David Esquer was instrumental in saving Cal Baseball and sound to be a great guy (which is great for recruiting). How much of the Bears' lack of sustained success in his regime is on him?
I've been around the program since 2006, and I've seen a lot of great players come and go. I like to cite that 2006 team, in particular, when talking about the success that former Bears have had in the pros, because the biggest knock on Esquer is that he recruits a ton of talent, but can't do anything with it. On that 2006 team, you had future big leaguers Brennan Boesch, Allen Craig, Josh Satin, Tyson Ross and Brandon Morrow. That team didn't make it to the playoffs and finished 26-28. In 2007, the Bears lost Boesch, Craig and Morrow, but added Jeff Kobernus, Brett Jackson and David Cooper. They finished 29-26 and 12-12 in conference. Not a bad year, but clearly not the kind of performance you expect from a team with five future big leaguers.
So, yes, it shows that Cal can recruit with the best and produce big leaguers, but there's a glaring disconnect between talent and results. The question is: Why?
I've sat down with Esquer for hours on end to talk about the 2011 season, and his overall tenure at Cal, and the theme has always been that on those teams, not everyone was pulling in the same direction. The sense that I get is that the staff wasn't in harmony, and the players picked up on that. As we saw on the gridiron, if a staff isn't all on the same page, the team senses it and mirrors it. Beyond that, there were some players on those teams who played more for the name on the back of the jersey, as opposed to the name on the front, and instead of leading from the front, they marched to their own beat. Those players who were expected to be the on- and off-the-field leaders have struggled at the big league level, or washed out before they got there.
That changed with Mark Canha. Canha brought a tireless, selfless work ethic that became infectious, and the youngsters that came in during his last season in 2010 really bought in to that attitude. Who came in, that year? Renda, Jones, Mitch Delfino and Devon Rodriguez. Going further back, others who were taken under Canha's wing were Chadd Krist, Danny Oh, Marcus Semien, Dixon Anderson, Joey Donofrio, Matt Flemer and Erik Johnson. What do those names have in common? They were the heart and soul of the 2011 team. As much acrimony as it engendered, Esquer's firing of Jon Zuber in favor of Tony Arnerich also played a big role. Esquer felt that, in 2011, he finally had his ideal staff, and his ideal team. The staff worked together better than it had ever in Esquer's tenure, and they did it under some considerably less-than-ideal circumstances. The team took its cue from that.
Now, you can rightly say that the staff's harmony is a direct responsibility of the head coach, and that's absolutely true. That said, Jon Zuber brought in a lot of the aforementioned talent, and then some, and I'm sure that there are those who will wonder why things couldn't get worked out. But, you can't argue with what the team did once Esquer switched Tony Arnerich for Zuber - two straight playoff seasons and a much more cohesive team from top to bottom. Now, since those two runs, it's been two straight years of missing the postseason, but Esquer has said almost since the day the program was reinstated that this was going to be a three-year rebuild to get back to the trajectory the program was on when it got cut. 2014 will be Year Three. While the last bunch of stars were the children of Canha, so to speak, the group here now came of age under Renda, and the freshmen are going to be under the leadership of Rodriguez, who's put his health on the line for the program.
No, they may not have Chadd Krist, Marcus Semien, Tony Renda, Matt Flemer Mitch Delfino, Justin Jones, Erik Johnson, Dixon Anderson, et. al, but Kranson is going to turn into a very special hitter (as we saw at the end of last season), Tenerowicz will remind a lot of people of Renda (only with a more bubbly demeanor), you have Flemer's fire in Mason, Rodriguez is back as the fifth-year senior veteran leader at the heart of the order, and you're bringing in potential aces in Haseltine and Jefferies, another 6-foot-6 righty in Schick and developmental arms in Martinez and Buckley. There's also a lot of spirit on this team, and as close as I was to those teams from 2006-08, I never got the feeling that they were as tight-knit as this bunch is. This group also takes its cues from the young assistants in Neu and Arnerich, in that they love to have fun. Anderson and Flemer all but mandated that no matter what the score, Cal would simply have more fun than the team across from them, and that's a big part of why the team went as far as it did in 2011. The leaders on this team now - Rodriguez, Vince Bruno and the scrappy Mike Reuvekamp - came up under that mantra.
In case you missed it (added in after the fact in the Q&A posted last week), here is a feature that Ryan did on Devon Rodriguez prior to the start of the 2013 season.
(Click here for the 2013 Preseason Feature on Devon Rodriguez)
Coming up next week, more on Ryan Gorcey's take on David Esquer, particular Esquer' propensity to use the bunt (my favorite question in this series).