Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Once again, UCLA will go as far as their offense takes them.
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 is about 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.
Once again, UCLA enters a baseball season with questions about their offense. It seems to be an annual question in Westwood, as much because of their dominance on the mound as their struggles at the plate, but this season the worries about the Bruins' offense are legitimate.
For three years, Jeff Galalich, Beau Amaral and Cody Keefer patrolled the UCLA outfield and populated the top and middle of the Bruins' lineup. Then last season, Trevor Brown led the Bruins in RBI, while Tyler Heineman emerged as an on-base machine and sturdy catcher. The quintet of juniors were the heart of the UCLA offense, but now all five are gone, leaving a gaping hole in the Bruins' offense and defense.
Despite losing so much of their offensive production from last season, the Bruins are not without experience. The Bruins' entire starting infield played at least 30 games a year ago and are a talented, bunch, surrounded by more, if less tested talent.
The question for UCLA will be whether or not their position players can step into new roles, with new pressure, and perform. That isn't limited to their play at the plate either. There are major holes they need to fill defensively and the best way to sabotage an outstanding pitching staff is with shoddy defense.
Those questions apply to Shane Zeile more than any other Bruin. A utility infielder a year ago, and an adept one at that, Zeile is moving behind the plate to replace Heineman this season. He obviously has the bloodlines to catch -- his uncle was former MLB catcher Todd Zeile -- but doing so at the college level will be new to him and John Savage asks more of his catchers than most, so the already difficult and important position comes with even more responsibility for Zeile. To top it all off, he had a labrum injury in the fall, which shouldn't be a problem this season now that it has healed, but it took away so valuable reps during fall practice.
Zeile will also be in the spotlight offensively, where he can be the Bruins' difference maker. He hit .371 as a freshman in 2012 to go along with a .480 on-base percentage, and he has some untapped power to be a major run producer. If he can add power to his sterling freshman season at the plate, Zeile can be the linchpin to the UCLA offense as well as a key cog defensively.
The biggest question for UCLA might be at first base, though, where once freshman wonder and now senior Cody Regis will try to rebound after a rough 2012 season. Regis hit just .239 with only one home run and 25 RBI last year, a far cry from his freshman season when he hit .312 with nine home runs and 47 RBI, albeit with the old bats. Regis is clearly capable of leading an offense and can be the feared bat in the middle of the UCLA offense, something the Bruins will need from their senior leader. Whether he does might determine how good this UCLA team does.
Junior Kevin Williams will man second base, where he was all of last year after splitting time his freshman season. The left-handed hitter has more pop than his two home runs and six doubles from last year would indicate, so if he can show that, to go along with his .302 average, the Bruins will have a bonafide threat near the top of the order to go along with an already excellent fielding second baseman.
Teaming with Williams up the middle will be fellow junior Pat Valaika, a two-year starter and captain of the Bruins' infield. Valaika doesn't have incredible range at shortstop, but he has quick feet around the bag, a strong arm and is very, very dependable. Valaika also has a little power, tallying 11 doubles and four triples last season, as well as a home run. The key for him will be getting on base more often because he should be better than .266 with a .319 on-base percentage.
At the hot corner is arguably UCLA's best athlete. A high school middle infielder who probably would be playing there on most other college teams, Kevin Kramer settled into third base last year as a freshman and some footwork problems aside, showed how good he can be there. He also hit .281, a deceptive number considering how many hard hit balls found fielders last season, and particularly impressive considering how poorly he started the season. If he can continue taking the steps he took as last season wore on, Kramer has the potential to be an outstanding player, both in the field and at the plate.
With Zeile, Regis, Williams, Valaika and Kramer, the Bruins know they are going to get solid play at worst, and spectacular play at best. On a team that is overturning its offense, the five give UCLA some security, but the outside is a whole other story, where the Bruins have to find players not named Gelalich, Amaral and Keefer for the first time since 2009.
Eric Filia (known as Filia-Snyder last year) is expected to get the nod in right field after a somewhat disappointing freshman season in which he hit .245 with minimal power. It was a tough season for Filia, who battled injuries, but he is a good athlete with a sweet swing. To no surprise, he has drawn the praise from scouts left and right, many of whom believe he can be a middle of the order guy for the Bruins, especially after he hit .383 in the Northwoods League this summer. If any player on the UCLA team is going to take a gigantic step forward in 2013, Filia is the best bet.
Zeile aside, maybe nobody will be as integral to the Bruins' defensive success as Brian Carroll, who will start for the Bruins in center. Speedy and athletic, Carroll is taking over for Amaral, who covered a ton of ground and shined defensively. With a fly ball pitching staff, UCLA will need Carroll to do the same, chasing down balls in the gaps game after game. Whatever the Bruins get from Carroll offensively is just a plus and while he doesn't have a great bat, he does a good job working counts, finding ways on base and moving runners along, which plays well with his speed.
The left field spot is still up in the air, but it appears as if Ty Moore will get the first look out there. Last year's Gatorade State Player of the Year, Moore is an excellent athlete who uses all fields better than most freshman and showed off his talent in the West Coast League this summer, where he hit .309 with 36 runs scored. Clearly, adjusting to the college game was not a problem for Moore, and while he will have another adjustment from the West Coast League, Moore is one of the most ready freshmen the Bruins have had in a while.
Brenton Allen should push Moore for that spot in left field, though. A big, strong player, Allen has the huge power potential that the Bruins would love to have, but has struggled at times to shorten his swing, recognize pitches and keep his strikeout numbers down. If he can put it together, he can have a monster season.
A player who really stepped up in the fall and could provide UCLA with some much-needed power is Chris Keck. A left-hander with a smooth swing, Keck profiles more of a doubles hitter, but he does have the muscle to hit the ball out upon occasion. He played sparingly last season, making just 10 starts at DH, but he should get the bulk of the starts at the position this year after opening eyes with a great fall.
The talent in the UCLA lineup is unquestionable, but Regis is the only player in the lineup who has ever been in the role, with the amount of pressure, that he is in this season. It's a new series of challenges for the Bruins individually, but not so as a group. After all, "can UCLA hit enough?" is the common question this time of year.
All eyes are going to be on the Bruins' positions players. With a stacked pitching staff, UCLA will go as far as their offense goes. Again.