Depth Creating Competition for Cavaliers

Brian O'Connor has the top college baseball team in the country entering the season, according to more than one national preseason poll. But that doesn't mean Virginia's head coach doesn't have any questions that need answered.

"I don't know really who's going to play what spots on our infield yet, believe it or not," O'Connor said recently. "But what I love about it is that we have a lot of options. And we have plenty of talent to move guys, and figure out what the best combination for us is."

The Cavaliers return eight everyday players and two-thirds of the weekend pitching rotation from last year's 50-win team. And they added reinforcements in the form of a nine-player recruiting class that was ranked 14th in the country by Baseball America.

"It's deeper than we even can comprehend it is," junior catcher Nate Irving said of the UVa roster this spring. "There are guys every day in practice who step up and get big hits in situations."

According to O'Connor, that depth is what makes this year's UVa baseball team unique. Despite returning so many everyday players from a season ago, jobs are up for grabs this spring.

"I think the depth is there so much, that it's not right for me to make those decisions right now," O'Connor said. "Because I think those players need to be out there competing on an everyday basis for who's going to be doing the playing time. So this is a really unique situation that we're dealing with this year. But it's something that I think is a real positive."

Take the catcher position, where Irving has been the Cavaliers' starter the past two seasons. Fellow catchers Robbie Coman and Matt Thaiss are coming off strong performances last fall, prompting Irving to say UVa may have the best catching corps in the country.

"We all feed off each other," he said. "We all try to make each other better. We're all very competitive with each other. That makes us better as a group, and also makes us better individually."

Junior Mike Papi worked his way into the UVa lineup through the first month of the 2013 season -- and finished the year as an All-American ouftielder. This year, Papi could be back in the UVa outfield. But he could also be at first base, or designated hitter.

"We have unlimited possibilities," Papi said. "Our pitching staff, we have so many starting pitchers. A lot of power in the lineup. So you don't really know which way it's going to go... You've got to come out every day, and let the coach make that decision for you."

UVa's biggest losses from last season are first baseman Jared King and second baseman Reed Gragnani in the lineup, and starter Scott Silverstein and closer Kyle Crockett from the pitching staff.

Papi and fellow juniors Nick Howard and Kenny Towns -- who both saw significant time at third base in 2013 -- are among the possibilities to take over at first base. Sophomore John LaPrise and freshman Tony Butler are candidates at second base -- along with junior Branden Cogswell and freshman Daniel Pinero, who are competing for the shortstop job.

Lefty Nathan Kirby and right-hander Josh Sborz, both sophomores, are candidates for bigger roles on the pitching staff this spring. And O'Connor singled out three freshman right-handers after last fall -- Jack Roberts, Connor Jones, and Alec Bettinger.

"Certainly, we have some holes to fill there," he said last week. "But there are very talented players that are ready to step into those roles."

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