2020 – The year everyone would like to forget, especially Titan Baseball fans. There’s been whispers within Titan Nation saying they’re actually relieved a global pandemic canceled the season and saved Titan fans from suffering through another slow start. We’re not sure how many Titan fans’ heart conditions could handle another season with a sprint to the end just to try to make the post season.
As we stated in our Projected 2021 Titan Baseball Pitchers piece, the arms last year were good. It was the batting and the run support that begat the 4-12 season. Don’t think for a moment the Titan batters are oblivious to it. They know that the pitching will take care of itself in 2021. If the Titans are to make a run at Omaha, they’re going to have to produce at the plate.
The good news is that it appears the Titan bats are bigger, stronger and more confident this year compared to years past. Also, the Titans are deeper than in years past and not just because the NCAA lifted roster limits for 2021. The numbers are higher but the talent drop off from starters to role players has narrowed. Hopefully the batters made good use of the time away from the field and it will pay off when the batters face live pitching, starting with Utah a week earlier than expected.
Predicting the 2021 Starting Line-up
Catcher – Kameron Guangorena
Good pitching needs a good receiver behind the plate. Calling pitches, whether relaying pitches from the pitching coach in the dugout or calling their own game, pitchers need a strong catcher running the defense for him. Now in his third year at Cal State Fullerton, Kameron Guangorena looks poised to put it all together. His defense has improved and his hitting has improved since last season.
Time for real talk: Guango hit .109 in 16 games last season playing catcher and the outfield. That has to improve in order to stay in the line-up. Guango hits right-handed pitching much better than left so if you see a righty opponent scheduled to start, you can almost guarantee Guango will be in the line-up. If the Titans are scheduled to face a lefty, look for Austin Schell to get the start. (Schell played in 14 of the 16 games in 2020 and hit .261, scoring three runs and hitting two RBI.)
If Guango and Schell falter, Omar Veloz a JC transfer from Mt. SAC, could step in. Don’t forget about Cole Urman, a freshman who did not play in the COVID shortened 2020 season. Urman, who was thought of as a defense first catcher has really improved his hitting in the fall and spring. Urman could challenge for playing time and not just late in games after the catcher’s spot in the batting order has come and gone.
1st Base – Caden Connor
Caden Conor appears to be on the move, coming in from the outfield to First Base. In Episode 36 of the 1544 Miles to Omaha podcast with Rick Vanderhook previewing the Titan hitters, Hooky revealed that Caden Connor really took advantage of the time off and put on about 30 pounds of muscle. In fall practices he looks to have secured the first base position but could be challenged by Isaiah Garcia who has played on the right side for two season now.
Garcia is more of an outfielder by trade but has transitioned to first base because of hitting ability. Another contender could be freshman Tristan Gomes who was a shortstop in high school. Gomes was given a first baseman’s glove after the fall and with his big body (6’5″ & 201 lbs.) makes for an attractive target at first. Max Miller has also seen time at first base during practices but figures to work into the line-up as more of a Designated Hitter than a regular first baseman.
2nd Base – Jake Harvey
Jake Harvey is a newcomer to the Titan Baseball program by way of Oregon State. Harvey spent 2019 and 2020 in Corvalis and played significantly as a freshman for a highly regarded and tradition rich Beaver program. Harvey could very well be the lead-off hitter for the Titans with his veteran experience setting the table for the Titans in 2021.
Don’t be surprised if JJ Cruz takes over at second base to provide a left handed bat since Harvey is a right handed batter. The option to have elite level second base play up the middle depending on what type of arm the Titans will face will be huge this season.
Freshman JT Navyac from Hawaii could see some time at second as well but with heavily experienced players in front of him, his time may be limited.
Shortstop – Zach Lew
How the Titans go offensively has lately been through the Shortstop position. The last two trips to Omaha came with Timmy Richards at Shortstop. The 2018 team that reached Game 3 of the Super Regionals was led by Sahid Valenzuela at Short. Zach Lew appears to be the guy that will carry the water for the Titans at Short and if his 2020 numbers are any indication as to what to expect in 2021, you should feel optimistic.
Lew batted .336 in 62 at-bats and appeared in all 16 games in 2020. He started the 2020 season red hot going 6-for-13 on the opening weekend (.462 average) vs. Stanford with one RBI and five runs to go along with two walks. For a team that batted a collective .214, Lew’s .336 average was doing a lot of the heavy lifting to get that average just above the Mendoza Line. Lew was draft eligible last season by virtue of turning 21 years old prior to the draft but passed on the draft to return for his second sophomore year in 2021. If Lew has the season coaches expect him to have in 2021, don’t hold your breath he will be back for the Titans in 2022.
Other shortstop contenders include Josh Urps who held down that spot last year while Lew played Third Base primarily. Urps was solid in 2020 and provided veteran leadership and experience as a Junior College transfer. His .231 batting average was a concern last season but his glove was impeccable with a perfect fielding percentage while turning seven double plays.
Freshmen Brendan Bobo and Tristan Gomes played short in high school but their are big bodied kids whose future could be on the corners. It is a good feeling to know that should they be forced into duty as at Short, they are not trying to learn on the job.
3rd Base – Cameron Repetti
Cameron Repetti has taken advantage of the off season and improved his body and his game and appears to have the third base spot on lock. Repetti put in some serious time in the weight room and Vanderhook admitted that Repetti put on too much muscle to effectively play at third base. Repetti has since slimmed down to an ideal playing weight and in watching fall and spring practices, Repetti looks like Matt Chapman. The way he sets up his defense and the way he has been hitting the ball, he looks all the part of another excellent Titan third baseman. We’re not intentionally making any unfair comparisons to Chapman who has gone on to win Platinum Glove Awards and was an MLB All-Star in 2019, but Repetti does look the part. Looking the part is playing the part are two different things and based on what we could see, Repetti could be poised for a coming out party in 2021.
Zach Lew could slide over to third, the position he played last year primarily, or Tristan Gomes could sneak in at the Hot Corner too.
Outfield – Jackson Lyon, Nate Nankil & Jason Brandow
Moving left field to right field, expect to see Jackson Lyon in left, Freshman Nate Nankil in Center and Jason Brandow in right. Let’s start with center field and the freshman from San Diego.
Had the MLB Draft not contracted down to five rounds, Nate Nankil would be just another name like Osiris Johnson, a highly touted Fullerton recruit who signed with the Miami Marlins in 2019. Fortunately the Major Leagues did not select Nankil in the 2020 draft and he ends up on campus much to the delight of Titan fans and coaches. From all aspects of fall and spring workouts, Nankil looks to be the real deal. Pundit rankings coming out of high school are one thing, transitioning to the D1 college game is another. The range, the arm and the bat Nankil posesses could make him the stalwart three year Center fielder the Titans have been looking for since Michael Lorenzen roamed the grass in Goodwin.
Jackson Lyon has been hitting the ball really well from what we saw in practices and could content to lead off when the Titans open the 2021 season vs. Utah. Now in his third season with Cal State Fullerton, left field could be his to cover in 2021. Lyon batted .235 as a freshman in 2019 and added 30 points to that average in 2020, finishing with a .267 average. If Lyon can add another 30 points to that average in his junior year and hit around .300, Titan fans will be happy with that.
We’ve all been waiting for Jason Brandow to break out and show why he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates coming out of high school. Brandow burst onto the scene in his first at-bat vs. Vanderbilt in the 2019 MLB 4 Tournament in Arizona. He promptly hit a grand slam in that first at-bat and many Titan fans thought he was going to be the next coming of John Fishel or Mark Kotsay. That’s an unfair comparison and pressure to place on a young man fresh out of high school but the talent and the potential is there. Brandow has not lived up to those high expectations mainly because of trouble with hitting the breaking ball. He knows this and has apparently worked diligently in the off season to improve his hitting. From what we saw in practices, the extra time hitting is paying dividends.
Other outfielders that could make a play include Midland JC transfer Deylan Pigford. “Piggy” has speed for days and could be a sneaky start in center field in the early non-conference portion of the season if Nankil is not quite ready. A veteran player in center with tons of speed has the trapping of a good team and Pigford could see quite a bit of time out there. He is a switch hitter as well but Vanderhook has been encouraging him to take at-bats from the left side in the spring to improve that aspect of his game.
Miguel Ortiz saw time in left field as a freshman appearing in 13 of the 16 games played in 2020. Miggy hit .281 with three doubles and a home run and also drove in three RBI and scored eight runs. Ortiz looks to improve on those numbers and fight for at-bats in 2021.
Andrew Scheinert didn’t play that much in 2020, appearing in only three games but “Schnert” was playing really well in practices. He could steal some time at right field if Brandow struggles.
Carter White, a JC transfer from Long Beach City College looks to be in the outfield mix along with Jake Gentry, a JC transfer from Orange Coast College.
Designated Hitter – Isaiah Garcia, Brendan Bobo, Tristan Gomes, Miguel Ortiz, Max Miller
The Designated Hitter spot has always been a mystery lately. Nobody seems to really take over the role and made it their own for the entire year. Maybe it is because Hooky loves to tailor his line-up to the starting pitcher the Titans will face and injects a righty when facing a lefty and vice versa when it comes to the DH.
We do know that last year’s DH, Kyle Luckham, is not a bonafide pitcher and will probably not pick up a bat in 2021 unless it is absolutely necessary. Same thing goes with Cameron Repetti. He saw time out of the bullpen last year but will primarily focus on being a position player. That means the regular DH spot is a wide open competition.
Isaiah Garcia’s hit tool is his best tool in his toolbox and he looks to see quite a few at-bats in 2021 at DH even if the Titans are facing a righty. He will be challenged by two freshmen, Brendan Bobo and Tristan Gomes.
Bobo brings a good bat from the left side of the plate and he has gap and over the wall power. If Bobo locks down the DH spot, expect to see the trees in the Arboretum getting fed a few more baseballs off the bat of Mr. Bobo. Gomes is also a lefty batter and we’ve mentioned his height, he too can do damage with the bat.
The DH spot in college is not like the DH spot in the Major Leagues where it is all power, all the time. Getting on base safely is what Titans fans want out of the DH spot and Max Miller could play into that role as well. This is Miller’s fourth year in the Titan program after redshirting in 2018 and that experience could prove to be a valuable asset at the plate.
COVID-19 may have killed the Titans’ season in 2020 but the time off, the number of players returning, increased roster limits and a crop of talented recruits makes the 2021 Titans an exciting team to watch. The overall depth at all positions is especially exciting knowing that if an inevitable injury occurs, the talent and experience drop off is not as severe as it has been in the past.
Can the Titans get back to the postseason in 2021 after missing them for the first time since 1991 during the 2019 season? The offense and the run support will be the indicator. Pitching and defense is the straw that stirs the drink in the Titan Baseball program. That appears to be true yet again in 2021.
If the bats can improve and provide Titan pitching with more run support, look for the Titans to be much improved.