Jan. 29, 2007
Two years ago, Baylor fielded the most experienced team in the program's history. In 2007, head coach Steve Smith fields one of the youngest squads in his 13-year tenure. Only seven players remain from the 2005 team that reached the national semifinals at the College World Series and only four of those lettered that season. Only OF Chase Gerdes and RHP Jeff Mandel -- both seniors -- played in the 2005 College World Series.
However, the 2007 team is not one without a wealth of talent. The Bears return 18 letterwinners, including five starters and eight pitchers, from a 2006 squad that went 37-26 and reached the championship round at the NCAA Houston Regional. Baylor also welcomes an incoming class ranked as the nation's best by Baseball America.
"Turnover is a part of college baseball," Smith said. "While we have experienced a lot over the past two years, we will not have much in the next few years."
Baylor's 2007 roster features seven seniors, but only three -- Gerdes, Mandel and RHP Andy Pape have been with the Bears their entire collegiate careers. The other four -- C Matt Czimskey, 1B/3B Tim Jackson, C Matt Sodolak and RHP Jake Weghorst -- joined the program last season as junior college transfers.
Jackson and Mandel serve as 2007 co-captains. Smith said both, along with Gerdes, should be strong team leaders.
"None of them is extremely vocal; but when they say something, the rest of the team listens," Smith said. "The most important thing is for our veteran players to play like veterans. The freshmen are talented, but this will be a very new experience for all of them."
Smith considers the Bears' 15 true freshmen to be the most talented freshman class in his time at Baylor, comparing it to the 1995 freshman class that guided the Bears to the program's first of eight NCAA Regionals in a nine-year span and its first in five years as juniors.
Pitching depth may prove to be one of the 2007 team's strong points. And, much like last year's team, the Bears should be able to rely on great team speed and solid defense.
"We should be very athletic and very capable in the infield," Smith said. "We will not be as good defensively in the outfield, but that is not surprising when you lose outstanding defensive players like Seth Fortenberry and Kevin Sevigny (both seniors in 2006)."
Despite the loss of 15 starters to graduation and/or professional baseball over the past two seasons, several key players return from last year's NCAA Regional team. Along with Gerdes and Jackson, Baylor returns five regular starters: OF Ben Booker, Sodolak and SS Beamer Weems. Along with Mandel, the Bears return six pitchers who logged at least 25.0 innings of work last season: right-handers Nick Cassavechia, Randall Linebaugh, Tim Matthews and Weghorst, and southpaw Cliff Springston.
Baylor's four main starters in the infield last season -- Booker at second, Jackson at first, Weems at shortstop and the departed senior Kevin Russo at third -- committed a total of 38 errors with no player making more than 10 miscues defensively. However, for the second consecutive season, the Bears will have at least two infielders who were not on the team a year earlier on the field at all times.
A 2006 Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-America selection, Weems (.297, 8 HR, 47 RBI in 2006) anchors the Baylor infield at shortstop. Weems started all but one game at short last season, the first Baylor true freshman to start at short since Jace Brewer in 1999.
A second-team All-Big 12 selection by the league's coaches last season, Weems tallied the most home runs by a Baylor freshman since Matt Williams had nine in 1998 and the most by a Baylor shortstop since Brewer also had eight in 2000. However, Weems first made a name for himself with solid defensive play; he committed only 10 errors in 262 chances, and only two of those were fielding errors. Weems was one of only three freshmen nationally to commit 10 or fewer errors at shortstop, and he was the only of those three to start at least 60 games.
"Beamer is a very talented player, especially on the defensive side," Smith said. "He is much stronger this year and worked very hard in the fall to lead our young infielders. It may not be fair to look to a sophomore for such leadership, but Beamer is a special player and a special person."
With the loss of Russo, who started 38 games at third base last season, sophomore Seth Hammock (.270, 0, 4) and true freshman Raynor Campbell will compete for the starting job at the hot corner. Hammock played sparingly in 2006, making seven starts and only two at third base.
"We will miss Russo at third," Smith said. "He brought a lot of experience to the table and had a great senior season.
"Raynor is one of our more versatile players. He is a very good athlete who could play any of the infield positions, but will see most of his action at third base."
True freshman Shaver Hansen will be the starter at second base."Shaver really had a good fall swinging the bat and looks to be our best bet at second," Smith said. "Like Campbell, Shaver also could play anywhere in the infield. Between the two of them, we have some options in the event of injury."
Jackson (.268, 0, 31) and another true freshman, Dustin Dickerson, likely will split time at first base.
"Tim proved to be a good clutch hitter last year and one of our best RBI guys," Smith said. "He is a great leader on our team and has developed into a very good defensive first baseman."
Jackson started 41 games last season, including 34 starts at first base. He hit .373 with runners in scoring position and was 5-for-6 with the bases loaded, both best on the team. Jackson's .474 average with runners in scoring position also was a team best.
"Dickerson has a chance to be an outstanding hitter and defensive first baseman," Smith said. "He has great size and very good hands at the plate."
Sophomore Drew Bias (.242, 0, 3) started 20 games at third base last season and could see time again this year.
Baylor featured one of the nation's fastest outfields in 2006 with Gerdes (.292, 2, 34), Fortenberry and Sevigny. Gerdes is the lone returner from that trio and will start in center.
"We were very blessed over the past couple of years with outstanding defensive players in the outfield," Smith said. "Any of those three guys could play center field for anyone. It will be difficult to replace the defense we got from Seth and Kevin."
Gerdes made 50 starts in center last year and has been the Bears' primary center fielder each of the past three seasons. He tied for 10th in the Big 12 with 15 stolen bases last season, becoming the first Baylor player since 1999 to record at least 10 stolen bases in three consecutive seasons. Gerdes caught fire late in the season, going 20-for-56 (.357) with 12 RBI over the season's final 18 games, hitting safely in all but three games.
"It is extremely comforting to know we have someone with both the experience and talent of Chase in center," Smith said. "He will do a great job directing guys on the corners, and he should give us some range in the gaps."
After starting 50 games last season on the right side of the infield, Booker (.268, 2, 23) moves to left field for the 2007 season. He tallied 11 multiple-hit games as a true freshman and hit .306 with two outs.
"Ben is a tremendous athlete but very inexperienced in the outfield," Smith said. "He will make some mistakes, but I expect he will develop into a very special player."
True freshman Aaron Miller replaces Sevigny in right field. Considered one of the nation's top two-way high school players last year by Baseball America, Miller was an 11th-round selection of the Colorado Rockies in the June 2006 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
"Aaron is extremely strong and is really the classic corner outfielder," Smith said. "He has a good arm and will hit for some power at the plate. He has played a lot of outfield, so he does have some experience."
Others who could see time in the outfield include: redshirt freshman Kenton Gedwed, true freshman Willie Kempf, junior Paul Miles (.200, 0, 5) and Springston (.125, 0, 0). Miles, another speedster, made 10 starts last season. Springston will see most of his time on the mound but could be used in the outfield if needed.
No where does Baylor have bigger shoes to fill than at the catcher spot. Departed senior Zach Dillon led the Bears in virtually every offensive category en route to first-team All-Big 12 honors.
However, the biggest loss may be Dillon's leadership. The 2006 first-team CoSIDA Academic All-American and Johnny Bench Award semifinalist was a stalwart for the Bears both on the field and in the clubhouse.
"He was a coach on the field handling the pitchers," Smith said. "And he had such a great offensive year. He clearly was our leader in so many ways."
Three players will attempt to fill those shoes with Czimskey (.208, 0, 1) and Sodolak (.257, 0, 29) sharing much of the load. True freshman Gregg Glime also will see his share of time behind the plate.
Czimskey was a 2005 All-American at San Jacinto [Texas] Junior College. He appeared in 24 games and made two starts for Baylor last season.
Sodolak, the Bears' primary designated hitter last season, started 10 games behind the dish in 2006. He tallied 15 two-out RBI as a junior and hit .316 with runners in scoring position.
Smith said he expects catching duties to be split fairly evenly depending on who is playing well at the time.
Redshirt freshman Tim Hartland also could see spot time.
For the first time in Smith's tenure, Baylor does not return a pitcher with more than five career starts in conference play. However, the Bears' staff, while not steeped in experience, is talented and very deep. Baylor must look to a pair of familiar names to anchor the rotation.
Mandel (2-3, 4.40 ERA, 39 K in 2006) has appeared in 55 games over the past three seasons with nine starts. He started the 2006 season as Baylor's closer and amassed eight saves before moving to the rotation in late April. Mandel, who will focus on pitching this season after also hitting his first three seasons at Baylor, was an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection as a sophomore. That season, he earned victories in the NCAA Waco Regional championship game against Stanford, and he was the winner against Oregon State in Baylor's first-ever College World Series victory -- both in relief.
"Jeff is a great athlete with a lot of very positive experience," Smith said. "He will be looked to for leadership on and off the field and will have a greater role as a starter on the mound."
Linebaugh (6-1, 3.42, 65) moves to the weekend rotation after serving as Baylor's midweek starter last season. He led the staff in strikeouts as a sophomore, the first Bear to accomplish that feat since Steven White in 2001. Linebaugh ranked 10th in the Big 12 in ERA and made postseason starts against Nebraska at the Big 12 Tournament and against top-ranked Rice at the NCAA Houston Regional.
"Randall is more than capable of being a weekend starter," Smith said. "He has excellent stuff and has grown into the role over the past two years."
Springston (2-1, 6.39, 12) and true freshman right-hander Kendal Volz will vie for the Sunday job with the other working Tuesday games. Springston appeared in 15 games with one start as a freshman last season.
Matthews (6-5, 5.03, 39) is the Bears' primary middle reliever for the 2007 season. He began the 2006 campaign as the Bears' Sunday starter before moving to the bullpen, where he flourished. In nine relief outings, Matthews held first batters faced to an 0-for-7 mark with four strikeouts and two walks; he also stranded all eight inherited runners.
Weghorst (1-0, 1.73, 11) gives Baylor a formidable setup man. He made 24 appearances last season, 23 in relief. Weghorst became the first pitcher in Baylor history to appear in at least eight Big 12 games, log at least 1.0 inning per appearance and not allow an earned run. He also ended the season on a 27.0-inning scoreless streak covering 17 appearances. Opposing batters were just 2-for-21 in first at bats against Weghorst.
Cassavechia (3-4, 3.03, 28) begins the 2007 season where he ended the 2006 campaign -- as the Bears' closer. He tied for fourth in the Big 12 with eight saves despite spending only two months in the closer role. Cassavechia stranded 24 of 27 inherited runners and posted a staff-best 9-to-4 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio. Opposing batters were just 2-for-25 in first at bats against Cassavechia.
Junior southpaw Drew Jeffcoat (0-0, 4.66, 3) will be looked to as the Bears left-handed specialist in the bullpen and also should see some time at the plate. Sophomore right-handers Reed Woytek (0-0, 4.60, 9) and Brice Ary (0-0, 9.64, 2) also return after seeing limited action last season.
Right-hander Erik Forestiere (0-0, 4.91, 6) hopes to return from Tommy John surgery that all-but wiped out his 2006 season and be a factor.
Smith said a number of younger guys will also see extensive action, including junior college transfer Aaron Williams, redshirt freshman Wade Mackey and true freshmen Tom Filip, Craig Fritsch, Ryan Jenkins, Willie Kempf and Shawn Tolleson, who also is coming off Tommy John surgery last spring.
Challenging schedules are nothing new for Baylor -- the Bears' schedule strength has ranked 11th or better nationally in each of the past six seasons. Baylor's cumulative strength of schedule over the past 10 years ranked ninth nationally according to research by Boyd Nation of BoydsWorld.com. Baylor and Texas were the only schools outside of California in the top 10. Likewise, the 2007 slate features plenty of formidable foes both in and out of Big 12 Conference play.
Baylor's schedule features 36 games (64.3 percent of the schedule) against 13 opponents (59.1 percent of opponents) who participated in the 2006 NCAA Tournament. The Bears play 22 games (34.3 percent) against eight opponents (36.4 percent) who finished the 2006 season ranked in the Baseball America Top 25.
From March 27 to April 22, the Bears play 16 consecutive games against teams who participated in the 2006 NCAA Tournament. At no point will the Bears go more than five games without facing such an opponent. Of Baylor's 20 games prior to the start of Big 12 play, 14 are at Baylor Ballpark.
"This is a challenging schedule, as our schedule usually is," Smith said. "Our fans will have plenty of chances to see us play top competition, both in and out of conference. Hopefully playing a lot of home games -- and a lot early -- will help our younger players get acclimated to the program and to college ball in a familiar environment."
Baylor plays 34 games at Baylor Ballpark in 2007, including the second-annual Quala-T Imprints Baylor Classic (March 9-11) with San Francisco, Mississippi State and Winthrop. The Bears also host home series against Stephen F. Austin (Feb. 16-18) and Oral Roberts (Feb. 23-25). Texas Tech (March 23-25), Oklahoma (April 5-7), Missouri (April 20-22) and Kansas State (May 18-20) all visit Baylor Ballpark this season along with the annual split-series against Texas (March 16-18) and Texas A&M (April 27-29).
Smith said the Big 12 Conference is as wide open this year as it has been in years.
"It is hard to pick a front-runner," he said. "There are a number of teams that could win the league, depending upon certain things happening or not happening. From top to bottom, the league will be very competitive."
The Bears are 194-72 (.729) since moving into Baylor Ballpark during the 1999 season. Last year, the Bears established a school record for regular-season home wins, going 27-7 at Baylor Ballpark.
Baylor ranked 16th nationally in 2006, averaging 3,013 fans per game. The Bears drew a regular-season school-record 96,427 fans last season. Baylor is one of only 15 schools nationally to draw at least 90,000 in each of the past three seasons.
The Bears open the 2007 season in Houston, Texas, at the Minute Maid Park College Classic. Baylor faces Houston, and preseason top-10 opponents Rice and Vanderbilt in the three-day event. The Bears' first home game is Feb. 13 against Texas State.