I’d previously considered the thought that starting this blog at the beginning of the summer would be problematic… Especially considering “next season” doesn’t really get too interesting until next fall. Fortunately, this will give me an opportunity to introduce you guys to our club, give you guys position by position previews for this fall, and allow me to cover a few other topics as well as give a few reports on the summer team I coach, the Columbus Woodbats.
I’m going to start by talking about what we’re going to be replacing next year… I think it’s an important topic, because understanding the monumental task we’ve got in front of us, replacing 17 players (including our entire rotation and starting lineup), is vital to understanding why this is going to be such a fascinating team to follow and watch grow. This post will begin a 4 part series detailing who the outgoing Pirates are and where they are headed.
Without further ado, here are some of the shoes we’re going to be filling:
Nick Stephens, 2B - One of the steadiest players in recent Pirate history, Nick quietly hammered out a .338 average with 4 homers, 50 runs, 40 RBI’s, and 30 walks. Stephens came to Chatt Valley as a short stop from Oconee County High School in the fall of ’08, and his and our expectations for his career were extremely high. He didn’t just meet them, he exceeded them. In 88 games as a Pirate, Nick failed to reach base at least once only 4 times, and only once in 50 games this past season. That’s an astonishing statistic to anyone who follows baseball. At one point, he carried a hit streak through 23 games, including 17 straight in the ACCC. Nick is one of the most dependable defenders to come through CV as well, committing just 6 errors. Most importantly, he is one of the best men and teammates to come through our program since I’ve been a part of it. I don’t know if I have ever seen a young man display as much character and courage as he did his freshman fall, as he had to deal with the tragic and unexpected loss of his father only a few weeks into the semester. I’m not sure how he managed to make it through such a hard time, but despite his family’s hardship, he persevered. I hope in some small way, playing ball at CV and finishing what his father had seen him start, helped him through that difficult time. I know seeing his courage made me a better man for it, and I’m proud to have been his coach for the last two year. Nick has received a scholarship to play at Valdosta State University next fall.
Jeff Shields, RHP/SS - 12-2, a 1.60, 98K’s vs. 35BB’s in 95 1/3 innings, and an opponent’s batting average of .207. Is there anything else that needs to be said about how much this guy will be missed? No? Well, I’m gonna say a few things anyway. Jeff came out of Central Gwinnett High School as a short stop and a pitcher. He’d been a solid player in high school, but he was very raw and hadn’t had a ton of coaching yet. His arm was good, he’d pop 87 on the gun and once in a while a little more, and he was arguably one of the best, if a little unpolished, athletes we’d had come through. His freshman campaign was strong, though he didn’t pitch much. He was our starting short stop, and he I don’t want to minimize this: He was a damned good one too. In fact, with the exception of another guy who will be mentioned in this series, he committed fewer errors than any other short stop we’ve had in my tenure. His sophomore season wouldn’t be defined by his play on the infield though… It was measured by what he did on the mound. Focusing strictly on pitching this year, Jeff’s velocity jumped as high as 95, and he regularly pitched at 90-92 MPH with what a St. Louis scout described as “average to above average Major League sink”. If that wasn’t enough, he complimented his fastball with a very good assortment of off speed stuff. “Piece”, as his teammates called him (as a freshman, Jeff liked to refer to everything as a “--Piece”, for example a slider was a “slide-piece”, cheese was a “yellow-piece”, and almost everything else was some sort of “piece” too), dominated opponents this year, tossing 10 straight wins and posting the lowest earned run average for a starting pitcher in my 6 years on the staff. He has signed a scholarship to play at the University of Georgia next year, and he will likely be selected in this year’s draft.
Tom Richardson, C - As a 2 year starter at catcher, Tom or “Wally”, was the most productive offensive backstop in the league, hands down. He hit .360 in 331 at bats with 12 bombs, and 79 RBI’s in his Chatt Valley career. He also controlled the running game, throwing out nearly 50% of opposing runners that tested him, and he was unquestionably one of the hardest working players that has ever come through our program. As it turns out, he was one of the hardest hitting, as in football hitting, players we’ve ever had too… During the Alabama Southern series he came charging out of the dugout at full speed with his head down and accidentally knocked me flat on my back. I just happened to have been walking right in front of him with my head turned toward the outfield when he came blasting toward his position, and neither of us ever saw the other until I was on my ass and he was staring down at me wondering what to do. Stunned, I gave the ok for everyone to fall over laughing and spent the next 5 minutes clearing the cobwebs out of my head. If his baseball prowess weren’t enough, Tom is probably one of the funniest guys you’ll ever meet, and he was one of the most fun guys to have on a team that anyone could ask for. Whether it was keeping the mood light on the bus or at practice or taking dry swings in his skivvies at CACC, he’d always keep you laughing. I’m pretty sure I’ll miss the screamers he planted off our left center field wall too, but as a guy, he’ll always be irreplaceable. He’s the kind of guy you hope marries your daughter, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s the guy you want at the plate when you need a base clearing double in the 7th. Tom is signed to play at Georgia Southern University next fall.
Chris Duncan, CF - Duncan… Well, Cruncan or Harvey Duncman to his teammates, is your prototypical lead-off hitter with blazing speed, a good eye, and he is a total pain in the ass on the base paths for opposing teams. Not only did he post .368 batting average (and an .890 post season average) while scoring 34 runs and swiping 15 bags, but he forced the opposing team into action on every pitch any time he was in the box or on base. I can only imagine the headaches he must have caused the opposition’s coaches as he made a living out of making the defense miserable. I remember telling our head coach, Adam Thomas, when Dunc was a freshman that it didn’t matter what he did personally, we won when he was in the game. In two years, when Chris played in the majority of a game, our record was 34-7. It was 29-3 this past year. Was it all because of him? Well, maybe not ALL, but there is something about him. He is a winner. He gets your team going, he keeps you in the ballgame, and it doesn’t matter who you play, Duncan is fearless. I was fortunate enough to have gotten to coach him for 3 years, and if he hadn’t suffered a hamstring injury in ’08, I’d wager that his .368 average from this past season would have applied for his entire career. Chris has signed to play at the University of West Alabama next year.