Preseason Top 25 Capsules: No. 11 Cal State Fullerton

2017 Record: 39-24 (15-9 in Big West); reached College World Series. Final ranking: No. 7 Coach (Record at school): Rick Vanderhook (235-127, 6 years). Top 200 2018 Draft Prospects: RHP Colton Eastman (53), RHP Andrew Quezada (160), RHP Brett Conine (170).

The good news: Pitching and defense have long been the cornerstones of Cal State Fullerton’s programs, and that won’t change this year. Coming off yet another trip to Omaha a year ago, Rick Vanderhook’s club should be able to hold its own on the mound against any team in the country. It starts with Colton Eastman, a junior righthander who works in the low-90s with a plus changeup, above-average curveball an exceptional command. Though Fullerton will miss rotation stalwarts Connor Seabold and John Gavin, each of whom threw more than 100 innings last year, the Titans have two promising newcomers to fill those holes. Junior college transfer Anthony Quezada touches 94 mph and has great feel for his changeup and cutter, and freshman Tanner Bibee fits the prototypical Fullerton mold as a three-pitch zone filler. The Titans should be set in the back end of games with the return of shutdown closer Brett Conine and veteran reliever Blake Workman.

The bad news: The Titans will be much younger from a position-player standpoint than they were a year ago. They’ll especially miss power-hitting shortstop Timmy Richards, who was part of two Omaha teams in his four years at Fullerton. However, the Titans have a capable replacement at short in sophomore Sahid Valenzuela, who won Big West freshman of the year honors a year ago. With youth around the diamond, the Titans will likely lean heavily on returners Ruben Cardenas, Hank LoForte and Jake Pavletich. The lineup lacks punch but has plenty of speed and athleticism to defend at a high level and to squeeze out just enough runs in Fullerton’s West Coast style offense. Vanderhook’s staff has a knack for getting the most out of its lineups.

Returner to know: Ruben Cardenas, OF: Cardenas is hands down the scariest threat in Fullerton’s lineup and the team’s best bet to be a premium run producer. A stress fracture in his lower back limited Cardenas to just 16 games in 2017, but he’s healthy now and has the best tools of any position player on the team. He fits the traditional right fielder profile with plus power and a plus throwing arm, and his above-average speed should allow him to cover ground in the outfield and steal more than a handful of bases. If Cardenas stays healthy, he could take Fullerton’s offense to greater heights and take some pressure off of its pitching staff.

Path to Omaha: The blueprint for Fullerton changes little from year to year, and for good reason. The Titans have reached the College World Series in two of the last four years by pitching and defending at a high level. If they can continue that trend this year—and they certainly have the talent to do so—than they should have as good a shot as any team on the West Coast to return to Omaha. As is the case most years, the Titans will be a project offensively, which could potentially hamper them come June.

2018 lineup:

C Daniel Cope, So. .276/.417/.448 | 29 AB | 1 HR | 2 RBI
1B Jake Pavletich, R-Jr. .178/.275/.311 | 45 AB | 1 HR | 7 RBI
2B Hank LoForte, Jr. .247/.314/.325 | 154 AB | 0 HR | 19 RBI
3B Zach Weller, So. .250/.378/.500 | 36 AB | 2 HR | 11 RBI
SS Sahid Valenzuela, So. .314/.366/.377 | 223 AB | 1 HR | 24 RBI
LF Chris Prescott, Sr. .228/.305/.260 | 127 AB | 0 HR | 7 RBI
CF Mitchell Berryhill, Jr. Transfer—Salt Lake JC
RF Ruben Cardenas, Jr. .293/.354/.552 | 58 AB | 3 HR | 18 RBI
DH Jarius Richards, Jr. Transfer—Cabrillo (Calif.) JC
RHP Colton Eastman, Jr. 2-0, 2.14 ERA | 34 IP | 37 SO | 1 SV
RHP Anthony Quezada, Jr. Transfer—Cypress (Calif.) JC
RHP Tanner Bibee, Fr. HS—Mission Viejo, Calif.
RP Brett Conine, Jr. 0-1, 1.39 ERA | 45 IP | 43 SO | 15 SV
RP Blake Workman, Jr. 6-3, 2.89 ERA | 62 IP | 54 SO | 1 SV

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