Beau Amaral and the rest of the Bruin juniors will have to step up in 2012 and turn around the UCLA offense (Photo Credit: Official Site)
Another season, another five-part preview as we look ahead to the 2012 UCLA baseball season, which will get underway on February 17th when the Bruins take on Maryland at Jackie Robinson Stadium. As we look to the season, we started with Part 1, a general 2011 review and 2012 preview with a look at the state of the program. Part 2 took a look at the pitchers and Part 3 looks at the position players. Part 4 will preview the Pac-12 and Part 5 will be a look at the country and where UCLA fits in the national scene.
A .263 batting average? 245th in the nation. 17 home runs? Tied for 231st in the nation. Just 4.6 runs per game? 249th in the nation. That was the 2011 UCLA offense. Words like ineffective, terrible and even putrid were thrown around to describe the offense and it is tough to argue those descriptions. The numbers prove it.
As the Bruins look to 2012, they know they need to improve with the bats. Whereas last year they got away with a sub-par offense because the starting pitching duo of Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole covered for it every Friday and Saturday, that won't be the case this year. Adam Plutko and the rest of the starting staff will be more than enough to put the Bruins in position to win, the offense needs to take advantage of those chances. The new bats aren't so new anymore and there is plenty of experience in the lineup. The runs have to come.
The one thing that UCLA will definitely get out of their position players is an exceptional defense. No Pac-12 team topped their .976 fielding percentage last year and the Bruins don't just excel in catching the ball. They can chase it down too. The three Bruin outfielders could all play centerfield and there is more than enough range up the middle of the infield. UCLA has the gloves, but can they get the bats to follow?
Behind the plate is the only major hole that the Bruins have to fill in their lineup from a year ago. The ever-dependable Steve Rodriguez is gone and while he wasn't putting a scare into any opposing pitchers, he was exceptional behind the plate and excelled in moving runners over. With him gone, Tyler Heineman and Trevor Brown will have to step forward and it will have to be both of them because head coach John Savage depends on two catchers. Both are capable defensive catchers and have the necessary experience after getting time the last two years so the pitchers are in safe hands with them behind the plate, but neither Heineman nor Brown would be considered particularly potent hitters.
Last season, Heineman hit just .261 and Brown hit .217. Neither hit a home run and they combined for just five doubles. Defense and handling the pitchers are the most important jobs for a catcher, but that can't of offense won't cut it.. On the plus side, Heineman did have a .404 on-base percentage, but the offense will have to pick up from both of them and Brown could be the one to provide it. He's athletic enough that he played first, second and third base in addition to catcher and if he can transfer that athleticism to the plate, he can give the Bruins the punch they need at the plate.
When Brown isn't behind the plate, he's going to get a look at first base, but he's not the only option there. Pat Gallagher has shortened up his swing some and gives the Bruins a real power punch a year after getting just 12 at-bats as a freshman. He may not have much experience, but on a team seriously lacking in power, Gallagher is a guy who can really drive the ball and be a home run threat every time he steps to the plate. Matt Giovinazzo will also get a look after a freshman season in which he saw even less action that Gallagher.
There isn't a ton of experience at second base either, but there is plenty of talent. Kevin Williams gives the Bruins a left-handed bat as a sophomore who hit .210 last year in 28 games, but had a couple big games and showed his potential. He's going to be pushed by freshman Kevin Kramer though, a 25th round pick of the Indians in June's MLB Draft. Kramer also played football in high school and is an exceptional athlete with a good bat that can pound out doubles. As far as freshmen go, Kramer is about as advanced as they come, giving him a chance to play extensively this year.
While the right side of the infield may be short on experience, that isn't the case on the left side. At the hot corner is Cody Regis, a junior who has been a mainstay in the Bruin lineup since he stepped on campus. He led the Bruins in home runs last season, but that was with just six. He's expected to lead the Bruins in that category again this season, but if the Bruins are to get the kind of run production they want, he'll have to hit more out. He'll also have to boost his .284 batting average, which is good, but he's the top hitter in the UCLA offense. It will have to be better.
At shortstop is Pat Valaika, who played in 53 games as a freshman in 2011. He got off to a rough start to the season, struggling mightily defensively in the first weekend of the season and not exactly lighting it up offensively, but he picked it up as the season went on. He showed off just how good he was defensively when he finished the year with just 10 errors after his rough start and while he hit just .238 for the year, he picked up 10 doubles and is expected to take a major jump in his sophomore year.
If the Bruins are going to pick up the offense, it's going to be because of the outfield. There are three juniors starting out there, all of whom have played for two years and all of whom have more than enough talent to rake. The question is whether or not they can do it consistently, which they failed to do a year ago.
All eyes are going to be on Beau Amaral, who didn't show the kind of progression from his freshman to sophomore year that many wanted to see. He hit a solid .299 and led the team in doubles so it wasn't a bad year by any means, but he struck out 50 teams and put himself in a hole far too often swinging through pitches. This is the year that he has to take a step forward in pitch selection and cutting down in his swing and misses. If he can, there's no reason that he cant be among the best centerfielders in the country.
In left field is one of the sweeter swings in the country. Cody Keefer is smooth and quick through the zone with an exceptional eye, but the Bruins are hoping he can add a bit more pop to his game. He was second on the team with a .303 batting average last year and has a .309 career average so the hits will come. That's a given, but whether he can up his one home run and 18 RBI will be the real test for Keefer. If he drives in just 18 again this year, the Bruins have no chance.
As good as Amaral and Keefer are, the best athlete in the Bruins' outfield and maybe on the entire team is Jeff Gelalich in right field. After starting his freshman season on the bench and forcing himself into the lineup as the year went on to help the Bruins to the College World Series, Gelalich regressed as a sophomore. He hit just .268 with two home runs and 13 RBI. Like Amaral and Keefer, Gelalich can be among the best in the nation at his position. It starts with what he does with the bat, where he can hit around .300 with some pop and be a real threat on the bases. If he can do that, the Bruins offense can really get rolling.
The Bruin outfielders of note isn't limited to their three starters either. They're very deep in the outfield, with a couple sophomores and a freshman looking to find some at-bats, either spelling the starters or in the DH role. Brenton Allen picked up three singles in his 10 at-bats as a freshman last season, but he also looked a little overmatched at times. If he can shorten up his swing, he can become a real threat at the plate and also give the Bruins another power threat. Brian Carroll gives the Bruins another exceptional defensive player in the outfield and Eric Filia-Snyder is a freshman to really keep an eye on. He has power, great bat speed and showed in the West Coast Collegiate League over the summer that he can make the adjustment to this level of play.
Toss in some of the other guys like Chris Keck and Shane Zeile, both of whom could get some time around the infield, and the Bruins have plenty of guys. The question is which ones are going to step up. The juniors Amaral, Keefer, Gelalich, Regis, Heineman and Brown need to lead the way and they can't just have solid seasons. A few of them need to have big seasons and they're going to need some help from Valaika, Williams, Kramer and another freshman or two to step up.
This UCLA offense has a lot of talent, but it doesn't have any superstars. If they are going to be successful, they are going to follow the blueprint set out by the 2010 UCLA offense, which excelled in moving runners over, running the bases well and more than anything, being tough outs in all nine spots in the lineup. Do that and they won't leave 8.4 runners on per game like they did last year or have 34 gams with four runs or less. Do that and they might have a shot at returning to Omaha.