2019 Position Preview: First Base
With the departure of Jake McKenzie, who can step up and fill the void left at a position with the most uncertainty heading into the 2019 season?
A position that hasn’t had a preseason sure-fire starter since Kacy “The Mayor of UFCU Disch-Falk Field” Clemens roamed the dirt, first base is yet again up for grabs heading into a new season. While things worked out better than expected for the Longhorns in 2018 after Jake McKenzie took over the position, he and his golden glove, leadership and do-it-all ability currently reside at a natural gas and petroleum exploration company in San Antonio.
Nevertheless, Texas baseball must go on and the opening left behind must get filled. In sports, sometimes the filling is done by one person, and other times it is done by committee. Previewing the 2019 season, it looks more likely than not that first base will be occupied by the latter. Outside of a few outings to get a break from working the plate from senior catcher DJ Petrinsky, and a couple of surprise appearances from senior outfielder Masen Hibbeler, virtually no player on Texas’ roster has any experience playing the other hot corner. However, there are a few names that head coach David Pierce has thrown around as being in the mix for some playing time.
The most logical choice and a name that many expected to get an opportunity in 2018 but never saw, is redshirt sophomore Zach Zubia. Zubia is already a staple in the Texas lineup, where he thrived in 2018 hitting clean-up behind Kody Clemens. At 6’4 and 240 pounds, Zubia has the makeup to be a prototypical first baseman. However, his biggest downfall is his athleticism. He struggled to consistently show the ability to get to balls in scrimmages, and is nowhere near a natural at picking balls in the dirt and will have more trouble stretching from the bag than any of the others vying for the position. But between a redshirt season and a freshman season that saw him work solely at gaining practice reps at the position, he would be the ideal choice for Pierce and company if he shows the improvement they hope he can.
Another name thrown around was that of senior backup catcher Michael McCann. There is no doubt that McCann will fill in for Petrinsky to give him a breather, but McCann actually has the opportunity to seize first base if he can show high or even substantial capability to play the position. Not seen as a gifted hitter, McCann has made a living of being a quality backup catcher and a terrific locker room presence. If he gets the chance to show the coaching staff that he can make a somewhat seamless transition and man the position with confidence, there’s a chance he can be 2019’s version of McKenzie.
Two other names also thrown around were those of Hibbeler, and to some surprise, redshirt senior outfielder Tate Shaw. Hibbeler started out last season as the starting second baseman and moved around a bit before finding a home in left field. He performed admirably there and is the front-runner to be the starting left fielder next year. His biggest plus, his gifted bat, makes him a must in the everyday lineup no matter the position. Shaw split time between center and right and flashed the leather countless times in 2018, but left something to be desired at the plate.
The reason for the possible first base shake-up for these two really has less to do with them and more to do with getting players like junior Austin Todd and sophomore Kamron Fields more opportunities roaming the field. Add in versatile freshmen Lance Ford and Eric Kennedy, who have drawn rave reviews from their coaches during the fall, and there may be too much of a log jam in the backend of the Texas defense to not at least try and give Hibbeler/Shaw some time at first.
The least likely possibility, but a chance nonetheless, is sophomore Sam Bertelson. Outside of Fields, Bertelson was the only other freshman position player to get playing time in 2018. Going into last year, Bertelson was expected to get a decent amount of reps at both corners to fill in for (at the time) third baseman Kody Clemens and (at the time) junior first baseman Ryan Reynolds. After the defensive overhaul, however, that really never came to be, and he was left without much opportunity. In total, he only had 13 at-bats, struck out eight times and never recorded a hit. He did not just forget how to play baseball, though, and may get an opportunity during the spring.
Not to discount the freshman completely, but to discount them quite a bit, Peter Geib and Thomas Burbank are the only two new faces that have experience playing corner defense in the infield. Geib was recruited to play third, and Burbank also doubles as a lefty on the mound. Barring injury, expect both to redshirt and be possible options in 2020.
Whoever Pierce decides to trot out on opening day will most definitely not be the only player to man the position, and not likely the player to end the year there, either. Whether a quick fix is in store or a rotating door is more likely is yet to be seen, but first base is definitely the position with the largest question mark heading into 2019.
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