2012 USC Baseball Season Outlook
Feb. 14, 2012
In May of 2011, after his team showed steady improvement during his season as interim head coach, Frank Cruz was installed as the head coach of the USC baseball program on a fulltime basis with seven games to play.
Now in 2012, Cruz returns for his first full season at the helm of the most successful college baseball program in the country. He is determined to return USC to the upper echelon of collegiate baseball, one that has a history steeped in tradition and an unequalled 12 national championships.
This will be Cruz's eighth year with the program - four seasons as an assistant coach (1993-96), two seasons as the volunteer coach and the majority of last season as interim head coach. He has assembled a staff of former Trojan players to assist coaching and guiding the program into the future.
Former Trojan pitcher Dan Hubbs (1990-93) joins the staff from California and will serve as pitching coach and associate head coach while also handling recruiting. Former Trojan shortstop Gabe Alvarez (1993-95) returns for his second season as full-time assistant coach. New additions and former Trojan catchers, Jason Brown (1994-97) and Eric Munson (1997-99) round out the staff as assistants.
"We are thrilled to have a staff of former Trojan ballplayers that can teach and mold the young men in our program," said Cruz. "Each of them bring the dedication and passion for the game necessary to lead us in the right direction."
With the new regime now firmly in place at Dedeaux Field, the 2012 Trojans look to build on the improvement of last season.
After winning just three of its first 12 games of 2011 and then falling eight games under .500 by midseason, USC won nine of its next 11 contests to nearly even its record before a late six-game losing skid halted its momentum. The Trojans finished 25-31 overall and 13-14 in the Pac-10 (seventh place). Twenty of USC's losses were by four runs or less, including seven one-run defeats. Half of USC's Pac-10 losses were by four runs or less.
Here is a position-by-position outlook for the Trojans:
"Roundtree had a fabulous year defensively for us, threw out a high percentage of runners and was a very consistent hitter," said Cruz. "He handled the pitchers well and even called his own, game which is very unusual at the college level. Hernandez has steadily improved on offense and defense and is athletic enough to play another position as well. Additionally, Stubbs has shown a natural knack to catch. He's a great catch-and-throw guy with a strong arm and he is a strong left-handed hitter. Against right-handers you could see all three of them in the lineup because of their bats."
"We expect big things from Landecker this year," said Cruz. "He had a productive fall with the bat and, mixed with his defense, will be a key player for us."
After starting every game last season, sophomore James Roberts (.274, 1 HR, 15 RBI) returns as the team's starter at shortstop. With added strength and an improved bat, Roberts is expected to hit anywhere from 2 to 5 in the lineup this season. In 2011, his 49 hits were good for fifth on the team, while he was third in walks with 17 and was hit by a pitch a team-leading 15 times resulting in a .384 on base percentage.
"Roberts is a tremendous defender and he will be our quarterback at the shortstop position," said Cruz. "He is one of the smartest and most fundamentally-sound ballplayers I have coached and solidifies us up the middle. I think he will also have a great year at the plate."
Dante Flores (St. John Bosco HS), a highly-touted freshman who has impressed coaches with his bat since arriving on campus, is expected to start at second base for the Trojans. Another talented freshman, Andres Rodriguez (La Mirada HS) will provide solid defense off the bench for the Trojans as well.
"Flores has a sweet maintenance-free swing that should fit well into our lineup," said Cruz. "He is going to play a lot of innings for us and will make an instant impact as a freshman."
Senior Matt Foat (.262, 1 HR, 26 RBI) looks to be the starter at first base after finishing third on the team in RBI's last season. He may share playing time with senior Brandon Garcia (.309, 2 HR, 22 RBI), whose .309 batting average was third on the team, and whose .397 slugging percentage was fourth. Hernandez could see time as well as the Trojans will look for maximum offensive production.
"Foat is a tremendous leader with an impeccable work ethic," said Cruz. "We know he can swing the bat and he has improved his defensive skills. Both Garcia and Hernandez can handle the bat, so we have options."
The left field spot will provide a good competition this year. Fourth-year junior Sean Spear (Glendale C.C.) hit .339 for Glendale C.C. last season and brings speed to the outfield and basepaths. Sophomore Omar Cotto and junior J.R. Aguirre have both shown improvement and could work their way into the rotation as well. Freshmen Bobby Stahel (Palos Verdes HS) who led the nation with 93 stolen bases during his junior season at Palos Verdes HS, and Nigel Nootbaar (El Segundo HS), a threat on the mound and with the bat, have shown flashes of excitement and could also be called to action. Freshmen Will Morrow (Corona Del Mar HS) and Scott Hahn (Tesoro HS) are battling for the remaining reserve positions.
"Houts and Sherrod bring athleticism, offense and solid defense to the outfield," said Cruz. "If Sherrod can stay healthy, he has all the tools to have a big year for us. Houts has improved his bat and also adds to the strength up the middle."
"We feel like Triggs was our biggest recruit last year coming back for his fifth year," said Cruz. "He has great maturity and has developed a solid changeup that we are excited about. Ben had a fantastic summer and we think he will do a nice job in the middle of the rotation for us. The third starter spot is probably going to come down to four guys. Brandon has done well for us in starting roles in the past. Wheatley has really improved his off-speed pitches in the off season. We are also impressed with our two freshmen. All of our guys have said that Tarpley was tough to hit this fall and Strahan has a plus changeup and a plus curve. One of those four will also emerge as the midweek starter."
Several experienced relievers are back for the Trojans. Left-hander Kyle Richter (2-3, 4.01 ERA, 33 2/3 IP, 21 SO) got some spot starts last season while making 23 appearances and will be counted on again this year. Lefties Wheatley and Brad Douthit (7.88 ERA, 8 IP, 3 SO) will also be valuable assets in relief.
Right-hander Matt Munson (0-1, 5.19 ERA, 26 IP, 18 SO) was a key arm last season making a team-high 24 relief appearances and will need to be a contributor again this year. Sophomore James Guillen (Damien HS) returns for the Trojans and will be a key piece out of the bullpen in addition to new comer Corey Carma (Hartnell College). Fellow righties Brett Williams, Jordan Hershiser and Nick Berhel are coming off injuries last season but continue to progress. The dark horse of the group may be senior transfer Martin Viramontes who brings big game experience to the bullpen from his three seasons spent at Loyola Marymount. The closer spot may not be decided until the final days leading up to the home opener.
"We have some quality arms in the bullpen coming back for us this year," said Cruz. "Munson will be a big piece for us this season and some of our younger guys could also get work in relief."
The non-conference schedule is equally challenging with home series against Jacksonville and Akron as well as midweek games at Long Beach State and Pepperdine. The Trojans then travel to North Carolina for a three-game set before returning home to host Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Bakersfield. USC will face UCLA at the Dodgertown Classic in a non-conference meeting and play midweek contests with UC Irvine, Cal State Bakersfield, Cal State Fullerton and UC Santa Barbara to round out the schedule.
"The Pac-12 is home to some of the best baseball in the country," said Cruz. "We face nine teams in the Top-25 during our season and six that had a shot at the title last year. It won't be an easy road and our guys know that. Playing baseball at USC is about facing the best in the country head on and not backing down. We will work hard and compete every pitch of every game.
"USC baseball has a very proud and distinguished history to maintain. It is our goal to return the program to that state and I have no doubt we are headed in the right direction."
The Trojans open the 2012 season Friday February 17 at Dedeaux Field as they host Jacksonville for a three-game set. First pitch set for 6:00 p.m.