Baseball: Nine opening-day questions for the 2017 Miami Hurricanes

Senior Johnny Ruiz is Miami's top returning hitter, but the Hurricanes will rely on pitching and defense in 2017. (Getty Images)

Senior Johnny Ruiz is Miami’s top returning hitter, but the Hurricanes will rely on pitching and defense in 2017. (Getty Images)

Coming off last year’s College World Series run, the preseason expectations for Miami are a little lower.

The Hurricanes, who lost six draft picks from a 50-14 team, were all over the place in the polls: ranked eighth in Collegiate Baseball’s preseason poll, but 17th by the coaches, 18th by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers’ Association and 21st by D1Baseball.

They didn’t even make Baseball America’s top 25.

But that doesn’t mean coach Jim Morris, whose 24th season at Miami commences Friday with a 7 p.m. opener against Rutgers, doesn’t think his team will get to Omaha. He just has some issues to sort out this spring.

Here are nine questions for his Hurricanes (and yes, we’re saving the biggest one for last).

Where’s the power? Without leading home-run hitters Zack Collins (16), Willie Abreu (12) and Jacob Heyward (six), the Hurricanes don’t expect to have the same pop. Coaches aren’t shy about expressing that, either. “We’re not going to be a power team,” Morris said. “I don’t think we’re going to score a lot of runs.”

Third baseman Edgar Michelangeli, he of bat-flipping prowess, and shortstop Johnny Ruiz, a 28th-round pick who opted to return to school, combined for 11 homers and both can knock in runners. But expect a healthy serving of bunting and base-stealing this spring, rather than parking-garage bombs.

What are the strengths? Pitching, Morris said, “and it better be defense, too.” It may well be. Miami set a school record for fielding (96 percent) last year and had the nation’s top-ranked defense. It returns three of four infielders, though Ruiz has an injury that affects his ability to throw and first baseman Chris Barr, an outstanding fielder, is still recovering from December back surgery. Second baseman Randy Batista has a strong glove, and Michelangeli can pick it at third.

There’s plenty of range in the outfield, especially in center. Junior Carl Chester, the leadoff man, is a preseason All-American and rated No. 36 among draft-eligible college players by Baseball America. The Hurricanes also boast an excellent defensive catcher in Boca High grad Michael Amditis, a freshman who will take over for Collins behind the plate.

How about that pitching staff? Should be a good one. Six-foot-four junior Jesse Lepore (9-0, 2.20 as a midweek guy last year) takes the ball Friday night after a strong fall and spring. “It’s such an honor to be the opening-day starter,” said Lepore, who uses his slider as an out pitch. “Glad and proud to finally achieve that.” Junior college lefty Jeb Bargfeldt will start Saturday. He was the ace of a Junior College World Series team (Cisco College) last year, going 12-1 with a 4.45 ERA and 120 strikeouts and 25 walks in 91 innings.

Former freshman All-American Michael Mediavilla (11-2, 3.40) struggled with his location in the fall, but Morris isn’t concerned about the junior left-hander. He was a bulldog last spring. He’ll start Sunday for now, and like last year, could move to Friday as he finds his stuff. Midweek options include sophomores Kevin Pimentel and Andrew Cabezas.

Who’s in the bullpen? Losing All-American closer Bryan Garcia hurts, but bespectacled freshman All-American Frankie Bartow (6-0, 2.72) should have no problem shifting from the set-up role. “Big shoes to fill, but everybody has to move on,” Bartow said. “None of us are afraid.”

He’ll have help from Cabezas, who has a wipeout slider but struggled with control last year, and freshman Evan McKendry. Sidewinding right-hander Cooper Hammond (Tommy John surgery last May) will be a boost if he returns in April, as UM hopes. UM has no go-to southpaw, but coaches were impressed with how freshman righty Albert Maury handled lefty bats in spring practices.

What’s the lineup? We may be asking this question again and again. “Whatever lineup I put out there Friday night, it won’t be the lineup a month from now, I guarantee you,” Morris said. With so many new faces, Morris expects to try different combinations as players develop.

On Friday, Chester will lead off and junior college transfer Michael Burns – who has a remarkable backstory – will play right and hit second. Ruiz is a likely DH for now and will bat third. Michelangeli – who had a Mark Light milk shake named after his bat flips (vanilla, with a churro “bat” in it) – will hit behind him. Even that’s not set in stone, and that’s a reason the polls are unclear on Miami.

“We don’t look at it like a big important thing to be ranked high in the beginning of the season,” Michelangeli said. “Coastal Carolina wasn’t ranked, and they won it [last year].”

What the story on Burns? “He’s a scrappy-type guy,” Morris said. “In basketball, they have gym rats. He’s a gym rat for baseball.”

He was describing the playing attributes of Burns, who is 5-9, 180 pounds and wears No. 44. He’s a heck of a scrapper off the field, too.

Diagnosed with a rare soft-tissue cancer (Myxiod Liposarcoma) 11 months ago, Burns, now 22, had 37 radiation treatments that lasted through July. Doctors removed a football-size tumor from his left thigh in April, and he continued treatment as Bargfeldt, his former teammate at Wichita State, and Cicso College went to the JUCO World Series. He arrived at UM last fall with a surgery scars and a stabilizing titanium rod attached to his left femur, but as of now – thankfully — no reoccurrences of cancer.

“You wonder whether he’ll be here or not,” Morris said. “Not only will be play baseball, but will he walk and be alive? It was a very traumatic experience. He’s a great kid who has a smile on his face every day. Just happy to be alive, and he loves playing baseball.”

The Littleton, Colo. native will make his Miami debut in front of his parents, Mike and Anita, and a group of fans he called “the best in the country.”

It will be “like a dream,” he said. “On Friday I don’t know how I’m going to feel. … Kind of like I’m floating on a cloud at the Light.”

Who are the new faces to know? With all those losses, Miami brought in eight freshmen and five junior college players. It will rely on a lot of them. Other than Bargfeldt and Burns, Amditis is the newcomer most likely to be in the spotlight.

UM feels lucky he’s here. He was Baseball America’s No. 67 high school prospect before a shoulder injury cost him his senior year at Boca High. He’s healthy, and eager to get behind the plate Friday.

“The pitching staff’s really deep,” Amditis said. “I feel really confident about them.”

One of those guys is Greg Veliz, a freshman right-hander from Key West. He tops out at 96 mph, is likely to help in the ‘pen and has potential to be a middle-of-the-order bat. He’ll play first with Barr out.

Outfielder Hunter Tackett will turn heads with his Rollie Fingers mustache, long blonde curls and double-sleeve tattoos, but he’s also a solid line-drive hitter. A former Auburn signee from Knoxville, Tenn., he was the Florida junior college player of the year at Northwest Florida State after hitting .441 with 10 homers, 58 RBI and 20 steals.

James Davison, another starter-caliber junior college transfer, is 5-7, 150 pounds and can fly. He’s a Chicago native who was drafted by the White Sox out of high school (a story that was featured on MLB Network) and spent the last two years at Howard College in Texas.

Junior college transfer Brandon Gali (Polk State) could play short with Ruiz unable to throw. Sophomore infielder Romy Gonzalez has a good stick – despite his .173 debut season – and should get at-bats.

What are the key series to watch? The rivalry games are always the most fun. Miami visits Florida, which is No. 3 in Baseball America’s preseason rankings, from Feb. 24-26 and hosts preseason No. 2 Florida State from April 21-23. Now that former Morris assistant Turtle Thomas has moved on from FIU – the two had beef – the crosstown Golden Panthers are back on Miami’s schedule. They’ll play their first regular-season series since 2008, with midweek games at FIU (Feb. 22, March 8) and at UM (March 7, April 26).

The ACC is strong as usual. Miami gets FSU and Georgia Tech (No. 21) at home, and faces preseason North Carolina State (No. 14), Virginia (No. 16) and North Carolina (No. 17) on the road. The Hurricanes avoid both preseason No. 7 Louisville and No. 10 Clemson.

Will this team make it to Omaha? A third consecutive College World Series appearance will be a surprise, given the offseason losses. But Morris, given his experience, has a story about that. In 1998, he had a team with Pat Burrell, Aubrey Huff, Jason Michaels and was the second seed in Omaha. They didn’t get it done. “All those guys signed, and the next year, we were very, very young, and we won it,” Morris said. “It’s a crazy game. It depends on the players, how hard they work and how much they progress. Some guys turn it up a notch sooner than others.”

Last year, Miami reached No. 1 in the country during the season, was seeded third in Omaha and was the only national seed in its bracket. It went two-and-out for the first time since 1979. Knowing how a season can go, Morris isn’t concerned after losing all those draft picks.

It is telling he hasn’t selected captains yet. He doesn’t know who his leaders will be.

That doesn’t mean they won’t emerge.

“We have potentially a very good club,” he said. “But we’ve got a lot of questions we’ve got to answer right now.”

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