It didn’t take a genius to figure out the biggest question mark facing Navy baseball going into this season.
The Midshipmen lost three-fourths of their starting infield. Gone to graduation were second baseman Zach Biggers, shortstop Michael Coritz and third baseman Jacob Williamson. Those three standouts combined to make 467 career starts.
Coach Paul Kostacopoulos did not mince words when asked how the coaching staff was going to rebuild the infield, saying “if we’ve been doing our jobs, we have players on the roster that can fill those spots.”
Of course, Kostacopoulos knew exactly what incoming recruits were being considered as replacements. Navy had a pair of Division I transfers capable along with a highly touted plebe capable of playing any of those three positions. The 16th-year coach had also seen enough of sophomore Nico Valdez to feel comfortable he could contribute as well.
Give Kostacopoulos and his assistants an A+ for their talent evaluation and recruiting acumen. Solid play, both offensively and defensively, from three young infielders is a big reason why Navy qualified for the Patriot League tournament for the 10th straight season.
Freshman Eduardo Diaz, a four-year starter for a perennially powerful prep program, succeeded Coritz as the starting shortstop and enjoyed a solid rookie campaign.
Logan Keller, a transfer from Alabama, took over for Williamson at third base and became an all-conference performer.
Valdez, who played in nine games as a plebe, showed quickly he was ready to move out of a reserve role and fill the vacancy at second base left by Biggers.
“We did feel those three young guys had some ability. To their credit, they have stepped up and played well. I’m very happy with where they’re at in terms of their development,” Kostacopoulos said.
First baseman Zach Stevens, the lone returning infield starter, has also been impressed by the group of youngsters.
“Mike, Biggie and Jake were all great players who you just can’t replace. Especially the connection Mike and Biggie had at second and short,” Stevens said.
“One of the really cool things has been seeing Nico and Eddie establish that chemistry. Those two are really coming together and developing a similar connection.”
Stevens always marveled at the arm strength and speed of Williamson, who took great pride in his cannon from the hot corner. But Keller, who was ranked as the nation’s No. 49 shortstop by Prep Baseball Report as a senior at Lake Brantley High in Longwood, Florida, has filled the spot admirably.
“Logan has really stepped up huge at third base. That was definitely a spot we were concerned with coming into the season and he’s really filled that role well,” Stevens said. “He’s got a heck of an arm, on par with Biggie and that’s really saying something.”
Kostacopoulos knew Diaz, Keller and Valdez were all capable of playing shortstop since they did so at the high school level. However, his biggest concern was putting a plebe at that all-important position that anchors the infield. It did not take long for Diaz to prove he was up to the task.
“Eddie is just a natural player who understands the game. I think he’s played baseball since he was 4 years old,” Kostacopoulos said. “Eddie was able to pick up things really fast, and it was just a matter of time before he settled in. He’s been rock-solid at shortstop.”
Valdez began his collegiate career at Los Angeles Mission College and was named All-Western State Conference after hitting .301 with 34 RBIs and 12 stolen bases as a freshman. The California native had to start over after earning admission to the Naval Academy and was a utility infielder as a freshman.
Kostacopoulos said Valdez, who is 21 years old, has provided outstanding leadership and guidance for his freshmen fellow infielders.
“Nico has a really good baseball IQ and can not only think for himself, but for others as well. That is a great leadership quality when you can help out your shortstop and your third baseman,” Kostacopoulos said. “Nico just has a good understanding of the subtle adjustments that need to be made out in the field.”
Valdez was named first team All-Patriot League on Wednesday after leading Navy with a batting average of .341 (28-for-82). He ranked fourth in the conference with a .462 on-base percentage on the way to totaling 14 RBIs and 21 runs scored.
“Valdez probably has the best approach to hitting of anyone on team,” Kostacopoulos said.
Keller, who redshirted as a freshman at Alabama, earned second team All-Patriot League laurels after finishing second on the squad in average (.327) and total bases (53). The 6-foot-1, 193-pounder led the league with 32 RBIs in 29 games and also stands fifth in average, slugging percentage (.469) and total hits (37).
“Logan has been phenomenal with runners in scoring position,” Kostacopoulos said. “Logan came in as a dead pull-hitter and has learned to drive the ball into the gaps. That is a good sign moving forward because he’s not going to see as many fastballs over the plate.”
Diaz has the lowest average among the regular starters (.224), a stat the head coach thinks is somewhat misleading. He had the highest percentage on the team with moving runners, “and he never hits into a double play,” Kostacopoulos said.
Meanwhile, all three have been sound with the glove with Diaz really flashing the leather, posting a fielding percentage of .986 after making just one error in 70 chances. Keller has three errors in 70 chances (.957), while Valdez has three in 107 (.972).
Keller had to make the biggest adjustment when asked to play third base after playing shortstop since he was a youngster. He struggled early in the season with how to handle batted balls that arrive at a corner base a lot faster than the hole in shortstop.
“I think the biggest adjustment is reading hops. You’re seeing the ball from a different angle,” Kostacopoulos said. “It took a while for Logan to realize he needed to come and get the ball. He would lay back and let it bounce. He’s learning the position and week-by-week he’s getting better.”
PATRIOT LEAGUE TOURNAMENT
NO. 4 NAVY@NO. 1 LEHIGH
Saturday, noon and 3 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. (if necessary)
J. David Walker Field at Legacy Park
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