Even though it is still winter, UCLA’s Boys of Summer, the UCLA Bruin baseball team, is set to begin the 2018 season this weekend, with a three game series at Jackie Robinson Stadium, hosting the University of Portland Pilots. Before the season begins, let’s take a look at your 2018 Bruins but, first, let’s talk a little bit about the talent that has moved on.
UCLA loses its “ace” from last season, Griffin Canning, and two important field players, first baseman Sean Bouchard and outfielder Brett Stephens. Canning, last year’s Friday starter, went 7-4 with a 2.34 ERA, tops on the team. Drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the second round of the MLB Draft, Canning will be missed.
Bouchard and Stephens were two of the top four hitters for the Bruins last season, hitting .306 and .278 respectively. Bouchard also led the team in home runs and RBI. For a 2017 team that hit an underwhelming .258 as a team, the loss of two of its best hitters could adversely affect the Bruins’ run production.
UCLA also lost two of its best guys out of the bullpen, Moises Ceja and Scott Burke, both of whom graduated.
So, from a team that went 30-27 and exited quickly from its regional, UCLA “only” needs to replace its best pitcher, two of its best hitters, and two of its top bullpen guys. For many teams, this would spell a rebuilding year and a likely whiff on the postseason.
But, most insiders have UCLA highly ranked in their preseason rankings. Baseball America has UCLA at #13, USA Today slots the Bruins in at #14, CBSSports lists UCLA at #10, and D1Baseball puts UCLA in it’s #11 spot. Why do the pundits think so highly of the Bruins? The short answer is twofold: (1) John Savage’s 2018 team, like most of his squads, rely on starting pitching and defense, and the Bruins look to be very solid in those departments; and (2) the UCLA field players are young and talented--the entire projected starting infield is made up of second year players—and each figures to experience an uptick in performance in their sophomore years.
Let’s look more closely at the pitchers first.
UCLA returns two starting pitchers from last season that figure to be weekend starters, Jon Olsen and Jake Bird. Olsen, a right handed junior, went 7-1 last season with a 2.86 ERA in his role as Sunday starter. Olsen was critical is securing series wins for UCLA on several occasions, and went 6-0 in PAC 12 play. Selected as a Preseason All American this year, Olsen should fill the Friday starting spot this season.
Jake Bird started last season at the Saturday starter but, after suffering an injury several weeks into the season, he mostly appeared out of the bullpen in the latter half of the year. UCLA suffered for it, routinely having issues in Saturday games. Although Bird finished with a 5-5 record, his ERA was very good, at 2.75. It is toss up in my mind whether Bird, now a senior, will be the Saturday or Sunday starter.
Wait, you ask. If Olsen is the Friday starter and Bird is one of the other weekend starters, who is likely to be the other starter? Well, you might have forgotten his name as he sat out all of 2017 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but they guy who should fill that role is red shirt sophomore Kyle Molnar. Molnar, was very, very good as Sunday starter in 2016, his freshman year, earning the honor of Freshman All American. He started 13 games, and went 5-5 with a 3.32 ERA on a bad UCLA team—by comparison, Canning only went 5-8 with a 3.70 ERA that season. The return of Molnar is one of the keys to the season for UCLA.
The midweek starting pitcher spot is up for grabs. Left hander Justin Hooper started in that spot a number of times last year, but he will not be playing in 2018 due to injury and resulting Tommy John surgery. Get better soon, Justin! Only one other pitcher, Nick Scheidler, started a game for the Bruins last year, and Scheidler only did that one time. So, maybe Nick Scheidler? Your guess is as good as mine here.
UCLA is hoping that several of their young arms, including Brian Gadsby and the aforementioned Nick Scheidler, put together better campaigns than in 2017. Gadsby had huge shoes to fill after all-world closer David Berg graduated after the 2015 season. But he had a tough 2016 and an even tougher 2017, with an ERA in excess of 5.00. Opponents hit .345 against Gadsby in 2017, which will not get it done in a closing role.
Ryan Garcia and Matt Walker both had ERAs in excess of 6.50, and Coach Savage will hope that both of those guys have better years in 2018. Zach Pettway and Holden Powell, incoming freshman right handers who played together in the West Coast League this past summer, hope to immediately contribute to the bullpen.
With the Hooper injury, and not including Scheidler, UCLA only has two other left handed pitchers on the roster, freshman Sam Glick and junior Garrett Barker, the latter of whom only has five appearances and 1.1 innings pitched in two season at UCLA.
The bullpen is the biggest question mark for the Bruins going into the 2018 season, but if there is one thing Coach Savage knows how to do, it is managing his pitching staff.
POSITION PLAYERS & DESIGNATED HITTER
UCLA is expected to start an entire infield of sophomores. Perhaps the most exciting of the four infielders is switch hitter, Michael Toglia, who will slot into first base after patrolling right field last season. Toglia got off to a bit of a slow start in his initial campaign, but came on strong in PAC 12 play, hitting .261 on the season, clubbing eight homers, and leading the team in slugging percentage, at .483. Expected more of the same power from Toglia this season, with hopefully an uptick in average.
The expected starter at second base is sophomore Chase Strumpf. Although his average wasn’t spectacular at .239, Strumpf had a number of clutch hits in big situations last season, and hit for power, with nine doubles and seven home runs. Another sophomore, Ryan Kreidler, is expected to start at shortstop. Kreidler hit .241 last season, starting games at both third base and shortstop. Rounding out the infield of sophomores is expected third baseman, Jack Stronach. Stronach hit .231 in 2017, and saw more time at third base later in the season. Strumpf, Kreidler, and Stronach are all expected to up their game in the second year in the program.
The outfield is less settled, but the one position that is settled is in center field in the form of junior Daniel Amaral. Amaral, who hit .282 and stole 16 bases last season, figures to also fill the lead off spot for the Bruins. The left field and right field spots appear to be up for grabs, between sophomores Jake Pries, Jeremy Ydens, Jarron Silva, and freshman Garrett Mitchell. Pries and Ydens have the most experience, with 58 and 66 at-bats respectively, but Mitchell might be too good a hitter to not be starting in right field.
Another sophomore, Kyle Cuellar, figures to start at designated hitter. Cuellar hit .319 last year, leading the Bruins on the season and in PAC 12 play, where he hit a whopping .373. Cuellar could also spot start at second base.
Last, but not least, is the catcher position. After Darrell Miller, Jr. was injured before the 2016 season, two freshman, Daniel Rosica and Jake Hirabyashi, were called up to step up to fill the catcher’s role. Neither had a memorable season, leading one to believe that the position battle would continue in 2017. That did not happen, as Rosica outplayed Hirabayashi last year, getting 33 starts to Hirabayashi’s 14. And deservedly so, as Rosica hit .271, only committed three errors (a .990 fielding percentage), and handled the pitching staff well. I expect Rosica to continue to get the lion’s share of the starts in 2018.
OUTLOOK & EXPECTATIONS
This team is very young and has a ton of potential. There is a College World Series team in there somewhere. But several players need to step up their game from 2017. Starting infielders hitting in the .230 to .240 range is a good place to start. Those guys—Strumpf, Kreidler, and Stronach— need to be hitting at least 40 points higher.
The return of Kyle Molnar is also critical. If he can find his 2016 form, UCLA should be able to secure a lot of series wins this season.
Finally, I would love to see Brian Gadsby become the closer we all had hoped he would be. Was it asking to much of him to replace David Berg? Yes, yes it was. Unfortunately, the sidearm delivery was about all Gadsby had in common with Berg in his first two seasons at UCLA. Hopefully season number three will see a revitalized Brian Gadsby.
If all of those factors fall into place, UCLA could be a force to be reckoned with and could be making in appearance in Omaha in June.
I hope that you enjoyed the preview and please let us know your thoughts in the comment section below. Oh, and check back on Friday for our UCLA Bruin Baseball v. Portland Pilots series preview.