The Dedeaux Field gate may slam shut on Chad Kreuter for good after 2010 (Photo Credit: Replay Photos)
Heading into his fourth season at the helm of the USC baseball program, Chad Kreuter finds himself on a short leash. The former MLB catcher has yet to take the Trojans to the postseason in his time as head coach, a damning fact when charged with leading the program that leads the country in national titles. Not only have the Trojans not qualified for a regional under Kreuter, but USC has never been eligible for selection as they have yet to manage an overall record over .500. In conference play, a 13-14 record last season is the best Kreuter has managed and their seventh place finish also marks the high point for Kreuter. Needless to say, the pressure is on the USC head coach in 2010.
Probably most concerning for USC is that last year's team, the best USC has put together since 2005, is no more as the majority of the core has moved onto the pros. Five players from last season were selected in the first 20 rounds of the MLB Draft and this year's team returns just four of the nine starting position players, one of the three weekend starters and no relievers who three over 20 innings in 2009. The 2010 edition of the Trojans is littered with talented though, even if it is inexperienced and they have one player who is worth the price of admission alone.
Sophomore Ricky Oropesa was a Freshman All-American in 2009 and for good reason. In his first collegiate season, the first baseman (who could also play some third this season) hit .314 with a team leading 13 home runs and 48 RBI. With a quick stroke and opposite field power, Oropesa has the swing to stay out of prolonged slumps and quick enough hands to keep himself from getting fooled. In total, Oropesa has every tool imaginable to be a "build the lineup around him" guy. Whether he gets any support is another issue.
Last season, the Trojans finished 262nd out of 282 teams in runs scored and their .274 team batting average was 261st in the country. Those horrid numbers came with Grant Green and Anthony Vasquez in the lineup, both of whom are now getting paid to play ball. Senior outfielder Mike O'Neil returns and brings his .319 batting average with him, but he and Oropesa make up the Trojans' entire list of proven, everyday collegiate hitters.
Joining O'Neill in the outfield will be sophomore Alex Sherrod, who hit a tick under .300, albeit with minimum power, in split time as a freshman. In an everyday role for the first time in his career, Sherrod will be counted upon to provide at least gap power. The third outfield spot will likely go to a freshman, one of whom is Jawanza Starling, the first player to play both football and baseball for USC since 2005. In all likelihood, the infield will be made up of Oropesa and three newcomers, either freshmen or transfers, while none of the returning catchers hit above .215 in 2009.
To say the fate of the 2010 Trojans falls on the pitchers is an understatement, but unfortunately, there is little proven talent on the bump. Redshirt sophomore Andrew Triggs is the one reliable weekend starter at Kreuter's disposal, having thrown 75 innings with a 3.96 ERA as a freshman last year, including a dominating seven shutouts innings versus UCLA. How Triggs handles the pressure of pitching on Friday nights versus the other team's ace and the likelihood of little run support will be a major test for the sophomore and one that could determine how USC's season shakes out. Senior Kevin Couture gives the Trojans some pitching experience, but the man with a 5.00 career ERA has yet to live up to expectations in cardinal and gold. Sophomore Chad Smith does give the Trojans some hope on the mound as he did have some success in his freshman campaign, but having made just four starts, the pressure he experiences in 2010 will be on a whole other level.
As unsure Trojan fans are about their starting rotation, it goes double for the bullpen, where not a single pitcher has pitched a significant amount as a collegian. Brett Williams, a junior transfer from Orange Coast College, will be leaned upon heavily and provides the greatest hope for dominance out of the bullpen.
The one aspect of the Trojans' game bound to improve is their fielding. Owners of a Pac-10 worst .954 fielding percentage last year, USC has added athleticism through youth and transfers so if nothing else, they will be able to cover an abundance of ground.
At SoCal Media Day, Kreuter made it a point to emphasize the determination and chemistry the team showed through the offseason. He reiterated that this year's team has better chemistry than any past edition he's been a part of. With the team lacking in so many other areas, chemistry will have to be a strong point if the Trojans are to return to the postseason for the first time since 2005, where they came within inches of their 22nd College World Series appearance.
If you want a short and quick summary of the Trojans' chances in 2010, look no further than my favorite college baseball writer, Eric Sorenson. One of Sorenson's bold predictions for the Pac-10 in 2010 is that USC will qualify for a Regional. When mere postseason qualification calls for a bold prediction, things are not right at USC and Kreuter may be facing his final opportunity to right the ship.