Fall Ball Notebook: Texas, Vanderbilt Face Off

Last issue we presented our annual recruiting rankings. In the course of talking with coaches and scouts about recruiting classes, we picked up plenty of other tidbits from fall ball around the nation. Now it’s time to shake out the notebook.

• Texas: Augie Garrido has no interest in trying to cram 56 games into the 14-week spring season. “We were dying trying to play those five games a week,” the Texas coach said. His solution each of the last four years was to schedule fall exhibition games against other D-I schools that count against the 56-game limit. This fall, Texas played a scrimmage against Texas State and two against visiting Vanderbilt, leaving a 53-game schedule for the spring. As usual, the Longhorns’ pitching shined in the fall schedule.

In the first of three predetermined 12-inning scrimmages, Texas lost to Texas State 9-0, but the Longhorns allowed only one unearned run on three hits through the first nine innings. Their likely weekend rotation of Taylor Jungmann, Hoby Milner and Cole Green combined to work six shutout innings, allowing just one hit and one walk.

“The pitching looks OK,” Garrido said. “Cole Green coming back (as a senior) really adds a lot to that, depending on what role he plays on the staff. We have to find a closer to replace Chance (Ruffin), and we have to find a third starter. Milner certainly looks like a Division I pitcher—he’s been very consistent so far in what he’s been doing here since this summer, in our workouts and in our scrimmages. You’d like to have a lefthanded pitcher in that starting rotation anyway, and certainly he’s the leading candidate for that.”

The other major question facing Texas is who will replace Cameron Rupp behind the plate. Lucas Kephart, a transfer from Sacramento CC, is the front-runner, but Garrido said he believes third baseman Kevin Lusson could have a very bright future behind the plate if he wants to move. He’s a strong defender at the hot corner thanks to his soft hands and strong, accurate arm, but he’s gotten some work behind the plate this fall, and a conversion could be in his future.

Texas State, by the way, got three innings of one-hit ball from its own ace righthander, Carson Smith, who like Milner ranked among the Top 10 Prospects in the California Collegiate League this summer. Nine different Bobcats followed with one scoreless inning apiece.

• Vanderbilt: Vandy split its two games against the Longhorns, winning the first game 7-2 and losing the second game 7-5. But the sizable scouting contingent on hand for the weekend came away buzzing about the Commodores.

“Just the depth of Vanderbilt’s arms really jumped out,” an American League scout said. “They kept running guy after guy out there—it was pretty impressive. Sonny Gray was really impressive, and Grayson Garvin, a lefty, was really good. He was 88-91, a good-looking kid with a good change, he did it pretty easy, located it OK. I liked him, and I liked Navery Moore—he was 93-96, and the ball just jumps out of his hand.”

While Vandy star third baseman Jason Esposito had a quiet weekend, slugger Aaron Westlake impressed with his strength and power, according to the scout. And freshman center fielder Tony Kemp—the younger brother of former East Carolina catcher and Conference USA player of the year Corey Kemp—had three hits in the second game, including an RBI triple.

• Louisiana State: Coach Paul Mainieri said he expects his lineup will be “really solid” this spring, but the most positive developments of the fall have been on the mound, where LSU welcomes back just three significant contributors from last year. Closer Matty Ott looks looks to have put his sophomore year struggles behind him and is “throwing great,” according to Mainieri. Righty Ben Alsup, who started to emerge late in the spring, has made a big jump this fall. “I think he’s well on his way to being a weekend starter,” Mainieri said.

And prized freshman Kevin Gausman, a flame-thrower from Colorado, has benefited from pitching in the thicker air of Baton Rouge. “Gausman looks great,” Mainieri said. “He’s out of the high altitude, and all of a sudden his breaking ball is snapping off the table.”

• Mississippi: Pitching was the Rebels’ soft spot last spring, as the staff lacked consistency after ace Drew Pomeranz and closer Brett Huber. One of the best arms on the staff—Jake Morgan—missed the spring after having Tommy John surgery, and another—David Goforth—struggled mightily with his command and consistency. But Morgan has come back strong this fall, spotting an 88-91 mph fastball to both sides of the plate in his first outing. And Goforth might be on the verge of finally tapping into his potential.

“Goforth stayed here all summer, and he started playing around with a cutter to keep people off his fastball,” Ole Miss pitching coach Carl Lafferty said. “He throws 94-96 consistently, but now he’s throwing that cutter in the zone at will, and it’s giving him more confidence.”

• Kent State: Another pitcher making a strong recovery from Tommy John surgery is Golden Flashes lefthander Andrew Chafin, who went 4-1, 1.26 with 55 strikeouts and 16 walks in 36 innings as a freshman in 2009, then missed all of 2010. One scout said Chafin has been up to 95 mph this fall. “He looked like a definite early-round pick,” the scout said.

• Michigan: If the new BBCOR bats put a premium on defense and athleticism, Michigan should be well positioned to thrive in 2011.

“Our defense is going to be really strong,” Wolverines coach Rich Maloney said. “With (Anthony) Toth and (Derek) Dennis in the middle, it gives us one of the better keystone combinations in college baseball. We have an experienced third baseman in John Lorenz, who is really coming on. Garrett Stephens, not a lot of people know about him, but he had seven RBIs in a game this fall. He will be at first base, a solid defensive first baseman. Then (Patrick) Biondi in center field, he’s a really, really good center fielder—he’s special.”

Dennis was a high-profile shortstop recruit last fall, but his bat was up and down as a freshman. He was one of the best defensive shortstops in the Cape Cod League this summer. He still needs to get stronger and more consistent at the plate but has the hand-eye coordination to be a very good offensive player this spring if he can put on a little more weight, according to Maloney.

On the mound, lefthander Bobby Brosnahan has the inside track at Michigan’s Friday starter role. He’s a bit undersized at 6 feet, but he’s added 10-12 pounds this offseason, and he’s a fierce competitor who can throw three pitches for strikes.

• Oklahoma: The Sooners return most of the key parts of their 2010 College World Series team, and their depth is forcing coach Sunny Golloway to get creative with his lineup. With Chris Ellison, Cody Reine, Casey Johnson and Max White all returning in the outfield, the Sooners have been working out the physical White at second base, in order to maximize the lineup’s firepower.

“He turns the double play big-time,” Golloway said. “Can you imagine if I left him at second base? By next year, he’d be the biggest, strongest bat at the second base position, my gosh. Just a pure, power, righthanded bruiser playing second base, and he’s athletic enough to do it—and I might do it.”

• North Carolina: The Tar Heels were missing shortstop Levi Michael (broken finger) and catcher/infielder Jesse Wierzbicki (wrist and knee injuries) this fall, but both are expected back for the spring. Wierzbicki figures to move from behind the plate to third base, as UNC has a lively competition for the starting catcher job between junior Jacob Stallings and touted freshman Matt Roberts. Stallings has a strong arm and has bulked up noticeably; he arrived at UNC weighing 174 pounds but is now up to 210, according to assistant Scott Jackson. But Roberts is a standout behind the plate with good strength in his line-drive swing, making that a very intriguing battle position battle.

• North Carolina State: With a lineup built around quality hitters like Harold Riggins, Andrew Ciencin and Pratt Maynard, the Wolfpack figures to score plenty of runs. Riggins was working out at third base this fall, and he has the soft hands, athleticism and arm strength for the position, if he can stay focused on making the routine plays. On the mound, N.C. State has plenty of question marks behind ace Cory Mazzoni, but righties Vance Williams and Felix Roque plus lefty Grant Sasser look like the top candidates to join him in the weekend rotation. Hard-throwing sophomore righty Rey Cotilla has the inside track at the closer job. But the hardest-throwing member of the Wolfpack’s 12th-ranked 2009 recruiting class, Dane Williams, was spending the fall at home in Florida, rehabbing from labrum surgery.

• UCLA: Bruins infielder Tyler Rahmatulla’s bad-luck 2010 continued. UCLA’s leading hitter in the spring, Rahmatulla missed the College World Series after breaking his wrist in the dogpile celebration at the end of the Los Angeles Super Regional. When he returned to campus this fall, Rahmatulla stepped wrong while taking ground balls in the Bruins’ very first workout, causing him to break a bone in the top of his foot, sidelining him for eight weeks. Rahmatulla, who played second last spring, was going to compete for the starting shortstop job, and he still might. But his absence opened the door for junior Adrian Williams and freshmen Jake Shirley, Pat Valaika and Kevin Williams to audition for the job.

“We really like Valaika—he’s a lot like his brother (Chris), who just got called up with the Reds late this year,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “He’s a very consistent guy, good arm, great hands, an offensive player, and we’ll see what type of range he has.”