By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Major League Baseball’s signing deadline passed early this week, so UVa coach Brian O’Connor now knows for sure which players will make up his 2011 team.
He had a good idea all along what would happen, and the summer brought no surprises.
“It kind of ended exactly like I thought it would,” O’Connor said Tuesday in his University Hall office.
From the team that won a school-record 51 games, spent a good part of the season ranked No. 1 nationally, and reached the championship game of an NCAA super regional, O’Connor lost five players who had eligibility remaining: Jarrett Parker, Phil Gosselin, Robert Morey, Kevin Arico and Dan Grovatt.
Given where they were drafted, the Wahoos’ skipper figured that would probably happen, though O’Connor would not have been shocked had Grovatt returned for his senior year.
UVa’s incoming class took a smaller hit. As expected, only one of Virginia’s 2010-11 recruits — left-handed pitcher Justin Nicolino — signed a pro contract. The rest will start classes at the University on Tuesday.
Fall practice begins Sept. 3 for the Cavaliers, and this team will differ significantly from its immediate predecessor. Also gone are catcher Franco Valdes and shortstop Tyler Cannon, who were seniors in 2010. But don’t expect the Cavaliers to fade into mediocrity.
In seven seasons under O’Connor, the ‘Hoos are 316-118-1. They have reached the NCAA tournament every year and in 2009 advanced to the College World Series. Their coach fully expects continued success.
“Guys step up,” O’Connor said. “There’s enough talent in the program and enough versatility that we’re going to have some really good options. And for a coaching staff, this is really, really exciting. You’re always teaching, but you got a lot of new faces that could be everyday players now.”
Virginia’s returning players include pitchers Danny Hultzen, Tyler Wilson, Cody Winiarski, Branden Kline, Justin Thompson, Whit Mayberry, Will Roberts and Scott Silverstein, who redshirted this year while recovering from a second shoulder operation.
“He’s progressing along,” O’Connor said of Silverstein, a 6-6 left-hander.
Also back are such position players as Keith Werman, John Barr, John Hicks, Steven Proscia, Kenny Swab, Stephen Bruno, Reed Gragnani, Chris Taylor and David Coleman.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” O’Connor said.
“You had a group of players in Grovatt, Parker, Gosselin, Cannon and Valdes who for three straight years were mainstays in the lineup — maybe Valdes not as much as the other four — and now there’s chances for other players to emerge and make their legacy in the program and start to show what they’re capable of doing every day. Players like John Barr, who has not been an everyday player, but he’s contributed a ton. Kenny Swab. And it’s time now for those three sophomores to really emerge — Bruno, Gragnani and Taylor.”
Wilson and Swab were among the Cavaliers drafted in June, but they informed O’Connor almost immediately that they planned to return for their senior years. Both are likely to play different roles in 2011.
Of Wilson’s 72 appearances as a ‘Hoo, 69 have been in relief. But the 6-2 righthander “this fall is going to be trained and worked with as a starting pitcher,” O’Connor said.
“Obviously, when we get into the season, we’re going to look to do what’s best for our team. But we’ll see.”
Swab transferred to UVa last year from a junior college in Georgia. He appeared in 43 games for the ‘Hoos in 2010, with 32 starts, and hit .328. But on a team that had returned all of its starting position players from 2009, Swab often sat and watched, especially in the NCAA tournament.
“I think Kenny Swab is really a key guy for us going into the 2011 season,” O’Connor said. “Because of the depth we had position player-wise last year, he didn’t get a chance to play every day. But when he did, he performed pretty well.
“With Franco Valdes graduating, I see Kenny Swab taking on more behind-the-plate time. I see him spending time at first base, and I think he’s a legitimate option in our outfield, too. The bottom line is, I think he’s got the ability to hit in our lineup every day. Last year he had a tough time getting in there every day, but this year I think we can really see what he’s capable of doing.”
UVa’s starting outfielders for much of the year were Gosselin, Parker and Grovatt. Barr and Coleman are the team’s only returning players with significant college experience in the outfield, but O’Connor will consider moving infielders out there. Other possibilities will include freshmen Mark Podlas and Mitchell Shifflett.
“What we’re going to need to do is analyze this fall how we get the nine best guys on the field,” O’Connor said, “and it might mean some guys might have to learn to play a position that they haven’t played before.
“It’s no different than what we did with Phil Gosselin. He was a high school shortstop, and it ended up that half the games in his career here, he played in left field. For the team standpoint, we’ve got to get the nine best guys out there.”
With Arico gone, UVa must find a new closer, but pitching is perhaps the least of O’Connor’s concerns. Hultzen (11-1, 2.78 ERA) was the ACC pitcher of the year in 2010. Another weekend starter, Winiarski, was 5-0. Kline (5-1, 3.62) improved steadily as a freshman, and O’Connor didn’t hesitate to use the 6-3 righthander in critical late-season games.
“Our pitching’s in pretty darn good shape, I think,” O’Connor said. “It’s just a matter of what combination of position players, who’s going to play where, who’s going to be productive in what roles.”
The first-year class includes five pitchers, among them left-handers Ryan Ashooh (Centreville High) and Kyle Crockett (Poquoson High). Crockett, the state’s Gatorade player of the year, led Bull Islanders to the Group AA championship.
“A lot of people might speculate, ‘Who’s going to be the closer?'” O’Connor said. “Well, you know what? Seven years ago, nobody would have thought Casey Lambert would be our closer as a true freshman and have a bang-up year for us. Maybe the closer will be a freshman. Maybe it’ll be a veteran that emerges. So we’ll just have to kind of see how that all plays out.
“But overall, with this group of players, I really like our talent. I do.”