Miami, FL – Baseball is right around the corner all across the country.
As the hometown FIU Panthers prepare to improve on years past, they’ve made sure to change what they could to ensure success. This includes a new coach, updated roster, and a familiar opponent to kick the season off.
A Change in Leadership
Although FIU Baseball had a hot start to the 2022 season starting off 7-1, they cooled off dramatically and finished off the season with a 16-34 record and a four-game losing streak to end the season. Coach Mervyl Melendez stepped down and the coaching staff went through a huge turnaround to give the baseball team a fresh new look.
FIU Baseball HC Mervyl Melendez announced today that he will step down following the conclusion of the season’s end.
Melendez spent six seasons with the Blue & Gold, and has an overall record of 126-154.
A national search for the next head coach will begin immediately. pic.twitter.com/yj5bsrkwcM
— Jonathan Mayer (@jmayer2002) May 18, 2022
On June 23rd, 2022, the Panthers named former Virginia Commonwealth University hitting coach and recruiting coordinator Rich Witten as the new hoach coach of FIU baseball. In 2022, Witten was a big part of the VCU Rams 42-20 record. Many believe that Witten is the right man for the job, and I concur.
“During his time at VCU, Witten also assisted in leading the Rams to the 2021 Atlantic 10 Baseball Championship and A-10 regular season titles in 2019 and 2021. Under his direction, VCU posted a 162-86 overall record and a 65-23 mark in conference play,” said the press release on Witten’s tenure with Virginia Commonwealth.
— AJ Ricketts (@AJRicketts) June 27, 2022
A Look at the Big Bats
Looking at players on the team, we need to start with maybe the top offensive player entering this season, Alec Sanchez. Sanchez slashed .274/.357/.528/.885/10 HR/36 RBI in 2022 and become an offensive threat for FIU. Sanchez led the Panthers in homers, RBIs, and stolen bases with nine. Expect Sanchez to have a nice season for Panthers baseball and be a big piece of what they want to do in 2023. Sanchez is listed as the team’s center fielder come opening day.
FIU's Alec Sanchez hits a walk-off home run against St. Thomas but is ruled a double after his teammates mob him at second base. Turns out they knew what they were doing as Sanchez needed a double to complete the cycle.
(via r/baseball) pic.twitter.com/CqthLbJEoU
— Baseball GIFs (@gifs_baseball) February 19, 2022
Dante Girardi, the son of former Marlins, Yankees, and Phillies manager Joe Girardi also had himself a solid 2022 season. You can call it an improvement from his 2021 in which he hit .215. In 2022, Girardi really improved and slashed .255/.358/.329/.687/2 HR/15 RBI. Girard will slot in at second base on opening day.
Something to note about Girardi is the fact that he played some winter ball in the Appalachian League where he just mashed. Girardi hit .302/.374/.375/.749/1 HR/7 RBI. He was an on-base and contact-hitting machine throughout the collegiate and Appalachian season. Expect Girardi to hit toward the top of the lineup.
Pretty fluid swing here from MIF Dante Girardi (2020 FL). Son of #Yankees great Joe, Girardi was a key cog for state champion @CCABASEBALL954. Loose hands generate barrel whip & BS; 90 mph EV RBI 1B on this one. pic.twitter.com/MY5zxN2nIV
— Vinnie Cervino (@vcervinoPG) July 11, 2018
After a phenomenal 2021, you began seeing the decline of Steven Ondina in the Appalachian League where he did not play too well. That seemed to have rubbed on his 2022 season where he recorded mixed stat lines. The big positive for Ondina is the fact that he will have the chance to bounce back in a big way and continue to be a patient hitter like we saw in 2022. Ondina walked 36 times and had an on-base percentage of .366. Ondina will slot in at shortstop come opening day.
It’s a PANTHERS WIN as @FIUBaseball gets a 6-5 win over UAB in game one of the series!
FIU IF Adrian Figueroa is the hero with a RBI single to left, scoring IF Steven Ondina!
FIU P Angel Tiburico shuts the door, going the final two innings to get the win! pic.twitter.com/O0cV5CK1Hk
— Jonathan Mayer (@jmayer2002) May 14, 2022
FIU will have a new face at third base. Marcus O’Malley, who was selected to the A-10 All-Rookie team with VCU in 2022. He is one of the players that came with coach Witten from VCU to join the Panthers. O’Malley slashed .271/.374/.310/.683/1 HR/22 RBI.
O’Malley also spent this winter playing in the South Florida Collegiate Baseball League where he absolutely killed it slashing .324/.472/.382/.854/0 HR/14 RBI. If we can see O’Malley do something similar to what he did in the South Florida league, FIU has a great third baseman with a bright future.
.@FIUBaseball IF Marcus O’Malley
The VCU transfer had a standout freshman season in 2022, hitting .271 in 44 starts with the Rams!
He was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie Team for his play last season! pic.twitter.com/oEPTps3CMs
— Jonathan Mayer (@jmayer2002) February 5, 2023
A player that caught my eye is first baseman Adrian Figueroa. Slashed .261/.352/.327/.679/1 HR/24 RBI. Although Figueroa has the height and weight of a first baseman, the power just isn’t there. He has only hit three homers in his whole college career, so we hope to see that change.
Figueroa’s numbers can be compared to Miami Marlin’s Garrett Cooper or New York Yankees Anthony Rizzo if you want to look at a major league comparison. The key with Figueroa is if he can keep up the contact hitting. If so, then it is just a matter of getting some power in there and smacking 5-15 homers a season.
.@FIUBaseball 1B Adrian Figueroa
The lefty-hitter from Doral is looking to build on another strong year at FIU!
He hit .261 in 43 games with 24 RBIs and five doubles! pic.twitter.com/0eVc1niQK2
— Jonathan Mayer (@jmayer2002) February 9, 2023
A player who will most likely slot in at left field is Robert Sotolongo. In 2022, Sotolongo slashed .273/.369/.346/.715/2 HR/24 RBI. He put up promising numbers, but was not able to continue his success in the Appalachian League. Sotolongo hopes to bounce back from the disappointing stint and be a big part of the bottom of the order for FIU.
After some disappointing years with the University of Miami, Mikey Rosario looks to make a name for himself with the Panthers. If there is a sign of hope, it is that he had an amazing season playing winter baseball in the Valley Baseball League. Rosario will most likely start at right field for FIU and be an impact bat.
A big question entering 2023 is who will be the starting catcher. According to Jonathan Mayer of PantherNOW, we can expect it to be Florida SouthWestern College transfer Ronny Medina. He had a horrid 2022 but had less than 100 plate appearances, so with more experience and a better opportunity at FIU you can expect to see a bigger sample size.
Who’s Taking the Mound?
Now that we took a look at the position players- the pitching staff, which is a big reason for FIU’s disappointing season is still in question, but hopefully, we see some bounce back from them.
The opening-day starter is going to be Redshirt Junior Ryan Cabracas. He struggled in 2022 with a 6.34 ERA and walked 28 batters, but the hope is that we see Cabracas ERA fall below 5.00 and make an impact as what it seems like will be the ACE of the rotation.
After a horrid 2022 where Christian Santana had a 21.00 ERA in 9.0 IP, he looks to bounce back as well as the pitching rotation, which is still up in the air after Santana.
Looking at the bullpen, the name that may stand out to fans is Orlando Hernandez, son of former Yankees and White Sox pitcher “El Duque.” Although the junior struggled in 2022, I believe that he can also bounce back from the rough season he had. A big issue for him was the high amount of walks throughout games.
After a phenomenal 2021 campaign where Angel Tiburcio held a 3.45 ERA through 30.2 IP, the Wellington product was really disappointing in 2022 as his ERA inflated up to 6.75, but managed to save two games. If history recalls, Tiburcio should be able to have a nice 2023 and probably slot in as the team’s primary closer.
The Patriots Come to Town
The day we have all been waiting for: Opening Day vs the George Mason Patriots. They finished last season with a 22-33 record but fared well against Atlantic-10 division play with a 13-11 record.
If history repeats itself, FIU should be able to steamroll through George Mason as they have an all-time 5-1 record against the Patriots. The last time these two teams played, which was in 2020, FIU won 5-1.
Game one of the series is set for Friday, February 16th with the first pitch at 6:30pm. The series will continue into Sunday, then FIU will play a quick match against the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats before beginning a four-game series against the Missouri Tigers.