The New Mexico baseball team lost an awful lot of talent after the 2013 season.
For all the talent lost, however, plenty of talent remains, enough to make the Lobos the favorites to win the Mountain West Conference once again.
Much of that talent has yet to play a Division I baseball contest, making actual game experience the biggest thing that UNM is lacking.
“The thing is that once they get their experience I think they’re going to be pretty good,” coach Ray Birmingham said. “This team this year is 24 underclassmen. That’s the difference. You can’t practice experience.
“So we’ll do like we always do at Lobo baseball ... everybody’s going to get in the game when it counts and you better get it or we lose. And I hate that word. We’ll keep putting them in there. By the time we get to May or June, they’ll be ready.”
The Lobos ran roughshod over the MWC last season, winning all 10 conference series. They were upset by San Diego State in the conference tournament championship game and were then ousted quickly from an NCAA regional in Fullerton, Calif.
Graduation and the Major League draft then took a big bite out of the team. First baseman D.J. Peterson went in the first round to the Seattle Mariners, while a good chunk of the senior class followed, including top starting pitcher Sam Wolff, catcher Mitch Garver and third baseman Alex Allbritton.
So who remains and who is new? Here is the projected UNM lineup.
Junior Alex Real was a solid force (.317/.402/.519, 8 HR) in the lineup as a designated hitter last season, but now he gets to be the primary starter behind the plate. It has been a challenge that Real has eagerly accepted.
“The big part of it is learning my pitchers,” Real said. “Learning their personalities, learning what they like to throw in certain counts. I have to kind of be like a psychologist back there, know what’s going on in their heads so I can help them.”
Junior Ryan Padilla will move from left field, looking to rebound after a disappointing sophomore season (.266/.391/.435). Birmingham said that Padilla has made the appropriate adjustments after getting out of sync mentally last year.
“He went off to the Cape Cod (League) and some scout walked by and said, ‘Hey, you need to hit more pull-side home runs,’” Birmingham said. “And then he got long and everything was trying to go down the right field line. If you remember Ryan’s freshman year, a lot of doubles in the gap, oppo gap, pull-side gap, up the middle and the occasional home run.”
The sophomore duo of Sam Haggerty (.280/.412/.378) and Jared Holley (.293/.401/.331) will return up the middle.
“I love playing with Holley up the middle,” Haggerty said. “We have some good chemistry and one year under our belt. I feel like we should be even better this year.”
The biggest question mark right now is who will start at the hot corner. Freshman Andre Vigil and sophomore Jered Meek, who is recovering from offseason knee surgery, are the main competitors.
“The biggest battle, the biggest hole right now is third base,” Birmingham said. “They were both middle infielders in high school and we’re asking them to play third. That’s a different spot, that’s a different way to play it. (But) they’re very capable of doing it. One of them is going to end up taking it and owning it.”
On most teams, the best fielder plays center, but due to the shape of Lobo Field and the natural elements, UNM must put its best outfielder in right field. That is why senior Chase Harris (.321/.374/.458), who Birmingham called a plus defender, will continue to start there after the coaching staff considered moving him to center.
“We thought about it and thought about it, (but) right field in our ballpark is a big position,” Birmingham said. “Because if you don’t take the right routes in right field and that ball goes, the guy can run it’s an inside-the-park home run. The sun and the wind, that’s the other part, are over there.”
Junior Aaron Siple, a transfer from an Arizona junior college, will man center. He brings plus speed to the top of the Lobo lineup.
Left field will fall to senior John Pustay, who was limited to a backup first base role last year after he recovered from a 2012 ankle injury.
Freshmen Chris DeVito and Cody Bower could both see time here. DeVito has impressed Birmingham with his plus power.
“You know what, that Chris DeVito kid is really hitting the ball,” Birmingham said. “And he’s hitting the ball to all parts of the park and he’s only going to get better.”
Coming Thursday: A look at the Lobo pitching staff, led by senior Josh Walker.