2008 Season Outlook
Feb. 8, 2008
The number eight carries a special meaning to the USC baseball program. Five of the Trojans' 12 national championships have come in years that ended with eight (1948, 1958, 1968, 1978 and 1998). Despite a 27-29 record and last place finish in the always competitive Pac-10 Conference, the maturation of a young squad mixed with the addition of a wealth of newcomers should give USC's revamped coaching staff some optimism heading into the 2008 season.
Second-year head coach Chad Kreuter hired two new assistant coaches and both hires may ensure a quick return to USC's storied history of baseball success.
Doyle Wilson, who played for Arkansas at the 1985 College World Series as a catcher, spent seven seasons as the head coach at Chandler-Gilbert Community College and has paid immediate dividends as the new recruiting coordinator. The coaching staff has seen the 2009 class ranked third in the nation.
New pitching coach Tom House is a name that is well-known among major league pitching as well as college baseball circles. The former Trojan pitcher not only pitched in the major leagues, but served as a pitching coach for three major league teams. His vast knowledge of pitching mechanics, along with his cutting-edge expertise in video motion analysis, should create instant results for a young, but talented pitching staff.
Pitching and defense will be the mainstays for the 2008 season as the Trojans lost only two regulars off last year's staff. Five starting position players return as the team produced a respectable .973 fielding percentage with 58 errors in 56 games. USC will try to generate more offense this season after last year's squad hit .286 overall and just 25 home runs.
"We don't have as much team speed as I would like, but I think our power numbers should be better this year," said Kreuter.
With a 35-man roster cap rule set for the 2009 season, the Trojans have jumped the gun with six players on the roster, who are two-way players and can play in the field as well as being able to pitch.
"We focused on bringing in a lot of pitchers this season," said Kreuter. "We have about 15 pitchers on the squad, so we should be able to absorb any injuries."
Here is a position-by-position outlook for the Trojans:
Sophomore Robert Stock (.253, 4 HR, 22 RBI) made national news last year when he skipped his senior year of high school to attend USC. Along with being one of the team's co-closers this season, Stock should start the season as the team's No. 1 catcher. Sophomore Keith Castillo played in only 12 games last year, but he had a good summer in the Northwoods League while senior Sebastian Salinas (Riverside/Poly HS) provides a capable backup. The Trojans also have freshman Alex Kurland (Calabasas/Calabasas HS) to add to the depth of the position.
Sophomore shortstop Grant Green (.316, 2 HR, 24 RBI, 6 SB) anchors the Trojan infield after earning freshman All-America honors last year. He started every game and showed his prowess not only at the plate, but also in the field with only nine errors. As a freshman, he set the school single-season record with 10 triples.
The infield got a huge jolt with the addition of senior first baseman Mike Roskopf, who transferred from North Carolina State. Roskopf hit 13 home runs last season for the Wolfpack while hitting .316 and gives a needed left-handed power bat in the lineup.
"If Mike can hit the same as he did last year, it will help us in generating runs," said Kreuter.
Senior Derek Perren (.246, 0 HR, 1 RBI) did not commit an error at first base in 158 chances and will compete with Roskopf for a starting position. Freshmen Jordan Hershiser (Dallas, Texas/St. Mark's School) and Mac Sullivan (Long Beach/Los Alamitos HS) can also play at first with the possibility of Hershiser pitching and Sullivan playing as a designated hitter.
Sophomore Hector Rabago (.232, 2 HR, 10 RBI) should see a lot of time at third base for the Trojans, but will also see time on the pitching mound. Sophomore Billy Pinkerton transferred from Cal State Fullerton, making 12 starts in 29 appearances. He is a talented fielder who can play several positions as a key infielder.
Another freshman may follow in Green's footsteps as Joe De Pinto (Sunland/St. Francis HS) might have a shot to be the team's starter at second base.
Junior center fielder Nick Buss (.290, 1 HR, 13 RBI, 6 SB) is gaining notice among major league scouts and should garner some attention with another strong season. He is coming off a solid summer in the Alaska Baseball League, where led the league with a .369 batting average and 29 stolen bases.
He will create a 1-2 punch at the top of the order with sophomore Mike O'Neill (.375 in 16 at-bats), who was the surprise of the fall practice. O'Neill is a tough out at the plate and will get the nod in left field with senior Will Rice as a backup. Freshman Vinnie St. John (Newport Beach/Corona del Mar HS) will also be available as one of the corner outfielders.
Anthony Vasquez (.196, 8 RBI) is one of USC's two-way players and will platoon with senior Roberto Lopez (.313, 10 RBI) in right field. Lopez can also play at third base and will add to the team's defensive options.
The Trojans return their entire starting rotation for 2008, including freshman All-America right-hander Brad Boxberger (3-5, 3.20 ERA, 90 IP, 72 strikeouts in 2007). He anchors a rotation that includes juniors Ryan Cook (7-4, 5.06 ERA), Tommy Milone (3-7, 6.17 ERA) and Anthony Vasquez (4-6, 5.16 ERA).
Milone is coming off a tremendous summer after being named most outstanding pitcher in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League. He tied for the league lead in wins, going 6-1 with a 2.92 ERA (52 1/3 IP, 7 BB, 46 SO).
With the new NCAA rules creating the Feb. 22 uniform starting date, pitching will be a premium in the college ranks and the Trojans should have enough depth among its starters. Along with the four mentioned starters, sophomore Kevin Couture (2-1, 5.79 ERA, 37 1/3 IP, 45 SO) moves from the bullpen to a starting role. USC can also expect 6-6 junior right-handed transfer Philip Urso (Dallas, Texas/Claremont-McKenna College) to chew up innings as a starter.
Rabago (2-1, 5.10 ERA, 19 appearances) and Stock (2-2, 4.55 ERA, 2 saves, 14 appearances) are set to again share closer duties this season.
The Trojans' young squad will be tested early with nine of the first 13 games on the road, including first-ever nonconference series at Florida International and Winthrop. USC's annual nonconference series with Long Beach State will again be a part of the schedule, along with a weekend "away-home-away" series with UC Santa Barbara.
USC will host the 2008 MLB Urban Baseball Invitational, featuring first-time meetings with Bethune-Cookman and Southern. The game with Bethune-Cookman will be played at Dedeaux Field while USC hosts Southern on Saturday, March 1, at the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton. The USC-Southern game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2 and provide a unique "Battle of the Bands" as both schools' marching bands will be present. The Trojans then play co-host UCLA in a nonconference game on Sunday, March 2, at Dedeaux Field.
Other nonconference opponents include: Cal State Fullerton, San Diego, San Diego State, Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, Cal Poly, UC Riverside, UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge.
The Pac-10 schedule will not be easy as the first three weeks feature series against a team ranked No. 1 in the nation by a national preseason poll. The Trojans open up the conference schedule by hosting Arizona (No. 1 by Collegiate Baseball) before road series at Arizona State (No. 1 by Rivals.com) and UCLA (No. 1 by Baseball America). USC round out the schedule with home series against Cal, Washington and two-time defending national champion Oregon State with road series at Stanford and Washington State.
With 20 newcomers added to this year's roster, the Trojans had to create a successful cohesion as quickly as possible.
"We have very good team chemistry this season," said Kreuter. "We have tried to do a lot of things together. We upgraded our clubhouse and created an atmosphere that promotes positive team building by adding elements such as a ping-pong table and a lounge. We have seen that players spend more time in there."
"I'm still a little apprehensive because we don't know what we will get once we hit Pac-10 Conference play. However, we will be prepared. The coaches have done an excellent job in preparing our players both mentally and physically for the season. If guys have good years at the plate, we will be successful due to the strength of our pitching staff."
It's too early to tell if "eight" will be enough for the Trojans to get back to Omaha, but anything might be possible for USC in 2008.