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2016 UCLA Baseball Preview-Rebuilding or Reloading?

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UCLA will need to replace its top two starters, its top two hitters, and its all-world closer.

UCLA's Griffin Canning
UCLA's Griffin Canning
© 2015 Steve Jacobs

The UCLA baseball season kicks off TOMORROW, Friday, February 19th, with a three game set against the University of North Carolina. Let's take a look at this season's iteration of the baseball team under Head Coach John Savage

There are high expectations for the UCLA Baseball team this season, with the Bruins ranked between #9 and #14 in the various collegiate baseball polls. Although UCLA lost several key players from last season, Coach Savage also reeled in the #6 recruiting class in the nation.

In our preview, we'll look at some of the key departing players, analyze this season's pitching staff, review the fielding positions, and provide a summary of our thoughts regarding the 2016 season.

Departing Players

Departing Pitchers

UCLA lost several major contributors to their 2015 season, including four pitchers that were critical to the Bruins' success.

Ace, James Kaprielian, to no one's surprise, elected to forego his final year of eligibility, was drafted #16 overall by the New York Yankees. Kap has impressed the Yankees' brass.

Grant Watson, UCLA's Saturday starter last year, and the all time leading UCLA left handed pitcher in wins, was drafted by the San Francisco Giants after this senior season.

Cody Poteet, who started the season as the Sunday starter, got the majority of his work as the mid-week starter, and also excelled in spot relief, skipped his senior year and was drafted by the Miami Marlins.

Finally, UCLA lost submariner David Berg. The 2013 PAC 12 Pitcher of the Year as a sophomore, NCAA single season save leader, among other accolates, Berg was drafted by the Chicago Cubs. He also has one of the nastiest change ups I have ever seen (Trevor Hoffman, anyone?).

All four pitchers acquitted themselves well with the minor league teams for which they pitched last summer and will be missed by UCLA and this writer.

Departing Hitters

UCLA also lost its top two hitters, left fielder Ty Moore (.342, 6 HR, 51 RBI) and shortstop Kevin Kramer (.323, 7 HR, 34 RBI). The Bruins will also miss it's number 4 hitter, third baseman, Chris Keck (.293, 7 HR, 47 RBI).

Those three were UCLA's top 3 home run hitters and also top three in slugging percentage. It is not unreasonable to expect that UCLA will likely suffer a drop in its power numbers.

And, although he is not departing, catcher Darrell Miller, Jr. has been lost for the season. Miller, Jr. came on strong offensively late in the season, finishing at .257 with 27 RBI, and is a tremendous defensive backstop. Wild pitches and past balls are common in the college game, and Miller, Jr. did not allow many. This is a big loss for the Bruins.

Pitching

Starters

The the likely Friday starter will be sophomore right hander Griffin Canning. Canning has the most starting experience of the returning UCLA starters, and replaced Poteet as the Sunday starter last season. Although he suffered a season ending stress fracture in his back in mid-May, Canning pitched very well when he was healthy, posting a 7-1 record with a 2.97 ERA. UCLA's 2015 postseason might had gone differently had Canning been available to pitch. Coach Savage is on record as stating that, although Canning was a Sunday starter last season, he was really a #1 or #2 starting pitcher, so it seems likely that Canning will get the call against the Tar Heels on Friday, February 19th. Canning also started the alumni game a few weeks ago, another indication that he will be the Friday guy.

Or will it be junior  RHP Grant Dyer on Friday nights? Dyer, who was UCLA's eighth inning specialist last season, may get a shot at a starting role, perhaps a Friday starting role. Indeed, he is right in the center of the five players on the 2016 UCLA Baseball Information Guide. Take that for what you will. Dyer only started one game last season--the last one of the season. And we all know how that worked out. Usually, Dyer was the 8th inning specialist last season. Coach Savage has moved his 8th inning specialist to a starter's role before, in the form of James Kaprielian, and that was a success. Dyer has a different skill set than Kap, including at true 12 to 6 breaking ball that is a thing of beauty. We will see . . .

After Canning's injury last season, Hunter Virant, a lefthander who had previously been a long reliever out of the bullpen, came on to start in Canning's place, starting a total of four games. On the season, including his relief appearances, Virant went 0-1 with a 3.45 ERA. Will Coach Savage plug Virant, now a redshirt junior, into the Sunday starter position? Or the mid-week starter position? My money is on the Sunday starting position.

So who will pitch the midweek game? It could be one of several veterans, like RHP Scott Burke or RHP Jake Byrd, who could conceivably make the jump to starter, or remain in middle relief roles. Or it could be one of our heralded incoming freshman, including RHP Kyle Molnar, LHP Justin Hooper, RHP Jack Ralston, RHP Jon Olsen, or RHP Brian Gadsby. Although he didn't start, Molnar threw four shutout innings in the alumni game, only surrendering two hits. Might Coach Savage be grooming Molnar for one of the starting positions? Or it could be "go with the hot hand"? Pitch well and keep pitching; otherwise, next guy up.

The Bullpen

Tucker Forbes, UCLA's likely closer, has been named to the Preseason NCBWA Stopper of the Year Watch List. After acting as Coach Savage's 7th inning specialist last season performing admirably, with 38.1 inning pitched, allowing 28 hits, 9 runs, with a 2.11 ERA. The junior righty appears to have secured the stopper's role in 2016 and I expect him to be successful in that role. It doesn;t hurt that he is 6'8", which make the angle of his pitches that much more difficult to hit by opposing batters.

Like the midweek starter role, there could be several guys that fill the role of set up man, whether it be one guy for the seventh and one guy for the 8th, which worked so well left season with Forbes and Dyer. Again, it could be one of the vets or one of the freshman. The same candidates for midweek starter could be considered for the set up role(s) with the Bruins.

Fielding Positions

Infield

If the alumni game is any indication, Sean Bouchard appears to have secured the starting role at first base, Bouch, who played some first base, some right field, and (I believe) some third base, needs to improve his offense numbers from last season (.239, 2 HR, 9 RBI). This means Luke Persico moves to third, although I expect he will get some starts at first as well.

Trent Chatterton (.280, 2 HR, 28 RBI) played second base last season and posted pretty good numbers for a guy hitting out of the eight hole. Chatterton could move to shortstop this season, or could continue to play second base.

Brett Urabe, who appeared in 45 games last season, often as a late game defensive replacement, looks to get a shot a securing the other middle infield position, whether it is replacing Kramer as shortstop, or taking second base as Chatty moves over to short. Urabe is versatile, also playing outfield in 2015.

Last year's first baseman, Luke Persico returns for his junior season. Persico hit .285 with 3 HR and 43 RBI. I am penciling him in at third base because that is where he played in the alumni game, with Bouchard at first.

It remains to be seen if UCLA will lose anything defensively with an entirely new left side of the infield. When he was here, Kramer could be an absolute phenom with the glove, and then could make a costly error on an easier play. The defense on the left side of the infield will be a question mark going into the season.

Outfield

In the outfield, it appears that there are four potential starters for three spots. Christoph Bono, a senior, starter in center field last season. Although he led the team in triples with 6, and had a high slugging percentage (.397) out of the nine hole, his average was not great at .241. A very good defender, he still figures to start in center.

Eric Filia is back! Yay!! After missing the entire 2014 and 2015 seasons due to injury, the senior figures to start in right field. Filia crushed it this summer in the Northwoods League, hitting .340, and 55 RBI in 65 games. I'd take those numbers from Filia this season, which would go a long way to filling the power holes left by Kramer, Moore, and Keck.

Kort Peterson and Brett Stephens are also contenders to start in the outfield. Both are switch hitters (as is Filia), which gives Coach Savage a lot of flexibility with his outfield. Stephens is better with the glove than Peterson, so I'd expect him to start over Peterson in left, unless he gets time at center field.

I would expect that, most of the time, the guy not starting in the outfield out of these four (Bono, Filia, Peterson, and Stephens) may be penciled in as the designated hitter, except for maybe Bono.

Catcher

With Daryl Miller gone, and spot starter Justin Hazard having transferred out of the program to Nevada as a graduate student, UCLA is paper thin at the catcher's position, with one redshirt junior, one redshirt freshman, and two true freshman at the position. One of the true freshman, Jake Hirabayashi, and the redshirt freshmen, Daniel Rosica, are the leaders out of the gate for the starter position at catcher.

Summary

It will be tough to replace the losses that UCLA has suffered on the pitching staff in 2016. Canning appears to be the solid Friday starter. After perhaps Grant Dyer and Hunter Virant, it is anybody's guess as to who the other starter(s) will be. Could it be one of UCLA mid-relievers with experience, including Jake Bird or Scott Burke, that step up to the starter role? Or will it be one or more of UCLA talented incoming freshmen? Someone else? We should start to see the preliminary answers after the series this weekend.

UCLA has lost some significant talent on its pitching staff, no doubt about it. But, as we have seen time and again, Coach Savage is an absolute wizard with his pitching staff (Maryland excepted). I trust Coach Savage to have a solid game plan with respect to his staff in 2016. He'll need to, with UCLA's losses on offense.

Frankly, the losses on offense are more troubling to me (I know that sounds weird considering we lost Kap and Berg). Brett Urabe needs to step up to replace the offense lost with Kramer's departure. I think Stephens might have a breakout year this season. He played very well last year, but was hampered by a broken finger sustained in the North Carolina series last year in Orlando. Bouchard and Peterson need to become more consistent. If we get better production from these guys, I think that UCLA would be closer to reloaded than rebuilding.

And, of course, our catching situation needs to stay close to what Miller, Jr. did for UCLA last season. And I am talking more about defense that I am about offense. We cannot dramatically fall off with increased wild pitches and past balls.

I think that UCLA will be hard pressed to have the type of regular season that it did last year, winning every series until the last one at Oregon in two extra inning games (which, in hindsight, was a bit of a predictor of the events of the following week). Of course, none of that mattered after an embarrassing loss to Maryland in the L.A. Regional as a number one overall seed. My expectation is that UCLA will hit its stride during the latter part of the season and will make the field of 64, as Coach Savage sees what he has and maximizes the potential. I would be pleasantly surprised if the Bruins hosted a Regional, but do not expect them to do so. I do, however, expect them to get through the Regional and into the Super Regionals. Those are my expectations for what is somewhat of a rebuilding (reloading) year in Westwood. The College World Series would be gravy, exceeding expectations IMO.

I hope that you enjoyed Bruins Nation's preview of the 2016 UCLA Baseball team. Tomorrow on BN we will preview the series with North Carolina. First pitch at Jackie Robinson Stadium is on Friday at 6 p.m. PT. If you live in L.A., get out there to cheer on the Bruins against a tough opponent.

Fire away with your thoughts in the comment section.

Go Bruins!!!