2016 Baseball Preview: Next Owl Up

The Owls will look to replace five players they lost in last year’s MLB Draft.

Senior+outfielder+Christian+Dicks+led+the+Owls+with+eight+home+runs+a+season+ago.+Photo+by+Max+Jackson+%7C+Staff+Photographer

Senior outfielder Christian Dicks led the Owls with eight home runs a season ago. Photo by Max Jackson | Staff Photographer

Brendan Feeney, Sports Editor

Florida Atlantic baseball coach John McCormack sat back and smiled last June, watching as five of his players received the call that would be the start of their professional baseball careers.

Now, eight months later, those same phone calls have created uncertainty heading into the 2016 season. McCormack must replace outfielders Brendon Sanger — the reigning Conference USA Player of the Year — and Roman Collins, as well as three of his best pitchers from a season ago: Kyle Miller, Drew Jackson and Seth McGarry.

Like the quintet of draftees, last year’s captains Ricky Santiago and Bo Logan are no longer on the team after graduating in 2015.

Sanger, Collins and Santiago led a lineup that topped Conference USA in the most offensive categories a season ago, including batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, runs scored, RBIs, hits, doubles, triples and walks.

“Last year was an exceptional year,” said McCormack. “You don’t find Sangers and Collins and Santiagos in many lineups nowadays with the draft, with guys signing out of high school.”

Without many of the players that helped make last year’s playoff run possible, the Owls now have to replace multiple spots coming in to 2016.

“Offensively there’s going to be a little bit of a challenge,” explained McCormack. “We are going to need some guys to step up. That’s the one thing going into the year that the offense, we’re concerned on how it’ll present itself once we start playing.

Senior pitcher Brandon Rhodes is not as fearful of an offensive drop off as his coach is.

“[The offense] was great last year,” Rhodes said. “The guys that we lost definitely contributed a lot, like Sanger, Ricky and Roman. But the guys we have replacing them have shown just as much potential as all of them.”

Shortstop C.J. Chatham has definitely garnered the most attention on the team, as he was named to Louisville Slugger’s Preseason All-American Third Team as well as Conference USA’s Preseason Player of the Year.

According to McCormack, Chatham will have to move up from fifth to third in the batting order. “I think he can handle it. He’s a very good player. He understands the game, he understands himself.”

“In these situations, you worry that the player is going to do too much. You worry that C.J.’s going to look in the mirror and say ‘okay, I’m the Preseason Player of the Year, I’m a Preseason All-American, I have to be great,’ opposed to him just being himself.”

McCormack thinks Chatham will be able to handle everything just fine. “Just be you, do C.J. Don’t try to do anything else,” the coach told his shortstop. The highly touted junior seems to have taken McCormack’s message to heart.

“It’s nice, that other coaches have that respect for me,” said Chatham. “But you can’t really look into any of the preseason stuff, it’s all about what you do in the season. I have to do it during the spring.”

Chatham will no doubt be comfortable on the field knowing his double-play partner will be at his side for yet another season. Junior second baseman Stephen Kerr has been playing with Chatham since the two played on the same summer team after their sophomore year in high school.

That team, the South Florida Elites, won the 2011 16U Perfect Game Summer National Championship. The two share more than just the middle of the infield: Both were born on Dec. 22, 1994.

“Playing with him has been unbelievable,” said Chatham. “To have someone like that, whether he goes in the hole and backhands a ball, flips it, the possibilities are endless.”

Kerr made a play last season that appeared on Sports Center’s Top 10 Plays after occurring in the fourth inning of an April 12 game last season when the team hosted Florida International University.

In the play, a high chopper bounced toward Kerr who jumped, caught the ball at his highest reach, transferred it to his throwing hand and threw it to first base, recording the out. All before landing back on his feet.

Junior shortstop C.J. Chatham is greeted at the plate by then senior outfielder Brendon Sanger (23) during the Owls’ 5-3 win over the Miami Hurricanes on Feb. 18, 2015. Photo by Max Jackson | Staff  Photographer

Junior shortstop C.J. Chatham is greeted at the plate by then senior outfielder Brendon Sanger (23) during the Owls’ 5-3 win over the Miami Hurricanes on Feb. 18, 2015. Photo by Max Jackson | Staff Photographer

“The best is in practice, I think … I see it all the time, in practice. It’s unbelievable the stuff he does,” Chatham said.

On top of his stellar defensive ability, Kerr possesses a versatile offensive skill set which has allowed him to hit leadoff for the Owls since the beginning of his collegiate career.

“He’s a good player, he sets the table for us,” McCormack said. “He’s been in that leadoff spot since his first game as a freshman, he kind of gets in the [batter’s] box and makes it go for us.”

However, compared to Chatham, Kerr’s offseason was relatively quiet.

“Kerr does kind of get overshadowed because of C.J., and Kerr’s really had a really good two-year career so far,” explained McCormack.

Chatham was not the only Owl to receive preseason recognition though, as senior first baseman Brett Lashley was named to Conference USA’s Preseason Team.

Lashley, who hit .275 a season ago, is another player who will have to step up for this year’s team to be successful. Chatham feels he’s ready.

“He does everything well,” said the shortstop. “He’s a team guy. He does whatever the coaches ask him, whatever position, he’s down for it. And he’s a leader too. He’s going to have a great year.”

Chatham shared that same confidence when he spoke about his team’s pitching staff, and more specifically pitching coach Jason Jackson, who holds the task of replacing the team’s top three starters from last season.

“Coach Jackson is a head coach at any other school, and you never worry about pitching here, he’s going to get it done,” said Chatham. “He’s really strict on [the pitchers], making sure they’re doing the right thing, and yeah, we’ll be fine with pitching.”

Rhodes faces the task of being the team’s ace, but said that he feels good about it entering the season.

“I think we’ll be alright,” said Rhodes, agreeing with Chatham. “I think we have a lot of talented guys that will carry us and [the losses of Miller, Jackson and McGarry] won’t affect us as much as people think it will.”

When asked about his pitching staff, McCormack made quick note of Rhodes, junior Sean Lasban, sophomore David McKay and sophomore newcomer Marc Stewart, who transferred from Hillsborough Community College. The coach then immediately turned the page back to his lineup.

“The pitching I’m not as concerned about as the offense,” said McCormack. “We might struggle early until we find the right combination, but we’ll find it.”

Chatham held opposite views of the offense he will be leading.

“A lot of our guys from last year, it was their first year,” said Chatham. “After you have that one year under your belt, the next year is a world’s difference and I think we have a lot of experience coming back, and a lot of proven guys that are going to have huge years. I think maybe better [than last season], but we’ll be fine hitting wise.”

When asked where he felt his team will be at the end of the season, Chatham didn’t hesitate.

“In Omaha, for sure.” Omaha, Nebraska, hosts the College World Series at the end of every season.

Brendan Feeney is the sports editor of the University Press. To contact him on this or other stories, he can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter.