RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Junior college transfer Brandon Haislet is slated to start in center field for Hawaii this season.
Franco tabbed for lead-off duty
Second Of Two Parts
Whether fair or not, comparisons are inevitable.
Last year, Hawaii won more baseball games (45) than it had since 1992, and the 2007 team will be expected to continue the momentum and also advance to the NCAA Regionals.
The WAC coaches, as well as Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball prognosticators, believe the Rainbows are good enough to at least win the conference championship.
But as the season opens tonight at home against Santa Clara, UH is without last year's ace starter (Steven Wright) and closer (Darrell Fisherbaugh), as well as cleanup hitter (Luis Avila) and superb catcher (Esteban Lopez).
So Jorge Franco -- who inherits the leadoff spot from Robbie Wilder in the Rainbows' lineup -- won't be alone. He's just one of several supporting actors moving into the spotlight.
The soft-spoken senior left fielder said there won't be any stage fright despite his .216 average in 97 at-bats last year.
"I worked on (hitting) in the fall and during the summer also. I think I'm ready for it," said Franco, who added that he's "100 percent" after spending most of the three weeks leading up to opening night hobbled by turf toe.
A closer look at last year's numbers show Franco might have what it takes to set the table. He walked 19 times and was hit by three pitches to elevate his on-base average to .352. Franco was also successful all seven times he tried to steal, and he scored 16 runs.
Coach Mike Trapasso said Franco improved steadily at the plate in the offseason.
"He's really done well getting on base and making things happen. He's very good defensively. I'm hoping for good things," Trapasso said. "The only question for Jorge will be how he hits against right-handed pitching, and that's only because he struggled against righties last year."
That's one facet Franco will have to master to fill the void left by Wilder.
"Robbie's on-base was almost 50 percent. That's a luxury that's pretty hard to replace. Every other time up he's on base somehow," Trapasso said. "Jorge is going up with the same approach Robbie had. We don't expect him to get on base 50 percent of the time, but we'd sure like to get something close."
Franco started 29 games for the Rainbows last year, which is 29 more than tonight's starters in center and right. In 2006, Brandon Haislet and Evan Zimny were tearing it up in junior-college ball. Trapasso is confident they'll make a quick transition to Division I.
"That's how we'll go ahead and saddle up tomorrow. There's no telling what's going to happen after that," Trapasso said of the outfield alignment. "It will be performance. Those guys will get plenty of opportunities to do what we think they're capable of doing. We're deep in the outfield. Obviously when Derek DuPree gets back we'll be even deeper."
DuPree hit .313 as the regular center fielder in 2006. He's coming back from a torn ACL.
While the outfield might undergo some mixing and matching, especially depending on righty vs. lefty considerations, the infield returns three starters: Justin Frash at third, Eli Christensen at short and Jon Hee at second all played in at least 54 of the team's 62 games last year. Kris Sanchez replaces Avila at first. The new starting catcher is Landon Hernandez.
The Rainbows: Player By Player
A quick look at UH's position players heading into the season:
» Ryan Asato (6-0, 210, Jr.): Switch-hitting outfielder will get some chances as DH, too. Batted .200 with .359 on-base percentage in 38 plate appearances last year.
» Vinnie Catricala (6-3, 190, Fr.): Right-handed-hitting third baseman will get some at-bats as DH and perhaps play third if Frash plays some games at first.
» Eli Christensen (5-10, 175, Sr.): Right-handed-hitting shortstop batted .301 in 2006 and is on Preseason All-WAC Team. Recovered after resting injured elbow last summer and fall.
» Derek DuPree (5-10, 175, Jr.): Left-handed hitter batted .313 in 2006 as regular center fielder. Named to All-WAC Preseason Team, but is not 100 percent yet after tearing ACL last summer.
» Jorge Franco (5-10, 170, Sr.): Right-handed-hitting outfielder was 7-for-7 on stolen bases last year. Will start in left and bat leadoff.
» Justin Frash (5-10, 190, Sr.): Left-handed-hitting third baseman batted team-leading .359 last year, and is top returnee in 13 other offensive categories. Frash is a candidate for the Brooks Wallace National Player of the Year Award and Preseason All-WAC.
» Kevin Fujii (5-8, 190, Fr.): Right-handed-hitting catcher redshirted last season after starring at Roosevelt High. He and Ruff will back-up Hernandez.
» Brandon Haislet (6-2, 200, Jr.): Right-handed hitting outfielder may have best tools on team and starts in center. Earned All-America honors at Kennedy High School and Cosumnes River College, both in Sacramento, Calif.
» Jon Hee (6-0, 170, Jr.): Right-handed-hitting second baseman will start again this year. Batted .283 in 2006 and solidified up-the-middle defense with Christensen.
» Landon Hernandez (6-1, 220, So.): Right-handed-hitting catcher slated to replace team leader Esteban Lopez. Batted .260 in backup role in 2006. Preseason All-WAC this year.
» Kevin Macdonald (6-0, 195, Fr.): Right-handed-hitting infielder's versatility could get him lots of at-bats early in his career. League MVP helped Palm Desert High School to four championships.
» Matt Roquemore (5-10, 185, Fr.): Left-handed-hitting outfielder is a good all-around player who will get some chances early in the season.
» Bryan Ruff (6-1, 210, Jr.): Left-handed-hitting catcher was second-team all-conference at Tacoma (Wash.) CC.
» Kris Sanchez (6-3, 220, Sr.): Left-handed-hitting first baseman will open as starter after hitting .262 in 84 at-bats last year behind Luis Avila.
» Jeff Van Doornum (6-3, 180, Fr.): Right-handed-hitting utility player is recovering from appendix surgery. He was known for a quick bat at Huntington Beach (Calif.) High.
» Nathan Young (5-11, 170, So.): Right-handed-hitting infielder went 3-for-9 in the NCAA Regionals. Valuable backup is expected to play more this year after appearing in 23 games as freshman.
» Evan Zimny (6-2, 195, Jr.): Left-handed hitting outfielder was also a JC All-American at Cosumnes River. He can play left and first base and will start season in right.