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Arizona baseball preview: Wildcats will have tall task replacing middle infield in 2016

Replacing the best middle infield in the country will not be easy

Jason Bartel

You could argue that the Arizona Wildcats had the best middle infield in all of college baseball in 2015, with Scott Kingery and Kevin Newman both getting drafted in the first 48 picks of the MLB Draft.

This year, it'll be a cast of characters trying to fill in the holes at second and short.

Key losses: Kevin Newman, Scott Kingery, Riley Moore (graduated), Handsome Monica (transferred)

Key newcomers: Louis Boyd (Cochise College), Cesar Salazar (Sahuaro HS), Ryan Haug (Santa Rosa JC)

Key returners: Bobby Dalbec, JJ Matijevic, Cody Ramer, Ryan Aguilar, Sawyer Gieseke, Michael Hoard

Let's start behind the plate and work our way around the horn.

With Moore and Monica both out of the picture this year, Arizona will have to start fresh at catcher, and will turn to a local product in Cesar Salazar. The freshman will step in and be the starter right away, but will split time with sophomore Ryan Haug. Salazar has your more typical build for a catcher, while Haug is more of a Jett Bandy/Riley Moore type, being a little taller and lankier.

Salazar was recruited by the old coaching staff, so he had to make the choice to stay with Arizona or leave pretty quickly.

"I didn't know Johnson, so I was kind of like what is he going to be like, is he going to like me, does he know about me?" Salazar told me. "Thank God he ended up being a really good man. He has helped me a lot. He called me right away when he got the job, and he seemed pretty excited."

Haug has missed some time during the spring with some back soreness, but he has returned to practice and will be available when the season starts on Friday. Salazar bats left-handed, and Haug bats from the right side, so there will be some matchup things at play when choosing between the two.

As a third option, Sawyer Gieseke has been learning the position, and has been a fast learner, getting help from the coaches, as well as Salazar and Haug. Gieseke is a guy who could play at any of the infield positions, which will be crucial for this team to have sustained success in 2016.

Over at first base, it seems that Ryan Aguilar has locked it down. JJ Matijevic, who was playing there last year, said Aguilar looked like a natural when he first made the move in the fall. It'll be nice to have some stability at first base, as last year Matijevic would start, then would be replaced by Gieseke halfway through the game for defensive purposes.

Second and short will be interchangeable between three guys. Matijevic will be the primary second baseman this year, making the move from first.

"Second's going great," Matijevic said. "I'm coming in every day, putting the work in, and trying to get better every day. It's getting a lot better. I've been working a lot with Coach Brown and Coach Jay and they've been helping me a lot."

"I've been working on first step movement, and it's helping a lot," continued Matijevic. "I'm looking the ball in a lot more. My hands are working better and it's coming along pretty good."

"Whatever position they want you to play, you have to learn that quickly."

Cody Ramer and Louis Boyd will be the two other main players up the middle. Boyd is the only right-handed bat of the three, so the lineup against left-handed pitching will be in flux early in the season as the coaching staff works out the matchups.

Third base will be Bobby Dalbec when he's not pitching. Expect Ramer or Gieseke to be the primary options to take over the hot corner when Dalbec's on the mound.

I expect the infield to be a work in progress early in the year, especially up the middle. It'll be interesting to see who DH's out of the group as well. Alfonso Rivas is a strong candidate for that position, but just like Matijevic and Ramer, he hits from the left side, which could present issues if Arizona faces strong left-handed pitching early (they will against Rice).