UCLA baseball endured its first losing season in conference play since 2003, and its first absence from the postseason since 2009. What holes need to be filled? And how will the holes be filled?
In college baseball, seniors who have used their four years of eligibility are the only sure thing in terms of who is leaving. Whether drafted or not, they will not be playing college ball in the coming season. Freshmen and sophomores will definitely be returning. This leaves a big question mark in terms of juniors and redshirt sophomores. For the most part, juniors and redshirt sophomores who are drafted in the early rounds leave. They have more leverage, because they have the ability to negotiate with the option of returning to school if the money isn't to their liking. They lose that leverage as seniors.
Major league baseball has instituted a "slot value" system, where each draft pick through number 315 has an assigned dollar value. Based on each team's available draft choices, they get a pool to spend. If the team can sign a draftee for less than the slot value, they can spend more on other draft choices. If the team pays more to sign a draftee than the slot value, they have less to spend on other draft choices. If a team goes over their pool limit, they pay a penalty. If they go way over (which hasn't happened to date), they lose future draft choices. This clearly is an attempt to counter runaway spending on draft choices on the part of the owners. It does take away some of the bargaining power for the pool as a whole, but juniors still have more bargaining clout than seniors.
But, again, this applies more to juniors who are drafted in early rounds. And juniors who sit out the season or have very limited playing time due to injuries are not drafted in early rounds. This will definitely work to UCLA's advantage, as we shall see. The most likely juniors to return despite being drafted early are players who feel that their team has unfinished business. The current UCLA juniors have already had two trips to Omaha and a national championship. It is already the most successful junior class in UCLA baseball history. This will not work to UCLA's advantage, as we shall see.
The other uncertainty from the draft relates to the incoming freshman class, which we will cover in part 2 of our 2015 preview tomorrow.
Let's start our look at 2015 with the players who will definitely be gone and will therefore need to be replaced. Kevin Williams was the DH as a junior in Omaha in the championship game. He fell to the 29th round of the 2013 draft, due to his injuries, and chose to return for his senior season. Let's hope that he does well in the 2014 draft, although his status will still be clouded due to injuries. He started 29 of the 56 games in 2014, and batted .257.
Pat Gallagher was the starting 1st baseman in Omaha as a junior in the championship game. He started 46 of the 56 games in 2014. He got into a slump early, and was not able to break through, batting .173 this season.
Brian Carroll was the starting center fielder for every game of the 2013 championship season. He started 42 games this season, as a collision on a flyball in Arizona led to some downtime. Carroll batted .252 in 2014.
This means that UCLA needs a new DH, 1B, and CF in 2015, just to replace departing seniors. Their stats were down, but the intangibles of having been on the field when the championship was won will not be easy to replace.
We now turn to the more iffy category- eligible juniors. Again, juniors who are drafted in the earlier rounds will probably turn pro, unless they want to take care of unfinished business. Juniors who are drafted in later rounds may stay, particularly if their draft status has taken a hit due to injuries, and they believe that they can move back to a better round with a successful, injury-free senior season.
Baseball America has published their 2014 draft database (here is the link). They cover the top 500 predicted selections. This takes us into round 16. The slot value for pick 315 (end of round 10) is $137,600. This does not mean that this selection can only receive a bonus of $137,600. The actual amount will depend on the amount spent to sign other draftees. But in general, if you are talking below round 16, there may not be a huge signing bonus. The decision to turn pro may be as simple as wanting to get the pro career started, and see how it goes. For the first overall selection, with a slot value of $7,922,100 (this will be relevant, as we shall see tomorrow), the signing bonus is a huge factor in the decision process; for players drafted beyond round 16, not so much.
UCLA historically has had very few players return for their senior season (Kevin Williams notwithstanding). This is due in no small measure to the fact that with three years under Coach Savage, their value soars, and they are ready for the pros.
Based on the Baseball America database, junior Shane Zeile will be the first current Bruin selected in the draft, in the 5th round. Zeile was the starting catcher on the 2013 national championship team. He broke out offensively in 2014, leading the Bruins with a .324 batting average. He was all-league and is a semi-finalist for the Johnny Bench award as the top collegiate catcher. We should assume that he is a goner. That now means that we have holes at C, 1B, CF, and DH. That is four of the nine starters from the 2013 championship team.
The next draftee in the Baseball America database is redshirt sophomore Jake Ehret. Ehret is projected to go in the 11th round. Ehret appeared in 23 games, all in relief, and threw 20 innings total. He had a 2.25 ERA. Ehret was selected in the 37th round of the 2011 draft, out of high school. Coming to UCLA was clearly the right choice. We should assume that he will also turn pro, even though he only threw 25 innings total in his UCLA career. 11th round should prove to be too tempting.
Next on the Baseball America list is redshirt junior Max Schuh. Schuh is projected to go in the 12th round. He appeared in 37 games, most in the Pac-12 and 4th most in the country. Schuh threw 29 innings, and had a 1.55 ERA with 34 K's in the 29 innings. Assuming that he and Ehret both leave, which appears likely, that would mean that there would be holes in terms of setup men in the bullpen.
Finally, last but most definitely not least, junior David Berg is projected to go in the 13th round. Remember what we said about unfinished business? Here is a player with no unfinished business. He was the closer on the national championship team, was an all-american selection two years, played for the US national collegiate team last summer, and holds NCAA records for saves and appearances. He did have some arm issues down the stretch this year, which are reflected in the Baseball America projection. But as somebody who has nothing to prove at the collegiate level, Berg should be put in the "likely gone" category. So now we are missing C, 1B, CF, DH, and most of the bullpen.
Thankfully, it gets better from here. There are other juniors who are eligible for the draft, but who do not appear on the Baseball America top 500 list. This is due either to injury concerns or questions as to whether they have long-term pro potential. For those who are disappointed in their draft status after the junior year, the senior season remains an attractive option. A breakout senior season will show the wisdom of coming back. An obvious example this year (obvious only because I have followed him from 10th grade on as a local who played against my son) is Stanford's A.J. Vanegas. He was drafted in the 7th round out of high school, but opted for college. He then had serious injury issues as a junior, only throwing 8 innings. He was bumped down to the 19th round in last year's draft, and his team did not make the postseason (unfinished business). This season, he is projected to be a 4th round selection, and Stanford went to the postseason. So the decision to come back will obviously pay off.
The prominent Bruin juniors and redshirt sophomores (players who started in 2013 or 2014) who are not in the Baseball America 500 are Christoph Bono, Eric Filia, Chris Keck, Kevin Kramer, and Grant Watson. Bono started every game in 2014, mostly in right, but also filled in at center while Brian Carroll was injured. In 2013, Bono started some games in left, so he has experience at every outfield position. He started very hot in the early games of the 2014 season, but cooled off big time once conference play was in full swing, and wound up hitting .228. He should be back at UCLA next year, as a starting outfielder, most likely in center.
Eric Filia was the starting rightfielder in the 2013 championship game in Omaha. He led the 2013 team in hitting and on-base percentage. His season ending injury before the 2014 season was a major major major reason why the season went south in a big way. Filia asked for and received a medical redshirt for the lost season. Missing the entire season clearly put a major crimp in his draft status. He should return next year (see A.J. Vanegas above for what can happen when you return from injury). He would no doubt start next year, most likely in right.
Chris Keck was the starting third baseman in 2014 until a season ending injury. He started 34 games, and batted .215. He should be back next year. In 2013, he started 11 games at first, and would be a likely candidate to take over for Pat Gallagher at first in 2015.
Kevin Kramer was the starting third baseman for the 2013 national championship team, and also started 29 games at third as a freshman. Kramer missed the entire 2014 season, and has received a medical redshirt. He was the 2nd leading hitter on the 2013 team (behind Filia), and was a 2nd team all-conference selection. Like Filia, his injury put serious dent in his draft prospects. He should return next year, and would be the starting third baseman or shortstop (his projected position this year before his injury). Kramer was drafted in the 25th round out of high school, and wisely opted for UCLA. The return of the two best hitters from the national championship team will improve the offense next year, and should help ease the pain of losing Zeile's bat.
Grant Watson has had a very successful career at UCLA. He was the midweek starter as a freshman in 2012, and became the Sunday starter on the national championship team. For the two seasons combined, he was 18-5. In 2014, he moved up to the Saturday starter, and hit a major bump in the road. He was 4-9 this season, with a 3.80 ERA, and was 2-7 in conference game, giving up more than four earned runs per game. For the year, UCLA's worst day during the season was Saturday, as UCLA and Watson could not match the opposing team's 2nd starter. This is clearly reflected in his projected status in the upcoming draft, as he is not in the top 500. If Watson returns, he should be helped as a contact pitcher by an improved defense, particularly with the return of Kramer to the infield. On the other hand, Watson has been a starting pitcher in Omaha, so there is not much in the way of unfinished business. It will be interesting to see what happens in the draft, and what he decides as a result of the draft. If he returns, that means the Bruins would have their top two starting pitchers back for 2015, as well as the top two batters from the 2013 team. If he decides to turn pro, that would leave a hole in the rotation.
Before looking at the juniors, we had gaps to fill at C, 1B, CF, DH, and most of the bullpen. After looking at the juniors, the hole at 1B is most likely filled (with Keck), the hole at CF is most likely filled (with Bono), and we have the return of the 2013 RF and 3B positions. If Kramer returns, we would also have our weekend rotation back intact.
That leaves the rest of the starting rotation, 2B, SS, and LF to consider. Watching a team struggle through injuries is painful, as we learned all too well in the 2014 season. But one silver lining is that the players who step into the breach get valuable experience, which should work to the team's advantage in the future. That is certainly the case for the returning underclassmen who started in 2014.
Sophomore Ty Moore was slated to be the DH in 2014, per the Baseball America preseason preview. When Filia went down for the season, Moore became the starting left fielder, a position he should hold again in 2015. He jumped from a .219 average as a freshman to .294 (2nd on the team behind Zeile) last year. Moore was picked in the 25th round of the draft out of high school, but opted wisely also to come to UCLA. Left field looks very solid for the Bruins in 2015.
Sophomore Trent Chatterton started every game at shortstop last season, taking over for Kevin Kramer who had been expected to move to short before his season ending injury. And Chatterton came up big at the plate, with the 3rd best average on the team at .291 and the team's best average during conference play. He should be a solid starter in 2015.
Freshman Luke Persico started all but three games at second last season, taking over for Kevin Williams after he started the 2014 season on the shelf and was then restricted to a DH role. Persico batted .246, and should only get better next season after a year of college ball. He was drafted in the 37th round of the draft out of high school, and also made the right choice by opting for UCLA.
Freshman Brett Stephens moved into the starting lineup in right field after Brian Carroll's injury, while redshirt sophomore Justin Hazard started at catcher when Shane Zeile was taking a breather from the crouch by starting at first. Hazard hit .344 in limited duty, and should be a logical candidate to start next year at catcher. Stephens hit .211 in his first year, and should provide solid depth next season.
On the mound, two of the weekend starters, sophomores James Kaprielian and Cody Poteet, will definitely return in 2015. Kaprieilian was an all-league selection in 2014, as he moved from the setup role on the championship team to become the Friday starter. He was 7-6 with a 2.29 ERA last year. The ERA says a lot more about his season than the win-loss record, which was harmed big time by the lack of run support when he was facing the other team's Friday ace. Kaprielian was selected in the 40th round of the draft out of high school, and should be in line for a big payday after the 2015 season. He will be pitching for the US National Collegiate team this summer.
Poteet was the midweek starter on the 2013 national champions as a freshman. He became the Sunday starter last season, and was 3-5 with a 4.46 ERA. Poteet is another contact pitcher like Watson, and should see his fortunes improve with the return of a more solid defense behind him next season. He was selected in the 27th round of the draft out of high school, but made the right call by coming to UCLA.
In the bullpen, redshirt freshman Nick Kern and freshman Scott Burke saw significant action last season. Both struggled, as reflected in relatively high ERA's. But both should look to improve big time with more tutelage from Coach Savage before next season.
So, without considering the incoming high school class, most of the holes (C, 1B, CF, DH, bullpen) look to have plugs at the ready, with the bullpen perhaps being the biggest question mark. 2015 looks brighter than the post-injury 2014 campaign. Tomorrow- part 2 of our 2015 preview, as we turn to the incoming high school class.
Here is to UCLA 2015 baseball. Go Bruins !!