With the first pitch of baseball season just hours away, let's dive into the final installment of the Vanderbilt Commodores 2010 Baseball Season Preview. Last time, we took a look at one of the more stable elements of this Commodore team - the infield. Today, we'll focus on the final component of this squad, one that technically only returns one starter and might be due for some growing pains as the season grinds on - the outfield.
Two starters have departed, leaving sophomore Joe Loftus as the sole returning outfielder. Joining him will be some top prospects, a hot-hitting former catcher, and a solid veteran. Like the rest of the team, the outfield is padded with talent, but lacking in experience. Let's take a look at who we can expect to see as the everyday starters patrolling the depths of Hawkins Field.
LF - Aaron Westlake - Westlake had a breakout 2009 season that put him on the national radar, and only stands to improve in 2010. Built like a linebacker (6'3", 235 lbs), the redshirt sophomore made waves at the plate last year, hitting .377 with 10 HR and 57 RBI. He's a versatile player who can play first base or catcher, but with the returns of Casali and Giobbi will move to the outfield to fill the gap left by Steven Liddle. In 2009, he posted one of the team's best fielding percentages amongst regulars (.989), though that nay not reflect his ability to handle left field. He'll be counted on to fill the Pedro Alvarez role in the middle of the order, and though he won't have a Flaherty/de la Osa/Macias to protect him, he should still get plenty of opportunities to mash.
CF - Jordan Wormsley - Wormsley has the inside track on center field, but a number of talented freshmen could usurp his role. The junior saw action in 25 games last year and made a bigger impact with his glove than with his bat. He hasn't shown much power to date, but is patient at the plate and is a disciplined player. As the elder statesman of the outfield, he'll be counted on to provide leadership and consistent play.
RF - Joe Loftus - Loftus is the lone returning regular in the outfield, having started 55 games in center as a true freshman in 2009. The move to right field will be helpful, as Loftus often failed to show the range needed in center field in his first year. Loftus struck out too much as a freshman, but also showed flashes of power and a better-than-average ability to take walks and get on base. He'll have to build on his first year in order to be a major contributor to the team, but should be a solid fit slotted in at the end of the batting lineup. He'll be the lone right-handed batter in an outfield stocked with leftie hitters.
Other candidates - Connor Harrell was a prized recruit in 2009 and could be an impact addition early for the Commodores. Physically, he's one of the most gifted athletes the program has, but questions surround his ability to make the leap to SEC play as a true freshman. He'll get opportunities to prove himself while backing up Loftus in right field. Ryan Flaherty's little brother Regan will have the chance to keep the "I'm Shipping up to Boston" walk-up music tradition alive while getting some reps in the outfield. The freshman has a strong arm and solid bat that should help his chances for contributing in 2010 either in the OF or as designated hitter. Mike Yastrzemski is the grandson of the Red Sox great and has been touted as a fundamentally strong player. The freshman can play any of the outfield positions, and his versatility will likely give away to early playing time.
Designated Hitter - This team is stocked with talent, so there are several players that can fill in depending on the match-up. Westlake, Flaherty, Harrell, IF Bryan Johns, and C Drew Fann could all see time as the team's extra batter.
The outfield poses question marks as they stand to rebuild after losing Steven Liddle and Johnathan White. However, the trio of Westlake, Wormsley, and Loftus have big game experience and are still improving. Should injuries pop up, the 'Dores are stocked with young talent that would only benefit from SEC play. Even if 2010 isn't the hallmark year for this group of players, they should be even stronger in 2011.
In fact, that seems to be the theme for this Vanderbilt squad. There's talent all over, and 2010 could very well be a year that they compete for the SEC crown. This team is good enough to at least make the NCAA Tournament, and their ceiling is a trip to Omaha in the summer. However, no matter what this team does, it seems like 2010 is destined to be remembered as a stepping stone to 2011, where Vandy's prospects will have gained enough experience to build up a breakout year. The actions of the team this season will be the foundation for what they can do with an upperclassman core the next year - and it would be a major boost to build off an SEC Championship.