Last year CougCenter picked up coverage of Cougar baseball right about the time Pac-10 play began. We enjoyed a great run that saw the Cougs finish second in the conference and earn an NCAA Regional berth. This year, we are in for the long haul.
Donnie Marbut's boys begin the 2010 season at home tomorrow against Seattle University, so it's a great time to gaze upon the roster and find out who will make an impact.
The weather gods in Pullman have been unusually kind for the Cougs as they prepare for their opener. The Palouse has seen higher temperatures than usual and for once the baseball team won't start with a huge practice disadvantage to some of the clubs further south. The money quote from Marbut's recent chat session comes from when a reader asked if the recent pleasant weather has put this team ahead of previous years. Marbut replied:
YES! YES! YES!
Hopefully this extra work outdoors will translate to great improvement WSU. The Cougs return many guys, but have lost their two best hitters and pitchers from the 2009 tournament team.
After the break, we'll take a look at what to expect from the infield, outfield, and pitching staff.
Note: Statistics from the 2009 season do not include the NCAA regional games.
The headline here has been the loss of Travis Coulter. He looked to be a solid top-of-the-order type of guy. Travis only played in five games last season, but in 2009 posted a .384 OBP with 11 steals. That's huge for a team that struggled to score runs last year and may have the same problem again.
The Cougs will look to replace that production with a group of experienced guys.
Cody Bartlett and Shea Vucinich return as one of the best SS/2B defensive duos in conference. Vucinich is a very patient hitter. He walked 11.5% of the time a season ago, good for second on the team. Bartlett could stand to improve in most areas at the plate. He shows very little power, rarely walks, and strikes out too often. However, don't get too down on him. As fans of the Mariners have learned recently, a run prevented is just as important as a run scored.
On the corners, Matt Argyropolous, Michael Weber, and Matt Fanelli are projected to see a lot of time. None of them are exactly world-beaters at the plate. Weber is the best hitter of the bunch and that has a lot to do with his 10.6% walk rate. He and Argyropolous strike out a lot, 28.0% and 25.6% of the time respectively. In limited time last year, Fanelli posted an ISO of .081. That's low. For reference, the NCAA average for 2006-08 was .149. The good news is Marbut has said that Fanelli showed improvement in fall ball (For whatever that is worth), so hopefully he can contribute with the bat this season.
Behind the plate, Jay Ponciano looks to get the bulk of the time. He stepped in for an injured Alex Burg down the stretch last season and filled in admirably, putting up a 1.007 OPS. Reports are he still needs to improve defensively, but if he continues to swing the bat well he will probably see time at the DH position too.
The Cougar infield is built to prevent runs. If they can improve their effectiveness on the other side of things this season, that will bode well for the WSU. If not, their defensive ability will still keep the scores low.
Two starters return for the Cougs, centerfielder Garry Kuykendall and right fielder Derek Jones.
Kuykendall (That's Kirkendall) is quick and covers a whole bunch of ground out in center. He is also slated to be the leadoff man for WSU. Garry had a .382 OBP in 2009.
Derek Jones will be expected to do a lot of the heavy lifting for the Cougar offense. He put up a solid .226 ISO in his freshman campaign to go with a team-leading 13.1% walk percentage. He pounded out 20 extra base hits, including 11 homers. He has the tools to be a great hitter for the Cougs, and it would be awesome to see him take a step up for his sophomore year.
The others guys that could see significant playing time in the outfield are sophomore Kyle Johnson and freshman Brett Jacobs. Johnson was mostly used as a defensive sub last year, getting only 11 ABs in 24 total games played. Jacobs was Washington's 4A player of the year as a high school junior and Marbut described him as being the "most consistent freshman hitter in the fall."
There are three things that we know about the WSU pitching staff. Two of the three weekend starters and the closer. The rest is still up for grabs.
Chad Arnold becomes the number one guy after pitching on Saturdays last season. He has huge shoes to fill in replacing Matt Way. Chad has the capability, possessing a good fastball and striking out a decent percentage of batters last season (19.5%). He improved down the stretch and we pondered the idea of him going pro, but he was not drafted. Don't be surprised by a breakout season by this kid. Arnold really needs to limit the number of walks though, as he put 12.5% of batters on base via the free pass in 2009.
Sophomore David Stilley was the Sunday guy last season and is a lock to be in the weekend rotation in 2010. Stilley has great control, walking just 6.9% of batters as a freshman. He combined that with a great hook to keep the Cougs in a lot of rubber matches during Pac-10 play.
Adam Conley was the primary setup guy for Jeremy Johnson in 2009 and will slide into the closer role for his sophomore year. He gave up his fair share of longballs last year and didn't really strike out that many guys. He does have solid control, walking a below average percentage of batters last year, so that is a good place to start. Remember that closers are used a lot more often in college than in the big leagues. Johnson was third on the team in innings pitched a season ago.
The rest of the starters will likely be filled out by freshman Travis Cook, sophomore Rusty Shellhorn, and junior James Wise.
2010 looks to be much of the same from the Cougs in terms of style. They will expect a speedy defense to prevent runs and keep scores low. The offense will probably struggle to put up crooked numbers and WSU will needhave to show that amazing ability to win close games they did a year ago to duplicate that success. There will probably be a drop off, but with a lot of young talent this team could very well improve through the non-conference and set themselves up to make another run in the Pac-10.