Tyler Relf has started three years in the outfield.
Feb. 12, 2013
Over the next two days, UtahUtes.com will preview the upcoming baseball season. We start today with the infielders and outfielders, followed by the catchers and pitchers tomorrow.
Veteran pitching and a solid crop of newcomers are the storylines for the Utah baseball team as it enters its second season in the Pac-12 in 2013.
Key returning players for the Utes include senior starting pitchers Brock Duke and Joe Pond, sophomore reliever Mitch Watrous, two-year starting third baseman Trey Nielsen and three-year outfielder Tyler Relf. The Utes are joined by 16 new players, several who will have starting roles all around the diamond after the loss of seven position starters from 2012.
"The second year in the Pac-12, now we know what we're up against and what we're trying to do," Utah head coach Bill Kinneberg said. "This year we're going to be veteran on the mound and very young in the field. My hope is that the young guys really grow up quickly and get better, and the pitching staff is able to hold us in games early and be a strength of our team. We're going to play a little different style of offense, a pressure-type offense, so execution is going to be vital for us. Pitching and defense are going to be really essential for us to have a good year.
"Our team speed is better than it's ever been. Our pitching staff, if we stay healthy, is the best we've ever had. The key is staying healthy. But we've got four or five freshman who are going to start for us early in the year. The thing that they've shown at this point is that they are gearing up for the speed of the game. The thing that I worry most is playing good defense and the grind of the year on them. They're really going to have to grow up quickly and the veteran guys are going to have to help them. There are going to be learning experiences for all of us."
Nielsen has started 103 of 104 games over two seasons at Utah with 34 doubles and a .272 career batting average. He was eighth in the Pac-12 last year with 17 doubles. Nielsen will move to first base after spending the last two years at third base, and will also expand his role to serve on the pitching staff.
"Trey is our most experienced guy coming back, and we've moved him to first base," Kinneberg said. "One reason is to save his arm, because he's going to help us on the mound as well. With the addition of Dallas Carroll, who really plays a quality third base, we feel that's an added bonus. He's going to have to adjust to the speed of the game and we'll see how he does offensively."
Freshman Dallas Carroll was the 2012 Deseret News Mr. Baseball and a two-time all-state player at Taylorsville High School (Utah). Another freshman, Cody Scaggari, will stand beside him at shortstop. Scaggari was an all-state selection at Piedra Vista High School (Farmington, N.M.), helping lead the team to three state titles.
"Playing short is always a difficult task and it's a really important position for us," Kinneberg said. "We just hope he can battle through things and make sure that he gets better day-by-day. We feel like he's going to be a great infielder for us in the future."
Second base is currently a battle between junior college transfer TJ Bennett and redshirt freshman Kody Davis. Bennett was an all-region selection at Mesa Community College last season after earning Freshman All-America honors at Oral Roberts in 2011. Davis redshirted last year after playing in just six games due to injury.
"Bennett can play all three infield positions, third base, first base and second," Kinneberg said. "He's a left-handed bat with some pop so he'll be in the lineup somewhere. Kody has really come back after an injury last year and gained strength. He had a great fall and has continued that through the spring, so he will get a lot of playing time."
Junior Cory Hunt, who has played in 45 games as a reserve the last two years, is also in the mix at shortstop and second base. He hit .219 with four doubles last season. Junior Biss Larsen made 13 starts at first base last year and could also see time in the field.
Relf has spent three seasons in the outfield for the Utes and has shown improvement in each year. He hit a career-high .224 last year, leading the Utes with 18 walks.
"Relf is a nice veteran to have," Kinneberg said. "He's been through the wars and knows what he's about. He knows his role and how to play to his role. He's had an outstanding fall for us."
Junior Tyler Yagi returns after a two-year LDS church mission. Yagi, who was the Mountain West Conference Tournament MVP as a freshman in 2009, hit .303 over his first two seasons.
"It has been really good to have [Tyler Yagi] back," Kinneberg said. "He has a renewed energy. I feel like he's going to have a very good year for us. He can still play in the infield as well but we feel like left field may be a spot for him."
Senior Connor Eppard has also spent some time in the outfield. He hit .206 last season with two triples, primarily playing designated hitter.
A pair of newcomers who will see starting roles early are junior transfer Braden Anderson and freshman Wyler Smith. Anderson, who played at Salt Lake Community College, was an all-region selection after hitting .394 with nine triples. Smith earned all-league honors at Rancho Buena Vista High School (Vista, Calif.).
"Braden Anderson is very important to us," Kinneberg said. "We recruited him to play center field. He is a great defensive player and we hope he leads off for us. He has some speed and we will look to him to steal some bases. His on-base percentage is really important to our offense. We're hoping that he has a quality year. Wyler Smith is a really interesting freshman. He has great speed and is a very good defensive player. If he improves on the offensive side he's going to be a real force for us in the future."