Cal Baseball Outlook
See how our Golden Bears are prepared for the season.
If coaching a baseball team is like building a puzzle, then California head coach Bob Milano is extremely close to having all the pieces to the puzzle in place entering the 1998 season.
The Golden Bears are intent on improving on last year's 21-38 record (4-26 in the Pacific-10 Southern Division), and Milano's crew not only has the talent to improve on '97, but the personnel be an NCAA Regional team. Cal features two players-shortstop Brian Oliver and catcher Jason Hill-who were members of the 1997 USA National Team and two more players-sophomore reliever Jon Cuccias and freshman second baseman Xavier Nady-who were invited to the National Team Tryouts in November. The Bears also have five returning starters in the field and eight returning pitchers, plus one of the largest and most talented freshman classes in Milano's 21-year tenure.
"There is no question the talent is there, but my concern is our youthfulness and if our pitching going to be consistent and remain healthy," said Milano. "Still, I'm excited about this season. We have a solid core of players returning and for the first time in three years were didn't lose any of our recruits to the professional draft."
There is no doubt Cal will be led by junior shortstop Oliver, team captain and according to Milano the best middle infielder he has ever coached. The Bears leading hitter and team MVP last season, Oliver is primed for an outstanding junior season and should be a high draft pick in June. Last season, he was a first team All-Pac-10 selection, batting .364 with 15 doubles, three triples, four home runs and 36 RBI. Oliver also finished third in the conference in stolen bases (24-for-26). This summer, he shined playing for Milano on the USA National Team, batting .333 with six doubles, a home run and 10 RBI in 25 starts. Oliver was named Hitter of the Tournament during the USA-Japan Collegiate Championship series in June.
Junior catcher Hill also benefited from his experience playing for the USA National Team. After struggling at the plate in '97, he showed his ability by playing well for Team USA, starting 17 games and batting .281 with three doubles, two home runs and 19 RBI. Hill is an outstanding talent with a strong throwing arm and power at the plate. An indication of his potential is that three times in his college career he has hit two home runs in a single game. Hill also had a two-home-run game last summer for the USA National Team.
Cuccias, a right-handed submarine pitcher who emerged as the Bears top reliever last season, is sure to be key performer this season. As a freshman, he finished the year 2-0 with three saves and had a team-leading 3.38 ERA. Cuccias also was fourth in the conference in appearances with 33 and had a 1.53 ERA against league opponents. At the USA Baseball Trials, he was 2-0 with a save in 3.7 innings of action.
Nady was a fourth-round draft pick by the St. Louis Cardinals out of high school, but opted to come to Cal and has already made his mark. He was extremely impressive in fall practice and has locked up the starting second base duties. In the Blue-Gold intrasquad World Series, Nady was 4-for-7 with a double, a triple, two home runs in one game and had eight RBI. At the USA Baseball Trials, he went 2-for-6 with a double and a home run.
Although the '97 season was tough, returners Aaron Gordnier, Jon Shirley, Juan Hernandez and Jim Vorhis gained valuable experience that will help them in '98.
Senior captain Gordnier had a breakthrough junior campaign after seeing limited action in his first two years in the program. He was one of the Bears most consistent players while leading the team in home runs (seven) and RBI (41), and batting .299. Gordnier continued his fine play into the summer season as he was the California Coastal Collegiate League MVP and league batting champ (.398), helping the Santa Barbara Foresters to a fifth-place finish at the National Baseball Congress World Series. This season, Gordnier will see action either in center field, left field or designated hitter, and might start the year as Cal's lead-off batter.
Sophomore right-hander Shirley was impressive as a true freshman last season, although his record was only 2-7 with a 5.47 ERA and a save, he led the Bears in strikeouts (54) and innings pitched (82.3), and had five no decisions. Shirley developed into Cal's No. 1 starter early in the year and showed tremendous poise with an outstanding curveball to go along with his fastball and change up.
Sophomore right fielder Hernandez also showed signs of brilliance during his frosh campaign. He started 57 of the team's 59 games in right field, batting .285 with 12 doubles, three home runs and 18 RBI. Hernandez developed into one of the conference top basestealers, as well, tying Brian Oliver for the team lead in stolen bases (24-for-26).
Vorhis enters the '98 season as the veteran of the pitching staff and will be another key element to the Bears success. A senior right-hander who has been both a starter and a long reliever during his collegiate career, Vorhis has seen action in 67 games, pitched 236.0 innings and has earned 12 victories for Cal.
Three more returners who will be counted on are junior Preston Sharp and sophomores Curtis Johnson and Brad Steele. Both Sharp and Johnson, have shown glimpses of becoming top performers and will be vying for playing time in the outfield after starting 46 and 43 games, respectively, last year. Steele also showed the potential to be a key player after going 2-5 and striking out 20 in 39.7 innings last season.
An intriguing returner for the Bears will be junior Ryan Drese, who has sat out the majority of the past two seasons with strained ligaments in his right elbow. A 1997 first team preseason All-American in Baseball America, Drese only pitched 4.0 innings last year before hurting his elbow Feb. 8 versus Pepperdine. In 1996, the Bears hard-throwing right-hander threw a near no-hitter (8.0 innings with no hits, no earned runs, five walks, four strikeouts) against Long Beach State in early February before hurting his arm two weeks later against Fresno State. Drese threw 4.0 innings in the Blue-Gold intrasquad World Series this fall and appears ready to return to the form that saw him develop into one of the nation's top amateur pitchers in the summer of 1995, leading the USA National Team with a 10 strikeout-effort in an upset victory over Cuba.
What the Cal coaches are hoping will make the '98 Bears complete is the emergence of a talented freshmen class. Along with Nady, the Cal frosh include Jason Dennis, Mike Tonis, Ryan Atkinson, David Sark, Clint Hoover and Rob Meyer.
Dennis, from nearby De La Salle High School, had a phenomenal prep career and will help the Bears right away, both as a left-handed pitcher and first baseman. In the mold of Jon Zuber (1992 Pac-10 Player of the Year and NCAA East Regional MVP), he has impressed the Cal staff with his baseball savvy and is the front runner to start at first base and could also be one of the Bears starting pitchers.
Tonis and Atkinson could be immediate starters, as well. Tonis was sidelined during fall practice when he ruptured his spleen diving for a ball in the outfield, but is now healthy and with outstanding size (6-3, 205) and potential could see action at third base, or back-up Hill at catcher. Atkinson is Cal's top pitching recruit and was drafted in the 26th round by the Boston Red Sox. He has great size (6-6) and could be used as either a closer or a starter.
Sark could also start right away. A talented switch hitter with power, he could be the Bears starter at first base when Dennis pitches, or be used as a back-up catcher. Both Hoover and Meyer are multi-talented, as well. Hoover is vying for the third base spot and can catch, while Hoover is in contention for a spot in the outfield and is also a right-handed pitcher who might be used as a closer.
"With the addition of this freshman class we continue to have good speed, but we will now have better power," said Milano. "We needed to upgrade the consistency of our offense. We now have more options and are no longer forced to manufacture runs as much."
Cal By Position
The 1998 California pitching staff has the potential to be a solid group with a mixture of talented veterans and newcomers.
The Bears top returning starter is sophomore right-hander Jon Shirley, whose 2-7 record last season belied his true accomplishments. Shirley's five no decisions showed that he pitched well in several ballgames against tough Pac-10 Southern Division opponents, and he became the workhorse of the Cal staff, leading the team in strikeouts and innings pitched. He displayed an outstanding command of his pitches as a freshman and should just get better with experience.
The Bears No. 2 starter could be freshman left-hander Jason Dennis. Dennis also has great command of his pitches with a fastball, change up and an excellent curveball. He is also a proven winner, compiling a 19-2 record with 235 strikeouts in his last two seasons of high school ball.
Cal could also be bolstered by the return of junior right-hander Ryan Drese. When healthy, Drese is an aggressive, hard-thrower who can intimidate hitters with his fastball, sharp-breaking slider and curveball. He had developed into one of the best pitchers on Team USA in the summer of 1995, going 5-1 and defeating Cuba with a 8.0 inning, four-hit, one-walk and 10-strikeout performance.
Freshman right-hander Ryan Atkinson has a chance to step in and be one of the Bears starters, as well. Atkinson is an imposing figure at 6-6 and throws a good fastball, slider, split finger fastball and change up. He might also see action as Cal's closer.
Other potential Bear starters include senior right-hander Jim Vorhis and sophomore right-handers Brad Steele and Jason Ball. Vorhis has started 34 games in his Cal career, but is also effective as a middle reliever. With his ability to throw strikes and an outstanding curveball, he is extremely valuable to the Bears as he can fit into any role in the pitching rotation.
Both Steele and Ball have the skills to be effective starters or middle relievers. Steele is an outstanding athlete who was a redshirt quarterback on the football team last year, but decided to play baseball full-time this fall. Once he got in baseball shape last season, Steele step in and helped the Bears with his strong arm, pitching in 20 games with nine starts and going 2-5. Ball was the Bears top blue-chip pitching recruit last year and was drafted in the 19th round by the Toronto Blue Jays. He came to Cal with an injured right shoulder, had surgery in September, saw his first action in early March, but never really got on track. Ball is now healthy and had a good summer pitching in the Cape Cod League for the Chatham A's (2-2, 3.91 ERA, 12 strikeouts in 25.3 innings).
Candidates for the Bears other middle relievers are junior left-hander Reed Goemann, sophomore Andy Jensen and freshman Andrew Sproul. Goemann has endured health problems throughout his Cal career with a sore elbow and an injured back, but if healthy has the type of skills to be effective. Jensen is a hard-thrower who was converted from the outfield in '96 and continues to improve. Sproul was impressive in the fall and has an outstanding slider, which could be extremely effective against right-handed batters.
Sophomore right-hander Jon Cuccias, the Bears standout submarine pitcher, will again lead Cal out of the bullpen. With an excellent slider and impressive control, Cuccias will be utilized as a closer or a set-up man. Either way, he is sure to see plenty of action after making 33 appearances last year (fourth in the conference), going 2-0 with three saves and a 3.38 ERA.
Another pitcher who could help the Bears as a closer is true-freshman Rob Meyer. Meyer, who is also in the mix as an outfielder, has a strong arm and was impressive in fall practice.
Two more pitchers who could see action this season are redshirt freshmen Mike Bennett and Galen Davis. The right-handed Bennett, who underwent shoulder surgery prior to the 1997 season, has a good fastball, slider and change up and should be ready to contribute this year. Davis, a left-hander, has a chance to help Cal as a short reliever.
The Cal catching corps will be in good shape with the return of junior Jason Hill and the arrival of freshmen Mike Tonis, David Sark and Clint Hoover.
Hill is primed for an outstanding junior season and should be one of the conference's top catchers and a high draft pick. He has outstanding physical tools with a strong arm, is a solid receiver and can hit for both power and average. Hill will be counted on to provide leadership this year after coming off a fine summer playing for Milano on the USA National Team.
The Bear coaches are excited about the prospects of all three of their freshmen catchers, who all play other positions as well. Tonis is hampered by having missed fall practice due to a ruptured spleen, but the Cal staff are looking forward to coaching the talented athlete who impressed the coaches with his power at the plate and his strong throwing arm.
Sark is also an impressive hitter, and displayed power from both sides of the plate as a switch-hitter. He started catching in his senior year of high school, but has already shown signs he could be an outstanding receiver. Hoover could see action behind the plate, as well, with a strong arm and a solid bat.
Redshirt freshman Matt Stoiber will also provide depth at catcher for Cal, but might see most of his action as a bullpen catcher again this season.
Although the Bears infield only returns one starter from last year, it again features the outstanding fielding and all-around play of junior shortstop Brian Oliver, a Freshman All-American in 1996 and a All-Pac-10 selection last year. Oliver obviously will be a key to the Bears success with both his bat and glove. He was named team captain this season after earning team MVP honors and leading Cal in nearly every offensive categories last year.
In 1998, Oliver will be teaming-up with freshman second baseman Xavier Nady for the up-the-middle double play combination. Nady, a fourth-round pick by the St. Louis Cardinals, has already been spectacular as a Bear, tearing-up the fall Blue-Gold World Series by going 4-for-7 with a double, a triple, two home runs and eight RBI. He will immediately step in and be one of Cal's key players, both at the plate and on the field.
First base will be manned by freshmen Jason Dennis and David Sark. Dennis has the inside track to start at first base, as not only is he a talented left-handed hitter, he is also impressive defensively. The switch-hitting Sark will probably step in and start at first base when Dennis is on the mound. Sophomore Sam Petke is another candidate to see action at first base after playing well in fall practice.
Besides Oliver and Nady, other possibilities for the Bears middle infield are junior Ryan Robertson and sophomore Kevin Johnson. Robertson is a second baseman who redshirted last year after transferring from Diablo Valley College. He played well during fall practice and was impressive in Blue-Gold World Series, going 4-for-8 with two home runs and three RBI. Johnson is a phenomenal athlete with great speed and a strong throwing arm. He started 20 games at third base last year and could be Cal's shortstop down the road. With improvement at the plate, will be hard to keep out of the Bears line-up.
As well as Johnson, others vying for the third base spot include freshmen Mike Tonis and Clint Hoover, and junior Dan Garfin. Tonis is an outstanding hitter with a strong arm, who also catches. Hoover is a catcher, as well, but was a shortstop in high school and saw action at third base during fall practice. Garfin is a strong fielding third baseman who continues to improve at the plate. He had some solid games last season, starting 18 contests at third base and hitting a grand slam against Stanford.
The Bears outfield in '98 will consist of one senior, one junior, three sophomores and two freshmen.
The elder statesman of the Cal outfield will be senior captain Aaron Gordnier. Gordnier will see action at either center field, left field or as a designated hitter. He is one of the Bears most fundamentally sound defensive outfielders and this past summer hit an impressive .398 for the Santa Barbara Foresters, earning the California Coastal Collegiate League MVP honors.
Junior switch-hitter Preston Sharp, who can also play in the infield, will be in contention to start at either left or center field after starting 28 games in left and 14 games in center last season. Sharp has the tools to be a key player for Cal this year and is also one of the best basestealers and bunters on the team.
The Bears sophomore outfield class includes Juan Hernandez, Curtis Johnson and David Yengoyan. Hernandez started all but two games in right field for Cal last year as a true freshman and showed signs he could be one of the league's best, batting .285 and finishing third in the conference in stolen bases (24-of-26). Johnson had some impressive games last season, as well, with 43 starts in center field. He has a strong throwing arm, is outstanding defensively and is one of the team's best baserunners. If Johnson can improve his hitting, he also has a chance to be a top Pac-10 player. Yengoyan could also see action in left field, or be used as a designated hitter. He is a talented left-handed hitter who was a valuable pinch hitter last year.
The freshmen outfielders will be Rob Meyer and Gus Panagotacos. Meyer has a strong arm and will be a back-up to Hernandez in right field when he is not pitching. He also hit well in fall practice, going 3-for-10 with a double and three RBI in the Blue-Gold World Series. Panagotacos was impressive in fall practice, as well, and has a shot at some playing time in left field. Freshman Mike Tonis could also provide depth in the outfield for Cal if he is not catching or playing third base.