clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2023 Position Previews: Infield

Baseball season starts Friday 2/17 with The College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, TX (against TCU, Okie State, and Tejas). I will publish position previews about every other day on: 1) Catchers, 2) Infield , 3) Outfield, 4) Relief Pitching, and 5) Starting Pitching.

Vanderbilt v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

If catcher is the position I expect to have the most stability—barring injury, expect Jack Bulger out there pretty much daily, with Alan Espinal spelling him occasionally—infield might be the most in flux. In fact, I do not suspect that the starting infield on opening day will be the same four in the postseason, or maybe even by the start of SEC play. Hell, it might not be the same in Game #1 as Game #2.

I’m not worried about our infield defense. We have many kids on the squad who can play strong defense up the middle. I’m worried if they can hit.

Even the returning starters (Diaz and Noland) will face competition and also offer positional variability. Diaz could start anywhere in the infield (though he was mostly at SS last year), and Noland could play either 3B or 1B. Further, while I’m confident in our infield defense, offense might be at a premium this year. What does that mean for our infield? Well, again, competition, flux, and hoping they can hit.

Case in point, in the Fall Ball David Williams Goldfather Classic (formerly the Black and Gold Game), the following players started in the infield:

3rd Base: Parker Noland (Sr.) and Ivan Arias (Fr.)

Short Stop: Matt Wolfe (Fr.) and Jonathan Vastine (So.)

Second Base: Chris Maldonado (Fr.) and Matthew Polk (So.)

1st Base: Davis Diaz (So.—also, what?!) and Raymond Velazquez (Fr.)

That’s a lot to wrap your mind around. Beyond that, our top infield recruit (SS R.J. Austin) did not play in that game (neither did Enrique Shockwave, as both were dinged up, by the way). The Diamond Dores are used to entering a season either all set on the infield, or with competition at one position. This year? Well, all I can say is that I’m relatively certain we’ll see Parker Noland and Davis Diaz every day, or at least most days. There will be a lot of competition, and some guys we hope break out as freshmen.

It’s not just me who’s uncertain. Consider this recent Corbs quote printed in The Hustler:

“Right now, it’s just trying to put the best infield out there that fits us best,” Corbin said. “Whether that’s [Jonathan] Vastine or Diaz at shortstop, or where’s Noland: third or first? I don’t quite know that yet. But what I like about them is their ability just to go over there and just do it and keep playing as if that’s their natural position.”

Well okay then...

The Likely Starters (though which position, no one knows)

#11 So. INF Davis “Diaz De Los Muertos” Diaz

.213/.353/.293 9 2B, 2 HR, and 20 RBI in 59 games (56 starts)

Diaz de los Muertos started off the year murdering the ball, but ran hard into that freshman wall. Seriously, he had us thinking of Austin Martin prior to SEC play, and... well... not thinking that once the competition level stepped up.

Still, he’s got the potential to be a smooth defensive SS with an impact contact bat and speed for days. Though the power never really arrived in his freshman year, he certainly looks like he should be strong enough to drive the ball. In short, we’re still in ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ territory. As it’s the pre-season, I’ll choose to trust my pre-conference play in 2022 judgment/optimism. There’s plenty of time for pessimism later, or presently if thinking about the basketball team.

#25 Sr. INF Parker “Can’t Lose” Noland

.274/.363/.445 7 2B, 6 HR, and 26 RBI in 48 games (39 starts)

Noland was the inverse of Diaz, as he started out in a slump and came on strong in the end. Whether he’s at 3rd or 1st, it’s a pretty safe bet that his left handed bat will be in the lineup most every day. While he doesn’t have the same power as a Dom Keegan or Spencer Jones—no one on this team does—his bat should have about as much thump as Jack Bulger’s this year. In fact, one of Noland or Bulger is going to have to break out in a pretty major way as a middle of the lineup force for this team to be anything but a collection of dominant pitching and speed.

Noland is the last remaining infielder from the “Can’t Lose” photoshop. This has to be his year, and he’s going to have to kick down the door to make scouts notice—not just for his theoretical draft position, but for this team to have enough offense to compete with the big boys.

The Defensive Stalwart

#13 So. INF Jonathan “He Don’t Use Jelly, or Any of These” Vastine

.196/.246/.235 2 2B and 6 RBI in 30 games (12 starts)

One of the oddest parts of last year’s Great Dom Keegan Catching Experiment was that Corbs decided to break camp with a contact-hitting freshman shortstop as his starting first baseman. Vastine Steve Jeltz-ed his way out of the lineup pretty early on, but then became a defensive replacement later in the year. He’s a wizard with the glove—not quite Connor Kaiser with the leather, but about as good as Carter Young was defensively, with the traits to be even better. He’s got soft hands, moves well laterally, and, well... dances out there. You know those players who just easily glide to every ball hit there way? That’s Vastine.

If he wins the starting job, I’m betting he’s named the SS, but hits 9th in the lineup. If he can be All-SEC defensively, that might just be enough. Ideally, like Kaiser before him, he becomes passable at the plate in his sophomore year and then truly turns it on as a junior. Okay, if you’re going to allow me to dream, let’s pray he gets to Kaiser’s junior year form in ‘23.

If it all comes together for him, this infield could be a defensive monster—Vastine at SS, Diaz at 3rd, Noland at 1st, and, say, R.J. Austin at 2nd (I said I was allowing myself to dream, damnit). If he doesn’t hit, there will be many freshmen champing at the bit to take his spot. Many.

The Thumper Who Will Have To Beat Out A Superior Defender

#1 So. UTL Matthew “Young Hickory” Polk

.250/.372/.361 with 1 2B, 1 HR, and 8 RBI in 24 games (7 starts)

Young Hickory’s stats don’t tell the story, as he was mostly a pinch hitter in ‘22. Coming off the bench for one AB is one of the toughest jobs in baseball, as you don’t get a chance to get into a rhythm, and worse than that, it’s really easy to have an all or nothing mindset in such a role. In short, it’s tough to push out the, “This is my one shot to make an impression on the coach” mindset when pinch hitting.

I don’t know how to say it but to say it—this lineup will lack thump, and Polk has one of the fastest bats on the squad. I look at him and see John Norwood going deep in Omaha to deliver the knockout punch to the Wahoos of Virginny. Polk—like Norwood before him—oozes toolsy potential. With the relative lack of power in this lineup, it wouldn’t shock me if Corbs goes to Polk, McKenzie, or both, in the DH+ role. In other words, one of them should DH most every game, with the other also in the lineup in a super-utility Ben Zobrist role that lacks one true position. I’ll profile McKenzie in the outfield position preview to come, but if this team needs an infusion of power—and it quite clearly does—those two could play prominent roles.

The Freshmen Coming For Their Jerbs

#42 Fr. UTL R.J. “Stone Cold R.J.” Austin

There was no need to worry about Austin on draft night (see here), but everyone listed above has reason to worry he’s coming for their spots. If he breaks into the starting lineup early, Corbs has seen something special. He’s the main freshman position player I’m keeping my eye on early, but it’s always tough to break into the Vanderbilt lineup—even in an offensive down year like ‘23 threatens to be.

Here’s the scouting report on the sweet swinging shortstop:

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 40 | Run: 60 | Arm: 60 | Field: 50 | Overall: 40

The best prospect to come out of Pace Academy (Atlanta) since Michael Barrett was an Expos first-round pick in 1995, Austin stands out with his athleticism, versatility and competitiveness. A team that believes in his potential at the plate might have taken him in the top four rounds, but he withdrew from the Draft with a week to go in order to fulfill his Vanderbilt commitment.

Austin possesses plus speed and arm strength, and he can run his fastball up to 90 mph when he takes the mound. He’s capable of making routine plays at shortstop but there’s some question as to whether he possesses more than average range there. Center field would be his backup plan, and he’s also capable of playing second base, third base and the outfield corners.

A right-handed hitter, Austin is most effective when he focuses on making contact and spraying line drives to all fields. He has the bat speed and projectable strength to perhaps develop into a threat to hit 15 or more homers on an annual basis, but he falls into ruts where he swings for the fences, which isn’t his game. He should concentrate on getting on base to take advantage of his quickness. Top 250 Ranking: #196.

ESPN Top 300 Ranking: #161.

Perfect Game Rating: 10.

#8 Fr. INF Chris “Lil’ Maldo” Maldonado

Seeing as doesn’t have Little Maldo in their top 250, I’ll paste in his Perfect Game info here:

Chris Maldonado is a 2022 SS/RHP/IF with a 6-1 190 lb. frame from Short Hills, NJ who attends Seton Hall Preparatory. Large, athletic frame with square shoulders and present physical strength proportioned throughout. Ran a 6.65 60-yard dash. Primary shortstop, fields the ball out front with two hands, aggressive on the approach and attacks the ball well showing off athleticism with quickness and agility, repeats actions, quick transfer and release with a strong, accurate arm across the diamond, shows on line carry to first base. Right-handed hitter, begins with a balanced and slightly open stance with a high hand set; leg lift trigger with some timing components to hands, does a nice job of remaining on time. Loose hands in swing, gets the barrel out well and shows the ability to work line drive contact to all fields, can turn on it with authority as well. Creates leverage, quickness to bat and tools project well moving forward. Excellent student. Verbal commitment to Clemson. Top 250 Ranking: NR.

ESPN Top 300 Ranking: #233.

Perfect Game Rating: 10.

As an added bonus, Lil’ Maldo flipping his commit from Clemson to Vanderbilt likely influenced his brother’s decision to come back and pitch one more year before trying his luck in the minors. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a stud infielder and closer from one family?

#2 Fr. INF Ivan Arias

Here’s what Perfect Game has to say about him:

Ivan Arias is a 2022 SS/2B with a 5-8 170 lb. frame from Boston, MA who attends Dexter Southfield. Medium height with an athletic build with some current strength to it. A primary infielder, quick feet with easy range to both sides. Good timing and rounds the ball with confidence. Hands work with a quick transfer and the arm can make all throws. A right-handed hitter, short to the ball with a level plane and excellent bat to ball skills. Advanced middle of the field approach and the eye-handed coordination and timing brings lots of middle of the field barrels. Good student. Verbal commitment to Vanderbilt.

Arias is the top overall player out of the state of Massachusetts, and the #58 SS overall. Like Austin and Maldonado, Arias also has a 10/10 rating from Perfect Game. Cold weather stars tend to take a bit longer to develop, but Corbs has been phenomenal with recruiting and developing kids from New England.

#6 Fr. INF Matt Wolfe

Here’s what Perfect Game has to say about him. Wolfe is the #86 SS in his class.

#9 Fr. INF Raymond Velazquez

Here’s what Perfect Game has to say about him. Velazquez is the #17 first baseman in his class. Unless he slugs his way into the lineup, he’s likely a prime redshirt candidate.