Fall Ball Notebook: Around The Nation
From SoCal to Florida and up to St. John's, here's what's happening in fall ball
FULLERTON, Calif.—A veteran pitching staff was Cal State Fullerton's biggest strength in 2011. But the thing about upperclassmen in college baseball is they inevitably depart, leaving unproven players to follow in their footsteps. New Titans coach Rick Vanderhook has inherited a pitching staff that returns just two arms who took the mound for the Titans a year ago, accounting for just 85 of the staff's 509 innings in 2011.
Fortunately, one of those arms belongs to Dylan Floro, a junior righty who will take over as Fullerton's ace in 2012 after making 12 starts among his 52 appearances his first two seasons. Coming off a strong summer in the Cape Cod League, Floro has looked dominant in fall ball.
Though he worked at 87-88 mph in a recent intrasquad scrimmage, his fastball had life and deception, and he commanded it very well. The Titans were not throwing breaking balls yet in the fall, so Floro worked hard on developing his changeup and made great progress with the pitch. He threw it around 80 mph with good sink, and it was an out pitch against both lefthanded and righthanded hitters. He continued to throw well in Fullerton's two-game exhibition series at Vanderbilt, allowing one run on one hit over four innings in the first game.
Freshmen will play a vital role on the Fullerton pitching staff this spring. Righty Jose Cardona, despite dealing with a minor injury to his landing knee, worked at 91-93 mph in his first outing, and Vanderhook raved about his competitiveness. Lefty Kenny Mathews is similarly physical and polished, and could join Cardona and Floro in the rotation. Unsigned fifth-round pick J.D. Davis was drafted as a power-hitting third baseman, and he'll get plenty of key at-bats for the Titans, but his bigger short-term impact could come on the mound. Davis has a loose, powerful arm that produced 87-89 mph heat in the fall, but Vanderhook thinks his velocity could jump into the 92-93 range in the spring.
Fullerton's X-factor is sophomore Michael Lorenzen, the starting center fielder and the best player on the team. Lorenzen anchors an extremely athletic and deep outfield mix that also includes Ivory Thomas (out this fall after meniscus surgery), newcomers Clay Williamson and Austin Diemer and the much-improved duo of speedster Austin Kingsolver and Greg Velazquez. Lorenzen owns one of college baseball's premier outfield arms, and it plays off the mound—he sat at 92-93 and touched 96 in the scrimmage, and he could be a major weapon in the Fullerton bullpen.
Here are some other notes from fall ball around the nation:
• Across Orange County, UC Irvine returns a quality core of seniors in shortstop D.J. Crumlich, catcher Ronnie Shaeffer and first baseman Jordan Fox—all of whom are skilled players with nice line-drive swings. Fox, in particular, was smoking hard line drives all over the field in a recent scrimmage, while also making an impressive pick on a throw in the dirt at first base. Freshmen Kris Paulino and Jonathan Munoz stood out offensively; Paulino executed a pretty bunt single and followed with an RBI single, while Munoz lined a hard single to the right-center gap, then crushed a double high off the right-field wall in his next at-bat. The Anteaters are not loaded with power arms, but righty Kyle Hooper looked strong, racking up five strikeouts in his first two innings of work and showing a quality three-pitch mix: an 86-89 fastball with good downward angle, a sharp 73-78 curveball and an occasional 78 mph changeup.
• Farther north, California returns most of the core position players from its 2011 Omaha team, and talented sophomore Derek Campbell gives the Bears a worthy successor for departed shortstop Marcus Semien. Perhaps unexpectedly, Cal got valuable catcher Chadd Krist back as a senior, so heir apparent Andrew Knapp (coming off a boffo summer in the Northwoods League) is getting some work in the outfield and at first base this fall, because the Golden Bears need to get his bat in the lineup.
The major question for Cal is pitching depth—an area where the Bears took hits from the elimination and subsequent reinstatement of their program last year. Two players who would have been key sophomore arms transferred (Eric Jaffe to UCLA, Louie Lechich to San Diego), and the program's dissolution prevented the Bears from bringing in as strong a recruiting class as they could have this fall. Ace lefthander Justin Jones, who missed the College World Series last year with a nerve stinger, is recovering nicely, and relievers Kyle Porter and Matt Flemer figure to join him in the weekend rotation, with righty Logan Scott taking over for Flemer at the back of the bullpen.
"The key to our fall is, can we find three other reliable arms we can put into the rotation of pitchers we're using?" Cal coach David Esquer said. "We've got numbers, but we feel like we need a surprise from somebody already here, and a surprise in the freshman class who can pitch earlier than we thought."
• Rival Stanford heads into 2012 with one of college baseball's most loaded rosters, and the Cardinal gets a boost from the return of lefthander Brett Mooneyham from finger surgery. Associate head coach Dean Stotz said Mooneyham's flexibility and strength have returned to 100 percent, and he figures to join potential No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel in a dynamic duo atop the rotation.
Junior shortstop Kenny Diekroeger spent the summer in Stanford working out, and Stotz said he is "so much stronger" physically and is refreshed mentally after a trying sophomore year. "It's the happiest I've seen him on the diamond in a long time—almost like the mental break really paid dividends," Stotz said. The Cardinal has worked Diekroeger out at second base this fall while giving Lonnie Kauppila some time at short, and Stotz said there is at least a chance the two switch positions in 2012. One scout who saw the Cardinal this fall said Kauppila is a "much better shortstop than Diekroeger—quicker actions, better hands and more arm." The scout said Diekroeger's feet and actions seemed slow, and he needs to focus on playing better fundamental defense.
• St. Mary's junior righty Martin Agosta was generating buzz amongst scouts in Northern California this fall. Agosta went 7-6, 2.81 with 76 strikeouts and 19 walks in 90 innings as a sophomore, then had a solid summer in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League. He ran his fastball up to 95 mph this fall and showed a promising slider at 83-85.
• Looking for another junior righthander with serious draft helium? Look across the country at St. John's, where Matt Carasiti has worked in the 93-96 range this fall. Carasiti has a physical pitcher's frame at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, and he could find himself at the top of St. John's rotation in 2012 or back in the bullpen, where he posted a 2.47 ERA and eight saves as a sophomore.
"In the area of pitchability, in particular, he's becoming more of a strike-thrower, has more command of what he's trying to do," St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer said. "His splitter is an out pitch—it just drops off the table at times. And the slider has tightened up and become a real serviceable second pitch. So he's got two pitches he can finish you with, and the fastball is like throwing a brick at a glove—it's a very, very heavy pitch."
Of course, St. John's welcomes back its ace in junior righthander Kyle Hansen, who has worked in the 91-93 range and topped out at 94-95 this fall, with a tighter slider and a good changeup. Blankmeyer said Hansen's delivery has been more efficient, with a more consistent alignment.
The wild card for the Red Storm is junior righty Anthony Cervone, whose "nasty stuff" includes a 92-95 mph fastball, a slider and a changeup. Cervone needs to harness his mechanics and control, but his upside is tantalizing.
The key for St. John's, though, is the middle infield. Replacing first-round pick Joe Panik at shortstop won't be easy, and the Johnnies are hoping second baseman Matt Wessinger can slide over to the position. Blankmeyer said Wessinger has the athleticism and arm strength for the position but needs to improve his decision-making and technique. Third baseman Sean O'Hare could slide over to second base, and newcomers Bret Dennis, Anthony Iacomini and Kyle Lombardo are also in the mix.
"We're trying to figure out the best shortstop/second base combination," Blankmeyer said. "That is one question this fall that has not been answered, and probably will make or break this club."
• A year ago at this time, East Carolina coach Billy Godwin was concerned about the youth and inexperience of his position players. Freshmen Jack Reinheimer, Chase McDonald and Ben Fultz established themselves as valuable everyday players, so the Pirates head into this season feeling good about their lineup, but hoping some young power arms can mature in a hurry.
Senior lefty Kevin Brandt is back to anchor the weekend rotation, and lefthander Tyler Joyner is back from the academic issue that cost him all of 2011. Godwin said Joyner has been outstanding this fall, working in the 89-92 range, and he stands a strong chance to earn a spot in the rotation. Junior-college transfer Jharel Cotton could be the third weekend starter, and he has the highest upside of the group, with a fastball that has reached 94 this summer. Fellow U.S. Virgin Islands native Deshorn Lake has been up to 95 this fall but is still trying to find his consistency. That duo plus 6-foot-4 freshman righthander Jeff Hoffman from New York give the Pirates a core of serious power arms to build around. Hoffman flew under the radar during the spring but has seen his velocity jump into the 90-93 range, Godwin said.
• Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said he feels much better about his pitching staff than he did in each of the last two falls. Righthander Eric Anderson returned from a torn labrum to emerge as Missouri's ace down the stretch last spring, getting outs without his best stuff. He got some work for Jamieson's Team USA staff over the summer and has thrown sparingly this fall, but Jamieson said the ball is coming out of his hand better, and his velocity could climb next spring. Anderson and sophomore lefty Rob Zastryzny make a nice one-two punch atop the rotation, and Zastryzny has significantly improved his changeup and breaking ball this fall. "Last year a lot of times he was a one-pitch guy," Jamieson said. "His secondary stuff needed to improve and it has."
Big lefthander Jake Walsh, who has been in and out of the Missouri program over the last few years, has thrown well, working in the high 80s and touching 90. Another big-bodied southpaw, junior-college transfer Blake Holovach, has sat consistently in the low 90s and touched 93; he pitched very well in an exhibition against Iowa. And freshmen Brandon Platts and Brett Graves give the staff a pair of power-armed righties to build around.
In the lineup, the biggest development has been the emergence of sophomore second baseman Dillon Everett. "He's a guy we thought highly of out of high school, and he kind of struggled last year," Jamieson said. "He's playing really good defense and looking like he could be a top-of-the-lineup guy. He and (shortstop Eric) Garcia are playing really good up the middle."
• Oklahoma's athletic recruiting class gives the Sooners the flexibility to move the physical Max White to first base, where he gives OU an athletic defender with power potential. Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway says shortstop Caleb Bushyhead has elevated his game this fall, defending at a very high level. And the Sooners are excited about a pair of power-armed junior-college transfers: righthanders Jonathan Gray and Damien Magnifico. Gray has sat comfortably at 94 mph and topped out at 97 this fall, while Magnifico has run his fastball up to 100-101 mph on the scoreboard radar gun, Golloway said. Magnifico touched 94-95 mph in high school in 2009, when he was a fifth-round pick by the Mets, and he missed last year at Howard (Texas) JC with a stress fracture in his elbow, but he has a chance to leap up draft boards if he can keep lighting up radar guns in the spring.
• Catcher Peter O'Brien, who put up impressive numbers at Bethune-Cookman the past three years, is now enrolled at Miami. But whether he ever plays an inning for the Hurricanes is still in question. O'Brien, who is from Miami and played at Braddock High School, said he left Bethune for family reasons regarding the health of his mother. O'Brien would not go into specifics regarding her situation other than to say it was not life-threatening and that she is now "fine."
Division I transfers usually have to sit out one season before they can be eligible again, but O'Brien has appealed to the NCAA hoping for an exemption for family reasons. Miami expects the NCAA to issue a ruling within two weeks.
O'Brien, who was drafted in the third round by the Rockies this past June, could have been in pro ball by now had he chosen that route. He said the Rockies offered him "a little over slot," which at his pick was $295,000.
"It was a long process," O'Brien said of the negotiations. "I'm very thankful and blessed for everything that happened this summer. In the end, we didn't come to an agreement . . . It wasn't what I was looking for or what I thought I was worth."
• The fall's other high-profile Division I transfer is Dane Phillips, who went from Oklahoma State to Arkansas. Phillips is hoping for an eligibility waiver based on his desire to pursue a post-playing career in the FBI, and Arkansas offers coursework in that area (though his chances of getting ruled eligible in 2012 don't seem great). The Hogs have been impressed with Phillips' work behind the plate, which improved significantly over the summer in the Cape Cod League. His bat is his calling card, of course, and it has looked very good this fall.
The Hogs' marquee arms have looked good this fall, as righthander Ryne Stanek has worked in the 95-97 mph range and righty Nolan Sanburn has been 94-97 with a power breaking ball at 80-84. Ace D.J. Baxendale is also back, and lefthander Randall Fant has matured considerably. He has developed his cutter into a viable third pitch to go with his 88-91 fastball and outstanding changeup.
Like Stanek, Matt Reynolds played well for Team USA this summer, and he figures to slide from third base to shortstop this year. His arm plays well at the position, and the Hogs have even tinkered with the idea of catching him, which could really help his draft stock. He reminds Arkansas assistant Todd Butler of former Arkansas star Logan Forsythe, who was similarly versatile.
• Sticking in the SEC West, Auburn has its hands full replacing a bevy of departed regulars, and its 17 newcomers are competing for jobs all over the diamond. "We knew that this time was coming when we would have a large turnover, and we do," Tigers coach John Pawlowski said. "It's a great opportunity for these new guys to compete."
The Tigers are fortunate to welcome back a quality one-two pitching punch in righthanders Derek Varnadore and Slade Smith, who owns "one of the best sinkers I've been around," Pawlowski said. A pair of freshmen—towering lefthander Daniel Koger and righty Rocky McCord—have both thrown well this fall and figure to earn valuable innings next spring.
Auburn's groundball-oriented pitching staff places a premium on quality defense, making shortstop Zach Alvord a key to the season. Alvord, a highly touted recruit a year ago, replaces mainstay Casey McElroy at short, and Pawlowski raved about his maturation in the past year. The return of versatile veteran Justin Bryant from injury and the presence of senior Creede Simpson give Auburn valuable leadership and experience.
• Florida State has played its fall without starting second baseman Devon Travis, who had minor knee surgery in August but will be back at full speed by January. But Travis' keystone partner—shortstop Justin Gonzalez—has been one of the bright spots from FSU's fall. Like Alvord, Gonzalez has matured in his overall approach to the game, according to Seminoles coach Mike Martin. "He has really matured, not only as a person but as a baseball player," Martin said. "He's come back with the understanding of, 'Hey, I'm going to make a mistake, I'm going to kick a ground ball,' but he can handle it now. As a player, he has a better grasp of the game."
Third-team All-American James Ramsey, fresh off a standout summer in the Cape, moves from right field to center, replacing departed mainstay Mike McGee. McGee's younger brother, Stephen, has returned from shoulder surgery and looked good behind the plate. He and talented freshman catcher Mario Amarol should team with Travis, Gonzalez and Ramsey to keep the Seminoles strong up the middle.
And FSU is counting on junior first baseman Jayce Boyd, who struggled in the Cape, to protect Ramsey in the middle of the lineup. The Seminoles know Boyd will be the defensive glue in the infield.
"I've had a number of first basemen in my years at Florida State, and this guy has bailed us out more than any first baseman I've ever coached, and that's saying a lot," Martin said. "I think everyone knows who my all-time favorite first baseman was—a young man by the name of Doug Mientkiewicz. This kid is totally different, but he comes up with more low throws than anybody I've ever coached. This kid is special."
• Sticking in the Sunshine State, Florida returns the nation's most talented roster, and another strong recruiting class has led to strong competition in Gators camp. Florida has to replace seniors at second base and center field; Tyler Thompson has the inside track at the center field job. He gets the best jumps and takes the best routes of any of Florida's outfielders, though his arm is lacking at times. Newcomers Josh Tobias, Craig Turgeon and Sean Trent will compete with returnees Cody Dent and Zach Powers for playing time at second and third.
The Gators are loaded on the mound, where Hudson Randall, Karsten Whitson and Brian Johnson look locked into the weekend rotation. Lefthander Steven Rodriguez and righty Austin Maddox were already key bullpen pieces, and both have taken steps forward this fall. Rodriguez showed even better location and confidence than he had in the spring and was nearly unhittable early on this fall. Maddox will continue to hit in the middle of Florida's lineup, but this fall he has focused on his mound work, showing a heavy mid-90s fastball and improving his power slider.
Sophomores Jonathan Crawford, Daniel Gibson and Keenan Kish will be counted on to replace the innings of Nick Maronde, Alex Panteliodis and Anthony DeSclafani, and all three have looked good this fall. Crawford has been particularly dynamic, showing 95-96 mph heat and doing a better job repeating his release point. The Gators dropped him from an overhand slot to a high three-quarters slot, which has also given his fastball more movement. Kish has worked in the 91-92 range and shown a good slider, and Gibson brings a power fastball from the left side.