It is easy to gauge the depth of Tulane baseball coach David Pierce’s excitement entering his second season. That same concept — depth — kept came up over and over as he talked about his roster Thursday at Media Day.
The pitchers who accounted for 59 of the Green Wave’s 60 starts last year are back along with seven of eight positional starters and key reliever Dan Rankin. Two players who were injured for either all or most of 2015 — outfielder Grant Brown and pitcher J.P. France — are healthy.
The Wave welcomes several talented transfers, including former LSU hitter Jarret DeHart, Texas catcher Jeremy Montalbano, Rice and West Virginia reliever Trevor Simms, North Carolina pitcher Chris Oakley and Pierce’s son, Shea, an infielder who started 78 times for Sam Houston State from 2012 to 2014.
After scraping into its first NCAA regional in seven years last spring, Tulane, which finished 35-25, has every reason to believe its path will be less bumpy this time.
“The strength of our team is truly in numbers,” Pierce said. “We are going to have a starting lineup that has so many different combinations just based on what we can do this year. Every one of these players has a different strength.”
The result of the lack of turnover is a roster with 11 seniors and 12 juniors. Tulane had two eligible seniors when it played in the Baton Rouge regional last May and six seniors in 2014, the last season of the Rick Jones era.
“We have a lot of experience, and that’s great,” said junior Lex Kaplan, who has been cleared to play after undergoing shoulder surgery in the summer. “You see the teams that go far, and they all have experience. It’s going to be a great year. I’m just really excited to see what we have.”
Kaplan is one of four outfielders with plenty of starting experience, joining senior Richard Carthon, Brown, a redshirt sophomore who started 11 games in center field early last year before injuring a shoulder, and DeHart, who played at Howard College in 2015 after spending a season at LSU.
The infield could be an all-junior affair. Shortstop Stephen Alemais, a second-team All-America selection by D1Baseball.com, started every game a year ago. Second baseman Jake Willsey started 39 times — he could share time with Shea Pierce this season — while Hunter Hope had 49 starts at third base and Hunter Williams started 57 times as either a designated hitter or at first base.
Everyone knows about Alemais, but Pierce expects a huge jump from Hope, who hit .230 with four home runs a year ago.
“Hunter Hope may be the best fielder in the country at third base,” Pierce said. “He is a kid who gets overlooked. He is quiet, very physical and he has an opportunity to hit the ball with power. He’s just a great defender, and he’s going to be a plus this year.”
Catcher Jake Rogers, another junior, boasts a career fielding percentage of .990, the fifth best in school history. He also led the nation in caught-stealing percentage (.579) by throwing out 33 of 57 runners last season.
Senior Cameron Burns, the starter in 2013 before Rogers arrived, and Montalbano, who started 45 times at Texas in 2013 and 2014, provide quality depth at the position. With Rogers in front of him, Montalbano likely will be Tulane’s top designated hitter.
“We have probably the best three catchers in one group that I have ever had,” Pierce said. “We have great options behind the plate.”
The story is similar on the mound, with upperclassmen Corey Merrill (5-6, 2.12 ERA), Emerson Gibbs (5-3, 2.73), Alex Massey (6-4, 3.67) and Patrick Duester (7-6, 3.21) returning after combining for 51 starts in 2015. There is not much room for anyone else, but Yandel, a senior who struggled following a hot start, France and freshman Ross Massey, Alex’s younger brother, could push their way into the picture.
“We have the ability to stack some starts,” Pierce said. “In other words, we’ll start kids for four or five innings and then go to a second starting pitcher before seeing who is going to finish it for us on the back end.”
Pierce’s toughest task could be keeping everyone happy, but Kaplan, who has spent time at first base as well as right field in the preseason, professed zero concern.
“The chemistry on this team is great,” he said. “We’re all out there having fun and everybody’s happy for everybody. If one guy isn’t starting one game, he’s going to be behind that player who’s in his spot.”
After getting a taste of success last year, the Wave is hungry for more.
“Everyone is pretty comfortable and everyone has a little chip on their shoulder,” Alemais said. “You saw it in the fall and this spring that everybody is really excited to get started. The ability and the talent this year is at a whole another level.”