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Previewing Georgia Tech Baseball: Infield

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Can one of our best defensive units get even better?

Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

Last year, Georgia Tech had one of the best infields in the entire country. They were able to turn 77 double plays in only 64 games, which is absolutely amazing and led the country. Let's take a look at each position.

Catcher

Tech will use a combination of three or four guys behind the plate this season: returning starter and sophomore Arden Pabst, junior Grant Wruble, incoming freshman Trevor Craport and the shocker of the group, senior AJ Murray.

The likely starter, Pabst, got a good bit of starting experience last season, starting in 38 of his 44 games. He did a great job of handling the pitching staff, throwing out 16 of 39 potential base-stealers (second-best percentage and second-most thrown out in the ACC), but the area in which he needs the most improvement is at the plate.

He finished the season with a slash line of .217/.321/.283 (AVG/OBP/SLG), a home run and 17 RBI. One thing Pabst needs to work on is putting the ball in play and not striking out. Pabst struck out 26 times last season in 120 at-bats -- his 21.7% strikeout rate was third-worst on the team amongst players with at least 100 at-bats. That said, he did a nice job of being selective -- his 10.8% walk rate was third-best among that same group.

He was pretty much the same way for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks in the Cape Cod Baseball League in which he played over the summer. In the 28 games in which he played, Pabst hit .138 with no extra base hits and just two RBI. He also only had 22 strikeouts, so it'll be interesting to see how he develops offensively this season.

With Pabst likely starting, the other three will all be competing for playing time behind him. Due to seniority, Wruble and Murray are the two most likely to come off the bench first.

Wruble played only sparingly for Tech last season behind co-starters Pabst and Mitch Earnest, appearing in just six games. When given more consistent playing time Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League, Wruble produced, playing in 18 games with a slash line of .281/.379/.333.

Murray was one of Tech's most consistent offensive producers last season. Playing in 62 games, mostly at first base or designated hitter, Murray finished with a solid slash line of .283/.376/.426. He also hit four home runs (tied for team lead) and drove in 33 runs.

While Craport doesn't have the experience of Murray or Wruble, he absolutely tore it up in the White-Gold series. He went four-for-nine with a home run and two doubles, while driving in three runs.

Predicted starter: Arden Pabst

First Base

Again, Tech has plenty of options. They've got two options returning in seniors Thomas Smith and AJ Murray. Adding in another option is incoming freshman Kel Johnson.

Since I already talked about Murray, I'll focus mainly on Smith and Johnson.

Thomas Smith began last season at second base before moving to first for the majority of the season. He played well the entire season, putting up a slash line of .301/.392/.380. He added two home runs and 36 RBI, while also being hit by a pitch nine times, but he was most known for his speed on the basepath. He stole five bases in nine attempts.

He played for Harrisonburg in the Valley Baseball League over the summer. While there, he played in 37 games and hit .317 with 11 extra base hits (one home run) and 17 RBI. He also struck out five times fewer than he walked (12 and 17 respectively).

Kel Johnson will definitely be given every shot to get on the field and in the lineup. This guy is good. He didn't play in any summer league, but he tore up the White-Gold series.

Playing for Team Gold, Johnson led all players in batting average (.700 in 10 at-bats), hits (seven), runs scored (four), RBI (five) and home runs (two).

His biggest game in the series came in the finale. He hit both of his home runs and drove in all four of his team's runs en route to a 4-0 shutout.

Predicted co-starters: Thomas Smith and Kel Johnson

Second Base

Things should be interesting at second base this season. This is the only position in the infield in need of a replacement. Second baseman and captain from last season Mott Hyde graduated and has moved onto Minor League Baseball in the Astros organization.

After the end of last season, many, including myself, expected Elliott Barzilli to take Hyde's spot at second. That didn't quite work out either with him transferring to TCU last summer.

So what will Tech do? They've got a couple of options: give the spot to a freshman in Wade Bailey or give it back to senior Thomas Smith who held the spot prior to Hyde.

Based off of what I've read about Wade Bailey, I'm in full support of passing him the reins to second. Playing for the East Cobb Yankees over the summer, Bailey put up a slash line of .391/.475/.533 in 55 games. He also walked nearly twice as much as he was struck out (25-13). So yeah, he was pretty good.

He also played pretty well in the White-Gold series. In his 11 at-bats, Bailey had six hits, a double, a home run and two RBI.

What is likely to happen here in my opinion is that Thomas Smith will split his time between first and second base allowing for both Kel Johnson and Wade Bailey to receive plenty of playing time.

Predicted co-starters: Thomas Smith and Wade Bailey

Third Base

Once again, Tech is absolutely loaded with depth. We'll likely see two players get the majority of the playing time with the possibility of a third depending on how the outfield works itself out.

The two that will get the majority of the playing time are returning starter and sophomore Brandon Gold and incoming freshman Blake Jackson.

In his freshman season, Gold started 50 games at the hot corner and played well defensively, but struggled slightly offensively. He finished with a slash line of .246/.316/.311 with no home runs and 16 RBI.

He played similarly during the summer for Harrisonburg in the Valley Baseball League. In his 28 games, Gold hit .248 with no home runs and 14 RBI. He also got just one hit in the White-Gold series.

Blake Jackson, on the other hand, had a good summer playing for the East Cobb Yankees. In his 48 games, he finished with a slash line of .331/.446/.581 while hitting four home runs and 43 RBI.

Jackson played decently in the White-Gold series but not quite at the same level as his time with the Yankees. He finished 3-of-11 with a double and four RBI.

Jackson will definitely provide a motivational push to Gold to improve offensively to keep his starting job. They'll both get plenty of playing time there, though.

The real wildcard here is junior Matt Gonzalez. Gonzo started in left field for most of last season, but with Tech having a very crowded outfield this season, Danny Hall may opt to move Gonzo back to his spot at the hot corner if one or both of Jackson and/or Gold struggle.

Chris will talk a little more about Gonzo in the outfield preview tomorrow.

Predicted starter: Brandon Gold

Shortstop

This is pretty much the only position in the infield in which everyone knows exactly who will be playing. And that would be returning starter and sophomore Connor Justus.

Justus started 55 games at short last season and played pretty well. Together with Mott Hyde, the two set a school record with 77 double plays turned.

He was also no slouch at the plate. He finished with a slash line of .254/.342/.321 while also hitting nine extra base hits (two home runs and a triple).

The biggest thing Justus needs to work on is making more consistent contact. He struck out 43 times and only walked 22 times. That'll need to improve.

Predicted starter: Connor Justus (duh)

What do y'all think of Beesball's infield this season? Who starts? Any breakout players or predictions for this unit?