Crawford: Giving new starters time to gel key for Braves

First Posted: 1/31/2013

Developing talent is one of Paul ONeils strong suits.

So, for the time being, let the man work.

UNCPs veteran manager will look long and hard at his starting lineup over the next two weeks as the Braves fine tune their bats and solidify the pitching staff in preparation for their first Peach Belt Conference series against Columbus State. If success in the fall is any indication, ONeils optimistic that despite returning just four hitters with everyday experience, the offense will be more potent this season.

On paper, Id say weve improved, ONeil said. I think were going to swing it a little better and weve got some pretty good speed. A lot of the guys have played before, just not extensively. Ill guess well know in a few weeks.

Getting comfortable at the plate takes time, longer than this weekends three-game series with Anderson (S.C.) will allow. Its ONeils job, along with input from top assistant Blake Newsome, to decide who is more attractive fifth in the order rather than third, who hits well against lefties and which players drive the ball the opposite way with consistency against righties.

Most of these questions wont be answered by Feb. 16, but the eight games in between provide an opportunity for lineups to gel and discover what works and what doesnt. Hot streaks mean as much as slumps this time of year very little. Rhythm with solid contact and correct footwork is key, not average or production.

At seasons end, ONeil wants to see better, more efficient production from his hitters this season.

The Braves hit .312 as a team in 2012 but saw a power outage with the long ball, finishing with their lowest home run total (25) since 2007. The lack of towering drives can be largely attributed to the NCAAs infatuation with BBCOR bats, but UNCPs 6.7 runs per game average was still good enough for another 30-win season and eighth-place finish in Division IIs toughest baseball conference.

Improving on those numbers at the plate coupled with consistent quality starts from the rotation would put the Braves back in the NCAA postseason.

Comfortable with projected power from Derrick Phillips, Jordan Edgerton and Tyler Potter, ONeils main challenge early is finding a viable substitute for all-conference outfielder Josh Haley, one of six senior position players who completed their eligibility in 2012. Not only did Haley lead the Peach Belt in average and often flashed the leather, his 34 stolen bases and expertise as a table-setter at the top of the order helped the Braves manufacture runs in a quality pitcher-driven league.

UNCP is taking a collective effort in matching Haleys 61 runs scored and prowess on the base paths. Veteran Drew Alford started 12 games as a junior during the final month of last season and is targeted as Haleys replacement in the order. Alfords nine steals ranked second on the team and his .346 average over 41 games was higher than most regulars.

There are some holes in the bucket you could say, but I think well be fine, ONeil said. Its not fair to expect one guy to replace Haleys production in center field. You dont match those numbers in one season. Were asking a group of guys to take part in helping. Drew is more than capable of being a great player for us. He proved that in April last year.

Whether UNCP scores 30 runs this weekend or three, save judgment on the Braves bats until March. By then, the staff should be settled in and thats when hitting really starts to matter.