Just as I did last year, this year's season preview will be a five part series that will take us right up to the first pitch of the season on February 20 when UC Davis visits Jackie Robinson Stadium. Part 1 was a general look at the 2008 season, the pre-season polls and a few opinions from analysts around the country. Part 2 looked into the pitchers. Part 3 features the Bruins' position players and Part 4 will be a look at the Pac 10. Part 5 will complete the preview as we take a look around the nation and where the Bruins stand in the national sense.
The UCLA pitching staff will be outstanding this year so the Bruins only need solid performances from their position players to win a lot of ball games. Whether the Bruins can get those solid performances is a major question mark as the Bruins will have only one infield starter returning and have a player coming off a serious injury and another coming off of a poor season in the outfield. The talent is there, but inexperience, health and a lack of consistency have raised a lot of questions about the UCLA position players.
The biggest question for the Bruins comes behind the plate. Ryan Babineau has moved on to pro ball and Brent Dean has graduated, leaving the Bruins without either of their backstops from last season. This year's team has four players who are capable of playing catcher and those four players have a grand total of zero innings behind the plate in their college career. The guy who will likely open the season behind the dish for the Bruins is freshman Steve Rodriguez. Rodriguez started for four seasons at St. John Bosco High School and was named to the All-League team in all four years so this won't be the first time he's asked to catch major innings early in his career. Babineau and Dean were fantastic leaders behind the plate, handled the pitchers and shut down the running game. It will be key for Rodriguez to do those same things and treat any offensive production as a bonus. The other options at catcher are Gino Aielli, Chris Gionvinazzo and Cody Decker. Aielli could serve as the main backup, while Giovinazzo spends time in the outfield and Decker DH's.
At first base the Bruins will likely start a transfer from Division III Claremont-McKenna, Alex Weber-Shapiro. Weber-Shapiro, a junior, was a two-time All-American and batted .464 as a sophomore, when he also had a 38 game hit streak. Weber-Shapiro came into the program this fall and most expected him to be a possible bat off the bench, but an excellent fall quelled any concerns about his swing being too long. His performance in the fall proved that he could consistently hit against higher level pitcher and he will be expected to provide left handed power in the Bruins lineup.
If Weber-Shapiro doesn't live up to expectations, Casey Haerther will take over the position. Haerther was the Bruins' first baseman and best hitter last season. Haerther batted .324 last year as a sophomore with a team leading 12 homers and 52 RBI. Haerther also hit safely in the team's final 18 games and was named to the Fullerton All-Regional team. Haerther had a game for the ages last year in Tucson when he went 7-7 with four doubles, four runs and four RBI versus the Wildcats. This year Haerther will move across the diamond to third base, where he is expected to excel. An excellent defensive first baseman with soft hands and quick feet, the team is expecting him to excel at third as well, but if Haerther has to move back across the diamond, freshman Chris Amezquita will take his spot. Amezquita was one of the better recruits in the country and an AFLAC All-American.
The UCLA second baseman will be Niko Gallego, a sophomore who served as a utility infielder last year. Gallego played in 19 games and made 11 starts as a freshman. He batted .317 and hit safely in nine of his 11 starts, while playing excellent defense. While Gallego doesn't have overwhelming power, he does have gap power that should net him a fair amount of doubles. Backing up Gallego will be senior Eddie Murray. Murray doesn't bring much to the table with his bat, but he's a very good defender that can play second, third or shortstop and is a fast runner off the bench.
The Bruins will start a freshman at shortstop in Tyler Rahmatulla. Normally, you would expect a freshman to provide good defense and any offense is a plus, but with the Bruins current situation, Rahmatulla will be expected to contribute defensively. Rahmatulla was a first team All-CIF Division I selection his junior and senior season. He batted .419 his senior year and was one of Baseball America's top 100 high school prospects so if any freshman were to come in and make an impact, you'd expect it to be him. Plus, the last time the Bruins started a freshman at shortstop, they ended up with a three year starter and All-Pac 10 selection in Brandon Crawford.
The Bruins are much more comfortable with their outfield then they are their infield. Two of the UCLA outfielders have outstanding athleticism. Junior Justin Uribe used to both pitch and play the outfield for the Bruins, but a season ending elbow injury last season will keep him off the mound this year. Uribe has played all three outfield positions before and has played his best on the biggest stage as evidenced by his .526 batting average in the 2007 Long Beach Regional. The Bruins have another athletic outfielder in redshirt junior Blair Dunlap. Dunlap can play all three outfield positions and is an excellent baserunner. He batted .300 as a freshman, but dipped to .250 as a sophomore. Just like Uribe, Dunlap excelled in the postseason as he was named to the All-Regional team in both of the postseasons he participated in.
The key to the UCLA season could very well be junior Gabe Cohen. In an offense full of question marks, Cohen is the biggest question mark. As a freshman, Cohen batted .345 with 10 home runs, but in his sophomore year he batted a measly .204. Cohen looked very good during the fall as he showed the bat speed and short swing that made him a freshman All-American. If Cohen can find his freshman bat to join his already outstanding outfield arm, he could find himself back on an All-American team.
Outside of the starters, the Bruins have plenty of quality outfielders. Sophomore Raul Duran provides the team a defensive replacement and junior Dustin Quist in one of head coach John Savage's favorite pinch hitters. The aformentioned Giovinazzo will likely see time in the outfield, as will freshman Marc Navarro. Sophomore Brett Krill like look to make an impact as well as the former AFLAC All-American could have a strong season after dealing with injuries last year.
The DH for UCLA will be Decker, who like Cohen, will be looking to regain his 2007 form. After batting .307 with 14 home runs and 57 RBI in 2007, Decker batted only .218 with seven homers and 30 RBI last year. Decker was victimized by breaking pitches in the dirt and inside fastballs last season, but a shortened swing and extra time watching tape of his swing has given him a confidence entering 2009. If Decker can play like he did two years ago he will give the lineup a much needed power source around Haerther, Cohen and Weber-Shapiro that makes the middle of the lineup that much deeper.
As you can see, the Bruins are filled with question marks, The talent at each position is extraordinary, but talent isn't enough. Coach Rick Vanderhook is an excellent hitting coach and places emphasis on small ball so expect to see steals, hit and runs and bunts. The key to the UCLA offense will be the reemergence or continued struggles of Dekcer and Cohen. If the two shine the Bruins could put a lot of crooked numbers on the board. Defensively, the Bruins have the chance to be fantastic. All of the physical tools are there, but the inexperience around the field could lead to mental errors. Will the Bruins handle the pressure in situations most haven't experienced before or will the crumble? It's conceivable that nearly every player in the Bruin lineup could do either, accounting for the varying expectations of the team. This team could end the season as Pac 10 champions, but they could also find themselves in a struggle to make the NCAA tournament and the offense will determine where the team ends up.