UCLA Baseball: Fall Report

By: coachemup!

Fall Report: UCLA

LOS ANGELES — Everything is right on schedule for UCLA.

The Bruins knew their freshmen would have to learn on the job last year, when four key freshmen started every day and three others saw meaningful playing time in the lineup. Those young players had their ups and downs, but when the dust settled they were 19-11 in the Pac-12, good enough for third place. That got them into a regional — which was head coach John Savage’s primary objective for them.

“We did what we needed to do last year. We finished third, we played well in league, we won 19 games,” Savage said. “We didn’t play very well out of league, and that’s why it was so nip and tuck (to get into a regional), but if you look at the league it was really a no brainer that we were in, but this team needed to get to the playoffs last year and it did. Now I’m kind of looking at that 2012 and then that ’13 transition. We’re looking to go on a run in terms of talent.”

UCLA followed up a 35-win 2011 campaign that included a conference title with 48 wins and a trip to Omaha in 2012. A year later, they won the first national title in program history. Savage thinks his current roster has clear Omaha potential from a talent perspective, and now that roster is also loaded with experienced sophomores, so it’s natural to expect the Bruins to progress to the next stage.

Certainly, UCLA’s physicality stands out in the West. This position player group has big, strong athletes all over the diamond — guys who will be high-level prospects when they are draft-eligible. The highest ceiling belongs to sophomore Michael Toglia, who hit .261 with eight homers as a freshman, tops of any returning Bruin. A switch-hitter with big power from both sides and a more advanced hit tool from the left side, Toglia has drawn comparisons to Brandon Belt for his 6-foot-5, 209-pound frame and offensive upside. He’s also a good athlete who handled himself ably in the outfield last year, but he’s made a smooth transition to first base this fall, which gives the Bruins additional lineup flexibility.

“Being lethanded, a bigger target, he’s good around the bag — we like him at first,” Savage said. “It’s a versatile, big body that can move. We think he’ll be one of the better defensive first basemen out there. He’s made that transition quickly, and we think he’s gonna be a guy that will make an impact defensively at first.”

UCLA has another big-bodied athlete at shortstop, where 6-foot-4, 198-pound sophomore Ryan Kreidler returns to lead the infield. Kreidler has the tools and instincts to stick at shortstop in pro ball, with outstanding body control, a good internal clock and easy arm strength. His bat still needs to take another jump, but he’s worked hard with assistant Bryant Ward, and the Bruins fully expect him to become an impact hitter as the spring unfolds.

Likewise, sophomore second baseman Chase Strumpf is an obvious breakout candidate after hitting .239 with seven homers a year ago. Strumpf has obvious strength in his righthanded swing, along with a balanced setup and good pitch recognition. He’s more advanced as a hitter right now than Kreidler, and UCLA expects him to have a big sophomore year. He’s also a smooth defender at second base who would be playing shortstop at most college programs.

UCLA should be outstanding up the middle thanks to that duo and junior Daniel Amaral (.282/.364/.330) in center. Like his older brother Beau (another former UCLA center fielder), Amaral can really run — I timed him at 3.94 seconds to first from the right side on a bunt in a recent scrimmage. He’s learning to put that speed to maximum use, but he’s also gotten stronger. Amaral will be the engine that makes this offense go, in addition to tracking down balls in the gaps on defense. He really came into his own in the Northwoods League last summer, and he’s returned to campus this fall as a different player, as Savage put it.

“He’s taken a jump with the bat. There’s a lot less strikeouts, there’s more power. He can drop a drag down. I mean, he’s a very unique leadoff guy in that sense,” Savage said. “He does have some power. He hit a home run on Wednesday in the Blue-Gold (World Series). Defensively he has really been good for us, but I think he’s also made a jump there. We’ve had some really really good center fielders with Beau Amaral and Brian Carroll, now with Danny — you’ve got to be strong up the middle, and we like our middle.”

Amaral will likely be flanked by two more very good athletes in sophomore left fielder Jeremy Ydens and freshman right fielder Garrett Mitchell. Ydens showed flashes of promise in 66 at-bats last spring, and he’s driven the ball with authority this fall, hitting .333 with four doubles, a triple and two home runs. Ydens is a strong-bodied righthanded hitter with some pop and also above-average speed.

Mitchell is one of the most high-profile freshman prospects in the country, with enormous upside. A 6-foot-3, 200-pound specimen, Mitchell headed into last spring as a potential first- or second-round talent, but his stock dropped thanks to a quiet senior year with the bat. That underperformance, coupled with a seven-figure bonus demand, helped get Mitchell to Westwood, where he has a chance to blossom into a big star as his career progresses.

“He’s about as talented a freshman as we’ve ever seen here, and probably one of the most talented guys of any freshman in the country,” Savage said. “I mean, he has five significant tools. He can really play defense, he can really throw. He’s 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, he runs damn near a 4.0, 4.1 to first. The question, obviously, will be the bat. He looks at times like he can really hit and has some power. It’s a very young hitter, there’s some swing-and-miss. The bat will be the tell-all, but in terms of just presentation and tools, you’re talking about a 5, 6, 7 tool (grade on the 2-8 scale) on almost every aspect.”

The Bruins also feel good about their outfield depth, as junior Jake Pries and sophomore Jarron Silva have played well this fall too. With Toglia moving to first base and sophomore Kyle Cuellar (.319/.412/.425) sliding from DH to catcher, it will open up more playing time for Pries, in particular, at DH and perhaps a corner outfield spot.

Cuellar’s lefthanded bat has to be in the lineup, because he is one of UCLA’s most talented pure hitters, with a mature approach and a knack for squaring up hard line drives. He has also handled himself well behind the plate, where gritty veteran Daniel Rosica will also see playing time. But Cuellar’s conversion is a major development this fall; he played mostly shortstop in high school but also got a little catching experience, which helped him pick up the position quickly this fall.

“He’s got good hand-eye coordination. He has a good transition, catch-and-throw. We think he’s going to be a guy that’s going to be able to do that, I don’t know about every night, but we think he’s going to be a guy that is going to solidify that position,” Savage said. “We think he has plenty of arm, he has some carry on the ball. He’s learning our system. We expect a lot of our catchers, handling the pitching staff and the sign system, so it’s kind of a new world for him.”

Third base is a heated competition between 6-foot-3 sophomore Jack Stronach(whose raw power is intriguing) and athletic grinder Jake Hirabayashi. Freshman Kevin Kendall is also in that mix — the Bruins are high on his lefthanded bat and his all-around baseball instincts. He’s also a good enough athlete to slide around the infield, providing valuable insurance at the other positions.

UCLA’s program has long been built around pitching and defense, and the pitching looks strong once again, though the Bruins will miss ace Griffin Canning. They also suffered a blow when junior lefty Justin Hooper had Tommy John surgery on Nov. 8; he was expected to fill a starting role, and Savage said he felt good about where Hooper was developmentally.

But even without him, UCLA should have a standout weekend rotation in righthanders Jon Olsen, Jake Bird and Kyle Molnar, in some order. Olsen (7-1, 2.86), a junior righty who pitched well for Team USA this summer, is the clear favorite for the Friday job. His stuff was solid in the summer, but it’s been better in the fall, as he has sat at 90-92 with his characteristic command, and his secondary stuff is crisper too.

“The slider has really come on since the summer, 82-83, it’s harder, has a little more depth,” Savage said. “It’s acting like a true slider now. You talk about 85 innings last year with 61 hits, that’s a significant number on a Sunday in the Pac-12. I think he’s gotten stronger for sure, ready to go as well.”

Molnar had Tommy John surgery back in June of 2016, so now he’s back to fully healthy, and he has looked very good. He’s been able to sit at 91-92 with his heater, and his 86 mph changeup has good action. Molnar was a high-profile recruit who pitched well as a freshman before his injury, and he seems like a strong bet to emerge as a star in 2018 as the Bruins build him up.

Bird made 18 appearances a year ago (five starts), posting a 2.75 ERA, though he missed time with a shoulder injury. He returned down the stretch and pitched well at the end of the regular season and in the regional, but he went undrafted despite his obvious arm strength. Savage thinks Bird could follow in the footsteps of former Bruin Tyson Brummett, who went undrafted as a junior but then won 10 games as a senior and became a seventh-round pick. Bird certainly has the stuff — a good four-pitch arsenal highlighted by a 91-94 fastball — and his command has taken a step forward thanks in part to an adjustment to his hand separation in his delivery. That has led to better timing and a more consistent release point.

With Hooper out for the year, the competition for the No. 4 starter role is wide open. Savage mentioned freshmen Holden Powell and Zach Pettway as candidates for the job, along with sophomores Ryan Garcia, Nick Scheidler and Jack Ralston, and maybe even junior Brian Gadsby, a bullpen staple. Most of that group — whoever doesn’t win the midweek starter job — will form the backbone of UCLA’s bullpen.

Powell has the biggest upside of the bunch. The day I was at Jackie Robinson Stadium, Powell sat comfortably at 91-93 mph with good arm-side run and command to both sides, along with a firm but still good changeup at 84-86. The changeup has good fade, and he was able to locate it effectively against righties as well as lefties. He also owns a nice slider and does a good job holding runners and fielding his position, so he could be an excellent fit at the back of the bullpen. Savage said his velocity has already jumped earlier than the Bruins anticipated (he worked more around 90 in the spring as a high school senior), and there could be more in the tank.

“Powell looks to be a little different cloth, there’s a little power pack in there that is potentially real,” Savage said. “He could be up to 95 in the spring, I don’t know. But he’s been hard, and it’s not a huge body, but we’ll see what he is.”

Garcia figures to be another prominent piece. He threw just 12.1 innings over 16 relief appearances as a freshman, posting a 6.57 ERA, but he turned a corner in the NWL this summer, and his stuff was good this fall. In the scrimmage I saw, Garcia recorded five groundball outs in two scoreless innings with his heavy 89-91 fastball, and Savage said he has been up to 94 this fall, touching lots of 93s and 92s. He has a pair of promising breaking balls, and he showed me good feel for an 80-82 changeup as well. If he can continue to improve his strike-throwing ability, he could become a shutdown closer.

Gadsby has some closing experience, and last year he worked 29 innings of relief, posting a 5.09 ERA. He’s made some changes from last year — he’s no longer varying his arm slot, instead attacking hitters from a low three-quarters slot every time, which has helped his command. His fastball has gotten firmer, and he’s developed a 79-80 changeup to go with his high-70s slider. Gadsby looks like a potential swingman, capable of starting Tuesday and bouncing back to chip in out of the bullpen on weekends, or he could simply help anchor the pen.

Pettway and fellow freshmen righties Chase Farrell and Michael Townsend have good feel for pitching and fastballs in the upper 80s, and they could become key arms for UCLA as they mature and their stuff gets firmer; none of them threw a fastball above 88 the day I was in town, but all of them figure to throw harder in time. Ralston is a 6-foot-6 redshirt sophomore coming off a strong summer in the Great West League. It’s taken him some time to develop, but he looks ready to contribute this year. He features an 88-90 fastball and a good split-change.

Scheidler and fourth-year junior Garrett Barker should be the key lefties on this staff. Barker threw just one inning a year ago, but has shown the ability to locate his 88-89 fastball well, and he’ll be an important lefty matchup guy this spring. Scheidler led the team with 36 appearances last year, posting a 5.28 ERA, and Savage expects more from him in 2018.

“I think eventually he’ll be that guy who could be a starter,” Savage said. “He’s 85-88, really good curveball, high spin rate, lot of swing and miss, athletic, good delivery. He has a good changeup, 79-80, so he’s a three-pitch guy. We like Scheidler, we’re looking for him to take that next step velo-wise. But he’s got all the characteristics of a projection guy, and throws strikes.”

Savage has a long history of recruiting strike-throwers with fastball command, and developing their velocity over time. He’s certainly got enough pieces to work with on this staff to make a deep postseason run. It’s been four years since UCLA’s last trip to Omaha; don’t expect that drought to last much longer.


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