For information on Oregon's pitching staff in 2014, check out ATQ's Oregon pitching preview.
Oregon's pitching staff under George Horton has usually been a position of certainty. The characters rotate--from Tyler Anderson to Justin La Tempa to Alex Keudell to Cole Irvin to Tommy Thorpe--but the result is the same. Year-to-year, you can expect Oregon to have one of the top pitching staffs in the country. The same can't be said for Oregons' offense. When the Ducks are struggling, it's usually because they have trouble scoring enough runs.
It appears to be the case of "same story, different year" heading into this season. Three of Oregon's best offensive weapons from a year ago, first baseman Ryon Healy, OF Brett Thomas, and SS JJ Altobelli, will be playing their baseball on the minor league circuit this season. Healy's loss likely proves the most difficult void to fill, with his 11 home runs accounting for nearly half of the Ducks' total from last season.
A big chunk of that responsiblity will fall on Scott Heineman. Heineman will be the right fielder, where he made only one error last season. Heineman had an OBP of .346 last year, with upside power--19 of his 64 hits went for extra bases. He also stole 12 bases, walked 15 times, and drew ten hit by pitches. The outfield as a whole is very talented, returning a wealth of players with starting experience. That experience should translate to a lot of starts at designated hitter, and perhaps even first base, for this group. Connor Hoffman is a two-year starter in center field, and figures to start again for a third year, but his average dipped to an empty .194 last season and he needs a rebound with the bat. Kyle Garlick is back from injury, and hit .287 with 20 extra base hits as a starter two years ago. If he can round back into that form, he could be one of Oregon's best hitters. Tyler Baumgartner hit .272 with 16 extra-base hits a season ago. Austin Grebeck, son of former Major League Craig, is one of Oregon's most highly touted recruits, and could be in the mix before all is said and done.
The infield has two anchors, in third baseman Mitchell Tolman and second baseman Aaron Payne. Tolman reached base at a .392 clip, a mark which leads all returnees. Payne, in addition to being a very good defensive second baseman, reached base at a .368 clip. His .241 batting average doesn't look like much, but it was augmented with 27 walks and 16 HBPs. The obvious hole is at first base, and my bet is that an outfielder ends up at the position given the extra players at that position. Touted freshmen Jerry Houston and Mark Karaviotis should fight for the shortstop position. They rate as question marks with the bat, though both hit in high school and Karaviotis was drafted by the Diamondbacks.
Catcher will be another intersting battle. Josh Graham started 35 games last year, but hit only .147. Shaun Chase has more power, with three home runs last year, but wasn't a ton better at .209. Highly touted freshman Jack Kruger may beat them both out.
Overall, there are plenty of experienced pieces. The outfield has parts to spare, but with spots open at first base and designated hitter, there are plenty of at bats for those guys. Who ultimately ends up winning the first base, shortstop, and catching jobs are the most interesting position battles.
But equally important to the defense is where the power is going to come from. Heineman and Garlick have provided some in the past, but nobody has provided anywhere near the power that Healy did last season. Making up those 11 home runs and 20 doubles doesn't have to all come from one person, but there needs to be a consistent increase in production across the lineup to maintain last year's offensive level. And if Oregon wants to get that elusive trip to Omaha this season, they don't have to just maintain last year's level--they have to increase it.