Feb. 18, 2009
With an experienced pitching staff featuring one of the top hurlers in the nation, a trio of returning outfielders and a recruiting class that has been ranked among the top 30 in the nation, there is a degree of optimism surrounding the 2009 San Diego State baseball team and the upcoming season.
That optimism, however, is tempered by the uncertainty of having to replace three infield positions plus the X-factor of how quickly the newcomers will adjust to the pace and skill level of Division I college ball.
Junior right-hander Stephen Strasburg will lead a mound corps that returns nine members from a year ago. Included in that number are two starters, a solid bullpen unit and the top seven individual earned run averages from 2008.
Beyond that, with the exception of Erik Castro, who will likely move from catcher to the infield, and Matt Parker, who returns at catcher after missing last season with an injury, experience at this level is at a premium.
"I would say overall we're going to be a young team,' said seventh-year head coach Tony Gwynn. "Our experience will be in the pitching staff with guys like Strasburg and Nate Solow. We only have a handful of guys who have been everyday players for us in the past. A lot of our new guys, both freshmen and junior college players, are going to get a chance to play right away.
"I really like what I've seen in the fall and early spring. I think our new players have been very productive and it appears they'll be able to step in and do a nice job. But we're not going to know until the lights come on and we get the season started."
Gwynn and his staff will be tasked with replacing a trio of infielders who led the Aztecs over the past couple seasons. Included in that group are shortstop Troy Hanzawa, third baseman Nick Romero and second baseman Garett Green. Hanzawa and Romero were first-team all-conference selections a year ago while Green earned league player of the week honors on two occasions.
That threesome also provided a good deal of the team's offensive production in 2008. Their totals of 153 RBI and 20 home runs accounted for almost half of the Aztecs' numbers in those categories.
"Offensively this year we're going to be led at the top of the lineup by two guys that played a lot last year in Colwell and Decker," noted Gwynn. "I expect Vaughn to be in the middle of the lineup somewhere, but right now I'd say we've got a couple of freshman who are going to step in the number three and five spots in Ryan O'Sullivan and Brandon Meredith.
"We've also got some new JC guys coming in who I believe have a chance play right away. There are still jobs to be won and as we near opening day every player has an opportunity to win a spot in the lineup."
Nate Solow returns as the likely No. 2 man in the rotation after finishing second in the MWC in strikeouts as well as among the top 10 in ERA and opponent batting average.
The third spot in the rotation has yet to be settled, but could come from the group of Tyler Lavigne, Brett Miller and Matt Skipper. Lavigne is a former JC All-American from the College of Southern Nevada while Skipper earned Colorado player of the year honors as a senior in 2008. Miller, meanwhile, has stepped up his game after seeing action out of the bullpen as a freshman at SDSU last year.
Freshman Ryan O'Sullivan could be the Aztecs' mid-week starter. A two-way player, he will likely see time in the infield on a regular basis and be on the mound one day a week.
Experience in the bullpen begins with seniors James McLaughlin and Jon Berger along with sophomores Addison Reed and Craig Rasmussen. McLaughlin and Berger saw spot duty as starters a year ago with most of their action coming in a relief role.
Reed became SDSU's closer in his first season and responded with a record of 3-1, four saves and a 2.73 ERA, numbers which helped earn him honorable-mention freshman All-America accolades. Rasmussen, meanwhile, was solid in middle relief, compiling a 3.50 ERA over 13 appearances.
Veterans such as George Snyder and Chase Thomas along with redshirt junior Eric Martinez will continue to fill the roles as situational relievers. In addition, a pair of junior college transfers in Andrew Leary and Goldy Simmons plus freshman John Pecoraro are candidates for middle relief duty and potentially an occasional starting assignment.
"Everything begins with Strasburg," commented Gwynn. "This guy is the most talented young pitcher I've seen since I've been coaching. Nate Solow is a left-handed junior coming back who started last year and we're expecting big things out of him. The No. 3 spot is wide open right now with four or five guys really fighting for it. In relief, we have McLaughlin and Reed, two experienced guys who got a lot of time out of the bullpen last year.
"To me, pitching is our strength. Hopefully our guys can go out and throw the ball well to take some of the pressure off our offense early. At the same time, I fully expect our offense to get going early as well and take some of the burden off our pitching staff."
CATCHING With an injury sidelining Matt Parker for the entire 2008 campaign, catching was a mixed bag for the Aztecs last season. Erik Castro, who had no previous experience behind the plate, stepped in and did a fine job handling a majority of those duties. Three others, who are no longer on the roster, filled in as well.
This spring, a healthy Parker is expected to resume the starting role along with talented freshman Chris Wilson, a two-time all-state selection from nearby Cathedral Catholic HS. That will free up Castro to move into a starting spot in the infield although he could be called back behind the plate if the situation arises.
"The catching position has shaped up nicely," commented Gwynn. "Matt Parker has come back from his injury and done a great job. Erik Castro did heck of a job for us last year coming on in an emergency with little experience and doing the job he did. Wilson is a freshman who will get some playing time behind the plate and possibly even in the infield or outfield. I feel like our catching situation is in really great shape."
Meredith, who also played outfield and catcher in high school, was an all-state selection while Torres was an all-CIF honoree and league player of the year. Willeford was a two-time junior college all-conference honoree and Thomas returns after a solid freshman campaign that saw him play error-free ball in 17 games at first.
The candidates at second base include JC transfer Mitch Blackburn and redshirt freshman Zach Babitt along with Ryan O'Sullivan. Junior outfielder Brandon Decker also has experience at the position if needed. Blackburn was a two-time all-league selection at Palomar JC, while Babitt hit .300 last summer playing in the New England Collegiate League.
The leader at the shortstop position is O'Sullivan, an all-state honoree who was ranked among the top prep recruits in the country by Baseball America. Others pushing for time at short are junior college transfers Tyler Marmion and Easton Gust. Marmion was an all-Southern California selection at Cypress Junior College in 2008, while Gust is the former region defensive player of the year out of the College of Southern Nevada.
With the catching position solidified, Erik Castro will move to third base, the position he played in high school and during his one season at Arizona. Others who could see action here include Marmion and Chris Wilson.
"O'Sullivan has established himself as a guy in the middle of the infielder," said Gwynn. "Whether it's at shortstop or second base remains to be seen, because he's also a pitcher and we need to minimize the number of throws he has to make because of his pitching.
"Castro has a chance to be the third baseman. We have some other guys who are fighting for positions. It looks like Brandon Meredith could begin the season as our first baseman, while Mitch Blackburn has played well at second.
"It's hard to say because there are still jobs to be won. If we go by what happened in the fall, those are the guys entering spring practice. But again, nothing is certain and there's still time for other guys to step up and win jobs at every position."
Two others, one a veteran and one a newcomer, are also expected to see action in the outfield in 2009. Junior Josh Chasse returns with two years of experience at SDSU and is coming off an excellent preseason. Junior college transfer Blake Silguero will add power to the lineup after hitting .363 with 11 home runs at Cisco JC a year ago.
"Those five guys have all played very well during fall ball," said Gwynn. "Chasse has had just an outstanding fall and I expect him to so some things this year. Blake Silguero is going to have an opportunity get in there as well. With the DH spot, that can give you four positions for these five guys. We're going to rotate them and give them all some at bats. Going into the season it's a safe bet that they're all going to see time in the field and get a good number of the at bats."
The Aztecs have pitching depth, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen, and that depth may have to carry them through the early part of the season as the offense looks to develop and solidify. A number of new faces, both freshmen and junior college athletes, will need to step up and make an immediate impact on the program if SDSU is to find success during its 2009 campaign.
Early indications have produced an optimistic outlook from the head coach, who sees some excellent potential as he surveys his roster.
"I would say that this club is probably the most versatile we've had here in a while," commented the head coach. "There are a number of athletes on this team who can play a couple of positions.
"We're going to have to be good at putting the bat on the ball and putting the ball in play and making things happen. To be successful, we'll need to do a good job of executing things like getting guys over and getting guys in.
"This team is really together and appears to be a cohesive unit that really works hard and works well together. As we get into our season and we start playing more games, I won't be surprised if the pieces kind of fall into place.
"Still, we've got a lot of freshmen and when you have a lot of freshmen you get a lot of mistakes. There's that learning period that it takes for guys to get comfortable out there and hopefully they can get through that pretty quickly. We've got to wait until the lights come on and see how guys respond before we really know what we've got."