By Rob Moseley
After two seasons as Oregon’s starting shortstop, Mark Karaviotis may be turning double plays from the other side of second base in 2016.
With less than two weeks to go until their opener, Feb. 19 at San Diego State, the Ducks are close to making some final decisions about the makeup of the roster to open the spring. Nearly every position on the team is still up for grabs, and some veterans are working at new spots as coaches seek out the best combination.
Karaviotis, who has started 106 games over the past two seasons, has gotten work at second base as well as shortstop, where freshman Travis Moniot has made a good opening impression. Phil Craig-St. Louis has played some first base, after spending 2015 in the outfield. And A.J. Balta, a first baseman and corner outfielder in 2014 before missing last season due to injury, has practiced in center field.
Other veterans including Tim Susnara (C/1B) and Matt Eureste (3B/1B) have also expanded their versatility since last season. That creates a lot to sort through for the coaching staff, but enhances their value to the team.
“We’re kind of testing the water to see what our options are,” UO coach George Horton said. “Having guys that are flexible, versatile, enhances your chance to try to get a very confident defensive team on the field, and get close to having your nine best offensive players out there.”
The Ducks lost two of their most dangerous hitters to the draft, in infielder Mitchell Tolman and Swiss Army knife Scott Heineman. Craig-St. Louis and Jakob Goldfarb are back after manning the corner outfield spots for much of 2015, and Sunara provides a veteran presence at catcher.
The puzzle that is Oregon’s 2016 lineup is complicated by the lack of an obvious fit at first base, the return by Balta from a knee injury and the emergence of freshman infielders Moniot and third baseman Matt Kroon. Craig-St. Louis and Susnara could help fill the void at first when not in their regular positions from last season, and Balta could help stabilize a center-field job shared last season by Nick Catalano and Austin Grebeck, who remain in the mix this spring.
While some of the experimentation has guys playing positions new to them at Oregon, they’re not total fish out of water. Craig-St. Louis was an infielder in junior college, Balta grew up playing center field and Karaviotis spent time at second base while in the Cape Cod League last summer.
“You’ve got to be ready wherever the coaches may call on you, even if it’s a position you’re not used to,” Karaviotis said. “It can help the team, and if you want to further your career, you never know where you might end up.”
Karaviotis “has probably been our best player” since practice began in January, Horton said. The UO coach also has been impressed with sophomore Daniel Patzlaff, who is competing with Karaviotis and Moniot at second base and shortstop.
Craig-St. Louis is the Ducks’ top returning hitter, with an OPS of .802 in Pac-12 games last spring. A second baseman and third baseman in junior college, Craig-St. Louis said the transition to the outfield last season was trickier than taking up first base.
“I’ve been an infielder all my life,” Craig-St. Louis said. “So playing first base, there’s some stuff I have to learn but I feel pretty comfortable over there.”
Balta made 56 starts as a freshman in 2014, primarily at first base. The Ducks project him as a possible middle-of-the-order bat, and hope he can stabilize center field. Catalano and Grebeck remain the best defensive options in the outfield, helping their value in the competition for playing time.
“It’s about putting the best nine guys out there, and if that’s what helps the team, that’s where I’ll be,” Balta said. “I definitely need some work out there, but it’s coming back pretty fast. You’re captain of the outfield, the last line of defense. It’s a lot more intense than playing the corners.”
The designated hitter spot also creates options for Horton and his staff. Senior Steven Packard and JC transfer Jake Bennett will compete for at-bats there, and also can play first base or the outfield corners. They’re just two more pieces in a puzzle UO coaches are working to complete in time for the season opener next week.