(Photo by Mark A Philbrick/BYU Photo)
Replacing four starters taken in the 2013 Major League draft is the challenge facing head baseball coach Mike Littlewood and his staff as they prepare for their second season at BYU.
“We have more depth, but had key losses in (Jacob) Hannemann, (Jaycob) Brugman, (Adam) Law and (Adam) Miller,” Littlewood said. “You don't replace them. We just hope somebody will step up.”
The Cougars tied for second place last year in the West Coast Conference with a 15-9 mark and an overall record of 32-21.
Group practices start Wednesday afternoon in the Indoor Practice Facility. Full team practices start on Jan. 24.
“Everything was new and we were getting our feet underneath us,” Littlewood said. “We know more tendencies now and have less anxiety. There is more pressure on our staff to be more prepared.”
“It won’t be until February when everyone settles in and figures out what their roles are,” Littlewood said. “We have options. We’re not going to send the same nine players out. Guys need to step it up. If we can be 14-5 in the league, we could win it and get to a regional.”
Captains Brock Whitney, Desmond Poulson and Chris Howard, all seniors, and Hayden Nielsen, a sophomore, are among the 20 returning lettermen for this season.
“Poulson is the number one guy and our mainstay,” Littlewood said of Poulson who has a 14-5 career record in three seasons at BYU. “(Jeff) Barker was tremendous last fall and looked like a No. 1 starter. I like his mindset of being a leader.”
The Cougars return four position starters from 2013, including Whitney and Nielsen. Whitney, first-team All-WCC, and Nielsen, an All-WCC Freshman selection, are the heir apparents at first base and shortstop, respectively.
A position-by-position roundup is as follows:
Junior Dillon Robinson and transfer JC Snyder are competing, giving BYU matchup combinations with a left and right-hander at the plate. “Dillon is number one and had a great fall with a renewed sense of energy,” Littlewood said. “JC can move to the outfield for a right-hand presence there, too.”
“Hayden (Nielsen) had a great fall,” Littlewood said. “We look to him for defensive consistency to make routine plays time after time. He is a solidifying force.” Backing up Nielsen are transfers Parker Starr or Snyder.
“We have a logjam or a very competitive situation,” Littlewood said. “There is no starter yet.” Sophomore Trace Hansen, Starr and freshman MacKay Jacobsen are competing for that starting role. Jacobsen adds versatility being a left-handed hitter.
Brock Whitney is backed by returned missionary Dallen Reber, a transfer from Kentucky, who can fill in at third or first. Senior Brett Lopez and sophomore Wyatt Padgett are also backups.
“Lopez can DH, will fill in at first if needed or in the outfield. Reber can be in a DH role. (Tyler) Kendrick has a utility tag and had the highest batting average during the fall. He puts the bat on the ball and we are looking to find niche for him.”
At center freshman Brennon Lund gets the nod backed by transfer Eric Urry, who can also play leftfield. “Lund runs a 6.3 in the 60 and has a 90-plus arm,” Littlewood said. “We are trying to refine his skills.”
In left it’s either freshman CJ Latham, Urry, or Reber. Junior Andy Isom is in the mix anywhere in the outfield. At right field it’s senior Kelton Caldwell, All-WCC in 2012 and a starter the past two seasons. “With Latham, Urry and Lund all lefthanders at the plate, backed by right-hander Bryan Heward (junior transfer) we can match up this year on the right-handed side,” Littlewood said.
“I'm excited with more options, we won't lose anything at all,” Littlewood said. “Dakota Hernandez (a junior) is coming off shoulder surgery and has progressed nicely. Clearly he is the best defender and receiver.
“Bronson Larsen (a freshman) has the most tools and has more pop in his bat. He will be a high draft in a couple years and throws 1.8 to second and he will probably get the nod as our starter. (Jarrett) Jarvis looks good. We have 1 A, 1 B, or 1 C.” JC transfer Bo Fisher could see some time at the catching position, or DH position.
Poulson and Jeff Barker are BYU’s one-two punch as starters with sophomore returned-missionary Kolton Mahoney as a potential third starter.
“Mahoney can run it up to 92-93 mph and it would also be nice to have him at the end of the game in relief,” Littlewood said. “He has an excellent change and curve. Hayden Rogers (freshman returned missionary) looked tremendous in the fall with a curve, great changeup and mid to upper 80's fastball. If he keeps progressing like we think he can I could see him securing the third starting spot.”
Relievers could be junior James Lengal , who will sit in the low 90's with a good slider, backed by JC transfer Brandon Kinser and freshman Arik Mack, a lefty.
Chunner Nyberg is becoming a pitcher instead of just a hard thrower. Rhett Nelson (JC transfer) can throw 87-89 mph. Michael Springer throws in the low 90s and could fill a starting role on a weekday or be a weekend starter. Hayden Parker throws 84-86 mph and is not afraid of anybody and will play a role.
“Howard is a potential starter, but a bit of an unknown due to surgery and could end the game or be a matchup guy. We have moved Brendon Erickson (a sophomore) to be a pitcher now.
“We have so many more options,” Littlewood said. “We have competitive guys that can matchup. We have more depth. Last year our players answered the bell nearly every game.”