In 2009, the Pac-10 had one of its worst seasons ever. Historically, the Pac-10 is the top baseball conference in the nation, but last season just three teams from the league qualified for postseason play and only one advanced out of the Regionals. The conference was dominated by pitching (or was it poor hitting?) last year and that looks to be the case again this season with multiple teams set to unleash deep and talented pitching staffs. Four teams seem to have separated themselves from the pack in the conference and those four look like good Regional bets with all four being ranked in some preseason top 25 poll.
This season's Pac-10 preseason poll, as voted on by the coaches, shows the gap between the top four and the rest, although there is a missing first-place vote in the poll, but what else is new from the Pac-10 offices?
1) Arizona St.- (7 first place votes) 78 points
2) Oregon St. -(2) 67 points
3) UCLA- 65 points
4) Stanford- 59 points
5) Arizona- 44 points
6) Washington St.- 42 points
7) California- 36 points
8) Southern Cal- 24 points
9) Washington- 18 points
10) Oregon- 17 points
To say that Arizona St. had a rocky offseason would be quite the understatement. In November, word leaked out that head coach Pat Murphy had resigned, but it didn't seem like your normal resignation. Guards were outside the ASU baseball facility and players had to show ID to get in. A month later, it was revealed that Murphy was terminated without cause and he has since been replaced by newly hired assistant and former Utah head coach Tim Esmay.
The Sun Devils are undoubtedly the most talented team in the Pac-10 with one of the nation's best pitchers, LHP Josh Spence, leading the way. An All-American in 2009, Spence went 10-1 with a 2.37 ERA and will lead a staff that includes RHP Seth Blair (7-2, 3.39 ERA) and LHP Mitchell Lambson (9-5, 3.01 ERA). The Sun Devils' 2009 freshman class was ranked by Baseball America as the best class in the country and with Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year Mike Leake gone in addition to Pac-10 Player of the Year Jason Kipnis, they will have to step up alongside Spence, DH Kole Calhoun and OF Matt Newman. With so much turmoil in the offseason and a new, interim coach in charge though, nobody is quite sure how the Sun Devils will respond.
The Arizona St. turmoil opens the door for the rest of the Pac-10 and Oregon St. looks like the best bet to step through it. Last season, Oregon St. qualified for a Regional and was one of the two last teams alive there, but they were eliminated by TCU. The Beavers followed up back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007 with a 2008 season in which they missed the postseason. Last year, the Beavers got back to the stuff that won them two national titles, pitching and defense. Oregon St. was ranked in the top ten in both categories last year and with most of the team back in Corvallis, look primed to repeat that type of performance.
RHP Sam Gaviglio leads the pitching staff after putting up a 10-1 record to go with a 2.73 ERA last year and at the back end of games the Beavers can throw RHP Kevin Rhoderick, who had nine saves a year ago. OF Adalberto Santos looked MLB bound this offseason, but he returned to the Beavers and will look to build upon the 2009 season in which he hit .320 with 15 stolen bases. Of the freshmen, Andrew Susac has the biggest shoes to fill, taking over for Ryan Ortiz, but Susac is also the best of the Beavers' fine freshman class. The key for Oregon St. is whether they can find a little more power after hitting just 23 homers in 2009.
UCLA will be able to pitch, but will they be able to hit? Led by RHP's Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, the Bruins will have one of the conference's best pitching staff's. Cole spent most of 2009 throwing on Friday nights as a freshman and went 4-8 with a 3.49 ERA. The Yankees' 2009 first round pick has some of the best stuff in the country though and spent the summer dominating for the US National Team. Bauer skipped his senior year of high school to pitch at UCLA last year and went 9-3 with a 2.99 ERA to earn Collegiate Baseball's National Freshman Pitcher of the Year honors. With LHP Rob Rasmussen, who was a Cape Cod League All-Star on Sundays, the Bruins will be tough to hit.
Just like last season, the Bruins could also find it tough to hit as well. UCLA finished in the bottom third in the country last year in most offensive categories and saw three of their best hitters move on. The Bruins will rely heavily on 1B Justin Uribe, a .300 career hitter with some pop, and 2B Blair Dunlap, a converted outfielder who hit .301 with seven home runs and 15 steals last year, to pace the offense. The Bruins will be young in a lot of spots in the lineup with three freshmen likely to see significant time in the outfield and freshmen competing for a starting spot at both catcher and third base. If UCLA can get average hitting, they could win the conference, but asking for average hitting could be asking for too much.
Moving past UCLA, we find a very young, but very talented Stanford team. The Cardinal can definitely pick it and should be one of the better defensive teams in the nation behind a supremely talented pitching staff. LHP Brett Mooneyham was a Freshman All-American after going 6-3 with a 4.14 ERA and .204 opponents' batting average last year and once a team gets past him, they have to deal with fellow sophomore RHP Jordan Pires, who was 4-4 with a 4.62 ERA and .228 opponents' batting average last year. Both Mooneyham and Pires dealt with command issues all year and ran into trouble because of free passes, but with their freshman seasons behind them, both figure to be dominating in 2010.
2B Colin Walsh, who hit .320 last year, will pace the offense and OF Kellen Kiilsgaard (.313 and nine homers) gives the lineup some pop. The key for Stanford will be how their freshman class, ranked second in the country develops. SS Kenny Diekroeger is the star of the recruiting class, an uber talented infielder who great speed and power the other way who turned down the Rays after being drafted in the second round. If the Cardinal youngsters get going early, this team can compete for the conference title, but that's asking a lot from freshmen and they're likely to struggle in non-conference only to get it going sometime in conference play.
A young team in 2009, Arizona finally got it going at the end of the year and showed flashes of what it can be in 2010. The Wildcats closed the year on a 14-6 run so the youth finally started to get going, but Arizona will have to deal with the loss of some key veterans who nurtured those youngsters last year. SS Bryce Ortega will key the offense at the top of the lineup as he did last season with a .324 batting average with 16 steals. Steve Selsky also gives the Wildcats a good bat in the middle of the lineup with a .318 average last year and seven homers. Despite losing some other key cogs in the 2009 lineup, the Wildcats should hit fine and be right around their 2009 numbers, when they were second in the conference in scoring.
The question for Arizona is who pitches. RHP Daniel Workman is the only proven arm on the Wildcats' staff after going 3-1 with a 3.86 ERA last year. After that, the Wildcats will have to go with a host of guys who had very high ERA's last year like RHP Joe Allison (4.66 ERA), RHP Donn Roach (7.84 ERA) and RHP Kyle Simon (6.03 ERA). It's ugly on the mound for Arizona and when that is the case, it's usually an ugly season. The Wildcats will be able to punish a pitching staff, but pitching is more consistent than hitting, which is bad news for the Wildcats. One thing that will help is a home-heavy schedule that doesn't see Arizona go on the road for a game until April.
Last season, Washington St., was easily the surprise of the Pac-10. Picked to finish eighth by the coaches in the preseason poll, Wazzu went 19-8 in conference play to finish second and went on to a Regional. This year's Cougar team will have to replace some key parts though, specifically LHP Matt Way and four starting position players, specifically Travis Coulter, who was supposed to lead the offense but was ruled academically ineligible for the year.
RHP Chad Arnold, who went 8-3 with a 4.39 ERA and LHP Adam Conley, who showed flashes late, give the Cougars a solid two pitchers and they will get plenty of help behind them. One of the better fielding teams in the Pac-10 last year, the Cougars should be even better with the gloves this year. WSU hit just .273 last year though and lose their top three hitters so runs could be tough to come by and their bullpen has a few hard throwers, but little in the way of experience. The Cougars don't look to be a team that will beat themselves often, but it looks unlikely that they will have the firepower to go out and beat opponents either which isn't good news against a better Pac-10.
California has one heck of a hitter in the middle of their lineup, but there isn't much else. 1B Mark Canha hit .366 last year with 17 doubles, 12 homers and a .444 on-base percentage. Canha will be one of the best hitters in the conference again in 2010, but will there be anyone else in the lineup to hit when they were just a mediocre hitting team last year with a couple good hitters who are now gone? A bulk of the offensive load will fall on OF Danny Oh, who hit .303 with seven home runs last year, which are good numbers, but will need to be better if Cal is to improve on their 24 wins a year ago.
The Cal pitching rotation is either a mess or has plenty of parity. RHP Erick Johnson bounced between the bullpen and starting rotation last year and totaled a 3-6 record, 4.41 ERA and four saves. RHP Dixon Anderson emerged as the premier reliever for the Bears a year ago with three saves and a 2.98 ERA in 20 appearances. He solidifies the back end of the Cal bullpen, but who steps up in the starting rotation so he can get the ball?
The pressure is definitely on Southern Cal head coach Chad Kreuter. Kreuter is going into his fourth season as the USC head coach, but hasn't even been able to muster a team postseason eligible (overall record over .500), let alone one that has qualified for a Regional. Last year's seventh place finish in the Pac-10 was the best Kreuter has done and the Trojans lose their top hitter and three of their top four starting pitchers. RHP Andrew Triggs is USC's only proven starting pitcher after going 5-3 with a 3.96 ERA in 2009. After Triggs' Friday starts, the Trojans have very little else as evidenced by senior RHP Kevin Couture and his 5.00 career ERA being leaned upon heavily. In the bullpen, USC does not have a single pitcher who threw more than 20 innings in 2009.
Last season, the Trojans finished 262nd out of 282 teams in runs scored and their .274 team batting average was 261st in the country. With Grant Green and Anthony Vasquez gone, USC will rely heavily on 1B/3B Ricky Oropesa, who hit .314 with 13 home runs as a freshman in 2009. OF Mike O'Neill (.319 batting average, 40 runs) and OF Alex Sherrod (.296 batting average) are the only other really proven batters for USC and all of that for a team that was far and away the worst fielding team in the Pac-10 last year. With so many issues for a program that has yet to find stability under Kreuter, USC may be on the hunt for a new head coach after the season if things don't turn around in 2010.
It's a new era for Washington baseball as Lindsey Meggs takes over the reigns to the program. The former UCLA player who won a Division II national title with Chico St. and turned around the Indiana St. program looks to be a coup for the Huskies, especially when you take into account the outstanding staff he has put together, but Meggs doesn't have a ton to work with in 2010. No weekend starters return and the Huskies lose their closer from a 2009 team that finished ninth in hitting last year.
RHP Andrew Kittredge, who spent most of 2009 coming out of the bullpen, will lead the starting staff in 2010. Kittredge was 4-5 with a 4.27 ERA last season and will have to improve because there is nothing that resembles proven talent on the mound after him. C Pierce Rankin presents the offense with a solid bat after hitting .299 with six home runs last year and 1B Troy Scott hit 11 home runs last season to give the Huskies a bit of power. After that, Washington has a series of solid, but not spectacular hitter in the .275 range that will need to step it up if they are to make up for their lack of pitching talent and sniff a. 500 record.
In its first baseball season in 27 years, Oregon got off to a quick start before falling back down and playing like the first-year team they were. After winning just four games in Pac-10 play, the Ducks will look to push that number towards double digits to call 2010 a successful season. With beautiful PK Park now complete, the Ducks will have a bonafide home field advantage, which will be huge for a team filled with youth. The key to the Ducks' season will be if they can find some hitting after finish last in the nation in runs per game last year.
RHP Drew Gagnier bypassed the pros despite being drafted in the 14th round and gives the Ducks a go-to guy in the bullpen after accumulating a 2.70 ERA in 2009 to go along with a .137 batting average against. Getting the ball to Gagnier will be a problem though as LHP Tyler Anderson is the best Oregon has to offer, a talented but inconsistent southpaw who went 2-9 with a 6.26 ERA in 2009. Freshman LHP Christian Jones will be a fun guy to watch though as he whips the ball in from a three-quarters arm slot with great movement, but it does not bode well for a rotation when a freshman is so heavily depended upon. With the bats, Oregon has OF Curtis Raulinaitis, who hit .291 last year and not much else. OF Jett Hart hit just .207 last year and represents one of the next best hitters that Oregon returns, although freshman OF Andrew Mendenhall is a raw, but talented kid who could make an impact if he matures quickly. In the end, the Ducks will have to take aim on 10 Pac-10 wins, which will still likely see them finish last in the conference.