Feb. 13, 2009
FREE VIDEO: Brian Jeffries Previews the 2009 Season With Coach Andy Lopez
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The Arizona baseball team enters the 2009 season fresh off consecutive 40-win seasons, a first for the Arizona program since doing so in 1985-86. Reaching the 40-win plateau for a third straight year - a feat UA hasn't accomplished since 1978-80 - surely would be another great accomplishment for a program that head coach Andy Lopez has restored to national prominence.
But, the cast of characters that played a vital role in the Wildcats' success over the last two seasons, including a pair of pitchers selected in the first round of the Major League Draft, are mostly gone. In fact, five of the team's top seven pitchers from a season ago exhausted eligibility or signed professional contracts following their junior seasons.
Offensively, a handful of weapons are also gone, most notably C.J. Zeigler, who became just the fourth player ever to hit for the team triple crown. Ziegler led the Wildcats in average (.338), home runs (20) and runs batted in (60), while pacing an explosive offense.
The Wildcats will also have to replace outfielders T.J. Steele (.315, 11 HR, 39 RBI) and Jon Gaston (.312, 13 HR, 49 RBI), both of whom were mainstays in the Wildcat batting order for three seasons.
Such a turnover is nothing new for Lopez, however, who saw a school record-tying 11 players drafted a year ago. Entering his eighth year in Tucson, Lopez knows the cycles that college programs face when trying to re-stock following a big draft year.
"Every successful program goes through a couple really good years with a deep and talented group," says Lopez. "But when that group graduates, you have to replace those guys with players who don't have as much experience. That doesn't mean that down the road they won't be as talented as the players before them, it just means they aren't proven yet."
The Wildcats hope that this year's roster is filled with those same types of players ready to make a name for themselves. After all, Ryan Perry (Detroit Tigers) and Daniel Schlereth (Arizona Diamondbacks) were players who went undrafted out of high school before leaving Arizona following their junior seasons as first round draft picks.
"Three years ago, who knew who Perry and Schlereth were?" asks Lopez. "We knew who they were, but no one else did. I'm not saying we've got a group full of first round players in place right now, but we have a bunch of guys who we think can be really good players, too."
Fortunately for Arizona, there is a solid nucleus of returning players that should make the re-loading year more manageable. The headliner of the group is 2007 Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year Preston Guilmet (6-4, 4.38 ERA, 93 K's), who has his sites set on breaking the all-time school strikeout record. Behind Guilmet, Jason Stoffel (3.00 ERA, 13 saves, 79 K's), one of the nation's elite closers, needs only one more save to become the school's career leader.
Brad Glenn (.302, 14 HR, 54 RBI) will lead a Wildcat offensive lineup, and a 50+ RBI season will put the senior in the Top 10 all-time at Arizona and in Pac-10 Conference history. He will be surrounded by junior Dillon Baird (.318, 7 HR, 36 RBI), who showed flashes of providing the big-bat that will be missing with Ziegler's departure.
A handful of other players should contribute to Arizona's offensive numbers, including sophomore Bryce Ortega (.326, 2 HR, 25 RBI), who was a pleasant surprise as a freshman. Mike Weldon (.329, 1 HR, 23 RBI), Rafael Valenzuela (.259, 0 HR, 13 RBI) and Bobby Coyle (.277, 1 HR, 13 RBI) will be relied upon for more production as they become a more regular part of the lineup in 2009.
"I really like the makeup of this club," says Lopez. "We have a great mix of players who have been in the program for a few years and know the expectations around here and a very talented group of young guys who are ready to be a part of the success."
Andy Lopez faces two rarities in college baseball as he prepares the pitching staff for the 2009 season. First, he must replace Ryan Perry and Daniel Schlereth, who became the first pair of Arizona players to be drafted in the first round in the same season. Second, Lopez has the fortune of trotting out Preston Guilmet as his No. 1 starter for a fourth straight season after Guilmet turned down professional offers from the Oakland A's, who drafted him in the 22nd round.
Guilmet currently ranks No. 4 in UA history with 326 strikeouts and needs 97 strikeouts to surpass Carl Thomas as the top strikeout pitcher in Wildcat history. He has pitched 325.1 innings in his three seasons at UA, and has a chance to become UA's all-time leader in the category (Ed Vosberg, 405.1). He stands at No. 6 in program history in fewest walks per nine innings at 2.46. Additionally, his 21 career wins are six shy of breaking into the Top 10 at UA.
Behind Guilmet, Arizona's starting rotation received a major boost when it added Matt Veltmann, a transfer San Diego Community College, who will have three seasons of eligibility. The Wildcats will also take a look at senior Cory Burns, who has primarily been a reliever in his career, and Ryan Doyle, who redshirted during his freshman season a year ago.
"Matt Veltmann has really come on for us and been a pleasant surprise," says Lopez. "Right now, he is ticketed to be our No. 2 guy because he was so strong in the fall. In many ways, he may have pitched better than anyone in our program this past fall. And in the third spot, Ryan Doyle is a guy we think that can do a good job, but we'll look at Cory Burns who is ready to take on a larger role for us, and some of our young arms."
Some of the young arms that Lopez can turn to include Donn Roach, Kyle Simon, Bryce Bandilla and Cody Lewis. Matt Chaffee, who saw limited action as a freshman, will add a much needed left-handed arm.
Lopez knows that he will likely have to utilize this staff differently than his recent staffs when he had a handful of reliable starters that could work deep into ball games. This year, he will utilize the overall depth of the staff and help develop experience quickly.
"We're going to need more out of our starting guys and we'll probably need to run more arms out there in the middle of games than we have in the past," says Lopez. "In a sense, I may have the nickname of "Captain Hook" this year in the middle part of a ballgame. I may run three or four guys out there over the course of two innings to help us get to Stoffel. With Jason closing, you shorten the game up for everyone."
Jason Stoffel returns as one of the top pitching prospects in the nation and may follow the 2008 duo as a first round pick. He already has 18 saves, including a school record 13 a year ago, and needs only one more to surpass Mark Melancon as the school's all-time leader in the category.
Lopez is likely to utilize him in an expanded role this season with the loss of set-up men Perry and Schlereth.
"I would like to use Jason in a similar way that we used Mark Melancon in 2005 where we can guarantee six to seven innings out of him over the course of the weekend," says Lopez. "If he finishes the 8th and 9th innings on a Friday, then we can give him Saturday off and then bring him in earlier on Sunday. Now all of the sudden the Sunday spot isn't as crucial for us to get big innings out of our starter."
Stoffel has been a contributor to one of the keys to recent success of the Wildcat pitching staffs: the strikeout. The 2008 club set a school record with 572 punchouts and Lopez believes this year's staff can take form by midseason and be another quality strike-out team.
"If our pitchers can pitch to their abilities, then we'll continue to be a good strikeout team," says Lopez. "Our top guys have good out pitches, and that is how you get a lot of strikeouts. Our young guys have the same type of ability, but they'll need to learn how to throw consistently."
The Wildcats appear set defensively behind the plate. Juniors Dwight Childs and Daniel Butler both figure to crack the lineup and help lead in developing the young pitching staff.
Childs (.193, 1 HR, 15 RBI) has been the primary starter over the course of his first two seasons and started 40 games in 2008. While he played exceptional defense once again by committing only three errors and allowing three passed balls, his offensive numbers declined from his freshman season.
"Childs may be as good of a defensive catcher as we've had in the program," says Lopez. "He may not be as physical as Nick Hundley was a few years ago, but from a pure defensive standpoint, he's really good. He knows his limitations as a player and works within those limitations. He does a marvelous job of calling a game behind the plate and is a true student of the game."
Butler (.268, 2 2B, 12 RBI) started 19 games last season after returning from Tommy John surgery the year before. Butler has worked himself into outstanding physical condition and will challenge Childs for the primary starting position this season.
"In Butler, you have a guy who is more offensive for us," says Lopez. "He is a very good defensive player from the catch and throw standpoint. He's worked hard on getting better at blocking balls, too."
The Wildcats brought in two freshmen this year, including Jett Bandy and Michael Quesada. Bandy has a chance to crack the lineup due to his offensive skills, even if it isn't behind the plate. Coaches believe Quesada can eventually be the type of defensive player that Childs and Butler are as he develops in the program.
Replacing triple crown winner C.J. Zeigler won't be easy, but Arizona has a couple outstanding talents in Dillon Baird and Bobby Brown. Both will battle for playing time throughout the season.
Baird offers the big frame and left-hand hitting power that the Wildcats will need in the lineup. He has made strides in improving his defense, but coaches hope he can be a consistent offensive weapon the most. He suffered through some nagging injuries down the stretch in 2008, but a healthy junior season could mean that he puts up similar numbers to Zeigler's a year ago.
"There are days when Baird looks like one of the better prospects in the entire nation," says Lopez. "If he can gain some consistency at the plate and in the field, then he could end up being one of the truly outstanding players. He's big, strong and has that pretty left-handed stroke. He's got those intangibles."
One the pleasant surprises of fall workouts was redshirt Bobby Brown, who showed significant improvement from a year ago. Brown showed improved power at the plate and the ability to drive the ball to the gaps, likely due to his increased confidence a year into the program. He also displays a nice glove in the field.
"Brown has been an unbelievably pleasant surprise," says Lopez. "He walked on last year and redshirted. In many ways he's pushing Baird to be the type of player Baird needs to be. He has made some huge strides in every area since last year from emotionally to physically. He is really primed to be a key player for us."
The Wildcats also welcome in another walk-on, Marc Venning, who simply won a position on the team with his effort and improvement in the fall.
Despite losing Colt Sedbrook (.321, 8 2B, 32 RBI), a utility infielder who started 50 games, mostly at second base, Arizona should be solid up the middle. The Wildcats return Mike Weldon, who started 18 games at the position in 2008, and will also look at Rafael Valenzuela, a natural middle infielder.
Weldon (.329, 1 HR, 23 RBI) emerged as solid on-base guy in the order a season ago with a .415 on-base percentage, and if he can continue to put up such numbers in an increased role, should solidify a spot in the lineup.
Coaches are also looking at Valenzuela (.259, 5 2B, 13 RBI), who arrived at Arizona as a shortstop. He played in 31 games in 2008 and made 12 starts, but mostly appeared in the outfield. He turned in one of the most impressive fall seasons of any Wildcat and he could make a seemless transition to outfield when called upon.
"Both bring experience and are solid offensively and defensively" says Lopez. "Both have similar makeups on the field. They are take-charge type of guys that have a good swagger to them. They expect to be successful."
Coaches are also excited to see Kevin Luyben's improvement as he recovers from a torn labrum that kept him out of the 2008 season.
The Wildcats appear to be in good hands - literally - with Bryce Ortega at shortstop. He emerged as a key contributor early in the season and started 53 games a year ago.
In a lineup full of offensive stars, Ortega (.326, 9 2B, 34 R) surprisingly asserted himself more offensively than defensively in his freshman season. That role will need to increase in his sophomore season as he looks to set the table at the top of the order. He should also become more of a threat on the bases after stealing 13 in 15 attempts a year ago, while becoming more consistent defensively.
"He'll be a key guy for us again," says Lopez. "He brings good work ethic and has the ability to slow the game down. He makes the routine plays on a regular basis."
Freshman Kyle Stiner will add depth behind Ortega, particularly for his defensive skills.
"If Bryce were to go down, I would have no concerns about playing Kyle defensively," says Lopez. "He needs to work on his offense. He needs to get bigger and stronger, but he has a bright future in the program."
The Wildcats are more than happy to hear that Brad Glenn will be back for his senior season, but it hasn't always been a sure thing for more than one reason. First, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound third baseman turned down professional baseball after being drafted by the Oakland A's in the 17th round of last summer's MLB draft. Then last fall, Glenn injured his throwing arm in a non-baseball accident.
Good news for the Wildcats, though, is that Glenn has quickly recovered from the injury and is expected to provide the offensive power and leadership that the club needs. Glenn has 148 RBI in his three seasons at UA and is within reach of breaking into the Top 10 in UA and Pac-10 history with another 50+ RBI season.
"I am really thankful he is back," says Lopez. "He's not only a great player on the field, he's one of our top students in the classroom and just an all-around great young man. He's been our most consistent power guy over the last few seasons. It's real good to have him back. He's a solid player that is good for this young team."
Should Glenn go down, Arizona could look to handful of freshmen, including Steve Selsky, Jett Bandy and Shaun Cooper. All three could find time in the lineup at other positions due to their offensive abilities.
Outside of its pitching depth, the biggest hit Arizona took in the 2008 draft was losing five-tool centerfielder T.J. Steele, who was selected by Houston Astros in the fourth round.
Steele hit .315, with 11 home runs and 39 runs batted in a year ago, but his defensive skills will be missed most in the vast outfield at Kendall Field. Steele had the range and arm that is rare to see in the college game.
The Wildcats also lost Jon Gaston to the Astros (seventh round), which means another solid defensive player and big bat are gone.
Arizona may have to replace its outfield by committee first before settling in on every day players. Bobby Coyle returns after part-time duty a year ago, and will challenge senior Hunter Pace for the centerfield position. Coaches also like the abilities of transfer Codi Harshman.
"Coyle is a veteran in the sense he played quite a bit as a freshman," says Lopez. "We're looking at him in centerfield and trying like crazy to get him ready to be our centerfielder to begin the season."
"Hunter Pace and Codi Harshman will provide some of the defensive elements that we need at the position," adds Lopez. "Pace can really run and play defense, while Harshman is an exceptional defensive player."
In the corner outfield positions, Diallo Fon (.287, 10 2B, 16 RBI) returns after making 25 starts. Bone spurs in his feet have held him back in his career, but he remains a solid contributor. A couple of newcomers may also get series attention, as Steve Selsky and Shaun Cooper may be too good offensively to keep out of the lineup. Selsky surprised coaches with his play in the fall after they experimented with him in right field.
"We needed to find a spot for Selsky," says Lopez. "So we put him out in right field as an experiment one day and it was like he had been playing there his entire life. He really had an outstanding fall. We're excited about him in the outfield this season."
Coaches are also eager to see what Matt Presley can do. He offers all the physical skills, but needs to add the consistency to his game.
"Because of our spacious outfield, we lean towards to defensive ability," says Lopez. "But we may need to score more runs this year. It may be a case of where the best bat plays the first seven innings, then we look to get some defense out there in the late innings."