The defending Conference USA baseball champions recently wrapped up fall ball with several matters to address before the 2016 season opens with a three-game series at Ole Miss. Among some of the areas FIU has to figure out before taking on the Rebels are: what the middle of its order will look like, who will close and what order will the starting rotation follow.
The Panthers put together their run to the C-USA title last season with the help of productive bats in the middle of the order. Julius Gaines, Edwin Rios, Josh Anderson and Brian Portelli are all graduated. The quartet took with them 32 home runs and 165 RBI leaving plenty of numbers to be made up by the current Panthers.
"Our biggest question in the fall and going into this season is who is going to hit in the middle of our order," FIU coach Turtle Thomas said. "Julius, Edwin, Josh and Brian Portelli were a big part of what we did last season."
Because December just started and the opener is more than two months away, Thomas said, in no particular order, these are some of the bats that could find themselves in the middle of the FIU lineup in 2016: new second baseman Zach Files, a left-handed hitter from Grayson (Tex.) JUCO, hit .319 in the fall with two home runs and 10 RBI in 47 at-bats; right-handed hitting first baseman Nick Day from Arizona Western JUCO hit .282 in the fall; returning Panthers catcher J.C. Escarra (above left) and third baseman Austin Rodriguez (above right), who combined for 11 home runs and 64 RBI last season.
Going by fall ball but obviously this could change, Thomas is looking at returning outfielder Jack Schaaf to lead off and new shortstop Irving Lopez, a teammate of Day's at Arizona Western, to bat second. Lopez led FIU in hitting in the fall with a .447 average. Lopez had 21 hits and 15 walks. Lopez is a switch-hitter with a slick glove on the diamond. Zack Soria, who led FIU in hitting for most of last season, could find himself at the top of the order again if either Schaaf or Lopez struggles. Soria is expected to see time again behind the plate and in right field where he threw out several baserunners before several teams may have thought a catcher can't play the outfield. Soria hit .400 in the fall with a team-leading 22 hits.
Thomas thinks three newcomers in the outfield will compete with Schaaf and speedster Kolby Follis for playing time: University of Arizona transfer Kenny Meimerstorf, who can play all three outfield positions, hit two home runs to go with a .313 average in the fall. Santa Barbara City College transfer Connor McManigal was third in hitting in the fall with a .343 average. Christian Khawam from Central JUCO hit .234 but according to Thomas finished strong once Khawam started hitting to the opposite field. Follis led FIU with nine stolen bases in the fall and ran a 6.19 on Scout Day to which Thomas keeps saying Follis is the fastest player he has seen in his 39 years of coaching college baseball.
FIU has some good gloves on the infield that are expected to compete for playing time. Returners Eddie Silva and Rey Perez can play multiple positions. Silva, who can play second base, shortstop and third base, is likely to start somewhere according to Thomas but the FIU coach said Silva needs to be a little more consistent with the bat. Perez can play either middle infield position. Silva hit .276 in the fall and Perez hit .275.
With last year's closer Danny Dopico now in the Chicago White Sox organization, someone new will be tasked with getting the final three outs in the ninth inning. Last year's set-up man Williams Durruthy had a tough fall posting a 7.36 ERA, allowing 14 hits and nine runs in 11 innings of work. Florida Atlantic transfer right-hander Cain Spangler, who was a position player for the Owls before taking up pitching recently, had more closer-like numbers in the fall with a 1.69 ERA, 11 strikeouts in 16 innings and batters hitting just .175 against him. Spangler, however, lacks game experience on the mound.
Thomas said returning left-hander Dominic LoBrutto (above) probably had the best fall of any reliever. LoBrutto did not allow an earned run in 14 innings and struck out 18 while batters hit a microscopic .065 against him. Broward College transfer Michael Agis could fill dual roles for the Panthers as a reliever and spot starter in mid-week games. Agis, a 5-11 right-hander, has a solid breaking ball. Agis had a 2.25 ERA in 20 innings in the fall.
Robby Kalaf, who began last season as FIU's closer before undergoing shoulder surgery, is working his way back and has thrown well in the bullpen. Kalaf did not participate in any intrasquad games in the fall but should be ready for the 2016 season. Kalaf will likely work out of the bullpen this coming season but his role has not been defined yet.
One of FIU's strengths this coming season should be its starting rotation. All three weekend starters from the 2015 conference champion team are back but Thomas hasn't decided yet what order they will pitch. Junior right-hander Chris Mourelle, who took the summer off to rest his arm, continues to be consistent. Death, taxes and Chris Mourelle. He posted a 1.20 ERA in the fall. Andres Nunez, who took over the Friday starting role late last season, struggled early in the fall but finished strong according to Thomas. Nunez finished with a 3.00 ERA but batters hit just .103 against the 6-5 sophomore. Cody Crouse, FIU's Saturday starter last season, missed the fall after undergoing ligament surgery but he is expected back in time for the start of the new season.
Two big young right-handers can bring the heat for the back end of the FIU starting staff. Sophomore Garrett Cave had a solid summer ball season and continued it into the fall. The 6-4 Cave led FIU starters with a 0.53 ERA in the fall over 17 innings pitched, allowed just four hits and struck out 24. Cave reached 99 miles per hour a few times in the summer. Six-foot-five freshman righty Nate Pearson had a 2.08 ERA in his first college fall ball season. One number that both Cave and Pearson will need to trim are the walks. Cave walked nine in 17 innings and Pearson walked 11 in 13 innings in the fall. Thomas said both pitchers need to continue developing their off-speed stuff because both have big arms.
"Our pitchers really stuck it to our hitters in the fall," Thomas said. "We struck out too many times as hitters and made some weak outs. Hopefully, that's a sign that we have some good pitching."
As a team FIU hit .271 in the fall. FIU pitchers recorded a 2.39 team ERA and struck out 210 batters.