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2016 WSU baseball preview: The Marty Lees era begins

The Marty Lees era begins with excitement, but plenty of question marks remain, and that's baseball.

WSU Athletics Communcations

While you've been basking in the glory that is WSU basketball for the last few months, baseball things have been happening at Bailey-Brayton Field, where first-year head coach Marty Lees has been overseeing a large group of college kids wearing funny looking pants in preparation for the Cougars' season-opening series in Texas this weekend.

Lees, a Lakeview, Ore. native, takes over for Donnie Marbut, who was fired after 11 seasons at the helm of WSU baseball. The Cougars, while young, finished the 2015 season with a 29-27 record thanks to a late surge, though a 1-8 start to Pac-12 play was the nail in the coffin, for lack of a better cliche.

Bill Moos needed to infuse some energy into the program, and Lees is that guy.

After 11 seasons as an assistant coach at Oregon State, including back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007, Lees spent the previous three seasons as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Oklahoma State, where he was regarded as one of the country's top assistant coaches. He quickly put together an exciting coaching staff.

Dan Spencer, the Cougars' new pitching coach, was on Oregon State's coaching staff with Lees during his 11 years in Corvallis. Spencer, also the Cougars' assistant head coach, spent the last three seasons as the pitching coach at New Mexico, which followed a five-year stint as the head coach at Texas Tech where he finished with a 115-112 record.

Completing Lees' staff is Jim Horner, a former first-team All-Pac-10 catcher for the Cougars in 1996. Horner returns to Washington State after one season managing the Jackson Generals, the Double-A affiliate for the Seattle Mariners, in addition to several other minor league stops. Horner also has ties to Spencer, serving as Texas Tech's hitting coach from 2011-2012.

The trio takes over a Washington State team that lost a handful of key pieces from last season's roster, including Friday starter Joe Pistorese and infielder Ian Sagdal, both of whom were drafted last June. It should come as no surprise, then, that Washington State was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 preseason poll, ahead of only Utah.

Despite the low expectations set forth by his peers, Lees has insisted that he believes his team will compete right away. While a lot of that is coachspeak, there's a lot to like about this Washington State squad, beginning with the starting rotation.

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Ian Hamilton is one of the top pitchers in the country, and after making the transition from the bullpen to the rotation this summer, he'll be the Cougars' Friday starter to open the season. The hard-throwing righty, who consistently hits 96 on the radar gun, added a change-up this summer which should pair nicely with his above-average slider.

Hamilton had a 1.67 ERA as a sophomore with 37 strikeouts in 43 innings en route to his second All-Pac-12 selection. The Cougars' career saves leader (28) is Perfect Game's preseason Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year and was named to the Louisville Slugger Preseason All-America Second Team by Collegiate Baseball.

Damon Jones, a junior college transfer out of College of Southern Idaho, will be the No. 2 starter to start the year. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound southpaw, who signed with Washington State this summer on a whim, started just one game for CSI last year, though he was effective in 26.1 innings, holding opponents to a .224 average with 20 strikeouts.

Jones' fastball will sit in the upper-80s and he'll mix in a slider and a change-up. All reports indicate that he's a consistent strike thrower, which is something Spencer has put a supreme emphasis on this winter. Inexperienced as a starter even at the junior college level, it'll be a wait-and-see approach with Jones, though the staff is certainly high on the redshirt sophomore.

True freshman Parker McFadden, who reportedly rebuffed a potential $700,000 signing bonus and an opportunity to be drafted in last June's first five rounds, will open the season as the Cougars' third starter. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder out of Yelm, Wash. is another hard-throwing righty who consistently hits 94-95 mph with his fastball while mixing in a slider and a change-up.

With just one combined collegiate start among the Cougars' top three starters and true freshman Ryan Ward expected to get the nod in Monday's series finale against Texas State, it's not the most ideal situation, but Hamilton eases the concerns a bit. Overall, it's a group that will have its ups-and-downs, almost assuredly, but the potential is exciting.

With Hamilton moving to the rotation, it opens up a spot at the back up the bullpen. Lees mentioned that Ryan Walker, a sophomore who started seven games last season, will get a crack at closing duties to start the season. The Cougars will also have a pair of lefties, Layne Bruner and Scotty Sunitsch, out of the bullpen, each of whom appeared in at least 19 games last season.

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Several familiar faces will return to the Washington State infield in 2016, though they're a little shorthanded in terms of numbers. Lees has made it a priority for several players to get used to playing multiple positions this season.

Trek Stemp returns after redshirting in 2015, a season removed from hitting .242 with 20 runs scored and 10 RBI. Stemp, expected to see time in center field in addition to second base, will be leaned on heavily to be a major contributor to a young lineup. Somewhere in between his 2014 numbers and his freshman season, where he hit .331 with 27 runs scored and 15 RBI in 42 games, should suffice.

With Stemp likely to see a lot of time in the outfield, it opens the door for Jack Strunc to be the every weekend second baseman. The sophomore, who started 53 games as a true freshman between shortstop and second, will look to build on his .245 average from a year ago, which saw him also score 25 runs.

Working up the middle with Strunc and Stemp will be Shane Matheny, a sophomore who will split time between third and shortstop. Matheny started all 56 games for the Cougars as a true freshman, and he's expected to make a big leap in his sophomore season after hitting .207 with 20 runs scored and 21 RBI in 2015. Lone senior Patrick McGrath, who struggled to hit just .119 in 36 games (12 starts) last year, will play some third base when Matheny is at shortstop.

There appears to be a timeshare at first base, as well. Wes Leow, a junior who started 13 games last season, is the projected starter to begin the year, though Jacob Thurber, a true freshman out of Des Moines, Wash., and McGrath will each see time at first. In 67 at-bats last season, Leow hit .254 with nine runs batted in.

Thurber is an interesting prospect, who at 6-foot-3, 175-pounds can play both first base and catch. The latter is the most intriguing position as Lees announced that projected starting catcher J.J. Hancock, who hit .256 in 32 games as a true freshman, will be "out a while" after injuring his hand sliding into second base in practice. With Hancock expected to be out for an extended period of time, Thurber could be thrust into a starting catcher duties. True freshman Ty Johnson and redshirt sophomore Stefan Van Horn, who has yet to play for the Cougars, are the other options at catcher for now.

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An experienced group of outfielders returns for the Cougars, and they'll be expected to carry the offense if WSU hopes to make a splash in a once-again loaded Pac-12 this season. The return of Stemp helps, but a pair of sophomores could be in for big years, as well.

Wes Hatten and Derek Chapman were pleasant surprises as true freshmen last season. Hatten hit .260 with 21 runs scored and 14 RBI in 50 games while Chapman batted .265 with 17 runs scored and 11 RBI in 2015. Both are expected to play one of the corner outfield spots, while splitting time with Stemp and the upperclassmen of the group, Cameron Frost.

After struggling a bit out of the gate, Frost turned it on late, finishing with 25 RBI, though he'll need to improve on his .221 average. The junior, who certainly has enough pop to improve on his two home runs last season (second on the team, unfortunately), was named Pac-12 honorable mention in 2015.

Another name to watch in the outfield is Dugan Shirer, a redshirt sophomore junior college transfer from College of Southern Idaho. The lefty hit .286, adding 22 runs scored, 10 RBI and 10 stolen base with a .409 on-base percentage. Shirer gets on base and then steals those bases, an exciting combination that should force his way into the lineup.

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So, what to make of this Washington State team? Patience is going to be key, as they're still extremely young, but with the number of freshman that played last season, there should be improvement offensively. The starting staff is talented, but inexperienced, and the bullpen will be a work in progress for awhile. Defensively, they're still an unknown.

Lees brings a lot of energy to this team and the coaching staff has clearly rubbed off on the players, who have raved about their coaching style and what each of them bring to the diamond. While they may not compete out of the gates, it's a young group with some  solid pieces in all phases. There's plenty of unknowns, but that's the beauty of opening day.

Let's play ball.