Jan. 30, 2012
The UCLA baseball team enters the 2012 season as the defending Pac-12 Conference champions, returning the bulk of its starting position players from the last two years.
Eighth-year head coach John Savage has led the Bruins to five postseason appearances in his seven seasons at the helm and guided UCLA to its first outright Pac-12 Conference title in 2011.
As freshmen in 2010, that group helped UCLA earn its first appearance in the finals of the College World Series. As sophomores in 2011, the Bruins captured the Pac-12 title and hosted the NCAA Los Angeles Regional at Jackie Robinson Stadium for the second consecutive season.
"We have a lot of leadership with these veterans," Savage said. "When you talk about reasons for optimism this season, the number one thing that comes to mind is the experience of our position players."
Among UCLA's greatest challenges will be replacing two of the top pitchers in school history - right-handers Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, who were selected No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, in the first round of the 2011 MLB Draft.
Cole and Bauer accounted for 62 percent of UCLA's weekend starts (81 of 130) the last three years and 42 percent of the staff's innings in that span (695.2 of 1640).
"We have talked about it with this team since day one," Savage said. "Our guys have to step up. They realize that the comfort of Gerrit and Trevor going out there every Friday and Saturday will not be there."
Sophomores Adam Plutko, Zack Weiss and Nick Vander Tuig saw significant action on the mound as freshmen in 2011 and, along with junior Scott Griggs, will be counted upon to lead UCLA on the mound in 2012.
Plutko went 7-4 with a 2.01 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 107.2 innings as a freshman, securing All-Pac-10 acclaim. He showed more consistency and durability as the season continued, allowing one hit in 7.2 scoreless innings of a 4-1 victory over San Francisco in an NCAA Regional elimination contest.
"Adam has a good mindset," Savage said. "He's a tough guy and is the complete package. He had as good a freshman year as I've ever been around. I think that Adam is ready to step into that next role of being a number one or number two pitcher."
Weiss and Vander Tuig each had multiple quality appearances as freshmen in 2011 and both pitchers look to take on a more central role this spring. Weiss went 5-3 with a 2.86 ERA in 22 games, making nine starts. He alternated between pitching out the bullpen and serving as the team's midweek starter.
"Zack is a big physical guy with a very solid skill set of pitches," Savage said. "If he can pound the strike zone, he's going to be competitive every time out."
Vander Tuig made a team-leading 28 appearances, all in relief, as the team's closer. But the right-hander from Oakdale, Calif., was less than 12 months removed from Tommy John surgery, which prevented him from pitching as a senior at Oakdale High School in 2010. With one year at the college level under his belt, Vander Tuig is expected to compete for a role as one of UCLA's three weekend starters.
"We put him in a tough role last season as a freshman, pitching as the closer and not that far removed from Tommy John surgery," Savage said. "But we really think that he's a starting pitcher, and that's what we recruited him to be. He made strides in the fall, and his fastball really popped at 92 or 93."
Griggs is expected to assume a more prominent role. The 6-foot-4 right-hander from Alamo, Calif., will contribute as either a weekend starting pitcher or as the team's closer. Over the past two seasons, Griggs has pitched in 17 games, making three starts, and has shown the ability to light up the radar gun.
"Scott's role is a little undecided as we prepare to start the season," Savage said. "I think that he could be one of the best closers in the country. He took tremendous strides in the fall. He started throwing more strikes and he really developed his breaking ball."
Beyond Plutko, Weiss, Vander Tuig and Griggs, UCLA's pitching staff is young. With the departure of key left-hander Mitchell Beacom and the possible transition of Weiss, Vander Tuig and Griggs to roles in the starting rotation, Savage and the Bruins will be put to the test in relief.
UCLA's pool of potential relief pitchers includes freshmen David Berg, Jake Ehret, Eric Jaffe, Zack Ortiz and Grant Watson, sophomores Ryan Deeter and Madison Poole, and juniors Chase Brewer and Michael Kerman. In addition, the Bruins must decide how to replace Weiss as the team's midweek starting pitcher.
"It looks like we'll put a freshman in there for the midweek starts, grooming that guy for the following years," Savage said. "Looking at our freshmen class, when you talk about Watson, Ortiz and Ehret, you're talking about three very talented freshmen. Watson has a chance to be a complete pitcher, and both can throw four pitches for strikes. Ortiz is right-handed and Watson is left-handed. Ehret has fantastic stuff but needs to find his niche in terms of comfort at the Division I level."
UCLA must find a way to replace one of its most unheralded players in recent memory, three-year starting catcher Steve Rodriguez. Juniors Tyler Heineman and Trevor Brown will be the top candidates to assume the starting role behind the plate.
Heineman, a 5-foot-10 switch-hittter, was a strong back-up catcher as a sophomore last spring when Rodriguez was out of the lineup. He batted .261 with seven RBI in 23 games, making 13 starts. Heineman has not made any fielding errors the last two seasons and has shown the ability to help shut down the opponents' running game.
Brown, a 6-foot-2 product who bats from the right side, has been UCLA's most versatile defensive player the last two years. In addition to catching, Brown has played third base, second and first for the Bruins. When second baseman Tyler Rahmatulla was unable to play the final two-thirds of last season, Brown filled in second base.
"Tyler Heineman and Trevor Brown give us a really good 1-2 punch that we haven't had lately," Savage said. "Both guys are capable of being number one catchers in the Pac-12. It's great to have, especially when you factor in health and playing on back-to-back days. They can certainly handle our pitching staff."
The Bruins' 2012 team looks to assert itself as one of the most defensively sound ballclubs not only in the Pac-12, but also in the nation. UCLA returns a wealth of talent on its infield, particularly on the left side.
Junior third baseman Cody Regis has been one of UCLA's top power hitters the past two seasons. As a freshman in 2010, Regis batted .312 with nine homers, 17 doubles, 47 RBI and 41 runs. Last spring, he batted .284 with six homers, 10 doubles, 45 RBI and 20 runs. In addition, he has established himself as a cornerstone at third base.
Regis' most significant power production has come down the stretch for UCLA. The 6-foot-2 product from Glendora, Calif., has belted 14 of his 15 career home runs in the season's second half. In fact, five of Regis' 15 career homers have come in his 16 postseason games.
"We have a ton of confidence in Cody, who has been a mainstay for us at third base the last two seasons," Savage said. "He's a left-handed hitter with great power potential. It's very comforting having Cody at third base, knowing how sound he has been defensively as well as with his bat."
Sophomore Pat Valaika emerged as the team's starting shortstop several weeks into the 2011 campaign. As a freshman last spring, Valaika improved as the season continued and became a much more sure-handed defensive player as conference games began. He batted .238 with one home run, 10 doubles and 20 RBI and looks to become a more significant contributor at the plate this season.
"Pat's experience as a starting shortstop last season will pay major dividends for us this spring," Savage said. "I've seen it in the fall. He's different. He's got leadership. He has taken control of the infield. He played well down the stretch and made some plays in the Regional that were pretty special. He's becoming a complete, confident player."
While the left side of the infield appears to be solidified, the right side is more untested. Freshman Kevin Kramer and sophomore Kevin Williams are expected to compete for playing time at second base. Brown and Williams platooned at the position one year ago, but Brown may be pressed into action at both first base and behind the plate.
Kramer comes to Westwood after having thrived as a baseball and football player at Turlock High School (Turlock, Calif.). The 6-foot left-handed hitter was selected in the 25th round of the 2011 MLB Draft by the Cleveland Indians and impressed UCLA's coaching staff in the fall.
Williams batted .210 with six RBI in 28 games as a freshman, making 20 starts, and committed just one error at second base.
"We've got a lot of depth on our infield," Savage said. "With Kevin Kramer, you're talking about one of the most talented infielders we've had in a long time. He's a physical guy and is a very offensive player. Kevin Williams really turned the corner over the course of his freshman season. With the experience that Williams and Valaika have, it's only going to help us this season."
Brown appears to be UCLA's most likely option at first base. While he mostly has played at second base, third base and behind the plate, the junior from Valencia, Calif., is more than capable to contribute as a first baseman. Other candidates for playing time at first base include sophomores Pat Gallagher and Matt Giovinazzo.
"Our lineup will be primarily left-handed, so it's important that we have Trevor Brown step up not only on defense but also from the right side of the plate," Savage said. "At the end of the day, we feel that we have a lot of pieces to plug in there and get those jobs done."
Freshmen Chris Keck and Shane Zeile are also expected to push for playing time. Keck, a 6-foot-2 product from Pleasanton, Calif., could step in and contribute at third base, shortstop or second base. Zeile, the nephew of former UCLA standout and longtime major leaguer Todd Zeile, will be an asset for the Bruins at either third base or second base.
"Chris can become an offensive player in our program," Savage said. "He can hit for power to all fields and play every position on the infield. Shane is a very versatile guy who can also hit for power. Not only can he play at second base or third, but he has a really good arm and should have the opportunity to pitch for our team."
UCLA returns a deep, talented and very experienced group of outfielders in 2012. Juniors Cody Keefer, Beau Amaral and Jeff Gelalich look to secure starting roles in left, center and right field, respectively, after having been cornerstones of the team's offense since 2010.
"I really think that they are all potential center fielders in professional baseball," Savage said. "It's rare to have that talented an outfield. We look at it as having two outfields. When you bring in Eric Filia-Snyder - those are three very talented players. It's as deep an outfield as our program has had."
Amaral has been one of UCLA's most dynamic offensive assets the last two years. In 2010, he assumed starting center field duties early in the season and finished the year leading UCLA with a .354 batting average in 64 games. Last spring, Amaral batted .299 with two home runs, 16 doubles and 37 runs in 58 games.
"Beau is a five-tool player," Savage said. "He's the quarterback out there in our outfield. He can really cover ground. Offensively, we think that Beau is a leadoff type of guy. He has the ability to hit for power and for average. His experiences from the past two years are only going to help him and this team."
Like Amaral, Keefer has been a constant in UCLA's outfield the past two seasons. The native of Davis, Calif., has batted over .300 both years, entering his junior season with a .309 career batting average and .426 on-base percentage. He has played in 103 games, making all 101 starts in left field.
"Cody has been a big part of our program the last two years, and we know that he's ready for a big year," Savage said. "He's a very disciplined, patient hitter. We like his defense in left field, and similar to Beau and Jeff Gelalich, Cody could also be a talented center fielder in a Division I program."
Gelalich served primarily as the team's designated hitter in 2011, but has spent time the last two seasons playing in right field. As a freshman in 2010, he batted .321 with two home runs and 13 RBI in 78 at-bats. Last spring, Gelalich batted .268 with two homers and 13 RBI and 35 runs. The resident of La Verne, Calif., is among UCLA's fastest runners and has one of the best arms in the conference.
"Jeff is the best athlete on this team," Savage said. "He's got the best tools. He can really run, he can throw and he can hit for power. With Jeff in right field, we're hoping to be one of the best defensive teams in the country. There's no secret about it. We know that Jeff is more than capable of having a career year."