The Florida State baseball team kicked off its first official practice of the season during a frigid Saturday afternoon inside Dick Howser Stadium.
After losing seven major contributors to the MLB and NFL Drafts -- three starters in the infield, two weekend starters on the mound, the always available middle relief/setup guy out of the bullpen and the closer -- the Seminoles have some difficult challenges ahead.
Leading up to Opening Day, we'll help break down some of these challenges piece by piece, helping to paint a better picture of a ball club that, to many, may seem a bit unfamiliar.
Let's begin with the infield.
Behind the Plate
The Seminoles return defensive specialist Danny De La Calle - something that will prove to be crucial with a new-look rotation on the mound. It's uncertain if De La Calle -- who broke his throwing hand during Christmas Break after taking a line drive directly to the backside of his hand -- will be available for the opening series against Oakland University (MI.).
"If you backed me into a corner and made me give you an answer, the answer would be yes," FSU head coach Mike Martin said about the possibility of De La Calle's availability for Opening Day. "But I'm not gonna rush it. No way am I gonna rush it."
While his recovery has come along nicely, De La Calle has yet to really throw the ball to second base and gingerly returns the ball to the mound.
"Not really," Martin continued. "He's catching in the bullpen and throwing it back to the pitcher but, no, he hasn't thrown it back to second base. But he's getting stronger every day. I would think, in all honesty, that he'll be throwing to second base in ten days."
De La Calle finished the 2014 season hitting .224, accumulating 29 RBI and 27 runs scored.
FSU second baseman John Sansone will round out the familiar faces in the infield for the Seminoles. Sansone has started 121 games at second base over the past two seasons at Florida State. He finished 2014 hitting .221, with 13 doubles and two home runs. Particularly up the middle, the junior will be looked to for guidance as the new'look infield searches for an identity.
"it's pretty weird," Sansone said. "I'm used to looking over at Gonzo and getting ready for him to tell me what to do or tell the infield what we're doing in practice and stuff. But everyone's kind of looking to me this year."
"It's been fun though, teaching the younger guys what to do. I was always the one being taught, now I'm the one teaching everybody else and how 11 wants things done. Gonzo taught me everything I know up the middle, and that's really helped me when trying to get these new guys on the right page."
First base is somewhat undecided at this point, however both candidates will be a large part of what Florida State is trying to do, whether its in the field or at the plate.
Chris Marconcini -- a graduate transfer from Duke -- seems to be the favorite in regards to manning first base. Marconcini is a lefty and can take advantage of the wall in right field, especially with the new baseball. During three seasons as a Blue Devil, he hit .275 with 43 doubles, 13 triples and 20 home runs.
Along with Marconcini is JUCO transfer Quincy Nieporte, out of Tallahassee Community College. The sophomore -- as a freshman at TCC -- hit .374 with 61 RBI and six home runs. Although he fell behind in the competition for first base due to an injury, Nieporte has a big bat and will undoubtedly be used. A lot.
"I'd say that Marconcini has the inside track right now because Quincy was hurt during the fall," Martin said. "But both of those young men will play, and you'll probably see them in the lineup on a daily basis -- one as a [designated hitter] and the other as a first baseman."
Freshman Taylor Walls will man the position up the middle. Walls looked stellar during fall ball and pretty much won the position outright. The freshman -- out of Crisp County (GA.) hit .400+ during his final three years in high school and didn't show any sign of slowing during his first fall at Florida State. Walls, from what I observed, is quick-footed and sure-gloved, and can sling the ball across the infield with ease.
"[Walls] is a great player so we gelled right away," Sansone said. "He's a great kid. The whole fall - we never missed a beat, so it should be fun."
"During the Fall, we had a play that you don't really expect out of a freshman," FSU left fielder DJ Stewart said. "I was running in, [Walls] was running back - he made the catch and I yelled 'flip,' cause there was a runner on third, and he flipped it to me. So the baseball instincts are already there."
Third base is somewhat of a toss up at this point, and there are three options at this position -- all young. Sophomore Hank Truluck, who made three starts - all three as DH - as a freshman, seems to be the favorite at this point. But freshmen Dylan Busby (Sarasota, Fla.) and Darren Miller (Key West, Fla.) also appear to be competing for the starting spot.
"We've got three third basemen trying to win a job," Martin explained."
While the infield will be full on some unfamiliar faces, the talent is apparent. With a number of viable options at each position, Martin and staff can now use the competition as fuel to the fire and get the best out of these young players. I can see why Florida State fans might be hesitant at first, even uncertain, but don't be discouraged. I think this infield will surprise.