Season Preview: Cal Baseball 2015

Cal baseball opens up the 2015 season on Friday at 7 p.m. against Duke's big right-handed prospect, and we detail just what fans can expect from the Bears in this in-depth preview.



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PREMIUM MESSAGE BOARD DISCUSSION

Stanford, Calif. -- The 2011 California baseball season is now officially in the rearview mirror. All members of the 2011 College World Series team have graduated or been drafted. This is a new bunch of Bears, and while there are still holes left in recruiting from the cut in September of 2010, one of them is certainly not pitching.

Headed by sophomore righty Daulton Jefferies, who, despite his 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame, has thrown in the high-90s during the fall and spring workouts (topping out at 98, and hitting over 100 from flat ground on a crow-hop), and returns to the top of the rotation, where he will face off against top MLB Draft prospect and preseason All-American Matt Matuella, when the Bears open the season on Friday, Feb., 13 against Duke at 7 p.m.

“He has the potential to be the best pitcher that we’ve had, at Cal, in my time, and that’s including Morrow, Johnson and Ross,” said head coach David Esquer, who has two second-round MLB Draft picks in the past six years – National League All-Star Tyson Ross of the San Diego Padres, and Erik Johnson of the Chicago White Sox – and a first-rounder in Padres righty Brandon Morrow.

[FEATURE: Jefferies Brings the Heat]

“It’s taken us a little while to get rebuilt, and get back to the playoffs, and we’re hoping this year will be a breakthrough year for us,” Esquer said. “I don’t think a lot of people are expecting that out of us, but I do know that our kids are probably expecting a lot more out of themselves than the public is probably expecting out of them. We’re looking forward to getting started, and proving some people wrong.

“I know, for us, our expectations are pretty high, as far as our improvement. It’s easy to see that we put a lot of onus on us, and our ability to develop the players that we brought to Cal to be good players, it’s their time to develop and perform. We can see that, past performance, people will say there’s not a lot of expectation, but that’s the pressure we want to put on ourselves, to perform and get better. Not too many may expect big things out of us. I know, on Friday and Saturday, we’re going to match up just fine with anybody on the mound.”

There’s a lot to be excited about for Esquer – who refuses to look at the preseason coaches poll, which tabs the Bears eighth – starting with new, flat-seamed balls which promise to boost offense and make for smoother fielding, and ending with some very promising, young pieces in sophomore two-way star Lucas Erceg, Jefferies and freshman switch-hitting catcher Brett Cumberland.

“We haven’t seen any freshman hit in intrasquads, quite like him,” Esquer said. “I’ve seen a lot of players hit in intrasquads like that, so the key is, when we tee up another opponent, is he the same guy? I think he is. Now, we all have those guys we call the Legends of the Fall – they hit against our pitching, and can’t hit against anybody else. I don’t see that. I’m excited. I hope he is the same guy.”

The Bears finished last season on a tear, winning seven of their final nine games, and winning their final three Pac-12 series against USC, Arizona and Oregon -- two of those on the road -- but Cal has very few veteran hitters returning, and none who hit over .264 last season.

“I would probably say, in our league, there weren’t many impact freshman players, offensively, and most of the development comes along with maturity,” said Esquer, who will start three of his freshmen that he committed to giving a lot of time to last season in Erceg, Robbie Tenerowicz and Aaron Knapp. “The bat has not allowed someone to jump out there and hit .300 with 10 home runs as freshmen, necessarily. We committed to those three young players as freshmen, and we’re expecting some players to have their very best years. If you’re going to have the year you want to have, you’re going to need your seniors to have their best years ever. We’re going to need some of our older players to have the best years of their career.”

"We’re looking forward to getting started, and proving some people wrong." – David Esquer, Cal head coach



PROJECTED LINEUP
CF Aaron Knapp, Soph.
C /DH Brett Cumberland, Fr.
3B Lucas Erceg, So.
RF Devin Pearson, Jr.
1B Chris Paul, Sr.
DH/C Mitchell Kranson, Jr.
2B Robbie Tenerowicz, So.
SS Preston GrandPre, Fr. OR Max Dutto, Sr.
LF Brian Celsi, Sr.

STARTING ROTATION
Friday: RHP Daulton Jefferies, Soph.
Saturday: RHP Ryan Mason, Jr.
Sunday: RHP Alex Schick, Soph.
OR LHP Matt Ladrech, Fr.
OR RHP Jeff Bain, Fr.
OR RHP Erik Martinez, Fr.


BULLPEN
Middle Relief: RHP Keaton Siomkin, Sr. (Not available until April; Tommy John)
Middle Relief: RHP Collin Monsour, Jr.
Middle Relief: RHP Trevin Haseltine, Soph.
Lefty Specialist: Jake Schulz, Jr.
Lefty Specialist: Akaash Agarwal, Soph.
Lefty Specialist: Chris Muse-Fisher, Sr.
Set Up: Jesse Kay, So.
Set Up: Jordan Talbot, So.
Set Up: Dylan Nelson, Sr.
Closer: Lucas Erceg, Soph.

KEY RESERVES
1B/OF: Nick Halamandaris, Jr.
1B/OF: Robert McIlhatton, Fr.
INF: Denis Karas, Fr.
1B/3B: John Soteropulos, Jr.
OF: Grant Diede, Jr.
OF: Sean Peters, Jr.
C: Matt Ruff, Fr.
C: Jesse Kay, Soph.

POSITIONAL BREAKDOWNS
Starting Pitching
“Everybody knows the difference between winning one out of three in a weekend and two out of three in a weekend – if you win one out of three in our league, you go nowhere; you win two out of three every weekend, you might win the conference championship. It’s a real delicate balance,” said Esquer, and it’s not like he hasn’t said it before.

In 2011, his mission was to be good enough on the mound to win two out of three every weekend, no matter where, no matter the opponent. With a robust pitching staff that included Johnson, lefty Justin Jones, senior do-everything righty and team MVP Kevin Miller and big Dixon Anderson, coupled with Logan Scott and Colorado Rockies farmhand Matt Flemer in the bullpen, that team had the tools to win two out of three, every weekend.

“I really have confidence and optimism in our starting pitching,” Esquer said. “Daulton started on Friday nights as a freshman for us, and pitched fantastic for us. In my mind, his record (2-8) did not show that. I know he may not have been happy with that, but to be a freshman starter in the Pac-12, and to go against Pac-12 people that he had to head-to-head with, we just didn’t have the offense to support him on a Friday night. That’s going to be the biggest difference on our club, is, can we offense on Friday night against the other team’s No. 1 starter?”

This season, Cal certainly has two of the best starters in the league, and certainly one of the best one-two punches.

Behind Jefferies is 6-foot-7 junior righty Ryan Mason, who has one of the best sinkers in the Pac-12, and runs it between 82 and 92, depending on the situation and count.

“Ryan Mason won seven games for us last year, and was 7-1; he pitched on Sunday, and we’ll move him up to Saturday,” Esquer said of his junior hurler, who missed much of last offseason with injury, but has gotten plenty of work in this fall and winter.

The third starting spot is still up for grabs, though 6-foot-6 righty Alex Schick will get the first shot, after struggling as a starter last season. Once Schick was moved to the bullpen, he settled in, finishing with a 2-1 record and a 3.18 ERA.

Schick has not developed the velocity that tends to go with a long-levered righty of his stature, and has been around 87-89 with his fastball, topping out in the low-90s.

“His first innings have been good recently, but it’s his second innings,” Esquer said. “If it continues to look that way, that’s a bullpen guy. 91-92 has been his best, but at 89, you’d better be really, really good.”

Gone is righty Alex Martinez -- now at a junior college – but there is another Martinez on staff, in freshman Erik Martinez, a drop-and-drive righty with an 88-91 fastball and a wipe-out slider. He will compete for the Sunday and Tuesday starting jobs, along with fellow freshman Jeff Bain -- a big, powerful righty.

“The best part of them is that in games, they’re not going to get beat because they walk people,” Esquer said. “They’re going to compete. They’re going to get hit. They’ve got to get hit [if they’re going to get beat]. There’s a time when kids are young, they lose their effectiveness because they walk or hit people. They don’t do that.”

Also very much in the mix is intriguing lefty Matt Ladrech, who’s been around 82-84 with his fastball, but has shown flashes of a devastating change up. The coaches are looking for Ladrech to be a Barry Zito-type – soft fastball with plus secondary pitches – but it’s been tough to tell just what they’ll get since he hasn’t faced hitters in another uniform.

“Ladrech, we’re hoping the opposition, in a real game – and you see this with left-handers – sometimes the opposition reacts a whole lot differently than your players do,” Esquer said. “He’s working on stuff when he’s pitching against our guys. When it’s flat-out, ‘I need to get you out any way I can,’ is he a different animal? Somehow, lefthanders can fool you – good or bad – against an opposition.”

The key for Ladrech, Esquer said, is his off speed pitches.

“The key is being able to pitch inside, even with 82-84,” Esquer said. Judging by the reactions of the players, Ladrech is able to effectively challenge hitters on the inner half of the plate, even with his lower velocity. “We’re hoping that he can be minus-10 on his change up. That’s what he’s been working on. He’s been there before – he’s been below minus-10. While other teams are going to look to go the other way and go to right field and the opposite field, he has to have the ability to come in. The reality is, with lefthanders of his stature and his style, he can never be pitched into a corner.

“He has to be the type of guy that, if the count is 3-0 or 3-1, he has to be in a good spot. He has to be, ‘Great, now I can use my best pitches. I’m going to go change up, change up and you’re out.’”

With two four-game weekends early in the schedule (against College World Series participant UC Irvine, and Arkansas), Esquer will have a chance to see just which one of those youngsters will be able to take that Sunday spot and run with it.

“We’ll test out four starters and pare it down to three by the time we get to league,” Esquer said. “Usually, you’d like your freshmen to be able to pitch and spot start, and maybe one of them rises to the top and pitches in the rotation or a main spot out of the bullpen. I can probably safely say that all of our freshmen will get a chance to pitch this year. It’s not ideal, but that’s the state of our pitching staff this year. We’ll have to make most of our decisions on which pitchers will continue to pitch more innings or less innings, based on how they’re doing in actual games, so when it comes to games versus Duke and Arkansas and Irvine, our freshmen are going to get thrown out there, and they will earn more innings or less innings, based on their performance. You’d like to be a little bit more delicate with them and manage their innings and put them in the best situations to succeed. We don’t have that luxury this year.”

The Bullpen
Erceg – who has a 90 mph-plus fastball to go with a knuckler – is the most dynamic arm out of the bullpen.

“He’ll hit third, play third and close for us,” Esquer said. “We’re putting a lot on his shoulders. He’s going to be a main player for us.”

Last season, Erceg’s arm fatigued a bit down the stretch, but given a full offseason of training, he’s proven himself one of the best all-around players on the team. The Bears lost closer Trevor Hildenberger to the Minnesota Twins in last year’s MLB Draft, so having an arm up and ready to go to replace him lessens the amount of worries for the staff to think about.

Erceg sported a nifty 1.93 ERA in 14.0 innings on the mound, with seven walks and nine strikeouts and just one extra-base hit, as opposing batters hit .204 against him – the third-lowest mark among full-time relievers, and fourth overall on the staff.

Side-winding redshirt sophomore Jordan Talbot will also be an option at the back end of the bullpen, as he’s become much more consistent and, now that he has some set-up work under his belt – with a 1-0 record, a 1.29 ERA, two saves and seven strikeouts in 14.0 innings – he’ll take on a bigger role.

Cal also has veteran reliever Dylan Nelson -- who owns a power slider, and challenges like a power pitcher, but without the fastball velocity – will be one of the key set-up men, and if sophomore righty Trevin Haseltine can rediscover the 94 mph he had in high school with a revamped – and, he says, much simpler – motion, he could be ticketed for a set-up or late relief role. With a 6-foot-4, 195-pound body – one that’s much more fit than last season, dropping 18 pounds – that’s a big arm that has to develop, though he’s not quite ready for a starting role.

He has taken some hacks during intrasquad games at the dish, and has a little bit of pop. In an extra-innings game, he’d be a cagey choice to pinch hit, as he hit five doubles and three homers as a senior in high school, and played first base when not pitching.

“He has to improve himself on the mound,” Esquer said. “We’ve given him some exposure swinging the bat, just to balance him out as a baseball player, but we sure could use him returning to his mound form when he was a senior [in high school], even for one inning at a time, where he’s 93-94. You don’t have to be as fine when you throw 94 mph. You can be a little sloppy and over the plate. He hasn’t been that, yet.”

Senior righty reliever Keaton Siomkin has likewise lost some poundage, as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, and he should be available by mid-April.

Sophomore righty Andrew Buckley pitched 12.1 innings last season, with a 5.84 ERA, but he will miss the season due to injury.

Catchers
Those hurlers will be throwing to a new target, in highly-touted freshman catcher Cumberland who’s displayed power from both sides of the plate during the fall and winter practices, and is already very polished at the plate. He' also made big strides, defensively.

“His receiving has gotten a lot better than high school," said Jefferies. "We played against each other in high school, and that was kind of iffy. His blocking has gotten a lot better. He’s really good at getting that low ball on the outside change up. I’m sure Kranny’s giving him a good fight to step up his game. He looks good.”

Cumberland and Kranson will likely share the catching duties, especially since Kranson has vastly improved his fitness and defense, the latter due to working with former Bears utility man and current student assistant Mike Reuvekamp, who drills Kranson every day before practice. With veteran bat Brenden Farney on the shelf with Tommy John surgery, Kranson could rotate with Cumberland at the designated hitter spot, with powerful lefty Nick Halamandaris (who missed his second consecutive fall with an injury) also slotting in.

“The catching position is between two players – Mitch Kranson, who caught probably 45 games for us last year being pushed by Brett Cumberland,” Esquer said. “Brett Cumberland is going to find a way into the lineup as a DH or to catch, but he’s going to be one of the few freshmen to play in our lineup this year.”

The third catcher is preferred walk-on Matt Ruff, who’s shown a little bit of pop and decent speed for a catcher, with playable defense.

Kranson’s arm has gotten much stronger, and in the Fan Fest intrasquad game, he cut down speedy leadoff man and center fielder Aaron Knapp trying to steal second.

"Having Reuvekamp as a grad assistant has really helped Kranson, because he takes him through catching drills before practice, and he's out there grinding," Jefferies said. "His feet look so much faster, and he looks more agile and everything. His arm strength's up. He looks pretty good."

Outfield
Knapp heads up an outfield that’s going to have speed to spare. Between Knapp, senior Brian Celsi and junior Devin Pearson, alone, Cal returns 25 stolen bases from last season, and after being slowed by offseason shoulder surgery in 2014, Pearson is ready to get back to his freshman form. As a true freshman in 2013, the five-tool Pearson hit .302 with eight doubles, two home runs and 17 RBIs and stole seven bases.

“Brian Celsi, Aaron Knapp and Devin Pearson all have started a number of games,” Esquer said. “Aaron Knapp was a freshman center fielder last year, who we committed to developing, for the big payoff, when he becomes the type of player we think he will be this year. He will lead off and play center field.”

Middle Infield
The infield will be a bit unsettled after the departure of Derek Campbell and Reuvekamp, as well as a season-ending elbow injury to middle infielder Brenden Farney.

Esquer is still debating how to deploy his shortstop, who will either be lanky freshman Preston GrandPre (6-foot-3, 154 pounds) or junior Max Dutto.

Four different Bears started games at shortstop last season, with Reuvekamp starting 16 of the first 17 games before going down with a hamate bone injury in his glove hand. Chicago Cubs draftee Campbell proceeded to start 24 games, with Dutto seeing action in 11 games at the keystone position, with six starts. Farney played two games at short, one as a starter.

“Both have played well in practice to get some time, and we obviously need to upgrade our defense at shortstop,” Esquer said.

Dutto has struggled with injuries the past two seasons, and hit just .056 last season in 20 games of action. Dutto is capable with the mitt, with a .973 fielding percentage last season, and gives Esquer a left-handed bat, while GrandPre is still a bit green. If shortstop doesn’t sort itself out, there’s a chance, Esquer said, that he could slide Erceg over to short, and put former 24th round MLB Draft pick Denis Karas at third.

“He’s going to be someone who’s going to develop into a player,” Esquer said of Karas. “We have plans. He will be in our future. Shortstop is a deal. I don’t know that it benefits us to stick GrandPre out there and give him to the wolves, even if he eventually is going to be the player. Max will probably get an opportunity. Preston will definitely get an opportunity, at some point, and there’s been some talk that even Lucas Erceg looks good enough at shortstop, so why not put him there?”

Erceg has played a bit at short during intrasquads, and has looked very natural.

“He’s just a baseball player,” Esquer said. “They all come in at shortstop. Obviously, the concern is how much we’re going to use him pitching. We’ve also had some talk of, why not play Lucas at first, so we don’t tax his arm, if he’s going to be an important part of our pitching staff.”

Back at second is Robbie Tenerowicz, who had 10 hits in his final 22 plate appearances of the 2014 season, with five RBIs, four doubles and four runs scored.

“He played the last half of last season, and played very well, defensively,” Esquer said. “He came on offensively at the end of the year, and we need his development to be a big key for our offense, and to stay consistent defensively.”

Corner Infield
The keystone of the lineup – and Cal’s plans for 2015 – is do-everything sophomore Erceg, who beyond his pitching prowess, also has a lot of power from the left side of the plate, and a plus arm, with 45 assists last season. At the dish, Erceg hit young, with a .231 batting average in 97 plate appearances, with 11 strikeouts to six walks. Of his 21 hits, five went for extra bases.

Taking over for Devon Rodriguez at first will be former shortstop Chris Paul, who was a Northwoods League All-Star this summer in the vaunted wooden-bat league, hitting over .300 after hitting .264 for the Bears during his junior season. Paul has shown a lot of pop in the past – with eight homers and five doubles as a sophomore – but has yet to translate summer league success onto the college diamond.

“A former shortstop, if you can fill your field with former shortstops, you’re probably in pretty good shape,” Esquer said. “Everyone says, ‘We want the Chris Paul who plays in the summer,’ and there’s a certain attitude and confidence that comes with being a senior, and we need him to have that attitude and confidence, with someone who feels like he should be performing.”

The key to Paul putting everything together could be playing first, where the game has slowed down for the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder.

“I’ve noticed, in the little bit of time that he’s been there, it’s kind of slowed the game down for him, a little bit,” Esquer said. “He’s actually played the best third base of his career after having played a lot of first base. When I was at Stanford, we moved a couple third basemen to play first base, and at some point, the game just slowed down enough that they went back and played their best third base of their lives. I think that’s an option for us, too.”

Paul has started at third and short in his career, with the hope that his experience as a senior will help anchor the infield.

When Halamandaris returns in the first month or two of the season, he will get a shot to play first, as well, as a powerful left-handed bat that has yet to fulfill the promise he showed out of high school, when he was drafted in the eighth round of the MLB Draft by the Seattle Mariners.

“He had surgery and missed the fall, but we’re expecting him back in February,” Esquer said.


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