The 2013 baseball is upon us and the Bulls, after finally turning in a solid 2012 campaign, will look to return to the Big East tournament after winning four games there last season and falling just shy of an NCAA Tournament berth. USF went 38-22 (18-10) last season, including a 23-13 record at home. Yet, despite all the success the team enjoyed in 2012, the 2013 squad has a different look and faces a long list of challenges.
USF lost several key members of last year's pitching staff, including Andrew Barbosa, Derrick Stultz, Matt Reed, Kyle Parker, Austin Adams, and Andrew Loynaz. Barbosa, Stultz, and Reed were the starting rotation for USF and Adams was one of the best relief pitchers in the Big East. Along with the arms lost, USF will also have to replace first baseman Todd Brazeal, catchers Andrew Longley and Daniel Rockhold, and infielder Luis Llerena. All of these departures create big holes that Coach Prado and his team will have to fill as the season begins on Saturday.
Prado, who took the Bulls to the Big East tournament after missing it the past few seasons, saw his club win the most tournament games in program history. This year he's bidding for USF's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002 and has added new pitching coach Lance Carter, a former MLB All-Star with the Rays in 2003, to help develop this young team. Let's break down the depth chart and see what USF has to offer in 2013 and how the season can go for them.
The star of the team and the heart of the offense is junior James Ramsay. Ramsay developed into a great all-around player last season, appearing in all 60 games and leading the team with a .328 batting average. He added a pair of home runs, 32 RBI, and a .390 on-base percentage. Ramsay can play in any outfield position, although center field is his mainstay. The Bulls are hoping he can develop more of a power stroke and become a key bat in the middle of the lineup.
Senior Jimmy Falla can play in the outfield when he is not anchoring first base, and may do more of that this year as Prado looks to get his bat into the lineup more often. Falla hit .286 last year with three homers, 10 doubles, and 21 RBIs, and scored 20 runs. He came to life in the Big East tournament, hitting all three of his home runs on the season and batting .375 in Clearwater. Falla can play either of the corner outfield positions, while the other corner spot is manned by senior Alex Mendez, who was the lead-off man for the Bulls last season. He also batted .286 last season, with eight doubles, three homers, 32 RBI, and 42 runs scored. The Bulls will need him to be active again at the top of the lineup and set up Ramsay and others.
There's plenty of depth and competition in the outfield for the Bulls. Senior Chad Taylor moved from short stop back to the outfield last year and may see action as a defensive replacement late in games. While he is an option in the outfield, he could be the 8th inning picture for the Bulls as well. Sophomore Jordan Strittmatter appeared in seven games last season, Austin Lueck played eight games, and junior Anthony Diaz saw action in 35 games and batted .269. Prado also has a pair of freshmen who could see some action -- Luke Maglich from Sarasota Riverview HS, and Vincent Leto from Tampa Jesuit.
The Bulls infield returns some solid players, but must replace the void at first left by Todd Brazeal. Jimmy Falla could be that replacement, while sophomore Buddy Putnam, who played in 37 games last year, may be another option.
Second base will be a battle between senior Kyle Copack, who hit a dismal .158 in 24 games, and sophomore Zac Gilcrease, who primarily played third base last season, but is shifting to second in 2013. Kyle Teaf has shortstop locked down for the Bulls. He played in all but one game last year and hit .251 with five stolen bases, six doubles, and only 16 strikeouts. Redshirt freshman Nick Alfonso could also get a look at short if needed in late game situations.
Copack, Maglich, and Gilcrease could also play at third base, but look for talented freshman Levi Borders, the son of former MLB catcher Pat Borders, to possibly take over the starting role if he is not playing behind the plate. Borders is another player the Bulls will try and get in the lineup as often as possible.
At catcher, the Bulls will have to replace veteran Daniel Rockhold but have several options in addition to Levi Borders. Sophomore Blake Sydeski batted .284 last season after missing the first month of 2012 with a concussion. Sydeski could be the opening-day catcher, while senior Chris Norton (12 games last year) and freshman Joe Alteri (Jesuit HS) may also see some time behind the plate.
Restocking the pitching rotation is USF's biggest challenge. Without Andrew Barbosa, Derick Stultz, Matt Reed, and Kyle Parker, Prado will have to rely on some new faces while counting on the remaining veterans to step up.
Senior Joey Lovecchio had an up-and-down season in his first year out of junior college. Despite an 8-4 record, he finished with a 4.78 ERA, allowing 86 hits, 47 runs in 79 innings, while walking 17 and striking out 45. Opponents hit .294 against Lovecchio, but he became more reliable down the stretch last year, and USF will need that reliability to carry over and help anchor the rotation. Junior left-hander Nick Gonzalez worked his way up from the bullpen to the rotation last season, finishing 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA and two saves. He allowed 41 hits in 41 innings and struck out 40, and Gonzalez may be the Saturday starter this season.
Prado went into the JUCO ranks to find veteran arms and added two junior college standouts, Alex Vetter and Nolan Thomas, who could also crack the weekend rotation. Vetter comes from Feather River College in Sparks, Nevada, and is a bit like Andrew Barbosa in stature (he's 6'7") and stuff (his fastball tops out around 91 miles an hour, giving him the power to attack hitters). He pitched 55 innings last year, compiling a 5-2 record with a 2.60 ERA and 45 strikeouts against only 17 walks. Vetter is currently batting with an injury, which might open the door for Nolan Thomas to pitch weekend games. Thomas is from Tallahassee Community College by way of Key West, and he went 7-2 last season with a 2.83 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 70 innings pitched. He has a fastball that hits in the mid-80s and a breaking ball that consistently hits 80 mph, allowing him to mix up pitches and work hitters over.
Two other arms to watch this season as spot starters or extra bullpen arms are sophomore Mike Clarkson, who only pitched eight innings last year and allowed 10 hits and seven walks, but showed some raw talent and potential; and freshman Justin Patrick from Cumberland (RI) High School.
In the bullpen, USF needs to replace Austin Adams, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in 2012 and was a big factor in the Bulls' late-inning pitching success. But there are plenty of options available to fill the void. Senior Steven Leasure could move into the closer role after recording a 1.90 ERA and six saves in 19 appearances last year. He pitched 23 1/3 innings, gave up 20 hits and struck out 16, while also picking up a pair of wins. Senior Adrian Puig struggled last year, with a 5.54 ERA and 29 hits and 11 walks allowed in 26 innings, but he also struck out 21 batters and will need a little bit more control to be a factor when USF needs to hold a lead. Also keep an eye on freshman right-hander Jimmy Herget from Jefferson High School, who finished with a 1.69 ERA as a high school senior last year and could be an immediate factor.
JUCO transfer Lawrence Prado (no relation to Lelo) comes in from Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, where he worked 35 innings last season and finished the year with a 3.31 ERA and a 2-2 record. Lawrence Prado probably won't factor into the rotation, but he could be a situational reliever who bridges the gap to the ninth inning. (NOTE FROM JAMIE: This is not a team that relies on things like leverage and using your best reliever whenever he's most needed.)
Junior left-hander Janick Serrallonga could be a lefty matchup specialist after appearing in eight games last year, allowing 13 hits and six walks with eight strikeouts in 12 innings. Another JUCO transfer is Chris Dious, from St. John's River College and Ross Jones Junior College. He struck out 38 batters in 34 innings last year and could be a factor late in games as well.
Newcomers on the pitching staff include freshman Vincent Leto from Tampa Jesuit HS; Cody Hernandez from Tampa Catholic HS; redshirt freshman Diego Rapalino from Barranquilla, Colombia (one of Tampa's sister cities); and redshirt freshman Joe Adel from Gainesville Buchholz HS.
Two arms that won't make an impact this season are freshman Derek Martin, the Tampa Catholic HS prospect who underwent Tommy John surgery last Wednesday and will take a redshirt this season; and Tommy Peterson from New Port Richey River Ridge HS, who is also out with an injury.
Overall, there are a lot of talented arms on this roster, but the problem is inexperience. While Lovecchio and Gonzalez will make an impact, the JUCO transfers and the freshmen will have to start contributing quickly to help make the team successful.
The Bulls were picked fifth in the Big East preseason poll, and face a tough schedule with an unproven roster. USF starts the season in the Big East-Big Ten Challenge, where they will face Indiana, Purdue, and conference foe Louisville this weekend. Later on, they have road games at FSU, UCF, and UF, plus a road series at Connecticut in Big East play. If the starting rotation can find some consistency and the offense develops around James Ramsay this year, the Bulls should win around 25-30 games, if not more. It all depends on the young depth on the team and how far they develop over the year. While there is talent, their ability to become a cohesive unit will determine USF's success this season.