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College  | Story  | 1/7/2022

Vandy Starts Atop College Landscape

Blake Dowson     
Photo: Vanderbilt baseball (Vanderbilt Athletics)
College Preview Content: Perfect Game/Rawlings Preseason Collegiate All-Americans | Preseason Top 25

Vanderbilt comes into the season with several unknowns. There are holes to fill in the rotation (two guys named Leiter and Rocker are gone), production in the lineup to replace, and players expected to man new positions. At this point on the calendar, there aren’t cemented answers to those questions.
 
But what is known is this – Vanderbilt will be among the best teams in the country, whether it’s a new name penciled in on the lineup card or an All-American from last year looking to be even better. That’s how things go in Nashville these days under Head Coach Tim Corbin, who is entering his 20th year at the helm. The Commodores don’t rebuild, they reload. That’s what they appear to have done this year, as Vanderbilt comes in at No. 1 in Perfect Game’s Preseason Top 25.
 
“You go through it every year,” Corbin said in an interview with Perfect Game. “You’re going to lose parts, whether it’s a shortstop or center fielder or a guy who pitched at the top of the rotation. You’re going to go through that, every team does.”
 
Now, not every team is tasked with replacing Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker in their starting rotation, two top-10 picks in last year’s MLB Draft who tied for the national lead in strikeouts with 179 apiece.
 
Those two guys are irreplaceable. But the cupboard is certainly not bare. That includes guys who contributed last year and talented guys who will carve out a role for the first time this year.
 
“It’s going to be people who really haven’t had much time with us so far, which is fine,” Corbin said. “That’s part of any process. Guys like Christian Little, Thomas Schultz, Pat Reilly, Chris McElvain. Those are pitchers who have been in those roles before, albeit less than [Leiter and Rocker]. But at the same time, they’ve been there before. It’ll fall into the hands of other kids who have been patient and have worked in that role at some point.”
 
Reilly was handed the ball on a number of weekends last year for Vanderbilt, and will be featured prominently again this year. The sophomore from Sea Girt, N.J. struck out 53 in 43 1/3 innings last year and worked to a 4.98 ERA in seven starts and 16 total appearances, all while holding opponents to a .194 average. Schultz had nine starts last year and tossed 44 innings to the tune of a 4.09 ERA.
 
Nick Maldonado, a Preseason Third-Team All-American, will be a steadying force in the bullpen, sporting a 2.31 ERA in 28 appearances last year in 50 2/3 innings.
 
Little figures to play an even bigger role this year as a sophomore as well, a year after he found himself starting on the mound in the College World Series finals as a reclassed freshman.
 
Originally a member of the 2021 high school class, Little graduated early after being named a Perfect Game All-American in 2020 and joined Vanderbilt for the 2021 spring season, throwing against SEC lineups when the rest of his classmates were trying to figure out who to ask to prom.
 
Corbin wanted Little on campus early. He saw something in the St. Louis native that made him confident he could make the jump.
 
“It was his competitiveness more than anything,” Corbin said. “He likes to compete and be on the mound. Last year was certainly not an easy transition for him, particularly since he came in during the spring…You’re coming into a new environment, a college curriculum, taking 15 hours, and then managing your baseball abilities. I think Year 2 will be different for him. He’ll certainly be more confident, you can see that.”
 
And then there are the incoming freshmen, ready to jump at the opportunity to help lengthen the depth of the pitching staff.
 
Vanderbilt recruiting classes get picked apart by the MLB Draft every year. Shortstop Jordan Lawlar and outfielder Joshua Baez were both top-10 overall 2021 prospects according to Perfect Game, and both signed in the draft. The Commodores did, however, get three top-100 arms to campus in Carter Holton (No. 24 overall; No. 1 LHP in the class), Ryan Ginther (No. 77; No. 13 LHP), and Greysen Carter (No. 79; No. 23 RHP).
 
It’s hard to determine in the fall, and even into January, just how much you can get out of true freshmen, though, according to Corbin. The transition to college baseball, to SEC baseball in particular, isn’t an easy one.
 
“I always think that when you get back from Christmas break, there’s a newfound confidence with freshmen,” Corbin said. “I’ve never really seen a freshman come in and demonstrate a great deal of confidence those first three or four months…I tell them all, patience is going to be their greatest strength. Playing in this conference, you have to demonstrate a mental and physical ability that’s very unique.”
 
There are exceptions of course, one being the bolt of lightning that Corbin plans on using in center field – Enrique Bradfield Jr.
 
As a freshman last season, Bradfield started every game for Vanderbilt and hit .336 with a .451 on-base percentage, which allowed him to steal 47 bases, the most in the SEC. He walked more than he struck out, and scored 60 runs on the year. He also played arguably the best center field in the country.
 
Perfect Game named Bradfield a Second-Team All-American after last season and gave him the same distinction on this year’s preseason list. Corbin expects opposing teams to focus in on his leadoff hitter even more this year, which will bring its challenges. Every great SEC player goes through that in Year 2.
 
“You watch the SEC guys who come in, whether it’s [Alex] Bregman, or [Dansby] Swanson, or Bradfield, and Year 2 is always a different transition. Regardless of what you did your freshman year, you have to reinvent yourself in some ways.”
 
Shortstop Carter Young joins Bradfield as one of the other established guys in the lineup, just in terms of having been the every-day starter at the same position last year as he’ll be asked to man this year. Young brings plenty of thump to the lineup as well, having led the team with 16 home runs in 2021.
 
While there is a lot of production back on campus from last year’s team – as is the case when you’re the preseason No. 1 team – Corbin does have the task of making those puzzle pieces fit into different spots this year.
 
Preseason First-Team All-American Dominic Keegan split his time between first base and designated hitter last year, leading the team with a .345 average and 57 RBI, along with 15 home runs. With CJ Rodriguez and Max Romero Jr. gone, he’ll transition behind the plate this spring.
 
Parker Noland was another big contributor last year, starting 66 games with a .260 average and 43 RBI. He played all over in 2021, much like Tate Kolwyck, who hit .290 in 39 starts. Those two will figure prominently in the dirt.
 
Then there’s Jack Bulger, another sophomore in the group, who started 41 games last year and hit in a bunch more. He slashed .274/.369/.414 as a freshman, can spell Keegan behind the plate at times, and play first base, as can Spencer Jones, a .274 hitter last year.
 
Every piece of the puzzle is seemingly there, just maybe not in place quite yet. But that’s what February, March, and April are for. Right now, people are still accidentally writing ‘2021’ when asked to provide a date on things. The calendar has barely flipped.
 
“You’ve got guys who have been there in the past, but at the same time we’re going to have to move some positions around a little bit,” Corbin said. “They’ve had some experience on the field, but not everyone has played the position…It will be interesting to see how we piece that together.”
 
The one thing we know for sure is that Vanderbilt, once again, looks like one of, if not the best, teams in the country heading into what will without a doubt be an exciting 2022 season of college baseball.