2009 Baseball Season Outlook
Feb. 6, 2009
With a combination of a favorable home schedule, one of the nation's top players and the return of almost the entire pitching staff, the USC baseball team has every reason to be optimistic for the 2009 season. Head coach Chad Kreuter begins his third season at USC with five returning starting position players, headlined by junior All-America shortstop Grant Green, and losing just two members of the pitching staff.
The Trojans lost key starters from last year's squad that went 28-28 such as center fielder Nick Buss (.296, 8 HR, 31 RBI, 16 SB in 2008), outfielder Roberto Lopez (.340, 2 HR, 31 RBI) and first baseman Derek Perren (.362, 5 HR, 51 RBI). Although the pitching staff lost only two from last year, both were starters in Tommy Milone (6-6, 3.51 ERA, 97.1 IP, 98 SO) and Ryan Cook (7-5, 5.11 ERA, 91.2 IP, 67 SO).Despite the losses, USC returns a veteran group with a fair amount of young talent which will provide depth at all positions. A few players might be in positions this season unfamiliar to Trojan fans in the past two years, but count on the flexibility to aid the team throughout the year.
Two staff changes in the offseason include the return of assistant coach Frank Cruz, who is making his second tour of duty at USC after 12 seasons as head coach at Loyola Marymount. His expertise at the college level, including his four seasons previously at USC, has already paid dividends with the current coaching staff. The program made a crucial hire in first-year strength and conditioning coach Jackson Crowther, who has been able to create specialized baseball workouts for the team. With the increased mantra of accountability on and off the field by Kreuter and his staff, as well as a revamped and positive clubhouse atmosphere, the Trojans are expecting good things this season.
Here is a position-by-position outlook for the Trojans:
Junior Robert Stock (.299-4-22) normally would have been the odds-on favorite to be the team's starting catcher, but an interesting offseason move put junior infielder Hector Rabago (.263-7-30) in the mix.
'I haven't decided how we are going to go behind the plate,' said Kreuter. 'Hector has emerged, alongside Robert, as one of the top catchers on the West Coast. He has intangibles that you can't teach, especially with his baseball savvy. He is one of those guys that catching is a perfect fit. He has really quick feet and a strong arm. Both he and Robert will do the bulk of work behind the plate.'
Kreuter and his staff will try to use Stock more on the mound this season so Rabago will have the ability to be an everyday catcher if needed. Sophomore Alex Kurland (four games played in 2008) and freshman Kevin Roundtree (Glendora/Glendora HS) will backup Stock and Rabago.
Junior shortstop Grant Green (.390, 9 HR, 46 RBI) not only begins the season as USC's top player, but many see him as possibly the top college shortstop in the nation. As USC's career leader in triples (15), Green will need to focus with the spotlight on him, and try to shut out the ongoing draft chatter that creates pressure for many players.
'The junior year is a challenging year for guys like him,' said Kreuter. 'The tendency is to put a lot of pressure on yourself to be a high draft pick. Stressing team first and not himself has led to Grant being more involved in all of our drills as a mentor and leader to the younger players in an effort at keeping his focus on team and the process, not results.'
The race is on at first base with no favorite in place as USC will have a multitude of options. Junior Keith Castillo (.242-1-8) is one option, along with senior Anthony Vasquez (.315-4-33). Sophomore Mac Sullivan (five games in '08) and freshman Beau Brett (Spokane, Wash./Ferris HS) also can be seen as options.
'Beau is going to be a very good Pac 10 player,' said Kreuter. 'He will have to overcome being a freshman in a position that demands immediate production. We feel as a staff that Keith is going to have a break out year at the plate, being a contributor on both sides of the ball.'
With Rabago behind the plate at times, look for sophomore Joe De Pinto (.203-0-5) to get a lot of playing time at second base with help by freshmen Ashton Kent (Tucson, Ariz./Catalina Foothill HS), Shane Boras (Newport Coast/Junipero Serra HS) and Ryan Bast (Upland/Upland HS). The most interesting battle in the fall was at third base between junior Billy Pinkerton (.188-1-3) and freshman sensation Ricky Oropesa (Rancho Cucamonga/Etiwanda HS). Pinkerton has provided veteran leaderhip by working with Oropesa, a 2008 Aflac All-American with tremendous left-handed power.
'I know that there can be some tension on teams where you have guys competing for jobs, but it's been friendly and spirited,' said Kreuter. 'Billy has taken the lead as a veteran and stepped up in terms of trying to help make Ricky a better team player. Ricky was very raw when he came to us. Of all of our freshman position players, Ricky has made the most in-game improvement from day one.'
Oropesa's potential, especially at the plate, is something that Trojan fans will be keeping an eye on in the near future. He will also be featured on the mound in short relief, delivering a fastball that can hit 95 miles-per-hour.
'He is one of those players that needs to get as many at-bats as possible during the fall and spring, each day brings more growth to Ricky's baseball IQ.' said Kreuter. 'His power is impressive, he may have more power potential than (former USC and current Seattle Mariners' catcher) Jeff Clement. What he has shown us is that he is able to string together good at-bats and use the whole field. When he clicks and gains consistency through experience, he will be dangerous.'
Vasquez will get the nod in center field this season unless he is playing at first base or pitching in the starting rotation. With only three errors in 90 chances last season, Vasquez is a natural defender with his strong arm and above average bat. With his presence on the mound and game awareness, he and Green will contend for Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year honors.
If Vasquez is at another spot, look for freshman Greg Zebrack (North Hollywood/Campbell Hall HS) to be in center.
'He has shown that he has the ability to run the ball down,' said Kreuter. 'He is a big centerfielder like Nick Buss was last year and is a right-handed bat with gap-to-gap power. He will have more power as he learns the game and gets stronger. He is exciting as an outfielder.'
USC will have a lot of options in the outfield this season and players to choose from, especially at the corner outfield positions. Sophomore Vinnie St. John (.208-0-2), freshman Brandon Garcia (Las Vegas, Nev./Bishop Gorman HS), and freshman Alex Sherrod (Marietta, Ga./Walton HS) are in the mix at several outfield positions, primarily for the right field spot.
Junior Mike O'Neill (.213-0-4) will get the nod in left field, but expect competition from freshman Colin Hofmann (San Diego/St. Augustine HS), redshirt freshman Garret Houts (Fort Collins, Colo./Fort Collins HS), Garcia, Zebrack, and Castillo throughout the season.
'Our outfield will be young, but very talented,' said Kreuter. 'As the freshman mature, they will drive our outfield to better play. Mike has come out swinging the bat this fall. We made some adjustments with his stance, positioned him more upright and have stressed hitting through the ball using the whole field. He was geared to hitting towards left field only, but now he's hitting to all fields. We are expecting Mike will be a thorn at the top of the line-up.'
The weekend rotation is set with junior Brad Boxberger (2-4, 6.12 ERA, three saves, 50 IP, 52 SO), junior Kevin Couture (6-2, 4.27 ERA, 84.1 IP, 65 SO) and Vasquez (3-1, 3.65 ERA, one save) comprising the starting trio.
'We are excited about a healthy Brad Boxberger,' said Kreuter. 'He pitched great as a freshman. Last year, he was up and down with the uncertainty of his injury. What he has shown this fall is that he is back on his game. His velocity is back and his confidence in all his pitches is evident. We see him as our Friday starter, the guy who can really compete and give us a great start to the weekends. We are looking for Kevin to continue his late-season success. When he gets rolling, his confidence spreads to his teammates. He can be a big time contributor and catalyst for all. Anthony kept getting better as the season progressed last year on the mound, culminating with great relief appearances in the Oregon State series. He really had his 'A' game on and received high marks by his gritty performance. Look for that type of tenacity and poise from him this season.'
The weekday starters are up for competition with three candidates in freshman Chad Smith (Thousand Oaks/Thousand Oaks HS), redshirt freshman Andrew Triggs (Nashville, Tenn./Montgomery Bell Academy) and sophomore Jeff Grijalva (0-1, 9.00 ERA, 14 IP).
'Chad has done a really good job on the mound, the whole fall,' said Kreuter. 'He has great control and is a solid performer. He throws a sinker ball with late run. Andrew has recovered from Tommy John surgery, throwing a slider and a changeup to go with his sinker ball. We are expecting that he will be solid and if he stays healthy could be really special. We should get a lot of innings out of him. We had to throw Jeff in the fire last year with some early injuries to Boxberger and Vasquez. I feel he was pressed into the rotation a bit early. His early mound success was erased by the pressure of being a freshman starter. That experience was valuable as he has grown. Out of all the pitchers, he has thrown the hardest day in and day out and the consensus among the hitters is that he is the toughest to hit.'Additional help in the bullpen will come from senior Philip Urso (0-1, 9.39 ERA, 7.2 IP), sophomore Chris Mezger (0-0, 8.10 ERA, 6.2 IP), junior Adam Dedeaux (0-0, 6.75 ERA, 6.2 IP), senior Daniel Cooper (0-2, 8.71 ERA, 10.1 IP), sophomore Ryan Cabral (0-1, 7.18 ERA, 26.1 IP, 23 SO), and freshman Ben Mount (Coto de Caza/Tesoro HS).'The most interesting guy right now is Urso,' said Kreuter. 'We dropped his arm slot in the offseason. His ball now is sinking in on right-handers and running away on left-handers, so they are seeing movement to both sides of the plate with better control. Chris had a few rough games last season, but has shown the ability to stay focused and grind it out on the mound.'
'Adam has not given up any earned runs in the fall. He has been phenomenal in the clubhouse and on field as a leader. I'm extremely proud of how he has gone about his business. He understands what it means to be a Dedeaux at USC. He wants to carry on his grandfather's legacy and the best way to do that is by being a leader. Daniel is a guy that will give us innings. He has really worked hard this year. His dedication will pay off in dividends on the mound. Ben has been consistently strong all fall and we expect him to pitch out of the bullpen throughout the year. Ryan was our go-to-guy out of the bullpen last season before he came down with mono. Once again, he will be a workhorse in the middle relief and possibly one of the weekday starters.'
'Brad is a sidearm pitcher that doesn't throw very hard, but has a funky delivery and a lot of deception which makes it hard to hit him. Danny will be a premier pitcher here at USC, once he is fully healthy, he will become a huge part of our staff. I expect that from watching the way he handles his game that he is going to be a front-line performer reminiscent of the strong pitchers that USC has had over the years.'
Coulombe will also be used as a designated hitter or pinch-hitter to add to USC's stable of versatile players.
USC has one its most home-friendly schedules in recent memory as the Trojans open the season with 19 of 23 games at Dedeaux Field, including a stretch of 13 straight games in March. The Trojans start with their traditional season-opening series against Long Beach State before hosting Western Carolina. The start of March will bring USC's first road trip as the Trojans head off to New Orleans to face traditional power Tulane. After that, USC hosts Winthrop in a four-game series before the start of Pac-10 Conference play.
The 2009 season marks the return of Oregon to the Pac-10 for baseball and a full 10-team alignment with the Ducks heading to Los Angeles in early April. USC has its work cut out at the start with home series against UCLA and Arizona State and a road series at Arizona. After Oregon, the Trojans play on the road at Oregon State, at home against Washington State and on the road at Washington before concluding the conference portion with a home series at Stanford and road series at Cal.
The midweek games are the usual difficult ones against local teams such as Pepperdine, Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine and Cal Poly. The Trojans will host Cal State Northridge in April and then play two games in Northridge in May. A rare Dedeaux Field doubleheader takes place in March when USC hosts Brown.
USC has missed the postseason in five of the past six seasons, but Kreuter and his staff are confident that the Trojans have a good blend of youth and experience, mixed in with a great team chemistry and talent, will put them back where they belong: on the road to the College World Series in Omaha.