Five questions that will define the Jaguars’ season … and the answers:
1. Can the Jaguars avoid beating themselves like they did last year? Cador says he has been extremely encouraged by how well the team has fielded during intra-squad games, but the real games are the ones that matter. Last season, a spate of physical and mental errors contributed to numerous losses.
2. Can they score more than they did last season? This team should be a better offensive club. It returns its two best run producers in D.J. Wallace and Jose de la Torre and newcomers Nkosi Djehti-Mes, Tyler Lee and Rivers Frederick should give them more support than they had last season.
3. Do they have the bullpen depth to reach the eighth inning with a lead? Cador hopes so, but one of his key middle relievers — Damien Franklin — has been moved into the rotation at least temporarily while Omar Ugarte rests a sore shoulder, weakening the bullpen depth. Stay tuned.
4. Will assistant coach Fernando Puebla be able to return to the program this season? Cador is optimistic that Puebla, who left the team shortly before last season to return to his native Venezuela while trying to stabilize his immigration status, will get cleared in the near future.
5. Will Southern qualify for the SWAC tournament in New Orleans? The conference coaches say yes, but barely. The top four teams in the two five-team divisions qualify. Southern, which finished last in the West last season, was picked fourth in the preseason poll Wednesday, edging out Grambling.
Jose de la Torre returns as the starter, but the Jaguars had to do some shuffling after backup Sam May became ineligible. Redshirt freshman Marcus Hodge has emerged as the best defensive option behind de la Torre.
Tyler Lee has come on strong defensively during preseason camp to earn the position over Nkosi Djehuti-Mes, who was the projected starter entering camp. Djehuti-Mes will play some at first and a lot as the designated hitter.
This position is in good hands as Marcus Tomlin returns, providing solid defense and speed, though he hit just .144 last season. If Robinson Mateo is certified academically he’ll provide an experienced backup to Tomlin.
Sophomore Phillip Williams has improved so much defensively that he has won the starting position. If Bud Morton is certified academically his experience will get him some playing time. Robert Howard is also in the mix.
The experimental move of Sergio Torres to catcher created a hole at third, but Cador plugged in juco transfer Rivers Frederick, whom he called “a gem”. Torres is back on the corner as the backup.
This is a position that doesn’t have a clear-cut starter as Jonathan Kirksey and Gavin Webster will platoon. Both are left-handed hitters, so look for free-swinging freshman walk-on Theo Smith to play against left-handers.
Lance Jones returns after missing the last half of last season because of a stress fracture in his foot. He led the team with 12 stolen bases last season and didn’t commit an error in 20 games
D.J. Wallace returns as the top offensive player from a year ago and was named to the All-SWAC preseason team Wednesday. He hit .309 with 9 homers and 37 RBI.
Nkosi Djehuti-Mes’ defense wasn’t strong enough for Cador to make him the everyday first baseman, but his bat is too good not to be in the lineup most days.
In the rotation:
The Friday starter again will be RH Santos Saldivar, who was one of the few bright spots on the team last season. He was 3-0 with a 2.06 ERA. The Jaguars likely will follow with J’Markus George (1-4, 7.34), who emerged as a starter last season. Cador and pitching coach Dan Canevari have had to make an adjustment with the third spot as projected start Omar Ugarte developed a sore shoulder during preseason practice. Damien Franklin is taking his spot at least for the first week or so. Cador is awaiting results on an MRI on Ugarte’s shoulder.
In the bullpen:
The move of Franklin into the rotation reduces the options to try and get games to set-up man James Fontenot in the eighth. Justin Freeman, Jacob Wallace and Harold Miles will all be in the bullpen mix as well as the mid-week work. Wallace is the only left-hander in the group. Fontenot was 1-1 with a 9.15 ERA in 14 appearances last season.
Right-hander Rafael Diaz will be the closer. He didn’t get many chances to close last season because the Jaguars seldom had late leads. He finished 0-1 with 5 saves and a 1.69 ERA in 13 appearances, including one start. Cador is hopeful that improved defense and more clearly defined roles in the bullpen will yield a more stable team that will enable him to hand the ball to Diaz with late leads.