Posted on February 17, 2020
In this sixth and final installment of our Pac-12 team preseason baseball previews, I examine the 2020 prospects of the Utes. If you missed any of the first five, you’ll find links to them at the end of this column.
Record: 16-33 (6-24 Pac-12)
Utah has never been a powerhouse baseball school and it does not appear that will change in 2020. While the Utes have some promising returners in the lineup, there is an enormous amount of uncertainty on the mound. In addition to question marks on the pitching staff, Utah has to overcome the loss of Oliver Dunn who was an 11th round pick in the 2019 MLB draft. Dunn led the team in 11 offensive categories last year.
While the loss of Dunn and the lack of experience on the mound will be difficult to overcome, Utah does have a few bright spots in their lineup. They will need to count on some of the returners to produce in big ways so that they can steal some wins in high scoring games.
The strength of this Utah baseball team is the depth of experienced offensive players. None of the returners have put up All-Conference numbers in the past, but there are multiple players that could take the next step and potentially get there in 2020.
The player to watch on this team is sophomore outfielder Briley Knight. Knight was productive in his freshman campaign while also battling for a consistent spot. He has centerfield locked down, and the Utah coaching staff believes Knight has the potential to fill the gap left by Dunn a year ago.
Joining Knight as returners with potential to make a big impact will be catcher Zack Moeller and infielders Shea Kramer, Rykker Tom, and Matt Richardson. Moeller is a senior with a ton of playing experience, and will look to take another step forward offensively this year.
The trio of infielders all bring plenty of experience, but have yet to put up big numbers offensively. If all can capitalize on their talent, this offense could be deep.
The newcomer to watch is infielder Kayler Yates, a 31st-round draft pick in the 2019 MLB draft who decided to go the college route at Utah. He is a well-rounded hitter with ample potential to grow into his frame. He could play a big role quickly.
Like the offense, the Utah defense will be led by a number of experienced players. The biggest question for the Utah coaching staff is where to put all of the returners. Particularly in the infield, the Utes have a number of players who can play multiple positions. Depending on the matchup, Utah could mix up the infield positions on a regular basis.
As noted, Knight will be a consistent piece in centerfield and Moeller should see the majority of the innings behind the plate. Having Moeller’s senior leadership should alleviate some of the concerns as far as moving players around.
The remaining two outfield spots are open for competition. If Yates does not win a permanent spot in the infield, it is possible that he could see some time in the outfield. Otherwise, some younger guys could see a lot of time until someone emerges as an everyday starter in the outfield.
The Utah pitching staff could be a problem. The Utes do not really have any arms that have been elite at the Pac-12 level. Further, there are no really obvious pitchers that have locked up weekend rotation spots. With that being the case, Utah will look for a few arms to emerge and separate themselves as reliable starters.
For the first weekend, Utah will go with Justin Kelly, David Watson, and Riley Pierce in the first three games. Kelly is coming off of “Tommy John” (tendon reconstruction) surgery in 2019, so he did not see any action a year ago. Watson posted a 6.25 ERA in just over 40 innings . Pierce, a lefty, has a bit more experience but has a career ERA of 7.12 in his 20 appearances as a Ute.One strong point for the Utah staff could be Zac McCleve, who had five saves last season. McCleve is a big-bodied sophomore that could get a lot more work in 2020. He should be the guy in any type of save situation.
Beyond the names mentioned, the competition for innings is open. Even the three projected starters do not have the track records or the experience to lock down those spots. It is highly likely that Utah moves some guys around the rotation throughout the year.
Utah needs to find an identity. They won’t be able to do that until they figure out who their mainstay players are going to be. They have options and depth in the field, but all they have on the mound is uncertainty. Because of the Utah weather, the team is set to play a lot of games on the road before getting a chance to hold serve at home. Hopefully, they can use the time to work out some of the question marks they have entering the year.
—Recent James Cleary Stories—
- Cleary Mailbag: Why Pat Bailey wasn’t retained as an assistant at OSU
- MLB Announcement Changes Landscape of College Baseball
- Cleary: Making Sense of a Lost Baseball Season
- Cleary: 2020 Pac-12 Baseball Predictions
- 2020 Pac-12 Baseball Preview: UW & WSU
- 2020 Pac-12 Baseball Preview: Oregon & OSU
- 2020 Pac-12 Baseball Preview: USC & UCLA
- 2020 Pac-12 Baseball Preview: Cal & Stanford
- 2020 Pac-12 Baseball Preview: Arizona & ASU
- Cleary: The Pac-12 is the SEC of Baseball
Cleary Mailbag: Why Pat Bailey wasn’t retained as an assistant at OSUPlus questions about MLB Draft, last season's cancellations, and more - August 7, 2020
MLB Announcement Changes Landscape of College BaseballThe pro baseball league has dramatically reduced the 2020 draft from previous seasons - May 9, 2020
Cleary: Making Sense of a Lost Baseball SeasonWith extended eligibility, next season figures to be much different - April 9, 2020