Ryan Mason has emerged as a leader in the clubhouse and on the field

BERKELEY -- Could the 2016 Cal baseball team do more than just get back to the postseason? Could they make it back to Omaha?

UPDATE 12/9: Cal's 2016 Schedule Has Been Released

BERKELEY -- As soon as the 2015 College Station Regional ended, D1Baseball.com's Aaron Fitt christened California as a likely candidate for Omaha in 2016. His colleague Kendall Rogers agrees. After watching the Bears go through this fall, particularly how well they finished, it's hard for this reporter to disagree.

"Defense, it still comes down to the same thing, as it always has: Pitching and defense," says head coach David Esquer, and he's right. This team is going to be very sound on the mound and in the field. I'm sold on almost the entire infield -- with a middle infield entering its second year together, and a plucky third baseman (more on him later) -- and the outfield returns all three starters -- a fifth-year senior, a junior and a true senior with a combined 226 starts in the outfield over the last two seasons. The entire starting rotation from last year's Regional final team returns, as well as several key relievers, and a pair of Freshman All-American pitchers in Matt Ladrech and Jeff Bain

Robbie Tenerowicz is, as Esquer says, a "game-changer" at second base, and he's proven that again and again this fall. He played this summer in the Cape Cod League and hit four opposite field homers, but because of a wrist injury suffered before the 2015 season, Cal had him just play defense this fall, as he got the wrist operated on before he arrived on campus. Playing in summer against some of the top pro prospects in college, Esquer said, was more valuable than having him hit in October and November against his own pitchers.

Preston GrandPre has been rock-solid and steady at short. Center fielder Aaron Knapp has an improved plate approach, is getting on base at a higher rate and is one of the fastest players in the Pac-12. His defense in center field is going to be All-Pac-12-level. There are a lot of reasons to be excited about this team, even with the losses it suffered during the offseason.

Key Losses

Last season, when Chris Paul was christened the Bears’ first baseman, after playing his entire career at shortstop, head coach David Esquer said, “It’s easy to play a good first base, it’s hard to play a great first base.” Paul did just that. Losing his steady glove at first – more than his bat in the lineup – is probably Cal’s hardest loss to stomach on the field, but, since he left due to graduation and the MLB Draft, it’s a loss the Bears were preparing for.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1581769-lucas-erceg-no-lon... Cal had Nick Halamandaris waiting in the wings, and behind him, a now-healthy Brenden Farney and Denis Karas are being prepared, as well. Early in the fall, first base defense was a bit shaky, and personally, I'm not sold on having three guys rotating there until one takes the reins. I'd be more comfortable with one player taking the lead early, but that hasn't quite happened.

Also, there's not much height there, but, as Esquer said, the 6-foot-2 Paul saved more balls in the dirt than he did over his head, and that's what Cal needs -- a steady glove that can save errors. It seems like a little thing, but, again, as Esquer said, it's easy to play a good first base, but it's tough to play a great first base -- and a great first baseman is one that isn't noticed in the field. He has to have quiet hands and tends to make tough plays look easy to the untrained eye. Paul, with a shortstop's hands, did that. Halamandaris has been aces at times, but has also struggled. Farney has been a pleasant surprise at first, where he played two years ago before undergoing arm surgery that kept him out all of last season.

"Not worried at all," Esquer says of first base. "I really think, however it plays out, we're going to have a capable guy there. Could be Nick. Nick will be given every opportunity, but I feel like whoever doesn't take advantage of the opportunity, the guy who does is going to be a great option."

Karas arguably had the best fall among all the Bears, finishing it off by going 5-of-7 with two doubles, a two-run home run, four RBIs and four walks in the three-game Blue-Gold Series.

"Maybe the best performer of the fall's been Denis Karas," Esquer says. "He was starting some games [last season], and then he got hurt. He had a shoulder problem, as well, and when he hurt his thumb, we just told him, even though he could have come back in three or four weeks, he probably wasn't going to be a big enough factor during the season, so we told him to get both of them taken care of. He's probably as healthy now as he's been since before high school."

Karas got surgery on his thumb and his non-throwing shoulder, and he's been one of the most consistent performers both at the corners and at the plate this fall.

"[The shoulder injury] cut off his extension. He'd cut his swing off a little bit. He's as healthy now as he's been in three years, and I think coach [Brad] Sanfilippo has done a great job," Esquer says. "They've been working on a daily basis, and I think it really has shown. He's really developed as a hitter. He's given us that other option, and he's not a bad outfielder, as well. If we didn't feel like one of those freshmen was ready to be out there, Denis can play an outfield, he can play third, he can play first. He's a right-handed bat, and we're pretty left-handed."

The Bears lost a big left-handed bat (and power arm in the bullpen) in Erceg, and an All-Pac-12-level defender, but his departure for Menlo College did solve a bit of a logjam at catcher.

The losses of Nelson and Muse-Fisher in the bullpen also have to be addressed. Right-hander Alex Schick started all throughout summer ball in the Cape Cod League, so he could push to be a starter, but I think he's going to be a premium arm in the bullpen, going 91-95 with his fastball, and if he can be more consistent, he's going to be a very good set-up man, or even closer. I think that title is going to go to Erik Martinez, but don't overlook Schick.

Riding El Gaucho

Another top performer in the fall -- and Cal's emergency first baseman -- has been Mitchell Kranson. When he arrived in Berkeley, the Concord (Calif.) De La Salle product was a bat without a position. His feet weren't quite quick enough for third, and his arm wasn't quite strong enough behind the plate. By the end of last season, he was throwing out the best runners that Texas A&M could unleash in the College Station Regional, was calling his own game behind the plate and was one of the Bears' best hitters. He's been picking it at third base this fall, and hile he doesn't have the athleticism of an Erceg, he's been steady, dependable and has made several beyond-the-call plays in the hot corner.

"Boy, you know what, typical Kranson, which is, 'better than you'd expect,'" says Esquer. "When you put him in left field, how'd he play in left field? Way better than you expected him to. How did he catch in the Regionals, in the most important games of our season? Way better than you expected him to. How's he played at third base? Way better than we've expected him to.'"

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1551375-regional-postmorte... Kranson can just roll out of bed and get a hit, and we saw that all throughout fall, along with his glovework at third. When he came in, I wasn't sure what his real position would be, and his bat -- which was the main attraction -- didn't come around early. Since then, he's answered every single challenge and every single question I've had. The arm's weak? He threw out the best runners Texas A&M sent against him in the regional. The receiving is weak? He called the entire Regional on his own. The bat not as strong as advertised? He was one of the best hitters all of last season, and especially down the stretch.

Over the final five games of the season, Kranson went 9-for-22 with six RBIs, two home runs, a double and four runs scored, and finished hitting .273 with six home runs, 21 RBIs, 12 doubles, a .467 slugging percentage and 22 runs scored.

He seems to answer every challenge. He's a blue-collar ballplayer, plain and simple, and one that the entire team depends on. He's a level-headed everyman, and when this program has succeeded in the past, he's the type of guy they've followed into the breech.

"As a personality, very mature," Esquer says. 'We lean on him. We're counting on him. We count on him to be there somewhere for us. He is always in the back of the mind if something happened, and if you need him to catch day in and day out, if Cumberland couldn't be there, he's the first place to go. That opens [third base] up for Denis Karas, who's played great."

That brings us to the catching situation. Sophomore catcher Brett Cumberland is as professional a hitter as they come, from both sides of the plate. He hit a bit of a slide late last season after starting off hot, but even with a sore arm this fall, he's been one of Cal's most consistent hitters, with a very mature plate approach. Speaking of mature, Cumberland will be draft eligible after this year, which means that, with Kranson graduating and him possibly leaving, the Bears will likely have a new starting backstop next season, and by the looks of it, Tyrus Greene will be able to step in right away.

Key Additions

Greene's been very solid defensively all fall, and he's been taking most of the reps on the Gold team behind the plate, splitting time with Matt Ruff, who's also been very steady offensively and defensively, after slimming down a bit this offseason. Offensively, Greene has a quick bat, and shows some gap power, but he'll need to get a bit thicker. Luckily, he'll have a year to do that, as will many of the Bears' freshmen. Here's what you need to know about Greene: He threw out Aaron Knapp in the Blue-Gold Series. Knapp is arguably one of the best base stealers in the Pac-12, and Greene beat him easily. That one play told me what I need to know about his future behind the plate. He didn't flinch when Knapp was dancing off of first; he was calm and loose. 

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1420991-bsb-bears-out-duel... "That's a big factor for us, and I think the beauty of our freshman class this year, is that they really provide us some peace of mind a year from now. I don't know whether Jonah Davis and Jeffrey Mitchell and Lorenzo Hampton have to be counted on to come out Opening Day and play 50, 60 games for us, but they do give you peace of mind that they're the type of players who can step in a year from now, and do that," Esquer says.

Esquer runs down a list of the freshmen, but forgets Dodson, when I personally think Dodson is the best replacement for a talent like Erceg. Erceg, I think, had higher offensive upside, but Dodson is a much better pitcher, and, along with Davis, has been just as good defensively in the outfield as starters Knapp, Devin Pearson and Brian Celsi (who's also played a very capable second base during the fall and summer, should he be needed, and has come through in every situational at-bat I've seen this fall, moving runners over, putting the ball on the right side of the field and bunting; he flat-out executes, which you'd expect from a fifth-year senior).

"That's how it's blueprinted to start off, is Celsi, Knapp and Pearson," Esquer says. "Again, those freshmen provide you the next guy in. Jeffrey Mitchell and Jonah Davis, who has been great defensively -- Mitchell has probably been the best offensive performer of the freshmen outfielders. But, they both, along with Lorenzo Hampton, they have bright futures ahead of them. We're really, really optimistic that they're going to be the guys who are going to step in after those guys leave.

"Then, I don't even mention Dodson, who probably is, hey, Dodson for me is a guy that is going to pitch because of that arm. He does provide you an option -- you don't want to fall asleep on him as an offensive option, because he has done great this fall, but he's so dynamic on the mound. He provides you with that dynamic arm that you don't always have. It's 92-93 and the lights aren't really on, yet. Usually, kids don't find their velocity until January."

Dodson was 7-for-7 to start the fall, and 9-for-his-first-10 at the plate before he fell ill and was slowed up, but he picked it up at the plate towards the end of the fall. His best work, though, was on the mound. Given that the staff is very right-handed, with only one left-handed reliever (Akaash Agarwal), Dodson's change up could very well earn him innings this season based on his ability to get lefties out with the change-of-pace.

"His change up is a pretty lethal pitch," Esquer says. "If he comes in throwing 93-94, with a change, he may be a good match-up for a lefty."

Dodson profiles very much like Michael Theofanopoulos did early in his career -- an offensive player who has electric stuff on the mound -- so I'd expect that he'll be used in both ways at least early on in the season, but probably -- barring injury -- more as a reliever by the time Pac-12 play starts.

"He's just a baseball player," Esquer says. "I like having guys like that. I think that's the same way with Kranson. Kranson is kind of a baseball player -- no matter where you put him. We forget, the one game last year when Chris Paul got hurt against Campbell, Kranson played first base, and he jumped in there and did fine there. Dodson's very similar to that, too. Wherever you play him, he fits. He's an outfielder by trade. I had thought, early on, about taking a peek at him at third base, to see if he would be an option at third. He got sick, right at the start of the fall, so we didn't have time."

Dodson can play two ways, but his two recruiting classmates -- Shortridge and Matulovich -- are strictly pitchers, and they're going to challenge for some innings behind Daulton JefferiesRyan Mason, Ladrech and Bain, and possibly Schick.

"That's one of the reasons I play those four-game weekends," says Esquer. "I try to play as many four-game weekends, because it forces you to develop one more starter. If you're playing on Tuesday, sometimes you kind of fall back and you just staff it. You just pitch everybody for one inning. I like to develop one starter, and that's what we did last year -- we went with four starters, and then, after a couple weeks, we said, 'Hey, Ladrech is probably the guy we need to keep there, and then, when we go to three, Schick will move to the 'pen and we'll be stronger."

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1606754-fall-ball-freshmen... Shortridge is a long, lean, electric righty who has a very good finish on his arm action that gives his ball a lot of run, and he's a very good fielder off the mound.

"I think what impressed me, is that whenever people were watching, he got better," Esquer says. "In the alumni game, he was better. On our scout day, he was better. I think in this Blue-Gold Series, he was better than he pitched in just a normal, afternoon intrasquad game. I think in some of those games, he looked like he was a little light, and a touch below, and then, all of the sudden, when people watched, he was a little better."

Matulovich was a late get in the recruiting process, and though his velocity wasn't quite up to the 92 seen during his senior high school season, he has shown a lot of promise, and a very deceptive movement, with a projectable frame.

"They give us options," Esquer says. "They allow us to match up a little bit, even though we're really right-handed. But, maybe somebody's change up matches up better than somebody's slider. Hey, I think that's what makes us optimistic about our depth, which is way better than it was a year ago. Matulovich and Shortridge, if this is their fall selves, we expect better out of them once the season starts, and that's a pretty good thing."

Up the Middle

"At second base, we've been kind of waiting for Robbie to get healthy enough, and at the end of the fall, just getting back into it," says Esquer, who kept his second baseman out of the batter's box due to a wrist injury he suffered before last season. "Then again, Ripken Reyes, who we played at shortstop all fall, just to make sure that we had an option there if GrandPre were ever to go down, really finished strong at shortstop for us, and yet, he's stronger on the right side of the diamond."

I was most impressed with Reyes's hands and glovework, but his arm is not strong enough yet to be an everyday shortstop. His plate approach is mature, and I like his ability to go the other way, and provide a speedy left-handed bat off the bench who can not only run, but hit and defend, as well.

"He's another second baseman that we could have, if we needed to," says Esquer. "Seeing what I needed to see out of the defense, we have the ability to play good defense."

Farney did not play second or short all fall until the Blue-Gold series, but he performed marvelously. Farney said he wasn't as aggressive as he'd want to be, because it's been so long, but he gave up his body to keep balls on the infield, and played very soundly at the turn. His hands and his glovework have shown no rust, though his footwork is, understandably, a bit slow up the middle. That said, while his bat will be a welcome addition to the lineup after his year away, his glove will be a value add, especially if he sees time at first.

"We're not necessarily going to count on that," Esquer says of Farney, who came in as a second baseman. "That was more of a factor in the sense that, in order to play these games, on how they drafted the teams, they needed him to play the position. He still has to compete at first base for us, and be a DH factor. That's where his value is for us. But, hey, there's also a chance that if we needed to spell someone in the middle infield, he could do that."

Master Mason

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1564937-neu-takes-hc-job-a... With all of the returners for the Bears -- likely first-round draft pick Daulton Jefferies threw three shutout innings in the finale of the Blue-Gold Series, hitting 91-92, and retired 6 batters on 16 pitches in his scout day outing several weeks ago -- perhaps one of the most important is Ryan Mason. The senior righty decided to return for his fourth season because, he felt, there was still unfinished business. The wild-eyed 6-foot-6 sinkerballer has always been a hoot in the clubhouse, and crazy like a fox off the field with a bulldog tenacity on the mound, but in the past six months, he's truly grown up, to the point where he made sure to publicly announce his return on the same day that Neu was announced as the new head coach of Pacific. He knew the Bears would need some continuity, and he was going to be it. He also eagerly took to new pitching coach Eager.

"I think he and coach Eager have worked well together," Esquer says. "I think he's found quite a few miles per hour that he didn't have before. Now, what you don't want him to do is throw hard enough where he throws right through that sink. He needs that sink, and he can't throw through it. He's got a little bit of a new toy with some velocity, but he still needs to be effective in a way that Ryan Mason has been effective."

Now, he's not just the berserker country boy who grew up driving flat bed trucks in the wilds of central California. He's the master of the house, and while he's still the vocal, frenetic, rabid force both on the mound and off, there's a measured sensibility to him now -- dare I say, the carriage of a leader.

"I really enjoy coaching Ryan Mason," says the soft-spoken Esquer, who's personality is diametrically opposed to that of Mason's. "He's probably the best competitor, as a pitcher, that I've ever coached. He really is the definition of a competitor, which is, he doesn't need his best stuff in order to give you a chance to win. He's gone out there many times with way below his best stuff, and he gives us a chance to win. He doesn't come out there and complain about not feeling great, or not throwing great or not having a pitch. He just goes in there and gives us a chance. His stuff is better."

Mason has never really been a strikeout pitcher, but in his final appearance, he threw three perfect innings in the Blue-Gold finale, with three strikeouts, and lots of weak contact, which is what he usually does major in.

"Absolutely, I think he really feels his age, being a senior here," says Esquer. "He's always someone that I can lean on to help me understand what's the psyche of our team, our pitching staff, and maybe what they need."

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