Baseball season is nearly upon us. As the the south digs out from scattered snow storms, the groundskeeping crew will be working overtime at Hawkins Field to get the diamond in playing shape by Friday. The Commodores open up their season by hosting the Niagara University Purple Eagles in a three game homestand starting Friday.
Last year, the 'Dores put up a valiant showing in the opening round of the College World Series. The team eliminated two teams in Louisville before falling in the finals of their regional matchup with the host Cardinals. Many of the key members of that team return, but this year marks the first year in recent history that Vanderbilt will go into the season without a sure-fire first round draft pick. Before the action starts on the field, let's take a peek at how the Commodores will look out there this year. We'll start with what looks to be Vandy's biggest question mark in 2010: pitching.
The bad news? Mike Minor is gone. The #7 overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft was snapped up by the Atlanta Braves after a 6-6 year with a 3.90 ERA. The team's #2 and #3 starters, Caleb Cotham and Nick Christiani are also gone. As a result, the team will have to replace a trio of pitchers who combined to start 39 of the team's 64 games in 2009. In their absence, two young righthanders will step up to lead the Commodore rotation. Freshman All-American Sonny Gray and Cape Cod League standout Jack Armstrong will take the hill after being named to BaseballAmerica's pre-season All-America team for 2010.
It's a three-game series...who do you start?
1. Sonny Gray. Gray was Vanderbilt's most hyped recruit of 2009. The youngster from Smyrna was a likely first round MLB draft pick out of high school, but chose to sign with the Commodores instead. After putting together an up-and-down season last year, he's primed to break out in 2010. Gray started four games in 2009 and put together 72 strikeouts in just 58.2 innings. Gray throws a 93mph fastball and backs it with a dominant curveball/slider combination. He's shown enough in limited innings for some pundits to put him in the top tier of college baseball players.
2. Jack Armstrong. Armstrong, along with Gray, was part of a recruiting class that was ranked top five nationally for the 'Dores in 2009. Despite a disappointing 2009 where he hit three batters, threw three wild pitches, and posted an ERA of 12.91 in just 7.2 innings, the 19-year-old turned it around in the Cape Cod Summer League - a showcase of college baseball's best talent. The former four-star recruit had an 2.57 ERA in seven starts in the summer showcase. He'll be depended on to keep his hot streak going into SEC play.
3. Taylor Hill. Hill is the likely third piece of the rotation, though guys like Chase Reid and Drew Hayes could see time throughout the season starting games on Sundays. The junior righty is a former Tennessee high school player of the year, but showed a slight regression between his freshman and sophomore years. Hill does a solid job of throwing strikes but isn't an overpowering pitcher at this stage of his career. However, the promise of a full-time rotation gig may be enough of a motivating factor for the upperclassman to step up his game in 2010.
We need someone to protect a lead early...who comes in?
Long Innings/Spot Starters:
Vanderbilt's roster is packed with talent, but low on big-game experience and consistency. Thanks to Tim Corbin's recruiting, the bullpen is stocked with pitchers with solid arms - but the question remains about how they will be able to handle SEC batters.
- Drew Hayes will bring senior leadership and experience to the young team. Hayes doesn't have a dazzling arsenal of pitches and walks too many batters, but opposing batters hit just .253 against him. He also has a solid strikeout per inning ratio and is comfortable starting or coming out of the bullpen. He could be a stabilizing piece of Vanderbilt's pitching puzzle.
- Chase Reid has been solid in long relief, and should see action in that role in 2010. He throws strikes and puts balls in play, so he's not the best option to bring in with runners on base, but he's capable of going out and shutting down a team over four or five innings at a time.
- Richie Goodenow is the team's left-handed specialist. He can be brought in to shut down left handed batters in short bursts, but has had problems with his control. He'll be useful for the Commodores one or two batters at a time.
- Grayson Garvin remains an intriguing prospect. The 6'6" lefty was a four star recruit that experienced some growing pains his freshman year, but will have to step up into a bigger role out of the Vanderbilt bullpen in 2010. He'll likely get a few starts out of necessity and could even make a push for the third spot in the weekend rotation if he can get the most out of his physical advantages.
- Navery Moore's recovery from Tommy John surgery was interesting enough to merit a New York Times article. The bulky pitcher was Tennessee's top pitcher as a junior before running into elbow problems. His 2009 was unimpressive, but If he can get back to form, he's got an overpowering fastball that tops off in the mid-90s. His presence would be a major boost to the Commodore bullpen.
- Freshman Sam Selman is a wiry left-hander with some high credentials coming into Vanderbilt. He has three solid pitchers but lacks the arm strength to be overpowering (his fastball tops out in the high-80s). He'll be an x-factor as one of the few left handed pitchers on the Commodore roster.
Russell Brewer has been holding down the ninth inning since he arrived on campus. Brewer earned Freshman All-SEC honors after notching eight saves in his first year. In 2009, Brewer posted the team's best ERA and a 39:9 K:BB ratio. He presents the most stable option in Vandy's pitching corps.
This pitching staff is long on talent and short on experience. Much of the season will rest on how Gray and Armstrong hold up, and whether they are able to go deep into games and pitch effectively. This team will be in great shape for 2011, primed to lose just one true impact player in Brewer. For now, however, the fate of the Commodores will rest on how a squad composed of 18 and 19 year olds will respond to the pressure cooker scenarios of SEC baseball.