While Nashville forges through some unseasonably cold weather, it's easy to forget that the college baseball season kicks off Friday afternoon against Niagara University. College baseball previews almost unanimously regard Vanderbilt as a NCAA Tournament bound team, but most pick the team to finish fourth in the SEC East - behind Florida, Kentucky, and South Carolina. In 2009, the conference sent eight teams to the national tournament, which culminated with LSU winning all of its World Series games by at least four runs on their way to the championship.
Yesterday, we took a look at Vanderbilt's pitching staff, a young group who will need to mature quickly for this team to make a run at Omaha. Today, we'll look at a more stable element that returns three stars - the infield.
1B/C - Curt Casali - Casali, a junior, is a shining example of Coach Tim Corbin's northeastern pipeline. A Connecticut native, Casali came to Nashville with a big bat and gritty reputation. He displayed his toughness last season, when he played through an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery over the summer. Despite the pain, he shared the team lead in 2009 with 10 home runs (HR) and led the team with 59 runs batted in (RBIs). He also showcased great patience at the plate, recording 37 walks against 23 strikeouts. Due to the injury, Casali played most of 2009 at first base, but is expected to settle back into his catching role with a clean bill of health this season.
C/1B - Andrew Giobbi - Giobbi also played through injuries in 2009. An early broken hand forced the senior to miss 25% of the team's games, though he was able to return before SEC play kicked off. With Casali healthy, it's likely that the two will split duties catching and at first base, though Giobbi could also see some time in left field. Aside from his senior leadership, the big catcher from Maine also brings a stellar defensive record (.995 fielding percentage) and a consistent bat. History has shown that Giobbi can be called on for a near .300 average, eight homers, and 50 or so RBIs for the season. If he can stay healthy, he'll be the backbone of this young squad.
2B - Riley Reynolds - Reynolds started his Vanderbilt career in 2009 showcasing a knack for getting on base. He batted .332 and was one of the team's biggest threats on the basepaths with 19 stolen base attempts. These numbers made him a Freshman All-American, though there were some negative aspects to his play. Unfortunately, Reynolds was unable to convert his .404 on-base percentage to many runs, failed to hit for power, and had just 22 RBIs despite starting 61 games. Additionally, his defense showed room for improvement, with eight errors on the year. However, Reynolds is still very young, and with a year of experience and a year in the weight room under his belt, big things are expected out of the sophomore in 2010.
SS - Brian Harris - Harris was a revelation in 2009, going from a defensive specialist to an All-SEC player. The fifth-year senior provided solid power at the plate with 9 HR and 45 RBIs, evoking memories of Ryan Flaherty's offensive output from the position. His defense is rock solid, but the question that remains is if he can keep up the pace he set last year. If Harris can keep his development as a player going, he'll give the Commodores a solid third bat in the middle of the lineup to help protect Casali and Aaron Westlake.
3B - Jason Esposito - Esposito is a another transplant from New England, and a 2008 seventh round pick of the Kansas City Royals. The sophomore's biggest problem in 2009 was defense. He led the team with 14 errors (10 in SEC play) and had a fielding percentage of just .911. One of three players to start every game for the Commodores, Esposito hit well and led the team with 20 stolen bases last year. He only hit four home runs, but the power will come as the 19-year-old continues to develop into a potential five-tool player. Esposito is a massive ball of talent who, if he comes into his own, could be a special player on a very good Commodore team. Unfortunately, he may still be a year away from completely adjusting to Southeastern Conference play.
Util - Behind the starters, the depth in the infield is limited. OF Aaron Westlake could see time at 1B/3B/C, but will likely patrol the outfield most of the year. Brian Harris's brother Andrew can play third, second, or shortstop and will get lots of action defensively throughout the year after redshirting in 2009. Drew Fann showed that he's a solid backup catcher last year, and he'll look to build on last season's .309 average in in 18 games. Freshmen Nate Gonzalez and Anthony Gomez are wild cards who will have the chance to make themselves known in spots. JUCO transfer Bryan Johns is another mystery, but he adds to the talented, if inexperienced, depth in the Commodore infield.
While the Commodores return all their infield starters, it's still tough to call this an experienced squad. The trio of Casali, Giobbi, and Harris will have to lead this crew into battle while helping push along the development of guys like Reynolds and Esposito. The opening month of the season will be very important, as it will serve as a testing ground to help gain experience and build confidence going into SEC play. If Harris can return to form at the plate, Casali can improve on his 2009 season with a healthy elbow, and Reynolds and Esposito can play up to the potential they've been tagged with, then this team can compete for the SEC championship in Hoover. If not, then it's going to be a long season with a nearly endless supply of talented teams waiting to face Vanderbilt.