2011 Vanderbilt Baseball: Fall Preview, Part 1
This is the first in a six part series on Vanderbilt baseball’s 2011 season. Among all my most unhealthy habits, an addiction to following the Commodores baseball squad seems to be the most pervasive and difficult to crack. As a result, I’ve turned a time-wasting bit of fanaticism and converted it into a chance to write a bit. You can read each preview by clicking below on the links that follow the jump.
Up first is my review of the 2010/11 Vanderbilt recruiting class. The 13 man group fills out the Vanderbilt roster that lost a handful of folks before the start of the 2010 campaign and then six players following the year. It represents the last recruiting class started by Erik Bakich and the first for new recruiting coordinator Josh Holliday.
It should be noted that while this website endeavors to provide a solid team preview, membership over at VandySports.com is a must for any Commodore baseball fan. Chris Lee and Mike Rapp produce stellar premium content which is well worth the money spent. I know there’s no way I could follow the team as intently as I do without it.
Click on through for the preview, part 1.
- Part 1: The Newcomers
- Part 2: Positional Preview
- Part 3: Breaking Down the Staff
- Part 4: Season Preview
- Part 5: Looking Beyond 2011 – The Draft and Depth Chart
- Part 6: Looking Beyond 2011 – The Incoming Recruits
One cannot measure the transition of a team from year to year by merely viewing the incoming classes. The true measure of recruiting is not only finding great players, but also discovering the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that can be fitted together for the completed portrait. So before looking at the new pieces, let’s take a check on the old.
Although the attrition from the 2010 squad largely took place before the season started, with several transfers and one disciplinary departure depleting the roster to well below the maximum of 35 players, Vanderbilt does still look to replace a good number of key cogs. In fact, of the six players who don’t return to school for the upcoming seasons, nary a one played an insignificant role.
From the mound, pitching Coach Derek Johnson will have to find a way to replace fourth year junior closer Russ Brewer, a three year standout for the Dores and two-time Cape League all-star. The righty signed a deal with Colorado and leaves a gaping hole at the end of games, where his bulldog attitude and hard, heavy fastball and calming influence were a consistent source of success. Brewer has been assigned to the Rockies Casper Ghosts affiliate in the Pioneer League and has just recently reported.
Also gone is Vanderbilt’s top multi-purpose pitcher, in midweek starter and reliable reliever Chase Reid. Reid was a pitcher who flourished despite being an in-between guy, never quite in the weekend mix but far too valuable to be used only in midweek games as a starter. He served both roles and dominated as a red-shirt sophomore in that role. Reid signed with the Cardinals and has dominated for Batavia in the NY-Penn League, with a 2.05 ERA and a stunning 43:5 strikeout to walk ratio.
The bullpen also took a hit with the departure of perhaps its most dominant pitcher, lefty specialist Richie Goodenow, whose Frisbee slider was the bane of SEC left-handed hitters for three years. Following his redshirt Junior year, Goodenow decided that he needed to shift gears and transfer to Lipscomb to both have the opportunity to be a starter and control the extremely high costs of a Vanderbilt annual tuition check (and don’t get me started on the NCAA’s ridiculous scholarship policy for baseball). Goodenow leaves on the highest of notes after his spectacular 2-hit shutout of Louisville in the NCAA tournament, perhaps the finest pitching performance since Casey Weathers’ four perfect innings of relief at Kentucky in 2007.
DJ also must replace a key cog in weekday starter and weekend setup arm Drew Hayes. Although he never quite became as consistent in the zone as was needed to flourish, Hayes was perhaps the best pure power arm on the staff (which is impressive on any staff with Sonny Gray, Jack Armstrong, Joe Loftus and Navery Moore on roster) and, after completing his eligibility with a strong Senior campaign, was a draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds. Hayes has enjoyed a great start to his pro career, permitting just a .164 BAA and 1.35 ERA in 20 innings with the Billings Mustangs.
For as much as the team will miss those four, the two bedrock, fifth year seniors on the infield will be difficult to replace. Andrew Giobbi came to Vanderbilt alongside high school teammate and future All-American and first round draft pick Ryan Flaherty. Unlike Flash, Giobbi never quite realized his potential with the bat, but he became a spectacular defender at first base and then at catcher. His success there was so great that DJ eventually permitted him to call games for the staff, a rare honor in college baseball. Giobbi had success this summer with Seattle’s Pulaski Mariners affiliate, batting nearly .300 in 32 games.
Providing as significant a gap, Brian “Ouch” Harris went from unheralded walk-on to All-SEC shortstop and the NCAA record holder for Hit By Pitch in a season (hence the nickname “Ouch”). Although never blessed with the athletic gifts of Flash, his predecessor at short, Harris became the consummate Mr. Reliable both as the leadoff man and shortstop for two NCAA tournament squads. Harris signed with Tampa’s Princeton Rays affiliate and played in 39 games this summer.
All six players enjoyed standout careers with Vanderbilt and though, with the possible exception of Goodenow, they will not be seen on the field at the Hawk unless exiting the Alumni locker room, their impact will at least partially be felt in assisting in the construction of the 2011, Omaha-bound team. In addition to the departures, there has been one player who’s career path has shifted from that of player to coach. When Jordan Wormsley was named Vanderbilt’s student-athlete of the month in February, he mentioned that he saw his future on the bench or in the front office of a baseball squad. His father is the standout coach of the Webb School in Knoxville and Wormsley is getting a start on following that path with a role as a graduate assistant on the Dores 2011 squad. In addition to working with the young outfielders, Wormsley will be attending graduate school at the University.
After having great success dipping into the Junior College ranks in pulling in a Future All-American and Number 8 Overall MLB Draft Pick in Casey Weathers, a key spot starter in Hayes and current utility player and talented bat Bryan Johns, Coach Corbin has gone to the transfer route again. The two experienced players being brought in are a JuCo transfer from Central Arizona and a transfer from the Air Force Academy who sat out last year and will be eligible this spring.
Not only does Sam Lind somewhat mirror Johns in that he is a middle infielder from a southwestern (I might actually get hate mail for calling Texas southwestern… so I retract immediately and note it is a lovely independent republic) junior college with a highly potent bat, but he also comes in as a Junior who will likely be expected to compete right away for playing time. Lind was the ACCAC co-Offensive MVP in 2010, batting .404 with 9 triples, 6 homeruns and 57 RBI. The former Missouri Tiger will be a fourth year Junior (he sat out his freshman year at Missouri with an arm injury before transferring as a sophomore) and was rated, last year, as a serious draft prospect, despite not having been drafted out of high school. Lind will be competing for playing time with the departure of Harris from the middle of the infield. The 5’10”, 170 lb player hails from Hartford, SD and bats left handed. He chose Vanderbilt as his transfer destination over perennial power Cal State-Fullerton.
Taking the conventional, sit-out-a-year D1-to-D1 transfer route is former Air Force Academy Cadet Jack Lupo. The Indianapolis, IN native was that city’s player of the year as a high school senior, as awarded by the Indianapolis Star, and was an all-state catcher. As a freshman at the Academy in 2009, Lupo started 46 of 49 games and batted .272 with 6 homers, 29 RBI and 13 stolen bases. He played catcher and corner outfield, throwing out 8 base runners in 23 starts at catcher. More so than anything Lupo will provide consistent depth in two positions where there is some uncertainty, left field and catcher. Although Vanderbilt returns several more than capable options in left (including the defensively-challenged but offensively spectacular Johns, the steady Regan Flaherty and whichever is not starting in centerfield between Mike Yastrzemski and Connor Harrell) and has two solid options (Casali and Drew Fann) and a pair of newbies (redshirt freshman Nate Gonzalez and true freshman Spencer Navin) behind the plate, Vanderbilt has seen what can happen to your defense when you experience a spate of injuries at catcher. In 2009, with Giobbi and Casali both unable to catch, an inexperienced Fann and mispositioned Aaron Westlake turned in what can most kindly referred to as courageous efforts defensively. Lupo, to the extent he cannot push Fann for the backup catching role to Casali, will certainly provide the pitching staff with a solid safety net. That said, he’s likely to see more time in left field, barring an injury to Casali or Fann.
The True Frosh in the Field
Vanderbilt’s recruiting class for this year was based largely around three big arms, but its core was born of the first major commitment, who was, I believe, the last commitment obtained by Erik Bakich as Vanderbilt’s recruiting coordinator (Bakich graduated from the assistant ranks to take over Maryland’s program as head coach). Conrad Gregor was Mr. Everything for Carmel, IN’s Carmel High. The infielder/outfielder is like a miniature version of Aaron Westlake with better athleticism at 6’3”, 220 lbs. Gregor is an imposing batter with good bat control, solid foot speed and projectable power. He was an AFLAC-All American (pretty much the highest honor that can be bestowed on a High School senior) and I anticipate he will be expected to back up Westlake at first and Loftus in right field. Gregor is a solid student (3.4, 1900 SAT) who chose Vanderbilt over Stanford and Notre Dame.
The next big position player recruit was the kid I like to imagine will be the second coming of Flash. Although we already have a second Flaherty in Regan, Joel McKeithan of Arden, NC is a physically imposing shortstop and utility infielder whose athleticism and talents earned him top 100 status from Perfect Game. His grandfather Tim McKeithan was a Philadelphia Athletic and his father Jack played college ball for NC State and UNCC, providing solid bloodlines for the future Dore. The combination of academics and Coach Corbin’s leadership certainly played a role in the 4.1 GPA student choosing Vanderbilt over North Carolina, Florida, NC State, Georgia Tech, LSU and the College of Charleston. The 6’3”, 182 lb superstar will almost certainly be given a shot at the open middle infield spot left by Harris’ graduation, though he may be a year or two away from being a consistent force in the Commodore lineup.
Like Gregor and McKeithan, Spencer Navin should get a chance to grow into his role, rather than being forced into playing before he’s ready. Navin is a solidly framed, 6’1″, 185 lb catcher out of Dowling High School in Des Moines, IA who is known primarily for his defensive prowess. Navin feature one of the better “pop-times” among catchers on the prospect circuit, clocking in between 1.75 and 1.9 seconds for his release, with a very strong arm. Although he’ll need to work on his ability to hit off-speed pitches at the SEC level, Navin also projects to be a solid hitter. Behind Casali, Fann and Lupo, both Navin and Gonzalez should be afforded the patience to grow into a regular force in the Vanderbilt lineup.
The one recruit who managed to escape my radar all year was Austin, TX’s Will Johnson, a two sport athlete as star wide receiver and third baseman for Westwood High’s 5A programs in football and baseball. Johnson was a three year starter for Westwood and was named the district 16-5A first team third baseman as both a sophomore and junior. As a junior, he batted just shy of .440 with 11 extra base hits in 66 at bats. Although his senior stats aren’t available, he did hit five homeruns. Mysteriously, he did not receive post-season recognition as a senior, so I’m going to assume those numbers came down a bit, other than power. Additionally, it appears that Johnson did not participate in the prospect circuit, limiting his exposure. Johnson is a stellar athlete who might need some work defensively keeping the error count down at the hot corner, but his 6’, 170 lb frame and lefty bat will have the opportunity to grow into trying to replace All-American candidate Jason Esposito at 3B in 2012.
Also a two sport star is Centennial High’s Tony Kemp. The Nashville, TN native is, well, the polite way to put it is “Gaston Miller-sized” as a running back, but is just about as athletic. The 5’6” to 5’8” (depending upon the reports), 155 lb outfielder is a speedster and true athlete, was considered one of the top eight players in the state by BBCH.net and represented Tennessee in the Junior Sunbelt tournament last summer. He was a high school shortstop but is expected to transition his speed to the outfield in college. Kemp picked Vanderbilt over Clemson, East Carolina and Tennessee.
Also hailing from the Nashville area is Independence High’s Josh Lee out of Franklin, TN. Like McKeithan, Lee has impressive athletic bloodlines, this time coming from his aunt’s success as perhaps the greatest coach in sports history (yeah, I’d say Pat Summit is right up there with anyone you can throw at her, including John Wooden). Despite that tie to Knoxville, Lee chose the Hawk over Lindsey Nelson Stadium. The 6’, 180 lb middle infielder has only an average arm, which makes one think he’ll have to stick to second base as his career advances. As does Riley Reynolds, Lee throws righty and swings the bat left handed. Like Kemp, he was considered a top eight Tennessee player by BBCH.net and represented the state in Junior Sunbelt tournament. Lee chose Vanderbilt after interest in Lipscomb, North Carolina and other SEC schools.
While there are limited roles to fill in a very deep pitching staff, Coach Corbin and DJ have brought in a very talented quintet of arms, led by AFLAC All-American Kevin Ziomek, who was the biggest draft risk in the class and one of the top prep southpaws in the nation. The 6’2″, 180 lb Amherst, MA native features a fastball that reaches the low 90s and sits around 90 MPH. His big pitch is a 70 MPH curve, which is complemented by a high 70s slider and a developing change. Ziomek picked Vanderbilt over Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, Boston College, Kentucky and Virginia and figures to be sufficiently polished to serve immediately in an impact role as either a lefty setup man or midweek starter.
Also featuring a degree of polish and talent that should earn early innings is Half Hollow Hills West High graduate TJ Pecoraro out of Dix Hills, New York. Pecoraro is, on the optimistic projection, a Nick Christiani-like righty who can pitch right off the bat. At about the same stature (6’ 150 lb) as Christiani when he arrived in 2005 and with just about as much life on his heater (low 90s MPH), Pecoraro was deemed college rotation ready by scouts at the Area Code games where he dominated some of the best competition in the nation. He rounds out the fastball with a biting slider, an 11-to-5 curve and a changeup. Pecoraro will likely see time initially as a setup man, but Corbin did hand Christiani, with similar stuff, the closer role as a freshman. He eventually projects out to be a starter, but will likely start out in the pen for a very deeply staffed rotation like Vanderbilt’s.
One of the more intriguing prospects in this class is among the most unique. Steven Rice is a Crawfordsville, IN southpaw who is unlike any other pitcher brought in during the Corbin era. While Richie Goodenow was hardly a barn burner with the fastball, he was no small kid, and most all other Commodore pitchers have either been big in stature, big in arm strength or big in both. Rice is neither at 5’7” with a 170 lb frame and a fastball that sits in the mid 80s [Update: seems that my info may have been a bit dated, as Rice checks in now closer to 5’11” 170lb… we’ll see more when the roster is finally updated]. That might make some wondering what they’re getting, but not Holliday who helped bring Josh Spence to All-American status at Arizona State. True that Spence was a more manageable 6’1”, but his stuff was no more explosive than Rice’s. Rice will provide a change of pace arm that will be sorely missing with Goodenow’s transfer, though whether or not he has the accuracy and movement to cut it in the SEC remains to be seen (which is not to imply that the power pitchers don’t have to meet the same burden).
The new members of the rotation are rounded out by a pair of local righties. Of the two, Robert Hansen in the higher profile. A 5’10”, 155 lber out of Beech High in Hendersonville, TN features a trademark plus-slider as his top pitch with a fastball that should crack 90 MPH, a curve and a change. Most Commodore pitchers seem to end up going slider, curve or slurve, so expect Hansen to end up as a fastball, slider, and change guy. Hansen didn’t hit the prospect circuit that hard, meaning information wasn’t that easy to come by, but he joined Kemp and Lee as BBCH.net top 8 in Tennessee and in representing the state at the Junior Sunbelt tournament.
Also a little lower profile and missing out on some of the showcase circuit is the last (but not least) listed recruit. Jake Harper is a 6’1”, 170 lb righty who comes in as the reverse of Russ Brewer. While Brewer was an infielder who could also pitch, Harper carries a reputation of being a pitcher who can also fit in on the infield. His athleticism is solid, flashing 6.86 speed in the 60 yard dash at the Area Code Games and with a developing arm that sits in the mid to upper 80s, he should be one with an opportunity to finish filling out and develop as a reserve player over the next two years. Most importantly, he continues the long line of outstanding Commodores to come out of Mt. Juliet, TN.
In the merged last class for Coach Bakich and the first for Coach Holliday, the Dores came up big, especially given the unscathed draft. They filled in some of the depth they lost in attrition both before and after the season. Notably, shortstop Curt Powell was replaced with Lind and McKeithan as potential immediate impact infielders and the stable of arms was replenished after the disappointing losses of Nate Dorris and Jack DeAno in the preseason. While I’m not sure one can expect either Ziomek or Rice to really fill Goodenow’s role (which likely will be assumed by a fully-healthy Corey Williams), the class positions the Commodores well for 2012 when they figure to be replacing about one-half to two-thirds of their 2011 innings pitched.
Look forward to parts two and three to see how these new arrivals fit into the Dores positional plans and pitching staff, respectively.