Season Preview: Cal baseball starts 2017 season with sophomore righty Tanner Dodson poised to be first true two-way player in years

Cal will start the season with its first two-way player in nearly a decade when Tanner Dodson takes the hill on Friday at 7 p.m., against Cal Poly.

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Not once in 10 years of covering California baseball has this reporter ever heard the kind of preseason speech head coach David Esquer uttered this week at the Bay Area Baseball Media Day at Stanford. For the most part, the coaches in attendance waxed poetic and nostalgic about the retiring Mark Marquess, Esquer's coach while an infielder for the Cardinal. In the midst of the love fest for Marquess, who's entering his 41st year, Esquer went off-script: "Everyone uses the word 'excited,' when they talk about getting the season started," Esquer began. "I don't know if I'd use that word." Esquer will be replacing seven MLB Draft picks -- tied for the most in his tenure in Berkeley -- and will return just one weekend starting pitcher (junior lefty Matt Ladrech) and one starter in the field (junior shortstop Preston GrandPre). His top two catchers are gone, and so is his entire starting outfield. He didn't find a first baseman until the end of fall ball (freshman Andrew Vaughn), and his Friday and Saturday starters have never started a weekend game in college.

"We have 18 new players, a complete turnover," Esquer said, admitting that he is "nervous, scared, unsure."

After he addressed the assembled media, Esquer said that it's the same kind of fear that motivated him when he walked on at Stanford.

"It's good fear. I've been motivated by fear," he said. "My thing for us is, I'm motivated by this, in the sense of just not knowing. You're throwing out a lot of players who haven't logged a Division I baseball hit, but we are also putting out a lot of kids who sat on the bench last year, itching to play. So, we're not throwing a lot of freshmen out there. As a matter of fact, on the field, it's mostly sophomores."

Not since 2009 have the Bears regularly had a true, two-way starter both on the pitching mound and at the plate. Back then, it was hard-throwing Blake Smith, who started on Saturdays, and served as the Bears' designated hitter.

This Friday, when the rebuilding Bears hit the field at 7 p.m., against Cal Poly (LIVE AUDO AVAILABLE HERE), one of those sophomores -- Tanner Dodson -- will become the Bears' first true two-way starter in nearly a decade.

"Blake Smith tried it a little bit, but he was such a max-effort pitcher, that it wiped him out," said Esquer, entering his 18th season in Berkeley. "We had to use him in relief a little bit more, and just picking and choosing his spots."

That season, Smith -- who made his Major League debut this season for the Chicago White Sox and made five appearances for the Pale Hose -- started three games, and pitched in nine, with a 5.85 ERA, but hit .319 with 10 home runs. 

"To be honest, the X-factor on our team, as it stands now -- and, time and time again, he's proven it -- is Tanner Dodson," Esquer said. "He's one of our most productive offensive players. Not ideal to have your Friday starter [...] I would love it if, somehow, if Tanner were not as good as he was, and pitched on Sunday, it'd be great to have that guy be an offensive player for two days."

The competition for the Friday night slot was fierce, between Dodson and freshman Jared Horn, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound righty who sits at 93-95 with his fastball, and has a potential wipe-out pitch in his hard-breaking curveball.

"It's a big curveball, a wipe-out pitch, and as he learns how good his stuff really is -- he was used to wiping hitters out with balls, and sometimes it can be too big, going from ball to ball -- he'll go from strike to ball or ball to strike," Esquer said. "Like every young pitcher, he has to realize that he doesn't have to out-do his best pitch. If he makes a good pitch, the put-away pitch doesn't have to be better than that one; it just needs to be good. His stuff has more margin for error."

Horn was projected as a top-round draft pick out of Napa (Calif.) Vintage, but made it known that it would take a "very unique situation" for him to eschew his National Letter of Intent, and fell to the 20th round.

"He's a young power pitcher, and you don't want him to be at 100 pitches in five innings, because then somebody else has to throw," Esquer said.

That, in part, is why Dodson won out, and his bat has been so consistent that it's hard to keep it out of the lineup.

"He may DH the day he pitches. I may hit him a little bit lower in the order, but I just don't see any way around not giving him that chance," Esquer said. "I really believe Dodson has every chance to be as good as Daulton Jefferies." Jefferies -- who was picked in the Lottery Round of this summer's MLB Draft (37th overall) by the Oakland Athletics, after a sparkling three-year career at Cal -- was recruited as a two-way player himself, but never took a single at-bat. Dodson, who had a 2.10 ERA and hit .430 as a senior at Carmichael (Calif.) Jesuit, was arguably the Bears' best offensive player during fall ball, and has continued his hot hitting in spring practices.

The switch-hitting 6-foot-1, 180-pounder only had one plate appearance last spring, but pitched the second-most innings on the team (61.2), behind rubber-armed Ryan Mason. He went 4-5 in largely mid-week starting appearances (19 appearances, 9 starts) and sported a 3.36 ERA, striking out 29 and walking 31.His best outing was a seven-inning jaunt on April 30 against Washington, in which he struck out four. He also had three saves, against Texas, Arizona State and the Cardinal. Opponents hit .290 against Dodson in his maiden campaign, but he's earned his spot at the front of the rotation, Esquer said.

"This is in the ilk of the Mike Leake's of the world. It just is," Esquer said, referencing the former Sun Devil two-way star who sported a 2.86 ERA in 381 innings pitched for the Sun Devils from 2007-09, while hitting .299 in 97 at-bats.

Esquer said he could put the slight-of-frame Dodson in the outfield when he's not pitching, but, "I would not even consider that, in consulting with trainers and the strength coach. The only time to make another move and add more on his plate is after he's built up and is consistently at 100 pitches for four or five weeks. We've got to be smart for him, because he thinks he can."

Esquer has said that being "young and dumb" has worked in the past (citing the 2011 College World Series run as an example), and early this fall had hoped that would be the case with this bunch.

Cal will rest its offensive hopes on a middle of the order featuring third baseman Denis Karas, center fielder Jonah Davis and Vaughn, all of whom have been tough outs in the fall and early spring. Karas has made a jump in the power department, but Davis -- the one-time Nevada commit, who flipped to Cal just before the start of his freshman year -- has been perhaps the most impressive.

In the summer of 2015, he played for the PUFCaps, a collegiate traveling wood-bat team, and hit .347 with seven home runs. In the summer of 2016, for the Green Bay Bullfrogs, he slammed nine home runs and drove in 33 runs in 56 games, adding 10 doubles and two triples.

Karas hit .319 in 29 games last year, with five doubles and five home runs in 72 at-bats in the first extended action of his career.

"He's shown some power. Even now, finding the right spot for him, there's going to be some strikeout there, but I think he's got the best power potential, Karas as well," Esquer said. "Then, we need the base-hitters, the Jeffrey Mitchell's, the GrandPre's of the world, the Dodson's of the world -- they have to be productive in the way that they can. We're not asking for doubles and homers. They just have to be offensive base hitters."

Outside of the veteran GrandPre -- who has 384 career at-bats in 108 games -- the players expected to be the offensive engine for the Bears -- Karas, Reyes, Mitchell, Davis, Dodson and Vaughn -- have a grand total of 149 collegiate at-bats, so the offense may take some time to find itself. Pitching and defense are going to have to be paramount, but the Bears' youth has bit them repeatedly over the fall, and early spring practices. The defense has been finicky, at best, and a circus sideshow at worst.

"We need to be more than finicky," Esquer said. "We need to be consistent. There is an alignment I'm not against. It'll start off with Karas and GrandPre [on the left side], but again, if it's going to come down to defense and I need to make some moves, even if Karas needs to go to first and GrandPre to third, throw one of the young kids at short."

With quick-handed sophomore Ripken Reyes set to start at second, freshmen Anthony Walters and Cameron Eden would be in the mix to step in for GrandPre, if he moves to third, where he's taken a significant amount of ground balls.

Amidst the tumult that is expected to be this season, there has been one question percolating in Cal baseball circles: Given Cal's budget uncertainties, could Esquer leave for greener pastures, and take over at Stanford, once his mentor, Marquess, retires? 

"Oh, I'll be honest, I am so invested in what I'm doing at Cal, I couldn't even imagine being somewhere else," Esquer said. "I don't even think twice about, and never have thought twice about another job, especially with what we've got building. In the next couple years, I think we're going to be pretty formidable, and that's where I want to be."

They'll just have to take some lumps to get there.

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