(Photo of Dan McDonnell: Steven Branscombe/USA TODAY Sports)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Under head coach Dan McDonnell, the Louisville baseball program has been no stranger to having an abundance of talent both at the plate and on the mound. It's one of the many reasons for their high levels of success over the last decade and a half.
But even by their lofty standards, the Cardinals head into the 2021 season with an embarrassment of riches. Between the 2020 MLB Draft being drastically reduced from 40 rounds to five, and the NCAA granting an additional year of eligibility to all spring sport athletes because of COVID-19, Louisville returns several players they would have otherwise seen depart the program.
"For us, an old lineup is juniors, and sophomores, because we lose (seniors)," McDonnell said Thursday. "Now that you have those seniors, like Lucas Dunn, Cameron Masterman, Ben Bianco, Trey Leonard, yeah, we're not used to having that many seniors - fourth year guys in our lineup."
Players like Alex Binelas and Henry Davis, juniors who would have been the de facto figureheads in the clubhouse, are now almost secondary to the plethora of seniors who came back. From a pure numbers perspective, McDonnell will already have a tough time figuring out the nine starters in the lineup.
"They know going into the first three weeks of the season, our job is to give opportunities to those 13/14/15 guys who deserve an opportunity," he said. "It's a good challenge to have, and I think in a year like this, we'll need that depth as much as ever."
Then there's the issue of figuring out where to even put those nine starters out in the field, as Louisville features a host of players who are position versatile. Last season for example: Ben Metzinger played both catcher & third base, Cameron Masterman played left field & the DH and Levi Usher played all three outfield spot. Not to mention that Lucas Dunn has been both a middle infielder and center fielder during his time at Louisville, and came in as pitcher.
Speaking of pitchers, after losing a pair of first round draft selections in Reid Detmers and Bobby Miller, McDonnell has the task of assigning roles to almost everyone on the pitching staff. This is because he traditionally has chosen at least one bullpen arm to make the jump to a starter, and he has several options this year.
"So, when you look at the possible weekend starters of (Glenn) Albanese, (Michael) Kirian, and (Adam) Elliott - I say those three guys, because those three guys have traditionally been in our bullpen," he said. "Luke Smith is a familiar name, so everybody's familiar with that. (Michael) Prosecky got some midweek starts last year.
Faced with a roster with this amount of talent, one would think that most, if not all the newcomers, would most likely ride the bench for the entirety of the upcoming season. But because of COVID-19, many of them could be thrust into early playing time.
"The reality is, because of COVID, we can't close the book on anybody," McDonnell said. "Because, who's to say that we don't lose a player for a week or two, and a guy that I was maybe gonna hold out because of a depth chart, or maybe he just wasn't ready. Fortunately, now I feel like most of our young guys are ready to step in if we need them."
McDonnell enters his 15th season with the program, compiling a 618-244 record during his tenure as the Louisville skipper - the most wins of any team in the country since his hiring in 2007.
Louisville is set to begin the 2021 season with a three-game weekend series against Bellarmine at Jim Patterson Stadium on Friday, Feb. 19. The Cards will open the season ranked as high as the No. 2 team in the country (Perfect Game), and feature six different players named as preseason All-Americans.
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