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Home > Baseball, Sport, Vanderbilt > 2011 Vanderbilt Baseball: Season Preview, Part 4

2011 Vanderbilt Baseball: Season Preview, Part 4

January 31st, 2011

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

This is the fourth 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 concise season preview, featuring a quick breakdown of how the Fall went, a look at roster surprises, my projected lineup and rotation and my predictions for how the season will bear out in the SEC.

Click on through for the preview, part 4.

The early poll numbers have come in and writers and pollsters across the nation have caught on to the depth of talent on the 2011 Dores’ squad. In the four polls that have been released to date, Baseball America, the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and the USA Today Coaches poll put Vanderbilt fourth, while College Baseball Magazine tapped them for the number five spot.

Led by four front line starters (Sonny Gray, Grayson Garvin, Taylor Hill and Jack Armstrong) that Baseball America called the deepest rotation in the nation, Tim Corbin will also be able to run out a lineup that may not have quite the star power of the 2007 squad, but features a complete top-to-bottom batting order. Add in a bullpen of highly talented arms and the coming year shows great promise.

After some observations on fall practice and other developments, I’ve got my projected starting lineups and rotation, along with a look at the schedule and the rest of the Southeastern Conference, after the jump.

Fall Roundup and Roster Developments

The Fall practice season was marked by a series of scrimmages and open practices, the annual Black-and-Gold inter-squad series and a trip to Austin for two twelve-inning exhibition games against the Longhorns. The two games against Texas will count against the maximum number of games the Commodores can play this Spring, but will not be a part of the official record.

In the first game, Sonny Gray led a dominant Vanderbilt pitching staff to a 7-2 victory. Freshman Kevin Ziomek was touched up for two runs and five hits in three innings, while Gray and five relievers permitted just four base runners and no hits in the remaining nine innings. The game also marked the official return of second baseman Riley Reynolds to the Dores’ starting lineup. Reynolds was in 2009 form with four hits and three runs batted in.

Conrad Gregor, like Aaron Westlake before him, has the appearance of someone who owns the batters box when he's in it -- will he also own the DH slot? ( photo courtesy of Don Boyles, CollegeBaseballDaily.com)

In game two, it started off like more of the same with Grayson Garvin mowing down the Longhorns with three perfect innings. Taylor Hill was not as fortunate, giving up three runs in the fifth inning. The Commodores were unable to match the Texas offense and fell 7-5 after the twelfth. The offensive highlights were provided by a pair of hits from Aaron Westlake and a three hit performance from freshman Tony Kemp, batting out of the leadoff spot.

Back on campus, the Gold team swept the Black and Gold inter-squad series by scores of 6-1, 7-1 and 5-3. Highlights included Gray recovering from a leadoff double by Kemp in the opener to struck out the next nine batters en route to a solid five innings and the win. In game two, Hill also shined, allowing only one hit in his five innings of work. In the finale, the star was Westlake who launched three Ruthian homers. Combined with a solo shot by Joe Loftus, the day provided all four of Vanderbilt home runs during the five official games of the Fall.

The lack of power and dominance of some of the pitching was perhaps the best reflection of the new BBCOR bat rules installed by the NCAA. Guys like Esposito, Loftus, Casali and Westlake could get to double digits in home runs this year for the Dores, but home runs will be at a premium, giving a greater advantage to teams with good pitching, good speed and good defense. It will also help mediocre pitchers out, preventing teams from getting whacked around too much when depleted on Sundays. Fortunately for the Dores, the pitching staff is deep enough to not have to rely on putting up an eight-spot to win midweek or on Sunday. Furthermore, both the infield and outfield defenses should be the best seen in the Corbin era. While untested due to injuries, catcher Curt Casali also has a history of strong pop times and solid receiving when healthy behind the plate.

On the offensive side, foot speed and the ability to manufacture runs will likely take on a greater emphasis. While Jason Esposito is a dominant base runner, no other Vanderbilt player has really made much of an impact on the base paths. Connor Harrell, Mike Yastrzemski, Loftus, Anthony Gomez and Riley Reynolds all have speed, but none of them have put up big stolen base numbers or been standout first-to-third guys. Among the incoming players, Kemp seems the most likely to be relied on as a runner, as he features 80-rated speed. With Reynolds’ return to the lineup, Coach Corbin also stands to emphasize even more his bunting strategies. While I’m on team swing-away most of the time, Reynolds’ ability to place bunts expertly permits him to utilize the tool for both hits and sacrifices and he also is proficient at the slash play perfected by former Dore second baseman Alex Feinberg.

Tony Kemp was one of two freshman positional players to make a push for a starting role after the Fall (photo courtesy of Don Boyles, CollegeBaseballDaily.com)

Roster Reaction

Back in September, on the cusp of fall practice, I gave a general overview of how the roster stacked up. After Fall practice, two freshmen really emerged and pushed for playing time. The first was expected: Conrad Gregor entered the school year as one of the top recruited bats in the nation to bypass the draft. The big lefty had a stellar fall, pelting line drives and proving himself as an SEC-ready bat. A little less certain was his performance in the field. He was error prone, despite flashing good athleticism. Gregor will need some time before he can prove himself ready to play in the field on a consistent level, particularly with a stable and defensively solid set in left field and at first base (Gregor’s projected positions in the field). As is, it will be hard for Corbin to leave him on the bench for long, so he should be expected to see time as a designated hitter with some pinch hitting duties.

The other freshman to impress was Tony Kemp. The speedster laid a bit under the radar after eschewing the prospect circuit and serving as a standout running back for Centennial (a move that limited his ability to spend as much time at attention-getting baseball camps). Kemp impressed in the fall with his ability to make good contact and leg out hits, but his real talent was in center field, where he covered the field better than any Commodore since Antoan Richardson. Although the Vanderbilt outfield seemed set with Yastrzemski, Harrell and Loftus going into Fall practice, Kemp has played himself squarely into the playing time equation both with his ability to serve as a leadoff bat and speedster and his capacity to go out and grab just about anything in his direction. While both Yaz and Harrell are both plus defenders in their own right, Kemp may force himself into the lineup as a late inning defensive replacement, if not as a starter or pinch runner.

The other roster reaction was, as noted above, the solid and demonstrative return of Riley Reynolds, who locked up an opening day starting role at second base. The projected starters in each of the other positions did nothing but solidify their grasps.

Navery Moore saw a good chunk of time at closer in the Fall and should compete for the job with fellow Tommy John recoverer Mark Lamm (photo courtesy of Don Boyles, CollegeBaseballDaily.com)

The people this places into some uncertainty include the duo of Yaz and Harrell, who have gone from a two man combo in center and left to a three man jaunt with Kemp for the two spots. Yaz and Harrell will still get their playing time, but three guys who could see a significant reduction in time are Air Force transfer Jack Lupo and former JuCo stars Bryan Johns and Sam Lind. The trio were all hoping for time in left field and at DH, or in the case of Johns and Lind second base. While Lupo also can catch, he stands third or fourth on that depth chart (behind Casali and Drew Fann and competing with freshman Spencer Navin), while the majority of innings in left field should be split between Harrell and Yastrzemski, and Gregor figures to have earned a solid number of the designated hitter at bats.

On the hill, it appears that Mark Lamm and Navery Moore are the top competitors for the closer role. With neither having filled the job and both having some history with wildness, expect to see Coaches Corbin and Johnson massage the situation and giving both a healthy look. As for starters, the weekend rotation appears to have settled down to Gray on Friday, Garvin on Saturday and Hill on Sunday. That leaves Jack Armstrong and the impressive freshman Kevin Ziomek with midweek duties. While Ziomek was the Vanderbilt pitcher hit hardest in Texas, he also flashed some of the best stuff on the staff and will probably be offered a slow-paced chance to push for meaningful innings throughout the year.

Projected Lineup

There continues to be six established spots in the Vanderbilt batting order, with Casali behind the plate, Westlake at first, Reynolds at second, Gomez at short, Esposito at third and Loftus in right field. The positional battles appear to be among Harrell, Yastrzemski and Kemp for the two open outfield spots and between Gregor and Johns for designated hitter duties. This could lead to some platoon play in the outfield: against righties featuring Kemp in center with Yaz and Harrell battling for left; and against lefties putting Harrell in center and Yaz in left. At designated hitter, assuming Johns is the best of the right handed bats, he may see starts against lefties, allowing Gregor to mash right handed starters. What might complicate a lefty-righty platoon at designated hitter is the one (or two in five-game weeks) starts that Drew Fann figures to see at catcher, pushing Casali into the DH spot.

In any respect, if I were using the pencil, this would be my opening weekend lineups for the San Diego four-game set.

Against right handed pitchers:
CF – Tony Kemp
SS – Anthony Gomez
3B – Jason Esposito
1B – Aaron Westlake
C – Curt Casali
DH – Conrad Gregor
RF – Joe Loftus
LF – Mike Yastrzemski
2B – Riley Reynolds

Against left handed pitchers:
SS – Anthony Gomez
2B – Riley Reynolds
3B – Jason Esposito
1B – Aaron Westlake
C – Curt Casali
RF – Joe Loftus
CF – Connor Harrell
LF – Mike Yastrzemski
DH – Bryan Johns

Jason Esposito is one of the top two defensive third basemen in the nation, according to Baseball America (photo courtesy Mike Rapp, VandySports.com)

Both lineups are tough, top to bottom, and feature of good balance of power and speed. In fact, outside of the four and five holes manned by Westlake and Casali, each batter features at least average SEC speed.

Toeing the rubber, as mentioned above, I expect to see a five pitchers to get the majority of the starts. With only one five-game week in the season (the week of the UIC series), this likely means that – assuming that Gray, Garvin and Hill is the weekend rotation – Armstrong and Ziomek will also be tested for key weekend relief innings, serving in a role similar to Chase Reid and Nick Christiani during the later years of their careers. The setup corps also is full of guys who should be able to mix between starter and setup roles (e.g., Will Clinard, Sam Selman and TJ Pecoraro).

Grayson Garvin threw three scoreless innings against Texas in the Fall and projects to start the schedule as the Saturday starter (photo courtesy of Don Boyles, CollegeBaseballDaily.com)

The reserve situation is a bit harder to measure. Outside of Fann seeing at least a game per week behind the plate (probably as the personal catcher for either Grayson Garvin or Taylor Hill on Saturday or Sunday games, or for Jack Armstrong – who he caught often in 2010 – in midweek games), it’s hard to gauge where the key reserves will see time. Fann could also see some at bats as a designated hitter, particularly when Coach Corbin wants to get freshman Spencer Navin some time behind the plate. Though Navin could red shirt, the program is reticent to red shirt high ceiling players, knowing they likely will not spend a fifth year on campus. With so many entrenched players in the lineup, red shirting will be a difficult decision for many players. It is known that athletic middle infielder Joel McKeithan will not be red-shirting, though he’s not expected to crack the starting lineup barring an injury to one of Esposito, Gomez or Reynolds.

Outside of injuries, the playing time seen by reserves will largely be determined by the degree of success the team sees. With perhaps the strongest top-to-bottom lineup and the deepest pitching staff of the Corbin era, one can hope for enough blowout wins to get reserves late inning playing time – if not a won loss start quite as good as the 2007 team’s twenty-one win streak. With a large departure of starters expected due to the 2011 Major League Draft, key experience will be needed for some of the younger reserves.

Schedule Roundup

As has been a pattern in the Corbin era, the Dores will be heading west early in the season. This year, they will kick off the season with a four game set in San Diego with three games against the University of San Diego and another against Tony Gwynn’s San Diego State program. At least one of the games will be held in Petco Park. The Dores follow that up by hosting #16 Stanford, Brown and UIC in weekend series leading up to SEC play. The premiere midweek out of conference game on the schedule is another trip to #21 Louisville on May 10th.

The SEC schedule is front loaded, but balanced overall with trips to #24 Arkansas, #23 Auburn, #8 South Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia. With Kentucky and Georgia all expected to have down years, the tough run of trips to Arkansas, Auburn and South Carolina is evened out.

The in conference home series is similarly balanced, with visits from Mississippi State, #27 Alabama, #15 LSU, Tennessee and #1 Florida. Mississippi State and Tennessee are continuing a downward trend in recent years, while Alabama’s stout offense stands likely to suffer from draft losses and the introduction of the “deader” BBCOR bats. It is, perhaps, appropriate that Vandy and Florida will finish the Dores’ home slate in a battle of two of the SEC’s big three.

Projected SEC Finish

Sonny Gray will look to carry over his success as a Junior and as Baseball America's Summer Player of the Year after a stellar stint with Team USA (photo courtesy of Mike Rapp, VandySports.com)

Together with South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Florida are expected to be the class of the league. The remaining teams in the East are in rebuilding mode, with Georgia and Tennessee, in particular, expected to struggle. The West is more balanced, with several good, but not great, teams. LSU, Auburn and Alabama all figure to struggle a bit with the new, deader BBCOR bats which may help Arkansas or #30 Mississippi (which is the one team rotating off Vanderbilt’s schedule in 2011). With Florida and Vanderbilt sharing a combination of balanced offense and defense and with South Carolina losing key southpaw Nolan Belcher to Tommy John surgery, it should be no surprise that they are the favorites going into the year. With my loyalties firmly entrenched, I acknowledge that my biases play a bit of a role in my projected standings (with projected SEC records):

EAST
Vanderbilt 23-7
Florida 22-8
South Carolina 19-11
Kentucky 13-17
Tennessee 9-21
Georgia 7-23

WEST
Arkansas 19-11
LSU 17-13
Ole Miss 16-14
Auburn 15-15
Alabama 12-18
Mississippi State 8-22

Stay tuned for an early look at the draft, some key players to watch in reserve roles this year and an overview of Vanderbilt’s recruiting class for the 2011-2012 year.

Vanderbilt will hope for more of the same in the NCAA playoffs as they build on a Regional win at Louisville in 2010 (photo courtesy of Mike Rapp, VandySports.com)

  1. PHILIP PFEIFER
    February 1st, 2011 at 01:28 | #1

    This is really good stuff I really look forward to reading about the 2011 signing class.

  2. admin
    February 1st, 2011 at 11:34 | #2

    Thanks for the kind words, Mr. Pfeifer. Hope to have it up at least by next week. We look forward to seeing Phil in the Black and Gold.

  3. February 2nd, 2011 at 00:15 | #3

    Okay, I feel better now. Go ‘Dores! I’m already looking forward to my study break to read Part 5 when it is posted.

  4. Tutt
    February 14th, 2011 at 13:09 | #4

    Yes, we do look forward to seeing Mr. Pfeifer in a Vandy uniform. He is the next in what looks to be a long line of pitching studs to don the uniform.

  5. admin
    February 23rd, 2011 at 00:54 | #5

    @Tutt
    The more I think about it, the more I think this class really is better than the 2005 and 2009 classes, though the ultimate worth of a class is determined by how close you bring your team to elevating a CWS trophy.

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