The purpose of this article is to examine the state of Cal baseball-2002. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview head coach, David Esquer, on Monday, March 11, 2002. The publish date was delayed due to CyberBears' obsession with Cal basketball during March Madness.
Cal entered this season needing to replace four key players from 2001: starting LHP Jason Dennis, multiple role RHP David Cash, RF Rob Meyer & first baseman Clint Hoover. The objective of this year's team is to again earn post season play as well as, perhaps, cracking the pecking order of the perennial top three Pac 10 baseball powers, Stanford, ASU & USC. Today, coach Esquer, in his third season at Cal, is 78-64 (55%). This season the Bears have already played 30 of 56 games scheduled, standing 19-11 overall and 3-0 in the Pac 10. IMO, the Pac 10 race could go either way for the Bears. Several teams have comparable talent (Cal, Arizona, Washington, UCLA & Oregon State). Let's take a look behind the scenes for the reasons why...
The Bears of 2002 are a "thin" team and are entering Pac 10 play WITHOUT definitive answers as replacements for the four key departed players. The reasons that the answers are not self-evident by now have been injuries and inconsistent play from the new recruiting class (100% freshmen). Cal was fortunate in 2001 - a rebuilding year - to gain 4 position players as everyday starters plus a starting pitcher & stopper (relief pitcher) from its recruiting class. These six key contributors (one juco transfer along with five excellent freshmen) spurred the team onto post season play.
This season only one recruit, CF-3B David Nicholson (rated #80 nationally by BaseballAmerica), has jumped to the forefront to become a cog in the machine as of the beginning of the Pac 10 campaign. Cal has 16 position players available this season but only half are hitting capably (.270-.400 BA). The other half are really struggling with batting averages hovering around the "Mendoza line" (.200 BA). The pitching staff is facing a similar dilemma: 3 standouts among the 10-man staff! Actually, 7 pitchers have ERAs in the threes or below which is good. The problem is that two of those, ex-Cal starter Ryan Atkinson & sophomore reliever Blake Read, are rehabing injuries and only pitch during the week (B games) until they regain their strength. A third pitcher just graduated from this situation, frosh Kyle Crist, and started yesterday's victory over WSU. A fourth relief pitcher, converted catcher Creighton Kahoali, is also unavailable at the moment because he has started the last 7 games atcatcher in lieu of injured starter, John Baker.
The pitching staff has four freshmen that all have had their "moments" this season, but they're inexperienced and inconsistent. Three have unacceptable ERAs (Todoroff, Crist & redshirt surprise, Ingram). The lone freshman with a good ERA, Brent Hale, has pitched well the majority of the time but has a tendency toward wildness. This limits coach Esquer to using him as a starter or long reliever rather than bringing him in the game with the bases loaded. Cal needs at least a couple of these young men to step forward to be counted upon during the rigors of Pac 10 play.
The pitching game plan seems to be as follows: senior RHP Trevor Hutchinson (6-2) opens each weekend series as the starter followed by sophomore, Brian Montalbo (3-3). Cal has been unable to develop a reliable #3 starter (to replace Dennis) or a setup reliever (to replace Cash). For now, it is #3 starter "by committee" until somebody grabs the job. Coach Esquer told me that this pitcher will have "a relatively short leash" if he gets into trouble. Three freshmen are the prime candidates (Kyle Crist, Brent Hale or Joe Todoroff). If they can go 7 innings, soph ace Matt Brown will come in to close out the game. Coach Esquer needs Brown to finish tight games so depending upon how many innings of work that he's had in game #1 & #2 of a series, will dictate his availability for the finale.
Yesterday, Crist started and was relieved by two of his fellow freshmen, Hale & Ingram. Prior to Crist returning to action, his high school teammate from Granite Bay, Todoroff, had been the #3 starter. The Bottom Line: Cal has three dependable thoroughbreds plus four freshmen with promise. Hopefully, veterans Atkinson & Read can also graduate from the weekday regimen soon, adding to the team's overall pitching depth. AS a side note, sophomore catcher Kahoali has a cannon for an arm and is learning how to pitch during the week. Many pitchers are ex-catchers or shortstops that couldn't hit the curve ball. One last item regarding pitching: Esquer actually had his #3 starter "on board", he was BaseballAmerica's #12 prospect nationally named Adamzlck (6'5") from Westlake Village. The only problem was that professional baseball realized his talent, too, and made him an offer that he could not refuse!
The regular batting order is made up of position players that are predominantly underclassmen. Originally, coach Esquer auditioned several players to replace graduated first baseman, Hoover. He started the season with a platoon system with sophomore James Holder (vs LHP) & senior Derek Ayres (vs RHP). Holder homered in the opener and had a .750 on base percentage for his initial couple games until he severely separated his shoulder (he'll probably sit out 2002 as a medical redshirt). Ayres was given 22 ABs but with little power production, Esquer was forced to move his top power hitter, soph Conner Jackson, from the hot corner at 3B to 1B! So now the new hole to plug on the infield has now become third base. The other unsettled position is leftfield (5 candidates). Esquer moved soph outfielder Brian Horwitz from LF to RF to kick off the season.
Here's the preferred batting order (BA/OB% stats as of 3/18):