Baseball Preview 2009: ‘Next generation’ Tribe

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February 16, 2009

11:28 PM

In his four-year tenure at the College of William and Mary, Head Coach Frank Leoni has never entered a season having lost this much talent. Following a season in which the Tribe’s 36-21 record was good for the second-most victories in program history, Leoni watched as his roster was steadily picked clean of key contributors.

His former cleanup hitter, centerfielder and two best relief pitchers were drafted to the major leagues last June. In addition, his All-American catcher, number-one starting pitcher and starting leftfielder all graduated in May.

The only consolation Leoni may get from such an exodus of quality is that with each player who leaves Williamsburg for a career in baseball, Leoni moves one step closer to his goal of building one of the premier programs in the CAA.

“I still expect us to score our share of runs and play sound defense,” Leoni said. “We have more depth, be it young depth, but definitely more depth on the pitching side of things.”

The Tribe was picked to finish fifth in the CAA preseason coaches poll due in large part to the strength of its returning pitching staff. Junior righthander Kevin Landry will finish games for the College this season out of the bullpen along with sophomore Logan Billbrough, while classmate Tim Norton will look to rebound from injury as part of the starting rotation.

Senior Jeremy Neustifter, redshirt freshman Reid Killen and freshmen Cole Shain and Chris Yates will all get starts on the hill for the Tribe as well.

While the College lost its second through fifth hitters from a season ago, senior returnees include second baseman James Williamson, third baseman Tyler Stampone, outfielder Jeff Jones and preseason All-CAA first-team selection rightfielder Rob Nickle.

It will be a different-looking team from last year’s offensive juggernaut, but Leoni feels the talent is still there for the Tribe to make a run at postseason success.

“Now it’s time for the next generation of Tribe baseball players to step up.”

Three questions the Tribe must answer

1. How does the Tribe replace the production lost from last year’s lineup?

The team’s 2008 lineup may have been the best in school history, and while the returnees are talented, there are no Tim Parks or Mike Sheridans on this year’s roster.

Still, the lineup will be better than many think. James Williamson, Derek Osteen, Jeff Jones and Lanny Stanfield are all capable of getting on base. If Rob Nickle has a 2009 season similar to the beginning of his 2008 season, the Tribe will have no problem producing runs.

Tyler Stampone, who played more of a leadoff hitter role last season, is capable of putting up big numbers if Head Coach Frank Leoni drops him down in the order.

2. Why move Kevin Landry and Logan Billbrough to the bullpen to begin the year?

The Tribe needs help in the bullpen, so it’s fitting that the duo will move into that role. Billbrough was one of the Tribe’s most effective pitchers last season when healthy, and Landry comes into the season as perhaps the team’s most highly touted player.

Without the departed Sean Grieve and Pat Kantakevich, Leoni returns almost no one with big-game experience in the back end of the rotation. The Tribe skipper seems to be gambling that a young starting rotation headed by Jeremy Neustifter can keep the game close before handing the ball off to some of his most effective guys from last season.

3. Is there an area in which the Tribe could be expected to improve this season?

There are several.

Defensively, the College returns its double play combination up the middle, along with Stampone at third base. A platoon of Brett Conner and Tadd Bower may not be able to fully replace Mike Sheridan defensively at first, but an experienced rest of the infield makes the duo’s job infinitely easier.

In the outfield, the quintet of Jones, Cole Franklin, Tyler Truxell, Stephen Arcure and Rob Nickle can be at least as good as last year’s version, if not better, while catcher Chris Jensen was the Tribe’s best catch-and-throw guy behind the plate last year.

Most important, however, will be the Tribe’s production from the mound. In short, the College’s pitching staff could not have been much worse a season ago, battling injuries while notching an abysmal 6.69 ERA as a unit. The Tribe will have nowhere to go but up in 2009, and expect Tim Norton and Neustifter to lead a revamped staff.

Players to watch in 2009

Third Baseman Tyler Stampone — A little rusty defensively at the start of last season due to a position change, Stampone developed into an excellent defensive third baseman, while also providing at the plate last season. The Tribe will count on him this year to drive in more runs and anchor the infield defense.

Pitcher/Outfielder Tyler Truxell — The junior moves from full-time pitcher to pitcher/outfielder this season and will be counted on to eat up innings in the bullpen and to use his natural speed to provide the Tribe with another solid defender in the outfield.

Catcher Chris Jensen — He will not be asked to replace Tim Park’s offensive production, but if he can improve slightly on his offensive numbers and maintain his strong defense, he will play a key role for the Tribe.

Schedule breakdown

Feb. 24 at U.Va.: The Cavaliers will certainly look to avenge last year’s loss to the Tribe in Charlottesville. This road game should provide a good indication of the strength of the Tribe’s mid-week starters.

March 20-22 vs. Georgia State: The Tribe’s first CAA series comes at the end of a five-game stretch in seven days for the team and will test the depth of the pitching staff.

April 17-19 vs. Towson: The Tigers were runners-up in the CAA Tournament last season and return most of their key players. The Tribe will need every single run to beat the always-potent Tiger offensive attack.

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