The Cougars, who feature 20 new faces on the 35-man roster, open 2017 this Friday in the first of a four-game set at Sacramento State. Despite all the fresh faces, Lees says the locker room is “as tight as it can be.”
The new group was recently ranked the 28th-best recruiting class in the nation by D1Baseball.com.
Regardless who gets the start at second, all four of the newcomers there will see playing time this season, said Lees, who breaks down the horse race this way:
- Dillon Plew (6-3, 200-pound freshman/Kennewick). ”A left-handed bat, and I think if you look at the whole factor; the ability to hit, run, throw, he’s probably got the edge a little bit as a starter.”
- Ryan Ramsower (6-0, 180 junior/Pima CC). "A JC kid who I really think could play third, left, or center, a right-handed hitter so he's got some ABs underneath him, very tough kid, has some grit.”
- Danny Sinatro (5-11, 170 freshman/Sammamish). “A left-handed bat with some speed, working on his craft as a second basemen, it’s new for him.”
- Reagan Teegarden (6-0, 185 freshman/Bellevue). ”Coming off an injury to his labrum (shoulder), but his arm strength is getting back. He’s shown that he can play all three positions in the infield, left-handed hitter, he's probably ahead as a defender then he is at the plate.”
Their collective emergence illustrates the depth of Lees’ offseason efforts to supercharge the makeover of the roster for his second campaign as head coach. Ten players from last year’s team with eligibility remaining were shown the exit — albeit graciously.
"When the season was finished, we moved into the phase of helping kids. I mean we had a great group of kids last year but we also wanted to put them in a situation where they could be successful in baseball whether that be here or somewhere else," said Lees, referencing efforts to place the 10 outgoing players with eligibility at other schools.
The list includes four mainstays in last season’s line up: outfielders Wes Hatton and Cameron Frost, infielder Jack Strunc and catcher Stefan Van Horn.
Indeed, when pressed for a starting lineup if the Cougs opened the season today, Lees offered up a batting order with more rookies than veterans:
- Lead off: J.J. Hancock RF (veteran)
- 2 Dillon Plew 2B (rookie)
- 3 James Rudkin 1B (rookie)
- 4 Blake Clanton DH (rookie)
- 5 Cory Meyer C (rookie)
- 6 Justin Harrer LF (veteran)
- 7 Shane Matheny 3B (veteran)
- 8 Andres Alvarez SS (rookie)
- 9 Dugan Shirer CF (veteran)
AS FOR THE PITCHING STAFF, the Cougars lose their top 2016 innings eater, Ian Hamilton, to an early departure for pro ball, but return a load of arms that will blend with some lively new ones.
”We’ve got two rights and two lefts (lined up as starters), and in our first four weekends we've got four game sets so it works out pretty good," Lees says. “I think what these early season games, when you go four-game sets, allow us to see some kids, because we're going to need 15 pitchers to get through a weekend.”
Here’s how he breaks down the starting rotation, each member of which sports a three-pitch repertoire (fastball, breaking ball, change) and can turn in 80-pitch outings:
No. 1: Damon Jones (lefty fourth-year junior). Nine starts for the Cougars in 2016. Went 2-2 with a 5.11 ERA. The high ERA of a year ago shouldn't give pause, Lees says, because Jones’ control has improved.
No. 2: Ryan Walker, a right-handed junior who starred in the bullpen for the Cougars last season, recording 50 strikeouts in 63.2 innings and posting a 2.40 ERA (fourth lowest in the Pac-12). He was honorable mention all-conference and recently named to the 2017 national Stopper of the Year watch list despite his move to the rotation.
No. 3: Cody Anderson, a 6-foot-6 left-handed JC transfer from Bellevue College whose 7-3 record and 2.51 ERA at BC impressed Lees.
No. 4: David Wallum, a 6-foot-7 right-handed sophomore who played last season at Linn-Benton Community College, where he recorded a 7-3 mark and 3.24 ERA.
In the bullpen, Lees likes his depth and hasn’t settled on a closer. He envisions multiple guys working the 8th and 9th innings, with the situation dictating who he rolls out when. Here’s how he breaks down his top six out of the pen:
- Trenton Dupre (righty senior). "Had a really good summer, solid year last year (at WSU), putting him back in a roll of relief will help him …we had to tinker and put him in different roles (last season) just because that was who we were. Dupre can throw in the 88-90 mph range," Lees said.
- Scott Sunitsch (lefty junior). ”We feel good about him, sitting in that 88-91 mile per hour range," Lees said. Last season for the Cougars, Sunitsch appeared in 19 games, making four starts, and piled up 55 innings of work. He had a 6>38 ERA and 4-2 record with one save.
- Isaac Mullins (lefty second-year freshman/North Bend). ”Another kid we redshirted last year, and we feel good about him," Lees said.
- Joe Rosenstein (righty junior/Lamar CC). ”Has done a really good job all year and we expect big things out of him," Lees said.
- Colby Neely (righty junior). ”He’s emerged as somebody who could close. Didn't get a whole bunch of innings (for us) last year (29.1 with 6.44 ERA) but he's really taken it to another level, he's gotten stronger, he's got a slider that's been wiping out our hitters this past month, hitting the 89-92 mile per hour range," Lees said.
- Parker McFadden (righty sophomore). ”If we could bottle up what he's been doing the last six months, he's sitting anywhere between 92-96 miles per hour with a slider, very good control," Lees said. Appeared in 17 games for the Cougars last season, making eight starts with a 2-4 record and 8.10 ERA. Struck out 25 in 33.1 innings.
- A.J. Block (lefty freshman/Bellevue). A long relief type with a high ceiling. ”We've got to get him some innings," Lees said.
HERE’S HOW LEES ASSESSES the rest of his 2017 Cougars:
3B: Junior Shane Matheny was the only player in the Pac-12 who played every conference game and didn’t have a single error. "He can defend the bunt, he's very under control, good pace, good rhythm, good tempo. Older now and his bat is coming alive at the plate," Lees said.
SS: Sophomore JC transfer Andres Alvarez is slotted to be the everyday guy. "As good an infielder as I've ever coached, a working kid who is a baseball player, right now working to understand his role at the plate, but his skill game is coming along very well, hitting bunts and hit and runs, he does a very good job running the bases," Lees said.
1B: Junior JC transfer James Rudkin will "probably hit in our three hole,” says Lees. “Above-average defender, has the ability to hit maybe not a bunch of home runs but just a pure hitter, really understands the game of baseball, what pitch he's looking for. I could see him playing every single game at first base.”
Catcher: Like second base, Lees has an array of brand new talent from which to choose in JC transfer Cory Meyer (Spokane Falls CC) and freshmen Cal Waterman (Bend) and Zach Inskeep (Coos Bay). Meyer "probably has a little more (of an edge), and has been really hitting. He needs to improve on the throwing end but he's been good," Lees said. Waterman, he added, has a stronger arm but needs experience at the plate and Inskeep is "one of most improved players from the fall to where he's at right now.”
Outfield: The Cougs have depth, flexibility and improving plate performance, Lees said. He sees the group displaying more speed and power than a year ago.
In left, converted infielder Justin Harrer will start. "He's had a very good fall and winter, learning the craft of the outfield, and I think he's playing more free mentally and that's why he's starting to really hit, has huge power," Lees said. Lees also pointed out that Harrer as a 6-2, 205-pound athlete has above average speed.
In center, Dugan Shirer and Derek Chapman return for their junior seasons, Lees thinks their plate approach is better, and that he will be able to utilize both players there.
In right, returning junior J.J. Hancock is "really coming along — I think we freed his mind up, just go catch the ball,” Lees said. “He will be our leadoff hitter, he has the ability to hit the double right from the first pitch of the game.” In addition, JC transfer Blake Clanton is in the mix. He brings some power to the plate, and could be another left-handed power option at DH.
- The Cougars finished last (Lees’ first at the helm) in the conference last season with a 19-35 overall record and 11-19 mark in Pac-12 play. Coupled with the pronounced youth this season, the Cougs are picked to finish last in the 2017 preseason Pac-12 media poll.
- Lees on hitting: ”Bunting was a big part of our game last year and it needs to be a part of the offense, but we need to be more productive and move guys with singles and doubles not bunts. It’d be nice if you could have a guy that could hit 10 HRs too, to lock one in there, but that's uncertain.”