Big West Preview
I'd like to start off by thanking Rich Lederer and Bryan Smith for running this series, and asking that I take on the Big West Conference. I'm Jeff Agnew and I publish a blog on the Long Beach State Dirtbags, Dirtbags Baseball, and wish there were more folks taking on college baseball in the blogging community (that's an invitation!). Without further adieu, here's my take on the Big West. The teams are presented in the projected order of finish in the Big West coaches preseason poll.
1. Cal. State Fullerton.
2005: 46-18 | Super Regional | 9th in final poll | 10th in RPI
After winning the National Championship in 2004, the Titans looked like a strong contender to return to Omaha last season. They hosted a Regional that included the Arizona Wildcats, a CWS team from '04. Taking 2 of 3 from Arizona, and the Regional, Fullerton then played host to a Super Regional against Arizona State. After losing games 2 and 3, it was the Sun Devils that booked the trip to Nebraska.
CS Fullerton looks very strong again this season. The Titans had 14 players selected in the 2005 draft, six on day one. But it was their great fortune that five of them did not sign, including four who form the core of a very strong infield. The unsigned draftees include junior Brett Pill at first (45th round, Yankees; .327, .384 OBP, .492 SLG%, 9 HR), senior Justin Turner at 2B (29th round, Yankees; .324, .391 OBP, .447 SLG%, 17 doubles), junior Blake Davis at shortstop (46th round, Indians; .325, .384 OBP, .481 SLG%, 8 triples) and top defensive catcher junior John Curtis behind the plate (29th round, Indians; .234, .332 OBP, .284 SLG%). Also unsigned, and returning, is senior outfielder Danny Dorn (23rd round, Devil Rays, .272, .421 OBP, .474 SLG%, 10 HR). With such abundant experience, and talent, the Titans will be very solid in the field and at the plate. The key losses on offense are Sergio Pedroza (3rd round, Dodgers; .324, .458 OBP, .616 SLG%, 16 HR) and 3B Ronnie Prettyman (10th round, Mariners; .327, .383 OBP, .518 SLG%, 18 doubles, 8 HR).
On the mound, Fullerton returns projected 1st rounder sophomore RHP Wes Roemer (7-3, 3.80, 1 save, .259 OBA, 71K, 15 BB, 90 IP) and junior closer Vinnie Pestano (3-4, 2.68, 13 saves, .239 OBA, 49K, 16 BB, 50.1 IP, 34 appearances). Gone are starters LHP Ricky Romero (13-5, 2.89, .212 OBA, 139K, 34 BB, 134 IP), the 6th player taken overall, by the Blue Jays, and LHP Scott Sarver (9-3, 4.60, .295 OBA, 59K, 27 BB, 88 IP), selected in the 21st round by the Astros. Junior JUCO transfer LHP Ryan Paul (LA Pierce JC; in 2005: 5-2, 2.11, 77K 18 BB, 64 IP), was drafted in the 28th round by the Tigers, and figures to be one of the weekend starters.
The bottom line on Fullerton is that this team didn't need an overhaul ...just a few new parts.
2. Long Beach State.
2005: 37-22 | Regional | 19th in final poll | 22nd in RPI
Long Beach State will be younger, with substantially less Division I experience than last season. The 49ers adopted the Dirtbags moniker in 1989, the year Coach Dave Snow's team took Long Beach to the College World Series for the first time. The program has since been a perennial top 25 team. The 2006 roster will feature 23 new players, largest turnover in the Dirtbag era.
Playing their home games in Blair Field, one of the most extreme pitcher's parks in college ball, Long Beach State is an easy sale to pitching prospects. Result: The 2005 Dirtbags led NCAA Division I in ERA at 2.53. But with the exception of starter RHP Jared Hughes, the core of the staff will not be back for '06. Friday starter LHP Cesar Ramos (10-7, 2.64, .227 OBA, 95K, 16 BB, 126 IP) was drafted by the Padres in the supplemental 1st round. Saturday starter RHP Marco Estrada (8-3, 2.43, .212 OBA, 104 K, 29 BB, 111.1 IP) went in the 6th to the Nationals. The '05 Dirtbags also had arguably the best setup/closer combination in Division I, in RHP Brian Anderson (3-0, 0.83, 2 saves, .151 OBA, 37 K, 9 BB, 43.1 IP, 30 appearances) and RHP Neil Jamison (4-0. 0.00, 11 saves, .158 OBA, 27 K, 5 BB, 29.2 IP, 27 appearances). Jamison was drafted by the Padres in the 6th, and Anderson by the Giants in the 14th. Two other pitchers were also drafted on day one, southpaw Steve Hammond in the 6th, and RHP Cody Evans in the 10th. All told, Long Beach State returns pitchers who accounted for only 25% (130 of 522) of innings pitched - 89 of them by Hughes.
Hard throwing junior Jared Hughes (in '05: 8-3, 2.83, .212 OBA, 87 K, 23 BB, 89 IP), a projected 1st rounder who went 7-0, 1.62, in the Cape Cod League this summer, will anchor the staff. Junior JUCO transfer RHP Andrew Carpenter is likely to start Saturdays, with freshman Vance Worley taking the mound on Sundays. Last season Carpenter was 8-2, 3.15 for Sacramento CC. True freshman Worley (McClatchy HS, Sacramento) was the top pitching draft prospect in northern California in 2005 and would likely have been drafted in the first couple rounds had he not suffered an elbow strain his HS senior year. Now healthy, he may become the next dominate starter in the Dirtbags' string.
The big question mark on the hill for Long Beach is the bullpen. They have no obvious choice to succeed Jamison and Anderson. The likely candidates include senior Brett Andrade (1-0, 4.66, .317 OBA, 3K, 3 BB, 9.2 IP), and whichever of a nice crop of freshman rise to the occasion.
At the plate, the Beach ought to improve on their 3.25 runs per game. The most significant loss - and a big one - is SS Troy Tulowitzki, the 7th player taken overall in the draft (by the Rockies). Evan Longoria split time between third and short last season, replacing Tulowitzki for several weeks while he was out injured. Longoria broke out in the Cape Cod League this summer and was named MVP after leading the league in homers (8) and RBI (35). Like Hughes, he projects to be selected in the 1st round in June. Senior outfielder Sean Boatright may be a key. Often injured, if he can stay healthy his gap power will extend rallies. Slick fielding freshman shortstop Danny Espinoza looks to have a lot of playing time, provided he handles D-I pitching. He adds a dimension missing from the Dirtbags in recent years, excellent speed on the basepaths.
3. UC Irvine.
2005: 31-25 | 54th in RPI
Together with Cal Poly SLO, UC Irvine appears to have the best shot at joining Fullerton and Long Beach in the Regional field. The Anteaters return one of the premier closers in the nation in junior RHP Blair Erickson (1-2, 1.80, 10 saves, .140 OBA, 52K, 22 BB, 35 IP, 28 appearances). Erickson projects as a first round pick. Like Blair Field in Long Beach, Anteater Ballpark is a pitcher's dream. Also returning is senior LHP Glenn Swanson, who comes off an injury shortened season, and looks to be a high pick as well. Junior RHP Justin Cassel (9-4, 3.54, .278 OBA, 86K, 21 BB, 117 IP) is an additional solid starter.
Irvine lost a lot of offense to the draft in Brett Dalton (.376/.419/.471), Mark Wagner (.355/.398/.495) and Matt Anderson (.332/.402/.508). Senior Jaime Martinez (.339/.384/.475) returns. If they can produce the runs, the Anteaters have a shot at the post-season.
4. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
2005: 36-20 | 57th in RPI
Cal. Poly has already gotten off to a great start, sweeping Baseball America ranked #21 Fresno State last weekend. Many thought the Mustangs should have been included in the field of 64 last season, but the selection committee apparently felt their #57 RPI wasn't enough, despite tying Long Beach State for 2nd in the Big West standings at 14-7.
The 2006 Mustangs lose their #1 and #2 starters to the draft. LHP Garrett Olson (12-4, 2.71, .243 OBA, 128K, 47 BB, 136 IP) went to the Orioles in the supplemental 1st, and RHP Jimmy Shull (8-7, 4.61, .259 OBA, 85K, 33 BB, 111.1 IP) to Oakland in the 4th. The pitching staff will be anchored by returnee junior RHP Gary Daley (6-2, 4.74, .247 OBA, 59K, 39 BB, 89.1 IP). Junior RHP Bud Norris (5-0, 4.54, 1 save, .242 OBA, 38K, 30 BB, 33.2 IP, 17 appearances) also figures to play a big role. He started Saturday against Fresno and earned the win, going 7.0, and yielding 1 run (earned) on 6 hits. Both figure to go early on day 1 of the June draft.
Gone is their top offensive player, catcher Kyle Blumenthal (.410/.511/.557), taken by the Rockies in the 14th round. Also gone is outfielder Brandon Roberts (.339/.409/.454), selected by the Reds in the 7th. Junior 1B/OF Jimmie Van Ostrand (.345/.425/.466) is back, as is junior 2B Brent Walker (.311/.405/.372). Seventeen new faces join the Mustangs, including JUCO transfer junior catcher Matt Canepa, who hit .343 his sophomore year at College of San Mateo, striking out just 9 times in 137 AB.
5. UC Riverside.
2005: 28-27 | 86th in RPI
UCR returns fleet junior outfielder Brett Bigler (.322/.395/.386), who in '05 stole 14 of 17 attempted, and senior outfielder/top offensive player Aaron Grant (.357/.471/.469). Senior RHP Haley Winter (6-8, 3.44, .281 OBA, 68K 30 BB, 110 IP) anchors the staff. For the Highlanders to contend for an at large bid, they'll have to improve on their 4.82 team ERA from 2005.
2005: 30-28 | 113th in RPI
Though construction has slowed, Pacific inaugurates a new ballpark this season, Klein Family Field. Until it's completed, they'll play in another new park, Stockton Ballpark (home field for the Stockton Ports in the California League). On the field, the Tigers have sophomore 3B Justin Baum (.332/.389/.700, 17 HR) back. Gone is RHP Josh Schmidt (6-4, 1.79, 11 saves, .224 OBA, 89K, 25 BB, 60.1 IP, 36 appearances), selected by the Yankees in the 15th.
7. UC Santa Barbara.
2005: 26-30 | 99th in RPI
The Gauchos had one of the great stories of tragedy and triumph in college baseball last season. 2005 Senior infielder Chris Malec (.316/.404/.477) was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and underwent surgery, in April. Amazingly, he returned to action against Long Beach State at Caesar Uyesaka stadium on Friday, May 6. I was in attendance, and the emotion in the stands was palpable. The next day, in a scene out of The Natural, Malec crushed a grand slam. The Gauchos swept the Beach. The story gets better, as Malec has moved on to the next level, signing with the Yankees after being selected in the 16th.
UCSB returns junior infielder Chris Valaika, out for most of the 2005 season with an injury. If Valaika can return to '04 form when he was named Big West Freshman of the Year, while hitting .347, he could move up considerably in the draft.
8. Cal. State Northridge.
2005: 18-36 | 177th in RPI
You've got to hand it to the Matadors. After a dismal 2005 season, they haven't avoided tough competition. According to SEBaseball.com, they have the 13th toughest intended non-conference strength of schedule in Division I, playing the likes of Arizona State (from whom they took 1 of 3 this past weekend).
Northridge has a couple of good bats in junior infielder Chase McGuire (.318/.391/.459) and senior infielder Erik Hagstrom (.310/.400/.359), but there's just not enough pieces here to contend. Especially with the loss of outfielder Mike Paulk (.330/.414/.549).
Big thanks to Jeff, and again, please be sure to visit his site: Dirtbags Baseball.