Over the last two seasons the Stetson baseball program has sent two catchers into Major League Baseball before their senior seasons. That won't be the case this year with sophomore Garrett Russini slated to be the starter in front of four true freshmen.
After Nick Rickles left Stetson for the Oakland A's following the 2011 season, Sam Kimmel came in from junior college and started 57 games in 2012, with 42 of those behind the plate. He took his .327 season average into pro ball last summer after being drafted by the Baltimore Orioles. That leaves Russini, who played in 20 games as a freshman and started just four times behind the plate, as the most experienced of the five catchers on the Stetson roster.
The Stetson coaches are confident Russini's offensive production will improve from is freshman season, and are not concerned about his defensive ability.
"He's been doing a good job, but he has to continue to get better," Hatters coach Pete Dunn said. "We brought Garrett in because we had a lot of confidence that he was going to be a good player. We brought in Kimmel because we knew it was tough for a freshman to go out there every day.
"Sam did such a good job for us last year, but the bad part of that was that Garrett didn't get as much time as we wanted as the backup. He went home over the summer and worked on his throwing because he knows he is the guy who has to get it done this year."
While Russini may not have put up big offensive numbers last year, he showed good ability at the plate. He walked more than he struck out and showed he is able to get down a sacrifice bunt when called on to do so.
"He swung the bat well in the fall and we think we are going to get some pretty decent offense from him from the left side," Dunn said.
Just having a year to mature in the Stetson program should also pay dividends for Russini.
"The thing I think has developed in him is he has come out of his shell some," Dunn said. "In high school, catchers aren't really asked to run the show like they are in college. His ability to direct traffic on the field and handle the pitching staff during a game is big.
"He is going to catch and throw well and swing the bat enough. He is going to have to be a take-charge kind of guy out there, and I think he will."
Behind Russini is a quartet of freshmen. Two have shown enough ability with the bat that they will likely land spots in the lineup elsewhere, even if they are not catching. The other two have a little more work to do to get on the field, but have shown flashes of the ability needed to compete in the college game.
Massachusetts native Buck McCarthy is the most likely to see playing time behind the plate as a freshman, but his work with the bat will give him a chance to be an everyday presence in the lineup, most likely as the designated hitter.
"I think the biggest obstacle for Buck to catching more is that he is such an offensive minded guy," Dunn said. "You have to be able to make that transition from offense to defense."
The next in line at catcher is another freshman from Massachusetts, and another member of the squad who has a chance to be a starter at another position. Patrick Mazeika is a natural catcher, but will likely be the every day starter at first base. Like Russini, Mazeika swings the bat from the left side but is a right-handed thrower.
"Mazeika caught in our alumni game in the fall and he did a nice job," Dunn said. "We just can't afford to give him a lot of time behind the plate at practice because he needs the work out there at first base."
With McCarthy and Mazeika likely to see plenty of playing time at other positions, the next most likely players to serve as the primary backup catcher are Canadian Konner Lutz and Cape Coral native Frankie Romano. Both guys are big – Lutz is 6-2 and Romano is 6-4 – and both have other positions they can play.
"The good thing for us about having Lutz, and I've always said this, is I don't like having my backup catcher playing another position," Dunn said. "If your backup is in at DH and you have an injury or something where he has to go in, then you lose your DH. Having Lutz available is nice because it will give us some flexibility.
A native of Medicine Hat, Alberta, Lutz is mobile and athletic enough to give the Hatters some playing time at both first base and third base if he is needed. He will also get a chance in the rotation as the designated hitter.
Romano was primarily a catcher in high school but, because he has such a strong arm, he'll be given a chance to become a pitcher. He will be available in an emergency to go behind the plate.
No matter who winds up seeing the most time behind the plate, the key to their success will come from their ability to manage the game from a defensive standpoint and to work with the Stetson pitchers.
"There is always a period of adjustment with a new catcher, and that is something the older guys like Kurt Schluter, will have to deal with," pitching coach Chris Roberts said. "I know the pitchers and catchers have been working in the pen to build up that comfort level, and I've tried to mix in to help the catchers with their setup and targets because each has a different look."
If the group can reach a comfort level with the pitchers, then anything they provide the Hatters from an offensive standpoint will be gravy.
(Editor's Note: Tomorrow we will preview the all-new Stetson infield.)