Vanderbilt viewed the 2011 season as its best opportunity to break through, make history and reach the school’s first College World Series. But the Commodores didn’t see it as their only chance.
Even after a Southeastern Conference-record 12 players were taken in last month’s Major League Baseball Draft — possibly swiping most of Vanderbilt’s pitching arms — visions of Omaha continue to pop into the Commodores’ heads.
“There is only one speed at this university in the baseball program,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said, “and that is fast forward.”
Days after Vanderbilt’s season-ending loss to Florida in the CWS on June 24, Corbin was back in his office next to Hawkins Field, working the phones, hitting the recruiting trail. Six members of the starting lineup will return (see story below), including all three outfielders, the two middle infielders and the designated hitter. But three of the Commodores’ power hitters — first baseman Aaron Westlake, third baseman Jason Esposito and catcher Curt Casali — will be gone.
Esposito and Westlake were drafted in the first three rounds and most likely won’t return for their senior years. Casali, a 10th-round pick, graduated recently. That trio accounted for 33 of the team’s 50 home runs (66 percent) and 167 of its 409 RBIs (40.8 percent).
“I don’t know if we’ll need power so much as we just need potent offensive players,” Corbin said. “I like the makeup of our team offensively. I think we’ve got a chance to be OK.”
Senior Drew Fann and sophomore Spencer Navin figure to compete at catcher. Junior Sam Lind, who played in 34 games and started nine, could take over at third base. Designated hitter Conrad Gregor, who led the team as a freshman with a .353 batting average, will most likely move to first base. That leaves his position open, but Corbin said, “We will find a DH. We’ll find someone who can do that for sure.”
The big question marks, however, are with the pitching staff. All three weekend starters will be gone — ace Sonny Gray and SEC pitcher of the year Grayson Garvin were first-round selections, and Taylor Hill was a senior.
T.J. Pecoraro was a realistic option to fill one of the weekend roles after a fantastic freshman campaign. But he injured his elbow during the SEC Tournament, underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery and will be out for the most part until May. Fellow freshman All-American Kevin Ziomek could slide into one of those spots. The lefty posted a 1.60 ERA in 26 appearances, including five starts.
Will Clinard is another option. The right-hander from nearby Cross Plains had a 2.77 ERA and picked up three saves. He was one of Corbin’s go-to guys in the NCAA Tournament, allowing just one earned run in 6.2 innings.
“If Will returns he can be a very good starter, a very good closer, a very good middle man,” Corbin said. “If Will comes back, he’s going to pitch in a lot of important innings.”
Clinard’s future is up in the air — he was one of four underclassmen bullpen arms picked in the draft.
Among those who might be on the fence are closer Navery Moore (14th round) and Clinard (46th round). Both could return and improve their draft stock. Corbin also said Jack Armstrong and Corey Williams are question marks. But the third-round money might be too good to pass.
That could be the case for a couple incoming freshmen as well. Vanderbilt commits Tyler Beede (21st) and Kevin Comer (57th) were both drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the first round.
“If you can retain a couple of those juniors it really helps your program as we saw this year with Taylor, and Westlake” returning after getting drafted in 2010, Corbin said. “That, maybe more than a high school kid, gives you the ability to repeat and come back and play well.”
Regardless of who makes up the 2012 squad, one thing is certain: They’ll follow a tough act. Over the past five months, Vanderbilt built up quite the list of accomplishments: It matched the program record for wins (54), set the school record for fewest losses (12), won a share of the SEC regular-season crown, hosted a Super Regional for the first time, advanced to its first CWS and was one of the four final teams standing.
“It is one of strongest groups we’ve ever been a part of in terms of everything they’ve done academically, socially and on the ball field,” Corbin said. “Before we went to Omaha, I told them, ‘Listen, we don’t have to win a national championship in order for this group to be special.’ ”
Maybe this sort of team can’t be duplicated. Can the next team mirror its success?
“It will be different, but … we have a good foundation, obviously,” outfielder Connor Harrell said. “I’m looking forward to coming back and getting back to Omaha next year.”
What’s in store for the 2012 Commodores? Six of the nine starters will return, but the pitching staff will undergo a makeover. Here are five lettermen who should be key contributors next year.
Tony Kemp, LF
The Centennial product burst onto the scene during fall ball in October and didn’t let up, earning freshman All-American honors. The left-handed hitter batted leadoff, hitting .331 with a team-high seven triples. He also drove in 33 runs — sixth-most on the team — and tied for third in runs scored (58). The SEC Freshman of the Year also wreaked havoc with his speed, stealing 17 bases and snagging extra-base hits in the outfield.
Connor Harrell, CF
After his batting average dipped all the way to .232 in late April, Harrell tweaked his swing and mental approach. It paid off, as he became Vanderbilt’s hottest hitter, batting .365 over the past two months. He was a legitimate threat from the eighth slot in the lineup, finishing with a .289 average, nine home runs, 12 doubles and 35 RBIs. He joined Kemp on the College World Series All-Tournament Team after batting .417 with two homers and six RBIs.
Conrad Gregor, DH
Another pleasant freshman surprise, Gregor batted a team-best .353 from the seventh spot in the lineup. The left-handed hitter smacked 11 doubles and knocked in 31 runs en route to freshman All-American accolades. Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin will most likely move him up in the batting order and over
to first base to replace slugger Aaron Westlake.
Anthony Gomez, SS
One year after being named a freshman All-American at second base, Gomez made a smooth transition to shortstop. He committed a team-high 19 errors but showed off his range and arm, taking away numerous hits. At the plate, he hit .342, with 12 doubles and 48 RBIs out of the No. 2 spot.
Kevin Ziomek, P
Another freshman All-American, he had a 1.60 ERA and 3-0 record in 26 appearances, including five starts. The lefty pitched twice in the CWS and has a good chance of earning a spot in the weekend starting rotation. There will be opportunities as all three of this year’s starters were drafted high and are not expected to return.