Oregon Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022

Image credit: Oregon OF Tanner Smith (Photo courtesy of Oregon)

Oregon competed for the Pac-12 title in 2021, ultimately finishing just one game behind champion Arizona, and hosted a regional for the first time since 2013. Coach Mark Wasikowski and his staff got the most out of a veteran team that hadn’t experienced a ton of success before last season. 

The 2022 season will present a different challenge, as much of that veteran team has now moved on to pro baseball. The cupboard is far from bare in Eugene, but it’s clear that new stars will have to emerge for the Ducks to follow up last season’s super regional appearance with another trip to the postseason. 

These five questions loom large as Oregon goes through the fall.

How does the lineup replace its departed stars?

After last season, Oregon lost arguably its three best power bats in outfielder Aaron Zavala, first baseman Gabe Matthews and DH Kenyon Yovan. Zavala was a second-round pick of the Rangers, while Matthews and Yovan signed as free agents with the Angels. That creates a vacuum in the lineup that Wasikowski and his staff will look to fill. 

“A year ago, the discussion was similar in the fact that people were saying you don’t have any proven players that have had success at the Pac-12 level,” Wasikowski said. “So we’re used to that discussion, at least for the two years I’ve been here now. They said it last year and they’re saying it this year, and that’s fine. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good players here.”

There are certainly good players still at Oregon, as the lineup isn’t starting from scratch. Returning to lead the way are fourth-year junior outfielder Tanner Smith (.324/.417/.533), third-year sophomore infielder Josh Kasevich (.324/.397/.444) and third-year sophomore outfielder Anthony Hall (.286/.342/.470). 

Smith set the Oregon single-season record with 24 doubles last season. Kasevich was second on the team in RBIs with 50 and with 24 strikeouts in 216 at-bats had the lowest strikeout rate of any lineup regular. With six home runs last season, Hall is the team’s leading returning home run hitter. That’s a pretty good core to build a lineup around even if its collective production in 2022 is on par with what it did last season. 

But if there’s one thing Wasikowski has earned a reputation for in his relatively short head coaching career, it’s developing players to get the best out of them. We saw it when he quickly turned around a Purdue program that was the worst in the Big Ten when he arrived and we saw it again last season at Oregon, particularly through the development of hitters like Zavala, Matthews and Yovan. 

Perhaps that knack for development gets expressed in 2022 with further steps forward from Smith, Kasevich and Hall, which could make any of the three contenders to be Pac-12 player of the year. 

It could also mean big jumps from returning players who were a bit lighter offensively last season such as fourth-year junior infielders Sam Novitske (.246/.348/.311) and Gavin Grant (.230/.348/.331) or third-year sophomore catcher Jack Scanlon (.169/.275/.282). 

All three bring something to the table already. Novitske and Grant are versatile defenders and Scanlon has big-time power, for example, but it would be huge for the Oregon lineup if they were more consistently productive next season. 

Don’t overlook South Carolina transfer third baseman Brennan Milone as a potential impact player in the lineup, either. Formerly a blue-chip recruit in the 2019 prep class, Milone had trouble putting it all together in two seasons in Columbia, but there’s hope that a fresh start can help him unlock the potential that comes with his plus raw offensive tools.

What can Oregon expect from Adam Maier?

Maier, a third-year sophomore transfer from NAIA British Columbia, was one of the buzziest players competing over the summer. Despite having thrown just 19 total innings his first two seasons in college (all of them early in 2020) due to pandemic restrictions, the righthander put his best foot forward in the Cape Cod League. 

In 25.2 innings for Yarmouth-Dennis, he had a 4.55 ERA and 27 strikeouts compared to just nine walks. At just over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, Maier isn’t the most physically imposing pitcher to be found in college baseball, but he has good stuff. His fastball sits in the low 90s but touched 94-95 mph with running life over the summer. He pairs that pitch with an above-average high-spin slider and a changeup that he’s not afraid to throw to lefties or righties. 

All of that made him one of the top 10 prospects on the Cape, which in turn sets him up to be a high-round draft pick next summer. In the meantime, he should have a prominent role on the Ducks’ pitching staff. 

Maier has worked primarily as a starter to this point, both at UBC and on the Cape, and with all three of Oregon’s weekend starters gone, the door is wide open for him to grab one of those spots. And It’s not out of the question that he could be Oregon’s Friday guy and one of the best starters in the Pac-12. In any event, it’s a virtual lock that Maier will be a key piece for the Ducks in 2022. 

Who will take over in the weekend rotation?

As mentioned above, Oregon lost Robert Ahlstrom, Cullen Kafka and Brett Walker, all three weekend starters, after the season. Those three combined to start 44 of the Ducks’ 55 games last season. Suffice it to say that there are opportunities abound for the Ducks’ pitchers in 2022. 

“You’d like to have all three weekend starters return and it would feel warm and cuddly, but even (then), they still have to produce,” Wasikowski said. 

Maier will likely have something to say about how things shake out, and it’s exceptionally hard to imagine him not being squarely in the competition as the fall unfolds, but there are certainly other names to watch. 

One such name is third-year sophomore righthander Andrew Mosiello, who had a 4.12 ERA and an impressive 52-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39.1 innings last season. He’s been a reliever in his two seasons with Oregon, but he pitched extremely well as a starter over the summer on the Cape. For Harwich, he had a 2.01 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 22.1 innings across five starts. 

Stuff isn’t in question with Mosiello, as it’s more than good enough for him to start games and be one of the best pitchers in the conference. His fastball is a low-90s pitch that touched as high as 95 mph last season. His favorite secondary pitch is a slider that acts more like a cutter in the mid 80s, but he also features a changeup and a slow curveball that both had well above-average whiff rates last season, albeit in very small sample sizes. 

Fifth-year junior Caleb Sloan, who began his career at Texas Christian, is another experienced pitcher the Ducks will consider. The righthander has battled injuries almost constantly since the end of the 2018 season, including last season, when he was limited until late in the campaign after Oregon anticipated that he would be the team’s top arm in 2021. His fastball can run into the mid 90s as part of a three-pitch mix when he’s healthy. 

Sophomore righthanders R.J. Gordon and Isaac Ayon are two younger options. Both did some starting and relieving last season, with Ayon’s 38.1 innings good for fifth on the club behind the three weekend starters and Mosiello. Both also have fastballs that can touch the mid 90s. 

Oregon might not have any returning starters to hang its hat on, but it isn’t short on quality pitchers vying for those spots. In that way, this discussion, just like the one about the lineup, isn’t much different than the one that was being had at this time last year. 

“A year ago, the three guys that left, Robert Ahlstrom, Cullen Kafka and Brett Walker, didn’t really have a reputation of being big-time starting guys that were going to be proven, top-of-the-line Pac-12 weekend rotation guys and they just proved that they were,” Wasikowski said. 

In 2022, Oregon hopes that a new batch of pitchers prove that they’re ready to be next in line.

How is the bullpen taking shape?

The large number of pitchers who will fight for starts this fall and throughout the spring also bodes well for the bullpen, as some of those pitchers, all of whom have good stuff, will inevitably filter down into relief roles. 

There, they will join fifth-year senior lefthander Kolby Somers, who returns after a breakout season as the team’s closer in 2021. Using a fairly straightforward one-two punch of a low-90s fastball and a plus slider, Somers had a 3.08 ERA, 11 saves and held opponents to a .149 batting average in 26.1 innings last season. 

Wasikowski doesn’t mince words about how he views Somers. 

“Kolby Somers returns, and he had 11 saves last year and was the best closer in the Pac-12 conference,” he said. 

Grad transfer righthander Dylan Sabia from Central Connecticut State will actually give the Ducks two closers on regional teams from last season, as he collected four saves and had a 2.80 ERA on the Blue Devils’ path to the postseason. He works with a fastball at 90-94 mph from an over-the-top delivery. 

Junior college transfer righthander Matt Dallas is another newcomer to watch. He had a wildly successful summer in the West Coast League, with a 1.52 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 17.2 innings. 

Fourth-year junior righthander Christian Ciuffetelli is a returning wild card in the mix. He has an 8.56 career ERA in 33.2 innings, but he has good stuff, including a fastball that gets into the mid 90s.

Which freshmen could contribute right away?

Oregon brought in a strong 2021 recruiting class that finished just outside the top 25 classes in the country. That means that there are quite a few players who could conceivably find their way into prominent roles in 2022, but there are two in particular who stand out. 

The first is lefthanded first baseman Jacob Walsh from Las Vegas. The No. 155 prospect on the BA 500 heading into the draft, Walsh turned down opportunities to be drafted and begin a pro career to attend Oregon instead. He generates light-tower power from a 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame, and if his hit tool proves to be good enough for him to make consistent contact against Pac-12 pitching next season, his emergence could go a long way toward helping Oregon replace some of that missing power production. 

The other is catcher Anson Aroz, who was the No. 470 player on the BA 500 ahead of the draft. He’s already a polished receiver with plus arm strength, and that, combined with impressive athleticism and flexibility, should help him to become a plus defensive catcher overall very quickly. A switch-hitter, Aroz also shows good feel to hit from both sides of the plate, with more power coming from his lefthanded swing. 

If those two freshmen don’t waste any time becoming productive players for Oregon and come together with a returning position player group ready to take a step forward, the Ducks might not miss much of a beat even after losing a lot of star power from a super regional team. 

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