It's the first year of the 11-team Pac-12.
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 looked at the position players. Part 4 previews the Pac-12 and Part 5 will be a look at the country and where UCLA fits in the national scene.
The 2010 season was one of the best the Pac-10 has ever had. Eight teams qualified for a Regional and two went on to the College World Series, where UCLA also qualified for the Championship Series. It was among the best seasons any conference has ever had in the modern era and with most of the teams in the Pac-10 returning most of their players in 2011, some thought the conference could be even better than in their record breaking 2010 campaign. It wasn't.
The Pac-10 was very good in 2011, but UCLA, Oregon and Washington St., all teams that entered the season with high expectations, got off to bad starts and never got into the national elite discussion that some had predicted for them. Arizona St. and Oregon St. were on the opposite end of the spectrum, stumbling late after incredibly fast starts, while Stanford and Arizona were good, but showed their youth. That left Cal to take center stage with an improbable and incredible run to the College World Series just months after being told that the program would be folded after the season, then seeing the program saved.
All in all, sending 60% of the conference's teams to the postseason, four to the Super Regionals and one to Omaha isn't a bad season at all. It's a year that a lot of conferences, power conferences included, would be very happy with, but coming off of 2010, it was a disappointment. Now as the conference looks to 2012, they have one new member and a couple teams in rebuilding mode, but also a couple teams that nobody would be surprised to see win the national title and a few more with realistic dreams of Omaha if a few things go there way. Yeah, it's just another season in the Pac-12.
There's no doubt that Stanford enters 2012 as the favorite to win the conference title. A few years of bringing in some of the best recruiting classes in the country has left them stocked with talent, led by Friday night starter Mark Appel. The junior finished last year with a 3.02 ERA and has every tool you would want from a big, strong right-hander. With him leading a rotation and being backed up by Dean McCardie, the Cardinal have the ammunition on the mound. Now if Brett Mooneyham can get healthy after missing last season due to injury, look out because this could be the best staff in the country.
The Cardinal don't rely on their starting staff though. Stephen Piscotty, Kenny Diekroeger, Austin Wilson, Tyler Gaffney and Brian Ragira give Stanford five hitters that will scare pretty much any opposing pitcher and they're led by the legendary Mark Marquess. If Stanford can fill the hole in the bullpen left by Chris Reed, this could be the best team in the nation. They were derailed last season by inexperience and a murderous road schedule early on, but after last year's trip to the Super Regionals the experience is no problem and instead of visiting Vanderbilt, Texas and Rice like last season, those three teams are going to Palo Alto. Look out, Commodores, Longhorns, Owls and the Pac-12. The Cardinal are coming.
As good as Stanford may be, they won't cruise to a conference title. That's because Arizona will be on their heels all season and like the Cardinal, the Wildcats have an ace to lean on. Kurt Heyer notched a .241 ERA last year, opponents hit just .235 against him and only Trevor Bauer struck out more batters in the Pac-12. Now Heyer has another year under his belt and will be leading a stacked junior class that has been competitive in their Regional the last two years, but it aiming higher this season. Now that they're moving into a new ballpark, Arizona expects to be hosting a Regional and to get to the Super Regionals with a shot at Omaha.
Getting to Omaha will depend on what the Wildcats from some of their lesser-known players. Heyer will star on Friday nights, Joey Rickard could very well win Pac-12 Player of the Year and Alex Mejia and Seth Mejias-Breen will be all-conference players, but what about the rest? With five of their top seven hitters back, the offense won't be short on experience to support the stars. Add that to uber-talented freshmen like Matthew Troupe, who should pitch on Sundays and catcher David Schuknecht to the mix and you have yourself a legitimate College World Series contender.
Unlike Arizona, Cal doesn't really have to prove that they are a College World Series contender. After all, they were in Omaha last year. Exactly how they managed that remains a mystery and while there may be almost 90 seasons left, Dave Esquer might get Coach of the Century for the job he did last year. Before the season they found out that the school was dropping the sport, then in the middle of the season they find out they're going to get to keep their program. They got sent to national power Rice for the Regionals and lost their opener, but won four straight, including the finale with four runs in the ninth to book a spot in the Super Regionals. They even got to host the Supers, only their stadium lacks lights, the requisite seating and pretty much everything you need to host a postseason game so they had to host at Santa Clara, not that it stopped them. It took just two games to book their spot in the College World Series. In a word, wow.
Now some people want them to do it again and while they can't match last year's drama, they have the talent to make another run. A lot of that is due to how fortunate they were on signing deadline day. Kevin Miller, Chadd Krist and Matt Flemer all spurned the pros despite being top 20 round picks and join last year's Pac-12 Player of the Year to make the Bears a real threat. If Andrew Knapp and Devon Rodriguez can turn into real threats in the middle of the order this year, the Bears will really be able to put up runs. The question then becomes whether they can keep runs off the board. Miller and Flemer are big gets for the rotation, but Cal's season could come down to whether Justin Jones comes back healthy and can be a real ace. If he can, the Bears will have the pitching to go with the offense and Omaha is a realistic target yet again.
The days of Oregon St. winning bac-to-back national titles feels like a long time ago, but Pat Casey still has a very strong program up in Corvallis. They were Regional hosts last year and were on pace for much more for most of the season. They spent the bulk of it in the top five and many began penciling them into a national seed spot, but then they won just three of their last 10 and that was gone. This season their schedule is lighter and the talent is back, giving them the chance of finishing up the season the way they couldn't last year and getting back to Omaha for the first time since 2007.
Matt Boyd is back to lead the Beavers' rotation and Ben Wetzler will back him up, giving Oregon St. not just two good pitchers at the front of their rotation, but two left-handers. The infield will be one of the conference's best too, with Jake Rodriguez, Danny Hayes and Ryan Dunn all back. Not only can that trio hit the ball, but they can pick it too and as always seems to be the case with Oregon St., you can expect great defense all the way around the field. The real key for the Beavers in going from good to great this season could be in their freshmen though. They lucked out in getting a handful of draftees to go to school and if guys like Jace Fry and Cole Brocker can solidify the pitching, while Michael Conforto and Nate Esposito strengthen the lineup, Casey this Oregon St. team could do what last year's squad couldn't.
There's a big group of teams in the Pac-12 outside of the top two that could make it to the College World Series if things break their way. Cal, UCLA and Oregon are three of them, but there's one more, only what they need isn't some guys to pan out. Arizona St. is going to need a break that isn't coming from the NCAA to make it to Omaha because they are banned from postseason play this year. The infractions and penalties from the Pat Murphy days are still hanging over their heads, making the biggest question for the Sun Devils this season whether or not they can stay motivated with nothing to play for at the end of the year.
Arizona St. came awfully close to the Pac-10 title and a spot in the College World Series last year and the pitching staff is mostly back from that team. Brady Rodgers, Jake Barrett can anchor the rotation and the Sun Devils might have the best bullpen in the conference with Trevor Williams, Alex Blackford and Mark Lambson out there, but what about the offense? Wondering about offense is unheard of in Tempe, but seven mainstays are gone, including Riccio Torrez, Johnny Ruetigger, Austin Barnes and Zack MacPhee. The offense and defense is in rebuilding mode, meaning Devin Marrero and Joey DiMichele are going to have to do one heck of a job carrying the Sun Devils along until they figure out what else they have at the dish.
On the flip side, Oregon knows what they have and that's not much. That's different from last year when they were supposed to be stacked and ready to make George Horton look like the best coach in the country. He was already in the conversation, but if he turned a third-year program into a College World Series contender, well, the debate would have been over. Instead, the Ducks went from preseason top 10 team to eighth place in the conference and never really a factor. Disappointment, thy name is Oregon.
The problem for the Ducks is that they lost a lot of talent from that 2011 team, no matter how disappointing they were. The pitching staff is now left very thin, with Alex Keudell and Christian Jones more than capable of leading the way on the mound, but not much behind them and the offense isn't much different. Ryon Healy gives the Ducks a power source in the middle of the lineup, but that is about it. Horton did reel in a top 10 recruiting class so there's plenty of new talent coming in, but they will probably end up asking far too much of that talent than is reasonable with all the holes they have to fill.
There aren't many stranger programs in the country than USC. They axed Chad Kreuter late last offseason, hired Frank Cruz on an interim basis and then without a great 2011 season or an in-depth search for another coach, hired Cruz full-time. To Cruz's credit, the Trojans did show definitely improvement in 2011 and then they brought in a stellar recruiting class for this season. Strange as they may be, the Trojans may be kind of going down the right path, eventually.
That eventually will not be this season, but there is something for Cruz to work with. Andrew Triggs passed on the pros to lead the Trojans on Friday nights again and getting Dan Hubbs to leave Cal to the the SC pitching coach is a big get. That will be huge for Stephen Tarpley, who could be one of the best freshman pitchers in the country. The real question is what they do with the offense now that Ricky Oropesa is gone. Alex Sherrod will have to add a little more pop to his smooth swing, but what it might come down to is what they can get out of their freshman class and when that's the case, you're in some trouble.
Washington St. wasn't quite as disappointing as Oregon last year, but they were definitely the next most disappointing team in the conference. 2011 was supposed to be the breakthrough season for Donnie Marbut's program, but instead they whiffed on the postseason. Now they're back in the no expectations zone, which might be better for a program that has always done better with no expectations. The problem they have is that there isn't much to work with beyond Taylor Ard, Derek Jones and Jason Monda. Those three can all rake, but that's all they have and their entire weekend rotation from last year has moved on. Even being out of the spotlight won't be able to do the trick for the Cougars this year.
Also in the no expectations zone is Utah, who are going to find out quickly that the Pac-12 is just a little better than the Mountain West. Making matters worse is the departure of C.J. Cron, who might have been the best hitter in the country the last couple years. Toss in the loss of Friday night starter Rick Anton and you have some rebuilding to do. Luckily for the Utes, they have momentum. They finished the 2011 season 15-6 and have James Brooks, Trey Nielsen and Shaun Cooper to lead what can be a good offense that takes advantage of the thin air in Salt Lake City. The question is what they do for depth in the lineup, depth on the mound and a step up in competition.
It's not exactly clear what is going on at Washington, but it looks like they're going to back in the conference basement again. Joe Meggs and Jacob Lamb are the only hitters of note back this season and their pitching staff was horrendous a year ago, racking up a 4.93 ERA. The Huskies are in the middle of a major renovation to their facilities, but they need some players and wins to go along with it. This season doesn't look to be the year they'll get them.