In 2017, Cal fielded a young team loaded with talented freshmen and sophomores, and it showed.
They had their highs, such as three sweeps in conference series and a season-ending road series win over Arizona. But they also had some lows, such as going 1-4 against rival Stanford and a combined 1-9 against the three best teams on their schedule- Texas Tech, Oregon State, and TCU. In the end, the highs and lows more or less offset each other and they finished 25-29 with a 15-15 record in Pac-12 play.
The flip side, of course, is that now all of those talented freshmen and sophomores are now one year more developed and mature, which could help put the Bears back in position to get into the postseason under first-year head coach Mike Neu.
It starts with an offense that brings back just about everyone, save for Denis Karas, who tied for the team lead in 2017 with 12 home runs, and Preston Grand Pre, who hit .325 last season despite being limited to just 24 games.
The returnees in the lineup include Andrew Vaughn (.349/.414/.555, 12 HR), Jeffrey Mitchell, Jr. (.325/.405/.437, 12 2B, 11 SB), Tyrus Greene (.317/.385/.393), Cameron Eden (.315/.361/.472, 6 HR), Tanner Dodson (.299/.360/.457, 14 2B), Jonah Davis (.275/.370/.403, 11 2B, 10 SB), Max Flower (.254/.333/.336), and Matt Ruff (.296/.356/.383).
Vaughn and Dodson have already earned some preseason All-American honors ahead of the 2018 campaign, the former coming off his incredible freshman season at the plate and the latter largely for his two-way abilities.
That’s eight regulars or semi-regulars back in 2018, meaning that a group that hit .287/.360/.419 as a team last season could be even better.
On the mound, the team features a little more diversity in terms of class. Three of the most effective returning pitchers from a year ago, Erik Martinez (3.11 ERA, 37.2 IP, 6 SV), Andrew Buckley (3.91 ERA, 25.1 IP, .141 OBA), and Matt Ladrech (2-2, 4.53 ERA), will be seniors.
The junior class is led by Aaron Shortridge (1.99 ERA, 22.2 IP) and Joey Matulovich (4-3, 4.76 ERA), while the sophomore class is headlined by Jared Horn (3-5, 4.64) and Dodson (5.37 ERA, 52 IP).
It seems safe to assume that the Bears are going to hit enough to put them in a position to win a lot of games. The question is more about their pitching staff.
With Martinez, Buckley, and Shortridge back, there’s proven quality in the bullpen, but they’ll need one of the quartet of Ladrech, Matulovich, Horn, and Dodson to emerge as the unquestioned ace of the staff, and it would behoove them to have a couple of others to step forward and fill in around that ace.
As good as the offense will be, a team 5.17 ERA and no pitcher with a significant number of starts featuring an ERA lower than 4.53, as was the case a year ago, will make it tough to get back in the mix for the postseason. But if they can get that headed in the right direction, Cal will be very dangerous in 2018.