Vanderbilt Baseball 2013: Preview Part 3
The first two parts of the Season Preview are in, looking at the transition to the 2013 season and the new recruits, which leads us to an examination of the product Commodore fans can expect to see on the field this Spring. I was unfortunately not able to make it down for the Black and Gold series in the Fall, so my preview is largely based on performances last year and reports on player development.
This Part 3 of my annual baseball prospectus will go through the Vanderbilt roster with a look at each of the positions around the diamond.
Click through for Part 3.
- Part 1: Transitioning to 2013
- Part 2: The New Recruits
- Part 3: Around the Diamond
- Part 4: On the Hill
- Part 5: What They’re Saying
- Part 6: Season Preview
- Part 7: Beyond 2013 – The Draft and Recruiting Classes
As always, I’ll be tweeting from @VUHawkTalk and posting on VandySports.com throughout the season. Also be sure to follow Chris Lee on Twitter (@ChrisLee70) for more great Vanderbilt baseball coverage. A special thanks to shutterbug Mike Rapp of VandySports for supplying the photos for W[I]SM, once again.
Vanderbilt graduated one catcher in 2012, with Drew Fann moving from behind the plate to up in the Press Box, taking control over Baseball Operations. The incumbent starter, Junior Spencer Navin, is back to tackle yet another season at the dish, along with primary backup Chris Harvey.
Navin (6’1”, 205 lbs from Des Moines, Iowa – Dowling High) enters the season as a Preseason All American backstop, earning that honor from Baseball America (2nd Team) and Louisville Slugger (2nd Team). Baseball America polled scouts to pick their pre-season team and the results found that Navin was viewed as the nation’s top defensive backstop, to no surprise to Vanderbilt fans. Navin’s best defensive trait is difficult to discern, as he has plus skills in handling a pitching staff (an important factor for a staff that remains relatively young), blocking the plate and throwing out runners. All three combined to make him the WhenItStrikesMe.com most valuable player for 2013. Tacking on that he presents a potent offensive force just adds to the equation. While Navin will not be a 10 homerun guy, he could improve on his offensive numbers (.298 BA, .831 OPS, 27 RBI and 9 SB) in 2013. The Iowan is poised for another standout year behind and at the plate and should hit in the middle of the Commodores lineup. Expect him to continue to have a large role in the grooming of the several Freshman pitchers on the staff.
Spelling Navin from time to time will be Harvey (6’5”, 215 lbs from Norristown, Pennsylvania – Germantown Academy). Having enrolled a year early from high school, the Sophomore had an up and down Freshman year in which he battled the injury bug, with a minor tweak about a month into the season. While battling injury, Harvey managed a .216 batting average in just 74 at bats. Perhaps most impacted by the injury was his power potential. After launching a monstrous homerun against Cal State Fullerton in the 2011 Fall Series, Harvey managed just seven doubles and a .583 OPS during the season; however, he came on toward the end of the year, exemplified by his clutch bases-clearing double off of the top of the left-center wall against Alabama. Harvey is now fully healthy and, a year into college baseball, should produce both more consistently and with greater power. Additionally, Harvey is working hard with Coach Larry Day on his catching skills. What was a slight weakness last year, should grow into a strength as the season progresses, with Harvey’s combination of size, agility and strong arm. At the plate, Harvey displayed very solid power on the pull side and to right center. To the extent he focuses that power to the opposite gap, he could have a breakout year as a designated hitter.
Providing emergency catching services will be a trio of players whose primary shot at playing time comes at other positions. Jack Lupo caught while a Freshman at Air Force, while Will Cooper and Zander Wiel have some limited experience catching in practice or high school. They will be discussed in greater detail later.
As at catcher, Vanderbilt returns an incumbent at first base in 2013. Conrad Gregor (6’3”, 215 lbs from Carmel, Indiana – Carmel High) enters the season with high expectations after batting .353 as a Freshman and .328 as a Sophomore. The 2011 Freshman All-American was named Pre-Season SEC Player of the Year by Kendall Rogers of PerfectGame and an All-American by Baseball America (2nd Team) and Louisville Slugger (2nd Team). Gregor is coming off a stand-out summer in the Cape Cod League in which he finished in the top 10 in batting average, homeruns, on-base percentage and OPS, while leading the league by a tremendous margin in walks. Arguably the most patient hitter in America, Gregor will bat third or fourth and the Commodores hope this is the year Gregor’s power surge comes. With solid athleticism demonstrated by his Omaha Challenge crown, Gregor also provides deceptive speed and has worked hard to improve his defensive game. In 2012, Gregor batted .328 with 3 homers, 35 RBI, a .902 OPS and a perfect 10-10 record on the base paths. In his two years on campus, Gregor has accumulated 73 free passes against just 71 strikeouts. To the extent that Vanderbilt’s offense recovers from its 2012 slumber, there’s a good bet that Gregor will lead the way.
Backing up at first base will be redshirt Freshman Zander Wiel, redshirt Senior Andrew Harris and a mix of multi-position players. Wiel (6’3”, 215 lbs from Murfreesboro, Tennessee – Blackman) is one of the few Commodores I can’t say I know much about. The son of Randy, the former head basketball coach at MTSU and UNC-Ashford, Wiel has a big frame that plays physical and he carries a reputation as a good defensive first baseman. During the Black and Gold series in the Fall, Wiel was one of the eye openers. He swung the bat well and consistently, potentially earning a role as a designated hitter candidate. Wiel redshirted in 2012 and, according to Coach Corbin at the Baseball Banquet, took great strides in the 17 months since arriving on campus.
The brother of former Commodore star shortstop Brian (“Ouch”) and son of former Vanderbilt baseball player Robert, Andrew Harris is a solid athlete who fit into a regular utility role for Coach Corbin in 2012. With the ability to play first, second, third, left or right, Harris (6’0”, 195 lbs from Nashville, Tennessee – Montgomery Bell Academy) will be seen where needed during the season; however, he is most notable in that he carries more experience at first base than any other Commodore not named Gregor. In 31 at bats, Harris hit .290 last year, with 4 RBI, 4 sac bunts and a .750 OPS. He has excellent bat control and will likely see time as a left handed pinch hitter in hit-and-run and bunting scenarios.
Other players who could figure into an emergency backup role include Freshman Kyle Smith, Sophomore Vicente Conde or Senior Mike Yastrzemski. Each will be discussed more later.
One of the great positional battles of the offseason is at second base, not because the incumbent is at any real risk of losing his job, but because the back-ups to Junior Tony Kemp could push him to left field by outperforming the players in the mix for the open outfield spot.
Like Navin and Gregor, Kemp (5’6”, 160 lbs from Nashville, Tennessee – Centennial) bears All-American accolades. The 2011 Freshman All-American and SEC Freshman of the Year enters the season named a preseason All-American by Baseball America (2nd team) and Louisville Slugger (3rd Team). Like Gregor, Kemp torched the Cape Cod League, finishing in the top 10 in average, OPS and walks, while leading the America’s most prestigious summer league in triples, stolen bases and on base percentage. Halfway through the 2012 season, Kemp was moved from his left field spot to second base after an injury to Riley Reynolds. Despite not having ever played second before, Kemp showed remarkable acumen defensively, matching his abilities in the outfield. Kemp actually struggled a bit at the plate in 2012, batting just .261 due in part to going away from hitting the ball on the ground. He did rap out eight triples and scored a team high 55 runs on the season, while collecting a .778 OPS and a team-high 21 stolen bases in 25 attempts. As noted above, the Junior is expected to start the season at second base, but could shift back to left situationally or if player performance dictates. There is little reason to doubt that Kemp’s defensive play will continue at a high level and, a renewed focus on keeping the ball on the ground should allow the speedster to increase his batting average and OPS.
Backing up Kemp at second will be Tyler Campbell (5’11”, 160 lbs from Portland, Oregon – Lake Oswego), the hyper-athletic Freshman from Lake Oswego in Oregon. Campbell showed solid defensive skills and aggressiveness at the plate and on the base paths, much as did fellow Freshman Dansby Swanson, who could also see time at second base if he is not at shortstop. Swanson will be discussed further below. Campbell will likely join Harris in the infield utility role and by serving as a pinch runner as he adapts to the SEC game.
Redshirt Junior DJ Luna (6’2”, 190 lbs from Franklin, Tennessee – Brentwood Academy) could also see some limited reserve time at second. The utility infielder has had just two plate appearances as a Commodore after walking on after transferring from Samford, where he was a football player. It is unlikely that he will see any great increase in playing time, but Coach Corbin emphasized Luna’s important role as a clubhouse leader at the Baseball Banquet. The kid is tough as nails and pushes his teammates to be better both on and off the field.
Others who could factor into the equation at second base include Harris and Junior Joel McKeithan, who will be discussed further below.
The big two-man positional battles of the preseason have taken place on the left side of the infield. At short, McKeithan (6’3”, 210 lbs from Arden, North Carolina – T.C. Roberson) is the elder in the contest, reminding many of former Commodore Ryan Flaherty from a frame, gait and batting stance perspective. McKeithan didn’t have the breakout some had hoped for last year when he had a chance to win the job at third base, but he will get the start at shortstop in the 2013 opener against Long Beach State. McKeithan came to Nashville as a much-heralded glove and the heir-apparent to Anthony Gomez. In the two years since then, he’s had to work a bit on his bat and it’s slowly but surely come around. He now drives the ball with some authority and has better balance at the plate. He showed some pop in the Black and Gold series and stands as one of those guys whose time has come, if he can seize the moment. After batting just .171 in 41 at bats as a Sophomore, the expectation is for a dramatic increase in production and consistency for McKeithan. He began that rise in the NECBL, where he was named the 34th best prospect by PerfectGame. The tools are all there, as you can see the same mechanics that Flaherty had from the left side just waiting to click with timing from McKeithan on the right side.
Dansby Swanson (6’0”, 175 lbs from Marietta, Georgia – Marietta High) was the name on the lips of most fans during the Black and Gold series. National reporters such as Aaron Fitt and Kendall Rogers suggested he could be the salve for Vanderbilt fans disappointed at the departure of Anthony Gomez in the draft. He certainly has the athleticism and glove to be a great middle infielder and a calm maturity beyond his years. He battled McKeithan neck and neck throughout the Fall and Spring, but any chance he had at winning the job on opening day departed with a non-serious shoulder injury which will keep him out of the lineup for at least a week or two.
With Swanson down, shortstop should be McKeithan’s to hold unless he falters in the field or falls into a slump at the plate. Backing up McKeithan for the time being will be Vicente Conde (who will be discussed further below), Campbell and, in emergency situations, Harris.
There is a good chance that, when both are healthy, McKeithan and Swanson could see time together up the middle, with Swanson moving to second base and Kemp being pushed back into left field, though such an arrangement would be based on the performance of McKeithan, Swanson and the myriad of contestants for the left field role.
The other positional battle on everyone’s mind this fall was at the hot corner, where incumbent Vicente Conde appears to have held off Freshman Xavier Turner for the starting nod against Long Beach State.
No one will kid themselves into denying that Conde (6’0”, 190 lbs from Oviedo, Florida – Orangewood High) took a lot of criticism during his Freshman year, despite improving throughout the season at the plate and, in particular, defensively. Conde came to Vanderbilt as a high school second baseman who projected as a shortstop according to recruiting services. He had the difficult task of adjusting to the most reaction-heavy defensive position while trying to tackle the jump from high school pitching to the big time of SEC ball. His batting and fielding statistics displayed growing pains (.195 BA, .577 OPS, .899 fielding percentage); however, as a sage man once told me, “The best thing about Freshmen is that they become Sophomores.” Conde stuck with it throughout the year and showed a lot of growth during a highly successful summer in the NECBL, where he was rated as the 14th best prospect by PerfectGame and earned All-Star honors. With renewed confidence and knowing that, in particular, his footwork took great strides at the end of the year, Conde should be ready for 2013. His bat has a lot of pop when he makes contact and his arm is the best on the infield by a rather wide margin. If the rest of his game comes together, he could continue to hold off Turner for the starting nod and develop into a solid cog in the Commodores lineup.
Backing up Conde will be the upstart Freshman who may very well start the season at designated hitter. Turner (6’1”, 220 lbs from Sandusky, Ohio – Sandusky High) has all the tools you want in a young star. He features great bat control, decent gap power, speed and an aggressive approach at the plate and on the base paths. Turner also features average to above average defensive skills, led by plus reaction time at the hot corner. Eight months ago, based on early scouting reports and prior to Conde’s improvements over the summer, I would have said Turner would walk into the starting role. Instead he figures to feature heavily in the DH rotation and provide support to and pushing Conde for the starting role as the season continues.
Standing in reserve behind the duo of Conde and Turner will be Freshman Kyle Smith (6’3”, 220 lbs from Old Hickory, Tennessee – Mt. Juliet High). Smith is a utility player who could see time at the corner infield and outfield spots, as well as on the mound. If needed, Smith could possibly play up the middle, though that is less likely. At the plate, he has plus power potential and a strong track record of batting at the high school level. Smith has above average athleticism and a great baseball frame. Defensively and on the mound, he features a high 80s arm that can touch 91 MPH. While Smith’s playing time figures to be limited as he waits for more senior players to be graduated at several positions, he provides an important safety net alongside Harris and Campbell in the utility role. Furthermore, his ability to relieve on the mound could give him a leg up on making the 27 man travel squad for weekend games.
Also providing depth at third are Harris, Campbell, McKeithan and Luna.
While the battles at short and third were pretty much two-man shows, the puzzle of left field has been more of a jigsaw puzzle featuring everyone who is not starting somewhere else. Ultimately, it is Jack Lupo (who had the most starts in left during the stretch run of 2012) earning the opening day nod from Corbin.
A Senior, Lupo (6’2”, 190 lbs from Indianapolis, Indiana – Cathedral High) brings outstanding defensive prowess, great athleticism and a flat-plane swing to the field. He earned the starting role as designated hitter and left fielder for a good portion of 2012 after a great Fall in which he was Mr. Intangibles – the guy who got everything done when needed and exemplified “winning baseball.” Unfortunately, the Spring did not go as well as the Fall at the plate and Lupo struggled offensively, batting just .215 in 121 at bats. He will need to (and almost certainly will) improve on his .502 OPS during the year, while continuing to provide stellar defense. Particularly in left field, Lupo has great familiarity of the quirky confines of Hawkins field, an advantage that allowed him the defensive highlight of the year, when he climbed the wall to snare a deep fly against Ole Miss. Lupo will also do all the little things well, allowing him to be a solid “turn over the lineup” guy at the bottom of the order. He can steal a base, hit and run and bunt alongside the best on the team.
Among the three other primary competitors for the left field job was Sophomore John Norwood (6’2”, 205 lbs from Peapack & Gladstone, New Jersey – Seton Hall Prep). Norwood saw limited action as a true Freshman, batting .159 in 44 at bats with a double, a homerun and a .519 OPS. While he had a few too many swings and misses, fans saw glimpses of his potential when he locked in. His agility on the bases was apparent both on the field and in the 2013 Baseball Dance Off embedded below. He also is continuing to improve defensively and features a throwing arm with plus accuracy and strength. Kendall Rogers of PerfectGame recently noted that Norwood is among those who have taken the largest leap forward over the last year, so his performance may be ready to catch up to his talents. Norwood should be in the mix for playing time all year, pushing Lupo in left and getting a shot at DH.
Also competing for starter time in left is Sophomore Will Cooper (6’3”, 195 lbs from Chattanooga, Tennessee – Baylor School). In limited action at the end of last year, Cooper was relied upon for a few key pinch hitting opportunities in May and June and he came up with some big hits during the period. His numbers (.200 BA, .488 OPS in just 20 ABs) don’t stand out, but his approach at the plate is solid, with an ability to inside-out tough pitches to right highlighting a balanced approach at the plate that didn’t quite include figuring out the more advanced SEC slider down and away. Like Norwood and Lupo, Cooper is athletic, has solid doubles power and should adjust better to SEC pitching in 2013. Cooper will get some opportunities to pinch hit and DH against left handed pitching if he can’t break through in field.
Rounding out the primary left field candidates is Freshman Rhett Wiseman (5’11”, 190 lbs from Mansfield, Massachusetts – Buckingham Browne & Nichols). As discussed in part two of this preview, there may not have been a higher ceiling positional Freshman at Vanderbilt since Pedro Alvarez. When Wiseman squares up a ball, he stings it. On the bases and in the outfield, he has Major League plus speed and agility. While he was not expected to be an immediate starter (in part because his cold weather background had left a few of his mechanics in need of refinement when he got to Vanderbilt), because of his work ethic, he’s advancing at a quick pace and has been one of the top offensive performers in the past two weeks. Wiseman will immediately be a pinch running threat and, to the extent he continues to swing the bat well, could get a large number of at bats as designated hitter against right handed pitching, including this weekend against Long Beach State.
Rounding out the secondary left field candidates are Xavier Turner, Tyler Campbell, Kyle Smith and Andrew Harris; however, one situation that could present itself is a return of Tony Kemp to left. While I find it hard to imagine a scenario in which the offensive production from the left field candidates fails to improve on the 2012 numbers significantly, if it doesn’t for some reason, Kemp returning to the outfield could be spurred by a desire to use a middle infield of Joel McKeithan at short at Dansby Swanson at second. While it’s perhaps premature to speculate on the move, informed speculation is the name of the game in previews.
As with catcher and first base, there are not a lot of guesses to be made in center field. Senior Connor Harrell (6’3”, 215 lbs from Houston, Texas – Kinkaid) returns as the incumbent positional player with the best physical tools (although challenged by Wiseman for that title, the Senior has a superior arm to the Freshman by a decent margin). After tearing apart pitching at TD Ameritrade Park in 2011 and becoming the first player to hit a College World Series homerun in the new facility (and the first to hit a second homerun), many hoped that Harrell would have his breakout All American year in 2012. That did not happen as Harrell continued a tradition of alternating cold and hot streaks at the plate (.241 BA, 7 HR, .786 OPS). Over the summer, he eschewed summer ball and worked to refine his swing in search of greater consistency, with the results praised by Coach Corbin at the Baseball Banquet. Defensively, Harrell will give you 100% and may be the best defensive outfielder in America. He has gazelle-like closing speed in the alleys and an ability to make the center field wall shudder in anticipation of a glorious catch / crash on deep flies. Harrell presents a real power threat (he led the team in homers as a Junior) and should hit in the lower-middle part of the order. As Coach Corbin is fond of saying, the biggest recruiting coups are the returns of stars for their Senior year. Harrell turned down Detroit’s 31st Round offer to come back to the Commodores for a title run. If, and it’s a big if, Harrell can stay consistently hot for the bulk of the season, the sky is the limit for both his production levels and draft prospects.
For days or innings when Harrell gets a break, any of Senior Mike Yastrzemski (discussed below), Norwood, Lupo, Cooper or Wiseman could see action in center. If Harrell were to go down for more than a game or two, I would anticipate Yastrzemski shifting over to center field.
Like Harrell in center, Yastrzemski (5’10”, 185 lbs from Andover, Massachusetts – St. John’s Prep) enters his fourth year as a starter in the Commodore lineup. If there is one thing YAZ has accomplished in the prior three years, it is making his name his own. He is a consummate team leader with an intensity that was readily apparent during his Freshman year. He’s been one of the most consistent players on the team since day one, with above average skills at the plate and plus skills defensively and on the base paths (.286 BA, 6 HR, .810 OPS, 14 SB). While he hasn’t yet broken out into the All American caliber player he is capable of being, his consistently very good play has never let down Commodore fans. It’s hard to say exactly what the high end to expect from YAZ will be in 2013, but you can pretty much bet it will be at least equal to his work last year.
Backing up in right will be Norwood, Cooper and Wiseman, though Lupo, Smith, Turner and Conde could see action in relief, as well.
Not since Conrad Gregor was a Freshman two years ago has there been much of a likelihood of one guy locking down the DH position full time. That uncertainty will continue in 2013. With only two left handed bats (Wiseman and Harris) not projected to be starters, you can count on those two seeing some action in the DH role and as pinch hitters throughout the year. From the right side, the favorites for time might be whichever of Conde and Turner is not playing third, Harvey, Wiel, Cooper and Norwood.
Commodore fans should not be surprised if Coach Corbin returns to the situational DHing strategy he used down the stretch in 2012. Situational DHing involves placing the next day’s or prior day’s starting pitcher in the lineup and then pinch hitting the position as it comes up and as circumstances merit. This strategy allows Corbin the ability to get a guy like Andrew Harris in to bunt, if warranted, without having to burn a power bat like Harvey’s.
Projected Opening Day Lineup
[Editors note: I learned late Thursday that I’d transposed the Friday and Saturday starters for LBSU. Maciel will start Friday and Carle in game two.]
On Friday, Vanderbilt will face off against Long Beach State’s Junior College transfer Shane Carle. The righty features a low 90s fastball and plus slider, to go along with an average change-up. It is likely that only the designated hitter position will be subject to change based on the opposing pitcher during the opening weekend, so the lineup will not alter much as the Dirtbags switch to Saturday starter Jon Maciel (a righty featuring a high 80s fastball that tops out at 91, a good slider and decent curve) and Sunday starter Landon Hunt (a southpaw who throws in the mid to upper 80s with a solid change-up and average curve).
- 2B – Tony Kemp
- RF – Mike Yastrzemski
- C – Spencer Navin
- 1B – Conrad Gregor
- CF – Connor Harrell
- SS – Joel McKeithan
- 3B – Vicente Conde
- DH – Rhett Wiseman
- LF – Jack Lupo
I’m giving Wiseman the start based on reports of his recent batting tear and the susceptibility of right handed batters to “plus” sliders from righty pitchers. Notwithstanding that, Corbin may wish to start a more experienced bat like Harvey or Norwood in the opening weekend. Either of the two or Xavier Turner could see action at DH, with one of them almost certainly stepping in against Hunt on Sunday.
Stay tuned for Part 4 of the Preview, covering the starting staff. In the meantime, feel free to comment below and share the Previews via Twitter and Facebook. It may be a day or two before Part 4 posts, but I’ll have it up by Friday.