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2017 Arizona baseball preview: Star freshmen headline new-look infield

There’s a lot of production to replace for the Wildcats in the diamond

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Arizona vs Coastal Carolina Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Three of the four top slugging percentages for the Arizona Wildcats in 2016 came from the infield, and all three of those guys are gone this year.

Cody Ramer, Bobby Dalbec, and Ryan Aguilar have all moved on to professional careers, leaving a huge hole in terms of offensive production in the Arizona infield.

However, there are some freshmen rolling in that look to fill that void not only this year, but in the years to come.

Projected starting lineup:

Catcher: Cesar Salazar

First base: Alfonso Rivas/JJ Matijevic

Second base: Cameron Cannon

Shortstop: Louis Boyd

Third base: Nicholas Quintana

Other names to know: Sawyer Gieseke (ultility), Ryan Haug (catcher), Cory Voss (C/1B), Shane Martinez (2B/SS), Kyle Lewis (3B/SS/2B)

I’m just going to start behind the plate and work my way around the horn.

Catcher is arguably the most stacked position the Wildcats have this year. Both Cesar Salazar and Ryan Haug showed last year that they are both extremely talented defensively, and showed flashes of greatness at the plate as well. Haug missed a good chunk of fall practice after he suffered a setback in recovering from a back injury. But he’s back with the team this spring and getting close to being fully healthy.

Salazar caught the attention of the baseball community in the postseason, but he was a liability offensively for much of the season up until that point. He did end up with a .276 batting average in 2016, but also had one of the worst on-base percentages on the team (.329). Only Jared Oliva had a harder time getting on base.

“We need both of those guys to be the best team that we can be,” Jay Johnson said about having a healthy Haug and Salazar. “That’s the one position you have to be mindful about days off and workload and those types of things.”

Cory Voss is a junior college transfer who played at New Mexico two years ago against Johnson’s Nevada squad in the Mountain West. Voss then played at McLennan JC last year before making his way to Tucson.

“I feel like he’s improved a lot defensively to where he’s functional there too,” Johnson added about Voss. “It’s a really unique situation; I feel like I have three really good quarterbacks, and they all are gonna play. What role that is: catching, DHing, first base, Ryan could shift into the outfield if we needed to.”

“There’s enough chance for all of them to make an impact.”

First base also has a tiny bit of a logjam. You would think that JJ Matijevic would be the guy for Arizona to turn to in that spot, but Alfonso Rivas has shown to be a very good defender at his new position throughout the fall and spring.

Matijevic is probably best suited to be a DH in most situations. Throughout his Arizona career, defense has been a major liability for the highly-touted junior, so if other players are getting it done in the field, we may see Matijevic primarily stick to hitting.

Voss is also another guy that could play at first base, and given his offensive prowess, that may turn into a deal where he plays first base when Arizona is facing a left-handed pitcher, since both Rivas and Matijevic bat from the left side.

If Sawyer Gieseke were to see the field, first base is the position he would be in.

Second base seems to be Cameron Cannon’s to lose. A freshman out of Mountain Ridge HS in Glendale, Cannon was drafted in the 21st round by the hometown Arizona Diamondbacks last year, but opted to head to Tucson and get the college experience.

“Cameron has a chance to be a special player,” coach Johnson said of the freshman. “I knew he was good — it’s obviously why we went and got him — but he’s probably been even more of a pleasant surprise than I anticipated.”

He’s impressed all-around, and could be a mainstay at second base for the next three years.

The hot corner had been occupied by a Boston Red Sox draft pick for the last two years, and that won’t change this year either. Freshman phenom Nick Quintana, who Perfect Game has ranked as the 6th best freshman in the nation this year, will take over for Bobby Dalbec. Quintana was drafted in the 11th round by the Red Sox last year, but opted not to sign despite flying out to Boston and hanging with David Ortiz at Fenway.

Even though Quintana played short throughout his high school career, he says he prefers third base.

“Third base is where I kind of feel more at home. Shortstop, yeah, but third base is a lot easier. I’m a lot better when it’s just quick reactions and quick angles and running around.”

“Nick has done a really good job with some hitting adjustments that I think were necessary for him to be an impact player early on in his career,” Johnson said this past week. “He’s done a really good job, and I think he probably leads our team in extra-base hits since we’ve been back and has played really good defense over there.”

A number of players could see time at shortstop this year, but Louis Boyd is likely to get the first crack. Fans will remember him as the hot coffee guy from last year’s postseason run. In 65 games in 2016, Boyd hit .240 but took a ton of walks to post a .378 on-base percentage. Only Cody Ramer drew more bases on balls last year.

Having a senior in between those two freshmen will be important in terms of having an experienced leader in the infield as well.

“He’s a special player, and probably one of our more unheralded guys from last year’s team,” Johnson said of Boyd. “The defense he played was as good as it gets, but the impact he has on everyone else around him — the pitcher, the two guys playing to his right and left, and the outfielders being right in the center of everything — he’s going to be a huge leader in terms of the pulse of the team as well as offensive and defensive production.”

Kyle Lewis is another returner that could play there, though we could also see him in a backup role at either third or second. Lewis had 23 hits in 89 at bats last year, but 20 of those 23 hits were singles. He also made three errors in his 40 games played in, which gave him one of the lowest fielding percentages on the team. Overall, I see him as a solid depth guy this year.

All of the freshmen played short in high school, so if they need to shift there, they can. Shane Martinez hasn’t been mentioned anywhere else yet, so I’ll put him here. Martinez was drafted in the 39th round by the Oakland Athletics last year, one round after now-Arizona teammate Matt Fraizer. I also see Martinez as a depth guy in the infield, but if he develops quickly, it may get difficult to keep him out of the lineup.

Overall, the infield has a lot of moving pieces, and a lot of quality depth. A lot of the success this group sees will be dependent on how the freshmen adjust to the college level, but the Wildcats seem to have a crop of new players that won’t be daunted by facing Pac-12 pitching week in and week out.

It’s also a group that can grow together over the next two or three seasons, which is even more encouraging.