Welcome to Part One of Bruins Nations’ UCLA Baseball season preview. With the Bruins opening their season with a three game series this weekend at Jackie Robinson Stadium against the San Jose State Spartans, it is time to briefly look back at 2016, and dive in to see what could be in store for UCLA Baseball in 2017.
Today in Part One, we will check out how the college baseball world feels about this iteration of UCLA Baseball as well as analyze the positional players. On Thursday in Part Two, we will look at the pitchers, the coaching staff, and prognosticate about the season.
Going Into the Season
Coming off a very disappointing 2016 campaign, which saw UCLA go 25-31 (12-18 in the PAC 12, second to last) and fail to qualify for the postseason, the Bruins have something to prove in 2017 under 13th year Head Coach, John Savage.
The expectations for UCLA Baseball in 2017 are not high, but the Bruins may have enough to make it back to the postseason this year. UCLA is unranked in all major polls, including the Preseason National Collegiate Baseball Writer’s Association (NCBWA) poll, the D1Baseball.com poll, and the USA Today Coaches poll. Although the Bruins are not in the top 25 of Baseball America’s preseason poll, Baseball America does project UCLA to make the postseason.
The Bruins are picked by the PAC 12 coaches to finish fifth in the conference, behind Oregon State, Stanford, Arizona, and Washington. The good news is that, of those four squads, UCLA will only face the Cardinal on the road. The Beavers, the Wildcats, and the Huskies will all come to Jackie Robinson Stadium this season.
Who is Leaving/What is the Impact?
UCLA loses five out of its eight positional starters from last season, as well as its most frequent DH. That means we’ll see six new bats out of nine in the lineup this year. Ouch.
Gone are 3B Luke Persico, LF/DH Kort Peterson, RF Eric Filia, 2B Brett Urabe, SS Trent Chatterton, and CF Christoph Bono.
UCLA loses almost all of its offense from what was an offensively anemic 2016 (UCLA hit .250 and had only 14 home runs). Persico led the team in batting average (.323), was tied for first in home runs (3), and was 4th in RBI (30). Filia was tied for second in batting average (.295), was tied for first in home runs (3), and was 3rd in RBI (32). Peterson was 4th in batting average (.271), also had three home runs, and was tied for first in RBI (36). That’s 3 of the top 4 gone in batting average, home runs, and RBI. Urabe was 5th in batting average and is also gone.
Chatterton and Bono had poor seasons at the plate, both hitting under .200, an unfortunate ending for their senior campaigns. UCLA will hope to increase its offense from the shortstop and center field positions vacated by "Chatty" and "Bones."
Which Starters are Back?
UCLA was dealt a cruel blow before the season started last year when it lost Darrell Miller, Jr. to a season ending injury, ending his UCLA career. Miller was a defensive stalwart and handled UCLA’s pitching staff with aplomb.
As a result, for much of the season, Coach Savage platooned the catcher position between a couple of freshman, Jake Hirabayashi and Daniel Rosica. For much of the season, both players were black holes at the plate and neither could get a hold on the starting job until Rosica came on later in the year to finish with a .264 batting average in 44 games. Hirabayashi finished at .106, collecting only seven hits on the season.
Rosica should have the inside track to start at catcher in 2017, although UCLA picked up sophomore catcher Gavin Johns as a JUCO transfer. Johns only hit the game winning home run in the JUCO College World Series last season. Johns played in the UCLA alumni game last month, and had an RBI double.
Junior first baseman Sean Bouchard is back for the Bruins in 2017 and UCLA will expect him to pick up a lot of the offensive slack. In 2016, "Bouch" hit .295 (tied for second on the team), had two home runs, and was tied for the team lead with 36 RBI.
Senior left fielder Brett Stephens is also back for the Bruins this season, after a disappointing 2016. Stephens, who hit .298 and stole 12 bases in 2015, only hit .223 with 4 stolen bases in 2016. Let's hope Brett regains his 2015 form.
That covers catcher, first base, and left field.
Which Other Returning Players Should Start?
Sophomore center fielder Daniel Amaral contributed for the Bruins later in the 2016 season, appearing in 29 games, as Coach Savage looked toward the future in center field. Amaral will need to improve on his .178 batting average from 2016, but should see most the time in center field for the Bruins.
Sophomore shortstop Nick Valaika redshirted due to injury in 2016. He was expected to be UCLA’s every day starter at shortstop last year and it stands to reason that he’ll be starting shortstop this season. Valaika only had 20 at-bats in his freshman year, collecting three hits, so he lacks experience for someone who is entering his third year in the program.
Zander Clarke and Jake Pries both got limited playing time last season. Although Clark, a sophomore, is listed as an infielder by UCLA, because of his size, 6’5", 220 lbs., it is tough to see him playing anywhere other than first base or DH. Bouchard has played some second base and third base for the Bruins in the past, so Coach Savage might have some flexibility there if he wants to work Clarke into the lineup. Pries, also a sophomore, could fill the right field position as a regular starter, although he may be challenged by freshman, Jarron Silva.
That covers center field, shortstop, DH, and right field.
Adding those positions to the catcher, first base, and left field positions addressed in the prior section of this article leaves two positions unfilled, which begs the question: who will plays third base and second base for the Bruins?
Filling the Gaps with Freshmen?
As mentioned above, Sean Bouchard can play either second base or third base, if Coach Savage wants to start Clarke at first base, which would free up another player to hit DH. Assuming, however, that Bouchard handles most of the duties at first, and Clarke usually hits DH, UCLA needs to fill both the second base and third base positions.
Freshman Kyle Cuellar played in the alumni game last month, and had an RBI triple. Cuellar played second base and outfield in high school, and Coach Savage might have him slotted to start at second base. In his UCLA bio, Cuellar lists Chase Utley (second baseman, UCLA alum, and 2008 World Series Champion) as someone he admires. I like him already.
Including Cuellar, UCLA has five freshman infielders on its roster. One of the others, Jack Stronach, is a big (6’4") switch hitting third baseman. Stronach could easily slot in a third base this season.
Also keep an eye on Chase Strumpf (SS) and Michael Toglia (1B), two freshmen who could make an impact this season. Even if he is not a regular starter in the outfield, Jarron Silva could also make some noise for UCLA as a freshman.
Conclusion: Positional Players
UCLA’s returning starters, especially Bouchard and Stephens, need to have impressive seasons from the plate and take on leadership roles in the clubhouse. Everyone else, with the possible exception of Rosica, is a question mark, even returning players such as Amaral, Valaika, Clarke, and Pries. There is more uncertainty from the 2017 positional players than any UCLA team that I can recall. It is really tough to see where the consistent offense is going to come from. As a result, it is reasonable to expect UCLA to try to win with pitching and defense, as so many John Savage-coached UCLA teams have done in the past. Luckily, the Bruins have a couple of guys named Canning and Molnar. But more on them on Thursday.
I hope that you enjoyed Part One of Bruins Nation’s UCLA Baseball season preview.
What is your take on UCLA’s 2017 overall prospects and positional players? Fire away with your thoughts in the comment section.