As the Willamette Valley undergoes the Big Thaw, baseball is likely the furthest thing from a sports fan's mind. It may be a surprise to some that in four short days, the Diamond Ducks will be under the palms of Oahu, commencing their annual season-opening series with the Hawaii Rainbows. As we've come to expect, Oregon should be very good, finishing second in the Pac-12 Preseason Media Poll.
If Oregon is going to fulfill that promise, it will come on the heels of Oregon's pitching staff. And while there isn't significant turnover to the professional ranks as there has been in years past (closer Jimmie Sherfy is the most significant loss), there is nonetheless significant disruption due to turnover and roster shuffle that makes baseball fan pause, at least until they realize that George Horton can turn anyone who can spin a halfway decent breaking ball into a quality Pac-12 starter.
Last year's freshman sensation was lefty Cole Irvin. Irvin was 12-3 with a 2.48 ERA as a freshman. Not only is Irvin a lefty with great pitchability, but combining a low 90s fastball with two legitimate secondary pitches in his change and his curve proved devastating to Pac-12 hitters. Unfortunately, Irvin suffered a torn UCL, and will sit the year as he recovers from Tommy John surgery to replace the ligament.
Also in need of replacement will be Jake Reed. Reed was Oregon's Sunday starter last season, going 6-6 with a 3.50 ERA. Reed moves to the bullpen this season, where he will replace the lights out Sherfy as Oregon's closer. Reed features a fastball that can touch the mid-90s. It's a bit of a curious move as both his change and his curveball are both very good, but should be devastating out of the bullpen. Combined with Garrett Cleavinger, who was 9-0 with a 1.24 ERA in the setup role last season, Oregon should be in good shape in games where they lead late.
That makes Tommy Thorpe the only weekend starter returning to the Oregon rotation. Thorpe was pretty spectacular last season, sporting a 7-5 record with a 2.16 ERA. The first-team All Pac-12 performer will certainly be the Ducks' Friday starter. The southpaw's fastball isn't special, hovering in the upper 80s, but he has a good change and a devastating curve that serves as his strikeout pitch. His ability to locate all three pitches is what makes his special, and he'll again be a fantastic Friday starter for Oregon.
The Saturday starter role also appears to be filled with freshman Matt Krook. Krook, the 35th overall pick in last year's MLB draft, spurned the Marlins to play for Oregon (you'd spurn the pros if your only option was the Marlins, too). There are some questions about Krook, and he failed a physical coming out of high school, but he's a lefty with a legit 90s fastball and a good slider, and you know that under Horton's tutelage, he'll develop a changeup. If you can get a first round pick as your Saturday starter, you're doing something right.
What that leaves is the role of Sunday starter open, and there will be a competition for that spot in the non-conference season. The two likely candidates, who will make starts in the season-opening Hawaii series, are Jeff Gold and Jordan Spencer. Gold was a Sunday starter for Oregon two years ago, and started five weekday games last season. He has 19 career starts for the Ducks and sports a 3.16 ERA for his career. The other option is Jordan Spencer. Spencer has less experience than Gold, and doesn't have the experience of being a weekday starter. He did throw a no-hitter against Portland two years ago, and is said to have improved his secondary offerings in the offseason. Another option would be righty Brando Tessar, who has started 12 games in his Oregon career.
George Horton always turns out a good pitching staff and, despite Irvin's injury, the Ducks have two really talented starters, and a lights-out back end of the bullpen. A healthy Irvin woiuld have this rotation in contention for the best in all of college baseball, but if Horton can turn one guy into a consistent Sunday starter, it may still be the best in the Pac-12.