This is the first of a two-part series previewing the upcoming UCSB baseball season. Today's focus is on UCSB's impressive stable of position players, while tomorrow will look at the team's pitching staff. The Gauchos open their season this Friday, Feb. 17 with a three-game set against Loyola Marymount. Single-game and season tickets are available today and can be purchased by calling 805-893-UCSB or by clicking here.
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – This time last year, UC Santa Barbara head coach Andrew Checketts was tasked with replacing seven starters from the 2015 lineup that earned the Gauchos' first No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in program history, turning to talented but relatively-untested youngsters like JJ Muno and Dempsey Grover to help fill the offensive void.
Those seven new starters, alongside returners Clay Fisher and Andrew Calica, went on to win a program-record 43 games against Division I opponents, produce six All-Big West selections, and help carry the team to the school's first-ever College World Series.
In fact, one of the hallmarks of UCSB's historic run to Omaha was that key contributions came from all up and down the roster; from Austin Bush's 11 home runs, to Sam Cohen's unforgettable walk-off grand slam in the Super Regionals, to Clay Fisher's appearances on the Sportscenter Top-10, to JJ Muno's .379 postseason batting average.
And in contrast to last year, Checketts can look to largely the same group of hitters to produce in 2017, as the Gauchos return seven of nine Opening Day starters.
"We're happy to bring back some familiar faces from last year," said Checketts. "Those guys were a key reason we ended up in Omaha, and now that this group is a little more experienced we feel we have one of the deepest groups of position players in my time here."
Augmenting that strong group of returners is a recruiting class that was ranked No. 9 in the nation, the best in program history. Newcomers Colton Burns, Landon Silver, Armani Smith, and Kenny Corey have all impressed in their short time on campus and are in line for significant playing time.
Let's take a trip around the diamond and see where UCSB stacks up at each position heading into the new season.
Catcher: Dempsey Grover, now a redshirt junior, returns to UCSB for his second season as the starter behind the dish. Checketts envisions a similar workload for Grover as last season, donning the gear for about 80% of the team's games with sophomore Thomas Rowan and Sam Cohenspelling him on off days.
Grover was one of the team's hottest hitters early on in 2016, as he hit .410 in February and March. Fully healthy heading into the new season, he will look to sustain his offensive rhythm over a whole season. He also used the offeseason to improve on his defensive game.
"Dempsey is a more complete catcher now," said Checketts. "He's improved on his throwing and blocking, we really think he can be one of the better backstops in the conference."
Cohen, the hero of the Louisville Super Regional, has demonstrated his bat is extremely potent, and Checketts wants to find a way to get him into the lineup whenever possible. So even if he doesn't catch much, Cohen is a leading candidate to DH and is also in the mix for playing time in left field.
Newcomer Eric Yang out of El Camino Real High School may not see much playing time as a true freshman due to experience ahead of him on the depth chart, but the 2015 LA City Section of the Year figures to be a key part of the catching corps down the road.
First Base: Junior Austin Bush returns as UCSB's clear starter at first after emerging as one of the top power hitters on the west coast last year. Standing 6-6, the Turlock, Calif. native homered in the first four games of the 2016 postseason, earning Nashville Regional MVP honors. He was productive the entire season however, leading the Big West in home runs (11) and RBIs (49).
The No. 19 first baseman in the country per D1Baseball, Bush will be a mainstay in the middle of the order for UCSB, and much of the Gauchos' offensive strategy could rely on how teams pitch to him.
"Austin has improved as a hitter in the offseason," said Checketts. "He's handling more pitches and has improved his two-strike approach. If he gets pitches to hit, I don't see why he can't get 10 home runs again."
Second Base: The middle of the infield will see new blood as JJ Muno, the starter from last year, moves across the diamond to third base. In his place, a quartet of Gauchos are duking it out to earn the starting spot.
Colton Burns looks to be the starter at second on opening day, but Armani Smith, Kenny Corey, and Tevin Mitchell are in the mix as well. Making it even more complex is that all four of those players have shown the versatility to play outfield as well, and are in contention for playing time at the outfield corners.
Burns, a transfer from College of the Canyons in Valencia, had a .406 batting average as a sophomore en route to Junior College All-America honors. According to Checketts, he has shown good arm strength and an advanced ability to turn the double play.
Smith, a 35th round selection by Cleveland in last year's MLB First-Year Player Draft, has the talent to play all over the field and is likely to break through into the lineup at one spot or another.
Shortstop: The sole remaining starter from UCSB's 2015 Regional team, Clay Fisher will patrol shortstop for the Gauchos once again in 2017. Having demonstrated one of the top gloves in the country as early as his freshman season, his bat has really come around since midway through his sophomore campaign. He ended up batting .285 last year and was one of the team's most consistent hitters down the stretch.
Fisher's strong two-way play has grabbed attention around the country, as he is regarded as one of the Big West's top prospects for the 2017 MLB draft, was named the No. 9 shortstop in college baseball by D1Baseball, and has earned a Preseason All-America nod from Collegiate Baseball.
"Clay has a great presence in the locker room, he's a quiet leader but when he says something it commands the attention of his teammates," said Checketts. "He's continued to swing the bat well in the offseason, and we'll be counting on him as a top-of-the-order bat."
Third Base: JJ Muno, who did fine work at second base last season, will be moving to the hot corner this year. Muno was one of the team's most consistent players last year, starting every game (including 18 at third base while Ryan Clark was injured) while crafting a strong .294/370/.450 slash line. The Hermosa Beach, Calif. native is a perfect hitter for UCSB's west coast-style offense, being able to contribute with a sac bunt (nine last year), steal a base (17 in 23 attempts), and get on with high frequency (18 HBPs).
"JJ is one of the vocal leaders of the team, and we are expecting big things from him in his junior season," said Checketts. "He can hit up and down the lineup and he's looked good at third in our workouts."
Outfield: The outfield will be the area with the highest amount of turnover for UCSB, as 2016 starters Andrew Calica (drafted by Cleveland) and Devon Gradford (graduated) have both moved on.
Roles in the outfield have not settled, but a trio of new starters could be in place on opening day.
Redshirt freshman Tommy Jew is a leading candidate to receive work in center field, as he is one of the team's fastest runners and has shown good range in center. Though he didn't play for UCSB last year, he had a strong showing with the Victoria HarbourCats, slashing .298/357/.421 while being named Honorable Mention All-WCL.
Newcomer Landon Silver is another who figures to receive plenty of playing time this season, most likely at left or right. The Huntington Beach High School product has shown plus-plus bat speed despite being a true freshman, and profiles as a physical corner outfielder down the road. He earned a litany of awards as a high school junior after hitting .352 with 32 RBIs, including First Team All-State.
Smith, Burns, Cohen, and 2016 contributor Josh Adams (49 games, four home runs, 27 RBIs) are also in the running for playing time in the outfield.
Designated Hitter: Like with most teams, the DH spot will shift often depending on who earns spots in the field and who has a hot bat. Leading candidates include Cohen, Kyle Plantier (.312 on-base percentage over 43 games in 2016), Billy Fredrick (.457 career average in pinch-hit at-bats), and the outfield contenders.