2023 Season Preview: FIU Panthers

Season Preview FIU Panthers

Miami, Florida – A new year brings renewed hope as I give to you the 2023 Season Preview of the FIU Panthers. Previously, the team finished a lowly 16-34. It proved to be coach Mervyl Melendez’s last season with the program. The blue and gold started off on a six-game winning streak going 7-3 after the first ten games. It went downhill from there. Things got so bad the Panthers went through a nasty stretch of 11 consecutive losses. The team did manage to average 4.7 runs a game, however, their pitching be it the starters or bullpen was atrocious giving up an average of over eight runs a game.

Fast forward to now and we see a team under new management. It is now year 1 of the Rich Witten era (more on him in a moment) with the goal of making his boys competitive and more within the conference. The new skipper will embark on this baseball journey with the help of both new and returning players. The team’s strengths will be speed and defense. Power will certainly be a weakness and the question mark remains on whether there will be any improvement in the pitching.

The Beginning of a New Era

On June 23, 2022, the FIU Panthers named Rich Witten as the new head coach for the baseball program. Prior to the hire, Witten spent five seasons at Virginia Commonwealth University watching over the offense and infield. As hitting coach and recruiting coordinator, he helped VCU win two straight Atlantic 10 Conference Championships in 2021 and 2022. The team finished 42-20 overall last season, nearly advancing out of the North Carolina Regional beating Georgia and No. 10 UNC. During his tenure, the program went 162-86 overall and 65-23 in conference play.

Touted for being a very talented recruiter, Witten brings the bonus of having connections in Florida. He was a volunteer assistant for Canes baseball in 2014 the year they became ACC regular season champions and were ranked fourth in the nation. Witten was also the Director of Baseball Operations at UCF the previous year. Another interesting chapter is about his time at Winthrop from 2015-2017. Working with hitters, catchers and first basemen Witten vastly improved the offense. They went from last in 2014 to the top of the Big South conference the following season. Now that he’s the head coach, the fans could see some serious magic in the Panthers’ future.

Returning Players

It’s been announced that redshirt junior Ryan Cabarcas will be the opening-day starter. The lefty finished the 2022 campaign 2-3 in 15 appearances, eight of them starts, recording a 6.34 ERA. In just over 55 innings of work, he punched out 63 giving up 28 free passes. For those unaware, Carbarcas played two seasons at Florida prior to transferring. In his freshman season (2020) he pitched seven innings generating a 1.29 ERA. In 2021, it ballooned to 6.75 after 12 appearances out of the bullpen. FIU will be relying on a big turnaround from the Pembroke Pines native.

Shifting over to the plate there are a few upperclassmen that can help produce runs. Robert Sotolongo appeared in 48 games for Florida International last year hitting .273. He dinged two out of the park collecting 24 RBIs and swiping 11 stolen bases. Then there’s Alec Sanchez. The redshirt senior started in 50 games slashing .274/.357/.528 including a team-leading 10 homers. Sanchez led in batting average, OPS (.885), hits (54), doubles (10), and RBIs (36).

Rounding it out is the first baseman, Adrian Figueroa. Fig finished the season with a .261 average complemented by a .352  OBP and .327 slugging. 2022 was a down year for him after a good showing in 2021 where he slashed .324/.397/.423 meaning it’s time to make amends.

New Guys on the Block

With so much turnover, you can make the argument this is a new-look Panthers team. Marcus O’Malley is a transfer from VCU joining coach Witten in South Florida. During his freshman year, he made 44 starts hitting .271 going yard once scratching 22 RBIs. For his performance, O’Malley earned the accolade of being a part of the A-10 All-Rookie Team. Sources say he is the favorite to start at third base.

Ryne Guida is a junior from Indian River State. In 2022 he appeared in 35 games hitting a red-hot .341 batting average. Guida backs it up with nine homers and 47 RBIs. Those are numbers you like to see. He might be platooning over at first with Fig and/or DH. FIU also has a former Cane in their ranks now. Mike Rosario transferred from UM after playing in 37 games (22 starts) in 2022. Rosario hit near the Mendoza line but maybe a change of scenery will do the trick. He can pitch and has been getting time in the outfield as well. Lastly, we got Ronny Medina, a junior from Florida Southwestern who spent the last two seasons hitting above .300 with 35 RBIs and 18 stolen bases last season.  Based on new and existing talent, the hitting should be fine. The pitching, however, is a whole different story.

Schedule and Prediction

Right off the bat, the games that stick out to me are the four versus the Hurricanes. The last time these crosstown rivals faced each other for a quartet was in 2017 when the Panthers took three out of four. Florida International starts the campaign with warmups at home hosting George Mason University and the University of Missouri with a midweek game playing Bethune-Cookman. Outside of a road trip at Florida Gulf Coast, FIU will begin with a nearly 17-game homestand.

Florida International starts conference play during week five of the season going on the road to meet C-USA newcomer Dallas Baptist University followed by UAB and Middle Tennessee in late March heading into April. The schedule doesn’t get any easier with a road series at Louisiana Tech. For the final month of May, the Panthers will be matched up to play two weaker teams in Western Kentucky and Rice (season finale) with C-USA favorite Charlotte in between. The last two bouts with UM are also played during this time.

2023 will very likely play out a lot like 2022. The offense will no doubt push the team upwards only to be dragged down by the pitching. FIU will pull out some wins, albeit close ones but it will not be enough to make this a memorable season for the right reasons. Patience will be key in the first year of the Witten Era with the squad ending the effort 15-41.

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