In anticipation of Friday's season opening series against Hawaii, ATQ is previewing the Oregon baseball team. Yesterday, we previewed the pitchers. Today, the hitters.
While Oregon's impressive pitching staff ranked 12th in the country in ERA last season, the offense left much to be desired. The Ducks batted .265 last season, good for 214th in the nation, while the on-base percentage was .359, good for 151st. The Ducks return seven starters from last season, so improvement is almost certain. However, one of the losses is C/OF Aaron Jones, who was Oregon's most potent offensive player last season. However, a healthy Ryan Hambright and the return of Steven Packard from a two-year church mission gives Oregon hope of offensive improvement. The Ducks were a legitimate national championship contender last season even with the mediocre offense. With a pitching staff that should be on par with last year's, improved offense will be the key to the elusive CWS appearance this season.
Oregon's two primary catchers from last season, Brett Hambright and Aaron Jones, are both off the team this season. Any concern that this should have a major effect on the pitching staff should be kept to a minimum, as in college baseball, pitches are called from the dugout and not by the catcher. The question is what the effect will be offensively. Shaun Chase, who started 18 games at the position after Jones was injured and limited to outfield duty is back, but he reached base only 25% of the time as a freshman last season while hitting .178. Freshman Josh Graham of Roseburg has won the starting gig for the opening series in Hawaii. Graham hit .354 with four home runs as a senior at Roseburg last season, but it's difficult to determine how he will adjust to the college game. Consider this position the biggest question mark going into the season.
Other than catcher, Oregon returns their entire starting infield from last season. 1B Ryon Healy was is Oregon's most accomplished returning hitter. Healy reached base nearly 38% of the time last year and led the team in total bases. He figures to be a fixture in the middle of the Duck order. 2B Aaron Payne was the only player with an OBP of over 40% as the lead-off man, and led the team in runs scored. J.J. Altobelli is back at shortshop, and is an average hitter, hitting a relatively empty .265. A key will be the health of 3B Ryan Hambright. Hambright missed 20 games in the middle of conference play with an injury, and was replaced by the offensively challenged Kevin Shepard, a .193 hitter who failed to amass a single extra-base hit. Shepard has graduated, and a full season of a healthy Hambright should elicit much more pop out of the third base position. With the losses of Shepard and Thomas Walker, the Ducks lack experienced backups in the infield, so expect gaining experience for the youngsters to be a priority in the early season.
Two of Oregon's starting outfielders from last season return in Brett Thomas and Connor Hoffman. Thomas hit .313 with 19 extra-base hits for the Ducks last year and will be a key cog in the lineup. Hoffman actually projects to be primary backup this season, as he struggled, hitting .239 as a sophomore last season, and improvement would be appreciated. Given the graduations of Vernell Warren and Andrew Mendenhall, Hoffman should still see a ton of time. Scott Heineman will play center, and he struggled even more, hitting .189 in 29 games a year ago, though Horton has expressed optimism about his offense thus far in practice. However, the player I'm most excited about is the return of Steven Packard, who has missed the last two years serving a mission. In 2010, Packard hit .333 and slugged .440 as a freshman. If he can come anywhere close to replicating that, he alone makes up for the loss of Jones. Kyle Garlick tied for the team lead with six home runs last season while getting on base 38% of the time. He'll be the primary designated hitter while also serving some time in the outfield.
Much like the pitching, there should be a lot of hope that this can be a better unit this season than last. Healy, Garlick, Payne, and Thomas are all decent offensive players who can build on successful sophomore seasons, while the return of Packard is an added big bat. Catcher will be unpredictable, and Altobelli just isn't a great offensive player, but fans should expect some improvement from Hambright, Heineman, and Hoffman. If they get that, this team is much more dangerous. At worst, it's a very similar offensive team to last year, but there is potential for much more.