UCI's Ronnie Shaeffer is the best defensive catcher in college baseball. (Glenn Feingerts/UCI.edu)

At the plate, the 2012 Anteaters face an obvious challenge in finding a way to replace the production from the big bats that they lose from last season: Brian Hernandez, Drew Hillman, Jordan Leyland and Sean Madigan.

First, a look at who is returning on Coach Mike Gillespie’s lineup card. (Last season’s statistics in parenthesis.)

C SR Ronnie Shaeffer (.264, 61 G, 61 GS, 6 XBH, 1 HR, 31 RBI, 2 SB)

1B SR Jordan Fox (.323, 50 G, 48 GS, 7 XBH, 0 HR, 25 RBI, 9 SB)

2B SO Dillon Moyer (.143, 17 G, 8 GS, 1 XBH, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 2 SB)

3B SR Tommy Reyes (.289, 56 G, 55 GS, 11 XBH, 0 HR, 29 RBI, 3 SB)

SS SR DJ Crumlich (.300, 59 G, 59 GS, 17 XBH, 1 HR, 27 RBI, 4 SB)

CF RS SR Christian Ramirez (.282, 54 G, 47 GS, 15 XBH, 0 HR, 32 RBI, 6 SB)

RF RS JR Scott Gottschling (.282, 36 G, 11 GS, 2 XBH, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 2 SB)

This group, while solid at the plate and superior in the field, is clearly lacking in the extra base hits and power categories. The deep fences and depressed bats from last season clearly had something to do with the underwhelming statistics, as home run totals decreased across the nation. Still, there is no denying that among this entire group of seven players, there was a combined two home runs.

Ronnie Shaeffer is the defensive rock that Gillespie adored so much that backup catcher Drew Sandler left UCI after his second season riding the pine. Clearly, Shaeffer knows what he’s doing behind the plate, holding opposing base runners to a 43 percent success rate, leading the entire nation in that statistic. He was also named a Gold Glove winner by the American Baseball Coaches Association. However, one has to wonder if his focus on defense has somehow detracted from his offensive game. As a true freshman, Shaeffer hit a blistering .388 with four home runs in a DH role. Even his sophomore year, Shaeffer hit above .300 with three more homers. Perhaps the new bats are to blame for the drop in power, but one has to expect more than the .264 Shaeffer put up last season.

There aren’t many starting senior first basemen across the country that have zero home runs across their college careers, but Jordan Fox has done just that. The 5’9″ defensive wiz stays in the lineup due to his high batting average, decent wheels, and aforementioned defense. The guy is also nearly impossible to strike out. Fox’s lockdown of the first base job is rumored to be the reason why Leyland transferred to Azuza Pacific for his senior season (still a head-scratcher in many ways). The defensively inferior Leyland wanted to improve his all-around game instead of spending another year DHing, and now the ’Eaters have an even larger hole in the power and clutch hitting departments.

At second, son-of-ageless-wonder-Jamie Dillon Moyer will have an opportunity to show fans why he was drafted out of high school. To be honest, he didn’t show much last season, batting .143 with one triple. However, he did show a good eye and deftness at second base. His hold on the second base spot isn’t exactly rock solid however, especially given the Anteaters’ lack of offense.

Slated to take over third is infielder extraordinaire Tommy Reyes. The 6’1 senior was an average-to-decent hitter all year until the NCAA Regional, where he exploded for a .545 average in three games. Nonetheless, I just don’t know if UCI can afford to have a combination of Reyes and Fox at the corners. Excellent on defense, light on pop. Hopefully, Tommy can also improve on his speed this year, as he had a disappointing zero triples and meager 3-8 stolen base success rate.

One guy who does have plenty of speed is center fielder Christian Ramirez. If he can stay healthy, look for “Titi” to improve on his .282 batting average from last season. Like just about every other guy on this lineup, Ramirez is above average on defense as well, committing only one error in 54 games last season.

Rounding out the impact returners is redshirt junior Scott Gottschling. In platoon playing time last year, Gottschling had bursts of brilliance, showing off a bit of power as well as good speed. I expect more of that greatness from the six-foot right fielder who should receive everyday playing time this year.

This leaves two, possibly three spots up for grabs from newcomers: 2B/3B, LF, and DH. A breakdown of possible impact contributors:

OF/INF JR Jeff Stephens

INF FR Taylor Sparks

OF RS FR Jordan Alexander

C RS FR Jerry McClanahan

UTL RS FR Justin Castro

INF FR Conner Spencer

OF FR Tyler Krause

OF/INF FR Kris Paulino

INF FR Jonathan Munoz

OF/RHP FR Kyle Davis

The two big names from this list for 2012 are Stephens and Sparks. A latecomer to the recruiting class, Stephens looks to get first crack at the left field spot due to his experience as a junior college transfer. He hit .357 last year as a preseason All-American, and reminds me of Drew Hillman as a highly-decorated juco transfer. However, Stephens played center field and led off for Sierra last year, and power is evidently not in his repertoire.

Something has to give. With an outfield of Gottschling-Ramirez-Stephens, UCI essentially has three center fielders playing at one time, all of them with little pop.

One source for power may be the freshman Sparks. There is already speculation that he may man the hot corner due to his ridiculous athleticism and high potential. The Indians took him in the 24th round out of high school, but luckily did not sign him. Sparks is raw as most freshman are, but also has tremendous upside in just about every facet of the game. When Sparks committed to UCI, Pat Shine had this to say about him:

“Taylor is one of the most talented players in Southern California,” said Shine. “He has the upside and athleticism to be an immediate contributor at UC Irvine and has a great future in professional baseball. He is a physical player with the quickness and athleticism to potentially be a very good shortstop. He also possesses tremendous bat speed, power and is an above-average runner.

Of course, Shine spoke glowingly for all the new recruits as is typical in such press releases, but only Sparks among the new hitters was mentioned as an immediate contributor. I think it’s also fair to say that Shine took it one step further with Sparks, going from merely speaking glowingly, to positively raving about UCI’s new infielder.

Some other names that stand out: Krause, who is another great athlete and potential center fielder; Davis, who reminds me of Matt Summers with his two-way play; McClanahan, who looks to be the backup catcher and potential DH; Spencer, who may be the first baseman of the future. The recruit that got away however, is most definitely John Alexander, who signed with the Tampa Bay Rays after being drafted in the 8th round of the 2011 MLB Draft. The 6’5 first baseman has gigantic power as seen in this video:

In case you don’t recognize the song, it’s the soundtrack to Coach Gillespie and staff lamenting their lack of a big power bat that Alexander would have brought to the team. But alas. It will be interesting to see who emerges from this group of newcomers to fill the middle of the order RBI spots that Hernandez, Hillman and co. left behind. No matter what, it looks like it will be another year of small ball and singles over any sort of reliance on the home run. Business as usual at Anteater Ballpark.

Tomorrow’s season opener in the 2012 Urban Invitational has been moved to 9 a.m. PT due to forecast of inclement weather. The game will be broadcast from Minute Maid Park in Houston through the Internet only, with Tim Becwar calling the play-by-play. Crosby Slaught is set to start against Alabama State. Rip ’em ’Eaters!