I've been doing a much too detailed UCLA baseball preview over at BruinsNation and part four of the preview was a look at the Pac-10, which Nick was kind enough to allow me to post here in hopes of building some excitement around the conference this baseball season. It is going to be a crazy season in the Pac-10 and one where just about anything can happen any week and little of it can be considered a true upset because almost everyone is so damn good.
The best way to bounce back from one of the world season's in conference history is with one of the best seasons any conference has ever had in the 64 team postseason era. After a horrendous 2009 season, the Pac-10 came back in 2010 and sent eight teams to the postseason, two of which advanced to the College World Series. Conference play was a gauntlet and wore on every team. This season, the conference figures to be ever better with almost every team returning a bulk of their players from a year ago as the Pac-10 tries to earn the title of nation's best conference for the second straight season.
This season, seven teams can make a legitimate claim to being a preseason top 25 team and an eighth, Oregon St., is most definitely a Regional contender. Even the two teams at the bottom of the conference who will really need to surprise people if they are to make the postseason are predicted to be better than the bottom teams in any other conference. How good is the Pac-10 looking this season? The team that most have pegged for seventh place, Washington St., is one that several have agreed could very well end up as a top three team in the conference and challenge for a host spot without being a completely shock.
So, what did the Pac-10 coaches think of the conference? Their preseason Pac-10 poll tells us (first place votes in parentheses, coaches could not vote their own team number one).
- UCLA (8)- 79
- Stanford (2)- 66
- Arizona St.- 60
- Oregon- 59
- Arizona- 48
- Cal- 46
- Washington St.- 37
- Oregon St.- 28
- USC- 16
- Washington- 11
Leading the crop of Pac-10 teams is UCLA, the national runner up a year ago after losing to South Carolina in the College World Series Championship Series. A long history of top flight talent and less than top flight results turned around last season when the Bruins got off to a 22-0 start and went on through to the College World Series for only the third time in program history. In the program's two previous trips to Omaha, UCLA lost the first two games and were sent home quickly, but last year they didn't just get the first ever College World Series win for the program, they won two more to complete the most successful year in program history.
This season, UCLA is a near consensus top three team in the nation, although whether they check in first, second or third is dependent on who you ask. Most of the praise for UCLA is because of their starting pitchers on Friday and Saturday in Gerrit Cole, who are two of the best pitchers in the country and form the best one-two punch there is. Cole is the Bruins' Friday night guy and finished last year with a 3.37 ERA last year and the third most strikeouts in the country thanks to a fastball in the upper 90's when he wants it and 89 mph slider. Bauer finished the year with a 3.02 ERA on Saturdays and led the country in strikeouts with an array of pitches that will make him a first round pick in June's MLB Draft, although likely behind Cole who is expected to be chosen in the top five. With seven returning position player starters and a small ball offense that lends itself to the style of play expected to be most effective with the new bats that limit power, the Bruins are strong with the bats too. UCLA's issue is on the mound after Cole and Bauer where they have almost no experience, but an abundance of talent including three of the best freshman pitchers in the Pac-10 will have to step up and prove themselves.
UCLA is the clear favorite to win the Pac-10, but many of the teams chasing them are College World Series contenders so the Bruins getting passed up is very much a real possibility. Stanford is the first team on the Bruins' heels and for good reason because their biggest foe is their schedule. Without taking a look at the schedules of every team in the country you can book the Cardinals' schedule as the toughest there is. They open the season by traveling to Rice then they head to Vanderbilt and then they go to Texas. It doesn't matter what happens after that, the Cardinal will have take some licks and if things go their way, given a few too.
The reason a murderous schedule like Stanford's isn't a killer is because they are stacking with talent. Kenny Diekroeger had a monster freshman season in which he hit .356 and Tyler Gaffney and Stephen Piscotty are back with their bats too to shore up the Stanford offense. Add in the nation's number one recruiting class that is filled with offensive talent like Austin Wilson, an preseason candidate for Freshman of the Year, and the Cardinal should have runs. On the mound, Stanford as more experienced pitching than anyone else in the conference. Head coach Mike Marquess can toss out quality arm after quality arm without fail, but the key to the season will be on Fridays and Saturdays. Brett Mooneyham and Jordan Pries are both very talented junior pitchers who have been in the starting rotation since they were freshman and could be absolute lock down pitchers. In fact, they have been lock down pitchers before, but they've struggled to do so consistently. Both are coming off of strong falls though and could be ready to give the Cardinal the front line pitching to make them a serious national title contender.
Unfortunately for Arizona St. it is not entirely significant how they play this season because they are ineligible for the postseason. A series of both minor and major violations landed ASU in trouble and with sanctions against their football team coming within the last five years the Sun Devils were hit with additional penalties as a repeat offender for a lack of institutional control. The penalties are a real shame for a team whose head coach was not a part of the era that landed the program these penalties and players who had no part of the violations, but that's how it usually works.
Although the Sun Devils will not be playing in the postseason barring their winning their appeal, they do have plenty of good players with an infield offense that is as good as any in the nation. The ASU infield hit a combined .383 last season and they're back, led by Zack McPhee, Riccio Torrez and Deven Marrerro, who all hit above .390. In total, seven starting position players are back from the Pac-10's most dynamic offense and the group fielding at a .976 clip to boot. The Sun Devils are going to have to do some rebuilding on the mound where they return none of their weekend starters, but do have Mitchell Lambson, maybe the best reliever in the country, hanging around in the bullpen.
A team many people are very high on and have unmatched depth on the mound, all remarkably in just the program's third season since being reinstated, is Oregon. Head coach George Horton worked his magic a year ago and in the program's second year had them as a number two seed in a Regional and in a Regional final. The Ducks did it on the back of incredible pitching that carried an offense that was somewhere between below average and bad. This year they are a trendy College World Series pick for two reasons. One is that their pitching is very good and pitching plays well in the postseason. The second reason is that picking Horton is always smart.
One of the conference's best pitchers from a year ago is back in Tyler Anderson. The left-hander finished the season with a 2.95 ERA and opponents hit just .219 against him. Scott McGough and Madison Boer are expected to take on bigger roles this season after 2.45 and 2.44 ERA's respectively out of the bullpen and the late addition of Porter Clayton gives the Ducks another left-handed arm to torch batters with. The problem of hitting the ball was only made worse by the news last week that KC Serna, far and away the Ducks' best hitter after hitting .348 last season, is suspended indefinitely so now they have to replace their shortstop for an undetermined time. One thing that gives the Ducks a chance to improve their offense is not just another year of experience, but the nation's number three recruiting class headlined by Stefan Sabol, who will take over at catcher.
A team that is flying under the radar because they struggled some a year ago, but did so with almost all underclassmen is Arizona. A year of dealing with young players pays off the next season and the Wildcats will look to do some damage this time around. Eight starting position players are back for Arizona and two of their weekend starters are also back in Tucson, as is a few key members of their bullpen. With little experience in 2010, the Wildcats won 34 games and one in their Regional. This year they will compete to host a Regional.
As promising as the year looks for Arizona, they were dealt an early blow when their top hitter, Steve Selsky broke his hand and had to undergo surgery that will keep him out at least a month. Even with Selsky out for a month, the Wildcats have one of best catchers in the conference, Jett Bandy and his .354 batting average, behind the plate. Joey Rickard is one of the fastest players in the country who shows off his speed on the base paths as well as in centerfield and on the mound, Kurt Heyer has a sensational freshman season in which he carried a 3.26 ERA. Oh yeah, and since Selsky is out out about a month, the Wildcats will be able to add a guy who hit .370 with nine homers and 52 RBI to their lineup before Pac-10 play starts.
If there is a more unfortunate story in the Pac-10 this season than Cal baseball, it's gone unmentioned. Because the athletic department has been so poorly managed for so long it is hemorrhaging money and instead of looking at the dozens of places the department is poorly run, they athletic department is just going to cut two sports, baseball included. 2011 will be the last season for Cal baseball despite being one of the oldest baseball programs on the West Coast and an emerging program that was ready to reap the benefits of back-to-back sensational recruiting years.
Starting as many as six freshman last season, Cal locked down a number two seed in a Regional and now come back in 2011 with most of their team back plus a year of experience as well as a second consecutive good freshman class. The Golden Bears have their entire weekend rotation from last season back including Justin Jones, who as a freshman was up and down, but had some dominating performances such as an eight inning, no run, 10 strikeout start against USC. Tony Renda hit .373 last season and Chadd Krist added 10 home runs to his .344 average. Cal has plenty of talent and can finish towards the top of the Pac-10, but how hey handle the adversity of having their program cut after the season will like determine their season.
Always overlooked, but under head coach Donnie Marbut always good, Washington St. is back again ready to compete for a Regional spot and this time, a spot in the Super Regionals. After a long spell as a Pac-10 afterthought, Marbut has the Cougars on the upswing and not only did they make a Regional for the second consecutive season last year, but the Cougs were one win away from winning the Regional. This season, the key for the Cougars is getting off to a decent start when they're almost exclusively on the road because if they can do so then they can take advantage of 17 straight at home in April and May to make a run up the Pac-10 standings and into a good Regional spot.
Like many Pac-10 programs, the strength of the Wazzu team is in their experience. Six starting position players return from last season and the entire weekend rotation is back in the Palouse. Chad Arnols anchors the rotation after maintaining a 3.74 ERA a year ago and like all of the Cougar pitchers, all they really want to do is get the ball to Adam Conley. Conley had a 3.33 ERA and 12 saves last year at the back end of the Wazzu bullpen so if they can get him the ball they're in good shape. Cody Bartlett gives the Cougs a good glove at second and a .323 batting average with a bit of pop and JC transfer Taylor Ard will give Marbut's club a major power threat.
It wasn't that long ago that Oregon St. had won their second consecutive national title in their third consecutive trip to the College World Series. The last two seasons have quite been what the Beavers faithful had hoped for though as their club hasn't made it out of their Regional in either year. A lot of the reason why has been at the end of the season where they haven't been able to finish strong. A year ago they looked to be in great shape until UCLA beat them in a 16 inning game and that loss ended up being the first of a stretch in which they lost 11 of 12. It was an ugly run in the latter part of the season for the Beavers, but the program is up to the point where making a Regional and winning a game or two there is considered a disappointment so it is not as if this program has gone away.
The biggest issue for the Beavers in 2011 will be figuring out what's going on with their starting pitching. It is not that the cupboard is bare, but there aren't many known quantities for the Beavers. A lot of talented pitchers who have little to no collegiate experience are going to get their shot, but the good thing for them is that they will get to pitch to Andrew Susac, one of the best defensive catchers in the country. Sam Gaviglio and his 5.60 ERA from a year ago is all the starting experience the Beavers have, but they do have Josh Oshic, who was absolutely filthy last season in holding opponents to a .170 batting average and will have to take on more of the load this season. Garrett Nash will be an old and new face at the plate for Oregon St. after returning from his Mormon mission to give the Beavers a bat who can make an impact.
There is a huge gap between the top eight in the Pac-10 and numbers nine and 10. Taking the number nine spot is the team that is historically the most successful program in the Pac-10, but has been dreadful for several years now and is in a state of flux still. USC may have the history, but they don't have a single thing to be proud of on the field lately. Four years of Chad Kreuter as head coach led to zero seasons in which the Trojans were postseason eligible, let alone in the postseason, and culminated in a last place finish in 2010. Kreuter was given the heave ho this offseason, but the move came so late in the offseason that instead of hiring a new coach to right the ship, the Trojans had to promote former LMU coach from assistant coach to interim head coach.
In an offseason in which the screams of joy that Kreuter was fired overshadowed the fact that the timing was so bad that the program is just hanging around, the high point of offseason was undoubtedly Austin Wood passing on signing with the Tampa Rays and going to USC. A former Florida St. pitcher who spent last season at a JC, Wood had a 0.58 ERA in the Cape Cod League this summer and gives the Trojans a pitcher they can lean on. They have a hitter they can lean on too in Ricky Oropesa who has insane power and proved it in hitting 20 home runs and driving in 67 runs a year ago. After that there isn't a ton to get Trojan fans excited, although there are a couple of promising freshman. Even at the end of the season, getting rid of Kreuter may still be the highlight of the campaign.
Bringing up the rear in the conference is Washington who is still trying to get their feet under them and start building in head coach Lindsey Meggs' second season in Seattle. After some highlights and strong points last year, most notably a sweep of Stanford in the middle of the five game win streak, the Huskies finished horribly by losing nine of their last 12. This season any talk of the postseason is for those Husky dreamers, but that doesn't mean there aren't step to take or reasons to be somewhat optimistic. Of Washington's 28 losses last season, 12 of them came by one or two runs so they weren't too far off from getting back up near .500.
There isn't a ton of talent on the Huskies' roster, but the couple guys who do stand out do so in bold, underlined, italics. Chase Anselment stepped in as a freshman catcher and all he did was defend exceptionally, hit .347 and knocked a half dozen balls out of the ballpark. Fellow freshman Jacob Lamb also smacked the cover off of the ball with a .342 batting average at the hot corner. Those two are now sophomores and will be heavily leaned upon, especially since Andrew Kittredge is the Huskies' best chance at a good starting pitcher and he had a 6.43 ERA in 2010. Just adding talent and getting a couple of the young pitchers experience while continuing to develop guys like Anselment and Lamb is all the Huskies are looking to do this season.