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Bruin Baseball Season Preview Part 4: The Pac 10

Just as I did last year, this year's season preview will be a five part series that will take us right up to the first pitch of the season on February 20 when UC Davis visits Jackie Robinson Stadium. Part 1 was a general look at the 2008 season, the pre-season polls and a few opinions from analysts around the country. Part 2 looked into the pitchers. Part 3 featured the Bruins' position players and Part 4 looks at the Pac 10. Part 5 will complete the preview as we take a look around the nation and where the Bruins stand in the national sense.

After a 2008 season in which many considered it the nation's top conference, the Pac 10 is in for a down year in 2009 as the majority of teams replace a number of key players. The conference's 2008 Player of the Year has moved on to the pros, as have 14 of the players named to last year's All-Pac 10 team. While the conference will look very different, it will still be a rather strong conference. Seven teams from the conference are ranked in Collegiate Baseball's Preseason Top 40 and six teams are in Baseball America's regional predictions. Two of those teams are regional hosts (UCLA and Arizona St.) and UCLA is the #8 national seed. One of the benefits of so many departures is the conference race is wide open. None of the top seven teams have really separated themselves from each other and those top seven can realistically finish in any order one through seven. The 2009 season will also see the conference comprised of 10 teams for the first time as Oregon revives its baseball program after 28 years.

The Pac 10 coaches recently released their own conference poll and Arizona St. was picked to finish first, just two points ahead of UCLA, while Stanford, Oregon St. and Arizona all got first place votes as well. A first place vote received nine points, second place got right points and so on. Here is that poll:

1. Arizona St.- (3 first place votes) 69 points
2. UCLA- (3) 67
3. Stanford- (1) 64
4. Oregon St.- (2) 58
5. Arizona- (1) 56
6. Cal- 42
7. USC- 38
8. Washington St.- 24
9. Washington- 23
10. Oregon- 9

Arizona St. has a lot of holes to fill in 2009, but as per usual, the Sun Devils are stacked with talent who are more than capable of filling those holes. Among the holes head coach Pat Murphy will look to fill are those left by 2008 Pac 10 Player of the Year Brett Wallace and All-Pac 10 team members Ike Davis and Petey Paramore, who helped ASU reach the Super Regionals last year. Helping to ease the loss of those players is 2008 Pac 10 Pitcher of the Year Mike Leake and 2008 Newcomer of the Year Jason Kipnis. Leake, a junior righty, went 11-3 last season with a 3.49 ERA last year and will look to improve upon that after spending the summer pitching for Team USA. Kipnis, a junior outfielder, is a complete player who batted .371 in 2008 with 14 homers, 73 RBI and 24 stolen bases. While the Sun Devils' hitters usually have inflated numbers due to the tendency for the ball to fly out of Packard Stadium, their hitters are imposing nonetheless. Joining those returning players in the country's #1 recruiting class that includes 12 players who were drafted in last June's draft. The one thing that will help ASU work in their new guys is their grand total of two non-conference games outside of Arizona.

We've gone over UCLA's prospects already so let's move on to a College World Series participant from 2008, Stanford. The Cardinal will have to replace four of their top five hitters, but in true Stanford form, the team relies on pitching and defense and they return three infielders, plus two starters and a top reliever. Stanford finished tops in the conference in defense last season so expect that again with three infielders returning to their positions. On the mound, the Cardinal will feature sophomore RHP Danny Sanbrink who had a 2.81 ERA last year, junior RHP Jeffrey Inman who shined in the postseason and is on the Golden Spikes Award Watch List and sophomore reliever Drew Storen who was 5-3 with eight saves last year. At the plate, Stanford will need a big year out of senior C/1B Brett Milleville who hit 11 homers and drove in57 runs in 2008. One guy to keep an eye on is junior OF Toby Gerhart. Yes, that is the same Gerhart who plays running back for the football team. Gerhart hit .356 with four homers and 12 RBI in his final 11 games last year and could be primed for a breakout year in '09.

It's easy to forget that Oregon St. is only two years removed from winning their second consecutive national title, but after being the last team left out of a regional last year (some felt unfairly so), the Beavers look like they'll be back in the postseason in 2009. The team will be strong on the mound and defensively, which just so happen to be the two units that carried them to their national titles. The Beavers had a .973 fielding percentage last year and should be as good in 2009 led by junior shortstop Joey Wong. The Beavers will need a bounce back year from junior RHP Jorge Reyes. Reyes went 7-3 and won College World Series MVP as a freshman, but saw his ERA balloon to over 7 last year. Even if Reyes and the rest of the starters struggle, OSU has six relievers who threw 25+ innings last year, including senior RHP Mark Grbavac (4-1, 3.62 ERA) and sophomore RHP Kevin Rhoderick (2.39 ERA, 12 saves). Oregon St. will depend on the bats of junior C Ryan Ortiz, who batted .251 last year with 55 RBI and senior OF John Wallace, who batted .326. Don't expect a lot of runs from Oregon St. this year, but they have a knack for scoring just enough and driving in runs when the few opportunities arise.

After reaching the Super Regionals in 2008, Arizona will have a mighty high hill to climb in 2009. The Wildcats will win a lot of Friday night games behind one of the conference's best pitchers in senior RHP Preston Guilmet, but it's unclear whether they'll have what it takes on Saturdays, Sundays or in the midweek. The Wildcats do not return another starting pitcher besides Guilmet, whether it be a weekend starter or midweek starter. Arizona is also without one of their best relievers Daniel Schlereth. While they lose Schlereth, they do have a stud at the back end of the bullpen in junior RHP Jason Stouffel who made 34 appearances last year, went 4-2 with a 3.00 ERA and picked up 13 saves. Around the rest of the field, the Wildcats have problems as only four starters return. Three players will be heavily counted on to produce offensively for Arizona as senior 3B Brad Glenn (.302, 14 homers), junior 1B Dillon Baird (.318, 7 homers) and sophomore SS Bryce Ortega (.326, 15 SBs) won't have much help around them. The Wildcats ability to develop a Saturday and Sunday starter, as well as some relief help will be the key to their season because they are unproven just about everywhere besides Friday nights, closer, shortstop and the corner infield.

Cal drew the short end of the stick in 2008 when they were unfairly sent to the nation's toughest regional that produced the eventual national champion Fresno St. This year they'll have another challenge as they aim to finish in the conference's top half despite the losses of ace Tyson Ross, their other two weekend starters, their top reliever and top three hitters. It will not be an easy task, but they do have some talent remaining. Sophomore RHP Kevin Miller did most of his work out of the bullpen last year, but he was outstanding as he didn't allow an earned run in his first 44 innings and finished with a 2.90 ERA and .196 batting average against. This year, Miller will step into the Friday nigh starter role and will be backed up by highly touted freshman RHP Erik Johnson. Expect a big year from junior OF Brett Jackson, who hit .307 with 12 stolen bases in 2008. Head coach Dave Esquer is one of the game's fasting rising coaches, but he'll need to develop his young guys in a hurry if he wants to find himself in the postseason again.

With head coach Chad Kreuter on the hot seat, USC has a lot on the line in 2009. They are probably the nation's most historic program, but the past two regional-less have looked nothing like their proud past. This season, the Trojans are probably the biggest question mark in the conference. It's conceivable that the Trojans could miss out on a regional for the third consecutive season, but it's equally conceivable that the Trojans make a regional and a postseason run. While USC is a question mark, their junior shortstop Grant Green is not. Arguably the nation's top player, Green batted .390 with nine home runs and 46 RBI last season before showing off his skills in the Cape Cod League where MLB scouts drooled over his play. Outside of Green, The Trojans have a lot of issues offensively as only four other starters return from an offense that was mediocre at best last year. USC does have a lot of potential on the mound though. After a stellar freshman season, RHP Brad Boxberger struggled with injuries last year, but is healthy this year and ready to lead the rotation. Senior RHP Anthony Vazquez went 3-1 with a 3.65 ERA last year as a reliever, but will add a rotation spot to his outfield duties this year. Two outstanding recruiting classes has left the Trojans chock full of talent, but USC lacks experience so they will be interesting team to watch this year as they could shoot to the top of the conference or finish off Kreuter's tenure.

After coming oh so close to a regional bid last year, Washington St. has improved their schedule in hopes of making this year's postseason. Wazzu will face Arkansas, Oklahoma, Long Beach St., Pepperdine and take place in a tournament at Rice so they will be plenty tested when Pac 10 play comes around. The Cougars' strength is up the middle where senior 2B Travis Coulter (.333, 11 SBs) and sophomore SS Shea Vucinich (.316, 29 RBI) will roam. The Cougars will likely be short on power after losing their two top power hitters, who hit 28 of the team's 47 homers last year so it will be very important for them to execute with runners in scoring position. Wazzu also lost their ace from last year, but the power and pitching issues could be solved by a single player. Senior Jared Prince both pitches and plays outfield for the Cougars. He hit .306 last year with six homers and did not commit an error, while going 2-2 on the mound. Prince will have to improve on those numbers this year if Wazzu is to make the postseason.

Washington brings back a decent amount of experience from last year, including one of the conference's best players. Junior OF Kyle Conley is a preseason All-American who hit .337 last year to go with 19 home runs and 57 RBI. Conley doesn't have many imposing bats around him, but he does have a top notch staff and defense. The Washington defense was second in the Pac 10 last year and the pitching staff was also second with a team ERA of 4.15. The staff is led by senior RHP's Jason Erickson and Jordan Merry. Erickson has a 3.55 ERA last year and Merry was a 14 round draft pick who returned to Seattle in hopes of improving on his 2008 8-2 record. Washington started hot in 2008 and looked primed to make a regional, but struggled late. They'll have to find ways to win all the way through May if they want to play in the 2009 postseason.

The Pac 10 welcomes a new member to the conference in 2009 as Oregon returns to the basebaall field for the first time in 28 years. Led by one of the nation's top head coaches in George Horton, the Ducks will surprise some people in 2009. No, they won't compete for a regional berth, but they will be competitive. After all, George Horton could make just about any team competitive. While they will be short on experience, Oregon won't be short on talent as the nation's #2 recruiting class presents a nice mix of promising freshman and some of the better JUCO players on the west coast. The return of Oregon will also ignite one of the better rivalries in the country as the Civil War will manifest itself on the baseball field with two of the games at Portland's PGE Park where you can bet a large crowd will show up. The Ducks will likely finish at the bottom of the conference in 2009, but they won't be in the cellar for long under Horton and with Nike's money flowing in to build one of the nation's best ballparks. The stadium will only be parly done for this season, but will be completed an beautiful for 2010.