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Home > Baseball, General, Sport, Vanderbilt > Vanderbilt Baseball 2013: Preview Part 5

Vanderbilt Baseball 2013: Preview Part 5

February 15th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

LOGOA funny thing happened on Sunday of this week, as an idea I floated out as on a whim came to fruition. While planning my humble blog’s preview, I thought it would be a fantastic idea to seek some input from the Vanderbilt athletics beat and from some of the elite national baseball writers. Much to my surprise, not only did I get responses, I got great answers and a new Part 5 of the Season Preview was born.

In this segment, I’ll look at what the nation expects of Vanderbilt, breaking down the position in the polls and asking actual, real journalists i) what they expect out of Vanderbilt in 2013 and ii) what player need to step it up for the Commodores to compete for a national championship.

Click through to get to it.

While media polls are great fodder for discussion, it is what teams do when they don the uniform and walk out of the lockerroom that defines them, ultimately. (Photo: VUCommodores.com)

While media polls are great fodder for discussion, it is what teams do when they don the uniform and walk out of the lockerroom that defines them, ultimately. (Photo: VUCommodores.com)

Poll Watching

In modern America, poll watching is a tradition among college sports fans. Unlike Football and Basketball, which utilize just an Associated Press and Coaches Poll (let us not mention the BCS and its odd machinations), NCAA Baseball has five prominent means of sorting teams by subjective means. In 2013, Vanderbilt has received its highest ever pre-season rankings in most of those polls.

The polls are as follows:

In addition to these five major polls is the CollegeBaseballToday (in affiliation with Easton Sports and Athlon Sports)(CBT) pre-season top 298 Power Ranking, an ambitious endeavor by Eric Sorenson and Kyle Peterson to rank every baseball team in the nation.

The following matrix shows where Vanderbilt, their SEC rivals and regular season foes came out in those rankings (not included are non-conference opponents that don’t crack the top 25 in any ranking).

BA

CB

NCBWA

PG

USA

CBT

Alabama

117

Arkansas

3

1

1

2

1

4

Auburn

74

Florida

17

24

15

7

13

22

Georgia

29

58

Kentucky

11

8

12

13

15

10

Louisiana State

10

4

3

5

3

9

Mississippi

13

25

25

19

27

Mississippi State

5

13

16

16

18

39

Missouri

88

South Carolina

7

7

6

11

5

12

Tennessee

108

Texas A&M

26

24

24

41

Vanderbilt

2

3

4

3

8

3

Louisville*

4

22

19

15

25

15

Oregon*

15

6

8

10

6

13

* non-conference opponents.

With the standard, solid RPI of the Southeastern Conference and a schedule that is slightly less challenging that the harsh tour faced in 2012, BoydsWorld.com ranks Vanderbilt as having built the 44th toughest intended strength of schedule (using Boyd’s Iterative Strength Rating).

As can be seen, the SEC again reigns supreme in the eyes of sportswriters across the nation, with Vanderbilt only trailing Arkansas in the overall view of the nation. In fact, Baseball America’s editor John Manuel named Vanderbilt his pick to win the national championship, while every publication I’ve seen (including the SEC pre-season coaches poll) expects Vanderbilt to take home the SEC-East regular season crown.

Much of this optimism for the Commodores changes stems from the remarkable turnaround that saw Coach Corbin’s crew rebound from a 7-15 start (which spurred even an optimist such as myself to call the season lost at one point) to finish with a 22-9 second half. The turnaround was spurred by aggressive play which built increasing confidence in a young team. Vanderbilt student manager Will Hinson captured the magic of a season saved with the below highlight reel.

The Opinions

Before I play John McClaughlin to the group, expressing who was right and who was wrong with my own opinions (which are naturally fact), I’ll let some of the top baseball sportswriters in the nation let you know where they stand in their own words. I reached out to each of the below via Twitter and email during the week and asked them to quickly answer two questions: i) what they expected from Corbin’s lot in 2013 and ii) what player(s) would be the key to competing for a Vanderbilt’s first national title? I didn’t give them a format for the answer and in some cases asked the questions via twitter DM, so the style is somewhat across the board.

I thank them all for taking the time to respond. This is one of the busiest weeks for those writers that cover college baseball, so I greatly appreciate their even entertaining the questions from this humble blog – except for Chris Lee, because I would have been peeved had he stood me up on this.

A special thank you also goes out to Vanderbilt alumni Dan Wolken (USAToday) and Buster Olney (ESPN) for expressing their support for the Commodores, but declining to participate because they hadn’t had the time to bone up on the baseball team’s prospects for the year just yet. You can follow Wolken and Olney on Twitter at @DanWolken and @Buster_ESPN.

Anyways, without further ado, the preseason media luminary answers.

 

Jerome Boettcher – Boettcher is the sports reporter for the Nashville City Paper and covers the Commodores in all sports. He’s not limited to VU though, as he does a remarkable job splitting his time between all the local teams and can be followed at @JeromeBoettcher.

As far as my expectations for the team, I do expect them to win the SEC East and get to a Super Regional. This team is capable of reaching the College World Series again but it hinges on the pitching staff and the balance of the lineup. The Commodores need more offense. They’re not going to be explosive but they have to string together more hits and runs than they did at times last year. I think the rotation is as strong as any in the conference and sets Vanderbilt up to succeed. Those still relatively young arms will have to prove it though and I’m curious to see who emerges in the bullpen.

On that note, as far as players who need to step… Kevin Ziomek had a great summer and I think his success is extremely vital to the success of the team. Philip Pfeifer is a guy who will be leaned on more this year after showing some of his potential last season. Brian Miller is an unsung hero who is extremely valuable out of the bullpen. Corbin called Jared Miller the most improved pitcher on the team so keep an eye on his contributions and growth. Offensively, Connor Harrell has to have a solid year from start to finish. He, along with Gregor, is the big bat and he needs to stay consistent. Vince Conde needs to emerge as an efficient third baseman in the field and at the plate. Other guys who are extremely valuable would be Yastrzemski, Navin staying healthy and Kemp. Keep an eye on incoming freshman Dansby Swanson too. He should be fun to watch at shortstop.

 

Mark Bechtel – Bechtel is a Vanderbilt alumnus and a Senior Editor at Sports Illustrated. His expertise is NASCAR (he’s written two successful books on the topic), but he’s a Commodores baseball fan at heart and can be followed at @SI_ MarkBechtel.

What to expect: Big things. Last year was almost a rebuilding season after the team got decimated by the draft, so a lot of young players were thrown into the fray. By the end of the year, they were playing really well, and that experience is only going to help. It’s a very well balanced team without a glaring weakness.

Who has to step up: The two I have my eye on are Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede. It’s always nice to have an ace, someone who can anchor the staff. They both got hit a little last year, but each one has great stuff. If I had to guess which one is more likely to emerge, I’d say Beede. Offensively, there are openings at DH and left field, two positions where you expect some pop. It could be a chance for someone like a John Norwood to step up.

 

Former Commodore hurler Willy Daunic points to the integration of Scott Brown as pitching coach when identifying things to watch in 2013. (Photo: Mike Rapp, VandySports)

Former Commodore hurler Willy Daunic points to the integration of Scott Brown as pitching coach when identifying things to watch in 2013. (Photo: Mike Rapp, VandySports)

Willy Daunic – The multi-talented Daunic was a backup guard on the Eddie Fogler Commodore squads of the early ‘90s and was a two-way baseball player for Coach Roy Mewbourne. After playing pro baseball for two years with the Blue Jays, he turned to sports radio. He currently hosts on 102.5 The Game and is a prolific Vanderbilt and Predators tweeter at @WillyD1025.

The experienced players on this Vanderbilt team have been through both success and adversity. These experiences should serve them well this season and give them a great chance to get back to Omaha.

One thing I’m going to be focused on are the three starting pitchers: T.J Pecoraro, Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede. All of them have a world of talent and have shown the ability to dominate good SEC teams at times. However for various reasons (injury, inconsistency, lack of opportunity) none has had a full consistent season going through the SEC from start to finish.

Teams that win SEC Titles and put themselves in position to go to Omaha usually have at least 2 starters who are “money” pitchers on the weekend. They are almost always going to go 7 or more innings, keep their team in the game, and often dominate. Price and Minor in ’07, Gray and Garvin in ’11 fit that bill. The ’07 team pieced together their Sunday starter role, while Taylor Hill was a rock solid #3 in ’11.

Pecoraro, Ziomek, and Beede have the ability to be aces, but none has done it yet. The Dores need one or two of them to settle into those top slots. They will be pushed, because there are lots of other options on the staff. We’ll also see how new pitching coach Scott Brown settles in. It was easy to take for granted the ability of Derek Johnson to get the staff into the right roles. Brown is ready for the challenge, but his job will be made easier if the top three assert themselves from the start.

 

Aaron Fitt – As one of the biggest faces of NCAA baseball media, Aaron Fitt is the maestro of Baseball America’s intense coverage of the college game. He runs a series of highly informative chat sessions throughout the year at Baseball America that are must reads on a weekly basis and he is the genius behind the All-Fitt team honoring the more diminutive forces in the sport. He can be followed at @aaronfitt.

I think Vanderbilt is quite clearly one of the leading contenders for the national title. There might not be a deeper roster in college baseball; they’ve got fantastic competition all over the diamond and on the mound, which provides a lot of insulation against injury and underperformance. I love that they’ve got gritty, accomplished seniors to set the tone in Yaz and Harrell, and I love the potential of the pitching staff. And as you know, I love Tony Kemp, just a fantastic sparkplug player. This is a very complete team, with star power, depth and balance.

I think the key will be whether Ziomek and Beede can live up to their ability. Indications are that both are primed for big years, which is a big reason we ranked Vanderbilt No. 2 in the preseason. Yes, Vanderbilt has the depth to fill in with other quality arms if these guys should falter, but I really believe Ziomek and Beede must perform for Vandy to perform at peak capacity. As talented as these guys are, they went a combined 6-11 last year, with ERAs of 5.22 and 4.52—there was a major disconnect between their ability levels and their performance levels last year. But everything I’ve heard from people who saw Vandy this fall and spring leads me to believe Beede has really put it all together, and I think he’s going to be a monster this year, with three legitimate plus pitches when he’s on. And I believe in Ziomek too, but the bottom line is both of those guys need to prove it.

 

Brian Foley – Foley started the most prominent independent college baseball blog in 2007 at College Baseball Daily (Full disclosure: I helped CBD cover the 2007 and 2011 Nashville Regionals). He’s not one to pull punches on his opinions, even with a team that lent him the prodigious blogging talents of Drew Fann for the 2011 season. You can follow Foley at @BFoley82 and CBD at @CB_Daily..

Our SEC writer this year (Brandon Weiss) selected Vanderbilt to win the SEC Eastern Division title. Do I think it will happen? Absolutely not, I believe Kentucky ends up taking the Eastern Division this year and Brandon picked them fourth. Any of the teams in the top four (South Carolina and Florida joining Vanderbilt and Kentucky) could win the division if there is one injury to any team or a bad weekend.

Anything less than a Super Regional appearance for the Commodores is a major disappointment for the program. Beyond that, I always state that it really is anyone’s guess in a short three game series for a bid to the College World Series.

[Ed: in re: who has to step up] This is an easy question as both Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede were disappointing last season for the Commodores. Both of them need to be more consistent and live up to their potential. Ziomek is now a junior so this season he is under a ton of pressure to perform and live up to the expectations that the VU program had for him when he entered school. Beede did not live up to his first round draft pick status at all with his 1-5 record and a 4.52 ERA.

I also think it is a mistake to keep Tony Kemp at second base, instead of the left field spot he played most of his career so far. I believe his speed is more of a weapon in the outfield then in the infield, which doesn’t use his speed as effectively.

 

Lee Jenkins – Jenkins is a Vanderbilt alumnus and a Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated. One of the top young features writers in sports, he’s known to stop in on the Commodores from time to time and can be followed at @SI_LeeJenkins.

I expect decorated upperclassmen to blend with vaunted freshmen and the deepest group of power arms in college baseball to lead the way back to a national seed and a berth in Omaha. This program is going to deliver Vanderbilt’s first national championship in a major sport — it’s only a matter of time — and this team has the pitching, experience and balance to be the one. My biggest concern is, as it was a year ago, middle-of-the-order punch. The guy on the spot there is Connor Harrell, who will need to re-emerge as the major run producer he was late in 2011, and wasn’t late in 2012. This staff won’t need a lot of run support, but to realize the ultimate goal, they’ll need more than they got last season.

 

VandySports' Chris Lee and others identified a consistent season from Connor Harrell as a key factor in national championship aspirations. (Photo: Mike Rapp, VandySports)

VandySports’ Chris Lee and others identified a consistent season from Connor Harrell as a key factor in national championship aspirations. (Photo: Mike Rapp, VandySports)

Chris Lee – The founder of VandySports on the Yahoo/Rivals network, Lee is an expert in all things Vanderbilt and, full disclosure, a close friend of this blog’s author. He’s a baseball and statistics fanatic and the author of the best darn fantasy baseball book out there (The Winner’s Guide to Fantasy Baseball). You can follow him at @ ChrisLee70.

I expect this team to make a run at a Southeastern Conference title, and to get to Omaha. It doesn’t have the top-end star power of the 2007 team, but it reminds me a lot of the 2011 team in that it is incredibly deep with a lot of guys who’ll play professional baseball. I am not certain that it has the overall power of the 2011 team, but it’s going to score plenty of runs anyway, and of course the pitching talent is ridiculous.

I think the team is going to have plenty of success even if the following two guys are disappointing, but keep an eye on Kevin Ziomek and Connor Harrell because both have an extreme range of performances. Ziomek was great as a freshman but disappointing last year, and while people point to his success in the Cape, remember that he was great at the Cape in 2011 before having a disappointing 2012, and didn’t finish his start well in the Black and Gold series. Ziomek could easily have a 2.50 ERA and be the SEC’s best pitcher, but that ERA could also double and he could lose his rotation spot.

Harrell has always been a streaky hitter, and the downside is that he’s now lost his job for stretches two years in a row. There are no obvious power sources on this team, and if things go well, Harrell could hit .320 with a dozen homers and give VU Gold-Glove defense in center. But he could also fall in a funk, and if he does, you could knock 100 points off that average and he could lose his job, which means you cut the homers by two-thirds.

I like both to have seasons closer to the upsides, but as we’ve learned, there are no guarantees here.

 

Mitch Light – Light is the Managing Editor of Athlon Sports from 9 to 5 and the father of new Vanderbilt bat boy Gabe Light, 24/7. He’ll be front and center as Gabe makes his batboy debut this afternoon against Long Beach State. Light is a Vanderbilt alumnus and is the sideline reporter for Commodore Football broadcasts. You can follow him at @AthlonMitch.

The expectation for this team is to reach the College World Series. It’s not a perfect roster, but there aren’t many teams in the nation that can match Vanderbilt in overall talent. The pitching staff should be elite, and the defense — anchored by Spencer Navin behind the plate — will be a strength. This team should hit pretty well for average, but the one area for concern is a lack of power.

And that brings me to the one player who needs to step up to win a national title — Connor Harrell. We’ve seen how good Harrell can be when he is on his game. But we’ve also seen him suffer through prolonged slumps in each of the past two seasons. Vanderbilt’s lineup will be so much more potent if Harrell can emerge as a consistent power threat.

 

Like his weekend rotation-mates Ty Beede and TJ Pecoraro, Kevin Ziomek was a popular choice of writers for the guy that needs to take it to the next level. (Photo: Mike Rapp, VandySports)

Like his weekend rotation-mates Ty Beede and TJ Pecoraro, Kevin Ziomek was a popular choice of writers for the guy that needs to take it to the next level. (Photo: Mike Rapp, VandySports)

Jeff Lockridge – Lockridge has been a fixture at VU sporting events since taking over the Vanderbilt beat for the Tennessean. He’s also a prolific tweeter on all things Commodore-related and can be followed at @jefflockridge.

Expectation: Omaha. This Vandy team should boast one of college baseball’s best pitching rotations, bullpens and defensive lineups. If the offense generates some power (home runs and extra-base hits) to accompany a solid average, Vandy will be a top-five caliber squad all season and contend for a SEC title.

Players: Kevin Ziomek is the key to this staff. Grayson Garvin showed two years ago what a consistent, strike-throwing lefty can do on Saturdays, even in a conference like the SEC. If Kevin becomes that guy, the Commodores will rarely drop a series. Vandy knows exactly what it’s getting from most of its position players such as Gregor, Harrell, Kemp, Navin and Yaz. The only glaring question is what sort of production it gets from the left side of the infield. If guys like Vince Conde, Joel McKeithan and Dansby Swanson establish themselves as threats at the plate, I’m not sure the Commodores have a legitimate weakness.

 

John Manuel – The co-Editor-in-Chief of America’s top baseball publication, Baseball America, Manuel is a veteran at covering all aspects of the game from the high school level to the pros. He contributes heavily to Aaron Fitt’s college coverage and has formally picked the Commodores to win it all for the second time (the last time he did so was in 2011, when Vanderbilt appeared in Omaha for the first time). You can follow him at @johnmanuelba. Note that Manuel was questioned by Twitter Direct Message, and displaying a mastery of getting his answer in under 140 characters.

My expectations: I picked Vandy to win the national title. No pressure! Time for the Commodores to live up to their prodigious talent.

 

Eric Sorenson – Sorenson has been writing on college baseball for two decades and, as an Omaha native, has an intimate familiarity with Rosenblatt (may she rest in piece) and TD Ameritrade. He blogs and runs the podcast with Kyle Peterson at Easton Sports’ CollegeBaseballToday. He also contributes to ESPN and Athlon. He can be followed at @Stitch_Head.

I expect coach Corbin will get the epic red-ass if his team gets off to another crappy start like last season. So I suspect they’ll come out guns-a-blazin’ in 2013. Now, keep in mind, unlike most of his conference-mates, Corbin likes to schedule tough in the pre-conference, so they may take some bumps, especially in that trip to Oregon, but they’ll be callus-tough by the time the SEC comes around. It’s Omaha or bust in 2013.

I’m sure I’m being Captain Obvious here, but that .268 team batting average was putrid last year. The pitching wasn’t great, but it got better as the season went along, so I’ll say that vets like Connor Harrell, Tony Kemp and Mike Yastrzemski need to hit better than .241, .261 and .286. Oh and Chris Harvey starting to realize his potential wouldn’t hurt.

 

Final Judgment

Well, I’m not one to argue with experts too often, but I must select John Manuel as our winner for predicting a championship… or at least that’s what my heart says. My brain says that it is the peaking at the start of the NCAAs that matters most. This team still has players still seeking to find their roles and live up to their potential, which implies that the team may have growing pains – though they had better be far less pronounced than those experienced in 2012.

Ultimately, Coaches Corbin, Jewett, Brown and Day should have the Vanderbilt boys ready come time for Hoover and what one hopes will be a Nashville Regional. Thereafter, it will be up to the players to perform under pressure, with little margin for error.

Like most, I find it easy to identify Ziomek and Beede as the two guys who need to step up; however, I think the Friday and Saturday roles will be easier on them this year, as there should not be the added pressure of a porous infield defense (which it frankly was for the first month of 2012) and a lack of experienced arms to back them up. This team is stacked with talent and it is up to the whole team to get to where they can or at least should be, performance-wise. That includes Ziomek, Beede and Pecoraro, but also goes for guys like Harrell and for Mike Yastrzemski who has been a model of consistency on a very good level, but who has not yet broken through to the All-American potential that courses through his veins.

Most importantly, YAZ is the leader of this squad. He has a ferocious intensity that has defined his play for three years. While Spencer Navin was my pick for MVP last year, it is YAZ who will assume that role as a senior… and he’ll do that by taking his game to the next level and by infecting this team with his determination to do nothing but win.

I once again thank all of the outstanding folks who took time out of their busy week to talk Vanderbilt baseball with me. Your contributions are, I’m sure, as valued by my readers as by me.

Stay tuned for my full Season Preview in Part 6, which should post over the weekend.

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