February is upon us, and that means that the ping of aluminum bats will soon echo down Natchez Trace.
Vanderbilt baseball will kick off their 2012 season February 17th when they travel to Palo Alto for a showdown series against Stanford. The Commodores are coming off their most successful season of all time, when a veteran-laden squad took the team to Omaha and came back with a final four showing at the College World Series. However, they'll have to replace 15 players from that roster, 11 of which jumped to the pros after being selected in the MLB Draft.
Fortunately for Coach Tim Corbin, his team shouldn't drop off too badly. Vanderbilt secured Baseball America's top-ranked recruiting class for 2012 despite losing some highly ranked players to the pros. While turnover will be a recurring theme of this year's team, Vandy has the talent to replace guys like Aaron Westlake, Sonny Gray, and Jason Esposito without missing out on too much production.
We'll start with the pitching staff, where Tim Corbin and pitching coach Derek Johnson will have to work hard in order to replace their entire weekend starting staff. Gray and Grayson Garvin were each drafted in the first round of the MLB draft, while workhorse Taylor Hill ended up getting picked in the sixth round. Vanderbilt also lost some big arms when Jack Armstrong, Mark Lamm, and Navery Moore ended up heading to the pros.
A core of young players and one key veteran will be tasked with keeping this team together on the mound. Big recruiting classes have ensured that Vandy won't be lacking talent in the coming years. However, this inexperienced group could end up struggling through some growing pains in conference play in 2012.
Kevin Ziomek - Vanderbilt's most experienced starter in 2012 will be a sophomore. Ziomek was arguably the team's fourth-best starter last season, pitching behind Gray, Garvin, and Hill. He started five weekday games and made 22 other appearances out of the bullpen, often showing strong composure for a true freshman. The "Omega Man" struck out 47 batters in 45.1 innings and held opponents to a .204 batting average against him. He was the sole starter on College Baseball Daily's All-SEC team, earning a second-team nod.
Ziomek is a left-handed pitcher who could develop into a first-round pick thanks to a strong cache of pitches. He throws a low-to-mid 90s fastball and counters that with a change-up that runs 10-15 mph slower. His curveball is quietly developing into a plus pitch, but his dynamite is a cutting slider that could become his out pitch. He'll have to prove that he can handle the workload of a weekend starter, but so far he looks like Vanderbilt's best option to take the mound on Friday nights.
Tyler Beede - Beede is just a freshman, but his touted credentials suggest that he could take the Sonny Gray track and eventually work his way into weekend starts in SEC play. The 6'4 righty was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays with the 22nd pick of the MLB Draft this summer, but turned down a reported $2.5 million signing bonus to come to Nashville instead. He's expected to follow in the footsteps of David Price and Gray and lead this team from the mound. With a fastball that consistently stays in the mid-90s and advanced control for a high school pitcher, he's a strong candidate to do just that.
Beede throws three pitches with above-average command, utilizing that fastball along with a breaking ball and a change-up. He's also got solid mechanics that shouldn't need much adjusting from pitching coach Derek Johnson. His advanced make-up suggests that he'll be able to contribute right away at college baseball's highest level, but time will tell if the youngster can have an immediate impact in the SEC.
Will Clinard - Clinard is this team's old horse. "The Weatherman" led the team in appearances last season, pitching 39.1 innings in 35 trips from the bullpen. In 2012, he'll be called on to start games for the Commodores and provide a steadying veteran hand as a redshirt junior.
The meaty (6'4", 215 pounds) right-hander has only started one game in his Vanderbilt career, but has never has an ERA higher than 2.75. He's a meat-and--potatoes pitcher with a plus fastball/breaking ball combination. He'll likely be counted on to fill Taylor Hill's role in the rotation as a steadying Sunday presence, but his versatility makes him an asset in any pitching situation.
The Wild Card:
T.J. Pecoraro - Pecoraro went 7-0 with an ERA of 1.59 as a freshman, giving Tim Corbin and Commodore fans everywhere hope that he'd blossom into a high-level weekend starter after the departures of Gray, Garvin, and Hill. Unfortunately, that dream was delayed when the wiry righty from New York suffered a UCL tear in his forearm that required Tommy John surgery late in the season. While his timeline for return is uncertain, there's hope that he'll be able to come back by midseason to give this young team another premier pitcher. While he'll start working his way back through the bullpen, a return to his 2011 form would move him into the starting rotation in short time.
Sam Selman - "Crazy Legs" has the goods to be a weekend starter for the Commodores, but how his control develops in 2012 will determine how much action he sees in league play. His ascent to starter has been rumored since stepping on campus back in 2009, but he has yet to live up to his potential. The junior lefty has walked seven batters in just 12 innings of experience so far in his college career.
However, he's got the tools to make a big impact if he can harness them properly. He throws a hard fastball with solid movement along with an above average slider and change-up to round out his arsenal. He's added 15 pounds to his 6'3" frame over the last year and has been building up the strength and stamina needed to be a NCAA starter. If he can locate his pitches and show significant improvement now that he's been given an opportunity to show off, he could slide into a weekend starting role.
Drew VerHagen - VerHagen is a transfer from Navarro College who had previously played for Oklahoma. At 6'6", he's one of the tallest guys on the roster and should provide a commanding presence on the mound. Perfect Game ranked him as the 82nd best prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer, six slots ahead of Clinard. His fastball tops out at 94 mph and he's got a solid curve behind that to keep batters off-balance.
Freshmen to Watch/Spot Starters:
Phil Pfeifer - The Knoxville native is known for his fierce demeanor and his appearance on the USA Under-18 National Baseball team. This experience should give him an edge over some of the other first-year players on the squad. He's a soft-tosser compared to this team's other starters, parking his fastball in the high 80s, but he's got enough movement on his pitches to make batters miss, as he proved with two solid innings in fall ball against Cal State-Fullerton.
As a left hander with two high-level pitches, he should see action early in his career. He was Vanderbilt's second highest-rated pitching recruit to come to Nashville, behind Beede.
Brian Miller - Miller is a Tennessee native who earned District Pitcher of the Year honors at Independence High School in Franklin, TN. He's got a solid frame and a strong sliding curveball. He earned innings in the team's matchup with Fullerton and has been singled out by Corbin and his staff as a potential starter for 2012.
Jared Miller - Miller is an imposing lefty at 6'6", 240 pounds. Despite his size, his fastball only tops out around 90 mph, but he's got lots of movement on his curve and and change-up that induced plenty of strikeouts in high school. If he can translate those skills to a higher class of batter, he'll be a valuable piece of the Vandy starting corps.