Previewing Vandy Baseball in 2010
I’m quite excited to be out in Los Angeles this weekend for the first live college baseball I’ll have seen since last May’s disastrous series loss to Todd Raleigh’s Volunteer team (a weekend which caused such concern over the illegal bats used by the Vols, that composite barrel bats are now illegal). Anyway, enough of my loathing of all things Orange in baseball, the Black and Gold of Vanderbilt got going over the weekend and it was a dandy. The Commodores played host to the Niagara Purple Eagles, but were far from hospitable on the diamond.
Behind a strong pitching performance from the King (Sonny Gray), the Dores easily took the opener, 9-0. The bats then really woke up with a 16-2 thumping on Saturday, complemented by a solid start from Taylor Hill. Sunday was bloody with the Dores laying into the Purple Eagles with 25 unanswered runs after Niagara jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Big Jack Armstrong had some tough luck and was a little wild as the starter.
On Tuesday, Austin Peay came across town to the Hawk and gave Vandy all we could ask for. They threw a former weekend starter named Vicini who was coming off of an injury plagued season. He was healthy, shutting the Dores down through 6 before giving way. Chase Reid, Richie Goodenow and Russ Brewer were all really dominant for the Dores on the hill and Andrew Giobbi won it in the 10th with an RBI single, for a 2-1 win. Not quite the dominating performance of the weekend, but it’s sometimes nice to just get a nail biter win, especially before a top flight tournament against three NCAA caliber teams, including a showdown with the top pro prospect in NCAA baseball (UCLA’s Gerritt Cole).
The past week was the first look at some key newcomers, such as Mike “#YAZ!” Yastrzemski, Regan “Little Flash” Flaherty and Connor “I Don’t Have a Nickname Yet” Harrell, the three freshman leading the battle to fill the outfield spots vacated by Steven Liddle and Jonathan White. My thoughts on them and the rest of the team follow the jump in this, my Vanderbilt Baseball Preview for 2010.
Around the Horn
Vanderbilt returns starters at 7 of the 9 positions (including Designated Hitter and excluding Pitcher), having only lost Liddle in Rightfield and White in Centerfield. As a result, there’s a good deal of certainty on the defensive end of the spectrum and even in the batting lineup. Believe me when I say that that makes a preview a whole lot easier. Last year… not so much.
First Base and Catcher
First base is likely to be manned by the same core that’s been there the majority of the last two years. In 2008, it was primarily Andre Giobbi’s realm and Gio became a stellar glove at that position. Following Curt Casali’s arm injury in the Spring of 2009, Gio moved behind the plate and Casali started taking his reps at First, with Aaron Westlake filling in at both spots from time to time. Expect to see Curt get the bulk of the starts at First in the first half of the year with Gio settling in behind the dish; however, as Curt’s arm gets healthy, he ought to see some starts behind the dish.
Aaron Westlake could also see time at First when he’s not starting in Leftfield or at Designated Hitter. Jack Armstrong figures to see some limited action at First and Joe Loftus could also sneak in an inning or two at that spot. Behind Gio and Curt, Drew Fann and Nathan Gonzalez fill out the Catching depth chart, with Westlake as the emergency catcher.
Casali is one of many Northeastern Dores, hailing from New Canaan, Connecticut. He’s a phenomenal batter with great plate patience and tremendous power. In 2009, he hit .336 with 10 HRs and 59 RBI last year while playing the entire season with the torn elbow ligaments. He’s also an elite level catching prospect and a more than serviceable 1B. The Tommy John surgery will probably mean he never fulfills his catching potential at Vandy, but he’ll be a catcher in the pros. Curt is expected to bat cleanup or fifth in the order and should start every game at either First base, Catcher or Designated Hitter.
Giobbi has the physical tools to be be an All-SEC performer, but things never have come together. There’s usually been injury factoring in, so we can hope he stays healthy this year. He and Brian Harris are both 5th year seniors and are leaders. Gio in particular, is supposedly a top notch leader for the team and he’s been handed a lot of control behind the plate. That said, he’s a better defensive 1B than he is a catcher, so I’d hope to see him move back there if Casali is healthy. Some pro team is going to get a draft day steal in Gio this summer, because his potential is really pretty high, though his age will work against him.
Drew Fann is a solid role player this year, providing depth behind the plate. As is needed for any SEC player, Drew can hit a fastball, though I don’t think he’s going to be needed to do so for the team to score runs. More important is his development behind the plate. He’s looked good there in a couple of innings this year and he should see some time this year there, especially midweek and as a defensive replacement to give Gio and Curt some rest.
Nate Gonzalez comes into the program as a well regarded recruit with good catching skills; nevertheless, after an injury plagued Fall, I would imagine that Corbin and crew are looking to redshirt Nathan and let him spend a year in the weight training program. I’m not sure of Nate’s build, but he tips the scales at a stout 224 lbs at only 5’8”.
I know I had conversations with a few folks who cover the team two years ago when Aaron Westlake first came into the program staying that, regardless of the lack of results (he hit something like .230 before getting injured and redshirting), Aaron was clearly an elite hitter. More so than Pedro, Flash and a bunch of the other elite hitters we’ve had here, Aaron just owns the batters box when he’s in it. We’ll start to see the power more this year, but he’s a guy who you can pretty much count on to hit .340+ this year… maybe even .400. Definitely the best hitter on the team.
I will address Big Jack and Loftus later in this preview.
Coach Corbin has the luxury of true experience in the core of his infield with Brian Harris and Riley Reynolds. Harris, the second of two fifth-year Seniors on the squad, is the proverbial vacuum at short. Though neither his range nor his arm would qualify as excellent, he’s incredibly consistent. Meanwhile, Sophomore Reynolds bounced back from a rough first few weeks defensively last year to become an excellent defensive option at the 4 spot.
Backing the two up will be newcomers Bryan Johns (a Junior who transferred from JuCo national champion Howard CC (TX)) and Anthony Gomez (a Freshman from New Jersey power Don Bosco HS). Others could see time at Short and Second, but these should be the four in heavy rotation.
It doesn’t matter that he’s always had his doubters (myself included, at times), Brian Harris simply exceeds expectations every year. He does it by being probably the best in the SEC at just getting on base. Someone will have a better OBP, but other than the Matt LaPorta types, you won’t find anyone better at drawing walks and HBPs. Also, even though he doesn’t have the strongest arm, he’s impeccable in the field and has a very quick, clean release. I would expect him to compete for All-SEC honors again this year out of the leadoff spot in Coach Corbin’s lineup.
Riley Reynolds was the “surprise” All-American Freshman last year. I say surprise because it wasn’t a surprise to anyone familiar with the program and the recruiting by the Dores, but he wasn’t terribly highly regarded by scouting services. He’s a great athlete (even though he runs like a girl… err… soccer player) and is a classic slap hitter. You can expect him to be a solid defensive and offensive presence. He’ll probably hit 6th, 7th or 8th all year, unless Corbin moves him into Esposito’s two spot.
Bryan Johns is experienced and looks like he’ll combine being a pesky hitter with some pop and being a reliable defender. He definitely has the added advantage of having “been there” on the JuCo level and I expect he’s the first defensive sub in the infield if anyone gets hurt among Riley, Brian and JSpo. Over the weekend, despite limited production, it was clear that Johns is comfortable and the plate and that he has a nice compact swing that should translate to the SEC.
Anthony Gomez, meanwhile, saw limited action in the Niagara series and carries the small sample size dubious honors of earning a mere 1.0 RC/27 over the weekend. Gomez did look very good in the field and I do think he eventually will be our Shortstop next year. The biggest problem I foresee is his insistence on using the Three Six Mafia for his walk-up song (more on that later, with respect to the human rights violation committed by Regan Flaherty).
Unlike most all positions, you can be pretty sure that Third Base will be manned by one guy for every meaningful inning this year. That player is Jason Esposito, who is really the only position player on the Commodores who projects right now to be a first round MLB draft kind of guy. I think I probably regard JSpo a bit more than most fans, but his talent and athleticism is the total package.
From a pure athleticism perspective, Esposito might be the best position player during the Corbin era (I’d only put Price above him overall from an athleticism perspective). His swing completely fell apart in the second half of last year, but it looked to be back in shape this weekend and, most importantly, we saw him go the other way for three hits on Sunday. That’s huge and something he didn’t do last year. If he can show a bit more patience at the plate and continue to play perhaps the best infield defense during the Corbin era, Esposito could be looking at All-American honors.
In the rare instances when Esposito will take a break, Gomez, Andrew Harris and Aaron Westlake could all see time at Third or play Short shifting Brian Harris to Third. The younger Harris brother saw his first action over the weekend and capitalized with a whopping (sample size distorted) RC/27 of 64.00. He seems to have a nice swing and better size and athleticism than his brother. Continuing a long line of Harris family members in the program, I would not be surprised to see Andrew get some time in the coming years both on the infield and the outfield.
As noted above, the outfield sees great changes this year for the Dores, with two starters departing. The one holdover is Joe Loftus, perhaps the top hitter to come out of Minnesota high school baseball since Joe Mauer. Loftus has huge power potential and very solid bat whip in his swing. He’s not gonna hit .350, but he could be a .300, 12, 45 guy this year. More importantly, he’s got an absolute laser from the OF and will fit well into Rightfield this year after manning Leftfield for most of last year. He’ll hit toward the second half of the batting order and is a guy who could become a true elite player in the next couple of years.
It appears Westlake will man Leftfield primarily, with Mike Yastrzemski in Center and Regan Flaherty and Connor Harrell as the primary reserves at each spot. Additionally, I would expect Jordan Wormsley will see significant time.
#YAZ! – Mike Yastrzemski (yes, I do know how to spell it) is a kid who really, really blossomed in the last 10 months. He was not expected to be an impact guy when we first learned of his verbal, but in the spring I started to hear more and more that the kid had made huge strides and could be an impact guy. Well, that’s an understatement. I expect him to have the same kind of impact for us in Center this year that Reynolds had at Second last year. I don’t know that he’ll hit .332 like Riley did, but he’s gonna play solid defense and hit enough to keep ‘em honest. Also, like Riley, he needs time to develop physically. As for now, you’ll have some people say at the Hawk that “Number 18 is the best 12 year old I’ve ever seen play.”
I admit some bias in liking Regan Flaherty as a prospect; his older brother Flash is my favorite ‘Dore baseball player and Regan looks like a slightly more powerful clone of Ryan at the plate. He’s got that same swing and, though Regan isn’t quite the athlete Ryan was, he’s not far from it and Ed Flaherty has said he thinks Regan could end up being a better hitter. I don’t know that he’ll start consistently this year, but I do expect him to be in heavy rotation. My one beef is that he has the absolute worst walk-up music in Commodore history. It’s as if T-Pain vomited all over the stadium speakers with Autotune flowing ear to ear.
The trio of Freshman Outfielders are so good that Connor Harrell probably ranks third. Scary, as Harrell had the most impressive debut of the three, in some regard. Harrell started his career with a 4-7 weekend with 5 RBI and 8 times reaching base in 11 PAs. He’s a different kind of baseball athlete, looking like a linebacker with SEC speed in that category. At the plate, he seems to be disciplined and ready to contribute immediately – which is important given the fact that his compatriots in Left and Center all hit left-handed. I somewhat think we’ll see he and Regan in a platoon in the OF eventually.
Veteran reserve Jordan Wormsley figures to push all three Freshman for playing time. The Junior out of Knoxville has almost always produced in limited action – mostly as a defensive replacement. In particular, Wormsley has torched the dreaded Volunteers. He’s a good to very good defensive player and should see some time spelling Westlake in late inning situations and could provide further depth as a left-handed bat.
Sean Murphy is the last remaining member of the position bench. I don’t know much of anything about the walk-on, other than the fact that he’s listed as a utility guy. Russell Brewer (a converted infielder) and Jack Armstrong (a sometimes first baseman) could also see time in the field.
Vanderbilt lost its three most traveled arms from last year, with its top inning eaters (Mikie Minor, Caleb Cotham and Nick Christiani) heading off to pro ball, DJ will be looking to some guys who are new to the weekend rotation. Sonny Gray saw a couple of weekend starts last year and will lead things off on Friday nights. Taylor Hill is expected to handle Saturday duties and Big Jack Armstrong will get a shot at Sunday starts. Senior Drew Hayes and Junior Chase Reid should handle most of the midweek starts.
Probably a top five pitcher in the nation, Sonny Gray’s outing on Friday was very encouraging because he threw very economically and didn’t waste pitches. In SEC play, your first man out has to be able to get deep into the Friday night game. Sonny had only one Friday start as a Freshman and wasn’t asked to get past the 6th inning on a regular basis, a task that both David Price and Mikie Minor struggled with as Sophomores before mastering as Juniors. Sonny might have the best curveball in the country, and his two seam fastball, when its moving, is as good as Price’s slider and Casey Weathers’ fastball.
Taylor Hill is a weird case in that he has a power arm and good, consistent control and yet he somehow found himself out of the rotation and pen last year as the forgotten man. Last weekend, Hill had a fine, scoreless 6.1 inning outing against Niagara. He had a good fall and earned the Saturday spot and I expect him to really have a nice year. He should be able to give us a 3.50 – 4.50 ERA type of year, which should be good for 5-8 wins.
On Sunday is Jack Armstrong, Vandy’s wildcard. Armstrong was an all-star on the Cape last summer after not being able to crack the bullpen as a Freshman. It’s worth noting that it is much easier to throw 97 MPH fastballs at wood bats than it is at aluminum bats. Armstrong’s biggest problem was control as a Senior in HS and the same was true of him last year. It remains to be seen if he can take what he did last summer and translate it to SEC baseball. He’s actually got the highest ceiling of any player on the team (even higher than Gray and Esposito), but he’s also accomplished the least of any third team preseason All American (Perfect Game) in the history of All-American lists. Armstrong will also going to get some time as a pinch hitter and occasionally First baseman.
In the midweek role, I think a lot of people forget how good Chase Reid can be. He holds the Valley League record for Ks in a game at 19 (set two summers ago) and has been good, but not great, as a Dore in his first two years. Reid has a solid frame and the second best curve on the team. With a strong right arm, Reid should be superior to most midweek starters that Vanderbilt will face this year. That certainly was true of Reid’s performance in Vanderbilt’s 2-1 win over Austin Peay this past Tuesday.
Drew Hayes might also see some spot starts, earned through his classic power arm. The problem is he gets far too wild both within and without the zone. If he could consistently locate, he’d be an All-SEC candidate, but instead he’s likely going to end up as a late inning reliever with a spot start or two, as was the case last year.
In the bullpen, standout closer Russ Brewer and dominant lefty specialist Richie Goodenow will lead a slightly younger and less experienced stable of relievers. Lefties abound in the pen for the Dores this year.
If there’s one thing you want in a closer, it’s a killer instinct. If there’s a second, it’s experience. In Russ Brewer, Tim Corbin has both. He was an All-Star closer on the Cape each of the last two years and has thrived in that role at Vanderbilt as well. He’s probably the most taken-for-granted player on the team, which is what you always want to be able to say about a closer.
While Brewer under appreciated, Richie Goodenow is recognized but still doesn’t seem to get enough innings (as is the case with most specialists). As a Freshman, there wasn’t a left handed batter in America that Richie couldn’t get to flail away at a slider. Yet he still struggles at times with righties or with smaller strike zones that are hard to find with a Frisbee slider.
Goodenow is joined by two solid lefty arms in Corey Williams and Grayson Garvin. Williams probably improved more than anyone between last year and this. He was really popping the glove in his appearance this weekend and will definitely get solid minutes out of the pen. Garvin is one of the more intriguing prospects with a very long frame, good arm and dancing two-seem fastball. He didn’t see time over the weekend, but should be a bullpen regular and could see a spot, midweek start.
Will Clinard is a promising righty with a live arm and a good frame. He looked pretty good this past weekend against Niagara and he should see plenty of time this Spring. Clinard will be the sole, righty setup man until Mark Lamm and Navery Moore come back off of serious injuries. Lamm has phenomenal stuff but lost his strike zone in the Cape two summers ago and hasn’t been the same since. His Tommy John surgery this past Summer could end up being a big plus for him if he can come back rebuilt next year. Meanwhile Moore is fully recovered from Tommy John, but is now dealing with a bum knee. He’s got almost as high a ceiling as Gray and Armstrong.
Also in the pen are two Freshmen who stand to see limited action with a more experienced set of arms ahead of them. Sam Selman is supposed to be the next big thing on the mound for the Dores and I expect Corbin will protect his arm with limited innings this year. Selman’s low to mid-90s velocity suffered late last Spring and Summer, possibly because he’s not really big enough to really handle the grind yet, at 6’1, 165 lbs. He will build that though and he has a huge arm. Among freshmen lefties, Selman is probably only second to Matt Purke at TCU in “big arm” reputation.
Meanwhile, Keenan Kolinsky might be able to take a redshirt or provide some dept. In addition to providing lefty arm, Kolinsky also can play the outfield.
We will know a lot more about this Commodore team after the tournament in Los Angeles. The early competition from Niagara and Austin Peay is both a small sample size and generally weaker competition that Vanderbilt will face in the SEC. The Commodore lineup should score consistently this year, but you’ve got three weekend guys who are seeing their first regular weekend work. Particularly when you get to SEC play, you don’t know what to expect. That said, the Dores are a team that, on paper, is a borderline top 25 team with enough strength to get to Hoover and the NCAA tournament.