I was able to speak with Aaron Fitt, Baseball America's College National Writer, as to why the Cavaliers received top billing.
AR: What went into the selection of UVa as No. 1 in your preseason poll?
AF: They’re just loaded. It’s really got a chance to be a very special offensive team and defensive team. I love the athleticism, the depth of that lineup, the experience, the physicality. What’s not to like? I think they’re a complete ballclub.
The only question mark, I guess, is some of the guys on the mound have to prove themselves. But they have really good arms and we believe in the track record of that coaching staff when it comes to getting the most out of their pitching. I think it’s a deep pitching staff and, eventually, I think it’s going to be a really good one.
AR: How does this bunch compare to 2009 and 2011 Virginia teams that advanced to the College World Series?
AF: That’s a good question. Those are really good clubs, both of those were. I feel like they’re kind of similar in that they have the depth and the athleticism in the lineup. They’re constructed with that same kind of eye toward guys that can really drive the gaps and run and cover a lot of ground in the outfield. Again, there’s physicality here, which is not something you see a whole lot of in college baseball right now because everyone’s trying to play small ball like UCLA last year.
The difference I would say, really, in favor of the other teams is Danny Hultzen at the front of the rotation is a big advantage. They had more proven guys in the bullpen. Kevin Arico comes to mind, I mean the guy saved a lot of games. Virginia needs somebody to emerge at the back of the bullpen.
Brandon Waddell’s a good No. 1, but he’s not Hultzen. So that team probably had the edge on the mound, but as good as that team was offensively, and it was really good, I like this group a little bit better.
AR: Is it rare for a team to be led by so many guys from one class?
AF: I don’t think it’s that rare. Just thinking of recent national champions, Arizona’s junior class two years ago was the same kind of deal. It was a really, physical athletic group of juniors that really kind of drove that thing. South Carolina had two classes in a row that were kind of like that, actually.
Virginia, I think back to their team in 2010 when you had Jarrett Parker, you had [Robert] Morey and Arico and Tyler Wilson, all those guys. That was a really good group of juniors, but they followed it up with a really good group of sophomores behind it — the Hultzen class with [Steven] Proscia and [John] Hicks. In that case you had back-to-back really good classes.
I think, Virginia, right now this is three strong classes in a row. That class last year with Joe McCarthy didn’t get a lot of fanfare at that time, but it turned out those guys were pretty good freshmen. Waddell was an immediate Friday night starter and McCarthy is an All-American kind of talent. That’s two cornerstone pieces. And the freshman class this year was smaller, but I think Connor Jones is going to be a big star. I think the shortstop [Daniel] Pinero has a chance, from everything I’ve heard from the coaching staff, they think he can be a really good player. And then the catcher, too, in this class [Matt Thaiss] has a lot of upside. So you got three real building block guys in this class also.
I think it’s easy to look at that junior class and say, yes, that’s the strength of this team, but I think it’s a complete team also.
AR: You have five of UVa’s juniors in the top 53 of your College Top 100. What stands out about that class to you?
AF: It’s special. It’s like a murderers’ row for college baseball right now with[Derek] Fisher and [Mike] Papi and [Brandon] Downes and Kenny Towns ... What stands out is the physicality, the fact that they can drive the ball out of the park. I think they can all hit for average and power. I think they’re all athletic and they have good approaches. When it comes to Papi, it’s a really, really good approach. That guy can just hit.
I think Fisher is one of the better pure hitters in the country, also. Both of those guys are going to have huge years. Downes can do everything out there, he’s athletic, he can run, he plays center field. They’re well-rounded players, all those guys are. I don’t know, I think they’re exciting.
AR: What is it about Fisher that makes him so attractive to MLB scouts?
AF: I think he was a Freshman All-American for us two years ago. Frankly, he exceeded our expectations as a freshman. Our perception of him was he was going to take some time to really be an impact guy. He had all the tools, but was kind of raw. And he hit right away, more than we thought he would.
Last year, he cut the strikeouts down a little bit. It was another solid year. It wasn’t a superstar year, but nothing wrong with it, certainly. I would expect him to have a huge year this year coming off what he did in the Cape last summer. That’s a key feather in his cap — what he was able to do in the Cape Cod League because scouts spend a lot of time up there and they bear down on how guys handle the wood bats against the best competition. And he handled it. It’s just a really good, smooth stroke with power. He can drive the ball the other way.
He can really run. I think he’s an above average, to well-above average runner. He’s not a great defender in the outfield. That’s something he’s got to work on. There were some guys in the Cape last year that thought he was a poor defender out there. The instincts, the routes, he’s still refining. He doesn’t throw great, but it’s good enough for left field. He’s not quite a five-tool guy, but the offensive part of his game is really exciting. If you’re dreaming of this guy long-term, maybe he’s a .280-.300 hitter in the big leagues and gives you 25 homers a year. He’s got that kind of potential.
AR: Is the biggest question mark about this club the pitching staff because of the lack of experience?
AF: Yeah, that’s it. I think the pitching needs to kind of solidify a little bit. They have a lot of options on the mound, but it might take a little bit of time for all of that staff to jell.
How are they going to use [Josh] Sborz? Is he going to close or he’s going to be a weekend guy? Where does Connor Jones fit in? I think that guy has a chance to be a dominant starter. You’ve got Nick Howard there. I think he’ll probably be a weekend guy, but he could close, too. He’s got closer stuff.
I think Waddell and Kirby are probably the only ones that are safe, really locked into their roles, assuming Kirby’s healthy by the time the season starts. It might take a little bit of time.
After that, there’s some things that need to fall into place, but I really like the pieces. All those guys have arm strength and ability. Karl Kuhn and Brian O’Connor, they know what they’re doing when it comes to pitching. Their track record is pretty impressive, so any time we’ve doubted their pitching in past years, we’ve regretted it at the end of the year.
This is a program that always seems to finish the year higher than where we had them ranked in the preseason. So it’s not going to be able to do that this year.