Fall Ball Review: Pitchers

With Fall Ball completed, it's a good time to take a step back and examine what took place during the three-week practice season and what it means for the upcoming season. Read on for in-depth analysis on the Cardinal pitching staff plus comments from the head coach on who his #1 starter is, what other pitchers have a chance to start, and which freshmen could be ready to contribute.

How can optimism be high for a pitching staff when a team loses their top two starting pitchers?  When everyone else on the staff is back plus a handful of talented freshmen who appear to contribute from day one.  Jeff Gilmore and Mark Romanczuk are significant losses for the Cardinal baseball team.  Gilmore excelled as a starting pitcher the last two seasons eventually taking over as the team's ace last year as part of an All-Conference campaign (10-3, 3.76 ERA, 117 innings).  Romanczuk struggled at times a year ago finishing with just a 5-6 record, but his 4.24 ERA and 108 total innings pitched made him a capable Saturday starter leading to a high draft selection.  Both hurlers are now in professional baseball leaving a big hole atop the Cardinal rotation.

From a numbers standpoint though, Stanford should not lack for depth on the mound this season.  Of the seven other pitchers who saw game action a year ago, all seven return and should play key roles on the hill in '06.  The group of one senior, four juniors, and two sophomores combined to start 25 games and record 11 saves last season.  These seven pitchers - Matt Manship, Blake Holler, Matt Leva, Greg Reynolds, Jeff Stimpson, Erik Davis, and Nolan Gallagher - should carry the innings load this upcoming year for the Cardinal.

The chief question now becomes who will step up and emerge as the starters?  Based on what took place during the recently complete fall practice season, the junior right-hander Greg Reynolds appears ready to take the lead.

"I would say now he is the #1 guy," says head coach Mark Marquess to The Bootleg.  "He pitched well at the end of last year and had a great summer in the Cape.  I would say now he'd be penciled in to be the Friday starter."

A presence on the mound standing 6'7", Reynolds showed off excellent velocity during fall intrasquad games with a fastball that routinely sat in the low 90's.  Reynolds, in fact, reportedly topped out at 93 M.P.H. with his heater during fall ball and is receiving plenty of attention from Major League scouts as a potential top draft pick this June.  Reynolds complements his hard fastball with a devastating power curve and a much-improved change-up.  The bottom line is that the emerging star has three-plus pitches that he can strike out hitters with complemented with above-average control. 

The one caution could be his lack of experience as a front-line starter, but this could be said about any pitcher on the current staff.  With many high-profile non-conference games early in the season against the likes of Cal State Fullerton, Texas, and USC, we should find out if Reynolds is up to the task.  The talent is there, it's just a matter of carrying over his summer and fall ball success to the regular season.

And while Reynolds has certainly made a statement going back as far as his 11-inning start last June against Baylor, his spot as the top starter on the team is far from locked in.  The Pacifica native will have to continue to pitch well once January intrasquads begin if he's to begin the year as the Friday starter.

"It's not a situation like Romanczuk because he wasn't one of our three starters last year," adds Marquess.  "It's not the same as it's been with (Jeremy) Guthrie or Romanczuk or some of the other guys."

As for the rest of the rotation, it's a cloudy picture for the Cardinal.  Not because Stanford lacks talented arms, but rather because the club has tremendous depth - just not necessarily with starting experience.

"It's not going to be like last year where we knew Romanczuk and Gilmore were going to start," comments Marquess.  "With the exception of Reynolds, everything else is really fluid.  It's just a matter of who performs.  It will be doable the first month of the season because you're going to pitch eight-to-ten guys in a weekend.  You'll divide the game up because they can't go seven, eight, or nine innings."

"I think after that, once we get to finals break (March 13-24), we'll zero in on the three starters and closers."

One name now at the top of the list though to move into the rotation is the senior Matt Manship.  Manship came on strong toward the second half of last season stepping into the role as the team's top late-inning relief pitcher.  Overall, Manship finished with a sparkling 0.80 ERA over 33 2/3 innings with five saves.  He ended the year in style retiring all 17 batters he faced over two extended relief outings during the Waco Regional.

Manship has experience starting as he excelled in that role up in the high-profile Alaska league a year ago.  Then last summer, Manship earned All-League honors as a starting pitcher over in Hawaii.  His experience makes him an attractive option to the coaching staff to at least begin the season as a member of the starting rotation.

"I think we'd like to start him, especially in the first part of the season," offers Marquess.  "He started the last couple of summers and did well.  He's basically pitched relief for three years for us and he may still end up in that role as a closer."

Manship had a solid fall season on the mound as he headlined the top pitching group with Reynolds.  Manship has the most big-game experience of any hurler on the team with his 17 career saves (tied for second all-time st Stanford) and his multiple appearances on the hill during the 2003 College World Series as a freshman.  Manship displayed impressive stuff during fall ball with a high 80's fastball and the confidence to go to his off-speed pitches in any count.  With the lack of weekend starting experience on this team, Manship may become a leading candidate to finally take over as a full-time starter with the Cardinal.

After those two pitchers, it's extremely wide open (at least at this current time with fall ball concluding) as to who else will start for the Cardinal.  Junior Matt Leva made 11 starts (and six relief appearances) a year ago finishing 5-2 with a 4.12 ERA.  Leva has spent a portion of the last two seasons as the Sunday starter for the Cardinal and has won both of his career postseason starts.  Unfortunately, Leva did not see any game action during fall intrasquad games as he was held out for precautionary reasons as he nursed a minor arm injury.  The Texas native did throw numerous bullpen sessions over the three-week practice season and is expected to be ready to go once January practices begin.

Nolan Gallagher made four weekend starts early in the season a year ago in his freshman campaign on the Farm.  He looked far more comfortable though in the second half of the year as a reliever in fact leading the entire Cardinal pitching staff in strike outs per innings pitched (60 SO in 55 1/3 IP).  Gallagher's final season ERA sat at 2.93 - second only to Manship - a very impressive number for a first-year player.  A hard throwing right-hander with a fastball that can reach the low 90's, Gallagher had a solid fall season proving to be one of the more difficult pitchers to hit on the staff.  Gallagher, like Reynolds, features a knee-buckling curve ball from the right side that acts as a true strike out pitch.  Gallagher, who is climbing up the charts as a premium draft talent in 2007, will throw a lot this season.  The question is whether it will be as a starter, a reliever, or possibly as a closer.

While Reynolds led the Cardinal pitching staff this fall in strike outs, junior lefty Blake Holler was not far behind.  Holler made all but one appearance last year out of the bullpen in compiling a stellar 3.48 ERA over 54 innings.  The southpaw could again be suited for a role as the long man in the bullpen, but certainly has the stamina and ability to start if called upon by the coaching staff.  Meanwhile, fellow junior Jeff Stimpson is looking to bounce back from a difficult 2005 season that saw him appear in just six games all year out of the bullpen (0-2, 5.62 ERA).  Stimpson was one of the go-to relievers on the club as a freshman and is looking to reclaim a role as one of the top hurlers on the team heading into 2006.  His fall performance was definitely a step in the right direction as Stimpson compiled one of the lowest ERA's on the club (3.32 in 19 innings) while throwing a lot of strikes.  His velocity on the fastball was excellent (87-89 M.P.H.) and his confidence appeared high.

The other returning pitcher with experience is sophomore right-hander Erik Davis.  Davis made four weekday starts last season and 20 total appearances.  The Mountain View product recorded a solid 4.31 ERA and will be looking to expand on his role with the team in 2006.  One of the top high school pitching prospects in the country two years ago, Davis certainly has the potential to be a special pitcher (like his classmate Gallagher) during his time at Stanford.  Unfortunately for the short term, we'll have to wait and see what Davis will bring to the table in '06.  Davis took the fall season off, but will return to the team once January rolls around.

While the above seven pitchers should lead the way for the Cardinal this upcoming season, four freshmen and a sophomore walk-on are also pushing for immediate playing time and are worth noting.  Frosh Jeremy Bleich, a consensus top 100 player last spring in the high school ranks, would have been a top ten round draft pick last June if not for his strong commitment to Stanford.  The hardest thrower of any of the freshmen, Bleich routinely sat at 88-89 M.P.H. with his fastball this fall.  He also can throw a change-up and probably the top left-handed curve ball of anyone on the staff.  It's a rarity to find a freshmen who can A) throw hard with control and B) throw three pitches for strikes.  But Jeremy Bleich has the entire package.

"He's going to be very good for us," says Marquess.  "It's just a matter of how quickly he makes the transition.  You don't know that until you get into the season."

Bleich should see plenty of game action this year for the Cardinal and could eventually find himself in the rotation with continued development.  The Louisiana native certainly has future starter written all over him.  Bleich struck out 17 batters (compared to eight walks) in just 17 2/3 innings during fall intrasquads (one strikeout behind Reynolds).

A pair of two-way players in freshmen Austin Yount and Sean Ratliff also have a chance to see innings this year.  Yount, especially, was impressive during the fall season recording a sparkling 2.50 ERA over 18 innings (lowest among the freshmen - second lowest on the team).  Yount isn't as overpowering as Bleich, but has some of the best control of anyone on the team.  The right-hander is composed, polished pitcher who will keep hitters off balance.  Yount left quite the final impression on the coaching staff this fall with a five-inning masterpiece (no runs, one hit allowed) last weekend.  Yount is the nephew of the Hall of Famer Robin.

Ratliff is another lefty with tremendous potential.  The Colorado product wasn't nearly as consistent as Bleich or Yount on the mound, but featured an impressive curve ball.  Ratliff also saw time in the outfield this fall while Yount played at both second and third base.  Finally, freshman Max Fearnow surprised during the fall season with a handful of impressive outings.  Along with Ratliff, Fearnow may have a chance to sneak in some time on the mound out of the bullpen on this deep pitching staff.

Meanwhile, Sophomore David Stringer outperformed all of the pitchers mentioned above during the fall season.  Stringer went to high school right across the street at Palo Alto and walked-on to the Cardinal last year.  He didn't appear in a game as a freshmen, but that should change moving forward to 2006.  Stringer recorded a stellar 1.83 ERA (4 ER/19.2 IP) with just four walks and 13 strike outs over five appearances during intrasquad games.  He possessed the lowest ERA and fewest hits allowed of any pitcher this fall.

"I think Stringer had the best fall of any of the pitchers if you look at performance and consistency," says Marquess. 

Stringer doesn't have the game experience yet to fall back on, so January practice games will be key for the young right-hander as he tries to prove his fall wasn't a fluke and he's ready to see significant action.  If he builds on last month's efforts, David Stringer becomes yet another quality arm at Mark Marquess' disposal this season.

Based on the pitchers coming back and the performances, as a staff, during the recently completed fall practice season, there's plenty of reason to be optimistic for success on the mound for the Cardinal.  Questions certainly remain as to who will emerge as the starters.  The talent is definitely there, it's now just a matter of going out and performing once the real games begin.  Greg Reynolds has been tabbed by the head coach as the most likely Friday starter and barring a terrible January, he should be given that opportunity once Cal State Fullerton rolls into town the first weekend of February.  If there's one thing this staff has, it's depth.  In fact, that may be overall theme of the 2006 Stanford Baseball team seen just as much with the hitting ranks.  More on that in the next "Fall Ball Review" article ...

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