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Scouting the Opposition: USF Bulls

For how good shortstop Kevin Merrell is, getting improvement from a pitching staff that lost two stalwarts will determine USF’s fate.

GoUSFBulls.com

Most of the time, Florida schools are very good at baseball. As we saw with UCF on Saturday, that isn’t always true. Last season, in the American Athletic Conference, the assumption of Sunshine State success was negated twice, as the USF Bulls tied with the Knights for the worst record in conference play (8-16). The Bulls will open their season against Iowa on Feb. 17 so let’s take a visit down to Tampa.

2016 Review

In the first month of the campaign, the Bulls were able to keep themselves above water, winning five series, including a sweep of Holy Cross that pushed them to a respectable 12-9 overall. They also took two out of three from No. 25 Michigan State during that stretch into mid-March. However, league play was not as kind to the green and gold, which endured a six-game losing streak in early May, which sank their hopes of contending. They also finished the season by being swept by UConn at home, setting themselves up for a showdown with No. 2 East Carolina in the first round of the AAC Tournament. Seven brilliant innings from Brandon Lawson and a two-hit game from shortstop Kevin Merrell carried the Bulls to a 4-2 upset of the Pirates, but the fun ended quickly after that with the Bulls losing 9-1 and 7-5 to UConn and Memphis, respectively, during the next two days.

When it was all said and done, USF was 24-33 overall, with a 17-18 mark at home and a 7-15 record in away and neutral site games. As one might expect, USF did not hit or pitch particularly well, with a team slash line of .247/.333/.344 and only 210 runs scored, while the pitching staff turned out a 4.43 ERA. However, USF further impeded itself by stealing fewer bases than any team in the conference (37) while ranking second to last in fielding percentage (.967).

Players to Watch

Kevin Merrell, SS

A preseason all-conference selection, Merrell is a tough out and a strong hitter. He batted .320 last season while slugging over .400 and getting on base more than 40 percent of the time. His ability to get the bat on the ball was just as impressive as his discipline, as he had as may strikeouts as walks (22). He also stole 16 bases on 17 attempts, although his eight errors were not great.

Joe Genord, 1B

The 6’2” sophomore had an excellent freshman season, proving to be one of the bigger power bats on the team. He smacked six home runs and drove in 21 runs while throwing together a slash line of .270/.325/.428. He was last on the team in walks, so pitch recognition will be something to monitor as he develops.

Luke Borders, OF/DH

Entering his senior season, Borders should once again be a mainstay in the heart of the order. Last year’s team leader in RBI (25), Borders also had six home runs and five doubles while batting a respectable .267. He also did a better job getting on base than Borders, with a .343 OBP thanks to 13 walks, compared to 26 strikeouts.

Chris Chatfield, OF

As a freshman, Chatfield played in 48 games, starting in 38 of those. He made some mistakes (.940 fielding percentage) and struck out far too often (61 in 136 at-bats), but he showed off a great deal of pop, mashing a team-high seven home runs. If he can be more consistent as a hitter and fielder, he will be a dangerous player for the next few years.

Phoenix Sanders, SP

The senior right-hander was not unstoppable last season, but he is the best returning starter since Lawson has moved on. Sanders pitched to a 4.15 ERA in 16 games (15 starts) and threw one of only two complete games by a Bulls pitcher. He has swing and miss stuff, as he struck out 95 batters in 95 13 innings. Expect him to get the ball on Friday nights.

Outlook

USF lost a lot on the pitching side in Lawson and talented reliever Tommy Eveld, who appeared in a team-high 26 games and recorded 67 strikeouts in 53 innings en route to a 2.21 ERA and nine saves. A step forward from Sanders will help, but another few arms also need to improve. Merrell gives the team lift at the top of the lineup and there is pop behind him, it just has to be consistent. In all, there is some stuff to like about the Bulls but being cautiously optimistic about their ability to move up the ladder is about as good as it gets.