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Home > Baseball, Sport, Vanderbilt > 2011 Vanderbilt Baseball: Fall Preview, Part 2

2011 Vanderbilt Baseball: Fall Preview, Part 2

September 14th, 2010

The Dores figure to be a pre-season top 5 team in 2011 and will be previewed in 6 parts.

This is the second 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.

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.

Up today is a breakdown of where I see the positions on the field ending up and a basic overview of the players that are going to compete to fill them in the 2011 season.  The Dores lost only two position starters last year, shortstop Brian Harris and catcher Andrew Giobbi.  Both left as five-year players and graduates of Vanderbilt University.

Click on through for the preview, part 2.

Catchers

Curt Casali will bat in the middle of the order and man the backstop for the Dores. Photo by Mike Rapp, Vandysports.com.

As noted in Part 1 of this preview, Vanderbilt is replacing a departing starter at catcher in Andrew Giobbi; however, the Dores should have plenty of depth at the position. Depth is a key factor, given Coach Tim Corbin’s experience in 2009 when seemingly every catcher he suited up got banged up and emergency catchers were called upon. This year, Vanderbilt will have five individuals on roster who were recruited to catch.

Curt Casali is the resident masher in the Commodore lineup and the resident mashed-up on the injury list. Casali played through a ligament injury in his throwing arm elbow that required Tommy John surgery after the 2009 season. That arm injury limited him to playing first base and shifted Giobbi to catcher. In 2010, when Casali figured to see significant playing time behind the dish, he was kept predominantly at first after suffering a hamstring injury that nagged him all year. During this past summer on the Cape, Casali again faced the injury bug with a broken index finger when a pitched ball hit him on an attempted bunt. Despite his history as baseball’s version of Mr. Glass, the 6’2”, 216 lb Casali is an imposing physical presence and is hoping to be fully healthy for the first time since his freshman year. When he is healthy, there is no finer offensive threat on the team. He consistently is at the top of the team’s Runs Created list and has a reputation as a fine receiver behind the dish, although he hasn’t had the opportunity to really prove that at the SEC level. Casali is almost certain to start a majority of the games at catcher, though he will also see time at first base and designated hitter. The New Canaan, CT native hit .309 last year with eight homeruns, 42 RBI and a .966 OPS. Before his summer injury, he was batting .292 for Cotuit.

Drew Fann figures to be the primary backup to Casali. He proved himself in 16 starts and 34 total games in 2010 and, in particular, improved his throwing behind the plate. Offense has not ever been a problem for the 6’3”, 204 lb Fann, who hit a grand slam on the first collegiate pitch he saw as a freshman and batted .358 with a 1.008 OPS in 74 plate appearances last year. The Mufreesboro, TN native continued that success with a .253 BA and 4 doubles in 26 games over the summer for the Nashville Outlaws, the summer team that calls the Hawk home. That bat will likely keep Fann in the lineup for one or two starts at catcher per week, with Casali shifting to first or designated hitter in those appearances. Fann should also see time as a pinch hitter. More so than even Casali, Fann has experience catching this staff and will be relied on heavily for that experience.

Drew Fann figures to see a significant uptick in time spent behind the plate as a junior. Photo by Mike Rapp, Vandysports.com.

That is, of course, so long as newcomer Jack Lupo (profiled in Part 1, Newcomers) doesn’t push him for primary reserve duties behind the plate. The 6’1”, 175 lb Lupo enters the fall as a reserve corner outfielder, but he shouldn’t be slept on as a backup catcher. As Coach Corbin likes to say, players at Vanderbilt only rent their positions, and Lupo proved himself to be a capable bat and glove (both in the outfield and as a catcher) while at the Air Force Academy as a freshman in 2009. Lupo batted .168 with 4 doubles in 30 games for the Outlaws this past summer, where he played the outfield with Fann behind the plate.

Joining Fann and Lupo in the reserve ranks is redshirt freshman Nate Gonzalez, a stout 5’8”, 205 lb catcher from Clermont, FL. Gonzalez was in the Team USA program as a youth and seasoned himself during a redshirt year last year. It remains to be seen if he can push for time in 2011, but he’s dropped 20 lb since joining the strength training program and he was an All-Star in the Florida Collegiate Summer League, despite batting only .190 for the summer.

Likely to redshirt or see limited time is true freshman catcher Spencer Navin (profiled in Part 1, Newcomers). The 6’1″, 185 lb Navin is a very high end prospect who has the talent to compete right away, but has the luxury to spend his first year on campus learning to hit SEC pitching while sitting behind four, more experienced catchers.

First Base

As with catcher, the likely starter at first is a dominant bat. After serving in diverse capacities including left field, first base, an emergency stint as catcher (with somewhat hilarious results) and a spot or two at third base, Westlake spent most of 2010 as a designated hitter. The 2009 SEC Batting Champion as a redshirt freshman, Westlake hit .308 with a team leading 14 homeruns, 61 RBI and .942 OPS last year before setting the Cape League afire as a summer All-Star batting .294 with 5 HR in 32 games. He provides a lethal amount of power with great bat control and a fine eye for the strike zone. He’s very much so the type of player who appears to own the batters box when he enters it, to the point that one could identify him as a hitter’s hitter in his brief playing stint in 2008.  That season, his redshirt year, was cut short due to a blood clot that required surgery. At first, he is also likely the team’s top returning defender and looks the part with a 6’3”, 236 lb frame. He hails from Redding, CA.

Aaron Westlake will toe the bag at first and bat cleanup in the Commodore lineup. Photo by Mike Rapp, Vandysports.com.

Westlake’s primary backup figures to be true freshman and AFLAC All-American Conrad Gregor (profiled in Part 1, Newcomers). If there is a true freshman most likely to crack the starting lineup regularly, it would be the 6’3″, 220 lb Gregor at first, left field or at designated hitter, as he competes in a trio of positions with a little more of an opening for playing time and a little less certainty than the rest of the diamond.

Also vying for time is Regan Flaherty. The 6’1”, 185 lb sophomore is the younger brother of former Vanderbilt All-American and current Cub farmhand Ryan and he brings some of the same Deering, ME talent that Coach Corbin has utilized both with the elder Flaherty brother and with recently graduated catcher Andrew Giobbi. Flaherty saw time primarily as an outfielder in 2010, when he hit .292 with 5 doubles and an .846 OPS in 16 games. This summer, he struggled with the bat for Sanford, hitting just .141 in 25 games. Flaherty has very solid potential, particularly at the plate where his bat whip and left handed swing remind one a bit of Flash. Time will tell whether he’ll emerge from that shadow in 2011, and whether it will occur at first base or in the outfield.

Rounding out the folks in the mix at first is Andrew Harris. The bigger of the Nashville, TN Harris brothers (Brian and Andrew’s father was also a Commodore baseballer), he appears very comfortable at the plate, while not quite owning the strike zone to the degree Vanderbilt’s 2010 shortstop did. Harris hit .214 in 17 games (1 start) last year with three of his six hits going for extra bases. He followed that up batting .184 in 25 games for the North Fork Ospreys this summer. While those stats won’t wow you, if there’s one lesson learned, it’s not to doubt the ability of a Harris kid improving through hard work and solid genes. Harris looks comfortable and confident in his lefty batting stance and he flashes solid athleticism. To the extent Harris earns time, the 6’ 195 lb sophomore can be expected to find it at a corner infield spot.

Starting pitcher Jack Armstrong may also see time at first base on occasion. The 6’6”, junior right-hander from Jupiter, FL will get a full profile in Part 3, Breaking Down the Staff, but it is worth noting that his 2008 appointment to the AFLAC All-Star Game was as a two-way star. In four plate appearances (all as pinch-hitter), Big Jack had a walk and two hits, including a dramatic, postseason walk-off single. It is unlikely that Armstrong will see the field except in extraordinary circumstances, but if he does it will be at first base and in an effort to get his bat into the lineup.

Riley Reynolds, Joel McKeithan, Will Johnson, Josh Lee and Sam Lind, each discussed below, could see spot duty filling in at first base, but all are primarily positioned elsewhere on the depth chart.

Second Base

Anthony Gomez (13), Aaron Westlake and Jason Esposito will form the core of the Vandy batting order. Photo by Mike Rapp, Vandysports.com.

Vanderbilt has the bizarre and distinct honor of having the reigning 2009 and 2010 first team Freshman All-SEC second basemen in Riley Reynolds and Anthony Gomez, who each received Freshman All-American honors as well. While Gomez is the immediate incumbent, I anticipate he will likely end up as the starting shortstop and will discuss him in that subsection.

Watching Gomez explode on the scene with a spectacular 2010, Reynolds had to feel like last year was somewhat of a lost season. After not playing summer ball in order to weight train on campus in the summer of 2009, Reynolds showed up with about 15 lbs of added muscle on his 6’1”, 200 lb frame. As an unintended result, the Lee’s Summit, MO native appeared to have slowed his bat down, almost as Juan Gonzalez did in 1994 when new muscle mass affected his swing. One year after batting .332 as a freshman, Reynolds looked sluggish early at the plate, struggling with the Mendoza line for most of the season, before finishing with a few good, confidence building at bats toward the end of the year. That carried over with a respectable .235 average on the Cape in 24 games. Reynolds plays an impeccable second base and I anticipate he will return to his 2009 form and win the job at second.  When he’s on, Reynolds is an excellent slap hitter who will pelt grounders and line drives to all fields.  Additionally, he’s the team’s best bunter (both in a sacrifice role and when trying to leg one out).

Reynolds’ competition will come primarily from two duos of former JuCo transfers and new freshmen. The first of the Junior College transfers is Bryan Johns, a returning, 5’8”, 166 lb senior. The best line drive hitter on the team and a former Howard College (TX) shortstop, Johns saw time as a second baseman, left fielder and designated hitter in an effort to get his lethal, .370 BA, .998 OPS bat into the lineup. He continued his solid batting with a less torrid, but respectable .259 BA for the Outlaws in 30 games. The problem is that Johns might be the weakest fielder on the team with just a .902 fielding percentage. That is likely going to keep Johns in the designated hitter role in 2010 and out of the double play duo.

The other middle infield transfer is Sam Lind (profiled in Part 1, Newcomers). Like Johns, Lind comes in as a junior expected to contribute immediately, particularly with the bat. He was co-MVP of his league for Central Arizona. Lind continued his hot hitting (.404 BA, 57 RBI) over a split summer with the Mankato Moondogs (.312, four homeruns in 33 games) and the St. Joseph Mustangs (.313, three homeruns in 13 games). The 6’, 175 lb Lind figures to compete immediately both at shortstop and second base.

The two new freshman are 6’3″, 182lb Joel McKeithan and 6′, 180 lb Josh Lee, each profiled in Part 1, Newcomers. Not having seen either play, it’s hard to say whether either will be able to compete immediately for time in the middle. McKeithan comes in with a reputation as a game-ready athlete, but most players need time to acclimate themselves to the pace of the SEC game. Both McKeithan and Lee should have that opportunity behind their more experienced mates.

Walk on Sean Murphy (5’6”, 152 lb) is also listed as a second baseman and outfielder but saw no time in 2010.

Shortstop

As noted above, I anticipate that the gap left by the graduation of Brian Harris will be filled with the shifting of Anthony Gomez to short. The athletic, 5’11”, 178 lb Gomez displayed an adept glove, good lateral movement and a solid arm (particularly on the Derek Jeter-style jump throw), all key components of a good shortstop. Add in the Nutley, NJ native’s all-world eyesight and a bat that just does not want to swing and miss (just 9 strikeouts in 245 plate appearances), and you’ve got a tough cookie in the field and at the plate. Gomez earned First Team All-SEC and Freshman All-American status while besting the .400 mark for most of the season before slumping to a team-leading .370 finish. He figures to improve on his extra-base hits and free passes as a sophomore in 2011 and should be penciled in for solid playing time in the infield.

The other intriguing option at shortstop could be the man who’s manned third the last two years. Jason Esposito will be discussed below, but Esposito would be an intriguing option at shortstop, as he projects at that position in the professional ranks. I don’t anticipate that move, though it is possible.

Pushing Gomez for playing time will be the same folks who are in the mix at second base.

Jason Esposito's biggest improvement year over year has been in learning to hit the low and away slider. Photo by Mike Rapp, Vandysports.com.

Third Base

To the extent that he doesn’t end up moving over to shortstop, perhaps the only person more ensconced at his position than Jason Esposito at third is Sonny Gray as the Friday starter. Esposito is one of four Vanderbilt players (with Gray, Armstrong and Grayson Garvin) who are considered solid candidates to be drafted in the first round of the 2011 MLB draft. He proved that talent over the course of his sophomore campaign when the 6’1”, 200 lb, Bethany, CT native spanked the ball with a .359 BA, 38 extra base hits, 1.054 OPS and 31-35 record in stolen base attempts. In other words, he absolutely dominated offensively and, despite a mediocre .935 fielding percentage, flashed the defensive skills that make him the finest defensive infielder of the Corbin era. When Rice’s Anthony Rendon went down for Team USA with a summer ending injury, Esposito was called up from the Cape and he impressed, batting .273 with a homerun in 14 games. Esposito will start somewhere on the left side of the infield (my bet is him staying at third) and will bat third in the Vanderbilt order. Take that to the bank.

Backing up Esposito will be a handful of the familiar complement discussed above. Also in the mix is true freshman Will Johnson, a 6’ 170 lb two-sport star profiled in Part 1, Newcomers. I’d anticipate that Johnson will be afforded an opportunity to grow into playing time, unless Esposito is injured.

Right Field

As with the infield, the outfield has the certainty of known faces with whom you can be confident of success, even if only one position is likely locked down. That position is right field where Joe Loftus features what Coach Corbin has referred to as the best arm he’s ever coached. The 6’2”, 205 lb Savage, MN native is that state’s all-time high school homerun champion and, though his offensive punch has yet to fully emerge on the collegiate level, he returns as a legitimate 6th or 7th batter in the Vanderbilt order. Loftus hit .277 as a sophomore with 8 homeruns and an .812 OPS and followed that up with a .203 batting average in 29 games on the Cape. While there is strong reason to believe that Loftus can realize the promise in his bat as a junior and potential high round 2011 MLB draft pick, the one thing he has more than lived up to already is on the defensive end of the spectrum. His remarkable combination of a strong and accurate arm was readily apparent by the end of his freshman season as a left fielder. By the end of 2010, few coaches were waving around runners to try for extra bases. In as much, he represents the Commodores top defensive weapon.

Loftus should see a high percentage of the innings in right in 2011, but should he falter or become injured, the primary candidates for time will be Connor Harrell, Regan Flaherty and Conrad Gregor.

Center Field

Connor Harrell, seen here robbing a homerun at the NCAA Louisville Regional, plays as good a centerfield as any recent Commodore. Photo by Mike Rapp, Vandysports.com.

While Loftus has right field in lockdown, the center field position figures to be traded among two returning young stars. The first is Mike Yastrzemski, grandson of Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl and the son of former Florida State All-American Michael. Yastrzemski the junior made a name of his own in 2010 with a consistently solid season both defensively and at bat. With time split between left field and center field, Yaz batted .260 with 3 homeruns and a .744 OPS. Neither those numbers nor his .230 batting average in 38 games for Cotuit on the Cape reflect the potential he flashed at times. The 5’10”, 170 lber from Andover, MA has room to physically mature a bit more, but the mental game is already there, as there is no question who leads the team in piss and vinegar.

Yastrzemski will trade off duties with Connor Harrell. The 6’2”, 200 lb Houston, TX native is what I like to refer to as the type of kid who looks like he should be playing outfield for the Longhorns. He’s big, lean and athletic as all heck. Built like a linebacker, he plays centerfield like a mix between a free safety and a gazelle, covering more ground than any other Commodore outfielder and bringing a solid arm to boot. As a freshman, Harrell batted .300 with three homeruns and a .903 OPS, followed by a .265, three homerun performance in 31 games for the Newport Gulls. Harrell is the type of player one can expect to increase his power and speed production, much as Steven Liddle did between his freshman and sophomore years.

Yastrzemski and Harrell figure to split almost all innings in centerfield in 2011, though freshman Tony Kemp of Nashville’s Centennial High (profiled in Part 1, Newcomers) figures to be able to utilize his athleticism in the expansive outfield at Hawkins Field.

Left Field

Mike Yastrzemski figures to be in the mix either in left or centerfield. Photo by Mike Rapp, Vandysports.com.

The majority of innings in left field figure to be manned by whichever of Yastrzemski and Harrell does not play center field. That said, several Commodores figure to push for innings playing balls off the green monster in left field.

The first in line to succeed Yaz or Harrell might be either of Regan Flaherty or Jack Lupo. On the other hand, a proven bat who struggles in the field, in Bryan Johns, could be forced to left field if injury were to lead Casali or Westlake or some other player to the designated hitter role. Of the freshmen, both Gregor and Kemp could push for time in left as well.

Designated Hitter

Vanderbilt has experienced great success in the last few years at the designated hitter spot, be it through the use of Matt Meingasner or, more recently, Aaron Westlake. With Casali firmly entrenced behind home and first open for the taking, Westlake figures to be featured in the field as an above average defender. This should open up the role of designated hitter for Johns to find his niche. An indefatiguable line-drive hitter, Johns was a round peg in a square lineup last year with the DH spot taken up by the triumvirate of Westlake, Casali and Giobbi rotating between the batters role, first and catcher.

While Johns is the logical and likely choice at DH, another person to look at as a possible taker of the throne is Sam Lind. Like Johns before him, Lind enters as a highly regarded JuCo bat and would not have landed at Vanderbilt if he and the coaching staff did not believe he could contribute immediately.

Beyond the rotating of certain players to get some rest or a possible push from one of the younger players such as Gregor or McKeithan, one would likely only see Drew Fann, Regan Flaherty and maybe, in a midweek situation, Jack Armstrong utilized as designated hitter if Coach Corbin needs their bat but cannot get them onto the field.

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