We're drawing closer and closer to the start of baseball season, as the #10 ranked Vanderbilt Commodores prepare for a trip out west to face the #2 Stanford Cardinal this weekend. It'll be an immediate test for Coach Tim Corbin's young team; the 'Dores will have to replace their entire weekend rotation and hope that their inexperienced pitching staff can adjust quickly to a College World Series-level matchup.
Fortunately for Vanderbilt, some veterans will be holding things down on offense. The Commodores will return their entire starting outfield from last season, and though this includes young players it also means lots of big game exposure. Sophomore Tony Kemp and juniors Mike Yastrzemki and Connor Harrell will make up one of the SEC's most talented corps in 2012. After a strong 2011 campaign, the trio has added World Series experience and should come back tougher and more battle-tested than ever before.
They'll be flanked by redshirt junior and Air Force transfer Jack Lupo, sophomores Will Johnson and Josh Lee, and freshmen Will Cooper and John Norwood. Cooper and Norwood were key members of the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation, while Lupo and Johnson have both been labeled as rising stars thanks to solid play in short innings through their careers. These guys will have the opportunity to learn behind Vandy's starters and step up in cases of injury or fatigue through the 2012 season.
Tony Kemp - The "Man of Steal" was one of the SEC's most electric freshmen in 2011, making his presence felt both in left field and on the basepaths. Kemp posted a .434 on-base percentage and swiped 17 bases en route to scoring 58 runs out of the leadoff slot. He was a Freshman All-American pick and the SEC's freshman of the year. He's a strong contact hitter with the speed to turn ground balls into singles and drives into the gap into triples (he led the team with seven in 2011).
In the field? Well...
Connor Harrell - "HD" struggled through an up-and-down 2011 season before turning things around when the team needed him most. Harrell came alive in the postseason, smacking three home runs and recording 10 RBIs to provide the team with another power bat behind Aaron Westlake and Jason Esposito in the lineup. With those two playing in the minors this year, he'll be counted on to provide middle-of-the-order power for the 'Dores.
Harrell is a strong defensive outfielder with good instincts on the basepaths. He went 7-7 in steal attempts and made only one error in the field all season. He'll be one of the guys this team counts on to fill Westlake's shoes as this team's athletic big man - though for sheer quotability, Westy is irreplacable.
Mike Yastrzemski - Yastrzemski led the team in stolen bases last season and has shown an innate ability to work the basepaths. Despite lacking high-level speed (Yastrzemski is a solid all-around athlete) he went 23-26 in steal attempts and scored 60 runs thanks to his intelligent play. He also has the chops to play any outfield position and the bat to earn swipes as designated hitter for the 'Dores.
"Yaz" has the versatility to fill several roles for this team, and that strength has made him one of the team's best draft prospects heading into his junior year. He's progressed steadily as a player throughout his time in Nashville and his power is starting to blossom as he grows up. He'll have every opportunity to lead this team, as he, Harrell, and shortstop Anthony Gomez will be the most experienced regular players on the squad.
The Fourth Outfielder/DH:
Jack Lupo - Lupo took the long way to get to Nashville, playing a year at Air Force before coming to Vanderbilt. He's a versatile player who can sub in at any outfield spot and even take reps at catcher, but he's more likely to gain at-bats as designated hitter in 2012. He showed tons of potential for the Falcons as a freshman, hitting six home runs and stealing 13 bases in 2009. However, his Vandy career got off to a slow start last season when he hit just .192 in limited at-bats.
Vanderbilt will count on the redshirt junior to provide a presence towards the end of the batting order while filling in wherever needed on the diamond. However, if he can't adjust to his expanded role early, he'll be at risk of ceding plate appearances to this team's emerging corps of young players.
Will Johnson - Johnson is riding into 2012 on a wave of momentum after being named a New England Collegiate Baseball League All-Star. The sophomore hit .298 with five home runs and 22 RBI in 39 games, showcasing the pop that could make him valuable for Coach Tim Corbin this year. He made just four plate appearances in 2011, but he's due for a much bigger role this season for the 'Dores. If Lupo struggles or injuries plague this team, Johnson will have the chance to put together a breakout performance for Vanderbilt.
Will Cooper - Cooper is a true freshman who was a key member of the team's 2012 recruiting class. He was brought to Nashville as a third baseman, but it looks like he'll man the outfield during his collegiate career. He's got solid tools and brings a good combination of speed, power, and contact hitting to the 'Dores. However, he may need more seasoning before earning any significant at-bats for Tim Corbin's team.
John Norwood - Norwood hasn't been in Nashville long, but he's already been hailed as one of this team's best athletes by the coaching staff. He's already challenging Kemp for the title of "team's fastest player" and he's got the type of frame that could develop some big league power over time. He was a 12th round draft pick (Toronto) and could see situational playing time, especially if his ability to put the ball in play transfers over to SEC games.
Josh Lee - Lee was technically the team's co-leader in batting average last season, going 1-2 at the plate to split the award with Andrew Harris. The sophomore has packed on 15 pounds of muscle over the last two seasons to add power to his game, but he still may not find much daylight in a crowded outfield. His experience at second base and shortstop suggests that he could bounce around a few positions this season for the Commodores.