NACOGDOCHES, Texas - With the Southland Conference coming off its most successful season in five years, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks could be in line to join the party as one of the league's top teams in 2010 in Johnny Cardenas' second year at the helm of the program.
Despite boasting the least amount of returning players of any team in the Southland, SFA is optimistic that arguably its strongest recruiting class yet will to come in and make an immediate impact, pushing the `Jacks into the upper echelon of the SLC.
The `Jacks lost 18 players off of last year's roster, including all three of its all-conference players in Erich Lehmann, Richard Folmer and Sean Meyers. But with the league having had more players drafted than any season since 2005 this could be a prime year for SFA to take advantage of the league's turnover with 23 newcomers on this season's roster after a year that saw the `Jacks qualify for its second-ever Southland Conference Tournament.
This is the second in a six-part series previewing the Lumberjacks, position by position, leading up to the 2010 opener against Grambling on February 19.
There may be no area of the team that will have as different of a look from 2009 to 2010 as the starting rotation will this season. Nine pitchers got at least one start last season, while five hurlers got an opportunity to start in conference play. Three of those pitchers - Erich Lehmann, Erik Gregersen and Jared Schrom - have moved on, with Lehmann being the one that will be missed the most after earning second team all-conference honors as a mainstay in the rotation.
That leaves Jared West and Brett Rogers as the two returners with weekend experience with each making 15 appearances a year ago. West finished the season as the `Jacks' Saturday starter, picking up four wins and holding hitters to a .279 average. On top of that, he was exceptional at Jaycees Field, going 4-0 with a 2.17 ERA on home soil in six starts. As for Rogers, he started off the season in the weekend rotation and even won his first career start with 8.0 innings of work against Northwestern State. This year Cardenas says he will start off the season as one of the `Jacks' four starters, but his calling may come in the form of relief as his off-speed repertoire held hitters to a .195 average and a 3.09 ERA out of the bullpen in 2009.
"We will certainly be counting on Jared and Brett this year to be big for us and help bring along the newer guys," Cardenas said. "Jared had a very good year last season and he has all of the tools to be a guy that could pitch at the next level, but he has to harness his control and be more consistent. "
"Brett is a different guy in that he really relies on his control to get the job done. There are several games last year that he won for us because he kept us in the ballgame rather than being erratic and letting it get out of hand. If he keeps developing he could turn out to be very similar to what Erich Lehmann was for us the last four seasons."
They will be joined by a junior college transfers Tyler Herriage and Justin Braddock as the likely four starters when camp breaks in February. Herriage is a two-time MLB draftee who comes to Nacogdoches from Weatherford College with two seasons of eligibility remaining. The left-hander sports a good mix of pitches that works off an upper-80s fast ball and is coming off a strong finish to his sophomore campaign after recovering from an arm injury two seasons ago. He will be a welcome addition to the SFA rotation as the `Jacks went all of 2009 without a lefty on the roster.
"Herriage is probably our biggest acquisition from a year ago," Cardenas said. "We feel like he is a legitimate No. 1, Friday night, guy and we are going to put a lot of pressure on him because we feel he has broad enough shoulders to handle it."
Braddock is a right-handed junior from Cisco Junior College that is also coming off a breakout season as a sophomore, going 13-1 for the Wranglers in 2009 and even throwing the school's first ever no-hitter in February. Despite only taking up pitching three seasons ago, he has quickly learned to make up for lower velocity with movement and pinpoint control which is evident by his 66 strikeouts to just 10 walks over 81.2 innings last season.
"When we saw the way that Braddock threw, we knew it would fit in with our philosophy," Cardenas said. "He pitches to contact and will very durable because he will have a low pitch count. The strikeout numbers likely won't be high, but he also doesn't get squared up very often either."
In addition to those, sophomore Zack Taylor will also see some time in spot starts after his redshirt freshman season in 2009, as will sophomore Cory Ochs. Junior transfer Brad Oates also has the ability to start, but will likely start off the season in the bullpen, as will other newcomers Cody Lock, Brett Higginbotham and Josh Wright.