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UNM baseball will field a young team

UNM’s Josh Walker pitches during a game last season. He was one of the team’s top four starting pitchers last year. (Courtesy UNM media)

UNM’s Josh Walker pitches during a game last season. He was one of the team’s top four starting pitchers last year.
(Courtesy UNM media)

An impressive collection of talent was on hand Friday when the University of New Mexico baseball team opened practice for the 2014 season.

Mitch Garver, Sam Wolff and Alex Allbritton, who helped the Lobos win a Mountain West championship and earn a fourth straight NCAA Regional berth were all at Lobo Field, as was former Cleveland High standout Blake Swihart.

All four players did light workouts, playing catch, fielding grounders or taking swings in the batting cage. Problem is, none of those professionals will be around for UNM’s season-opener in San Diego on Valentine’s Day.

Instead, Lobo coach Ray Birmingham will field a squad loaded with new faces. New Mexico’s 35-man roster includes 19 first-year Lobos – 13 of them freshmen – and not one fourth-year senior.

“People ask me, ‘How good are you going to be?’ ” Birmingham said. “Right now I honestly don’t know.

“There’s no doubt we’ll be competitive for the (Mountain West) title, but overall? We still have a lot of questions to answer.”

The biggest question undoubtedly is this: How will UNM replace the likes of Garver, Wolff, Allbritton and Seattle Mariners first-round draft pick D.J. Peterson? The list doesn’t stop there as other major contributors such as Luke Campbell, Josh Melendez, Gabe Aguilar and Hobie McClain also departed from last season’s 37-win team.

“I don’t know if this program’s ever lost two guys like D.J. and Garver before,” Birmingham said of the two-time MWC Co-Players of the Year and All-American honorees. “You throw in Luke Campbell and we lost three of the top 25 hitters in the country from last year.”

But before anyone starts throwing around the dreaded rebuilding-year references, Birmingham points out that his cupboard is far from bare.

Three of last season’s top four starting pitchers (Josh Walker, Drew Bridges and A.J. Carman) are back, and as many as six full- or part-time starters are in the running for everyday positions. The latter group includes 2013 Freshman All-American Sam Haggerty, Ryan Padilla, who won the same distinction in 2012, and second-team All-MWC honoree Alex Real.

“We do have a lot of good players here,” Birmingham said. “It’s just a really new team. We need some of the new guys to elevate their games, and you never know how fast a new team will come together.”

Some first-year Lobos will be familiar to New Mexico baseball fans. The freshman class includes Volcano Vista grad Andre Vigil (IF), St. Pius graduate Cody Bower (OF), and Sandia alums Carson Schneider (LHP) and Danny Collier (OF). Tyler Gibson (RHP), who played at La Cueva and New Mexico Military Institute, is among six junior college transfers on this season’s roster.

A number of starting positions, particularly in UNM’s pitching rotation, will be determined during the three weeks of practice between Friday and the season-opener. The most intriguing everyday position battles may come at third base and in the outfield.

Peterson and Allbritton saw most of the action at third base last season, which leaves that spot up for grabs. Sophomore Jered Meek from Carlsbad, who saw occasional duty at third base last season, and freshman Vigil are top contenders to start there in 2014.

Padilla is expected to take over at first base, which leaves Chase Harris as the only returning outfield starter. Senior John Pustay, who served primarily as a DH/pinch hitter last season, and JC transfer Aaron Siple are among the top candidates to join Harris in UNM’s outfield.

The Lobo bullpen, which lost Aguilar and McClain, will be an area to watch, as well.

“I actually feel like our pitching is deeper than it’s been since I got here,” Birmingham said. “I think the bullpen can be really solid, but we’ve got to figure out which guys fit specific roles – who’s better starting and who can close games out. There’s a lot still to be determined.”

As Birmingham pointed out, the batting order suffered extensive losses after UNM led the nation in hitting with a .334 team batting average in 2013. But Birmingham, who was recently named hitting coach for Team USA, is confident the 2014 Lobos will be fine at the plate.

“We may not have guys who scare you like D.J. and Garver did,” Birmingham said, “but we’ll have hitters. Whatever our lineup ends up looking like, we’ll have hitters who can get the job done. It’ll be interesting to see who steps up the next three weeks.”