Tyler Rahmatulla hit the massive two-run home run against Fullerton in last year's Super Regionals. This year he'll be back in the heart of what will have to be an even better offense (Photo Credit: Official Site)
Another season, another five-part preview as we look ahead to the 2011 UCLA baseball season, which will get underway on February 18th when the Bruins take on San Francisco at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Prior to last season I wrote up College Baseball 101 for those of you who want the basics of the game, specifically the things that differ from the pro game. As we look to 2011, we started with Part 1, a general 2010 review and 2011 preview with a look at the schedule and key notes. Part 2 took a look at the pitchers and this is Part 3, the position players. Part 4 will preview the Pac-10 and Part 5 will be a look at the country and where UCLA fits in the national scene.
Entering last season, UCLA had a huge question mark with their position players. Almost every top hitter from 2009 had graduated or gone on to pro ball and that was from a bad 2009 offense. In 2010, the Bruins has plenty of talent, but it was all young and inexperienced. Whether or not they could figure out how to put runs on the scoreboard was the big question and it wasn't as if a ton was being asked of the offense. With a tremendous pitching staff, all that the offense was being asked to do is be adequate, but they stepped forward and were more than that.
Just because the UCLA offense was more than adequate in 2010 doesn't mean they were very good though. After a hot start the Bruin offense cooled down and produced enough to get wins, but it wasn't near prolific. The new bat regulations in 2011 are going to make things tougher for all teams to generate power and get hits, but the emphasis that it will put on small ball and ability to move runners over and scratch out a run at a time will play into UCLA's hands. After a step forward from 2009 to 2010, the Bruins will need another step forward in 2011. With almost all of the offense returning, UCLA will need to get more production from the offense as it compensates for the losses in the Bruin bullpen.
One place that the Bruins aren't going to get a ton of offensive production from is behind the plate, but that's completely okay. Steve Rodriguez is the Bruins' starting catcher and he earned that spot for what he does behind the plate, not at it. Rodriguez committed only three errors last season and the Bruin pitchers go out of their way to praise the way he handles the staff. There is no way to quantify Rodriguez's impact except to say that the Bruins' pitching staffs' fantastic numbers were due in part to Rodriguez's work behind the plate. With the bat in his hands, Rodriguez hit four home runs in the first four games of last season, but then came back down to earth and finished with a .249 batting average. Rodriguez isn't much of a hitter, but he does what he can up there and struck out the fewest time of any UCLA regular starter and led the team in sacrifice hits. Tyler Heineman backs Rodriguez up and after barely seeing the field for most of the season, was used as a defensive replacement late and give the Bruins a receiver who can get the job done to give Rodriguez a break.
The Bruins have a few options at the corner infield spots. Dean Espy entered UCLA as a transfer last year as a third baseman, but Cody Regis' emergence as a freshman pushed him over to first some of the time. The two of them give the Bruins the closest thing they have to power, but both are more gap hitters than anything else. Espy and Regis tied for the team lead with nine home runs in 2010 and their .575 and .556 slugging percentages also topped the team.
Espy stepped into the big hitter role in the early going, but injuries derailed his second half of the season and postseason. While he did play, he was somewhat limited, but he's healthy for the start of 2011 and brings a .345 batting average to go with the power. Regis wasn't expected to step in and contribute so early, but he played well enough all of the fall and winter before last season that he forced the coaches to make room for him and all he did was hit .312. Later on in the season and especially in the postseason, Regis packed some pop and started to hit the ball out of the park to earn All-College World Series honors. Regis will find more gaps that he will home runs, but his job will be to drive runs in and doubles will do that just fine.
At second base the Bruins will be happy to have a healthy Tyler Rahmatulla. Anyone who followed the team's run to Omaha last year knows about Rahmatulla missing the College World Series thanks to an injury suffered in the dogpile after the Super Regional win. To make things tougher on the junior, Rahmatulla got hurt in the first fall practice and missed the rest of fall, but he's finally back and healthy with a couple months of work under his belt to prep for the 2011 season.
After a blazing start to the season, Rahmatulla cooled down later on, but bumped it back up in the Super Regionals with big production and arguably the biggest hit in UCLA baseball history. Trailing by a run with a man on base and two outs in the ninth inning of the Super Regionals, a single out away from elimination, Rahmatulla drilled a 3-1 pitch over the fence in left-center field to help the Bruins on to the College World Series. It was all part of a stellar season for Rahmatulla who showed a much improved glove to go with a much improved bat. Rahmatulla started 61 of 62 games through the Super Regionals and finished with a .959 fielding percentage. He hit .328 on the year, added 13 stolen bases, the second most doubles on the team, fourth most home runs and third most RBI. Healthy again, Rahmatulla will be in the heart of the UCLA lineup just like he was a year ago.
For the last five seasons, UCLA went into the season pretty sure of what they were going to get at shortstop or at the very least who would play there with Brandon Crawford and then Niko Gallego. That is not the case heading into 2011. This season, the Bruins have two options at shortstop in a freshman and little used junior. Pat Valaika is the freshman option who appears to have the leg up at this point after a strong fall in which he defended well and showed an improved bat as the season neared.
Adrian Williams has a grand total of 32 games played and two starts in his two years in Westwood. He has a great glove and makes some sensational plays, but has a tendency to boot around the routine play. He also swings through a lot of pitches, but is said to have shortened his stroke this offseason so even if Valaika is the current leader to take the shortstop job, Williams will get some chances to win the job early in the year.
In the outfield is where the Bruins have the biggest glut of players. Beau Amaral led the team in batting as a freshman last year with a .354 average and then took off in the postseason. The centerfielder led the team by hitting .396 in the postseason and .375 in the playoffs to earn All-Los Angeles Regional and All-College World Series honors. Amaral's defense improved as the season went on and was chasing balls down in both gaps by the end of the year, drawing praise from many by his defense. As the leadoff hitter coming off of a strong freshman season, a lot will be expected of Amaral and he has all the tools to live up to the expectations, but the one aspect of his game that needs to improve is his base running where he was caught napping a few times and was thrown out trying to steal 10 times in 19 attempts. If he can improve that, he can be one of the nation's top leadoff hitters.
A lot of attention was paid to Rahmatulla's injury that kept him out of the College World Series, but there was another key injury earlier in the season as Cody Keefer went down with a knee injury. The freshman had been a regular starter for the Bruins from day one and hit .318, but his real asset was in his vision at the plate. Keefer had an incredible ability to recognize pitches and walked 32 times in 148 at-bats to help him lead the team with a .450 on-base percentage. A walk off homer to beat USC put Keefer into the memory bank of all Bruin fans and now that he's healthy again, he'll get the chance to try to add to the clutch hits.
Over in right field, there are a couple guys who will get a chance. Chris Giovinazzo is back for his senior season after hitting .264 and stealing eight bags a year ago. Probably the best defensive outfielder the Bruins have, Giovinazzo will find himself playing in most games, even if he doesn't start them all. Jeff Gelalich slowly worked himself into the lineup as a freshman last year and hit .321 with a seven steals in as many attempts, while playing near flawless defense. Of the trio of sophomore outfielders, Gelalich entered UCLA as the rawest of them, but is probably the most athletic.
One thing that became common two years ago when coach Rick Vanderhook took control of the Bruin offense was the constant lineup changes. From game to game it was not unusual to see two or three lineup changes based on match-ups, riding the hot bat or just the chance to give guys a rest. This all plays into the program's emphasis on depth and competitiveness. It means that the Bruins will routinely make use of a core 14 positions players or so throughout the season.
Trevor Brown entered UCLA as a catcher, but is now also working at both corner infield spots. After catching Trevor Bauer in high school, Brown for the opportunity to catch Bauer often last season and got most of his reps on Saturdays, where he hit .300 as a freshman. He will DH upon occasion and his ability to play three positions is a definitely plus to getting him more at-bats. Richard Brehaut is listed as a catcher, but three years removed from his last game and with three guys who have experience ahead of him, he probably won't get many looks to catch. What he can do is swing the bat some and try to make himself an option off the bench.
Brenton Allen, Brian Carroll, Marc Navarro and Dennis Holt give the Bruins a few more outfield options and make it by far the most competitive position. Allen was taken in the ninth round by the Phillies and brings incredible athleticism to the team who has an incredibly high ceiling once he refines some things and gets some reps. Carroll is also a freshman, but is playing a bit of catch up after a football injury wiped out his senior season of baseball. Navarro has never quite gotten the bat going at UCLA, but the redshirt junior has found a way to contribute as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. Holt can also pitch so the coaches have have a hard time figuring out when t get him at-bats, but he give the Bruins a little left-handed pop off the bench.
UCLA has a few more options in the infield with a couple freshman and sophomores. Kevin Williams has done well in the fall and has done enough to get some time, but Rahmatulla has him blocked at second base. Williams can move around the infield and play a couple different spots though and having played in the West Coast League over the summer, he has some more experience to college pitching than most freshmen. Matt Mosher flashed a good stroke as a freshman last year, but didn't get many chances. As a big lefty with serious power, he should be an attractive pinch hitting option at the least. Pat Gallagher, Aaron Weimer and Matt Giovinazzo are all battling an uphill battle for playing time, but are there and knowing the way head coach John Savage uses his bench, they'll be asked to step in to fill some role at some point in some game.
The DH role will likely rotate from game to game as one of the many options gets a look based on the match-up of the day, which isn't a surprise for a team that doesn't have any dominant hitters. UCLA doesn't have a big bopper to save them or any spots in the lineup that are downright scary. What the Bruins did a year ago to generate runs in the same thing they will do this year. They are going to run the bases aggressively, hit behind runners, bunt them over if necessary and take advantage of the opportunities they get with men in scoring position. The problem they have to fix though is the strikeouts, an area where they really struggled a year ago.
What made UCLA tough on opposing pitchers a year ago was the lineup's depth. The easiest out in the lineup usually came from Rodriguez in the number nine slot and even he wouldn't strike out and would bunt guys over. There wasn't a real easy out to be had and the depth produced runs. That will have to be the case again, but everyone will need to step forward because while the offense did take a massive step forward last year, it needs to be better this year. Luckily for the Bruins, most of the offense is back and all indications are that they are in a good spot to take on a little more of the weight on the road to Omaha.