Can we still call this a preview if the Commodores are already 5-0? I say yes.
The Vanderbilt Commodores are coming off their deepest NCAA Tournament run in school history, coming within one Joe Loftus two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth grand slam from heading to Omaha in 2010. Despite the disappointment, there was a silver lining; many of the key players from that squad return for 2011. Only Brian Harris, Andrew Giobbi, Russell Brewer, and Richie Goodenow are notable absences from last year's squad.
As a result, Vanderbilt is primed to be one of the NCAA's elite teams this season. A slew of potential All-Americans dot the lineup, including third baseman Jason Esposito and first baseman Aaron Westlake. However, this team's biggest strength lies in its rotation. Pitchers Sonny Gray, Jack Armstrong, Grayson Garvin, and Taylor Hill give the Commodores a presence on the mound that few teams in the country can match. Behind them, a pair of freshmen - Kevin Ziomek and T.J. Pecoraro provide some valuable insurance and keep Vanderbilt running smoothly for weekday showdowns.
Here's a look at the guys you'll need to know when weekends roll around this spring:
Sonny Gray - The team's ace. Gray stepped onto campus in 2008 and had an immediate impact in his first season with the 'Dores. Long considered a first-round talent, the stocky left-hander has honed his craft as a power-pitching strikeout machine throughout his first two seasons in black and gold. He's fanned 185 batters in 167.1 innings as a Commodore and has improved seemingly every month he's been on campus.
Gray's makeup is impressive and he's been fearless on the mound, going right at batters with a fastball that settles in at about 93-95 mph and complements that with a nasty slider and an underrated change-up which keeps batters off balance. He was shaky in his first outing of the season, allowing eight batters and three runs in the first inning against a decent San Diego team, but showed his trademark toughness afterwards, settling in for 3.1 no-hit innings to lead the team to victory.
However, one question that lingers is Gray's ability to get it done consistently in the post-season. He had an up-and-down 2010 that saw dazzling performances like a seven-inning shutout to open the SEC Tournament balanced off by seven-run outings against Louisville in the NCAA Regional. Gray is no doubt the team's most talented pitcher and probably their highest-level prospect in this year's MLB Draft. If he can consistently use his tools and harass his trademark toughness mound in the postseason he can propel this team to Omaha.
Grayson Garvin - Garvin's development as a pitcher over the past two years has been impressive. In just over two years he's gone from bullpen afterthought to potential first-round talent as a starter for the Commodores, helped by a stellar Cape Cod League performance in 2010. Garvin was named that league's top pitcher and has become Vanderbilt's #2 option in a rotation stocked with high-end talent.
Garvin was named the 30th best player in college baseball this year based on a summer campaign where he went 5-0 in six starts and finished with a minuscule 0.74 ERA. He's still developing as a pitcher, but he's got a decent tailing fastball that he can throw with pinpoint control up to about 90 mph. He compliments that with a solid but slow-developing curveball to make up his primary arsenal, but he's also prone to mixing in a change-up to keep batters off balance. Despite his size, Garvin is less of a power pitcher and more of a finesse guy - giving the team a strong compliment to Sonny Gray's talents in the rotation.
The junior's potential was always there - even in a mediocre freshman season he struck out 18 in just 12.1 innings - but he's finally harnessed the unique talents that his frame (at 6'6") and athleticism have afforded him. Vandy fans saw flashes of this in 2010 - especially when he shut down Louisville for six innings in the deciding game of that Regional - but now he's primed to put it all together. If he can, not only will he make Vanderbilt's pitching untouchable, but he'll make himself a boatload of MLB money in the process.
Jack Armstrong - On physical makeup alone, Armstrong may be the most talented pitcher in Vanderbilt's rotation. Unfortunately, he has yet to tap into that ability consistently for the Commodores.
Armstrong, the son of former MLB pitcher with the same name, is a daunting presence on the mound at 6'7" and possesses a fastball that can reach the upper-90s on the radar gun. However, struggles with control have limited his effectiveness on the mound and kept the junior from reaching his potential. The biggest knock on "Big Jack" is that these issues leave him walking too many batters and not striking out enough. Still, the big righty still has plenty of time to turn things around.
Like Garvin, he features a curveball as his secondary weapon and flashes an occasional change-up, but Armstrong's primary tool is his power. Still considered a first-round fringe talent, he'll try to build on a successful Cape Cod League run from 2009 to boost both his draft stock and the Commodores. He's still a solid Sunday starter for this team (and potential ace for many other D-I schools), so it's tough to get too down on him. Still, if he can locate his fastball and catch fire in the postseason he could end up playing a huge role in getting this team to Omaha.
Taylor Hill - Another finesse tosser to compliment Gray and Armstrong, Hill is the veteran leader of this rotation. The righty eats up innings and is able to work long into games thanks to a solid array of pitches and a great understanding of how to use them. His fastball will typically run in the high-80s/low-90s with decent movement and solid location.
Complimented by a two-seam fastball, slider, and change-up, the senior is able to throw the kitchen sink at opponents. He threw 7.1 strong innings against #28 San Diego in his first start of the season, striking out eight and allowing only five hits. His spot in the rotation likely depends on the play of others around him, but it's hard to see Hill settling anywhere other than the starter's role on Sundays or weekdays at the very least. Though he doesn't have the ceiling that the rest of this staff does, his consistency makes him the glue that will hold Vandy's pitching together.
Kevin Ziomek - The first of Coach Corbin's lefty freshman brigade, Ziomek was arguably the biggest catch in the 2010 recruiting class. He shook off a 13th round selection by the Arizona Diamondbacks to honor his commitment to Vanderbilt, and should have an immediate impact in Nashville.
The Massachusetts native already has three above-average pitches in his arsenal - fastball, slider, and curve - but he'll likely rely mostly on the first two as he wades through the shark tank of the SEC. He can locate both with accuracy, which helps make up for his average power (his fastball tops out in the low 90s). However, with his frame that strength will come, and the Commodores are in good shape to bring him along slowly to maximize his impact in the future.
Ziomek should get a few looks in doubleheaders and weekday starts this season. He pitched a solid 5.1 innings in a win against San Diego State last weekend, and he'll be more than serviceable in stints in 2011. He'll need some seasoning, but he's got a future as a four-pitch workhorse that could eventually be this team's ace.
T.J. Pecoraro - One of the great things about this terribly late "preview" is that it has allowed for Commodore fans to get a better look at the new guys on campus. One of them was Pecoraro, who got his first college start in Vanderbilt's fifth game of the season and did not disappoint. The freshman spun four shutout innings against Belmont Wednesday, striking out five and allowing just four baserunners to lead Vanderbilt to a win. In all, it was a strong case for his inclusion on this list, which clearly motivated the kid's stellar night.
Pecoraro is a skinny, fireballing
lefty righty (Ed. - oops. Brain fart) that came from Coach Tim Corbin's northeast pipeline, making the journey to Nashville from Dix Hills, NY. With his lively arm and slender frame, the first comparison that comes to mind is a left-handed Roy Oswalt, though NewYorkDore suggests that he's like a more polished Nick Christiani as a freshman. His fastball settles in the low 90s as he works through innings and he's got a pair of breaking pitches - slider and curve - that he can throw for strikes.
The freshman has proven that he can have an impact on this team as a freshman, but with six legitimate starters on this team he'll likely be pressed into long relief this season and build up for a big sophomore campaign. He's a talented athlete who should be able to develop into a reliable weekend starter as long as he can handle the inning load. Fortunately, he's got a full season to build up strength and make spot starts for a very deep team. Look for him to play a big role for the 'Dores into the future.