Getting back to the College World Series is a major challenge for any team – so many things have to go right to get there in the first place. But last year, the Bears had the deck stacked against them in more ways than one.
The first reason is an obvious one: the impact of the program’s announced cancellation on recruiting. I can only begin to speculate on exactly how big of an impact that has had on recent recruiting and player retention, but the bottom line is that last year’s freshmen class was smaller and perhaps less ready to contribute immediately.
The second reason is even more obvious: the Bears were not healthy. Kyle Porter was expected to anchor the rotation, but he missed the beginning of the season and had to work his way back to full strength. Devon Rodriguez (1B) was expected to anchor the middle of the lineup but essentially missed the entire season with a knee injury he suffered just before the season began. And Justin Jones gamely pitched all year but never seemed to be the same pitcher he was before he injured himself pitching against Dallas Baptist in the Super-Regionals last year.
Some teams might have had the depth to absorb critical injuries like that. But Cal, after losing a number of key upper classmen to the MLB draft and graduation, were not. The Bears struggled to a 29-25 overall record, 12-18 in the Pac-12. In such a stacked conference, that’s not awful. But it’s a tough fall after the heights of the previous season.
Hopefully, the Bears are healthier this year. And hopefully last year’s freshmen class, with a year of practice and experience under their belt, are ready for an increased role. Because there are big shoes to fill for the second year in a row.
The biggest departure is obvious. Former Pac-10 player of the year and one of the greatest hitters in Cal history, Tony Renda, is off to ply his trade in the minor leagues with the Washington Nationals. But Cal also lost stalwarts Chadd Krist (Cubs), Mitch Delfino (Giants), Matt Flemer (Rockies), Danny Oh (Yankees), Joey Donofrio (St. Louis) and Chad Bunting (Independent League), amongst others. That’s a huge part of the core that led the Bears to Rosenblatt Stadium in 2011. Add it up and the Bears are losing six players who started the majority of Cal's games, along with their best starter and best relief pitcher.
The starting rotation seems likely to be the most stable part of the team. Justin Jones and Michael Theofanopoulos are both back, and Kyle Porter is healthy. If all three end up being the regular weekend starters, Cal will throw out an unusual all lefty rotation.
The lineup is likely less settled, but a few spots seem like safe guesses. Expect to see lots of Vince Bruno, Devon Rodriguez and Andrew Knapp. Bruno is Cal's leading returning hitter and will likely be a fixture at the top of the order. Rodriguez and Knapp (who will replace Chadd Krist behind the plate) will anchor the middle of the order. Derek Campbell and Chris Paul are two players who saw plenty of action last year, and I'd expect that both will see plenty of playing time in middle infield.
It's the outfield that look very new. Cal's roster lists six players as outfielders. Vince Bruno is one, and the other five are all freshmen. It's tough to find a ton of info about who will get the lion's share of the playing time, but Nick Halamandaris and Devin Pearson were both drafted, which speaks highly of their potential.
Logan Scott is back for his senior year and will likely close games out again. Chris Muse-Fischer was also excellent out of the pen as a true freshmen and he will certainly be seeing more high leverage situations. Look for Michael Lowden and Keaton Siomkin as well. Cal's bullpen was very young last year, but with most everybody back other than Joey Donofrio, it could be a strength in 2013.
Perhaps the biggest area for improvement is defensively. During Cal's World Series run in 2011 the Bears only committed 63 errors in 61 games. In 2012, that number ballooned to 99 in 54 games - nearly twice as many on a per game basis. With nearly every player either new or starting at a different position, there's really no way to know how the defense will change, but if it improves it will be a major benefit for a pitching staff that had to fight through more than their share of miscues in 2012.
Cal's season starts this Friday when Michigan visits Evans Diamond. The Bears will visit UC Irvine, then head to Texas for the Houston Classic, which looks to have a stacked field. Fresno State will visit for a four game set, and then it's conference play the rest of the way in the always stacked Pac-12.
If you're looking for reasons to get excited about the return of baseball other than the team itself, then check out this news:
Evans Diamond, which has served as the home of the Golden Bear baseball team on the University of California campus since 1933, will receive a major upgrade with the installation of a new sports lighting system and scoreboard scheduled for later this spring.
Entering the 2013 season, Cal stands as the only Pac-12 school without permanent lighting at its baseball facility. With the recent launch of the Pac-12 Networks, the ability to play night games will give Cal maximum opportunity to be televised by the Networks. In addition, the upgrades will allow the Bears to be eligible to host NCAA Regional contests at Evans.
Wonderful. Long overdue, but still wonderful. Stu Gordon's a pretty cool dude. The project is scheduled to finish by June, which means that Cal fans likely won't be able to watch baseball under the lights until next year. I'm looking forward to it.