Shaun Cooper has earned preseason All-America honors.
Feb. 14, 2012
Today we look at the infield and outfield in part one of the Utah baseball season outlook. Tomorrow's part two takes a look at the pitchers and catchers.
The Utah baseball team enters a new era as it joins one of the best baseball leagues in the country in the Pac-12 conference.
Utah returns a solid core of players from last year's team, including all-conference players Shaun Cooper (outfield), James Brooks (shortstop), Trey Nielsen (third base) and Tyler Wagner (pitcher). However, the Utes lose first-team All-American C.J. Cron and all-conference pitcher Rick Anton. Cron was a first-round MLB draft pick, while Anton was drafted in the eighth round.
"The core of our team is back minus C.J. and Anton," Utah head coach Bill Kinneberg said. "Some of the new guys are really going to make an impact for us - several of our junior college players are capable of making the adjustment to Division I baseball, including Parker Morin, Ethan Leiter and Ryan Cooperstone. Some of the role players from last year will hopefully improve and become really good players for us.
"The biggest thing for us is that our depth is going to be challenged. Keeping injuries at a minimum is going to be a key for us. Where we have to improve - and we think we've done an adequate job at this - is depth in the lineup and depth in the bullpen. That's where that grind comes out. The third game of the series is going to be really hard, but hopefully we can manage that and have guys step up for us."
"All 10 teams that we're going to play against in the Pac-12 are quality, high-powered baseball teams," Kinneberg said. "It's going to be a challenge week-in and week-out, and we need to rise to the occasion. It's a hard grind in this league. There are no breathers."
Utah returns two of its four starting infielders in Brooks and Nielsen. Brooks finished second in the conference in batting average (.372) and runs scored (55). He tied for eighth in the NCAA in doubles (26) and was tied for second nationally in doubles per game (0.53). Nielsen was a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American who was sixth in the conference in slugging percentage (.572). He tied for fourth in the league with nine home runs.
"It's comforting to have both of those guys returning," Kinneberg said.
The right side of the field will feature new faces. Leiter has won the battle early to start at first base. He played two years at Yavapai CC and hit .301 as a sophomore with a .419 on-base percentage. Battling at second base will be junior Ryan Cooperstone and sophomore Cory Hunt. Cooperstone was an honorable-mention all-region selection at the College of Southern Idaho, hitting .352 last year. Hunt played in 14 games as a freshman, making four starts.
"We have three new guys who haven't really played Division I baseball, so hopefully they mature quickly and make that jump and really contribute," Kinneberg said. "We need our role players to step up for us to be successful."
Cooper, who was named the Perfect Game Summer Player of the Year during summer ball and was selected as a preseason Louisville Slugger All-American, finished sixth in the league in batting average (.332) and was third in slugging percentage (.589) last season. He tied for 10th in the NCAA with seven triples.
"Cooper is going to be in the lineup," Kinneberg said. "We want him in left field, although he may have to play some right field. He'll hit in the middle of our lineup."
Utah has a variety of players who rotated through the outfield last season, and many of them will see time again this year as they fight for a starting spot early in the season. Sophomore Josh Alexander, senior Tyson Gonzalez, senior Gavin Green and junior Tyler Relf all have significant experience in the outfield.
"We have a lot of interchangeable parts in the outfield, and it's a work in progress," Kinneberg said. "Hopefully by the time we start conference play we'll have a set lineup out there."