Baseball is in the air at FIU. In the morning at the FIU ballpark, several members of the Chicago White Sox such as Alexei Ramirez and other major leaguers take batting practice and ground balls. In the afternoon you can hear the ping! coming from the FIU batting cages as the Panthers hone their swings with the aluminum.
FIU begins practice for the 2012 season Friday, which marks three weeks from the season opener at Rice on Feb. 17. In the first part of our preseason interview with FIU coach Turtle Thomas he talked about the Panthers position battles and the schedule. Now Turtle finishes up his two-part talk with a look at the pitching staff, the FIU offense and the two things that concern him entering 2012.
PP: What does the starting rotation look like as you start practice?
TT: From a pitching standpoint right now we are a little bit up in the air. There are a couple of spots that are pretty well penciled in. R.J. Fondon (left) is probably the Friday night guy. At the moment Mason McVay is probably the Saturday guy. There are some guys like Jose Lazaro that are battling for Sunday. Mike Ellis, Christian Malbrough are also battling for the Sunday spot. John Costa is another. Whoever doesn't win the Sunday spot might move to start on Tuesday or Wednesday.
PP: I would imagine with the loss of closer Bryam Garcia and El Machine plus Mason moving to the rotation, the bullpen is a question mark right now?
TT: The bullpen is still a work in progress. Eddy Pidermann is in there. D.J. Swatscheno (right) is definitely in there. Albert Cardenas is in there. Logan Dodds is in that mix. If the season started today Mike Gomez would probably be our closer. We got basically about 12 pretty healthy arms. I think most everybody is going to get an opportunity to throw some and see who can work themselves into a certain role.
We pretty much want to find a seventh, eighth and ninth inning guy like we had last year. Frankly, you really need two closers because when you play five games a week one guy can't close that many games. If you throw the closer too much you obviously wear that guy out. We have to figure out who is going to take those two spots. At this point if we opened today, Mike Gomez would be one of our closers. Last year we knew the four main guys in the bullpen. That was one thing that really aided us in winning 40 games and getting the No. 2 seed in the Chapel Hill regional.
PP: Going back to the competition you got at third base/first base/DH, I'm guessing you are probably looking for the best defender at third base between Rudy Flores, Mike Martinez and Adam Kirsch -- since all three of them can hit. How do you see it?
TT: I think at third base it will be the better defender. The best hitter might be the DH. You know certain guys can sit in the dugout and DH and not beat themselves up mentally over making an out before they come up again 30 or 40 minutes later. Sometimes it's mental capability, stability of that person when they DH, whereas other people perform better when they are playing defensively as well as hitting. Where they don't have to sit there and think about their at-bats.
PP: With the uncertainty with the pitching right now do you change your offensive style because you don't know what kind of performances you will get on the mound?
TT: We led the conference in stolen bases almost all of last year. We run pretty much. We are not a station-to-station team, but you have to do the things that your personnel is able to do. If I had my druthers I would rather have a team that had four or five guys that could hit the ball out of the ballpark, four or five guys that can steal a base, take an extra base, stretch a single into a double. That would be my choice.
There are three offensive capabilities that you are looking for: Can a guy steal a base? Can he hit a ball out of the park? And do you have that high batting average guy? Jeremy Patton (left), Garrett Wittels and Pablo Bermudez were obviously our most consistent hitters on a day-to-day basis last year. Obviously, two of them are now with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. We are trying to find a couple of guys that put it in play consistently, hit for a high batting average and strike out a low number of times.
PP: What are your concerns heading into the 2012 season?
TT: The two things I'm concerned about right now and I told our guys back on October 15. Two things that can hurt our ballclub in the spring would be do we strike out too much as a team? When you strike out 10 or 12 times a game that only leaves you 15 other times to get base hits. You can strike out in key times with runners in scoring position. The other thing that can hurt our ballclub is walking too many guys, getting behind the hitters. You can either give up hits or walks, but you can't give up both. We got to minimize the number of hit batters and walks as much as possible. We call that battling the freebie war. Freebies are passed balls, wild pitches, walks, hit by pitches, errors, things like that. When you give up 15 free bases in a game you are going to lose that game I don't care what you do offensively.
*Thanks Roy Viera photos (Thomas, Fondon); thanks Sam Lewis photo (Swatscheno).