2012 USC Baseball Season Outlook

    Frank Cruz

    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:

    Catching will be the strength of this year's team, led by senior Kevin Roundtree (.308, 1 HR, 11 RBI in 2011). His .308 batting average and .404 slugging percentage ranked third on the team. He led the team with 38 runs scored, and tied for the lead with 11 doubles while putting up 64 hits (2nd on the team) and appearing in all but one game for the Trojans. He is backed by young talent; sophomore Jake Hernandez (.200, 6 RBI) and freshman Garrett Stubbs (Torrey Pines HS). Hernandez and Stubbs could also see action at first base and the outfield, respectively, as both handled the bat well in the fall. Additionally, sophomore Nick Bast adds depth to the position.

    "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."

    Junior Adam Landecker (.280, 16 RBI) is coming off an error-free 2011 conference campaign and brings strong leadership to the team at third base. His 3 triples tied for first on the team and he ranked third in on base percentage at .390 while appearing in 51 games. He will be backed by sophomore Kevin Swick (.258, 4 RBI), who could also see time in the outfield and freshman Trent Boras (J Serra HS) could come off the bench.

    "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."

    Garrett Houts (.290, 7 RBI), a fifth-year senior, will enter the season as the Trojans starting center fielder after batting .324 in Pac-10 play last season. Senior Alex Sherrod (.318, 6 HR, 35 RBI) will man right field and he is expected to be an offensive threat in the middle of the order. His .486 slugging percentage led the team and he was second in both batting average at .316 and in home runs with six.

    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."

    With a mix of veteran talent and intriguing freshman arms, the competition on the USC pitching staff will be intense as starting and relief jobs are still open. Senior Andrew Triggs (5-4, 3.67 ERA, 90 2/3 IP, 72 SO), who led the team in wins, ERA and strikeouts, was drafted in the 21st round of last year's draft by the San Francisco Giants. He is an Academic All-American candidate, and returns to USC to assume the Friday starter spot. After an impressive summer in the Cape Cod League where he won Top Pitcher honors, Ben Mount (1-2, 5.15 ERA, 43 2/3 IP, 30 SO) looks to step into the role of Saturday starter. The battle for the remaining rotation spots includes 1B/DH Garcia (2-5, 8.73 ERA, 33 IP, 29 SO) and sophomore Bobby Wheatley (1-1, 6.39 ERA, 12 2/3 IP, 5 SO), as well as two top freshman recruits; Stephen Tarpley (Gilbert HS) and Wyatt Strahan (Villa Park HS).

    "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."

    USC will have its work cut out in 2012, especially with a schedule that features nine teams from the preseason Top 25 Poll. The Pac-12 Conference schedule alone pits USC against six teams that qualified for last year's NCAA Tournament last year. The Trojans' road prospects won't ease up as they will play at powers UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State, Oregon and Washington State in conference play.

    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.