Entering the 2016 season, the Florida State baseball team will be searching for exactly what its identity is. After all, the Seminoles will be without their most productive hitter, DJ Stewart, from last season. This, along with a few other substantial departures, created an incomplete starting lineup when practice began in January.
With the numerous open spots in the lineup, there is, unfortunately, a good deal of insecurity, which leads to much about this team being a giant question mark. In this season preview, I will attempt to get to the bottom of exactly what this team is, what needs to go well for them to have success, and which aspects of the game could hold them back from their full potential.
The Seminoles enter their 2016 campaign with four open lineup spots after the graduations/early departures of Josh Delph, Danny De La Calle, Chris Marconcini, and DJ Stewart. Of these players, Stewart's presence will surely be missed the most as he led last year's squad in batting average, runs, hits, home runs, runs batted in, and a plethora of additional offensive statistics.
Despite Stewart leading the way offensively, all four of the departed players contributed in a big way in the batter's box, particularly in the home run column. In total, these four players accounted for 31 of FSU's 59 home runs from a season ago, exposing what could be the Seminoles' biggest offensive question mark entering 2016. Only three returning players produced more than two home runs last season: Quincy Nieporte with 7, John Sansone with 8, and Dylan Busby with 9. Furthermore, not one of these three guys showcased the ability to be a consistent power hitter; Nieporte took time to acclimate before showing his power as the season went on while Busby got off to a hot start as a freshman last season before struggling to even make contact down the stretch.
Luckily for the Seminoles, power help may have arrived in the form of a newcomer Cal Raleigh, a true freshman catcher who flipped from Clemson to Florida State late in his recruiting process. Raleigh, a member of the Louisville Slugger First-Team All-America team, finished his senior season with an impressive 10 home runs to go along with his .469 batting average.
Another helpful addition to the Seminoles' lineup is junior transfer Matt Henderson, who will be the starting second baseman for opening day. In his two seasons at Santa Barbara Community College, Henderson accumulated a .314 batting average while scoring 54 runs and earning 33 RBIs.
With regard to lineup order, FSU head coach Mike Martin has all but announced that Henderson will be leading off, shortstop Taylor Walls will be batting second in the lineup, and Raleigh will be in either the third or fourth spot. This quickly becomes fascinating when one realizes that all three of the aforementioned players are switch hitters, causing a pitching mismatch that favors the Seminoles due to three consecutive batters who are capable of hitting from either side of the plate. But, from there, Martin is much less sure of what the lineup will look like on a daily basis and has gone so far as to say that he could very well not utilize the same starting lineup on consecutive days until April.
Throughout the preseason when asked what the strength of this team will be, Martin has cited elite baserunning abilities from the top to the bottom of the lineup. In lieu of a very successful 2015 season on the bases, 2016 could see even more production once runners are on base.
In 2015, Florida State was successful on 60 of 79 stolen base attempts (75.9%). This season, we could very well see a higher number of stolen bases and higher success rate as last year's top two base snaggers, Ben DeLuzio who was 14-17 (82.4%) and Dylan Busby who was 12-13 (92.3%). Additionally, the Seminoles return Taylor Walls, who stole successfully on 7 of 8 attempts last season and add instant-impact basestealers in Matt Henderson (19 stolen bases last season at SBCC) and catcher Cal Raleigh (20 stolen bases in his high school senior season).
It would seem, from all the above information, that Martin is correct that speed could be this team's greatest asset going forward but only time will tell if he carries a mantra of aggression on the bases over into the regular season. Through interviews Mike Martin has also hinted that the Seminoles have continually practiced situational hitting which translates to moving base runners over via a sacrifice. Hopefully the practice has improved because bunting was not a skill well executed last season by Florida State.
Now for a look at what might have been FSU's weakest aspect from the 2015 season: fielding. Last year, Florida State finished the season with 93 errors across their 65 games (1.43 errors per game) and a mediocre .963 team fielding percentage, tied for 192nd out of 295 Division 1 teams.
To combat these fielding issues from last season and ensure that all starters feel comfortable in the field, some returning players have made position changes entering 2016. John Sansone, the starting second baseman on last year's team, has moved to third base to allow transfer Matt Henderson to play at second. Additionally, Dylan Busby has moved from third base to first with last year's first baseman, Quincy Nieporte, now slated to serve as the designated hitter. Taylor Walls will remain at shortstop and Cal Raleigh is projected to start behind the plate.
Although the small sample size should be taken with a grain of salt, many of the changes seemed to pay dividends in the team scrimmage which took place on February 13th. Sansone made a few impressive plays at third base, Henderson seemed to fit in well at second, snagging a few tough grounders over the scrimmage, and Busby, who committed the second-most errors on last year's team with 18, seems to have adjusted to first base quickly, making a few nice digs in the dirt on low throws.
The infield may be locked down for the most part but the outfield remains relatively open. Junior Ben DeLuzio returns to center field but the corners remain a competition even with opening day looming. Mike Martin has repeatedly said that he will have a committee of players in both left and right to start the season and see which one sticks as the starter. Among those in consideration have been sophomores Darren Miller and Steven Wells Jr. as well as freshmen Jackson Lueck and Donovan Petrey.
However the starting lineup ends up, there will be at most one true freshman starting in the infield, compared to the two who started on last year's team, Walls and Busby. Now, those two have a full year under their belts, senior Sansone seems to have handled his transition to third well, and Henderson arrives in Tallahassee with two years of infield playing experience at the community college level. With all of this considered, it will be difficult for this team to be much worse defensively than they were a season ago.
There's no denying that this team will score runs next season, due to the Seminoles' yearly ability to draw walks at a torrid pace and the speed that this team possesses. The questions arise when analyzing whether someone will emerge as the consistent power threat that FSU lost in DJ Stewart and if this year's team will get out of its own way more defensively and commit fewer errors. Regardless of this, much of the 'Noles success hinges on how productive the pitching staff is, which will be addressed in Friday's pitching preview.