Sure as the sunrise and sunset, the passing of the National Championship game and the Super Bowl mean that the time for Stanford baseball is fast approaching. And as we've already written here, Cardinal baseball is at a crossroads. This is the 40th year of Coach Mark Marquess's long and legendary tenure at Stanford. But in 2015, the Cardinal notched their fewest wins since 1974, finished 11th in the Conference, and missed the tournament for just the fourth time this century. The stage does not seem set for a quick turnaround: the pre-season Coaches Poll projects the Cardinal to finish 7th in the Pac-12.
Not all is lost for Stanford. Marquess continues to attract promising talent. Last season, four players were drafted into professional baseball, lead by shortstop Drew Jackson in the 5th round by the Seattle Mariners. The Cardinal also struggled in 2015 in part due to injuries, with ace Cal Quantrill and outfielder Zach Hoffpauir missing much of the season.
The 2016 squad is not without talent and hope, however long the odds may be of the Cardinal making an appearance in Omaha. How do they stack up as the season begins on Friday, February 19th on The Farm against Cal State Fullerton?
New Faces on the Sunken Diamond
Questions about his continued coaching prowess aside, Coach Marquess has retained much of his abilities as a recruiter. The freshman class brings, in particular, three heralded players to The Farm.
First amongst this group is undoubtedly Corona High School right-handed pitcher Tristan Beck, himself a Stanford legacy athlete (his mother and sister are alumni, and his younger brother is also a baseball commit). A well-regarded prospect, Beck was ranked the 35th-best player and 12th-best right-handed pitcher in the Class of 2015 per Perfect Game. He chose Stanford over a chance to be a 1st-round pick per Baseball America and was a consensus top-75 prospect.
Beck has the ideal pitching frame scouts look for: he is both tall (6'4") and lanky (160 pounds) providing projectability as a professional pitcher. His fastball can touch 94-96 mph, but sits more comfortably at 90-92 mph. Beck also employs a 12-6 curveball and good changeup, but the best of his four-pitch arsenal is a knucklecurve that he uses to put batters away. He does, however, have issues pitching from the stretch; obviously an important skill to have at advanced levels of baseball.
Stanford's long tradition of grooming successful pro pitchers, from Mike Mussina to Jeremy Guthrie to Mark Appel, means Beck should be well-served by his time on The Farm.
Also joining the Cardinal are Head Royce (Oakland) middle infielder Nico Hoerner and outfielder Brandon Wulff. Hoerner both pitched and played in the infield in high school, but will abandon the mound and feature at second or shortstop for Stanford. The 2nd-best middle infielder in the nation per Perfect Game, he brings solid hitting skills (523/601/853 career slash) and base-running (48 stolen bases in 53 attempts, and a 6.86 time in the 60 yd.) to an important up-the-middle position.
Brandon Wulff, a product of Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, brings a potential power bat to the outfield (469/547/971 career slash). He has the classic build of a power hitter, at 6'1" and 215 lbs. Wulff also has good speed (15 stolen bases and sub-7 times in the 60 yd.) and a strong arm that should help him earn time in right field, or at center in a pinch. The 65th-best outfielder in the Class of 2015 per Perfect Game, he will help provide outfield depth after the departure of Zach Hoffpauir.
Other incoming Cardinal freshmen include pitchers Ben Baggett and Kris Bubic; infielders Nick Bellafronto, Duke Kinamon, Peter McEvoy; outfielders Nickolas Oar and Alec Wilson; and catcher Christian Molfetta.
Stanford lost several important pieces of its 2015 lineup during the offseason. Star shortstop Drew Jackson was selected in the early rounds of the MLB Draft. Outfielder Zach Hoffpauir is returning to Stanford from the minor leagues to play football, but is ineligible to play baseball after being signed by the Diamondbacks. Pitchers Gabe Cramer and David Schmidt, as well as infielder Luke Pappas, all exhausted their eligibility.
The good news for the Cardinal is that many key members of the lineup are returning. Headlining that group is sophomore third baseman Mikey Diekroeger. Despite the fact that he missed the last third of the season with a shoulder injury, he led the team in on-base percentage, and was second in slugging and batting average (315/419/426) as a freshman. Indisputably the team's big bat, Diekroeger should be a fixture for Stanford at the three-hole or cleanup spot in 2016.
Cardinal cuts into the Texas lead with Mikey Diekroeger's RBI triple. Seven-game hit streak for the freshman - http://t.co/UcObQKf5F3— Stanford Baseball (@StanfordBSB) March 8, 2015
Stanford is not without returning up-the-middle talent, thanks to junior infielder Tommy Edman (296/383/377). A mainstay at the three-hole in 2015, Edman was second on the team in on-base percentage and second in walks. He also led the team in stolen base attempts with 8, though he could stand to improve on his stealing ability (he was only successful half of the time). While he started at second base in 2015, he is the most likely candidate to replace Drew Jackson at both leadoff and shortstop (a position he played in high school and as a freshman at Stanford).
Rounding out the big three of Stanford's returning position players is sophomore first baseman Matt Winaker. Tied for third in on-base percentage in 2015, he displays exceptional command of the strike zone, boasting more walks than strikeouts. He also led the team in total number of walks with 31. One aspect of his game that Winaker could stand to improve on is his power. Despite playing a traditional slugger's position, he was fifth on the team in slugging (268/383/380). At 6'1" and just 195 lbs., he could fill his frame with muscle to become the prototypical walks-and-power slugger the Cardinal could desperately use.
Also returning to the Cardinal outfield are sophomore Quinn Brodey (262/345/340), senior Jonny Locher (243/309/345), junior Jack Klein (217/267/280), and junior Alex Dunlap (209/262/279). Unfortunately, none of them are likely candidates to replace Zach Hoffpauir's prodigious outfield bat (289/357/469). Senior Austin Barr (241/356/348) provides a solid option at catcher, while sophomore infielder Beau Branton (220/306/256) can serve as a utility player off the bench.
Incoming freshman Nico Hoerner should compete with Tommy Edman for the shortstop position, with the runner-up manning second base. Brandon Wulff should enter into a DH/outfield rotation with Quinn Brodey, Jonny Locher, Jack Klein, and Alex Dunlap.
Projected Opening Day lineup:
SS Tommy Edman
1B Matt Winaker
3B Mikey Diekroeger
DH Beau Branton
LF Jonny Locher
RF Quinn Brodey
C Austin Barr
2B Nico Hoerner
CF Jack Klein
The Rotation and Bullpen
Let's not mince words: Cal Quantrill will be the ace, the Friday starter for the 2016 Stanford team. The real question is when he will assume his rightful role. His Tommy John surgery, performed on March 20th of last year, makes the date of his return uncertain, though he recently said he could be pitching again as early as April or May.
The good news for Quantrill is that Tommy John has become more routine in recent years, and recovery times for pitchers are decreasing. His injury also hasn't taken much of the sheen off his MLB draft prospects. He was in the conversation for first pick overall before his 2015 injury, and remains a top prospect for 2016 (Keith Law still ranks him 13th overall).
In his absence, you can expect junior Brett Hanewich (3.99 ERA, 1.41 WHIP) to fill in as the Friday starter. Hanewich was a workhorse in the rotation last year, leading the Cardinal with 13 games started and 78.2 innings pitched. He needs to work to reduce his walks (5.58 per 9) in order to really take advantage of a good strikeout rate (7.06 per nine).
Fellow junior Chris Castellanos (3.42 ERA, 1.41 WHIP) figures to get promoted to replace Marc Brakeman (now with the Red Sox) as Stanford's Saturday starter. He actually has the opposite problem as Hanewich: he has good control (2.34 BB/9), but could stand to increase his strikeout rate (6.66 K/9). But southpaw starters like Castellanos generally take longer to develop than their righty counterparts, so he still has time to fulfill on his promise.
Castellanos gets the K with the bases loaded to keep the Cardinal up 5-3 in the sixth. 'Horns have left 8 on base. http://t.co/K4MZ5vkKUa— Stanford Baseball (@StanfordBSB) March 6, 2015
Like Quantrill, graduate athlete John Hochstatter is recovering from injury after making just 2 starts. If he is ready to go when the season begins, he will likely check in as the team's Sunday starter to give him time to readjust to pitching. Hochstatter's injury was a disappointment after a breakout 2014 season (3.36 ERA, 1.19 WHIP). If he can bounce back and be productive, expect to see him move up in the rotation.
If Hochstatter is unable to begin the season in the rotation, you can expect 2015 midweek starter Andrew Summerville (3.38 ERA, 1.38 WHIP) to fill in on Sundays. A southpaw sophomore, Summerville's strikeout rate (9.28 K/9) was second only to Quantrill's, making him a valuable asset to the staff. However, much like Hanewich, he needs to cut down on the walk rate (5.34 BB/9) in order to take the next step as a pitcher.
Freshman Tristan Beck figures to compete for time with junior Chris Viall as the midweek starter for the Cardinal. Given his potential first-round pedigree, Beck could find his way into a more prominent role if injury once again strikes the team, or if he impresses Marquess and the coaching staff with his abilities.
Projected Opening Day rotation: Hanewich, Castellanos, Hochstatter, Summerville.
As for the bullpen, much of the experience at closer departed from Stanford after 2015 (in particular, Gabe Cramer and Logan James). The next man up should be sophomore Colton Hock, who earned 3 saves last season. Also in the mix for high leverage innings should be junior Tyler Thorne, junior Chris Viall, and sophomore Keith Weisenberg, among others.
Outlook for 2016 on the Sunken Diamond
Everything about Stanford baseball in 2015 was a mess. The combination of injuries and lack of depth sent the team into a spiral from which it could never recover. Hoffpauir was a cornerstone of the lineup and missed nearly half the season, while Quantrill seemed set to be that true Friday stopper but only made 3 starts. As a result, Stanford finished 11th in the Pac-12 in both offense (by OPS), pitching (by ERA), and in the conference standings. If the team has any hope of making the postseason, at least one (if not both) of these phases of the game must improve, and improve drastically. There is some glimmer of hope: both Cal Quantrill and Tommy Edman were named pre-season third-team All-Americans by Baseball America.
The key to a more potent lineup will be getting more production out of the outfield. An infield of Diekroeger, Edman, and Winaker will provide more than adequate pop at the top of the lineup. But the departure of Zach Hoffpauir could make the outfield a batting black hole. None of the returning outfield options had an OPS in the 700s or higher in 2015, with Quinn Brodey "leading" the group at 685. At least one of the returning outfielders, or incoming freshman Brandon Wulff, will need to take the next step in the batter's box. Without that improvement, the Cardinal may be doomed to repeat last season's futility on offense.
On the pitching side of the equation, the effectiveness of the rotation will be determined by when and how lefty John Hochstatter returns from injury. If he can remain healthy and return to his 2014 form, a rotation that includes Hochstatter, Castellanos, and Hanewich could be quite solid. Having Summerville and Beck waiting in the wings as breakout candidates can only help. And if the Cardinal are in a good position in the standings in April or May, they could receive a needed boost from returning ace Cal Quantrill for the final half of the season.
When the 2016 Cardinal take the field at the Sunken Diamond on February 19th, they will bring both a low ceiling and a high floor. If things break Stanford's way, they could be in the conversation to make the playoffs. If not, Coach Marquess's 40th year of coaching could be as disappointing as his 39th.