Column: Projecting the 2014 IU baseball outfield
By Joe Popely
The graduated Cureton was the best of the bunch defensively with a 0.984 fielding percentage and a knack for making highlight-reel plays in crucial moments, such as his catch against Austin Peay in the Bloomington Regional.
What remains to be seen is who will take over in center and how junior catcher Kyle Schwarber will factor in to the outfield, if at all. But compared to the pitching staff and infield, the outfield has the least amount of turnover and will likely mostly resemble last year’s defensive set up.
Justin Cureton, CF
2013 stats: .216/.335/.286, 11 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 17 RBI, 59 runs, 22-30 stolen bases
Fielding: 0.984 fielding percentage, 3 errors, 1 outfield asst.
Analysis: Cureton’s reliable defense and leadership as the captain of the outfield will be missed. Depending on who takes over in center in 2014, there could be more pressure on the corner outfielders to make plays in the gaps.
Excluding his freshman year in which he played in just 22 games, Cureton set career lows in hitting, on-base percentage and slugging. His offensive struggles led to him being demoted from his traditional leadoff spot to ninth in the order.
Whoever takes over for Cureton will likely be an offensive upgrade, though it must be noted that when Cureton did get on base, he wreaked havoc on opposing pitchers. His 59 runs scored and 22 stolen bases ranked second and fifth in the Big Ten, respectively. He also laid down 11 sacrifice bunts, tied for first in the conference.
So while Cureton’s offensive numbers don’t jump off the page, he was by far IU’s best base runner and brought an element of speed to the bottom of the order. Plus, he got on base at a good clip, considering his on base percentage (0.335) was more than 100 points higher than his average (0.216).
Casey Smith, senior
2013 stats: .309/.372/.446, 9 2B, 5 HR, 34 RBI, 25 R, 2-4 stolen bases
Fielding: 0.976 fielding percentage, 2 errors, 1 outfield asst.
Will Nolden, senior
2013 stats: .303/.404/.366, 5 2B, 2 3B, 12 RBI, 31 R, 5-9 stolen bases
Fielding: 0.961 fielding percentage, 3 errors, 6 outfield assts.
Up for grabs: CF, fourth OF spot
Analysis: After Schwarber returned to full-time catching duties following a knee injury, Nolden became a mainstay in the corner outfield positions and leadoff spot. Both Nolden and Smith set a number of career-highs offensively.
Nolden is a favorite to start in right because of his strong arm. His six outfield assists led the team. Smith is not considered a bad defender by any means, but was often removed late in games in which IU had a lead for a defensive replacement.
That defensive replacement? Tim O’Conner, who is the most likely player to man center next season.
Tim O’Conner, junior
2013 stats (43 games, 1 start, 20 ABs): 0.150/0.227/0.250, 1 3B, 6 RBI, 3 runs, 3-5 stolen bases
Fielding (24 chances): 1.000 fielding percentage, 0 errors, 2 outfield assts.
Chris Sujka, junior
2013 stats (46 games, 20 starts): 0.286/0.378/0.338, 4 2B, 8 RBI, 18 runs, 9-12 stolen bases
Fielding: 1.000 fielding percentage, 0 errors, 3 outfield assts.
Analysis: During the season, Cureton expressed confidence that O’Conner would replace him in center and handle the transition from the corner outfield positions smoothly. O’Conner played sparingly in 2013 and almost entirely as a defensive replacement. As his fielding numbers suggest, he handled his limited opportunities flawlessly.
O’Conner came to IU on a football scholarship after a successful career as a wide receiver at Elder High School in Cincinnati, so he has the speed and athleticism to handle center field. Cureton raved about how O’Conner had both at his disposal, making him the most natural fit.
Nolden may also get a look in center because of his speed. If Nolden were to win the job, it could open the door for Sujka or Schwarber to take over a corner outfielder spot, if not O’Conner.
Sujka will likely maintain the role he had in 2013 as the fourth outfielder and a platoon option with Nolden. A left-handed hitter, Nolden generally played against right-handed starters while Sujka, a right-handed hitter, got the nod against left-handed starters.
Either way, Sujka is a solid option offensively and defensively off the bench and might be starting if not for a surplus of outfielders.
The Big If: will Schwarber play the outfield?
With a bevy of talented catchers behind Schwarber, there has been talk of moving the offensively gifted junior to the outfield. He has been playing with the USA Collegiate National Team, and IU Coach Tracy Smith said part of the stipulation with Schwarber being selected was that he would play some outfield.
Schwarber also played some outfield last summer in Cape Cod League play.
Team USA hasn’t shown a willingness to test Schwarber in the outfield. He has been the designated hitter in the first four games of a five-game series against Japan that concludes today.
Smith also said someone would have to “knock Kyle Schwarber off the mountain” at the starting catcher position. Schwarber does not have the athleticism or speed to play center, so he would have to play a corner spot.
With the fact Schwarber has hardly played outfield in college and isn’t doing so with Team USA, it seems unlikely he will start in the outfield and will instead remain the starting catcher.
In other words, expect the outfield to look relatively the same with the only change coming in center field as O’Conner replaces the departed Cureton.