2007 Season Preview
Jan. 22, 2007
For the first time in 20 years, the USC baseball program enters the season with a new head coach. Former major league catcher Chad Kreuter takes over the helm for the 2007 season, replacing Mike Gillespie, who retired last June. Kreuter is all too familiar with the Trojan Family concept since Gillespie is his father-in-law. He took the position at USC after serving as manager for the Modesto Nuts, the California League Class A entry of the Colorado Rockies' organization.
His first order of business was to complete a recruiting class which ended up as a top-five class nationally, thanks to the late addition of catcher/right-handed pitcher Robert Stock (Westlake Village/Agoura HS). Stock, who was Baseball America's Youth Player of the Year in 2005, bypassed his final season of high school to enroll early at USC. The news of Stock's decision sent shockwaves through the baseball world and perhaps sent notice to other college baseball programs that Kreuter and his coaching staff mean business when it comes to returning the Trojans to the national spotlight.
The Trojans return four starting position players and nine pitchers from last year's squad that went 25-33 overall and tied for fifth in the Pac-10 Conference with an 11-13 record. Troy finished the season with an 11-game losing streak, but Kreuter insists the slate is clean for the 2007 campaign.
"The returners will be judged on their history of being a player," said Kreuter. "I prefer to coach in the present and want to know what the players are going to be able to do for me right now."
Here is a position-by-position outlook for the Trojans:
Tim Burton joins the staff as an assistant coach after eight years of coaching experience at Riverside Community College and Cal Poly Pomona.
"His poise and maturity and character are fabulous," said Kreuter. "You want your son to grow up to be like him or your daughter to marry him. He is a great kid and very humble. He is a better citizen off the field and that doesn't slight his baseball ability. I would hesitate to say that he is going to be a star right away because he will have his growing pains."
Senior Johnny Bowden (.274-2-17) proved to be a capable player behind the plate last season for the Trojans, throwing out 17 of 46 base runners (37%). J.J. Owen is another senior who can play as a catcher or at first base. He has hit the ball well and could be in the mix as a designated hitter.
"Matt is one of the best college hitters around," said Kreuter. "He's not a power guy, but a pure hitter. We moved him to second in order to showcase him for the pro guys. We feel that he is a pro guy and one of the things is that we want to teach him how to play second base to the best of his abilities. We want to get him as many reps as possible."
Senior Hector Estrella (.289-3-30) played at short last year, but makes the move to the hot corner for 2007. His flashy glove and strong arm will be a benefit at third base for the Trojans.
"Hector is versatile where he can play three positions," said Kreuter. "It makes us better defensively to have flexibility. He gives us a great defender no matter where we put him. He can charge the ball and make a play on a slow roller, throw on the run and throw from a deep backhand position."
Grant Green (Anaheim Hills/Canyon HS) becomes the first freshman since Seth Davidson in 1998 to start at short. With plenty of experience on the U.S. Junior National Team, the Trojans are not worried about Green's ability to play an important position.
"Grant is a prototypical, professional shortstop," said Kreuter. "He is a big and physical player who is quick and has a lot of range. We are excited to have him in the middle of the infield. In three years, he will be one of those guys that everyone will talk about. He will fit the mold of a power-hitting shortstop that has a lot of range and a great arm."
Junior transfer Derek Perren (Chatsworth/Granada Hills HS/L.A. Pierce College) is the surprise starter at first base after impressing the coaching staff with his defense.
"He is short in stature, but can really play with his glove or, as we call it, flashing leather," said Kreuter. "He is really smooth over there. He does a great job on ground balls, turning double plays, getting to the bag and picking balls in the dirt. Everyone always wants a big target over at first, but it's one of those things that our infielders know if they miss, miss low, he will pick it out of the dirt. He has the potential at the plate with his power and hitting for average."
Sophomore Michael Torres (.231-0-4 in 26 at-bats) will back up Cusick at second base, along with seeing some time in the outfield. Freshman Hector Rabago (Riverside/Poly HS) is similar to Cusick and Estrella where he can play several infield positions, as well as seeing action on the pitching mound.
Junior Lucas Duda (.298-3-36) might be the tallest left fielder in college baseball at 6-5 after two seasons at first base. With the impressive fall by Perren, Duda made the move to left field and has not skipped a beat.
"He is ready for a monster year," said Kreuter. "He hasn't hit over .300 or hit over four home runs yet here, but I always joke with him that he will hit 20 home runs by mistake and I believe that he's a guy that has as much power as any big league guy that I have played with. He just has to learn how to hit. He's coming into his own at the plate and really starting to drive the ball to all fields. He has worked hard at his new position, getting a lot of work done early and late. He is getting his reps out there and become part of what we are excited about in the outfield. He has a plus arm so it adds another dimension to our defense."
Center field is an important position in terms of building a strong defense up the middle and the Trojans feel they have found a gem in sophomore transfer Nick Buss (Clinton Township, Mich./De La Salle HS/San Diego Mesa CC). As a converted shortstop, Buss will be a great left-handed leadoff hitter for the Trojans. He provides a lot of speed at the top of the order, as well as possessing some pop in his bat.
Another sophomore transfer will get the start in right field when he is not on the pitching mound. Anthony Vasquez (San Antonio, Texas/Texas A&M) is another left-handed bat in the lineup and his arm adds another two-way dimension.
"If he is just a pitcher, we love him," said Kreuter. "We know he can start in the outfield and do well no matter where we put him in the lineup."
Roberto Lopez (.273-0-3 in 44 at-bats) and Spencer Pabst both return to add to the depth in the outfield. Lopez has a good chance to be used as a designated hitter while Pabst's speed makes him a great defensive replacement or pinch-runner.
Sophomores Tommy Milone (7-4, 4.94) and Ryan Cook (4-4, 5.97) gained valuable experience last season as true freshmen in the starting rotation while senior Shawn Olsen (4-6, 4.85) provides another experienced arm for the Trojans.
"The intriguing thing about Tommy is that he lost 30 pounds in the off season and is probably in the best shape of his life," said Kreuter. "Ryan won a lot of big games last year until he got mono and went down late in the season, but he proved to be a big-game pitcher. Shawn had an up-and-down season, but he has shown great stuff during the fall."
When he is not playing in right field, Vasquez will see action on the mound while freshmen Brad Boxberger (Tustin/Foothill HS) and Kevin Couture (Coronado/Coronado HS) will get their chance to show off their arms.
"We have six guys that are battling for the four starting pitching positions," said Kreuter. "Vasquez will probably pitch on Sundays or midweek games if he becomes a starter so we have him fresh in the outfield on the other days. Brad and Kevin have arms that are worthy of No. 1 status. I don't want to characterize a guy as a Friday night guy or a Saturday guy. I feel that each and every one of those guys is as good as any one guy so I won't be afraid to pull the trigger on having someone start for our season opener and then throwing a dart at a dartboard for our Friday starter. I don't believe we will lose anything by having any of those guys out there."
Sophomore John Dunn (3-2, 4.00) set a school record with 40 appearances last year and showed that he can be a workhorse in the bullpen. Sophomore Anthony Encinas and redshirt freshman Nate Klein both missed last season with injuries, but both are healthy and able to assist the staff. Encinas also has the potential to be a starter as he showed in his freshman season.
Perhaps the most exciting part of this year's staff is the potential to have not one, but three potential closers on the mound. Senior right-hander Paul Koss (0-8, 6.28, six saves) rebounded from a difficult season with a strong performance last summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League. With the addition of freshmen Rabago and Stock, USC now has three guys who can throw in the low 90s and provide many options this season.
"We will use those guys at the end of the game, either as a setup or closer," said Kreuter. "Those three guys give us a lot of thunder at the end of a game. It's probably unlike any situation they have had at USC for awhile in terms of having three options to close the game or have any combination."
Stock is even more intriguing when you consider that he could be the team's starting catcher for the first part of the game and then be used as a pitcher.
"It just depends on how fresh his arm is, how much he has thrown in a game," said Kreuter. "There will be a lot of variables with it. Some days, we may rest him and use him as a designated hitter. He might come in as a true closer, but he is capable of throwing two innings. We just have to forecast and see where we will be and how we need to use him."
Arizona State, UCLA, Washington State and Stanford travel to Dedeaux Field while USC will hit the road to face Oregon State, Washington, Arizona and California.
Midweek games will include home-and-home series with Cal State Fullerton, Pepperdine, UC Irvine, Loyola Marymount, UC Riverside and UC Santa Barbara.
Kreuter is willing to go to his "young guns" for the 2007 season and knows the potential is there in order to reach USC's annual goal of getting to Omaha and the College World Series.
"When I was here in 2005, we didn't have the depth that we had this year," said Kreuter. "The 2005 team was one win away from getting to Omaha and while you could argue that we don't have players like Jeff Clement or Billy Hart, we have a lot more depth in our lineup this year."