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Cal Baseball and Softball Previews - plenty of opportunities for youngsters

There are big shoes to fill for Cal Baseball and Softball in 2020.

Darren Baker is on the preseason All-Pac-12 team
Cal Baseball Twitter

Cal Baseball and Softball will start in about a month from now. Here is my take on what to expect from these teams for the 2020 season.

Cal Baseball - How do you replace a legend like Andrew Vaughn?

2019 Recap - 32-20, 17-11 in Pac-12; NCAA Fayetteville Regional

Andrew Vaughn, a once-in-a-lifetime talent is now on the fast track to make his MLB debut with the Chicago White Sox after being drafted 3rd overall in the 2019 MLB Draft and make a pretty strong debut last summer.

Cal Baseball also lost other talents, including another first round pick in catcher Korey Lee to the Houston Astros as well as starting CF Cameron Eden and ace pitcher Jared Horn in day 2 of the draft. Vaughn, Eden, and Lee are the top 3 batter (by batting average) on the team in 2019. Ace reliever Arman Sabouri is also drafted after graduating from Cal. Bears also lost an athletic SS signee in Kyren Paris who turned pro after being a 2nd day pick.

In short, the 2020 Cal Baseball will look like a very different team, and that has nothing to do with the reintroduction of the pinstripe in the uniforms.

Nonetheless, the insanely young pitching staff of 2019 has aged by a year under the tutelage of head coach Mike Neu, a former MLB pitcher and long time pitching coach. The main returnee on the mound for the Bears are RHP Sam Stoutenborough (team high 81.2 IP), RHP Sean Sullivan (tie for the team lead with 4 saves), and RHP Grant Holman (37.1 IP was 5th most on the team).

By the way, Mike Neu has been extended to 2024 after two successful seasons at the helm of Cal Baseball. What is perhaps even more promising by that extension is the news that Cal remain committed to have a baseball program since the process of building up an endowment so that the program will be financially independent is a very slow one.

Cal will also have some experienced starters back such as 2B Darren Baker (although his father Dusty will probably not be around as much now), 3B Quentin Selma (draft eligible last year but was not taken), and CF Brandon McIlwain (a 26th round draft pick last year by the Miami Marlins who is betting on himself to comeback strong after a season ending injury). Other returning starters for the Bears include OF Max Flower, INF Sam Wezniak, and DH Grant Holman.

McIlwain, the former Cal QB, is capable of winning games with his athletic ability such as causing havoc on the base path. He could be one of the more intriguing prospect in college baseball in 2020.

Darren Baker (0.306/0.367/0.335 - slash line shown are batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage), who has shown a very smooth field glove if a bit streaky at the plate, has earned some love in preseason All-Pac-12 team picks.

Quentin Selma (0.311/0.366/0.584 with 10 homers) has also earned some preseason attention for being a top 100 batter in college baseball.

Interestingly, out of the newcomers, 4 of them are two-way players in Dylan Beavers, Aaron Roberts, Steven Zobac, and Joseph King.

To be fair, Andrew Vaughn himself was not a particularly highly rated out of high school as a two-way player recruit when he came to Cal four years ago. Obviously, the odds of Cal getting another Vaughn-esque talent is slim, but you never know which freshmen will be an immediate impact player.

On the plus side, there have been a lot of talent loss across the board in the Pac-12 this past summer. Then again, those other teams are not losing an Andrew Vaughn (though Oregon State comes close with the loss of the 1st overall pick Adley Rutschman).

Bears will open the year at Long Beach State on Valentine’s Day. Interesting non-conference foes include a trip to TCU (who beat the Bears in the NCAA Regional last year) and a road trip to Gonzaga during conference play (because Pac-12 has odd number of teams as Colorado does not have a baseball program).

Cal Softball - Plenty of opportunities for the 10 freshmen and 1 transfer

2019 Recap - 28-27, 5-18 in Pac-12; No postseason berth

Apparently, the last time that Cal Softball had so many newcomers to a team was 2002 - the only year when the program won the NCAA championship. That is probably not a healthy expectation for the 2020 team, however.

Cal Bears have plenty of holes to fill after graduating both starting pitchers in Zoe Conley and Kamalani Dung (who is staying around as a volunteer coach). Furthermore, Cal also graduated the on-base and stolen base (30 for 30 in 2019) machine that was Lindsay Rood (0.396/0.437/0.594). Bears barely had a winning record with those 3 stars in 2019 while missing the NCAA tournament.

Of course, there is always hope with newcomers. As good as Conley and Dung (both transfers into Cal after starting their collegiate careers at Cal State Northridge and Fresno State, respectively) were, they were not quite as dominant as one would love for an ace pitcher in the Pac-12 to be, particularly in missing the bat.

Sophomore Alexandra Perez is the only Cal Bears with collegiate pitching experience on the squad and that’s only a sample size of 45 innings over 13 appearances. Transfer Chloe Romero (who didn’t have that much of a track record in one season at Texas), freshmen Maggie Joseph and Sona Halajian are the new pitchers on the roster. Joseph, from Nevada, is probably the heir-apparent as the ace in the staff.

In the lineup, Bears do return top homerun hitter in junior OF Mikayla Coelho. For whatever reason, Coelho had a huge drop in batting average down to 0.262 from 0.320 in her freshman season. Lauren Espalin (0.346/0.408/0.447), Makena Smith (0.315/0.378/0.430), and Amani Bradley (0.286/0.307/0.319) are the other top returning batters.

There should be plenty of opportunities for new Cal batters to break into the lineup in 2020.

The Pac-12 will be a very tough competition yet again. Washington is picked as the preseason favorite follow closely by UCLA, last year’s NCAA defending champs. Arizona gives Pac-12 a 3rd team ranked in the top 5 nationally; all three schools are coming off College World Series berths. ASU at No.22 is the lone other Pac-12 ranked team while Oregon and the resurgent Stanford program (after several lean years due to a scandal surrounding the program) also received votes. Cal is picked to finish in a tie for last with Utah.

Finally, I should mention that Cal’s homefield of Levine-Fricke has been renovated during the offseason as a part of a $30 million facility improvements to Cal Softball and Beach Volleyball. Bears won’t have a home game until mid-April. Between the newer facility and alum Valerie Arioto expected to shine in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Cal Softball should hopefully be getting a big boost in recruiting soon.

Until then, 2020 will be a season with low-to-no expectations for Cal Softball. Hopefully, a few of these numerous freshmen will be important building blocks for a Cal team that will vie for national titles in a couple of seasons.