ORONO, Maine — With six returning positional starters and a handful of veteran pitchers, the University of Maine baseball team enters the 2013 season with a solid nucleus.
However, it may be the ability of several younger players to make the transition to prominent roles that determines whether the Black Bears ultimately will challenge for the America East Conference title.
UMaine opens its season Friday with the first of four games at Auburn of the Southeastern Conference. Coach Steve Trimper believes this group has considerable potential.
“I think the kids are jacked up. We are just ready to play some baseball,” said Trimper, whose squad went 28-28 (11-11 AE) last season and was the league runner-up.
“Our strength is going to be our depth and that’s with position players and our pitching,” he added.
The Bears are led by slick-fielding, all-conference shortstop Mike Fransoso, who is coming off a second hip surgery. In 2012 batted .327 with five home runs, 26 runs batted in, 19 stolen bases and a .950 fielding percentage.
The co-captain is one of only two seniors on the team along with pitcher A.J. Bazdanes (1-4, 4.66 in 2011), who sat out last season after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery.
Other returning starters are junior second baseman Troy Black (team-leading .338, 21 RBI, 17 SB), junior center fielder Colin Gay (.299, 1 HR, 28 RBI, 14 SB), sophomore outfielder/pitcher Scott Heath of Westbrook (.293, 2 HR, 22 RBI), junior utilityman Fran Whitten (.290, 3 HR, 32 RBI) and junior third baseman Alex Calbick (.287, 5 HR, 43 RBI). Further experience comes from sophomore OF Sam Balzano of Portland (.308, 11 RBI), sophomore OF Brian Doran (.265, 9 RBI), junior IF Eric White of Brewer (.198, 6 RBI) and junior catcher/pitcher Mike Connolly (.147, 2 HR, 7 RBI).
“There’s a ton of flexibility,” offered Trimper, who has moved Connolly behind the plate with the departure of senior Tyler Patzalek to academic issues.
Connolly, who also will be a starting pitcher, is backed up by Whitten and freshman Jonathan Salcedo.
Fransoso, Black and Calbick are proven commodities. Stepping in at first base is freshman Brendan Geary, a former Merrimack hockey recruit, along with Heath. White is expected to see time at second and third after a strong offseason.
“Eric has made the biggest jump of any player on our whole team,” Trimper said.
Freshman Shane Bussey, who is expected to be the Bears’ next shortstop, also will see time at second and short.
Gay returns to patrol center field and Balzano adds speed while taking over full time in left. Heath will play right when not pitching or at first, while Doran and freshman Luke Mogle also are in the mix.
Nick Bernardo and Garrett Bernardo, along with Kyle Silva, provide depth.
The pitching situation features a mixture of proven performers and newcomers after Steve Perakslis and Jeff Gibbs signed pro contracts as juniors.
Leading the way is junior Shaun Coughlin (4-5, 3.98 in 17 appearances), who was an All-AE first-team pick a year ago. He is expected to assume a setup role because of his ability to throw strikes and limit walks.
Junior righthander Tommy Lawrence, a transfer who sat out last year, is penciled in as the No. 1 starter on a staff that is expected to have people in better-defined roles. Lefty Heath, who had offseason surgery on his right shoulder and has overcome left elbow problems, follows in the rotation.
Bazdanes could start or come in out of the bullpen, while Connolly (5-6, 5.40) is slated as the Game 4 starter at Auburn. Junior co-captain D.J. Voisine (4-0, 3.98) is another strike-thrower labeled as a setup man.
Trimper and pitching coach Jason Spaulding also will try to work five freshman righthanders into the mix and find out which can contribute right away. The group includes Jake Marks, Charlie Butler, Nick DeFrank, Logan Fullmer and Burk FitzPatrick.
“We’ve been working extremely hard in trying to evaluate what we’ve got,” Trimper said. “We have a tremendous number of options.”
Sophomore righty Luke Morrill of South Thomaston (1-1, 5.91), who missed much of 2012 with an arm injury, will team up with Whitten (2-4, 7.67) as closers.
Sophomore Steve Trask of Saco (0-1, 4.50) has been groomed as a sidearm specialist to face lefthanded batters, while classmate Manny Pupo (1-0, 12.54) has worked on his control.
Trimper said it is important UMaine find playing time and innings for some of the younger players.
The Bears’ schedule takes them to Auburn, Stetson, Florida A&M, Miami and Florida Atlantic. They open league play under the new 30-game, home-and-home format March 16-17 at Stony Brook.
UMaine’s schedule home-opening series is March 23-24 against Hartford.
Trimper is, as always, optimistic about the Bears’ prospects.
“We have a lot of depth and a really unbelievable attitude, the best I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The guys are no-nonsense, there’s no lollygagging around. They’re very motivated and driven.”