Welcome to Bruins Nation’s season preview of the 2020 UCLA Bruins baseball team. The 2020 iteration of the squad is Head Coach John Savage’s 16th season leading the Bruins, and he has an all time record of 539-360-1 as UCLA’s skipper.
The season kicks off tonight, Friday, February 14th, at Jackie Robinson Stadium, against the UC Riverside Highlanders. First pitch is at 6 pm PT. Check back with BN later today for our preview of that series.
There is a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in.
After spending most of the 2019 season with a #1 ranking, UCLA narrowly fell in the super regional round to Michigan, who ultimately were runners up in the College World Series. The Bruins lost a ton of talent at both positional players and starting pitchers. Nevertheless, UCLA is expected to reload this season rather than rebuild and is ranked between #10 and #14 by the major collegiate ranking services.
Make no mistake, though, it does not appear that wins will come as easy as they did last season due to the sheer number of departures in the off-season.
Important Departures From 2019
The Bruins lost most of their starting infield and their two best starting pitchers from 2019. Gone are switch hitting first baseman Michael Toglia and clutch second baseman Chase Strumpf, the heart of the Bruins order from 2019. Shortstop/third baseman Ryan Kreidler and third baseman, Jack Stronach have also moved on.
Also moving on is DH Jake Pries. Those five hitters were responsible for 235 of UCLA’s 373 RBI in 2019, and 46 of UCLA’s 67 home runs. That is a lot of firepower to replace.
The Bruins also say goodbye to their two best starting pitchers in 2019, Ryan Garcia and Jack Ralston, who went 10-1 and 11-1 respectively and were the Bruins Friday and Saturday starters for most of the season. Nate Hadley, one of UCLA’s top relievers is also gone, as is his 8-1 record from 2019. That’s 29 wins versus 3 losses gone from 2019.
So, to say that the Bruins have a lot of holes to fill is an understatement.
Zach Pettway was a pleasant surprise in his freshman season in 2018 as the Sunday starter, but he had an injury-filled 2019, going 2-2 with a 4.55 ERA, worst among the UCLA staff. Coach Savage is on record that Pettway is back and better than ever in 2020. So, expect him to slot in as UCLA’s Friday “ace” starter.
After that, a pair of sophomores figure to start on Saturdays and Sundays. Nick Nastrini and Jessie Bergin figure to fill in those respective roles in 2020. Bergin started on Sundays after Pettway was hurt last season, and went 5-0 with a 4.43 ERA. Nastrini started the season well, but was sidelined for most of the year with thoracic outlet syndrome. He returned to pitch in the postseason and acquitted himself well.
The midweek starter is a big question mark. Not because the Bruins lack talent, but because it will either be a sophomore who did not see much action last year (Sean Mullin, who threw 6.1 scoreless innings of relief as a freshman) or a freshman with a familiar name, Jared Karros. Yes, he is the son of Bruin icon and former MLBer Eric Karros.
If there is one place where the Bruins return a lot of talent, it is the bullpen. Junior closer Holden Powell (17 saves, 1.84 ERA) and senior set-up man Kyle Mora (47 appearances, 2.03 ERA) are back. Powell was Stopper of the Year last season as a sophomore and is on the Stopper of the Year Watch List this season.
Felix Rubi, who is also a contender for the midweek starter role, Michael Townsend, and Jack Filby also return from last season. Redshirt junior Nick Scheidler, who missed all of 2019, returns in 2020 and gives UCLA something they did not have last season—a left-handed bullpen option.
There are also a number of freshmen who could contribute, but only time will tell which of them will make major contributions to the squad in their first year in a Bruin uniform.
Two returning starters from last year will have new positions this season. Junior Kevin Kendall, who played a lot of shortstop last year, will slide over to second base. Sophomore Matt McLain, a natural shortstop who played center field last season, will move to shortstop. Both are excellent defensively, but will need to improve their offensive numbers from 2019.
Sophomore Jake Moberg, who only had two hits in 14 at-bats last season, should get the chance to start at third base. Redshirt freshman JT Schwartz, figures to start the season at first base. These two greenhorns will need to learn on the job and learn quickly if UCLA is to be a threat from the plate in 2020.
Perhaps UCLA’s best returning player from 2019 is junior outfielder Garrett Mitchell. Mitchell had a breakout season in 2019 and is a terror on the base paths, hitting .349 with 6 home runs, 41 RBI and 12 (count ‘em 12!) triples. Mitchell also stole 18 bases. Like I said, he is an absolute terror on the base paths. Mitchell should switch from right field to center field in 2020.
Redshirt junior Jarron Silva, who had some big hits in 2019 but will need to become more consistent at the plate after he hit .239 in 2019 with 9 RBI in 41 at-bats, should start in left field. Right field is a question mark, but the Bruins appear to have filled that spot with junior college transfer Pat Caulfield, who plied his trade at Santa Barbara City College last season. Kyle Cuellar, who had a great freshman season but two substandard sophomore and junior seasons, could work his way into the outfield if he can find the hitting groove he had in 2017.
Catcher and Designated Hitter
Another lock for UCLA is at the catcher position, where Noah Cardenas returns for his sophomore season. Cardenas was a revelation in 2019, leading UCLA in batting average, hitting at a .375 clip. Will McInerny returns for his senior year and figures to back-up Cardenas.
The Bruins have a lot of options at DH, including Cuellar if he can get his bat going. Sophomore and right-handed hitter Mikey Perez could start at DH against left-handed pitching, while junior Jordan Prendiz, a left-handed bat, could face right-handers. Freshman Michael Curialle could also work himself into the mix.
Don’t expect the Bruins to win 50 games again this season. Although UCLA is projected to finish second in the conference behind Arizona State in the Pac-12 Preseason Coaches Poll, I expect there to be a drop off in hitting and starting pitching from 2019. It is just hard to replace the kind of production at the plate from guys like Toglia and Strumpf and on the mound from Garcia and Ralston, who each won more than ten games. The bullpen should be exceptional, as well as the defense. Expect to see a lot of 3-2 and 4-3 type games.
That having been said, UCLA should most definitely make the postseason, and I think that there is a 50/50 shot that the Bruins host a regional. After that, I make no predictions.
Part of the fun of this season will be in seeing which of the new starters will blossom into major contributors for the Bruins in the 2020 season. It will be a bumpier ride than last year, but that should be part of the fun.
Let us know your thoughts about the 2020 UCLA Bruins baseball team and the upcoming season in the comment section below.
Play Ball! And . . .