2002 California Baseball Outlook

Jan. 7, 2002

BERKELEY, CA - Last season the California baseball team accomplished its goal of qualifying for an NCAA Regional. For the 2002 campaign, the Golden Bears will have the challenge of repeating as a postseason participant, but with seven starting position players returning, three weekend starters back on the mound and the Pac-10's save leader in the fold, the prospects for a successful year are extremely good.

'Offensively we have two huge holes to fill with the graduation of Rob Meyer and Clint Hoover,' said 2001 Pac-10 Coach of the Year David Esquer. 'Our seven returning starters are going to need to continue to improve to make up for these losses. We are also going to need production from other returnees and some of our newcomers. On the mound we have our foundation back, but probably the toughest player to replace from last year's team is David Cash with his ability to either start, come in in relief or close games. It will take more than one guy to fill his role.'

Two of Cal's premier players for this year will be seniors Carson White and Trevor Hutchinson. White is a returning All-Pac-10 second baseman who was an integral part of the Bears offense after transferring from Fresno City College, batting .338 with 19 doubles, four triples, eight home runs and 49 RBI. The 6-5, 220-pound right-handed Hutchinson was a Pac-10 honorable mention pick and is undoubtedly the Bears No. 1 starter on the mound after being Cal's workhorse last season. He went 6-7 with several close losses, but had a solid 3.85 ERA with 91 strikeouts in a team-high 114.7 innings pitched.

The emergence of juniors John Baker and Ben Conley was also a huge plus for the Bears last season and both were named honorable mention All-Pac-10. Baker established himself as Cal's everyday starter behind the plate and was one of the most consistent players at the plate, batting .331 with 13 doubles, three home runs and 29 RBI. Conley came on in an early season series at Stanford, after seeing little action in the past, and became the Bears starting center fielder and lead-off batter. He finished the season hitting .324 with six doubles, two home runs and 21 RBI. Conley also hit an impressive .476 with runners in scoring position.

The Bears have a stellar sophomore class that excelled last year as true freshmen and one of the team's best is 6-5, 230-pound right-handed closer Matt Brown. Brown helped solidify Cal's pitching staff when he established himself as the team's closer and went on to go 3-3 with a 5.04 ERA and Pac-10 best eight saves. He was an honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection as well.

The rest of the strong sophomore class includes outfielder Brian Horwitz, shortstop Jeff Dragicevich, third baseman Conor Jackson and right-hander Brian Montalbo - all of whom joined Brown as major contributors to the Bears 2001 NCAA Regional run and were honorable mention Freshman All-Americans in Collegiate Baseball.

Horwitz, who will move from left field to right field this season, was impressive as a first year player when he had a school-record 23-game hitting streak and went on to bat .310 with 17 doubles, a triple, a home run and 30 RBI. He also led Cal with 11 stolen bases and was spectacular in the NCAA South Regional, going 7-for-13 with two doubles and an RBI.

Dragicevich and Jackson manned the left side of the Bears infield all of last season with positive results. Dragicevich, whose brother Scott is the starting shortstop for Stanford, batted .302 with six doubles, three home runs and 21 RBI. He also hit .373 with runners in scoring position. Jackson batted .288 with 10 doubles, a triple, four home runs and 31 RBI. He led the team and was second in the Pac-10 with 37 walks and was ninth in the conference with 50 runs scored.

Montalbo is slated to be one of Cal's top starters after going 4-1 with a 4.38 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 61.7 innings last season. He is a 6-5, 215-pound hard-throwing right-hander who was drafted in the fourth round by the Atlanta Braves out of high school.

Other key returnees for the Bears include 6-7, 230-pound senior right-hander Ryan Atkinson and junior outfielder Brad Smith. Atkinson is again in line to be one of Cal's weekend starters if he is healthy. Last season he went 0-3 with a 4.72 and seven no decisions, but has the ability to be a top Pac-10 pitcher. Smith, a left-handed outfielder, had 14 starts in center and 18 starts as a designated hitter last season and batted .241 with five doubles, three home runs and 17 RBI.

Several other Bear returnees could be major contributors this season, including senior first baseman Derek Ayres, junior infielder/outfielder Nick Medrano, sophomore catchers Chris Grossman and Creighton Kahoalii, sophomore first baseman/pitcher James Holder, sophomore right-hander Blake Read and sophomore outfielder David Weiner.

Ayres and Holder are in a battle to start at first base, Medrano is a talented defensive player and Grossman and Kahoalii are both capable of starting behind the plate. Read did a nice job as a spot reliever for Cal last season and will again be used in that role. Weiner had an outstanding freshman season in 2000, batting .306 with 12 stolen bases and was honorable mention All-Pac-10. If he is healthy after sitting out last season following left shoulder surgery, he could definitely figure in the outfield mix.

The Bears feature four true freshmen who could immediately help as well - right-handed pitchers Kyle Crist and Joe Todoroff, left-handed outfielder/first baseman Justin Nelson and outfielder/infielder David Nicholson. Crist and Todoroff were high school teammates at Granite Bay High School and both have been impressive in fall practice and are in contention to be either starters or long relievers. Nelson is a talented hitter with a strong arm and Nicholson is a solid all-around player who is vying for the starting center field spot.

CAL BY POSITION

PITCHINGA big key to the Bears advancing to an NCAA Regional last season was the performance of the Cal pitching staff. Fortunately for the Bears, they return several top players from the 2001 squad, including projected starters, seniors Trevor Hutchinson and Ryan Atkinson, and sophomore Brian Montalbo.

Hutchinson enters his second year as the Bears No. 1 starter after leading Cal last season with several impressive outings, including two complete games. 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. If he is healthy, after sitting out the 2000 season following elbow surgery and missing the last month of the 2001 season due to a sore right shoulder, he could be a big plus for the Bears with his experience and ability. 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.

Montalbo is slated to be another weekend starter for Cal. He is an impressive athlete at 6-5, 215 pounds and last season showed glimpses of having the type of ability to be dominating in the college ranks. Montalbo is a right-handed power pitcher with a fastball in the low 90s and an above average slider and change up.

Two more projected starters are true freshmen Joe Todoroff and Kyle Crist. Todoroff and Crist both stood out in fall practice and are in the mix to be starters as well. Todoroff throws in the upper 80s with four pitches - fastball, curve, slider and change-up. Crist throws in the high 80s-low 90s and also has good command of his fastball, curve, slider and change. If Todoroff and Crist are not used in a starting role, they could also see immediate action as long relievers.

A pitcher who is sure to thrive in any role he is assigned is sophomore Matt Brown. Brown is a big right-hander (6-5, 230 pounds) who throws a fastball in the low 90s and has an extremely effective knuckle curve. He was impressive last season as a true freshman, taking over as the Bears closer and leading the Pac-10 with eight saves. Brown could also be one of Cal's starters and is a proven winner, being named series MVP after leading his team to the American Legion World Series title in the summer of 2000.

Sophomore Blake Read and redshirt freshman Jesse Ingram should also play important roles for the Bears as spot relievers. Read came in and gave Cal several good innings last year as a true freshman, finishing 1-0 with a 4.78 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 26.3 innings. Ingram, who is also a capable infielder, has shown signs he could help the Bears out of the bullpen after pitching well in fall practice.

Additional help out of the bullpen should be provided by sophomore James Holder, seniors Matt Payne and Arthur Gross, and redshirt freshman Mike White. Holder, a 6-4 lefthander, who is also in the running to be Cal's regular first baseman, has shown he has the potential to be an effective pitcher at the collegiate level after both starting and relieving last season (0-1, 4.11 ERA, nine strikeouts in 15.3 innings). Payne is a side arm right-handed spot reliever who pitched well in his lone appearance last year and can be tough on right-handed batters. Gross and White are left-handers who could also be utilized as spot relievers.

The Bears have five freshman newcomers who could figure in the pitching scheme as well - Brent Hale, Will Putnam, Matt Swanson, Alex Trafton and Travis Talbott. Hale, Swanson and Trafton are all talented true freshman right-handers who throw in the mid 80s to the low 90s with a good array of pitches. Putnam redshirted last season and could help as a right-handed reliever. Talbott is a crafty freshman left-hander with a good curveball and change up.

CATCHINGCal should be in good shape at the catching position with returnees John Baker, Creighton Kahoalii and Chris Grossman.

Baker became a top Pac-10 catcher last season as a sophomore after batting .331 with 13 doubles, three home runs, 29 RBI and playing solidly behind the plate. He has a strong arm and continues to improve defensively after switching to catcher as a true freshman in 1999. Baker could also see action at first base or as a left-handed designated hitter.

Kahoalii and Grossman are both sophomore catchers who could see a lot of action, either as starters or defensive replacements. Kahoalii was a top recruit last season with outstanding receiving abilities and a strong arm. He was a high school shortstop before becoming a catcher as a senior and with improved production at the plate could see an increase in playing time. Grossman is a 6-4, 210-pounder who showed signs of being a top collegiate hitter when he started the season on a seven-game hitting streak. He is also a good receiver with a strong arm, and could see time as a right-handed designated hitter as well.

True freshman Joe Bruzzone, who is also an outfielder, will provide depth to the Bears catching ranks.

INFIELDThe Cal infield will be strong for the 2002 season with starters returning at second base, third base and shortstop.

Senior second baseman Carson White will lead the Bears infield after earning All-Pac-10 honors last season, batting .338 and leading Cal in doubles (19), triples (four) and finishing second on the team with 49 RBI. White was also solid in the field, despite having a jammed left thumb and wrist the majority of the season, finishing second on the squad with 147 assists.

Redshirt freshman Jesse Ingram and true freshman David Nicholson are also in contention for playing time at second base. Ingram has shown the ability to be a good infielder during the past two fall practices and is one of the Bears relievers as well. Nicholson is a versatile player who could also fit into the outfield mix as Cal's starting center fielder.

Sophomore Conor Jackson is the frontrunner to start at third base after a solid freshman year where he manned the No. 2 spot in the batting order for most of the season, batting .288 with a team-high 37 walks and 50 runs scored. Jackson also has the ability to be an outstanding fielder and has power potential.

Redshirt freshman Matt Einspahr should also provide depth at third base. Einspahr is a strong defensive player who played well during fall practice and is in contention for playing time at any of the other infield positions as well.

At shortstop, Cal returns sophomore Jeff Dragicevich, who as a true freshman took control of the shortstop duties and proceeded to bat .302 with six doubles, three home runs and 21 RBI. Dragicevich also showed the capability to be one the Pac-10's top fielding shortstops with good range and a strong, accurate arm.

Junior Nick Medrano is another candidate at shortstop as he is one of the team's best defensive players. Medrano can also play second base, any of the outfield positions, and saw action several times last season as a defensive replacement.

The tightest battle in the Bears infield will be at first base with senior Derek Ayres, sophomore James Holder and true freshman Justin Nelson vying for the starting spot. Ayres started six games at first base as a true freshman in 1999 and four games last season. He is capable defensively and should provide a strong left-handed bat. Holder is a left-handed throwing, right-handed hitting first baseman who played well during fall practice and has the ability to hit with power. Nelson, a left-hander who is one of the Bears leading freshman recruits, has already shown signs of being a top collegiate hitter.

Two more potential first basemen are junior John Baker and sophomore Noah Jackson. Baker played first base in high school and if he is not catching for Cal could man first base for the Bears. Jackson, who as a redshirt freshman in 2001 played some outfield and designated hitter, has the potential to hit for power and average at the collegiate level and notched a game-winning RBI for Cal last season.

OUTFIELDThe Bears outfield should have plenty of depth with four players with starting experience returning and two standout freshmen recruits.

In left field, the Cal coaches plan on moving Ben Conley from center field to left for the 2002 season. Conley was a surprise for the Bears when he took advantage of his playing time and went on to hit .324 as the team's lead-off batter. He also has above average speed and a strong throwing arm and should have no problem moving from center to left.

Other potential left fielders for Cal include freshman standout Justin Nelson, redshirt sophomore David Weiner and sophomore Noah Jackson. The left-handed Nelson has already shown signs of having the ability to be a top collegiate hitter and has a strong arm. Weiner was an honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection as a freshman in 2000, batting .306 with five home runs and a team-best 12 stolen bases. A left-hander, Weiner is the Bears fastest player and if he is healthy after sitting out the 2001 season, could vie for starting duty somewhere in the Cal outfield.

Jackson had four starts in left field for the Bears last season and with more consistency at the plate could also push for playing time in either left field or as a right-handed designated hitter.

In center field there is a battle between junior Brad Smith and true freshman David Nicholson for starting duties. The left-handed Smith is a fine defensive player who continues to improve at the plate and had some big at-bats for Cal last season. Nicholson has a lot of skills, both offensively and defensively, and impressed the Bear coaches during fall practice.

Sophomore standout Brian Horwitz has the ability to play all three outfield positions with good speed and a strong arm, but will move from left to right field this season. Horwitz developed into a top player for the Bears as a true freshman, establishing a new school record with a 23-game hitting streak and batting .310 with 17 doubles, a triple, a home run and 30 RBI. He also had a team-high 11 stolen bases and excelled at the NCAA South Regional.

Another right fielder for Cal is redshirt freshman Andy Hnilo. Hnilo played well in fall practice and has the ability to help the Bears with a strong right-handed bat. True freshmen Joe Bruzzone and Robert Nesbitt could also provide Cal with depth in the outfield.

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