By: Chris Kowalczyk
RICHMOND, Va. - There appears there could be a break in the clouds for the VCU Baseball team this season, literally and figuratively.
After a tough 22-32 campaign in 2011, the Rams return a healthier, veteran ballclub in 2012. Additionally, this year's temperate winter in Richmond has allowed the team more preparation time outdoors than usual, the benefits of which can't be underestimated. VCU Coach Paul Keyes is already seeing positive signs.
"We've been able to define more roles because we've been outside so much," Keyes, in his 18th season with the Rams, said. "Usually we'll go into the season and there are question marks in the guys' own minds what their role is. I think our guys have a better feel of what they are."
VCU's strong fall and winter practices have Keyes optimistic about this season. While the Rams were picked fifth in the Colonial Athletic Association Preseason Coaches Poll, Keyes thinks his team's ceiling is much higher.
"I think our goal for this team is to get back in the NCAA at-large hunt," he said. "To do that, I think we've got enough talent, I think if everything comes together the right way we could possibly do that."
Keyes feels strongly about this veteran bunch. Junior righty Kyle Haynes (6-7, 3.36 ERA) came into his own last season and is expected to be the Rams' Friday night starter to begin the year. With three solid pitches, including a sinking fastball that he can throw in the low 90s, Haynes appears primed for a big year.
Senior Seth Cutler-Voltz (1-7, 5.12 ERA) will be the most experienced starter on the roster. A crafty right-hander with a strategist's mentality, Cutler-Voltz was an All-CAA honoree two seasons ago. He should be the Rams' midweek starter, but can comfortably slide into the weekend rotation.
Senior righty Kyle Pelchy (1-1, 6.66 ERA) and junior left-hander Ryan Farrar (0-1, 7.04 ERA) are expected to move into full time starting roles after spending the majority of their careers in the bullpen. Pelchy is experienced and commands his repertoire well, while Farrar, who possesses a plus changeup and fastball in the high 80s to low 90s, is coming off a breakthrough summer in the Cal Ripken League. Keyes says he eyes Farrar as his Saturday starter. Meanwhile, sophomore right-hander Ryan Morrison (1-1, 4.15 ERA) will have an opportunity to win the fifth starter's role.
In the bullpen, fireballing junior righty Blake Hauser (3-4, 4.65 ERA) will shift from the starting rotation to the closer's role. Hauser was drafted in the 25th round out of high school by the Cleveland Indians and has a fastball that has been clocked as high as 97.
Junior left-hander Brennan Huelse (3.24 ERA, 16.1 IP) is expected to fill a seventh and eighth inning setup role. Freshman Matt Lees, another southpaw, has been impressive in offseason workouts and figures prominently in the Rams' bullpen plans.
Senior Michael Graham (1-1, 6.41 ERA) can either add depth to the starting rotation or fill a long reliever's role. Freshman Heath Dwyer has been impressive, and Keyes says the left-hander will fight for mid-week starts. Right-handers Josh Alford (3.21 ERA), Ryan Klem, Seth Greene and Chris Shaklee (4.35 ERA) will all battle for bullpen innings.
Junior catcher Taylor Perkins (.320 Avg., 38 RBI), hot off an All-CAA campaign in 2011, will anchor the VCU infield. Perkins has always been an accomplished hitter, but in the last two seasons he's turned himself into a good receiver as well.
"He's just a gamer," Keyes said. "He just plays really hard and studies the game."
At first base, senior Brett Mikionis (.208, 7 RBI) returns after an injury-plagued 2011 campaign. Mikionis will attempt to regain the form characterized by his 11-homer, 54-RBI breakout sophomore season. If all goes well, Mikionis will return to the middle of VCU's lineup.
Junior college transfer Jordan Weymouth is poised to take over at second base for the Rams. Weymouth began his career at the University of Texas in 2010, where he hit .333 in 18 games, before enjoying an outstanding season at Central Arizona College. Keyes calls Weymouth, "one of the most talented guys that has played for me."
The shortstop job will be freshman Vimael Machin's to lose. A left-handed hitting freshman from Puerto Rico, Machin is a skilled glove man with offensive punch.
Sophomore Joey Cujas (.321 Avg., 41 RBI) should be the Rams' regular third baseman. Cujas burst onto the scene last season and led the VCU lineup with 41 RBI. Keyes says Cujas added strength in the offseason and should see a bump in his power numbers. If necessary, he can also slide over to first base to allow Mikionis an off day for his surgically-repaired shoulder.
With the ability to play at second, third, shortstop or outfield, junior Nick Kime (.310 Avg., 21 RBI) will see plenty of at-bats. Sophomore Robert Malan will give the Rams depth at second and third, while freshman Zac Bellinger is another lefty bat who can fill in at first and catcher.
Centerfielder Bill Cullen (.324 Avg., 40 runs) is coming off an outstanding All-CAA freshman season and looks to lead VCU's outfield corps again. He's slated to be the Rams' leadoff hitter and catalyst.
Senior Paul Nice (.262 Avg., 18 SB) returns to left field in 2012. In addition to his experience, Nice will cover a lot of ground defensively and can ignite VCU's running game.
Taylor Buran (.286 Avg., 6 RBI) is scheduled to be the Rams' right fielder after injuries limited him to 17 games in 2011. Buran's arm strength in right and his powerful bat will prove valuable to the Rams.
After spending the majority of 2011 in the infield, sophomore Landon Prentiss (.168 Avg., 9 RBI) will provide depth in the outfield this year.