Feb. 9, 2012
This is the second part of a two-part outlook for the 2012 season. Today we look at the infield, outfield and designated hitter. To read part one about pitchers and catchers click here.
The infield possesses two of the most experienced players on the roster in Anthony Gomez and Riley Reynolds but will also welcome two new faces. Gomez and Reynolds form one of the better up-the-middle duos in the SEC, having played in a combined 291 games during their Vanderbilt careers. Gomez will be expected to man shortstop and a spot near the top of the lineup after hitting .336 last season. He was one of four Commodores to play in all 66 games last year, earning starts every outing. After suffering through a sophomore slump, Reynolds reemerged last season to hit .331 and make 50 starts. The sure-handed senior made only one error last season, posting a .995 fielding percentage.
"We are fortunate that we return both players up the middle. Riley is as consistent as any player that we have had and Anthony played the shortstop position very well in his first year," Corbin says.
The corner infield positions must replace a pair of All-Americans and two of the better players in Vanderbilt history in Jason Esposito and Aaron Westlake. In 2011, the two combined to hit 27 of Vanderbilt's 51 home runs, drive in 115 runs, score 114 runs, collect 177 hits and start every game while hitting in the middle of VU's lineup. Defensively, the pair was just as important with Esposito manning the hot corner and Westlake at first base. Luckily, the Commodores can plug in Freshman All-American Conrad Gregor at first base. Gregor led the Commodores with a .353 batting average in his first year on West End. Gregor's first collegiate hit was a home run against Stanford. He started 49 games last season, including 46 as the designated hitter, but none at first base. Junior Andrew Harris adds depth behind Gregor at first base.
Across the diamond sophomore Joel McKeithan and freshman Vince Conde will battle for playing time at third base. McKeithan played in just six games during his freshman campaign with all his defensive work coming at shortstop. However, defense is McKeithan's calling card with his good hands and strong, accurate arm. Conde enters the picture with a chance to bring some power to the position having showed the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark in the fall.
"The positions that we have to fill are third and first base," Corbin says. "Conrad Gregor and Andrew Harris will both compete for the first base spot while McKeithan and Conde will look to fill the void at 3rd base. Infield defense has always been a strength for us and I believe in time, this infield will be reflective of that."
Freshman Connor Castellano could work his way into the lineup with his left-handed bat at third or second base. The hard-nosed D.J. Luna will battle for playing time at second base after sitting out last season as a transfer from Samford, where he played football. Freshman Zander Wiel will join Harris as a back up to Gregor at first base but could warrant playing time if his bat develops this spring. Freshman All-American Conrad Gregor is expected to take over at first base this season.
The outfield figures to be one of the Vanderbilt team strengths with all three starters returning from last year's squad in Tony Kemp, Connor Harrell and Mike Yastrzemski.
"This may be the strongest area of the team. It is certainly the area of the field where we have the most experience. All three kids from last year's CWS team are back - these kids are athletic, they can run, they possess strong arms and they are intelligent. Not to mention that our fourth outfielder, Jack Lupo, is one of the best athletes on the team."
Reigning SEC Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-American Kemp returns to left field and the top of the Vanderbilt lineup. Kemp enjoyed one of the best seasons by a freshman in school history hitting .329 in 65 games and leading the team with seven triples. The dynamic left fielder earned the reputation of an outstanding outfielder and the offensive catalyst for VU during his first season by making multiple diving catches, scoring 58 runs and stealing 17 bases.
Harrell endured an up and down 2011 but ended the season on a high note joining Kemp on the All-Tournament Team at the College World Series. Harrell's performance in Omaha was impressive with the slugger belting the first College World Series home run in the new TD Ameritrade Park and later hitting a second round-tripper. The long ball became a major part of Harrell's game down the stretch for VU hitting eight of his nine home runs for the season over the team's final 26 games.
Yastrzemski started every game as a sophomore last season and was the only Commodore to garner starts at all three outfield positions (59 in right field, five in center field and two in left field). Yastrzemski led the Dores with 23 stolen bases and scored 60 runs, second-most on the team.
Lupo will serve as the team's fourth outfielder and back up all three positions. Sophomores Josh Lee and Will Johnson will compete with freshman Will Cooper for playing time.
Vanderbilt used the designated hitter last season to get Conrad Gregor`s bat into the lineup, and Gregor produced a spectacular season, leading the team with a .353 batting average as a Freshman All-American. This season, however, Gregor is scheduled to be the team's first baseman, leaving the DH spot open.
The Dores' top two options are junior Jack Lupo and freshman Chris Harvey. The pair brings differing offensive games to the table with Lupo bringing contact and speed while Harvey brings a load of potential power to the lineup.
"I would imagine that we will take Jack Lupo, Chris Harvey and one of the left-handed hitters and use them at this spot right now. Jack is athletic and is a skilled offensive player. Harvey is going to be a very good hitter; he showed this ability in the fall."
Sophomore Will Johnson and freshman Connor Castellano, both left-handed bats, will compete for at-bats during the season. Johnson had a strong summer, earning an All-Star nod in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.