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FALL PROFILE: UCLA Bruins
2011 record: 35-24 (NCAA Regional)
Final 2011 PG ranking: No. 21
Top returning players: OF Cody Keefer, P Adam Plutko, C Trevor Brown, 2B Cody Regis, OF Jeff Gelalich, P Nick Vander Tuig, OF Beau Amaral, P Zack Weiss, P Scott Griggs, INF Pat Valaika, INF Kevin Williams
Notable departures:P Trevor Bauer, P Gerrit Cole, C Steve Rodriguez, 1B Dean Espy, P Mitchell Beacom, OF Chris Giovinazzo, 2B Tyler Rahmatulla
Areas of concern: The Bruins didn’t make the necessary adjustments to the BBCOR bats last season, and finished the 2011 campaign with a dismal .263 batting average. Throw in the fact the Bruins must replace their leading hitter in Dean Espy and the offense is a concern as fall workouts continue. UCLA coach John Savage likes what he sees from the offense so far this fall. However, the proof is in their production in the spring. The pitching staff also is a concern. The Bruins have three solid weekend starters in Adam Plutko, Zack Weiss and Nick Vander Tuig, but must find a closer and won’t have the depth they’ve enjoyed the past few seasons.
What we think: Though the Bruins finished last season with a Pac-10 title, they didn’t meet their expectations on the national stage. The Bruins hosted an NCAA Regional, but were eliminated by UC Irvine. Now, the Bruins hope to overachieve to a degree. They should have a solid weekend rotation with Plutko, Weiss and Vander Tuig leading the way. They also have other quality arms, one of which should morph well into the closer role by the time February arrives. In our eyes, the offense is still the primary concern. The Bruins welcome back capable hitters such as Cody Keefer, Beau Amaral, Cody Regis and Jeff Gelalich, but must become more consistent. UCLA will be very good if its offense rises to the occasion.
What they’re saying:“Offensively, we think we’re going to be back to where we were in 2010. The guys didn’t swing the bat as well as we’d hoped last season, but if you look at our personnel and experience, I like our chances. I actually think we’re going to be pretty good at the plate [in 2012].” – UCLA coach John Savage.
CB TICKET: Inside scoop on UCLA
UCLA possessed two of the best arms in college baseball history the past three seasons in right-handers Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. During that time, the Bruins took a step forward and played for the national title in 2010.
Now, Cole is long gone after signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates as the top overall pick in the MLB draft this past summer. Meanwhile, Bauer is on the fast track to the big leagues after getting drafted third overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
In a way, Cole and Bauer’s powerful arms represented what the Bruins were about the past few seasons. They certainly had some good moments at the plate, but with coach John Savage leading the way, the Bruins usually beat teams with their superior pitching.
That trend now will be put to the test.
“You’ve got a top draft pick and Pitcher of the Year winner to replace. That’s a pretty high bar to say the least,” Savage said. “We’re not going to be highly ranked going into 2012 because we don’t have Cole and Bauer, but I think we’re going to be fine. I think we’re going about things the right way.”
Trying to adequately replace Cole and Bauer, while also formulating a solid overall pitching staff with a solid back-end closer, is the top priority between this fall and opening day in February.
In terms of the weekend rotation, the Bruins are in better shape than some think. The Bruins fully expect sophomores Adam Plutko, Zack Weiss and Nick Vander Tuig to round out the rotation, while junior right-hander Scott Griggs also is in the mix.
“Plutko had as good of a year as anyone in the country last season. He had as good of freshman campaign as Cole and Bauer. He’s pretty good,” Savage said. “Weiss is coming off a solid campaign and Vander Tuig was a solid closer last season. I think they’re very capable of making up a very good rotation. Pro scouts would agree, too.”
Plutko proved himself as the club’s Sunday starter last season, tallying an impressive 2.01 ERA in 107 2/3 innings and earning PG Freshman All-American honors in the process. Meanwhile, Weiss tallied a 2.86 ERA in 66 innings and Vander Tuig made 28 appearances (no starts) and had a 2.90 ERA in 31 innings.
Griggs, a veteran, actually is a solid prospect and looks forward to a more integral role after making just three starts and nine appearances and tallying a 5.60 ERA in 17 2/3 innings last season. Should Griggs not quite make the weekend rotation, he’s expected to be the club’s primary midweek starter.
“All of our potential starting pitchers are pretty good. They’re prospects and they’re definitely going to get drafted in their careers,” Savage said. “If all three or four of the guys continue to improve and turn corners, we’re in pretty good shape.”
While the weekend rotation is in solid shape, the Bruins have some question marks with the rest of their pitching staff. For instance, with Vander Tuig moving to the rotation, a new closer and other important relief roles must be established.
“The biggest question for us right now, without question, is pitching depth,” he said. “We haven’t had this issue in a while, but it looks like that will be the case in the spring unless some guys rise to the occasion.
Savage expects significant contributions from freshmen Grant Watson (lhp), Zack Ortiz (rhp), and Jake Ehret (rhp). The Bruins also hope redshirt freshman Eric Jaffe, an imposing 6-foot-4, 230-pounder, gets his command under control and becomes an important arm. They hope for the same from JUCO transfer Michael Kerman.
“We’ve got a lot of young pitchers. Ortiz and Ehret are pretty good and could potentially close for us in the spring,” he said. “Ehret and Ortiz are both 88-90 mph type of guys with good secondary stuff. Watson is pretty good despite being under the radar a bit. We also need to get something out of Jaffe, while Kerman has a solid 88-90 type of arm.”
The Bruins must figure out and solidify the other bullpen roles to meet their goals in the spring.
Though tracking who replaces Cole and Bauer is intriguing, the most interesting aspect of this club is an offensive unit that finished last season with a dismal .263 batting average.
As with many teams throughout the 2011 campaign, the Bruins had issues with the BBCOR bats. They had a productive offensive unit when they played for the national title two seasons ago. But last season, many of the same players who prospered just a year before had terrible offensive campaigns.
With last season now ancient history, the Bruins believe they’ve made the necessary adjustments to get back to business at the plate.
“Across the board throughout the country last year, teams had issues at the plate. Our woes had a little to do with that and we just didn’t handle things well at all,” he said. “We didn’t manufacture runs and some of our guys struck out way too much. We just need to go out there in the spring and do a better job of manufacturing runs.”
Savage went a step further.
“We think we’re going to be very good offensively.”
The Bruins have the tough chore of replacing leading hitter Dean Espy, who batted .320 with three home runs and 40 RBIs last season. However, they welcome back Cody Keefer (.303/1/18), Beau Amaral (.299/2/29), Cody Regis (.284/6/45), Jeff Gelalich (.268/2/13) and Pat Valaika (.238/1/20), among others.
“I think all of our returning guys have worked pretty hard. We feel good about our maturity, work ethic, and the fact we have some guys back who have been in Omaha before,” he said. “We have a good combination of solid hitters and runners. I’m not real sure we could’ve dialed things up any better in terms of athleticism and experience.”
Additionally, the Bruins also expect significant contributions from several newcomers, specifically talented freshmen Kevin Kramer, Eric Filla-Snyder and Chris Keck.
“We thought Kramer and Snyder were the two-best hitters in the State of California out of high school last season. Snyder is a versatile hitter with great eye-hand coordination, and Kramer is a potential first-round type of guy someday,” he said. “Keck is another guy who is going to have a pretty good career here.”
Overall, the Bruins have several questions that must be answered before February arrives. But with a solid weekend rotation and nucleus of hitters back this fall, perhaps this team is ripe to greatly exceed expectations for once.
It’s time to welcome the post Cole and Bauer era.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game USA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org