FIU Golden Panthers baseball team hopes to fill hitting voids

 

Special to The Miami Herald

FIU’s baseball team, which made the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2011 before missing it last season with a disappointing 31-26 record, has long relied on its offense.

But several of the Panthers’ big bats have departed, including 2011 Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year Pablo Bermudez, FIU’s 2012 home run leader Jabari Henry and the program’s career RBI leader, Mike Martinez.

With fall baseball virtually over for the year, FIU coach Turtle Thomas has found several newcomers he thinks will be major contributors once the regular season begins Feb. 15.

Heading that list is Josh Anderson, a junior-college transfer who figures to hit in the middle of FIU’s batting order and is also “tremendous” defensively, according to Thomas.

“He’s really good on slow rollers and has an exceptional arm,” Thomas said.

Perhaps the most interesting newcomer is freshman Edwin Rios, a lefty hitter from Orlando. Rios is unusual because of his versatility — he plays first, third, the corner outfield spots and even shortstop.

Rios could win the job at first base. Sophomore Oscar Aguirre is in the mix there, although he will have to be more productive than last season, when he started 39 games and hit .238 with two homers.

Two more recruits to watch on offense are junior-college transfers Zach Sweety and Tyler Hibbert. Both are lefty hitters, and Sweety has been the surprise of camp, Thomas said.

Hibbert sustained a torn hamstring last season, but as a freshman he made first-team JUCO All-American.

The four returning starters are catcher Aramis Garcia; second baseman T.J. Shantz; shortstop Julius Gaines, who is coming off shoulder surgery and hopes to be ready by opening day; and right fielder Nate Burns, who can also play center.

Garcia, who played in the elite Cape Cod League this summer, has developed well defensively and has good power.

“He has to work on consistently squaring up on the ball,” Thomas said.

The outfield still needs to be sorted out, especially if sophomore holdover Roche Woodard can get healthy. He hit .319 in 13 starts last season but sustained a fractured leg this past summer.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Shantz has been practicing in left field and is equally skilled there.

If West Virginia transfer L.K Thompson or freshman Andres Sanchez can force their way into the lineup at second, Shantz would move to left. Finding a leadoff hitter is another priority.

“It’s the million-dollar question,” Thomas said, mentioning Woodard, Hibbert and Gaines as candidates to replace Bermudez at the top of the lineup.

As for the pitching, three of FIU’s four starters from last season are gone: Mason McVay, Eddy Pidermann and R.J. Fondon.

The lone returner from the rotation, junior Mike Ellis, is the “odds-on favorite” to be Thomas’ No. 1 starting pitcher. Ellis went just 3-2 last season, but he led FIU starters with a 3.13 ERA.

To fill the other rotation spots, Thomas and his staff recruited three junior-college pitchers: right-hander Mike Franco and left-handers Ty Sullivan and Tyler Alexander.

Franco had Tommy John surgery in April and started throwing bullpen sessions last week. He hopes to return by opening day.

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