Blair Dunlap is one of the few known entities in the UCLA lineup via farm4.static.flickr.com
The tradition continues with yet another five-part season preview that will take us right up to the very beginning of the 2010 UCLA baseball season on February 19th. We've got the basics of college baseball out of the way and took a look at the all-time UCLA team. In part 1 of our five-part preview, we took a quick look at last year, a peak at the schedule and some of the opinions from analysts around the country for 2010. Part 2 took a look into the pitchers. This 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.
UCLA will be forced to replace a few key hitters in 2010 as Cody Decker, Casey Haerther, Eddie Murray, Gino Aielli and Gabe Cohen have all moved on and such a replacement task would often seem daunting and unfortunate. Is that really the case when those batters were the core of a poor hitting team? UCLA finished in the bottom third of the country in nearly every major offensive category in 2009 so bringing in a new group might not be the worst of things. The Bruins will be very young at the plate and in the field, but they are much more athletic and will give the coaches more options. Whether they can execute will likely determine how the Bruins' season plays out because with the UCLA pitching staff, the position players just need to catch the ball and execute at the plate in the most basic of ways.
Last season, assistant coach Rick Vanderhook brought a new offensive system to UCLA that emphasized small ball and manufacturing runs. The Bruins struggled with it in 2009, largely because the team swung and missed at too many pitches. With very little power in this year's UCLA lineup, the Bruins ability to bunt runners over, execute in the hit and run and run the bases smartly will be key. In the fall, the coaches emphasized aggressive baserunning to put pressure on opposing defenses and create runs from nothing, which UCLA will need.
A good battle has taken shape behind the plate where the incumbent, sophomore Steve Rodriguez, and the newcomer, freshman Trevor Brown. Last season, Rodriguez started 34 games and handled the pitching staff well, showing the confidence receiving that is usually reserved for upperclassmen. Ridriguez struggled mightily with the bat though, hitting just .179 with just four extra base hits. Put simply, hitting like that won't cut it in 2010, but head coach John Savage spoke very highly of the work Rodriguez put in over the offseason to get stronger and improve his hitting, something that was evident in the fall.
Brown will look to push past Rodriguez and steal away the starting spot, but it looks like at least early on, he's fighting an uphill battle. An All-Foothill League player in his senior year at Hart High School, Brown is a bigger catcher at 6'2'', but he has outstanding tools. His ceiling is probably higher than Rodriguez's with a quick bat, some nice power for a freshman and a good pop out of his crouch, but odds are the experienced Rodriguez starts on February 19th. Brown is likely to get time behind the plate at various times throughout the year though and will be on Rodriguez's tail all year.
Starting at first base will be an outfielder, or at least a player who used to play outfield, who used to also pitch. Senior Justin Uribe has played outfield throughout his career and even did some pitching before injuring his elbow, but in 2010 he will serve as the team's primary first baseman. He picked up the position quickly, showing a good glove throughout the fall and feel for positioning. The smooth swinging lefty has a .300 career batting average and combined with decent speed and above-average power, Uribe will be one of the hitters UCLA depends on most, while also serving as a team leader. Backing Uribe up with be freshman Matt Mosher, a lefthander who will come off the bench with a good bit of power.
Duties at second base will be split between another converted outfielder, senior Blair Dunlap, and sophomore Tyler Rahmatulla. Dunlap played infield in high school so he is not completely unfamiliar to the smaller glove. While he still has some kinks to work out defensively, he is one of the more athletic players on the UCLA roster and has very soft hands, giving the Bruins hope that he can make the position his home. Rahmatulla can play second, shortstop or third, but his spot in 2010 will be at second base, where he is comfortable and has very quick feet around the bag.
It is expected that both Dunlap and Rahmatulla will be in the lineup for just about every game, even if one has to DH or Dunlap heads to the outfield upon occasion. Dunlap hit .301 last season with seven home runs, good for third on the team, and 15 stolen bases, the most of any Bruin. A key figure in last year's lineup, Dunlap was either first, second or third on the UCLA team in nearly every offensive category. Like fellow senior Uribe, Dunlap is also expected to play the role of leader for this young team. Rahmatulla came to UCLA as a highly touted player, but struggled as a freshman en route to a .222 batting average in 35 games. Rahmatulla was using the right side of the field much better in the fall though and his swing was much improved, giving the coaches reason to believe that he can be a key part of the lineup hitting for average, some power and flashing some speed on the bases.
Like at second base and catcher, there is a two-man battle for the starting spot at third base, but unlike the other two, it is between two newcomers. Sophomore Dean Espy comes to UCLA as a transfer from South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, AZ, while freshman Cody Regis is a Glendora High School product. It was expected that Espy would take the third base job and run with it, but Regis played extremely well in the fall and forced a competition.
Espy brings with him a .361 batting average from one of Arizona's top junior colleges, along with seven triples and 40 RBI in 50 games. Espy's father, Duane, spent eight years in the minor leagues and has made a career as a minor league managers and major league hitting coach. As a resut, Dean has grown up around the game and has been praised for the professional mindset he brings to the field every day. Regis swings a good bat and showed it in the fall when he had a pair of doubles in the Blue-Gold World Series this fall in his continued push for playing time in the fall. With Espy a righthanded batter and Regis swinging from the left side of the plate, the position could develop into a platoon with Espy starting versus lefthanders and Regis versus righthanders.
The infield will likely be rounded out by junior shortstop Niko Gallego. The son of former UCLA baseball player and 13-year major leaguer Mike Gallego, Gallego hit .273 last season in 55 games, but did up his average in Pac-10 play, where he hit .300. Gallego's six steals last year were good for second on the team, but he'll have to up that in 2010, along with his .361 on-base percentage. Likely to feature in the top part of the UCLA lineup, Gallego will be depended upon to exhibit excellent bat control and use all part of the field to help manufacture runs in absence of power in the lineup. Behind Gallego is sophomore Adrian Williams, a super smooth fielder who can make the spectacular play, but is also prone to simple mistakes. If he can shorten his stroke and make more consistent contact, he could push Gallego some.
The UCLA outfield is a mix of new and returning, giving the coaches six players from which to choose from, all of whom will see the field this season and all of whom will likely start at some point this season. The biggest thing the UCLA outfield has compared to previous years is outstanding athleticism. All of the UCLA outfielders run well and will cover more ground than previous Bruin outfields, while it also gives Savage some lefthanded bats, a welcome change after last year's righthanded-heavy lineup.
The outfielder many have the highest hopes for in 2010 is Brett Krill, a big 6'4'', 225 lbs. junior who hasn't seen much of the field to this point in his career. An AFLAC All-American out of high school, Krill finally turned a corner this summer in the Northwoods League, where he hit just a tick below .300 with three home runs and a team-leading 12 doubles, while also flashing some speed with 11 steals. Krill will see some time at a corner outfield spot and at DH, providing the Bruins with one of their own power threats.
Sophomore Marc Navarro gives the Bruins an excellent defensive outfielder whose bat is beginning to come around. Navarro hit a home run to give his team the win in the first Blue-Gold World Series game in the fall, but odds are that he will reprise his role of Mr. Everything off of the bench. Junior Chris Giovinazzo will earn plenty of starts though thanks to his extreme athleticism. Capable of playing all three outfield positions and even catching in a pinch, Giovinazzo will look to improve upon his .286 batting average last year to cement a role in the starting lineup after starting just 23 games last year (although he did appear in 45).
Three highly touted freshmen will also all push for playing time and are all so talented that Baseball America called them the best trio of incoming freshmen outfielders in the country, while Savage said he could envision them all in the outfield together at some point this year.
The centerfielder of the trio, Beau Amaral, is the son of former UCLA player and major leaguer Rich Amaral. Beau is the ideal leadoff hitter, combining great bat control and a high baseball IQ with the fastest legs on the team. Flanking him are Cody Keefer, a 33rd round pick of the Tigers and Jeff Gelalich, a 41st round pick of the Phillies. Keefer has the best bat of the trio right now and proved it when he went to the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League and played so well against college competition that the Tigers put the full-court press on to try to sign him. Gelalich is the best athlete of the trio with a lean frame that is both strong and quick. All three are lefthanded hitters and will be heavily depended this season so their adjustment to the college game is imperative to UCLA's success.
Without a bonafide DH, the role will be filled by a variety of players throughout the year. One of the outfielders who doesn't get on the field will take the DH spot more often than not, but either Rahmatulla or Dunlap could get that spot too. With a distinct lack of power, the Bruins will look to bunt often and the team cannot have a replay of last year when things like groundballs to the right side to move a runner over were rare. With an excellent pitching staff, the offense will not be heavily depended on, but they must be adequate and with so much inexperience and question marks, adequacy is still no sure thing.