2017 Season Preview: Part II - Positional Players
One year after Navy's offense set single-season program records for runs scored and RBIs, while also being ranked second all-time in hits, doubles and triples, the expectation are high once again for a talented group of Midshipmen. Returning All-Patriot League players, Adrian Chinnery, Stephen Born and seniors Travis Blue and Leland Saile form a solid foundation, which will look to stay dynamic and overcome the losses of 2016 seniors Robert Currie, Connor Deneen and Sean Trent.
The two-time reigning All-Patriot League First Team catcher, Adrian Chinnery leads Navy's catching corps. After battling injuries over the first part of 2016 and subsequently splitting time at first base, the senior got back behind the plate full-time come April and provided game-changing defense and leadership for the Mids over the team's stretch run that saw them go 24-6 in games that Chinnery started at catcher. On the year, Chinnery threw out 50 percent of would-be base stealers (11-22), while posting a line of a .302 batting average, two home runs and 22 RBIs at the plate.
"Adrian is a four-year starter, who brings a lot of experience and talent to the ballpark," remarked head coach Paul Kostacopoulos. "He's a tough kid and gives a level of comfortability to the team and pitching staff behind the plate. He has the tools and ability to have another great year for us."
Kostacopoulos notes that sophomore Christian Hodge and freshman Alex Smith will see the majority of reserve reps at catcher when Chinnery isn't in the lineup at the position. Hodge appeared in 19 games with five starts for the Mids as a freshman in 2016. A powerful prospect at the plate, Hodge slugged .406 with one home run over 32 at bats. He saw time at catcher, third base and DH last season. A strong fall ball and preseason performance has elevated Smith to the top of the freshmen class of catchers. One of three plebe backstops on the team, Smith was a VHSL All-State First Team honoree as a senior at Mountain View High School in Northern Virginia last spring.
"We expect to have Adrian catch most of the games for us, but if we give him a day off or play him at first or DH, I have confidence in Christian or Alex to fill in," noted Kostacopoulos. "Both players are young and have yet to get a ton of reps in the collegiate game at catcher so it'll be important for us to not overwhelm them immediately."
Navy's infield will feature fresh faces on the corners with an experienced double play combination in the middle. With Leland Saile and Logan Knowles vacating roles at first and third base for starting gig in the outfield, the aforementioned Christian Hodge and freshman Jacob Williamson have been tapped to garner starting reps at first and third base, respectively. The Mids' double play combo that appeared in all 60 games during 2016 is back in the form of sophomore 2B Matthew Wilcox and senior SS Travis Blue.
As noted in the section on catching, Hodge is a versatile defender, who showed hints of a powerful bat in limited duty as a freshman. When needed as a backup catcher, he'll leave first base and strap on the catching gear.
"Christian showed us some glimpses of what his potential at the plate was last season in limited at bats," remarked Kostacopoulos. "The biggest thing for him this year will be continuing to learn the game and show consistency both offensively and defensively."
Moving around the horn, Wilcox was a staple in Navy's lineup at second base in 2016 as a freshman. The California native played in all 60 games with 59 starts. Coming into fold with a strong skill set, Wilcox showed well both at the plate and on the field during his debut season. While posting a .246 batting average, a keen sense of the strike zone and patience at the plate resulted in 37 walks and 11 hit by pitches to bump Wilcox' on-base percentage to .414, the seventh best mark in the Patriot League.
"For a young player, Matt got a lot of experience for us last season," said Kostacopoulos. "He earned the starting job at second base in the preseason and played in every game. He has a solid foundation of skills and he's worked on getting stronger so we expect him to continue improving."
On the left side of the infield, Blue has been a staple in the Mids' starting lineup since day one of his freshman year in 2014. A starter in each of Navy's 168 games over the last three seasons, he's up to ninth on the program's all-time list. After two solid and effective seasons at the plate in 2014 and 2015, Blue broke through with a new-found power stroke as a junior in 2016. Coming into the season with 14 career extra-base hits, Blue notched 12 doubles, six triples and one home run over 234 at bats, while batting .261 and stealing five bases last spring.
"Travis is a four-year starter, who is an experienced and trusted player for us both at the plate and on defense," exclaimed Kostacopoulos. "He's someone that we need and expect to have a good year towards the top of our batting order."
The starting infield will be capped at third base with a freshman in Williamson. A talented five-sport athlete during his high school days at Hunt High School in North Carolina, Williamson has showcased an advanced grasp of the collegiate game en route to claiming the starting position. A member of North Carolina's 2016 NCBCA 3A All-State team as a senior, Williamson possesses a strong arm and a controlled attack at the plate.
"Jacob is freshman, who has shown signs throughout fall ball and the preseason that he can play at this level," said Kostacopoulos. "His ability to pick up the game as well as he has allowed us to move Logan [Knowles] to the outfield."
Kostacopoulos stated his confidence in the depth of the infield with freshmen Michael Coritz and Zach Biggers being the team's lead reserves. Coritz comes to Navy after a highly-regarded high school career at Paul VI Catholic in Northern Virginia where he was honored with All-WCAC postseason accolades in all three years as a varsity student-athlete for a program that produced six DI baseball players over the past two seasons. Biggers joined the Mids after prepping at NAPS in 2015-16 and playing four years of varsity baseball at Walhalla High School in South Carolina. A skilled defender, Biggers was named as a South Carolina Gold Glove recipient in 2015.
"We're confident that both players could step in right now and fill whatever role they were assigned," said Kostacopoulos. "They're dynamic players that offer us really good options off the bench. As we move forward they will have important responsibilities for the team."
The head coach lists Ben Lowe as the team's top bench option at first base. A powerful bat, Lowe has seen action in a variety of roles for the Mids over his first two seasons in Annapolis, including first base, third base, catcher and pitcher. Over 50 career at bats, Lowe has connected for two home runs and driven in eight runs.
Sophomore Kyle Stewart is also noted as potential backup at first base for Navy.
Following the departure of its entire starting outfield from 2016, the Mids will look to familiar faces in slightly changed roles to roam the expansive outfield at Terwilliger Brothers Field at Max Bishop Stadium. The trio of junior LF Stephen Born, junior CF Logan Knowles and senior RF Leland Saile are veterans of the lineup, who are slated for duty in the outfield this season.
An All-Patriot League honoree in 2016 and the holder of a .334 career batting average over 92 collegiate games, Born has continued to work and improve his game as he went from eight extra-base hits as a freshman in 2015 to 19 as a sophomore. Born finished top-10 in the Patriot League in 2016 in hits (65), runs scored (41), RBIs (38), doubles (14) and walks (26). A natural outfielder, he served as the team's starting designated hitter with a handful of starts in the outfield over his first two seasons.
"Stephen is our most improved outfielder," said Kostacopoulos. "He was always a good defender, but now that this is his permanent job, he's really broken through. At the plate, he's a solid hitter, who makes strong contact and finds the gaps. Stephen is someone that we'll lean on once again in the middle of our lineup."
After coming off the bench for the early portion of his freshman season in 2015, Knowles grabbed hold of the starting job at third base for the Mids and started 95 games at the hot corner over the past two seasons. Equipped with a versatile and athletic skill set, Knowles was transitioned to center field, as well as top the top of Navy's batting order as the Mids' leadoff hitter. The Washington native flashed his potential on offense in 2016 with a .307 batting average, .426 on-base percentage and nine stolen bases on 11 attempts.
"Logan seems to have the skill set to make the move to center field really work for himself, as well as the team," remarked Kostacopoulos. "He has a strong arm and possesses great speed, that will help him chase down balls in the gaps. At the plate, we're looking for him to embrace dynamic roles like going first to third, bunting for base hits and stealing bases. He's worked hard all offseason to fulfill those so we're looking forward to seeing him in game action."
The most experienced player in Navy's new starting outfield is Saile. The Mids' starting first base down the stretch in 2016, Saile has 38 starts in right field over his career to date. As a junior in 2016, he broke through with a tremendous year at the plate. Once settled into his role as the starting first baseman, Saile unleashed a powerful offensive attack that resulted in a .385 batting average, 14 doubles, five home runs, 31 RBIs and a .630 slugging percentage. In postseason play, the Patriot League Tournament MVP, hit .421 with three home runs and nine RBIs in action versus Bucknell, Holy Cross, North Carolina State and Saint Mary's.
"Leland really had a great second half of the year for us in 2016," Kostacopoulos said. "We're looking for more of the same this year over an even bigger sample size. By returning him to right field, we're getting him back to his natural position and we'll be able to take advantage of his really good arm."
The immediate outfield depth chart has the duo of brothers Liam Lowery and Evan Lowery atop it. Teammates throughout their youth, Liam is a sophomore at the Naval Academy, while Evan is a plebe. Liam saw limited action in the senior-laden outfield in 2016 as he had six plate appearances and came away with a .500 on-base percentage courtesy of three walks drawn. In high school at Jamestown High he was recognized on the All-Conference First Team and All-Region Second Team as a senior in 2014. At the same Jamestown High, Evan garnered All-State honors following both the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
"Liam has taken some important steps forward over the offseason," acknowledged Kostacopoulos. "Being around the program last year, helped him make improvements over the fall and preseason.
"Evan should challenge for time off the bench, as well, as he's shown a solid skill set, but still has to learn the ropes and pick up the speed of the college game."
Kostacopoulos notes that in addition to his time in the infield, Biggers could also slot into reserve action in the outfield.
Scott Koscho, Liam Lowery and Ben Lowe are all scheduled to get early looks as the team's starting designated hitter. As a freshman in 2016, Koscho appearance in 27 games with 11 combined starts at DH and first base. The Pennsylvania native hit .240 with three doubles and four RBIs over 50 at bats.
When summarizing his expectations for the 2017 Navy Baseball team, Kostacopoulos reiterated the idea that with every new season competition brings out new strengths and weaknesses that preseason prognostication can only guess so much of.
"Every season is an unknown. We can sit here as a coaching staff and speculate our strength, weaknesses and potential pitfalls, but come Opening Day and the team takes the field all of that has little to no bearing on wins and losses. You just never know.
"Being the 2016 Patriot League champion and winning an NCAA Tournament game was a great accolade to attain, but 2017 is a new year with a new team. Once again that's our goal, but how we get there may be through a completely different avenue."
Season Opener at North Carolina Central (Feb. 18-19)
Navy will open its season this Saturday, Feb. 18 with a doubleheader versus the North Carolina Central Eagles. The two schools will close out the weekend series on Sunday with a single game. The action on both days begins at 1:00 p.m. at the Durham Athletic Park.
All-time, Navy holds a 1-0 advantage over North Carolina Central, as the Mids defeated the Eagles in the season-opening series of 2010. The four-team series consisted of a weekend of a round-robin action versus N.C. Central, Navy, Delaware State and Iona. The Mids went 3-0 at the competition.
North Carolina Central returns Preseason All-MEAC players OF Carlos Ortiz and IF Ellington Hopkins from a team that finished 25-30 overall and 11-13 in conference to rank third in the MEAC Southern Division in 2016.
Comparing the Squads
|Opp. Batting Avg.||.241||.281|