There’s less than one week before Mervyl Melendez makes his debut as just the fourth baseball coach in FIU’s 44-year history.
The Panthers, who failed to reach an NCAA regional last year after a mediocre 29-29 record that got coach Turtle Thomas fired, have turned to Melendez, a 42-year-old native of Puerto Rico.
Melendez has 17 years of experience as a college head coach, winning 13 conference championships in his combined tenure at Bethune-Cookman and Alabama State.
Conference USA will represent a step up in competition for Melendez, and here’s a quick look at the team he has inherited/assembled in advance of the opener Friday against visiting Jacksonville State.
Never miss a local story.
▪ Rotation: Senior Chris Mourelle is the ace and is tied for fifth in FIU history with 22 career wins. But his ERA has risen sharply every year. He was 9-3, 1.95 ERA as the Conference Freshman of Year. He went 7-7, 3.07 as a sophomore and slumped to 6-6, 5.07 last season.
Junior left-hander Dominic LoBrutto is the No. 2 starter. He’s transitioning from the bullpen, where he was effective last year (3-2, 1.04 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 34 innings).
Miami Dade College transfer Andrew George, a junior left-hander, will compete with senior Michael Agis for the third spot. The loser of that battle will likely start midweek games, which is important because FIU plays big games in that time slot, including Miami and Mississippi State.
George, who was 9-1 with a 1.50 ERA last year at MDC, has the better-looking numbers so far. Agis had a 6.69 ERA for FIU last year.
▪ Bullpen: Chandler Raiden, a junior-college transfer from Georgia, is the front-runner at closer. Nick MacDonald, a freshman from Flanagan, and Tyler Myrick, a freshman from Lake City, are pushing Raiden.
▪ Catcher/DH: JC Escarra, a lefty batter, and Zack Soria, a righty hitter, will split time and also get lots of at-bats at DH.
Soria was FIU’s most-honored player last season, earning second-team All-Conference USA. He was the C-USA Player of the Week in April, when he had an 11-game hit streak, and he finished the year batting .294 with three homers and 23 RBI.
Escarra played just 13 games before he had shoulder surgery. But as a sophomore, he hit .271-5-33 and had a 14-game hit streak. He was drafted in the 32nd round by the New York Mets out of Mater Academy.
▪ Infield: FIU will start seniors at first base (Nick Day), shortstop (Irving Lopez) and third (Zach Files). Junior Eddie Silva, who starts at second, rounds out a solid group.
Day hit .318 last year and led the team with 10 homers. Lopez, a switch-hitter, led the team in hitting (.335). Silva started a team-high 56 games and hit .293. And Files, a lefty batter, hit .277 with seven homers and led the team in walks.
▪ Outfield: This is FIU’s most jumbled spot as Melendez mentioned six possible starters for three positions.
Jack Schaaf, a speedy junior, is the most proven player among the six, having scored a total of 80 runs with 21 doubles and 15 steals the past two years. A lefty hitter, Schaaf could platoon with righty hitter Kenny Meimerstorf, a senior.
CJ Witkowski, a lefty batter, and righty hitter Ricardo Pozo could platoon in right. And senior Christian Khawam and freshman Javier Valdes — two righty hitters — could battle in left.