Winter training (college's version of spring training) is almost over.
The University of Kentucky baseball team is set to open play next week, Feb. 18, at the College of Charleston.
"I feel like the team's prepared," said Braden Kapteyn, a junior who will share time at first base and as a relief pitcher. "Whenever these last couple practices come along, it kind of seems like they take forever. But we're ready to go."
The Wildcats, 31-25 overall and 13-17 in the Southeastern Conference last year, will face three teams over three days at Charleston: the host team, Marshall and Miami (Ohio).
UK, which finished a win shy of making the Southeastern Conference Tournament last year, has 18 newcomers on a 35-man roster.
The most experience comes at a most crucial spot: pitching.
Right-handers Alex Meyer and Jordan Cooper, with left-hander Taylor Rogers, return to form the weekend (SEC) rotation. All were drafted out of high school.
"They're all bigger, stronger, more accomplished, more skilled, smarter — the whole deal," Coach Gary Henderson said during the team's media day on Wednesday. "They're better, and it's pretty obvious."
Meyer, a 6-foot-9 junior, is rated by Baseball America as the NCAA's 21st-best prospect. He was sidelined in mid-season because of mononucleosis but still shared the team lead in wins (5-3) last year.
"I've gotten stronger," Meyer said. "I came in here weighing 192 pounds and I just weighed in yesterday and I was up to 217. Being able to put on that kind of weight's a pretty big deal."
Cooper went 4-5 and worked 581⁄3 innings last year. Fellow freshman Rogers went 4-7 over 83 innings.
Henderson said he made an investment last season, as UK ranked second in the SEC in innings pitched by freshmen. He noted that UK freshmen led the league in that category in 2005, when the Cats finished 7-22 and last in the SEC. In 2006, UK improved to 20-10 and won a share of its first SEC championship.
"What I'm expecting (now) is to get a return on my investment," Henderson said.
Right-handers Kapteyn and Nick Kennedy are probable closers.
Mike Kaczmarek, the only lefty reliever last year, is back and joined in the bullpen by southpaws Corey Littrell and Alex Phillips.
"I feel like our pitching staff is really strong this year," said junior left fielder Chad Wright, one of only two starting fielders to return. "I feel like they're going to carry us a lot."
Also back in the field is senior shortstop Taylor Black, drafted in the 28th round by St. Louis last June.
"It was a very tough decision," Black said of passing on the Cardinals. "One of the hardest in my life just because it's always been my goal to play professional baseball and try to make it to the major leagues."
Top contenders to catch are sophomore Luke Maile and junior Michael Williams.
Sophomore football receiver Brian Adams will take over in center, but right field is undetermined.
When not pitching, Kapteyn is the front-runner at first base. Maile, Williams and freshman J.T. Riddle also could see action.
Riddle, the reigning Mr. Baseball out of Western Hills, "is kind of forcing our hand offensively," Henderson said. "In the four intrasquads, he keeps hitting line drives. And you don't have to be very smart — if they keep hitting line drives, you try to find a spot for them."
Riddle also is a candidate at second base, with fifth-year senior Neiko Johnson, redshirt freshman Tyler Townsend (Lexington Christian) and true freshman Matt Reida.
Thomas McCarthy, a transfer who hit .415 and .461 in junior college, is expected to strengthen UK at third base. Two freshmen, right-handed hitting Dallen Reber and lefty Reida, also could help.
"I think we're going to turn the double play," Henderson said. "I think we're going to have a better infield defensively early in the year."
UK's home opener is scheduled for Feb. 23 against Eastern Michigan.