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UCLA Baseball: Five Questions to Answering Entering 2022

Max Rajcic Photobydonliebig
UCLA RHP Max Rajcic (Photo by Don Liebig)

UCLA had a tough season relative to outside expectations in 2021. The preseason No. 2 team in the country, the Bruins stumbled out of the gate with a home series loss to San Francisco, and while they did pick up some impressive series wins along the way and ended up in a regional final in June, that early result really set the tone for a season where the club just never seemed to fully get its feet under it.

Going into 2022, the Bruins have some re-tooling to do, as 10 players were drafted over the summer and others graduated, leaving holes all over the lineup and pitching staff.

These are five questions that loom large for UCLA as it works with an extremely young roster to put together a team capable of another postseason run in 2022.

Is this the highest level of turnover in any offseason of the John Savage era at UCLA?

If it’s not, it’s certainly in the conversation. As noted above, UCLA had 10 players drafted, but it’s worth taking a step back and understanding just how important those specific 10 players were.

It encompasses the starting shortstop and best overall position player (Matt McLain), the starting first baseman and top hitter (J.T. Schwartz), a plus defensive starting catcher (Noah Cardenas), a versatile athlete and defender who doubled as the team’s second-leading hitter (Kevin Kendall), the team leader in home runs last season (Mikey Perez), all three members of the weekend rotation going into last season (Zach Pettway, Jesse Bergin and Nick Nastrini), arguably the team’s most effective starting pitcher when it was all said and done (Sean Mullen) and a reliever who had a 2.20 ERA in 32.2 innings (Adrian Chaidez). They also lost righthanders Michael Townsend and Kyle Mora, reliable relievers over the last couple of seasons, to graduation.

UCLA just welcomed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country to campus and it does return a handful of experienced players who held important roles last season, especially on the mound, but the Bruins are coming as close to starting over as possible as they prepare for 2022. 

In that way, it reminds UCLA coach John Savage a bit of the leadup to 2017, a season known in hindsight as being the freshman season for a number of stalwarts who had excellent careers at UCLA, including Michael Toglia, Chase Strumpf, Ryan Kreidler, Jeremy Ydens and Mora.

“I think it feels very similar to 2017, but I think the difference (is) we do have tremendous depth on the mound,” Savage said. “We are pretty lefthanded in some areas and we do have some combinations and some matchups that we feel will benefit the lineup. So I would say 2017 in terms of pure talent. There’s a lot of talented freshmen. This is as good a freshman class as we’ve ever had in regards to talent.”

That young team in 2017 that also featured veterans like Griffin Canning and Sean Bouchard in starring roles ended up going 30-27 overall and 19-11 in the Pac-12. They ended the season as a three seed in a regional, but just as importantly, served as a building block for the juggernaut team the Bruins had a couple of years later.

Perhaps the overwhelming talent of this freshman class or the aforementioned depth on the mound helps push the 2022 team to greater heights, but even if that’s not the case, the success of 2017 isn’t a bad baseline to begin with.

Who secures spots in a wide-open weekend rotation?

The quartet of Pettway, Bergin, Nastrini and Mullen combined to start 50 of UCLA’s 57 games last season, which means there is opportunity galore in the weekend rotation.

UCLA likes to approach rotation competitions with six guys competing for four spots (three weekend starters plus a midweek starter). The six pitchers the coaching staff is closely evaluating at this time are third-year sophomore righthander Jared Karros, sophomore righthander Jake Brooks, sophomore righthander Max Rajcic, junior college transfer righthander Kelly Austin, freshman lefthander Gage Jump and freshman righthander Thatcher Hurd.

Karros provides the most experience of the group. In 41 career innings over two seasons, he has a 3.51 ERA, 48 strikeouts and a .204 opponent batting average. He works with a high-80s fastball that touches the low 90s with a changeup and slider that can both be swing-and-miss offerings.

Brooks had a 5.31 ERA in 20.1 innings last season and is coming off of a good summer in the Cape Cod League, where he had a 3.06 ERA in 32.1 innings.

Rajcic is perhaps the most intriguing of the returning options. Last season, he was dominant as the Bruins’ closer, with a 1.65 ERA, seven saves, 36 strikeouts and a .185 opponent batting average in 32.2 innings. He then started over the summer on the Cape, putting up a 4.32 ERA in 25 innings.

He certainly has the stuff to be an effective starter moving forward. His fastball averaged a tick over 92 mph last season and touched 96, and his curveball, which he used more often than his fastball in 2021, is a real weapon.

“Development of the changeup, the development of moving the fastball, commanding the fastball,” Savage said of Rajcic’s next developmental steps. “He’s been 92-94. He did not throw very well Saturday (in an exhibition against UC Irvine), but he’s had a pretty good fall. The curveball is clearly a potential wipeout pitch.”

Austin, who comes over from Orange Coast (Calif.) College, dominated all throughout 2021. At OCC, he had a 1.57 ERA in 46 innings. Over the summer in the West Coast League, he had a 2.52 ERA and a 76-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 57 innings.

Jump and Hurd are two of the biggest centerpieces of UCLA’s top-ranked recruiting class. Jump has stuff bigger than his 5-foot-11 frame would suggest, including a fastball that has touched as high as 96 mph with a power curveball and a changeup. Hurd is more physical at 6-foot-4, with a fastball that has been up to 94 mph and projects to tick up in velocity over time.

There are a lot of unknowns with this group, but plenty of ability. The next step for UCLA is figuring out which pitchers fit best in which spots.

What about the bullpen?

Outstanding bullpen work is the norm at UCLA, and in 2022, the Bruins should have a mix of proven guys and newcomers on this unit.

Third-year sophomore lefthander Jake Saum is back after he had a 3.15 ERA with 23 strikeouts and just three walks in 20 innings last season. So is third-year sophomore righthander Charles Harrison. He was used as a short reliever last season, with 12.2 innings pitched over 16 appearances, but the coaching staff thinks he can be used in a long relief role moving forward.

Fourth-year junior righthander Jack Filby has been a two-way player in the past and hasn’t pitched a ton the last two seasons, but he’s focused solely on pitching now and did so on the Cape over the summer. He’ll look to nail down a bullpen role just as he did as a freshman in 2019, when he had a 4.05 ERA and a 25-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 innings.

One freshman who has worked his way into position to hold a role is lefthander Ethan Flanagan, who Savage says has really stood out this fall. He works with a fastball from 90-93 mph with a changeup and slider that should both be effective pitches for him.

Despite a number of things not quite going as planned last season, UCLA still had a stout bullpen, and expectations should be that it will have one again in 2022.

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Who will make the lineup go?

With so much of the lineup turning over, this is very much an open question going into next season.

“To really say who’s going to make this lineup go I think is still yet to be determined,” Savage said.

That said, there are a few educated guesses to be made.

One is that third-year sophomore Michael Curialle will be right in the middle of things in the lineup. A key piece of UCLA’s 2019 recruiting class, Curialle put up solid numbers in his first full season last year, hitting .285/.366/.409, but his hit tool and raw power, which have been evident since his high school days, suggest there is more in the tank. Defensively, he also provides some versatility, with the athleticism to play the middle infield or center field and the arm to play right field.

Sophomore third baseman Kyle Karros, the only other lineup regular returning, could be a middle-of-the-order bat as well. He hit just .243/.292/.342 last season, but he has enough strength in a 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame to help him hit for plenty of power as he improves as a hitter.

It’s also very likely that some subset of the talented newcomers on campus are the ones who will make the offense go.

Outfielder Nick McLain and infielder Cody Schrier, both of whom were ranked among the top 125 prospects for the draft in 2021 before removing their names from consideration, are top candidates.

McLain, the brother of Matt McLain and Arizona State star Sean McLain, is an advanced player who shows power potential from both sides of the plate, but especially the right side, and has the athleticism to be a plus defender. Schrier uses the whole field to hit, has the speed to be a catalyst on the bases and has the glove to handle a middle infield position right away.

“I think Nick McLain’s a guy to really keep an eye on,” Savage said. “He brings power, he brings speed. There’s a combination there, there’s confidence there. With his two brothers and what they’ve done, clearly he’s advanced just in terms of ability and how to play. I think Cody Schrier is another guy that we look at that will be a key component of our team. He’s a true middle infielder that can handle shortstop in the Pac-12.”

Outfielder Malakhi Knight, the No. 72 player on the BA 500 ahead of the draft, is a little more raw offensively, which may limit his ability to be a lineup centerpiece on day one, but he’s a top-of-the-scale athlete with good speed and a good glove, which should put him in position for immediate playing time.

Don’t overlook Loyola Marymount graduate transfer outfielder Kenny Oyama, either. At 5-foot-4, 150 pounds and with a .314 career slugging percentage at LMU, he won’t provide much in the way of power, but he hit .330 in 2021 and was a four-year contributor for the Lions.

A group of returning players who didn’t see a ton of playing time last season might also have a say in who makes the offense go. That group includes third-year sophomore outfielder Emanuel Dean, a former blue-chip recruit who got 24 at-bats last season, infielder Eli Paton, who redshirted last season, and sophomore infielder Daylen Reyes, who had 10 at-bats a season ago.

Where is the biggest question mark?

Perhaps no position is as much of a mystery at UCLA going into 2022 as catcher. Over his first couple of seasons at UCLA, Noah Cardenas split some time with veteran backstop Will McInerny, but last season, with McInerny having graduated, Cardenas played in all 57 games, starting 56 of them.

He proved to be one of the most durable and dependable catchers in college baseball, so that heavy load for Cardenas was earned, but it also means that the Bruins will go into 2022 with basically zero in-game experience at the position.

The two returners battling for the position are third-year sophomores in Darius Perry, who has seven career at-bats in two seasons, and Tommy Beres, who appeared in nine games last season, starting one, and got seven at-bats.

Darius Perry and Tommy Beres are two guys (that are) in significant roles this year,” Savage said. “They’re taking over for Noah. Noah was as good as there is out there really over the last three years.”

Perry is a plus catch-and-throw catcher who also has enough raw power to make him a threat in the lineup. After a standout fall at this time last year, there was talk that Perry might be someone who slots in from time-to-time at another position just as a way to get him in the lineup, but that didn’t come to pass. Beres spent time over the summer playing in the Appalachian League, where he earned high marks for his defensive skills and the leadership he showed in helping manage the pitching staff.

Outside of those two, UCLA has two true freshmen catchers on the roster in Aidan Berger and Jack Holman. The latter is the more decorated recruit of the two, showing a powerful lefthanded swing from a physical 6-foot-4 frame and good receiving skills.

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