The conventional wisdom in baseball (and one that is strongly backed by the San Francisco Giants in the 2010's even years) is that "pitching wins championship". Coming off that short but very memorable Texas A&M Regional last postseason, the Golden Bears return a very experienced team with basically the entire pitching staff intact (although former pitching coach Mike Neu is now the head coach at Pacific) and almost the entire lineup as well (missing top hitter in 3B Lucas Erceg, who transferred to a JuCo - Menlo College, after being academically ineligible http://www.d1baseball.com/analysis/california-two-way-star-erceg-transferring/). It is that heralded pitching staff that has college baseball pundits predicting a trip to Omaha for the Bears in 2016.
Baseball is a funny game, and one which less talented teams can seemingly pull off an upset win for any given game. Despite losing the season opening series to an unranked Duke teams (the two losses were by walk-offs), I still think quite highly of the Bears' chance to make it to the College World Series.
With the Cal pitching, it starts with junior right hander Daulton Jefferies. The junior is likely going to be a first round pick this summer (and probably gone after that). Jefferies has basically been the staff ace (aka "Friday starter") since his freshman season. Jefferies has a mid 90's fastball, and his changeup supposedly gotten a bit better after his summer stint (as a reliever) with Team USA. He was dominant in his debut, striking out 9 guys in 6 innings while allowing two unearned runs. I thought his command is one of his main strength, but was understandably a bit wild in his first game.
Senior righty Ryan Mason is a bulldog. Mason has served both as the Cal closer and the Friday starter in his Cal career. Given that he's more of a pitch to contact, bend but not break, kind of pitcher, I don't think he is really considered much of a prospect in the next level. Nevertheless, Mason is clearly one of the vocal leader on the team and an asset to have as that second ace (comes the postseason...getting way ahead of ourselves, I know).
Rounding out the weekend rotation is likely sophomore lefty Matt Ladrech, although I think sophomore righty Jeff Bain might also be in the mix. Ladrech started on Sunday but Bain actually threw more innings (4.1 vs. 3). It is certainly a good problem to have to have a long guy (loser of the Sunday starter battle) that has quite a bit of upside.
Sophomore Erik Martinez is apparently the new closer, he earned the save in both of Cal's wins so far on the year. Martinez has also struck out 7 guys in 3 innings pitched. I know that is quite a small sample size, but that K rate is downright Craig Kimbrel-esque. Other pitchers who have already been used in high leverage situation are senior Keaton Siomkin and freshman Tanner Dodson. Some publication had listed Dodson as the Cal closer, his stuff is apparently that good. Righty Alex Schick is apparently injured (according to the Duke broadcasters), he is another experienced arm for the Bears.
I do wonder how much stronger the Cal pitching staff would be had Canadian righty Mike Soroka enrolled instead of turning pro after being the 28th overall pick last year. In very limited pro appearance, Soroka has already been tapped by many as a fast rising pitching prospect for the Atlanta Braves (as a Braves fan, I kind of have some mixed feeling about him turning pro or coming to Cal).
Nevertheless, experience and depth are both there for the Bears right now (barring injuries...knock on wood).
Offensively, the Cal lineup is very experienced. Aaron Knapp, younger brother of Cal Baseball alum and former All American Andrew - a rising catching prospect in the Phillies system, is an experienced table setter and CF for the Bears. The junior is likely to be another high draft pick this summer. Both Aaron and Andrew are the sons of former Cal Baseball alum Mike Knapp; though I don't think there are any other Knapp brothers in the future.
Senior LF/DH Devin Pearson has been used in the two-hole. He led the team in batting average in 2015 with 0.355.
In the heart of the lineup for the Bears is senior Mitchell "El Gaucho" Kranson, who made a big impression last offseason with both his mustache, personality, and that game winning homerun in the extra inning at the Texas A&M Regional. Kranson is moving from behind the plate to 3rd base, although I am afraid that he will be a liability defensively.
Former 2nd baseman and 5th year senior Brendan Farney is back after missing all of 2015 due to injury. He is now the starting 1st baseman. He is not really a slugging hitter (back in 2013, 2014) but hits for a high average. Farney is slotted as the clean up hitter.
Switch hitting sophomore Brett Cumberland is behind the plate for the Bears. Cumberland hit the 3rd most homers (7) and had the 3rd most RBI's on the team in 2015. He had some issue blocking the ball in the opening weekend, but will probably get better now he gets more experience. This is going to be his first season as the main catcher.
Up the middle, the returning tandem of junior 2B Robbie Tenerowicz and sophomore SS Preston Grand Pre are a bit part of why the Bears turned the 3rd most double plays in the NCAA in 2015. Both are very solid defensively, which is very important to make our good pitching staff to be even better.
Seniors RF Brian Celsi and LF/RF/1B Nick Halamandaris round out the Cal lineup. Both guys are experienced and solid, if not spectacular. Celsi did win that National Player of the Week honor last season for that insanely great weekend when he was 8 for 11 with two homers and a double. He tied a school record with 8 RBI in one game.
Now that Cal Baseball has finally recovered from being on the chopping block, I think 2016 will go a long way to determine the longterm financial health of the program. Evans Diamond has improved so drastically in the past two seasons with the lights, scoreboard, and "beer garden". Now that we have a good team, hopefully Cal Baseball can capitalize on this and raised a bunch of money for the program to be more self sufficient.
His off the field contribution aside, I am sure Cal fans will find many instances to second guess head coach David Esquer all season long. I will go on the record and say that I do like Esquer's handling of the pitching staff for the most part. He is not afraid to lean on his main relievers for multiple innings. His affinity to bunt, on the other hand, is something that I don't want to talk about right now.
In short, this is the year for Cal Baseball. Several key players are all seniors in 2016 or draft eligible juniors (like Daulton Jefferies and Aaron Knapp). It surely would be nice if the Bears can live up to the hype and make it to the College World Series. Then again, high expectations before our stars turn pro was also the mantra for Cal football and men's basketball in this school year. Football didn't quite live up to the hype and the jury is still out on how we will remember this basketball season. More importantly, I think the team will again set attendance records (Cal Baseball only started playing night games at Evans since the middle of 2014 season) and hopefully be a lot more neutral monetarily. It should be a fun year. I am rather bummed that I don't have any more trips back to California planned to be able to see Cal Baseball in person in 2016.
Golden Bears (2-2) bounced back from dropping back-to-back walkoff heartbreakers last Saturday and Sunday at Duke to defeat San Francisco 5-4 on the home opener on Tuesday.