2013 UCLA Baseball Preview Part 4: The Pac-12

Bruce Thorson-US PRESSWIRE

Arizona won the national title in 2012, but are going to face a tough sled back to Omaha in a conference that has as many as four top 15 teams.

As the baseball season creeps up on us, it is time for another five-part season preview, which will take us all the way up to February 15th when the Bruins take on Minnesota at Jackie Robinson Stadium. To get ready, we started with a general 2012 review and 2013 preview in Part 1. Part 2 took a look at the pitchers and Part 3 was about 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 Pac-12 has been regarded as one of the best two conferences in the country for years, but most agreed that the SEC had the edge on their western brethren. That may be changing, though.

The national championship returned to the Pac-12 last season, with Arizona taking home the crown, but they weren't the conference's only team in Omaha there. UCLA also returned to the College World Series, while national seed Oregon just missed out on a trip to Omaha in a heartbreaking Super Regional loss, a round Stanford also reached. Those four headlined a Pac-12 that sent five teams to the postseason, a modest number, but the conference was strong at the top and has a national title to show for it.

In 2013, the Pac-12 won't have to be either strong at the top or deep, though. They are going to be both, and maybe the best conference in the country too.

As a whole, the Pac-12 benefitted from several top players deciding to return to school. That's especially true on the mound, where no conference will be able to match the Pac-12's pitching depth. Friday nights are going to be battles, with a slew of teams able to trot out legitimate aces, putting the onus on offenses to string together hits against pitchers that don't surrender many of them.

Oregon St. fits the Pac-12's pitching heavy label with a very good, deep and experienced staff in 2013. All four of the Beavers' starters are upperclassmen, led by Ben Wetzler, who went 8-2 with a 3.10 ERA last year. When you can follow someone like that up with Dan Child, who was 6-4 with a 2.95 ERA and Matt Boyd, who has anchored the Beavers' bullpen for three years, and you have quite the staff. That they have a six-year senior in Taylor Star in midweek action is just a bonus. Toss in Tony Bryant, arguably the conference's best reliever, in a bullpen that is five-deep and Pat Casey has to be giddy looking at his pitchers. And to think, this is all without last year's best freshman, Jace Fry, who will miss the season after Tommy John surgery.

Great pitching is the norm in Corvallis, where Casey has built a two-time national champion program on the back of his hurlers and defense, but this season they have more offense than usual. Micheal Conforto is the preseason favorite to win Pac-12 Player of the Year after hitting .349 with 13 homers and 76 RBI a year ago, but he's hardly alone. The Beavers return nine players who started at least 24 games last season and it is a good mix of power guys and guys who grind out at bats. With the balance, and especially experience of this Beavers lineup, there's reason to believe Oregon St. might finally have the bats to match their pitching and have them back in the national title hunt this season.

As good as the Beavers are, they won't be all alone atop the Pac-12. UCLA will challenge them and so will Stanford. The Cardinal got a gigantic boost when Mark Appel decided to return to Palo Alto for his senior season despite being drafted eighth overall by the Pirates, giving Stanford the best pitcher in the conference, if not the country. The question is what Mark Marquess can get from the rest of his staff, which doesn't have much proven talent and took a hit when A.J. Vanegas was ruled out for the first six weeks of the season with an injury. The Cardinal still have enough pitching to get by with Appel, Vanegas eventually and a few other decent arms, but they could really use a big season out of talented and highly-regarded freshman Freddy Avis.

The reason Stanford can deal with decent, not exceptional pitching, is because of their offense. Austin Wilson, Danny Diekroeger, Brian Ragira and Alex Blandino give the Cardinal a fearsome lineup with huge power potential that could match anyone in the country if Wilson, Blandino and Ragira can max out their very impressive raw strength. Dominic Jose came on strong late in the season and could be a great gap guy for the Cardinal, too, but the strength in the Stanford lineup comes from their depth from top to bottom.

The biggest concern for Stanford is whether they can bounce back from last year's disappointing campaign. Not only were they the most talented team in the Pac-12, but they could match just about anyone in the country, yet they didn't win the conference or advance to Omaha. Worst of all was the beating they took in the Super Regionals, where they were outscored 35-8 by Florida St. in two games in a beat down of epic proportions. That's a mental hurdle that Stanford are going to have to get over.

While Stanford was emphatically booted from the postseason last year, Oregon went out in heartbreaking fashion. They fell 3-2 in the third game of their Super Regional, just barely missing out on the first College World Series. But the Ducks are going to come right back and give it another run this season with another great pitching staff. Jake Reed went 8-4 with a 2.92 ERA and will slide into the Friday night role, while Christian Jones is back from Tommy John surgery and should be better than his excellent 2011 freshman self. The Ducks' real strength on the mound lies in their bullpen, though, where Jimmy Sherfy, Cole Wipe, Sam Johnson, Tommy Thorpe and Clayton Crum give them enviable depth.

It would be easy to say that with the Ducks' pitching, they will go as far as their offense takes them, but their offense didn't take them anywhere last year as they still were on the brink of the College World Series. George Horton somehow manages to squeeze wins out of an offense-less team and while the Ducks should hit better than they did in 2012, they won't light up the scoreboard. Ryon Healy will be the key cog in the Oregon lineup again after hitting .312 with for homers a year ago, while Kyle Garlcik joins him for a decent pairing in the middle of the order. Besides that, it is a bunch of slap and run guys who all excel at moving runners over and manufacturing just enough runs to win.

With so many good teams in the conference, the defending national champions Arizona will have their work cut out for them. The number one task for Andy Lopez will be replacing Kurt Heyer, the Wildcats' excellent and amazingly durable ace. Arizona isn't just trying to replace an ace, but will also have to build a deeper and better bullpen than ever before because they can't depend on eight or nine innings from Heyer every Friday. Wade certainly has the ability to fill that role, as UCLA found out at the College World Series, where Wade built on his strong finish and used his filthy sinker to dominate batters. James Farris will also have to step up on Saturdays, while all eyes are going to be on Mathew Troupe and the Wildcats' bullpen because nine pitchers all year won't cut it in 2013 like it did a year ago.

The pitching staff isn't the only unit that took a hit after the College World Series either. Arizona lost five starters from last year's lineup, and very important ones at that who will not just be missed offensively, but defensively too. Jonny Field is back, who led the Pac-12 with a .370 batting average and along with Riley Moore and Joseph Maggi, the Wildcats have three experience, productive bats in their lineup. After that, though, they are going to need new guys like Jackson Willeford, Sam Parris and Ryan Koziol to adjust to Division I pitching quickly and provide some production from the start.

Arizona St. had to sit at home while Arizona was parading around the state with a national title, knowing there was nothing they could have done about it. On probation and ineligible for the postseason, the Sun Devils wouldn't have stopped the Wildcats anyways. They were a good, but not great team that won 36 games and will probably be a similar team this year. They have the pitching to get things done with Trevor Williams leading the staff. Williams is one of the best pitchers in the country, having gone 12-2 with a 2.05 ERA last year and he should be a first round pick in June. Whether their staff is good or great will probably depend on Adam McCreery, who has dominant, powerful stuff and a huge 6'8'' frame, but needs to stay healthy and keep freshmen Brett Lilek and Ryan Kellogg from having to take on too much, too soon.

Oddly, the Sun Devils are going to have questions at the plate this season. Joey DeMichele, Deven Marrero and Abe Ruiz are all gone, leaving a gaping hole in their lineup. They do have talent and experience in Kasey Coffman and Rouric Bridgewater, among others, but all of them will have to take giant steps forward. Arizona St. always has an explosive offense so it's a decent bet that they pick up the pieces and make it work with the bats, but there are major question marks.

Up in Berkeley, Cal will be hoping to look a little more like the 2011 Golden Bears and less like the 2012 edition. While a shock run to Omaha like 2011 is probably out of the question, Cal has a real shot at getting back to the postseason this year. Justin Jones has experience after starting for the last two years and filthy stuff, but the question is whether he can command it. He was just 4-9 with a 4.57 ERA last year, but the reports out of Berkeley are that he's finally starting to tighten up, while Michael Theofanopoulos gives the Bears another experienced weekend arm. But how good their staff is will probably depend on Kyle Porter, who was great as a freshman before running into injury problems last year, and freshman Ryan Mason, who had a great fall.

Offensively, this team is all about Andrew Knapp. Finally able to start at catcher every game, Knapp had a monster summer that gives the Bears good reason to believe he'll build on last year's .265, five home run season. Devon Rodriguez will carry his fair share of the offensive load too after hitting .280 with five homers of his own, but he has more power he'll have to tap into this season. Five starters are gone from last year so the Bears have a lot of rebuilding to do offensively, but if Knapp and Rodriguez produce, they may buy Cal's youngsters some time to get up to speed.

Maybe no team has improved as much as Washington in recent years, where UCLA alum Lindsay Meggs is turning around the Husies' downtrodden program. Armed with a major facility overhaul, that began with a $4 million baseball building last year and will see a new 3,200 seat grandstand go in for next season, Meggs has upped the level of talent in Seattle and to no surprise, the wins have followed. After winning just 17 games in 2011, his first season at the helm, Washington went 30-25 last year and were in the hunt for a Regional berth late in the season. This could be the year they finally return to the postseason.

Washington pitched well last year and should be good again with Austin Voth and Nick Palewicz leading the rotation. Voth had a great summer in the Cape Cod League and could take a major step forward, giving the Huskies the ace they lack. If he does, the Huskies will be sitting pretty because Joshua Fredendall and Tyler Kane already giving Washington one of the best one-two bullpen punches in the conference.

The difference for UW this year should be their ability to hit. They were impotent at the plate a year ago, but they have four seniors this year, giving them experience, while Trevor Mitsui is a legitimate middle of the order threat after hitting .308 a year ago. Jayce Ray can also swing the bat, having hit .311 last season and the Huskies have highly touted freshmen Austin Rei and Braden Bishop coming in, giving them the chance to have an offense that matches their pitching and return to the postseason.

Washington St. would also like to return to the Regionals after going .500 in each of the last two years and with their six top pitchers all returning, they just might. Joe Pistorese went an unimpressive 4-3 last year, but had a 2.44 ERA and can be the Cougars' ace, capable of pitching wi th the best in the conference, if he can pitch deeper into games. Scott Simong and Tanner Chleborad are both solid pitchers who should pitch deep into games, which should preserve a bullpen that is very good at the top with Kellen Camus and J.D. Leckenby, but lacks depth.

Offensively, the Cougars will lean on Jason Monda and Adam Nelubowich. Both will have to do better after Monda hit just .275 last year and Nelubowich batted .254 with four home runs, but they have plenty of tools and put in good summers in the Cape Cod League. If they can tap into their considerable talent, the Cougars' complimentary pieces like Trace Tam Sing and their highly regarded freshmen like Yale Rosen might combine to give Wazzu a solid offense.

Like the Cougars, USC has some pitchers returning that they can lean upon, but unfortunately for them, they don't have six of them. Wyatt Strahan went 3-3- with a .137 ERA last year and Nigel Nootbaar registered a 3.31 ERA, giving the Trojans two talented arms who should lead the rotation just fine as they move out of the bullpen. Bobby Wheatley can even do a decent job on Sundays too, but after that, there isn't much to speak off. Kyle Twomey is a talented freshmen, but that is about all USC has on the mound.

The Trojans have little more at the plate than they do on the mound, too. Adam Landecker hit .329 and should be an All-Pac-12 candidate, while James Roberts should improve on his .290 average from a year ago, but that's about it for the Trojans' returning hitters. Greg Zebrack comes over as a transfer from Penn who could help out and Timmy Robinson leads a decent freshman class, but USC is still short on talent.

To make matters worse for USC, head coach Frank Cruz was suspended indefinitely while the school investigates possible NCAA violations. So the Trojans don't have pitching depth, don't have much offensively and don't have a head coach. Suddenly, USC's seven-year Regional drought isn't their biggest problem.

Utah rounds out the Pac-12, a conference that beat them up badly in their first season last year. A solid Mountain West team, the Utes went 7-23 in their first Pac-12 season, but they can take some comfort in knowing that nearly every pitcher is back from that team. With Brock Duke, Chase Rezac and Joe Pond making up an all-senior, right-handed weekend rotation, the Utes won't be short on experience and they should be able to at least pitch deep into games. Josh Chapman and Nick Green also give them a pair of dependable relievers so things dont look too bad on the mound,

The Utes are a disaster at the plate, though. They lost their top three hitters from last year's weak offensive team, leaving Ethan Leiter, who hit .237, as the top returning hitter. The good news is that Tyer Yagi is back after his Mormon mission, but even if he hits at the clip that won him 2009 Mountain West Tournament MVP, he won't be able to save this offense.

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