Steve Farrington can count them on one hand - the number of returning veterans with a significant number of starts under their belts.
But that doesn't mean the Washington State head baseball coach is backing away from predictions of a successful season.
"We are stronger defensively this year and I think we are stronger on the mound," offers the third year Cougar coach. "With our defense we should be in every game."
When Farrington sends his club to the field for the first time Feb. 6 against San Diego State, even diehard Cougar hardball fans will need a program to identify more than half of the lineup.
The Cougars do return 10 letterwinners, but only about four have started more than a handful of games. Heading the list will be juniors Jason Hairston (6-1, 210) behind the plate and Todd Belitz (6-1, 218) on the mound, plus infielders Ole Vigeland (6-2, 185, sophomore) and Casey Kelley (6-2, 230, sophomore).
"The strength of our infield is our ability to catch and throw. We can do that," says Farrington. "Our overall speed and quickness is much better than it has been in both the infield and outfield. We will be young on the mound, but I think we are better pitchers than we have been in the past. We consider a pitcher someone who finds a way to get the batter out. I think we have that now in our younger pitchers."
Vigeland, who started 31 games last year at several infield positions, figures to step in for the departed and now professional shortstop Mike Wetmore.
Kelley, who had 22 starts a year ago in the outfield, is expected to move to first base this season. Transfer Curtis Robinson (5-11, 171, senior) has been penciled in at third, while Scott Randall (5-9, 165, junior) probably gets the nod at second base.
Freshman Shawn Stevenson (5-8, 133) could go at either second base or shortstop. Ray Hattenburg (6-1, 193, freshman), who redshirted last season and who swings from both sides, could find his way into the lineup at third because of his bat. "That left handed swinger at third is something we haven't had," offers Farrington.
"Most of our left handed hitters are in infield positions," according to Farrington. "Three of the five infielders are left handed swingers and four of the five at first base swing from the left side."
Duane Stewart (6-4, 224), a junior and the Cougars' starting safety during the fall, and sophomore Steve Gleason (6-0, 209), who will battle for a starting linebacker spot, have been penciled in by Farrington as outfield starters, along with senior transfer Justin Mentink (6-5, 233) from San Diego State.
"We will be a perimeter type outfield," says Farrington. "I think we can cut the ball off and keep runners off second base."
Farrington also has the option to use infielder Scott Randall (5- 9, 165, junior) in left field, adding another hitter who swings from the left side of the plate. The Cougars also have footballer Brad Philley (6-3, 201, freshman) in the outfield.
Farrington will give a long, hard look at several freshmen to fill key rolls on the mound when WSU opens the season, including Wade Parrish (6-1, 191), Todd Meldahl (6-1, 194) and Les McTavish (6-1, 172). The backbone of the pitching staff, however, will be Belitz and hopefully Kyle Poffenroth (6-5, 254, sophomore), who has been hampered by arm injuries each of the past two seasons.
"Belitz will give us a great, competitive outing every time he goes to the mound. Poffenroth is a key. He has more than one pitch, is capable of pitching inside, and he is a 6-5 competitor who can pitch from behind," says the Cougar skipper.
Sophomores Marcus Glaze (6-3, 234) and Dave Wheeler (6-1, 185) also return from last year's staff that posted a 5.72 ERA.
Farrington, who graduated both of his relievers from last year (Jered Fowler and Wayne Vezzetti), hopes transfer Burdette Greeny (6-6, 219, junior) will be the ace stopper out of the bullpen. "He gives us a dominant right hand pitcher," says Farrington of the 6- 6 thrower.
"We will be young on the mound, but I think we are better pitchers this year," says Farrington. "These guys have track records of getting hitters out. They have shown resiliency and they have more than one pitch in the zone. Also, they have shown in the past they can compete."
"We will utilize 10 or 11 pitchers," according to Farrington. "Twice through the order with some of our young guys may be enough for awhile, so we will be looking at the bullpen earlier than we would with a more mature staff," he adds.
Another plus for the Cougars is the return of Hairston, a veteran catcher who will be an asset to the mound staff.
"Hairston is a big time swinger," offers Farrington. "He is the leader behind the plate. Overall, I think we will be able to slow down the speed (of other teams). As Jason learns to hit the other way better, he will become a real double threat. Then he will get the pitches he can drive out of the yard."
Farrington's Cougars will start with a strong defense this season, a defense he believes will not allow opponents big innings. "With our defense we should be in every game," says the WSU head coach.
"Our double play combinations are sound. In the outfield we should be able to keep hits in front of us and keep runners off second, which helps eliminate big innings," he adds
Offensively, the Cougars will settle for the 'run an inning' approach, although Farrington believes the middle of his order is capable of producing the big inning.
"We will have three or four guys in the middle of the order who can create the big inning for us, but for the most part we have to go out and get one or two runs at a time," he says.
Kelley, Steve Curran (6-5, 235, freshman), Mentink, Stewart, Hairston and Jesse Hoorelbeke (6-3, 257, freshman) are the players Farrington mentions when discussing the long ball."