2003 Cal Baseball Outlook
Jan. 13, 2003
BERKELEY, CA - For the 2003 California baseball team, it is all about making a NCAA Regional. And, in the minds of David Esquer and his Golden Bears, there is no reason why Cal should not return to NCAA postseason play this spring.
First of all, the Bears feature two of the top players in the nation, junior third baseman Conor Jackson and junior right-hander Matt Brown, plus several other players who got a taste of NCAA Regional competition in 2001. Secondly, Cal has had two strong recruiting classes that should provide the Bears with enough talent to vie for the school's 10th postseason appearance. Thirdly, the Cal coaching staff of Esquer, Dan Hubbs and Ron Witmeyer, have experienced success at the highest level, having been a part of 17 NCAA Regionals, four College World Series and two National Championships as either a player or coach.
'This is the most experienced team I have had since I have been at Cal,' said Esquer, the 2001 Pac-10 Coach of the Year, who has personally been involved in nine NCAA Regionals, two College World Series and one National Championship. 'We return a number of starters in the field - Conor Jackson, Jeff Dragicevich, Brian Horwitz, David Nicholson, Justin Nelson - who we expect will continue to progress and improve. On the mound, we return several key pitchers, including juniors Matt Brown and Brian Montalbo, who are extremely talented. We also have sophomore Jesse Ingram, who did a great job out of the bullpen for us last season. As a group, the juniors and seniors have already shown they can take us to a regional, so after not making a regional last year, they will be hungry to get back to postseason play. They now know what it takes to make a regional.'
There is little doubt Jackson and Brown will play key roles for the Bears this season. A 2003 first team Preseason All-American, Jackson was one of the top hitters in the nation last year. In what was one of the leading offensive performances in Cal baseball history, he was second in the conference with a .382 batting average (behind teammate John Baker's .383 average) and led the league with 152 total bases and a .691 slugging percentage. Jackson also finished with 16 doubles, two triples, 16 home runs and 61 RBI - totals that all ranked among the Top 10 in the Pac-10. He had a 15-game hitting streak, twice hit home runs in four consecutive games, had two grand slams and finished as a first team All-Pac-10 selection and a finalist for the Dick Howser Trophy as the nation's top collegiate player.
Brown, a 2003 third team Preseason All-American, continued his impressive Cal career last season, going 5-3 with a 3.70 ERA and six saves in 21 appearances. After leading the Pac-10 with eight saves as a freshman in 2001, he played the role of both starter and reliever as a sophomore, including throwing his first collegiate complete game with a career-high 10 strikeouts against Arizona. Brown was named honorable mention All-Pac-10 for the second year in a row and is already tied with Joe Buckley (1986-89) on the all-time Cal list with 14 career saves.
Both Jackson and Brown also represented Cal extremely well this summer. Jackson was a member of the USA National Team, batting .312 with 11 doubles, one home run and 11 RBI, and helping Team USA to a second place finish at the World Championships. Brown played for the Bourne Braves in the Cape Cod League, going 3-3 with a 1.20 ERA, and recording 51 strikeouts in 32.3 innings. He was the winning pitcher for the West in the Cape Cod League All-Star Game as well.
Junior shortstop Jeff Dragicevich and junior right fielder Brian Horwitz were both major contributors to the Bears' 2001 NCAA Regional run as freshmen. Dragicevich has now started 104 games at shortstop at Cal and has a .296 career average with 19 doubles, two triples, six home runs and 43 RBI. Horwitz has 108 starts in the outfield and has recorded a .290 career average with 24 doubles, two triples, a home run, 55 RBI and 14 stolen bases. He also owns a school record 23-game hitting streak, set as a freshman.
David Nicholson and Justin Nelson were top players for Cal last season as true freshmen. Nicholson, the fastest player on the team, started 53 games at either center field or third base, batting .305 with seven doubles, a triple, six home runs and 23 RBI. He also led the Bears in runs scored (46) and stolen bases (10), earning honorable mention All-Pac-10 and was a Midseason Freshman All-American in Baseball America. Nelson, who is slated to play left field and is Cal's top left-handed power hitter, came on late last season and ended up batting .248 with four doubles, eight home runs and 22 RBI.
Joining Brown as the Bears' leading pitchers entering the season will be Brian Montalbo and Jesse Ingram. Montalbo has shown glimpses of the potential that got him drafted in the fourth round by the Atlanta Braves out of high school. The hard-throwing right-hander from Alaska is a career 7-6 with a 4.70 ERA in 34 appearances and 16 starts for Bears, and has recorded 91 strikeouts in 118.7 innings. Last season, Montalbo was 3-5, but defeated then No. 1 ranked Stanford with a career-high 7.3 innings, five hit, one run, one walk and three strikeout effort.
Ingram was extremely valuable out of the bullpen as a redshirt freshman in 2002, going 5-2 with a 5.16 ERA and one save. He was also second in the Pac-10 with 29 appearances and finished with 45 strikeouts in 52.3 innings. Other returnees expected to contribute on the mound are sophomore right-handers Brent Hale, Joe Todoroff and Kyle Crist, who all gained experience both starting and relieving for Cal last season.
Other key returnees for the Bears are outfielder David Weiner and sophomore first baseman/left-handed pitcher James Holder. Weiner had an outstanding freshman season in 2000, batting .306 with 12 stolen bases and was honorable mention All-Pac-10. He sat out the 2001 season following left shoulder surgery, but returned last season to bat .279 with nine doubles, two triples, two home runs and 18 RBI as a left-handed designated hitter. Holder is another player who will have an opportunity to shine for Cal after hitting a home run in his first at-bat last season at UNLV, only to dislocate his right shoulder later in the game, forcing him to redshirt. Holder is now fully healthy and is a leading candidate to play first base and bat in the middle of Cal's line-up.
The Bears have some talented newcomers who should contribute immediately as well. Scott Cheo is a junior college power hitter from Saddleback College who could help at first base, the outfield or as a designated hitter, and should be a force offensively. Cal features three top freshmen - Allen Craig, Jeremy Burchett and Adam Gold. Craig is a middle infielder who was outstanding last summer for the USA Junior National Team, batting .485. Burchett is a right-handed power hitting outfielder who could also be utilized as a closer on the mound, and Gold is a 6-3 right-hander who could see action as either a starter or reliever.
Cal By Position
A big key in the Bears advancing to a NCAA Regional this season will be the performance of the Cal pitching staff. The Bears return several projected starters, including top juniors Matt Brown and Brian Montalbo.
Brown is a pitcher who can thrive in any role he is assigned, possessing outstanding control to go along with an impressive array of pitches. He is a big right-hander (6-5, 230 pounds) who throws a fastball in the low 90s and has an extremely effective knuckle curve. Brown is also a proven winner, being named series MVP after leading his team to the American Legion World Series title in the summer of 2000, while he was a Cape Cod League All-Star this past summer.
Montalbo, a right-handed power pitcher with a fastball in the low 90s and an above average slider and change-up, is slated to be another weekend starter for Cal. He is an impressive athlete at 6-5, 225 pounds and has shown he has the ability to be dominating in the college ranks. A consistent season from Montalbo could go a long way in dictating the Bears' success in 2003.
Three more projected starters are sophomore right-handers Brent Hale, Joe Todoroff and Kyle Crist. Hale, who throws in the low 90s with a sharp-breaking curve ball, was the most effective of the three freshman last season, going 2-3 with a 5.74 ERA, including a victory over Boston College and a victory in relief over UCLA. Todoroff and Crist both threw well at times last year and could become solid starters. 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-up. If Todoroff and Crist are not used in a starting role, they could also be used as long relievers.
Another potential starter is Cal's top freshman pitcher, Adam Gold. Gold, a 6-3 right-hander from Lakewood, Colo., performed well in fall practice after tallying 203 strikeouts in his last two years of high school. He throws in the high 80s with a fastball, slider and change-up.
The Bears' leader out of the bullpen will be sophomore Jesse Ingram, who established himself as a top reliever last season as a redshirt freshman, finishing second in the Pac-10 with 29 appearances. Ingram, who throws in the low 90s with a solid curveball, showed the ability to throw several innings when necessary, picking up five wins in relief.
Junior Blake Read and sophomores Matt Swanson, Travis Talbott and Mike White could also play important roles for the Bears as spot relievers. Read gave Cal several good innings as a freshman in 2001, finishing 1-0 with a 4.78 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 26.3 innings. Swanson is a 6-8 right-hander who performed well late last season, picking up a win in May 12 start against Oregon State with a career-high five strikeouts in 6.3 innings. Talbott and White are both left-handers who utilize effective curveballs. Talbott picked up a victory over Oregon State last season as well, throwing a career-high 6.0 innings against the Beavers.
Additional help out of the bullpen should be provided by junior Matt Irwin, sophomore Will Putnam and redshirt freshman Alex Trafton. Irwin is a left-handed spot reliever who pitched well last year at San Francisco City College. Putnam has yet to pitch for the Bears in the regular season, but could help as a right-handed reliever, while Trafton hasn't pitched since high school due to a stress fracture in his elbow, but has the skills to contribute if healthy.
The Bears have three newcomers who could figure in the pitching scheme as well - Aaron Swick, Mike Padgett and Greg Acheatel. Swick is a 6-5 right-handed junior college transfer from Saddleback College, Padgett is a 6-3 sophomore transfer from the University of Portland and Acheatel is a 6-4 freshman right-hander from El Camino High School. All three pitchers throw in the mid to high 80s with fastball, curve ball and change-ups.
Junior catchers Chris Grossman and Creighton Kahoalii will be battling for starting duties behind the plate, replacing John Baker, who signed with the Oakand A's after leading the Pac-10 with a .383 batting average in 2002. The emergence of either Grossman or Kahoalii as consistent everyday players will be vital for the Bears.
Grossman has shown signs of being a top Pac-10 hitter, and last year hit two home runs in a game against Fresno State. Kahoalii is a talented receiver who has an outstanding arm, even seeing some action out of the bullpen for the Bears.
Sophomore Joe Bruzzone, who is also an outfielder, will provide depth to the Bears catching ranks and did a respectable job filling in behind the plate in an appearance against UC Irvine. Another potential catcher for Cal is sophomore Matt Einspahr, who began working out behind the plate during fall practice.
The Cal infield should be strong for the 2003 season with starters returning at third base and shortstop, and talented players available to play the left side of the Bears' infield.
Junior Conor Jackson will be moving back to third base, where he played as a freshman, after starting 43 games at first base last season. One of the leading hitters in the nation, Jackson is also a capable fielder with a strong arm.
At shortstop, Cal returns junior Jeff Dragicevich, who is one of the most experienced middle infielders in the Pac-10 with 108 starts. Dragicevich, a solid hitter with a .296 career average with 43 RBI, has good range with a strong, accurate arm.
Several other players could see action at shortstop, third or second base. Sophomore David Nicholson is a versatile player who could also fit into the outfield mix as Cal's starting center fielder. Nicholson started 36 games at third base last season and worked out at second base during fall practice. With his speed and solid hitting, Nicholson is sure to find a spot in the Bears' lineup after hitting .305 with 46 runs and 10 stolen bases as a freshman.
Freshman infielder Allen Craig is also in strong contention for a spot in Cal's infield after an impressive fall season. Craig is an extremely talented hitter, batting .485 for the USA Junior National Team last summer, and could immediately see action at second base, shortstop or third base.
Senior Nick Medrano is another strong candidate at either second base or shortstop as he is one of the team's best defensive players. Medrano can also play any of the outfield positions, and saw action several times last season as a defensive replacement at shortstop.
Two more infielders who could see action are sophomore Matt Einspahr and freshman Stephen Carlson. Einspahr is a steady fielder who played in 28 games as a redshirt freshman with eight starts at third base. Carlson is a switch hitting newcomer with impressive credentials out of Seattle Prep in Washington.
At first base, Cal will have sophomore James Holder, junior college transfer Scott Cheo and junior Noah Jackson vying for the starting spot. Holder is a left-handed throwing, right-handed hitting first baseman with the ability to be one of the Bears' top power hitters. Cheo joins the Cal program after an impressive career at Saddleback College, earning Junior College All-America honors after batting .398 with 23 home runs and 76 RBI as a sophomore. Jackson, who could also play the outfield or be Cal's designated hitter, can hit for power and average and batted .364 in nine games against Pac-10 competition.
The Bears outfield should have plenty of depth, with several players with starting experience returning, in addition to a standout freshmen recruit.
Sophomore Justin Nelson is a leading candidate to be Cal's starting left fielder after manning that position towards the end of last season. The left-handed Nelson has already shown signs of being a top collegiate hitter after batting .248 with eight home runs and 22 RBI, including hitting .292 against Pac-10 competition.
Junior Brian Horwitz is another top outfielder with good speed and a strong arm, and will probably play right field again this season. Horwitz was stellar as a freshman in 2001, establishing a new school record with a 23-game hitting streak and playing well at the NCAA South Regional. Last season, he batted .266 with seven doubles, a triple and 25 RBI.
Sophomore David Nicholson could also be one of the Bears' outfielders after making 17 starts in center field as a freshman. Nicholson has a lot of skills, both offensively and defensively, that enabled him to earn honorable mention All-Pac-10 as a first-year player.
Other key returnees for Cal in the outfield are David Weiner, Ben Conley, Nick Medrano and Brad Smith. Weiner had an outstanding freshman season in 2000, batting .306 with 12 stolen bases and was honorable mention All-Pac-10. He sat out the 2001 season following left shoulder surgery, but returned last season to bat .279 with nine doubles, two triples, two home runs and 18 RBI as a left-handed designated hitter. The Bears' senior class of Conley, Medrano and Smith are all in the mix for starting outfield duties. Conley had a breakout 2001 season in which he led off and batted .324, earning honorable mention All-Pac-10. Medrano was spectacular defensively last year in center field and hit well towards the end of the season. Smith has played in over 100 games for the Bears and could help the team with his left-handed bat.
True freshman Jeremy Burchett is yet another outfielder who could start for Cal. Burchett comes to the Bears after an outstanding high school career at Capistrano Valley High School, where he batted .400 with 12 home runs as a senior. Besides being in the running for starting outfield duties, he could also be utilized as a closer on the mound with a fastball in the low 90s.