One of the most experienced baseball teams of the Jack Leggett era will begin practice for the 2014 season on Saturday, when the Tigers hit the newly-resurfaced and reconfigured field at Doug Kingsmore Stadium in preparation for their season opener in mid-February.
Leggett, who was recently inducted into the American Baseball Coaches' Association Hall of Fame, has the option of fielding eight returning starters, including the entire infield and two of three outfield spots.
The only 2013 player missing from the lineup will be centerfielder Thomas Brittle. The Tigers have numerous options in finding a replacement, including Maleeke Gibson, who opened last season as an outfield starter and played regularly throughout the season.
Senior Jon McGibbon is back at first base, with senior Steve Wilkerson at second, sophomore Tyler Krieger at shortstop and junior Jay Baum at third base. Junior Garrett Boulware is a two-year starter behind the plate, while junior Tyler Slaton and sophomore Steven Duggar will man the left and right field spots. Shane Kennedy returns as the DH and will also work in the outfield.
The starting pitching rotation of junior Daniel Gossett and sophomores Matthew Crownover, Clate Schmidt and Zack Erwin also return, supplemented by transfer Jake Long, as does senior bullpen ace Matt Campbell.
Another strong recruiting class and several veteran backups will keep the pressure on the veterans and assure plenty of depth and lineup options for Leggett and assistant coaches Dan Peppiceli and Bradley LeCroy.
Competing with McGibbon at first base will be Andrew Cox, while the infield competition will include Mike Dunster and freshmen Eli White and Weston Wilson. In the outfield, Gibson and Slaton will be given a chance to earn the center field spot, while Kennedy will work in left. Other players competing include Mike Triller, Joe Costigan and freshman Reed Rohlman.
At catcher, freshman Chris Okey will attempt to work himself into a rotation with Boulware.
“Everybody out there, I think, has a legitimate chance to show what they can do, and a legitimate chance, maybe, to fight for some playing time, and to figure out a way to beat somebody out who’s been ahead of them,” said Leggett following what he described as a productive fall practice period.
Kennedy is the Tigers' top returning hitter with a .317 batting average, and also is the top returning player in runs (47) and stolen bases (22). Duggar's 75 hits top the list of returnees, while Boulware has top marks in home runs (8) and RBIs (45). Wilkerson led the 2013 team in doubles with 16.
Gossett led the Tigers last season in wins (10), innings pitchers (98) and strikeouts (91), while Crownover had the top ERA (2.19). Campbell and Kyle Schnell led the pitching staff in appearances with 24 each, and Campbell had the top mark in saves with seven.
The Tigers, who enter the season ranked No. 21 nationally by Collegiate Baseball, will open their season Feb. 14-16 with a three-game home series against Eastern Michigan, and then will be back at home the following weekend for three games against Maine.