catcher Peter O’Brien have?

The Hurricanes lacked some productivity last year after former catcher Yasmani Grandal signed with the Cincinnati Reds following the 2010 season. Though they were sound defensively, last year’s starter Shane Rowland finished the year hitting just .175 and was never a legitimate threat at the bottom of the lineup.

O’Brien’s bat will be huge for the Canes, even for just one year. He is considered one of the better catchers in all of college baseball after spending three seasons at Bethune-Cookman, where he hit .304 with 14 home runs and 69 RBIs in 2011. His veteran leadership and experience should be beneficial to the team both on and off the diamond.

2.       How good will the starting pitching be?

Heading into the start of the season, Eric Erickson said he considered this staff among “the best in the country.” In order for the Canes to reach the College World Series, they will have to prove just that, especially through the first few weeks of the season. Still, there is no reason that, at least on paper, this won’t be one of the top starting rotations in the country. Erickson, pitching for Miami for the first time since 2010, was one of the most well-regarded pitchers in the nation before surgery. He will bring both experience and leadership to the staff.

Bryan Radziewski won nine games as a freshman starter last season, at times looked unhittable, and is only expected to get better. Eric Whaley is as consistant as they come, having pitched 95 1/3 innings last year while maintaining an ERA under 3.00. Weekday starter Steven Ewing has also shown he can be reliable during those midweek starts. The team will only go as far as the starting pitching can take them, but early indications show the rotation may take them pretty far.

3.       How long will it take for offense to hit on all cylinders?

The addition of O’Brien will ultimately be a huge addition to the club, both early on and over the course of a long, grueling season. Still, this is a team that lost a significant amount of position players to the MLB draft last year. Former Hurricanes Zeke DeVoss, Nathan Melendres and Harold Martinez will be missed early on as the team looks to adjust to a new look, but there’s potential in there as well.

Rony Rodriguez finished his junior year with a .308 average and is looking to put an exclamation mark on a solid career. Stephen Perez and Dale Carey should also provide some sparks on offense. During spring practice, coach Jim Morris emphasized that the lineup may initially struggle to score runs. If the team jells together and is able to score as the season goes on, this team has Omaha potential.

4.       What about the bullpen?

After spending 2011 as a weekend starter, junior E.J. Encinosa is back in the bullpen as this year’s closer. Although he didn’t have a bad year as a starter in his sophomore campaign, Encinosa did struggle toward the end of the season, and he was efficient out of the pen during his freshman year. He is expected to be the Canes’ rock in the ninth inning. However, the rest of the Miami rotation has yet to be determined. Early on, expect to see appearances from Javi Salas, Adam Sargent, AJ Salcines, freshman Andrew Suarez and others as Morris evaluates where everyone fits best.

5.       How does the schedule look?

With opening series at home against Rutgers and Albany, the Canes will have an opportunity to get a few games in under their belts before the competition really heats up. Seven of the team’s first eight games are inside the friendly confines of Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field, with the lone away trip to Florida Gulf Coast.

After that, the competition gets much tougher, with the preseason No. 1 ranked Florida Gators taking a trip down to Coral Gables. The Gators have ended the Canes’ Omaha dreams in each of the past three seasons. A midweek exhibition against the Florida Marlins is sandwiched between the Canes’ series against Florida and the start of ACC play, when they open with a home series against Boston College before taking their first extended road trip to Duke.