2020 Pac-12 Baseball Preview: USC & UCLA

Preseason Snapshot: Offense, Defense, Pitching, and Overall Outlook

Posted on February 7, 2020

James Cleary
  By James Cleary, SportsPac12

In this third installment of our Pac-12 preseason baseball previews, I examine the 2020 prospects of the two Los Angeles schools, USC and UCLA. If you missed the first two, you’ll find links to them at the end of this column.

USC

2019 Record: 25-29-1 (13-15-1)

The nation’s most successful college baseball program simply has not lived up to its own standards in recent years. The disappointment led USC to bring in a big-name coach in Jason Gill, who has been around some of the best talent in the college game. Gill was an understudy of legendary Texas coach Augie Garrido and former Oregon coach George Horton. The Trojans hope Gill can use that experience to change the direction of the program and bring back the glory days to which USC fans have grown accustomed. 

The emphasis for Gill has been on changing the culture around the program. He is implementing Yankee-style clean-cut looks and demanding early-morning weight lifting sessions from his players. He has also brought in former Nebraska pitching coach Ted Silva, who led the Huskers to the 12th-best walks-per-inning ratio in the Nation—a far cry from USC’s 190th place performance from a year ago. If Gill can successfully put his vision together, the Trojans could quickly become a true contender in the Conference.

Offense

On paper, the strength of the 2020 USC team isn’t their ability at the plate. The Trojans lose five everyday players from a year ago, and the offensive production returning is far from intimidating. However, the left side of the infield remains solidly in place with Jamal O’Guinn and Ben Ramirez. The duo will play an important role in the lineup, as well as provide some much-needed experience at the critical infield spots. 

Thomas

On the topic of experience, John Thomas and Brady Shockey are both seniors who will look to have a big impact with the bats. Shockey has amassed 293 career at-bats while posting a batting average of .256. His 2019 campaign was by far his most successful: The outfielder hit .295 and drove in 14 runs over his 149 at-bats. 

The Trojans will need to rely on some newcomers if they hope to be in the Conference race. One of the names to watch is freshman Tyresse Turner, a switch-hitting infielder that has impressed the staff with both his power and speed heading into the new season. Coach Gill describes his talent as “different.” Do not be shocked if Turner is in the discussion for Freshman of the Year.

While USC is certainly not slated to be one of the Conference’s most powerhouse offensive teams, they have a wide range of talent. If they can find ways to manufacture runs, the pitching staff may be able to keep them in games.

Defense

A big part of the shift in culture for USC will be a heightened focus on defensive fundamentals. One of the luxuries the Trojans have is the return of their shortstop and third basemen, O’Guinn and Ramirez. It’s likely that Turner will see a lot of time at second with an open battle at first still under way. Clay Owens and Thomas are the two most likely contenders to see time at the position. 

Hartsell

In the outfield, there are a slew of different players that could see significant innings. Shockey will be in the lineup on a consistent basis. Preston Hartsell is another name to watch as he could find his way into the everyday lineup. He provides consistent defense and the coaching staff likes his potential as a guy that could provide some much-needed power to the offense. Filling the last outfield spot is an open question, and provides a great opportunity for a newcomer to step up and command innings.

The biggest question for the Trojans defensively is who to put behind the plate. Gill sees the position primarily as a defensive one, with any offensive production being an added bonus. Sophomore Tyler Lozano and freshman Taylor Johnson are the two names to watch. Whoever gets the nod will need to greatly improve on the 20 passed balls USC catchers allowed a year ago.

Pitching

One of the most exciting changes for USC coming into the 2020 season was the hiring of pitching coach Ted Silva. Silva comes into a situation with good experience and talent, but little success. If Silva and Gill can find a way help that talent to emerge, USC could have one of the deeper pitching staffs in the Conference.

Most teams struggle to find three arms that can fill a weekend rotation. That isn’t an issue for the Trojans. Six players should compete for the three spots: Kyle Hurt, Chandler Champlain, Quentin Longrie, Isaac Esqueda, John Beller, and Alex Cornwall.  The latter four are left handers. Having that type of starting depth provides a security blanket not enjoyed by many programs. 

Beyond the starting pitching, USC has a number of effective arms out of the bullpen. Coach Gill believes he has 10-11 guys that could see a lot of meaningful innings. Additionally, the Trojan staff has nearly that many pitchers able to consistently throw fastballs in the low-to-mid 90s. That should result in an attacking defense that challenges opposing hitters.

The success or failure of the 2020 USC team is going to depend on the mound. The staff has the potential to be one of the deepest in the Conference, though there is much to prove before the Trojans can be counted as a top contender.

Overall

This season should provide USC baseball fans with some much-needed change. The hiring of Gill by no means makes the Trojans the former powerhouse program they once were, but it does provide the hope. Gill has said that this USC team is the most talented he has been around since the 2005 Fullerton team. That’s high praise considering that team produced six Big Leaguers. If Gill’s talent assessment is accurate, 2020 could be a turning point in the trajectory of this program. 


UCLA

UCLA outfielder Garrett Mitchell hit .349 last season while blasting six home runs. | Scott Chandler/UCLA Athletics

Record: 52-11 (24-5 Pac-12)

UCLA’s 2019 campaign generated more than 50 wins, but ultimately proved disappointing when the team failed to make it to Omaha. The 2020 Bruins are looking to get rid of the bitter taste left from a year ago. However, the road won’t be easy, considering how much production UCLA lost from last year. 

Offensively, the Bruins must replace a combined 47 home runs from departing stars. But when the program has been the most successful, it has been because of its pitching staff. That shouldn’t change this season with some of the best arms in the Conference returning for UCLA. 

Offense

No doubt, the Bruins will have some major holes to fill in their batting lineup. Michael Toglia, Chase Strumpf, Ryan Kreidler and Jake Pries were all big names that have moved on. However, some experienced hitters remain, which UCLA should be able to rely on. 

Mitchell

Outfielder Garrett Mitchell hit an outstanding .349 while blasting 6 home runs, 12 triples, and 14 doubles. Mitchell provides a rare combination of contact, power, and speed that makes him an elite offensive player.

Dieter, who hit a touch above .200 last season, is poised to make some serious strides. Dellafronto and Towa will need to add to their power numbers to compensate for some missing pop from a year ago, when the duo combined for 14 home runs.

Other than Mitchell, catcher Noah Cardenas is a guy that will look to build off his .375 average from a year ago. Cardenas figures to add some power to his bat this year while providing the same excellent defense behind the plate.

The breakout candidates for the Bruins are Matt McLain and newcomer JT Schwartz. McLain struggled at the plate last year hitting a touch above .200, but is poised to take some big strides this season. Schwartz, a redshirt freshman, is hungry to see some game action while sitting out a year ago. He has an impressive bat with the ability to be a staple in the UCLA lineup.

Overall, the Bruins do need to find some production out of some new faces. Fortunately, there is enough experience on the team to provide the leadership needed to help some of the younger guys along. 

Defense

The defense will be a primary strength of this UCLA team, starting with Cardenas behind the plate. While the catcher brings some production to the offense, his value behind the plate is unmatched. His prior experience will enable him to command an excellent pitching staff while keeping the rest of the defense in the right place. 

Kendall

McLain is slated to move back to his natural position at short stop after spending last year in the outfield. This should allow him to be more comfortable while providing a reliable guy up the middle. Kevin Kendall is the likely choice at second. The corner positions of UCLA’s infield have yet to be determined.

The outfield will be led by Mitchell, a quality defensive player with the glove to match his huge offensive production. In addition to Mitchell, junior college transfer Pat Caulfield provides elite speed and solid defense in an outfield corner. The remaining outfield spot will be filled with a new face.  

Pitching
The UCLA pitching staff provides some of the best individual arms in the Pac-12. Friday night starter Zach Pettway is set to have a productive year and it would not be surprising if he dominated a lot of his starts. Watch for Pettway in the race for pitcher of the year. 

Nastrini

The Saturday night starter for the Bruins is Nick Nastrini. Nastrini’s season was riddled with injuries in 2019, but he showed his potential in last year’s regionals. If he can maintain his health, he has the ability to be a high-caliber second-day starter for UCLA.

Beyond those two starters, the staff has three or four options to fill the final weekend spot. At this point, it is unknown who will step up and take command of that role, but coach John Savage is confident that they have some good options.

The bullpen for the Bruins again features one of the best arms in the Conference and potentially the nation. Holden Powell led the team with 17 saves a year ago, and is reliable as a shut-down guy late in games. Simply put, he’s an enormous weapon for this team.

Bridging the gap between the starters and Powell will be a number of guys, but none more valuable than Kyle Mora, who has the ability to command three pitches and keep opposing hitters off-balance.

Opponents will need to capitalize on any UCLA mistakes to beat this staff. The Bruins are not going to hand teams a lot of runs, and getting into the bullpen is not as appealing as it will be against many teams in the Conference. UCLA may have one of the best staffs in the conference.

Overall

Like many teams, UCLA will need to compensate for some significant losses coming into 2020. That being said, the Bruins return some excellent position players and plenty of outstanding arms. They also have one of the game’s legendary coaches in Savage. The combination of those elements should make for an exciting year. While it might be a bit optimistic to expect them to reach the 50-win mark as they did a year ago, that outcome would not be shocking. Expect UCLA to compete for the Pac-12 championship and potentially make a deep run in the postseason. 

Next up: OSU & Oregon




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