Baseball Eager to Open 2010 Season
Feb. 17, 2010
Utah Valley at Arizona
Jerry Kindall Field at Frank Sancet Stadium
One of the NCAA’s all-time most accomplished programs enters the 2010 season without much fanfare or national attention. That does not bother the Arizona Wildcats who have quietly put aside the highly disappointing and distracting 2009 season that, despite a 30-25 record, resulted in the program missing the postseason for just the second time in the last seven years.
One win shy of becoming just the seventh program ever to win 2,500 collegiate baseball games, Arizona has adopted an old-school approach in its rebuilding effort to climb back to the national stage it was on just two seasons ago. The Wildcats, under the direction of ninth-year head coach Andy Lopez, have embraced a rededication to the intangible aspects in hopes that tangible results of excellence will emerge.
“We established some things in the fall that needed to be established, particularly the intangibles” Lopez said. “The intangibles we always work to establish in our program are that we compete every time we step onto a baseball field, that we do a very good job of executing and keep attention to detail, and that we represent ourselves in a respectable way off the field. Those were areas that we were not very good in last year, but I think we’ve got a group that did a tremendous job developing those characteristics this fall.”
It did not take long for Lopez and his staff to realize that the 2009 club was going to be a difficult one to work with. Academic struggles, lack of leadership and respect for the game, and poor attitude led to a season that Lopez described as “very painful and humbling”.
Now, after a very promising fall season, coaches and players feel that Arizona baseball is primed to return to the scene as a Pac-10 contender and play meaningful baseball at the end of the season. How meaningful? That remains to be seen, but Lopez has a history of guiding young teams to breakout seasons.
In 1996, at the University of Florida, Lopez coached a squad full of freshmen to a third-place finish at the College World Series. At Arizona, in 2004, Lopez led the Wildcats to a trip to Omaha perhaps a year ahead of schedule given the youthfulness of the team.
No one, including Lopez, is making any guarantees that the Wildcats will wind up in Omaha this June, but the cupboard is certainly not bare of talent despite the fact only two seniors and 24 underclassmen appear on the roster. In fact, coaches feel that there is as much talent on this roster as any UA club has had in recent seasons.
A healthy and deep pitching staff returns junior Daniel Workman and sophomore Kyle Simon. Both took their lumps a season ago as they were forced into starting roles, but now the duo anchors a pitching rotation that received an infusion of talent with 10 freshmen. Without question, there are plenty of options for Lopez and his staff to use on the mound, something that was rarely the case a season ago.
Offensively, the Wildcats are poised to again be one of the league’s most explosive teams. While Pac-10 batting champion Dillon Baird and a handful of other starters are gone, there is more than enough talent in place to see little, if any, drop off from a season ago when Arizona posted a .314 batting, its highest since 2005. Interestingly, the Wildcats have turned in .300 or better seasons at the plate every year since 2003, something well within reach again.
Coaches credit strength and conditioning coach Jim Krumpos for his tireless work in making the Wildcats a bigger, faster and stronger team than a year ago. Players bought into the system in the fall and the results clearly paid off. Arizona figures to be much more athletic than a season ago, something that will benefit the Wildcats defensively in the field and offensively on the base paths.
Arizona will be able to ease its young group into action with a schedule loaded with home games, particularly in the first half of the season. The Wildcats play 26-consecutive home games to open the season, which should allow the crop of newcomers to adjust to collegiate baseball. However, tough series with traditional powers Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and Wichita State will give Arizona a good initial indication of where it stacks up nationally.
“We did that by design,” Lopez said of the schedule. “I knew we would be young. I want to keep us at home and get used to the tempo that college baseball is played at. It works both ways because sometimes you want to get players on the road early, but with this particular group it would be better for this group to let it develop its confidence at home.”
How quickly that confidence develops will be a critical factor in how the Wildcats perform once Pac-10 action ramps up at the end of March. The Conference appears to be wide-open for many teams to challenge and Arizona thinks it has a very good chance to be in that mix as the season winds down in May.
Under Andy Lopez, Arizona baseball has developed a pipeline of pitchers to the Major Leagues. John Meloan, Mark Melancon, Brad Mills, Daniel Schlereth and Ryan Perry have all played at baseball’s highest level since their playing days at Arizona not too long ago.
Each was a strong reason why some of Arizona’s best pitching teams have taken the field in recent years. It is perhaps those teams that made the 2009 Wildcats look so bad on the mound, comparably. Other reasons are certainly injuries, poor work ethic and inexperience.
This year, the Wildcats are healthier than a year ago and have a mix of talented and hard-working players that will make up a pitching staff with a lot to prove.
Returning are Kyle Simon (3-5, 6.03 ERA in 2009) and Daniel Workman (3-1, 3.86 ERA), a pair of newcomers a year ago who took on starting roles and figure to be at top of UA’s rotation this season. Simon started 11 games a year, trailing only ace Preston Guilmet for the most on the team, while Workman registered a 3.86 ERA – third-best on the staff.
Certainly the ability of Simon and Workman to become consistent and effective Friday and Saturday starters will be critical, in whichever order it turns out to be. Both have added secondary pitches to their repertoire – Simon a breaking curveball and Workman a sharp slider.
“Those two guys are really the cornerstones of our staff,” Lopez said. “For the most part, we know what we’re getting from them. The question for us is how we fill in the staff around them.”
The rest of UA’s rotation will largely depend on which direction it goes in the closer role. The school’s all-time saves leader – Jason Stoffel – is gone, but the Wildcats have a very intriguing option in the emergence of sophomore Bryce Bandilla (2-3, 6.20 ERA), a hard-throwing left hander.
Bandilla struggled on and off the field as a freshman and nearly left the program, but he returned for the fall semester with a fresh perspective on school and baseball. His rededication has allowed him to drop nearly 20 pounds of weight, up his velocity above 92 MPH on his fastball and develop command of his breaking ball.
With Bandilla in the closing role, Arizona could use its top freshmen in starting roles while still shortening games by working backwards, something Lopez always prefer to do and has done so successfully at Arizona.
“Philosophically, I always like having a good arm at the end of games,” Lopez said. “If Bryce can handle the job, he could really pose some matchup problems at the end of games for teams. It’s an intriguing possibility and we’re hopefully he is up to the task.”
Kurt Heyer, a 6-2 right-hander from Huntington Beach, Calif., was one of the team’s best performers in the fall. He is a top candidate for the weekend starting spot behind Simon and Workman. Others that will factor in – perhaps in the mid-week – are Jared Forestieri, a hard-throwing righty, and Vincent Littleman, a crafty lefty.
Arizona has some young options for middle relief and setup roles, too. Tyler Hale brings another hard-throwing arm to the rotation, while Nick Cunningham brings a late-innings mentality that could translate to a closer role if needed.
Not to be forgotten are some returning arms that will be critical in providing some experience on UA’s staff. Senior Grayson Adams returns to the program after missing last season due to Tommy John surgery. A pair of juniors in lefty Matt Chaffee (3-0, 8.68 ERA) and righty Ryan Doyle (0-0, 4.50 ERA) return after injury-prone seasons a year ago that cut-short their sophomore seasons.
That trio, along with junior Joe Allison (5-1, 4.66 ERA), who started three games in 2009, will provide depth in various spots that will be essential for the Wildcats. The versatility and experience of Adams, Doyle and Allison could lead to them emerging in starting roles at some point, or in necessary long-relief situations. Chaffee will likely remain a key relief pitcher as he has in his first two seasons at Arizona.
“We didn’t have a lot of depth last season,” Lopez said. “I think we have better depth entering this season and it’s going to be important for all of these guys to perform when they are called upon. I’ve seen tremendous improvement from last year to this year. Now, we just need that to translate to the field.”
In the fold are two players with plenty of potential in sophomore Jett Bandy (.299, 21 2B, 39 RBI in 2009) and junior Jake Meskin. Bandy tied for the team lead in doubles in a freshman season that saw him appear in the lineup as a third baseman and designated hitter. He will move back behind the plate to his natural position and compete with Meskin, who returns to the UA program after playing at Pima Community College in 2009.
“Both of those guys catch and throw the ball really well,” Lopez said. “Jake had a marvelous fall for us and you could see how important it was for him to play a little bit at Pima last season. Jett struggled some this fall, but we saw last year the type of hitter he can be at times and now he’ll get his shot behind the plate.”
UA will likely use both players in a starting role early in the season, splitting up weekends with one starting Friday/Sunday and the other taking the middle game of each weekend series. Mid-week games also afford and opportunity to split starts.
Infield – Corners
The Wildcats will rely on their corner infield positions to provide an offensive presence in the lineup much like they have done in recent seasons. While there is no sure-fire starter at either first or third base, Arizona has plenty of options to consider.
While nothing is ever a certainty, it is highly unlikely the Wildcats have a player that will turn in the production that first baseman Dillon Baird did in his All-American junior season when he captured the Pac-10 batting title with a .433 average.
With Baird gone to professional baseball, the Wildcats may employ a by-committee approach at first base in 2010. Bobby Brown, who appeared in seven games a year ago, returns at the position and offers a much-need left-handed bat in the lineup. He could also move to left field if needed to make room for other players.
Senior Rafael Valenzuela (.277, 11 2B) returns and is another option at first base due to UA’s strength in the middle infield. Valenzuela is a player that could start at first, second or third base in the infield and either of the corner spots in the outfield if needed.
“Bobby has been in the program for three years now,” Lopez said. “I think he’s a lot more comfortable now. He and Rafael offer us left-handed bats that are much needed in the lineup, but we’ll certainly be mixing and matching players at first base since we have some combinations to use.”
Two other options at first base included junior Josh Garcia, a transfer from South Mountain Community College, and Cole Frenzel, a slugging left-handed bat that can play either corner spot in the infield. Both have good offensive skills that fit the need of the position for the Wildcats.
Frenzel and Valenzuela are two options over at third base, as is freshman Seth Mejias-Brean, a tall and rangy player who can play multiple positions on the infield.
“I would love to say we have an All-American slated to start at third base and an All-American starting at first base,” Lopez said. “But, the reality is we have a lot of talented players that are competing for playing time and we don’t have a set lineup going into the season.
“We’re going to lean more towards offensive production when penciling in players at first and third base,” Lopez said. “That’s not to say these guys can forget about playing defense because we feel we have some good defensive options as well. But generally, we need some offensive production from them.”
Infield – Middle
Bryce Ortega (.324, 57 R) returns as the mainstay in the lineup for the Wildcats, having turned in two years as the starting shortstop and earning All-Pac-10 honors last season. However, do not be surprised to see Ortega slide over to short stop.
Alex Mejia, a freshman from Sylmar, Calif., is good enough defensively to push Ortega over to second baseball. He brings a set of defensive skills that impressed coaches in the fall, and if he is ready to start, would give the Wildcats one of the best defensive middle infields in the nation.
Ortega will continue working at both positions as Mejia competes with Mejias-Brean, another freshman who could play either middle infield position.
“I think we can be really good defensively up the middle,” Lopez said. “Bryce had a really good season a year ago, but his natural position may be second base even though he’s played well at shortstop. We just need to see how those guys work together the best.”
The Wildcats figure to have one of their most athletic outfields in recent seasons with an influx of talented players to the group.
Steve Selsky (.318, 7 HR) returns in right field where he solidified a starting position a season ago with a breakout rookie season at the plate and a strong arm that threw out five runners.
“I thought Steve was one of our best players at the end of last season and through the fall,” Lopez said. “He is good defensively and he has improved his strength. I think he can have a really good season.”
Elsewhere, playing time will likely be decided based on who wins the job in centerfield. Freshman Joey Rickard and transfers Bobby Rinard and Ethan Chavez provide a trio of options for the centerfield job. All three have good range and speed, especially Chavez and Rinard.
“This could be the fastest group of players we’ve had in some time,” Lopez said. “Rinard and Chavez could be our two fastest players since Trevor Crowe, and Chavez could even be a little faster.”
The left field position will likely go to one of the three not playing in centerfield, but UA has other options. As mentioned, Brown can move from first base and Valenzuela can slide from the infield at a moments notice. Refsnyder can also play in the outfield.