2013 Preview – Sun Belt Conference

By Eric Sorenson. Posted on February 5th, 2013 in 2013 National Preview, Sunbelt
 

2012 CONFERENCE ISR: 15

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HOW THEY’LL FINISH IN 2013:

1- Western Kentucky

2- Troy

3- Florida Atlantic

4- UL-Monroe

5- Middle Tennessee State

6- FIU

7- Arkansas State

8- South Alabama

9- Arkansas-Little Rock

10- Louisiana

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THE LOWDOWN.

Aye caramba! In 2010, I chose to go to the Sun Belt Conference tournament because this league had four or five possible NCAA tournament teams in the fold. That was 2010. This joint is now a one-bid conference? Yep, that’s what happened in 2012. ULM got the drop, but only by winning the SBC tourney. Otherwise, there wasn’t a single team in the top 89 of the ISR rankings. Time to turn it around boys. And that right now too. WKU and Troy both had unusual sub-.500 seasons last year but will have nearly everyone back and an influx of great talent to make their triumphant returns to the top half of the standings. In other words, the Earth will return to its axis, right? FAU and ULM both have enough hutzpah to be in the mix for the big prize too. I feel a little odd about having FIU and Arkansas State rated so low because they have stockpiled some talent and have the coaching staffs to make a run, even with an inexperienced team.

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BREAKTHROUGH TEAM:

- Western Kentucky.

The Hiltoppers had a lot returning last season and was pegged to be a contender for the conference crown. But they fell flat right from the get-go, losing the first two weekends vs. Toledo and Southern Illinois as well as their first two weekends of SBC play vs. MTU and FIU. They’ve learned from their mistakes and won’t rehash that crash this year.

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TRENDING DOWN:

- Arkansas State.

Don’t “trend down” these guys too far, SBC coach of the year Tommy Raffo will have his charges contending again. But missing some key weekend starters means there will be a shake up in the corps. If relief ace John Koch acclimates well to weekend duty, it could be game on once again for ASU.

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BIGGEST CLEATS TO FILL:

- R.J. Alvarez, reliever, Florida Atlantic

The bullpen of the Owls took some hits, the biggest being the longtime mainstay that Alvarez had become the last few seasons. If FAU can reload that bullpen, they’ll have a shot at post-season play.

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BEST PLAYER:

- Logan Pierce, 3B, Troy

This is the player who sets the tone for the Trojan batting order, leading the team with a .341 average and also leading the Sun Belt with 41 walks a year ago. Talk about being pitched around. But his numbers must stay high again this year.

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BEST PITCHER:

- Taylor Hadey, Western Kentucky

The league leader in ERA (2.35) is also a strikeout artist nonpareil, having totaled 74 Ks in just 65 inning last season. He may be used in a variety of ways this year as he made 25 appearances last season.

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IMPACT NEWCOMER:

- Will Starling, RHP, Troy

The JC All American comes to campus D1 ready and will team with fellow JC transfer Tanner Hicks to re-supply the Troy arsenal of arms on the bump.

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CAPSULES…

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- ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK (26-28, 12-18)

2012 ISR: 168

Starters Returning: 6

Weekend Starters: 3

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 4

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All Conference Candidates:

C Blake Johnson (.315-6-33)

OF Ben Crumpton (.292-3-20, 24SBs)

RHP Chance Cleveland (9-4, 3.93)

RHP Blake Huffman (5-4, 6.40)

RHP Bubba Cooper (2-3, 3.73, 2svs)

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NOTES:

- Last year in this space i wrote “Ho man! This will be a major rebuilding project.” And it was true. But head coach Scott Norwood is never one to wilt away from a challenge and sure enough he got his Trojans to actually improve it’s win totals and competitiveness from 2011 to 2012. So that’s pretty impressive.

- This year’s team will be very heavy senior-junior. Chance Cleveland and Blake Huffman return as the one-two punch on weekends and both are four-year guys, as is Bubba Cooper, the most effective reliever from a year ago. Also, RHP Tyler Buckley (1-3, 6.98) was a mid-week starter last year and is also a senior.

- Keep an eye on two-way threat Bryson Thionnet, who was 1-3, 7.79 and four saves in 13 appearances on the hill and hit .213-3-24 with 10 stolen bases while playing 3B and SS. His numbers weren’t great obviously, but got better as last year went on, which was his first season in D1, and could be ready for a breakout year. He became the team closer late last season.

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- ARKANSAS STATE (34-23, 19-9)

2012 ISR: 106

Starters Returning: 7

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 2

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

3B Claude Johnson (.359)

P John Koch (1-1, 1.88, 11svs)

SS Dustin Jones (.280, All-SBC)

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NOTES:

- After finishing just a game out of first place in the regular season and then playing in the championship round of the Sun Belt Tournament, the ASU administration rewarded Tommy Raffo, the SBC coach of the year, with a five-year contract extension. Strong work.

- A couple of interesting things about this year’s Red Wolves team are the transition of the programs’ saves record holder John Koch, who looks like he’ll be switched to a weekend starter position despite his 28 appearances last year, and the addition of P/OF Adam Grantham, an incoming frosh who was drafted in the 32nd round of the MLB draft by the Braves. Those are two big-time talents which could be difference-makers.

- Keep tabs on RHP Daniel Wright, who was only 3-6, 5.14 last season, but had an all-star performance up in the New England Collegiate League last summer and could be in for a big senior season.

- Defensively, the Red Wolves could have one of the better units in the conference. SS Dustin Jones and 3B Claude Johnson will form a solid left side of the diamond. Also, part-time 2nd baseman Zach Maggio (.277) will form the double-play combo and also, Zach George returns to his post at 1st base as well.

- The Wolves will miss longtime mainstay Michael Faulkner, particularly his speed which covered gap-to-gap in the meadow and his amazing 41 stolen bases last season. But Logan Uxa is back at his outfield position and is notable for his incredible patience at the dish, having accounted for 87 walks the last two seasons.

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- FLORIDA ATLANTIC (32-22, 19-8)

2012 ISR: 90

Starters Returning: 6

Weekend Starters: 3

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 0

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All Conference Candidates:

OF Corey Keller (.302-7-28)

C Mike Spano (.291-3-22)

OF Mark Nelson (.290-7-45)

RHP Kevin Alexander (5-1, 3.29)

LHP Austin Gomber (3-4, 3.82)

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NOTES:

- On Tax Day last year the Owls had a 23-12 record, which included sweeps of Alabama, FIU and Louisiana and also had an RPI in the mid-20s. All was good. But a 9-10 finish to the season included weekend losses to Arkansas State and Troy and also a 1-2 faceplant in the SBC tournament, which included two extra inning losses. All of that translated to sitting at home in the month of June after such a promising start.

- There weren’t a lot of losses among the starting players, but two big holes are left in the departures of All-Everything team leader Mike Albaladejo (hit .358, four-year leader at catcher/2B) and Kyle Newton, who had seven HRs and hit .311. But the next five hitters on the stat sheet all return and should hit better than last year’s .285.

- All three weekend starters and mid-week starter Bo Logan (4-3, 4.87) return, but there is a scarcity of relievers as most of them moved on, including team hammer R.J. Alvarez, who was 5-0, 0.72 with eight saves.

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- FIU (31-26, 15-14)

2012 ISR: 126

Starters Returning: 4

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 0

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

C Aramis Garcia (.271-6-29)

2B Tyler James Shantz (.294-5-33)

OF Nathan Burns (.317-3-48, 10SBs)

RHP Mike Ellis (3-2, 3.13)

LHP Mike Gomez (1-4, 3.76)

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NOTES:

- The Panthers had an experienced squad coming back in 2012, but played near-.500 ball most of the season. In fact, it was their 7-11 finish down the stretch which shut down any chance for reaching the next level of the post-season. That ignominious mark included an 0-3 performance in the SBC tourney. In other words, yuck!

- It will be tough to turn things around this year – unless there’s some of that ole Turtle Magic happening – since this will be an even less-experienced team that last year. There are a few members of that 2012 freshman class that could be difference-makers if they can step up a tad more in their sophomore years. Look for Catcher Aramis Garcia, UTL man Oscar Aguirre (.238-2-14) and SS Julius Gaines (.233) to be a big key to this 2013 season.

- For this year, the incoming class isn’t as highly touted as we’re used to seeing from coach Thomas and his staff, but still look for incoming junior 3B Josh Anderson, freshman INF Edwin Rios and junior LHP Tyler Alexander to play big roles.

- Between Mason McVay, Eddy Pidermann, R.J. Fondon, Logan Dodds and Jose Lazaro the Panthers will lose 41 starting assignments off the mound from last season. So that’s why it will be so vital for Mike Ellis to have a bang-em-up season as the only returning mound starter. But on the good side, LHP Justiin Cromartie returns after sitting out all of 2012 and most of 2011. He is a transfer from New Orleans who could factor into the weekend rotation or at least some prime time in the ‘pen.

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- LOUISIANA (23-30, 11-19)

2012 ISR: 161

Starters Returning: 4

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 0

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

1B Chase Compton (.328)

SS Ryan Leonard (.327, 10SBs)

3B Tyler Girouard (.298)

LHP Chris Griffitt (6-3. 3.53)

RHP Austin Robichaux (2-4, 2.91)

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NOTES:

- Alright this has GOT to stop. I’m just not used to seeing the Cajun program middling around in the Sun Belt, even dropping like a lead balloon to last place in the SBC. Not good. Turn this around now guys ‘coz this program is waaaaay to proud to finish like this. Hell this is B.S.

- The offense hit a putrid .263 last year and returns four hitters who went .286 or better. But keep an eye on OF Dylan Butler, who has the best power on the squad and could be primed for a breakout season, after hitting eight home runs and knocking in 45 runs, despite hitting just .249 last season.

- 1B Chase Compton enters the 2013 season with a lot of promise after coming off an all-star summer in the Alaska League for the Anchorage Pilots where he was named the No. 9 pro prospect by Baseball America.

- One of the better relievers in the Sun Belt was unexpectedly kicked off the team in January. RHP Caleb Kellogg (3-4, 2.52, 6svs) was given the boot just a few weeks ago and will be a blow to the arms corps.

- Beyond starters Chris Griffitt and Austin Robichaux, look for a duo of effective relievers in righties Matt Hicks (3-1, 2.42, 4svs) and Kendall Mayer (1-0, 3.10) as they held opposing hitters to averages of .236 and .200 respectively. Not bad huh? If they continue to step up in the latter innings, and a few new quality arms emerge, this could be a huge turnaround season in Lafayette.

- And if they DO win 30+, I’ll make my way for a large pint of brew and a shot of Jaeger at the Purple Peacock.

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- LOUISIANA-MONROE (24-30, 9-21)

2012 ISR: 104

Starters Returning: 5

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 2

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

INF Judd Edwards (.293-4-27, 11SBs)

RHP Cole Wine (6-4, 4.03)

3B Corben Green (.261-3-32)

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NOTES:

- The long drought was finally broken. The Warhawks returned to the NCAA tournament last year after a 12-year absence. For a program that usually has a winning pedigree, that was way too long of a wait to go back to the Big Dance. But the big question is… Can they make it two in a row?

- Of course, we can’t overlook the fact that the Hawks still ended up with a losing mark and underachieved a good portion of the season. Coach Jeff Schexnaider hopes his charges can emulate last year’s 12-6 start where they took down teams like Tulane, Southern Miss, Sam Houston and a series win at Tennessee.

- One of the turnkey players for 2013 will be 3B Corben Green. He played only 14 games in 2011, hitting .491 including hitting for the cycle in one game, but the season was cut short by an injury. The 2012 season saw him still not quite 100%, as he hit just .261. But he’s got a complete bill of health for this spring and expect him to have a huge breakout season… again.

- ULM will have to replace their top hitters in Jeremy Sy and Joey Rapp, their top speed merchant in Les Aulds, their staff ace in Randy Ziegler and their door-slammer at the back of the bullpen in Wil Browning. Also, finding capable defenders up the middle will be task 1 with new faces expected at SS, 2B and CF.

- The schedule will be formidable again with games against the likes of Wake Forest, Sam Houston, Southern Miss and Ole Miss before Sun Belt play.

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- MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE (31-28, 14-16)

2012 ISR: 134

Starters Returning: 6

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 4

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All Conference Candidates:

RHP Hunter Adkins (5-6, 5.75)

LHP Johnathan Frebis (6-3, 3.65)

RHP Paul Mittura (4-1, 1.98, 2svs)

2B Johnny Thomas (.277-7-33, 10SBs)

OF Trent Miller (.345-13-49)

3B Hank LaRue (.338-5-39)

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NOTES:

- Sweet turnaround for MidTenn last season, going from 18 wins in 2011 to 31 last year and making themselves competitive again in Sun Belt play. Lots of pitching comes back, headed by weekend starters Hunter Adkins and Johnathan Frebis, who held their opponents to .270 and .223 averages respectively, while also being the most-used pitchers on the roster.

- The bigger news might be the fact that the two biggest shutdown relievers also come back in Paul Mittura and Joey McClung (4-2, 3.11, 6svs, .198OBA), who were so dominant that their opponents scored just 22 earned runs in their 87 combined innings of work. If they can maintain their stout numbers, the Blue Raiders will hold a lot of late leads.

- The Raiders had the 2nd best defense in the Sun Belt last season, fielding at a .973 pace. Returning to help improve that even more will be two-time 2nd-team All Sun Belt performer Hank LaRue, along with the double-play combo of SS Ryan Ford (.252, 15SBs) and 2B Johnny Thomas. Catcher Dain McNabb was stout behind the dish, committing just four errors last season but must improve that .197 batting average.

-  Some bad news befalls the Raiders as Jonathan Sisco, who went 5-4, 3.49 last year in 16 starts, will miss the 2013 season after having to undergo shoulder surgery.

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- SOUTH ALABAMA (23-34, 15-15)

2012 ISR: 164

Starters Returning: 8

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 0

Key Relievers (20+inns.): 4

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All Conference Candidates:

OF/1B Jordan Patterson (.323-8-44)

DH Whitt Dorsey (.337-2-37)

RHP Jarron Cito (7-4, 5.23)

OF Nick Zaharion (.285-7-44)

2B Logan Kirkland (.333)

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NOTES:

- The 2012 season was totally one of those “transition” type of campaigns with a bevy of new faces, lots of roster losses and a new coach (Mark Calvi) dipping his toes into the waters and getting a feel for things. So don’t be too shocked by last year’s pedestrian 15-15 SBC mark or the un-USA-like 23-34 overall record. This year will be much different in Mobile.

- There’s a lot of star power returning to the batting order, especially with the top two hitters – Whitt Dorsey and Jordan Patterson – back in the fold. But everybody is geeked over the return of 2B Logan Kirkland, who played just six games last season but hit .339 in 2011. His steady presence in the infield will help shore up the defense a bit and his speed will team with Nick Zaharion to hopefully improve on the lowly 28 steals the Jags got in 2012.

- The Jags specialize in compact pitchers with a smaller stature, but don’t sell Jarron Cito and Anthony Izzio (4-1, 3.04) short. There’s a lot of grit in their makeup and they combined for 22 starts last season, holding opposing hitters to averages of .277 and .236 respectively. Also watch for RHP Payton Gardner, who was just 2-6, 5.49 last year for the Jags, but was one of the top pitchers in JUCO ball in 2011 and should acclimate better to D1 play this year.

- The big key to the season is how pitchers like the aforementioned Payton Gardner, along with RhP Dillion Buhrkuhl (1-4, 8.21) and LHP Kyle Bartsch (1-4, 4.26), step up their game in 2013. If they get into more of a comfort zone and can also get a few more set-up guys around them for support, the Jaguars could be back to their old winning ways.

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- TROY (28-30, 14-16)

2012 ISR: 150

Starters Returning: 7

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

1B Trae Santos (JC transfer)

OF Danny Collins (.318-12-52)

3B Logan Pierce (.341-5-47)

C Jake Harrell (.286-3-24)

2B Tyler Vaughtn (.305)

RHP Will Starling (JC transfer)

LHP Nate Hill (7-2, 3.53, 4svs)

RHP Thomas Austin (3-5, 2.80, 3svs)

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NOTES:

- I was really surprised the Trojans dipped so much from their 43 win season of 2011, especially with the amount of returnees coming back to the roster. You knew when Troy lost its first four SBC weekends that 2012 just wasn’t going to be their year.

- The biggest bugaboo was having mound stud Tyler Ray not pitch up to potential, as he was 12-0, 2.39 in 2011, but struggled to 5-5, 5.16 last year. The rest of the staff didn’t pitch horribly, at 4.97, but still didn’t have their bellcow pacing them.

- The Trojans still have a lot of blast and gash in their offense, which seems almost SEC-like. Logan Pierce, Danny Collins and Tyler Hannah (.272-5-32) all have good swings and can cleanup the bags in a hurry. If they can get more speed on the basepaths and some movers and shakers to get on base at the top of the order, this will be a formidable order again.

- The incoming class has some umph to it and the coaches are juiced about the prospects of a pair of JC transfers in 1B Tre Santos, a sizable prospect who has plenty of pop in his bat, and RHP Will Starling, who is also stoutly built and packs a hell of a fastball/slider combo.

- In addition to the six returning pitchers in the numbers above, Troy will have back the services of a couple key arms who missed 2012, in lefties Shane McCain (2-2, 4.30 in 2011) and Ryan Sorce (5-5, 5.57 in 12starts in 2011). The lineup will also get back OF Josh McDorman, who hit .274 in 26 starts in 2011.

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- WESTERN KENTUCKY (25-33, 13-17)

2012 ISR: 180

Starters Returning: 7

Weekend Starters: 3

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 4

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All Conference Candidates:

RHP Taylor Haydel (4-5, 2.35, 3svs)

LHP Tim Bado (4-7, 4.31)

LHP Austin Clay (4-4, 4.74)

LHP Tanner Perkins (1-0, 3.22 in 21inns.)

INF Scott Wilcox (.276-4-28)

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NOTES:

- In a word, YUCK! That 2012 season was a piece of crap to these perennial winners. They basically flipped the script last season from the season before, going from 33-24 in 2011 to 25-33 in 2012. But the worst part was finishing in 8th place in the SBC and then starting out 0-2 in the conference tournament.

- The big problem was a boney-armed offense that hit a Sun Belt-worst .251 as a team, with only 27 home runs and just 27 stolen bases. In other words, this team just didn’t get much going on the basepaths.

- On the positive side, the Hilltoppers did finish 4th in the conference in pitching at 4.54 team ERA, 2nd in strikeouts with 443 and 4th in defense, sweeping at a .971 pace. If they can keep the pitching and D in that field of play they could win more games.

- Nearly every meaningful inning of pitching returns to the WKU roster this season, led by all three weekend starters in Tim Bado, Austin Clay and Tanner Perkins. Also watch for incoming JC transfer RHP Andrew Edwards, who was named one of the Top 150 JC players in the country last season. And at 6’5″, 255, I don’t see a lot of people that are going to argue with him.

- They’ll also get Taylor Haydel, the most valuable pitcher in the arms corps who tossed 74Ks in 65 innings of work last season. But don’t forget about Tanner Perkins, who had just four starts last year before being shelved due to injury. But in 2011, Perkins was 2nd team All-SBC, going 7-4 with a league-best 2.32ERA. Can you imagine if all these talents pitch to their abilities? The Hilltoppers could not only surpass the 30-win mark, but hell, the 40-win mark ain’t impossible.

 

COMMENTS:

February 10, 2013 at 3:59 am
Dave says:

I sure hope your right!!! I would love nothing more then to see WKU win the Sunbelt!!! Coming from the best college baseball writer I know, who is always right…


February 11, 2013 at 2:56 pm
Cajun07 says:

I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Louisiana this year, Stitch. We hired Matt Deggs as hitting coach/recruiting coordinator and he’s had a full offseason to put his system in. Previously, Coach Deggs was at Arkansas and Texas A&M in similar roles. The roster’s been turned over because last year was unacceptable and we’ve put a brought in good talent (on paper.) Coach Robe should be able to get the arms back into shape from last year. Couple of guys we were counting on last year went out with season ending injuries, and those guys are now back. Hopefully the entire SBC is back to normal this year because last year was just really bad.


February 13, 2013 at 2:29 pm
Mike says:

Not even a mention of Hageman for WKU?…With weekend rotation of Hageman, Bado, Perkins and 8-9 other very good arms the ERA should be lower, defense will still be very good…just have to hit. Think that team batting average will dramatically increase this year, many very good hitters coming back stronger and experienced!!