The Stanford baseball team has been Super the last two seasons. Is this the year the Cardinal finally becomes a champion? Or is it too late - has the window closed for this team?
Spring brings all kinds of questions for the No. 9 Stanford baseball team this year. Gone are some critical cogs that helped drive the Cardinal to back-to-back Super Regional berths - Stephen Piscotty, Kenny Diekroeger, Jake Stewart, Tyler Gaffney and Brett Mooneyham, to name a few - but the Cardinal returns a number of All-American caliber players, including the eighth overall pick in last year's draft.
Mark Appel was the only first-round draft pick not to sign a contract - he decided against playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates in order to return to the Farm. And his presence alone is enough to think that this team's window for Omaha is still wide open.
Last year, Appel anchored the Cardinal rotation with a 10-2 record, a 2.56 ERA, five complete games, a 130/30 strikeout to walk ratio, and a spiffy 1.03 WHIP. It's not often you get a true ace to come back to college, and he should make each and every series one that the Cardinal can win.
Appel will be helped by a talented, if relatively inexperienced Cardinal offense. The bats will, without a doubt, be led by the junior duo of Austin Wilson and Brian Ragira. The outfielder and first baseman both can hit for power and average, and should occupy the 3rd and 4th spots in the lineup for the entirety of the year. Wilson (.285/.389/.493 in 2012) led the team with 10 bombs, and he has become a much more complete hitter in his two years at Stanford. Ragira is the best all-around hitter on the team, and the two should be very difficult to keep off the basepaths so long as they keep their strikeout totals down.
After that, the majority of the team is a collection of freshmen and sophomores - and one player returning from an injury that cost him almost all of last season. Lonnie Kauppila, the team's starting shortstop - and probably the best defender on the team - returns to the lineup after recovering from a left knee injury. Youngsters Dominic Jose, Wayne Taylor, Alex Blandino and freshman Jonny Locher will be counted on to handle a ton of at-bats.
And that doesn't even include the pitching staff, which faces loads of uncertainty behind Appel. John Hochstatter will be tabbed as a starter, even though he struggled mightily at the end of last season, and one of the other few proven commodities - AJ Vanegas - will miss the start of the season after surgery for a herniated disc in his back.
On top of all of that, the road through the tough Pac-12 and into the postseason will be a difficult one.
The last two Cardinal baseball teams were deeper and probably more talented - only time will tell if this squad is as good - but they couldn't get over the hump and back to Omaha. This year, the Pac-12 conference may be the best in the country (so long as the SEC doesn't get its way). No. 24 Arizona, No. 15 Oregon, No. 6 Oregon State and No. 12 UCLA join the Cardinal in the top 25, so any uncertainty in the rotation or any slump of the bats could lead to a fourth or fifth-place finish in conference.
So does all of this mean that the window for the Cardinal to return to Omaha has closed? Certainly not. Appel, Ragira, Wilson and the talent of the youngsters assures that Stanford won't fade into the summer without a fight - but this season will test the Cardinal's talent and coaching in a way it hasn't been tested in years.