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LOS ANGELES — John Savage is a man who cares. He is one of the good ones in our sport. There are a lot of them, but the UCLA head honcho really is a man who cares deeply about his team. He cares about his assistant coaches and their success. He cares about the state of our sport. He even cares about helping me complete this Fall Ball write-up.
When I called coach Savage this week he said that he wanted to start our conversation with an “opening statement” before we got into the weeds of his ball club and the fall practice they had.
“We’re looking forward to getting back to normalcy. Our players need to have competition, success, failure, adjustment periods, interaction and communication with their teammates to create that bond that all good teams possess. We have good players but as everyone knows you really don’t know what you have until the lights go on. I do know that we have driven players that want to develop and compete. No computer is going to develop a baseball player. They have to get out there and do all the necessary things they do so they can develop into solid Division I players and beyond. I know right now the players need each other, players need the coaches and the coaches need the players.”
It’s a pretty cool statement.
And I’m sure it is also based on the frustration coach Savage has seen in the shortened 2020 season, the long summer where some of his players had a hard time finding a place to play due to some leagues shutting down and now he is seeing some of his fellow Southern California programs not able to have fall practices due to Coronavirus protocols and closed campuses.
But coach Savage and his Bruins were one of the lucky ones who got the chance to have practices and play scrimmages.
“Our athletic department did an outstanding job of setting up protocols and we followed them well,” Savage said. “It’s a testament to our administration and our players for doing what was necessary to keeping completely healthy. We got through it and now we have a pretty good idea of what we have going into January.”
Speaking of that team he’ll have coming back in January, the term “an embarrassment of riches” comes to mind. This team is once again absolutely loaded for bear. Like most teams around the country, there are a ton of returnees. The only players missing from last spring are OF Garrett Mitchell (1st round, Brewers) and ace reliever Holden Powell (3rd round, Nationals), who are both on their way to the play for pay boys. So that means eight of the nine starters are back along with all three weekend starters on the mound and nearly every bullpenner of note.
“You saw what we were like in 2019 and then you saw what we were like in 2020,” Savage said. “I felt like we were really growing into becoming a legitimate team. Well now we have to start over but we feel pretty confident we will grow as a team and get better. This fall has helped toward that goal.
When you talk about UCLA — especially in the John Savage era — you know the pitching is going to be a marquee unit. And this coming 2021 season will be no different. It all starts on the weekend spots where Zach Pettway (3-0, 1.05), Jesse Bergin (4-0, 1.27) and Nick Nastrini (2-1, 4.60) all return to their posts and represent one of the best rotations in the country. They were a big part of why the Bruins arms staff led the country in fewest earned runs allowed, relenting just 28 in 15 games.
Nastrini and Bergin were rated 37th and 40th in D1baseball’s top prospects list for the 2021 draft. Pettway was listed at No. 124.
Overall, the Bruins had 11 pitchers with an ERA of 3.00 or lower last spring. And the good part is that 10 of those arms return. The only real mystery that the Bruin coaches needed to address this fall was finding a closer to replace Holden Powell. But boy howdy, they’ve got a stable of wicked arms to choose from. Coach Savage is known for using a lot of pitchers in many set-up and middle inning roles.
RHP Jared Karros went 2-0, 3.86 and made three mid-week starts last year. Depending on how the schedules lay out — be there mid-week games or just four-game weekends — Karros figures to be a possible game four starter again. He comes back this season after adding some muscle to his 6-foot-7 frame.
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RHPs Michael Townsend (1-0, 0.00) and Kyle Mora (0-0, 0.96) both made 11 appearances in the 15 games last spring in set-up roles. Right-handed arms like Sean Mullen (0-0, 0.93) and Adrian Chaidez (1-1, 8.10) and left-handers Jake Saum (0-0, 3.00) and Daniel Colwell (0-0, 9.80) all made four appearances last year and add to the depth. Also, look for RHP Jack Filby (0-0, 0.00 in three appearances) and LHP Josh Haun to be two-way guys toeing the rubber and getting some at-bats.
While pitching and defense has always been the Bruins calling card, they really ratcheted up the offense in 2020, hitting .308 as a team, which was good for the best offense in the Pac 12 and 20th nationally. Matt McLain was the ringleader of the group as he hit .397 in those 15 games. McLain, catcher Noah Cardenas, first baseman JT Schwartz and second baseman Kevin Kendall were all slated to play in the Cape Cod League last summer until that league got shut down. They will make up four of the five starters in the infield this coming season. To complete the infield, Jake Moberg returns to his third base post. As a former 34th round draft pick out of high school, the coaching staff has confidence in his steady play at the hot corner.
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But coach Savage was quick to note that one of the biggest surprises of the fall was the transformation of Mikey Perez (.333 last season), who could move into the second baseman position. If that happens, then Kendall would move to the outfield and could even take over the centerfield position that Garrett Mitchell left open. Coach Savage said this is more of a testament to the ascendance of Perez and the athletic ability of Kendall to play multiple positions.
Darius Perry has also made big strides the last few weeks and is a viable alternative to Cardenas at the backstop position, particularly if this season presents a lot of double-header Saturdays or for a Sunday start. At 6’2, 215 Perry is also a sturdy body behind the dish with good catch-and-throw skills.
In the meadow, there is a ton of options to man the three positions. A pair of redshirt seniors in Kyle Cuellar (.341, 2 HRs) and Jarron Silva (.276) are likely candidates, especially considering their experience is such a big asset. Pat CauLfield (.302) has the look of a grizzled veteran as well, being a redshirt junior, and figures to get his reps after having a very good fall camp.
Coach Savage was also quick to point out that talents like OF Michael Curialle, who hit .325 in 10 starts and the aforementioned Josh Hahn, who made four starts last year, are also in the mix for a lot of playing time. And it might be easy to overlook Emanuel Dean as a player to watch because he had to redshirt last season with an injury. But Dean was rated the No. 1 outfielder in the state of California coming out of high school. And at 6’3, 215, he is certainly a thump at the dish. So again, lots of options and lots of depth for this team in the field and in the batting order.
“We are pretty heavy left-handed batting order,” Savage says. “We’ve got some speed and we’ve got some power too. We look forward to them coming back in January and continuing to form a real team.”
This incoming class of freshmen are pretty good. In fact, very good. I know it’s not the be-all, end-all of evaluating a player’s talent, but when you see that seven of the 10 freshmen took part in the Area Code Games before their senior year, you realize the scouts think very highly of them.
And incredibly, this class could’ve been tons better, if not for four high school signees getting picked in the five-round MLB draft.
“We lost four guys to the draft,” Savage said. “I think we lost more incoming signees than anyone in the country. We really like our freshman class but even with the short draft this year we did take a hit.”
But worry not, the Bruins are used to adjusting to make up for draft losses and this year will be no different. Among the studs that did show up on campus, a familiar name joins the new Bruin crew in Kyle Karros. Yes, that’s the son of former Dodger all-star Eric Karros and brother to Jared, the mid-week starter on the mound. The younger Karros is a strong, strapping corner infielder who coach Savage says has a shot to get significant playing time at third base.
“He’s got power and is a good athlete,” Savage said. “He’s really rangy at third base and he had a really good fall, showing he could adjust to the college game.”
The top pitcher of the incoming recruits is RHP Max Rajcic, a highly-regarded prospect from Fullerton. He’s got a three pitch mix and what coach Savage calls “a big, big arm.” In the fall, he was clocked at 93-94mph fastball and low-80s curve, and could be the answer to the closer role, even as a freshman. Coach Savage made note that Rajcic was one of the bigger surprises of the fall, in terms of he might be a faster riser than they even expected.
RHP Jake Brooks made a big jump from last spring to this fall as the Fountain Valley product has packed on 20 pounds of muscle to his 6’4 frame and was hitting 90-91 on his fireball. Coach Savage also likes two projectable arms that have a good future with the Blue & Gold in RHPs Kenji Pallares and Carson Hamro, both low 90s hurlers at 6’4 and 6’5 respectively. RHP Chris Aldrich was a late add recruit, but will contribute with his 88-90 fastball and effective changeup.
Future second baseman Daylen Reyes is a hitting machine who coach Savage thinks will be an impact bat right from the get-go. Former high school quarterback Carson Yates, a strapping 6’4, 215-pounder, is a power-hitting outfielder with a tremendous amount of tools. Both of these newcomers showed they were ready to contribute right away in this fall session for the Bruins, and will be a part of the insane amount of depth this team will display in 2021.
Two other physical specimens which have great futures ahead of them will be incoming 1B Eli Paton, a 6’3, 220-pound thumper with left-handed power and energy, and Jon Jon Vaughns, a 6’2, 220-pound two-sport athlete. Playing safety, Vaughns had four tackles in his first collegiate game at Colorado, but coach Savage has said that he is committed to becoming a good baseball player and has legit left-handed power. He is slated to be an outfielder but also showed some velocity on the mound as well, so he’ll be a good utility man that will join the Bruins in January.