2001 Cal Baseball Outlook

Jan. 15, 2001

BERKELEY, CA - The 2001 California baseball team will have a challenge on its hands. The Golden Bears feature a squad that has a combination of talented veterans, who have yet to experience postseason play, and an impressive freshman class that will be asked to step in and immediately perform at a high level.

'We will be inexperienced at a lot of positions to begin the season,' said head coach David Esquer. 'Our strength will be our pitching, where we have the most experience. Plus, the addition of returning pitchers Ryan Atkinson and Jason Dennis (who were out last season with arm injuries) will be a big help. A key to our success will be how quickly our young players adjust to playing at this level. They are definitely talented enough that it will happen eventually. We will be asking a lot of our underclassmen.'

Two veteran players who will be asked to step to the forefront are junior right-hander Trevor Hutchinson and senior first baseman Clint Hoover. Hutchinson will be the anchor of the Cal pitching staff, while Hoover will be the anchor of the Bears defense and batting order.

Hutchinson comes into the season as Cal's No. 1 starter. The abilities of the 6-5, 220-pounder have the Bear coaches projecting him to be one of the Pac-10's top pitchers with a fastball in the low 90s and an outstanding curve and split-finger fastball. Hutchinson has continued to improve throughout his first two years at Cal and could be a top draft pick next June.

Hoover has been a four-year starter in the infield for the Bears and has been a Pac-10 honorable mention selection the past two seasons. He moved to first base on a full-time basis last year and proceeded to field his position impressively while batting .296 with 12 doubles, four triples, 13 home runs and 43 RBI. Hoover also had two game-winning homers (at Wichita State, and versus USC) last season to go along with 19 multiple hit and 12 multiple RBI games. He is seventh on the Cal all-time home run list with 28 career homers.

Four more returnees projected to play key roles in the Bears 2001 campaign include sophomore left fielder David Weiner, senior right fielder Rob Meyer and senior right-handers David Cash and Andrew Sproul.

Weiner, a Pac-10 honorable mention selection, was probably Cal's biggest surprise last season when he stepped in for an injured Curtis Johnson and proceeded to hit .306 with four doubles, a triple, five home runs, 24 RBI and had a team-leading 12 stolen bases. He also proved to be a clutch performer for the Bears, hitting a key two-run homer and knocking in a game-winning RBI versus USC, and hitting a grand slam versus Pacific.

Meyer has been a four-year starter at Cal and last season had his best year, batting .290 with seven doubles, two home runs, 24 RBI and a team-leading 22 multiple hit games. He also was the Bears top closer in 2000, going 3-2 with three saves and a team-best 2.67 ERA. An arm injury over the summer will curtail Meyer's pitching this season, but he still will have one of the league's best arms from right field where he had seven assists last year.

Cash and Sproul will play important roles on Cal's pitching staff this season. Cash has had a knack of picking up wins as he has a combined 13-4 record for the Bears. Last season he finished 8-4 with a 5.27 ERA and led the team in both appearances (28) and wins (eight), and had 60 strikeouts in 71.7 innings. Cash has a fastball in the upper 80s and an outstanding curve and is the team's most versatile pitcher, having the ability to either start, be a middle reliever, or a closer.

Sproul, who has an impressive slider, was one of the team's most improved players last season as he went 3-2 with a save and a 4.56 ERA. He will be counted on to be one of the Bears top relievers after pitching well in 2000, picking up a win at Wichita State and throwing a complete-game victory at Sacramento State.

Cal will receive a huge boost with the return of three players who were forced to sit out the 2000 season due to injuries, junior right-hander Ryan Atkinson, junior left-hander Jason Dennis and senior outfielder Curtis Johnson. Atkinson and Dennis would have been mainstays on the pitching staff last year, but hurt their elbows prior to the start of the season and ended up having 'Tommy John' surgery. Both are now ready to go and if they can return to prior form, the Bears could have one of the best pitching staffs in the conference. Atkinson is 6-7, 230 pounds with a good fastball and an array of breaking pitches. Dennis is a crafty left-hander who has had six complete-games in his career, including a complete-game victory over then No. 1 ranked Stanford as a freshman in 1999.

Johnson redshirted last season (after playing in only 11 games) due to a broken bone in his right foot. He did, however, hit a game-winning two-run homer in the top of the 12th inning to lead the Bears to a 12-10 victory at Fresno State. Johnson is again a top candidate to start in center field as he is one of the team's most experienced players and has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career. He has played in 161 games for Cal with a .255 average, 25 doubles, two triples, 10 home runs and 73 RBI. Johnson is also one of the team's top baserunners, with 23 stolen bases (third in the Pac-10) in 1999.

Five other players who are definitely in the mix for playing time are sophomores Brad Smith, Nick Medrano, John Baker and Brent Cook, and junior Derek Ayres.

Smith did a fine job for the Bears at the end of last season, playing in a total of 30 games and starting 10 times in either center or right field. He batted .266 with a double and six RBI and had a 455 on-base percentage. Medrano was Cal's best defensive outfielder last season, starting 31 games in center field and batting .252. He could see action in the Bears infield this season as well. Baker was a top left-handed pinch-hitter for Cal last season with nine starts at designated hitter recording three doubles in 41 at bats. He is in the running to be the Bears starting catcher this season, but could also play first base or be a regular designated hitter. Cook started 11 games in left field for Cal early last season and has the ability to play in either the infield or the outfield for the Bears this year. Ayres struggled at the plate last season, but can be valuable as a left-handed hitting first baseman after batting .290 with three home runs as a freshman.

Cal has a large class of newcomers entering the 2001 season with 13 true freshmen, three redshirt-freshmen and three junior college transfers. There is no doubt several of the young Bears will be valuable components of this year's team.

On the mound, Cal should receive immediate help from Brian Montalbo, a 6-5, 215-pound right-hander from Anchorage, AK, and Matt Brown, a 6-5, 220-pound right-hander from Danville, CA. Montalbo is a phenomenal athlete who was drafted in the fourth round by the Atlanta Braves last June. He is also a power hitting switch-hitter who could help the Bears as a designated hitter. On the mound, Montalbo was impressive in fall practice, throwing in the low 90s with a fastball, slider and change up. Brown is also a hard-thrower with an 89-91 mile an hour fastball and a knuckle-curve. He had an outstanding summer in which he led Danville to the American Legion World Series title in Alton, IL and was named World Series MVP.

Another blue-chip freshman for Cal is strong hitting third baseman Conor Jackson, who, at El Camino Real High School, was a high school All-American, Los Angeles 4A City Player of the Year, first team All-Valley and first team All-City. Jackson led his team to Los Angeles City Championships at Dodger Stadium in 1998 and '99 and batted .450 with 10 home runs as a senior last spring.

Other key newcomers include junior college transfer Carson White, freshman catcher Creighton Kahoalii, freshman outfielder Brian Horwitz, freshman shortstop Jeff Dragicevich and freshman pitcher/first baseman James Holder.

White should step in and control the second base duties for the Bears after an outstanding career at Fresno City College where he was all-state, All-American and the Central Valley Conference Player of the Year. As a sophomore he batted .390 with 16 doubles, eight triples, 11 home runs and 72 RBI. Kahoalii was one of Cal's top recruits coming into the fall and is a leading candidate to start at catcher. He is a gifted athlete who is a talented receiver with an outstanding arm and was drafted in the 48th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in last June's draft. Horwitz has impressed the Bear coaches in fall practice and is primed to be one of the team's top outfielders after batting .415 with seven doubles, a triple, a home run, eight RBI and 12 stolen bases as a senior at Crespi High School in Encino, CA.

Dragicevich and Holder also have the potential to crack the Cal starting line-up. Dragicevich is a skilled fielder who is battling Brent Cook and Nick Medrano for a spot in the Bears infield. Holder is a left-handed throwing, right-handed hitting pitcher/first baseman who could be utilized as a position player or a left-handed reliever.

'Really, the key to our success will be how we play in close games,' said Esquer. 'That is what will turn this program around. Last year we lost five Pac-10 games in the last inning and that was the difference in us not making an NCAA Regional. But I feel good about our personnel. I think the strength of our program is its camaraderie and closeness. We have received some great leadership from older players like Trevor Hutchinson, Ryan Atkinson and Jason Dennis. They have been instrumental in our last two strong recruiting classes.'

Cal By Position

PitchingThe Cal coaches feel the pitching staff will be a strength of the 2001 squad with five players, juniors Trevor Hutchinson, Ryan Atkinson and Jason Dennis, and true freshmen Brian Montalbo and Matt Brown, slated as starters.

Hutchinson enters the year as the Bears No. 1 starter after showing marked improvement last season and throwing well in fall practice. At 6-5, 220 pounds, the tall right-hander has great tools with a fastball in the low 90s and outstanding breaking pitches. Atkinson is also a tall right-hander at 6-7, 230 pounds. He is completely healthy after sitting out the 2000 season following elbow surgery. Atkinson is not the power pitcher Hutchinson is, but can throw in the high 80s, has an assortment of off-speed pitches and has the talent to be a top pitcher in the Pac-10.

Lefty Jason Dennis also returns after having elbow surgery and sitting out the 2000 season. He was the Bears No. 1 starter as a freshman in 1998 and has great control and outstanding off-speed pitches. Dennis has also shown the ability to throw complete games, tallying six in his college career, including complete-game victories at Stanford and Washington in 1998, and a complete game shutout versus Santa Clara in 1999.

Freshmen standouts Montalbo and Brown could also emerge as weekend starters for Cal. Montalbo is an impressive athlete at 6-5, 215 pounds and threw well in fall practice. He is a right-handed power pitcher with a fastball in the low 90s and an above average slider and change up. Brown is a big right-hander as well (6-5, 220 pounds), throwing a fastball in the high 80s and a knuckle curve. He is also a proven winner, being named series MVP after leading his team to the American Legion World Series title this past summer.

Senior right-hander David Cash is another potential starter for the Bears as he is the team's most versatile pitcher. With a fastball in the high 80s and a good curveball, Cash has shown the ability to throw several innings and has won 13 games in two years at Cal. The continued production of Cash will be a key to the Bears success this season because he can be utilized as a conference starter, weekday starter, long reliever, or closer.

The continued development of senior Andrew Sproul will be another boost for Cal as he became a top reliever last season and should see considerable action during the 2001 campaign. Sproul has an outstanding slider that is extremely tough on right-handed batters.

Additional help in the bullpen will be provided by seniors Ryan Lubner and Jeff Lyles, and freshman James Holder. Lubner is a 6-5 righhander with a fastball in the upper 80s and Lyles is a 6-4 left-hander who only pitched in one game last year but has thrown well in fall practice. Holder is also a left-handed thrower who could be effective in relief.

Rounding out the rest of the Cal pitching staff are freshman right-hander Jesse Ingram, junior right-hander Eli Stokols and junior left-hander Arthur Gross. Ingram, who is also an infielder for the Bears, has shown an ability to help from the bullpen, while Stokols and Gross have seen little action, but continue to improve and could add depth to the bullpen as well. Cal will also receive relief help from right-handed junior college transfers Matt Mercier and Matt Payne, and true freshmen Blake Read and Mike White.

CatchingAccording to the Bear coaches, the competition for the starting catching duties will be fierce. All four catchers, sophomore John Baker, redshirt freshman Chris Grossman and true freshmen Creighton Kahoalii and Spencer Wyman, are young but capable of handling the catching chores.

Baker was a first baseman in high school, but converted to catcher during fall practice of 1999 and has improved behind the plate after playing in the Cape Cod League this past summer. He also could be the Bears left-handed designated hitter.

Grossman is a 6-4, 210-pounder who reshirted last season after joining the Bears in January. He played during fall practice and has displayed power potential at the plate and provides Cal with a good receiver with a strong arm.

Newcomers Kahoalii and Wyman are definitely in the catching mix as well. Kahoalii is a top recruit with outstanding receiving abilities and a strong arm. He was a high school shortstop before becoming a catcher as a senior. Wyman is a left-handed power hitter who is solid behind the plate and performed well in the fall.

InfieldThe Bears infield will be a young group with only one returning starter, senior first baseman Clint Hoover.

Hoover, who has also played second base, third base and caught for the Bears, became Cal's regular first baseman last year and did an outstanding job defensively. He is the type of power hitter often associated with first basemen and is primed for a stellar senior season after being named Pac-10 honorable mention as a sophomore and junior.

Other first basemen for the Bears include junior Derek Ayres, sophomore John Baker and freshman James Holder. Ayres started six games at first base as a true freshman in 1999 and is capable defensively and provides a strong left-handed bat. Baker also could help Cal with his left-handed bat and played first base in high school. Holder is a left-handed throwing, right-handed hitting first baseman who has shown ability at the plate.

The leading candidate to start at second base for the Bears is Fresno City College transfer Carson White. White is a solid fielder who is primed to be Cal's No. 2 hitter after batting .390 with 16 doubles, eight triples, 11 home runs and 72 RBI last year as a junior college All-American.

Sophomore Brent Cook and true freshman Jesse Ingram are also in contention for playing time at second base. Cook is a versatile player who could also fit into the infield mix at shortstop. Ingram has shown ability during fall practices and is one of the Bears relievers as well.

At shortstop, Cal will have a young group that consists of freshman Jeff Dragicevich and sophomores Brent Cook and Nick Medrano. Dragicevich is probably the most skilled of the three shortstops, but Cook and Medrano have a year of college baseball under their belts. Both Cook and Medrano also have experience in the outfield, with Medrano being the Bears best defensive outfielder last season. The competition for the shortstop position will be tight.

Blue-chip freshman Conor Jackson is the frontrunner to start at third base after an impressive high school career in which he was one of the top players in Los Angeles. Jackson came on during the end of fall practice and should step in and immediately be one of the Pac-10's top freshmen. He is a talented fielder and is an outstanding hitter with power potential.

Freshman Matt Einspahr and sophomore Ben Conley could also provide depth at third base. Einspahr is a strong defensive player. Conley, who redshirted last season, saw action in 24 games in 1999, mostly as a pinch runner and had one start at third base.

OutfieldThe Bears outfield should be in good shape entering the 2001 season with six returnees and three newcomers.

In left field, Cal returns sophomore David Weiner, who was an honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection as a freshman, batting .306 with five home runs and a team-best 12 stolen bases. A left-hander, Weiner is the Bears fastest player and should again bat lead-off for Cal.

Freshman Brian Horwitz has the ability to play all three outfield positions and impressed the Cal coaches during fall practice. With strong defensive skills and ability at the plate, Horwitz could develop into a top player for the Bears.

Another newcomer who could help Cal in left field and at the plate is freshman Noah Jackson. Jackson redshirted at Arkansas last season before transferring to the Bears. He displayed power at the plate during fall practice and could be utilized as a right-handed designated hitter for Cal.

Senior Curtis Johnson has shown that he has the tools to be a standout performer in the Pac-10 and was an honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection in 1999 before being forced to redshirt last season with a broken bone in his foot. Johnson has played in 161 games in either center field or left field for the Bears during his career and has a career average of .255 with 10 home runs, 73 RBI and 43 stolen bases.

Sophomore Brad Smith is in the running for the starting center field spot as well after playing well toward the end of last season. Smith batted .266 overall with five starts in center field and five starts in right field. The left-hander also had a .455 on-base percentage and hit .385 with runners in scoring position.

Right fielder Rob Meyer is primed for an outstanding senior season as he has been a three-year starter with a .289 career average with 19 doubles, five home runs and 58 RBI. Meyer is extremely impressive defensively, displaying a strong, accurate arm by throwing out 13 base runners in the last three years. He has also shown an ability to hit for both power and average at the plate.

Sophomores Brent Cook and Nick Medrano, and true freshman Andy Hnilo are three more outfielders for the Bears. Cook and Medrano are two hard-working players who could see action in either the infield or outfield. Medrano is an exceptional defensive outfielder who had 31 starts in center field last season. Hnilo is a young right fielder who continues to improve and played well towards the end of fall practice.

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