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Baseball Preview: Infielders

Trevor Austin should lead a group that features a couple of new faces

COLLEGE BASEBALL: MAY 23 SEC Baseball Tournament - Missouri vs Auburn Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2023, 3B Luke Mann and 1B Hank Zeisler anchored Missouri’s lineup, finishing first and second on the team, respectively, in wRC+ and wOBA. In 2024, the Tigers have the task of replacing both, and it will not be easy.

The good news for Kerrick Jackson is that the Tigers retained utilityman Trevor Austin. The Jefferson City native entered the portal in May following the firing of Steve Bieser, but decided to return to the Tigers after Jackson’s hiring was announced.

Austin checks just about every box you’re looking for in a ballplayer and is a sure-fire draft pick in June’s MLB Draft. He swings it well, walks almost as much as he strikes out, provides immense defensive versatility, and brings a wealth of experience at the collegiate level. He should be the best player on this team, and he will need to be if the Tigers are going to see any sort of success in the first year of the Jackson era.

Last season, Austin slashed .312/.440/.519 and had a 131 wRC+ and .435 wOBA. He also hit 8 home runs, drove in 36 runs, and stole 10 bases. His wRC+ and wOBA were third-best on the team behind only Mann and Zeisler.

The key to Austin’s success last year was his ability to lift the baseball. His ground-ball rate dropped from 41.6% in 2022 to 33.8% in 2023, and his fly-ball and line-drive rates both rose around 4%. This helped him raise his wRC+ from 119 in 2022 to 131 in 2023.

Austin has improved each year, and I wouldn’t surprised if that trend continued. If he does, you can bet he’ll be in the discussion for All-SEC honors and the early rounds of the Draft.

His bat will always be the priority, but Austin’s defensive versatility makes him almost invaluable to Mizzou. On most days, he should play 2B, but Austin also has the ability to play in the corner outfield. Having the option to shift Austin to one of those spots could pay dividends if guys like Matt Garcia, Justin Colon, and Danny Corona force their way into the lineup with their play.

Who’s going to be the shortstop?

Who will be turning the double plays at SS with Austin is more up in the air. Garcia, Colon, and Corona are all prime candidates, but I’ve also heard that freshman Drew Culbertson is making a compelling case for playing time early in his collegiate career. It’s my understanding that Corona is likely going to slot in at 3B, so that leaves Garcia, Colon, and Culbertson as your potential shortstops.

Garcia is probably the favorite to get the job after spending the second half of last season as Mizzou’s SS. He was below average at the plate, slashing .240/.347/.388 with an 87 wRC+, but provided excellent defense, making just three errors in 41 games. He also delivered a walk-off single to give Mizzou a win over Vanderbilt, one of the highlights of Missouri’s 2023 season.

Justin Colon comes from a similar mold as Garcia — good glove, below average bat. Before getting injured in 2023, Colon was slashing a mediocre .244/.363/.356 with an 85 wRC+. But defense is his calling card, and he’s had a flare for the exceptional defensive play in his two years at Mizzou. He was a decorated prep recruit, but Mizzou is experimenting with getting him some action on the mound, too, which leads me to believe Garcia could have a leg up on him at the SS spot.

Drew Culbertson is the wildcard of the shortstop situation. D1Baseball mentioned his potential in its Missouri Fall Report, and I have heard rumblings that he’s been a real standout in the lead up to the season. But those are rumors, and Garcia and Colon are known commodities in Columbia.

Leaning on the portal

Corona was the prize of Jackson’s inaugural portal class. The Wake Forest transfer, who’s expected to man the hot corner, was a contributor on arguably college baseball’s best team last year that made it to the College World Series semifinals. He’s an infielder by trade, but his explosive pop is what makes him stand out.

Corona slashed .285/.360/.609, hit 13 homers, and had a 123 wRC+ and .420 wOBA. He does a good job of lifting the baseball with a 50% fly-ball rate, which allows him to put his pop on display. If you were to nitpick the offensive side of Corona’s game the obvious flaw is how much he strikes out and how little he walks. Last season Corona struck out 30.3% of the time and walked just 8.6%. There’s no sugarcoating it — that’s bad. But with his pop and the lack of reliable offense in this Missouri lineup, you’re more than ok taking that with a 123 wRC+ at your 3B spot.

How Corona will hit when he’s not in a lineup with Brock Wilken and Nick Kurtz is unknown, but if Missouri has offensive success this season, Corona should be a part of it.

Behind the plate, Missouri will most likely turn to Seton Hall transfer Jedier Hernandez, who is cousins with St. Louis Cardinals legend Yadier Molina. Hernandez is primarily a defense-first catcher, but did some good things at the plate last season. Despite having just a 90 wRC+ and slashing .273/.368/.379, Hernandez consistently worked a good at-bat striking out just 7.9% of the time while walking 12.6%. If he can provide elite defense, like 2023 when he threw out 14 runners, and work a quality at-bat, you’ll take that from the catcher spot.

A new face with a familiar name

Last year Ross Lovich was a staple in Mizzou’s lineup when he was healthy, but he transferred to Arkansas for his senior season. However, he wasn’t the only Lovich at Missouri. His younger brother, Jackson, who was drafted out of high school in the 2022 MLB Draft, is poised for a breakout year in his sophomore campaign.

A SS coming out of high school, Lovich has been getting the chance to play some 1B, and from what I understand, he’s the likely opening day starter. This could be a good way to get Lovich’s explosive bat in the lineup at a position where defense isn’t necessarily a priority.

In limited opportunities last season, Lovich slashed an unimpressive .217/.321/.370 with a 77 wRC+. But his potential is well documented, and giving him regular at-bats could be what he needs to start reaching that potential.

Follow @KortayVincent on Twitter for more Mizzou Baseball updates.