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2024 Position Previews: Infield

Baseball season starts Friday (2/16) against Florida Atlantic. I will publish position previews about every other day on: 1) Catchers, 2) Outfield, 3) Infield, 4) Relief Pitching, and 5) Starting Pitching. Today, we focus on the strength of our lineup: the Infield.

Vanderbilt v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

If the Outfield is in flux, the Infield is a near-certainty, with impressive depth, to boot. In all honesty, we could field at least two full SEC caliber infields in 2024 and still not play everyone who warrants at bats. It’s a great position to be in.

The Likely Starters

#11 Jr. 3B Davis “Diaz De Los Muertos” Diaz

.263/.376/.415 7 2B 1 3B 9 HR 57 RBI and 2-3 SB in 62 games (62 starts)

When Diaz de los Muertos moved from SS to 3rd, allowing Jonathan Vastine to slide to short, our defense really came together. Both are SEC caliber shortstops, but Davis Diaz is a Gold Glover at the hot corner.

Beyond that, he went from being all-glove as a freshman to an improving bat as a sophomore. He jumped 50 points in batting average and over 100 points in slugging. He was second on the team in both HR and RBI (to Grad transfer RJ Schrek), and it’s reasonable to expect double digit dingers from Diaz in ‘24. While ideally, you want your third baseman to be more of a power hitter (and yes, we have one waiting in the wings in Braden Holcomb), the left side of the infield combo of Diaz and Vastine hoover up nearly everything hit to that half of the field. We’ve got the best infield defense in the league, and it’s mostly due to Diaz and Vastine.

In short, if Diaz can make similar trending-upward improvements as a junior as he did as a sophomore, MLB scouts will take notice. If he can hit, say, .280/.400/.450, and maintain his elite infield defense, he should be taken in the top three rounds. If he truly breaks out, and achieves his Platonic ideal, watch out.

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

.287/.355/.448 18 2B 2 3B 5 HR 34 RBI and 5-8 SB in 62 games (62 starts)

Here’s what I wrote about Vastine-Deferens last year:

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 you’re looking at his 2023 stat line above and wondering why I made a reference to Steve Jeltz, that’s just evidence of how much Vastine’s bat improved in his second season in gangster pajamas. Though Corbs started Vastine at 1st as a freshman, he hit, well... like this:

.196/.246/.235 2 2B 6 RBI and 11-11 SB in 30 games (12 starts)

Gross.

Before his freshman season, Vastine was someone scouts and evaluators had pegged as a possible first rounder after his junior year. Last year, we started to see why. His defense has never been a question, but (can you spot a theme here), he will need to duplicate the upward trajectory of improvement he saw between his freshman and sophomore years this year to live up to such lofty prognostications. While I don’t think he’ll ever be a power hitter, in terms of knocking dongers, if he can be a high AVG and OBP guy, along with Gold Glove defense at SS, and doubles gap power, he could be a star for this team, and shoot up MLB draft boards.

Jumping over 90 points in BA, over 100 points in OBP, and over 200 points in SLG from freshman to sophomore year is a massive improvement. He led the team in doubles, as well. Now, let’s put it all together as a junior. I’m dreaming about a .315/.400/.500 season for Vastine Offerens. No one’s questioning his Vastine Deferens.

#28 Fr. 2B Camden “The Omaha Kid” Kozeal

Yes, RJ Austin played a fine second base last year, and certainly hit enough to keep his job. However, I already previewed Stone Cold as an Outfielder, as I think he should win the CF jerb.

The Omaha Kid, though, may well be the reason the whole team gets to make a trip to Cam’s home town this June. I mean, hell, he was the Nebraska Gatorade Player of the Year in both his Junior and Senior seasons. Sweet sassy molassy...

Here’s what I wrote about Cam in the MLB Draft Preview:

MLB.com scouting report:

Scouting grades: Hit: 60 | Power: 45 | Run: 45 | Arm: 50 | Field: 50 | Overall: 45

Scouts rave about Kozeal’s hitting ability and high baseball IQ. He rarely swung and missed on the showcase circuit and didn’t strike out in four starts while helping Team USA win the 18-and-under World Cup in September. None of his other tools grade as better than average, but his bat and makeup may make him the first Nebraska prepster to land in the first three rounds since Cole Stobbe in 2016.

Gatorade’s Nebraska player of the year as both a junior and senior, Kozeal consistently puts together quality at-bats and has an extremely advanced approach for a high schooler. He has a compact left-handed swing, controls the strike zone and uses the entire field. While he’s a bit undersized, he has the strength and bat speed for 15-20-homer power and can drive the ball to the opposite field, as evidenced by a home run to left field when he stayed back on a changeup from Illinois right-hander Zander Mueth at the PDP League.

Kozeal has some twitchy athleticism that helped him account for 26 touchdowns in eight games as Millard South’s (Omaha) quarterback in the fall. The Vanderbilt recruit has fringy speed and average arm strength, yet he finds a way to make plays at shortstop. He’ll move across the bag at the next level and profiles well as an offensive second baseman.

Here’s his ESPN write-up:

102. Camden Kozeal (18.7), SS, Millard South HS (NE), Vanderbilt commit

One of many tough-to-sign Vandy commits is the type (hit first, sure-handed defender) that goes higher out of college.

Range: Rounds 2-10.

MLB.com Top 250 Ranking: 143

ESPN Top 300 Ranking: 102.

Perfect Game Rating: N/A. National Ranking: #109 overall; 29 IF.

Prediction: If he’s taken on Day 2 (rounds 2-10), consider him gone. If not, it’s unlikely they have met his signing bonus. Seeing as I have both Holcomb and Kozeal in the 50/50 range, this may be a “one or the other” situation. Of course, we want both at The Hawk. Playing time in the Vanderbilt infield will be tough to crack in ‘24, but this kid has a hit tool we’ve not seen since Austin Martin. Get him in the fold and expect RJ Austin to move to CF pretty quickly. Conversely, Kozeal could also begin his career as a corner OF and then move to the IF as a sophomore, when at least one of Diaz and Vastine gets drafted and signs.

I put him as a coin flip w/r/t whether or not we would get him to campus, and it was huge for our present and future lineup when both Braden Holcomb and Cam decided to pass up on MLB bucks to don the gangster pajamas. Since getting to campus, Cam has shined brightest of our freshman fielders. He’ll likely compete to be the starting shortstop in ‘25, but in ‘24, he will likely be Jonathan Vastine’s double play partner. Honestly, the Diamond Dores have possibly the best defensive infield in College Baseball.

Again, I know none of this is set in stone, and Corbs could always opt to keep Austin in the infield... but please don’t. Seriously, we’re going to want both players in the lineup, and it should be pretty obvious Kozeal’s the superior glove-smith, even though Austin may have the stronger arm. Further, Kozeal could be the leadoff hitter by SEC play, as he has an elite hit tool. For those who don’t know what that means, it basically means he has fantastic bat to ball contact skills, eye-hand coordination, and will be really tough for opposing pitchers to strike out. Of course, he was the three hole hitter for the Black squad in practice scrimmages last month, so it’s safe to say Corbs really believes in his bat.

I’m legitimately excited about this kid, as he has a hit tool not seen since the days of Austin Martin and Bryan Reynolds. Seems to have a Dansby Swanson or Carson Fulmer makeup/intensity thing going, as well. (Parlagi, you may commence “squee”-ing now.)

If you don’t trust me, here’s what Corbs had to say on The Omaha Kid:

Head coach Tim Corbin on Kozeal: “Cam comes us to with a mature offensive approach to hitting. It’s rare when you see young kids come into a program and own their process and intent…he does that. He is very serious and competitive with whatever he does. He can be found at the facility early or late. He’s a physical kid with very good defensive infield skills. I like where he is right now, and I believe he will impact the team, sooner than later.”

#8 So. 1B Chris “Lil’ Maldo” Maldonado

.310/.411/.542 12 2B 8 HR 32 RBI and 2-2 SB in 45 games (43 starts)

Expect Lil’ Maldo to be either the 3 hole best all-around hitter or the cleanup thumper in this Diamond Dore lineup (though freshman Braden Holcolmb could claim the cleanup spot before it’s all said and done). His Freshman season was a pleasant surprise, as he was a late switch from Clemson to Vanderbilt, when Corbs finally decided to just recruit the entire Maldonado family.

He led the Diamond Dores starters in batting average, and was 2nd in both on base percentage and slugging. Yeah, he’s our best veteran bat. With Parker Noland cemented at the cold corner, Lil’ Maldo was the DH in ‘23. He’ll likely start the season at 1B, defensively, with Holcomb backing up both Maldo and Diaz. He was a SS in high school, but has bulked up considerably since then, so is likely limited to being a corner infielder or corner outfielder, though he could likely play 2nd in a pinch.

Though you might say Lil’ Maldo broke out as a freshman, if he focuses on lifting the ball a bit more, he could be a real power hitter. It’s not out of the question for him to hit around 15 HR this year (and, again, with our power woes last year, that would be a welcome sight). I also suspect he will be one of the team leaders, as well.

The Bench/Future Stars

Again, RJ Austin could very well be the starting 2nd baseman again, putting Cam Kozeal on the bench. I just don’t think that will happen, or if it does, it won’t last. Please please please start Austin in the OF this year, Corbs. And thank you. Further, Matthew Polk could play in the IF, but I expect him to be in the OF, as well. That said, there is at least one freshman champing at the bit to start at 3rd, 1st, or DH, and another thunder bat that could likely start at 1B or DH, as well.

#26 Fr. INF Brayden “Honeycomb” Holcomb

The 6’4” 257 lb mountain of a man is the top freshman we got through the draft this summer (though it would be understandable if you think that’s actually Ethan McElvain or Cam Kozeal). Heck, Perfect Game had him as the #38 overall player in his class. He’s got the most power potential on this team, and I have to assume, much like Chris Maldonado last year, the second he cracks the starting lineup, he will never relinquish his spot. He’s likely our starting 3B next year (provided Davis Diaz is drafted high enough to forego his senior year), but where will he play this year? Odds are he’ll be the DH, but he should have enough athleticism to play a corner OF spot.

#3 So. INF Jayden “All SoCon” Davis

.358/.452/.541 13 2B 1 3B 9 HR and 38 RBI and in 60 games (58 starts as a Samford Bulldog)

If you would have asked me before the draft who the starting second baseman would be in ‘24, the Samford transfer and Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American Jayden Davis would have been my choice. Yes, even then, I expected RJ Austin to move to CF, and then really expected it once we landed Davis from the portal. Davis likely only transferred here due to that likelihood. Then, both Holcomb and Kozeal turned down MLB bonus bags and Jayden Davis found himself in a dogfight. While he could certainly win the 2nd base jerb outright, or serve as a high contact rate DH, I’m having a hard time imagining anyone moving Kozeal out of the lineup. Can Davis play as a corner OF, defensively? Man, I would love to know the answer to that question, as he’s yet another bat I want in this lineup. Again, this infield is deeeeeeeep.

#25 Fr. INF Matt “The Sioux Falls Thumper” Ossenfort

Ossenfort was not one of the freshman commits I was the most excited about, and then he started absolutely murdering the ball in his summer league, and all of us stood up and took note. With Maldonado and Holcomb likely ahead of him on the 1B depth chart, and any number of DH options, playing time might be hard to come by for the big lefty from Sioux Falls in ‘24. However, he’ll have a great chance at a starting job at 1st, DH, or a Corner OF slot as a sophomore. Expect Ossenfort to be one of the first bats off the bench if we need a power lefty bat late in a game. Aside from that, maybe he’ll get some ABs during midweek games? Again, playing time might be tough to come by as a freshman, but he’s certainly a bat to keep an eye on.

Though from South Dakota, he played at Marjory Stoneman Douglass H.S. in Florida so as to face top competition. As a senior, he was All-State and helped lead his team to an undefeated season. Many cold weather players opt to find a way to play in Florida, in particular, to ramp up their learning curve, and be able to play all year round. Of course, his high school is better known for more tragic reasons.

*Other players, like Sophomores Ray Velasquez and Matt Wolfe, and freshman Kaito Muto, might be redshirt candidates.