When we opened this article last year, we said, “2020 – The year everyone would like to forget, especially Titan Baseball fans.” We could not have been more wrong. Turns out 2021 was even worse and did not have a global pandemic to cut the season short and put Titan fans out of their misery.
The abject disaster of the 2021 season broke all kinds of records… and not the good ones. The biggest and longest standing record broken included the most important one; never having a losing season since joining the ranks of Division 1. The 20-35 win/loss record was the culmination of three sub-par seasons when the Titans did not make the post-season resulting in the retirement of 10-year Head Coach Rick Vanderhook.
Some college baseball pundits may say, “But every program has a down year or two“. That may be true… for other programs.
Cal State Fullerton Titan Baseball is not your average college baseball program. It is a program that has won 30 conference championships, appeared in 40 Regionals, 14 Super Regionals, 18 trips to Omaha and won four National Championships. Titan Baseball had never had a losing record until last season. There is a reason Titan Baseball is called “Cal State Omaha“… because they own the damn place.
Enough with the doom and gloom and lament from last year. They say, “hope springs eternal” and that is exactly what is happening in and around Goodwin Field in 2022. With a new coaching staff led by Head Coach Jason Dietrich and an influx of fresh players either recruited from high school and junior colleges or through the transfer portal, the feeling of optimism is in the air.
Many fans expect the pitching to see improvement just with the addition of Dietrich who will shoulder most of the coaching duties of the pitchers. (We will preview who we think will make up the starting rotation and bullpen roles in a separate article this week.) But what about the hitters? Titan fans love pitching and defense, but nobody has ever won a college baseball game by not scoring any runs.
The Titans offense last year improved from the dismal .214 batting average in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season, averaging .264 in 2021. That batting average came close to the 2018 team’s batting average, (.269) a team that was three outs away from going to Omaha. The 2017 team batted .267 and advanced to Omaha. The major differences between those 2017 and 2018 teams were the earned run averages. Those teams had ERAs in the 3.50 range while last year the Titans ERA clocked in at over 6 earned runs.
A solid group of returning bats joining forces with some talented newcomers combined with their aggressive offensive style coached by Neil Walton, the Titans will show signs of life when at bat. Let’s take a closer look at the players we expect to see pick up a bat and stride to the plate the most in 2022.
Disclaimer: These projections are based solely on our observations spanning from fall practices, fall ball exhibition games vs. UNLV and Grand Canyon, the Navy vs. Orange Fall World Series, the Alumni game and Spring intra-squad scrimmages. We did not consult with the coaching staff prior to publishing this projected line-up.
Predicting the 2022 Starting Line-up
Catcher – Cole Urman
Cole Urman turned into the breakout player that nobody saw coming in 2021. With veterans like Kameron Guangorena (Guango has since transferred to Coastal Carolina), Austin Schell and Omar Veloz (Omar has since transferred to Hope International) in front of him on the 2021 expected depth chart, Urman looked destined to see more time defensively late in games.
Instead, Urman went out and played in 43 games in 2021 and started 40 of them. He batted .275 and earned Big West Honorable Mention honors in the process.
Not bad for a dude considered to be a “defense only” backstop.
Just a sophomore thanks to COVID-19 granting him his 2020 year of eligibility back, this is Urman’s third year on campus. A draft eligible sophomore, expect 2022 to be Urman’s last year in a Titan uniform. Urman’s bat is quite impressive but his defensive skills have MLB scouts drooling and tripping over themselves to draft him later this year. (Urman ranks No. 170 in D1Baseball’s Top 250 Draft Prospects; placing him in the MLB draft ranges of the sixth to ninth round.)
Urman’s Pop Time (the time elapsed from the moment the pitch hits the catcher’s mitt to the moment the intended fielder is projected to receive his throw at the center of the base.) is sub-2 seconds.
Okay, so what? Is that good? Let’s just say the MLB average pop time is 2.01 seconds. In 2019, LA Dodgers catcher Will Smith averaged a 1.99 pop time. Kurt Suzuki averaged 2.06 in 2019.
Urman will see plenty of time behind the plate this season but will need a break from time to time. The next man up behind the dish will mostly likely be Jake Gentry, who played mostly outfield last season. Gentry played catcher prior to coming to Fullerton and has really separated himself to be considered the No. 2 catcher on the team.
Austin Schell is also in the mix but appears to be more of a Designated Hitter. Schell can fill in at First Base in addition to catching. The fourth catcher looks to be newcomer and Freshman Brayden Rogers. Listed as a utility player on the Titans roster, Rogers is an all-around athlete after playing four years on the varsity basketball team and one year on the varsity football team at Queen Creek High School in Queen Creek, Arizona. As a first-year Titan, Rogers has time to get more comfortable behind the plate and learn from Urman who looks to dominate the position.
1st Base – Caden Connor
Caden Conor turned out to be the best hitter on the 2021 Titans squad, averaging .325 in 191 at-bats. Connor had a team-high 28 walks and tied for a team-high in doubles with 12. Connor touched the plate the most in 2021, scoring a team-high 29 runs and was second on the team with 22 RBI. Connor’s .417 on-base percentage led the 2021 Titans en route to a Big West Honorable Mention.
Although still listed as an outfielder, Connor should see the lion’s share of time at first base. Connor had a first baseman’s mitt on his hand for the fall scrimmages vs. UNLV and Grand Canyon and played there in the annual alumni game. He could still see some time in the outfield, but that section is already crowded enough with six to eight Titans battling for three spots.
Connor’s fall and spring practices look as though he has not missed a beat and depending on how his 2022 season goes, he too could transition into an MLB draft pick by season’s end.
Should Connor need relief, the Titans have multiple options to replace him. Sophomore Tristan Gomes has a leg up when replacing Connor. The lanky, 6’5″ Omaha native is a big target and has a power, left-handed bat that has already deposited a few baseballs into the Fullerton Arboretum.
Others that could see time at First Base include another power lefty, Brendan Bobo but he looks destined to play at Third base more. The previously mentioned Austin Schell is also a choice along with JJ Cruz, who has played First in some scrimmages and performed well.
2nd Base – JJ Cruz
Based on the fall ball exhibition games vs. UNLV and Grand Canyon combined with the Alumni Game and intra-squad scrimmages, it appears JJ Cruz is firmly slotted at second base. A left-handed hitter with good power, Cruz has developed into the player that many thought he would be when he stepped foot on campus in 2020.
Benefiting from a little weight room time, time at the training table and not being a teenager anymore, JJ has transformed himself into a grown ass man. The freshman with the skinny, stork legs is a stork no more and the egrets living in the Arboretum better beware when Cruz is at bat. Cruz has demonstrated that he has power from the left side and proven that if a pitcher makes a mistake over the plate, he will not miss it and will make him pay for it.
We have seen JJ getting some work at First Base at times but that may be for added depth in case of an emergency so he can know and understand the defensive aspects. If for some reason Cruz is not at second base, the Titan bench has shown its depth and versatility to fill that role. Other infielders expected to fill in at second include Zach Lew who has played there before, JT Navyac, Jack Haley and Jake Harvey who played second quite a bit in 2021.
Harvey played Second base primarily in 2021 and batted .271 in 155 at-bats. If Cruz does in fact win the starting job, it spells good news for the Titans depth that the “back-up” recorded 10 RBI and scored 24 runs while registering a .369 on-base percentage and slugging .381.
Shortstop – Jack Haley
The first newcomer projected to snag a starting role comes via the transfer portal from Eugene, Oregon. Jack Haley, an Orange County native from Mission Viejo, played sparingly at Oregon and chose to enter the transfer portal during the 2021 season. Although he shares the same name as the actor Jack Haley who played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, that is where the comparisons stop. Haley is smooth defensively and the double play combo of Cruz and Haley could prove a prolific one should opponents get on base.
Haley and JT Navyac have been locked in a battle for the short stop spot and should Haley not win it, Navyac will be more than happy to take over. Navyac spent the summer playing short stop for the Conejo Oaks and played in 75% of the summer ball games. That experience could turn into regular time at short for the Titans and be plug-and-play depth should Haley not perform up to expectations.
Zach Lew could slide into the short stop spot having played there on and off since the 2019 season. Jake Harvey also could play there as well as JJ Cruz.
3rd Base – Zach Lew
Rick Vanderhook last year referred to Zach Lew as the “secret weapon” based on his versatility and ability to play anywhere in the infield. Lew will find a home in the Hot Corner in 2022 after playing primarily there all fall and spring games.
Lew looks like the team leader and his performance on the field shows he can lead by example. Lew started 40 games last year and hit .284 in 155 at-bats. In the COVID shortened 2020 season, while the team batted .214 as a whole, Lew was the only one hitting. He batted .339 and appeared in all 16 games before the shutdown.
Lew may not be the size of other former Titan Third Basemen like Phil Nevin or Matt Chapman, but his play on the field could help put him in the conversation with those two. Should Lew’s services be needed elsewhere, Brendan Bobo looks like the heir apparent at third.
Bobo has seen a lot of time at third base during the intra-squad scrimmages and assistant coach Neil Walton is bringing his defense along. Bobo’s bat is a known commodity but transitioning to third could take some time. Bobo has the good fortune to have Lew in front of him to show him how the position is played.
College of Marin transfer Anthony Pomilia could see some time at third should the need arise. Pomilia showed some pop in his bat this past Sunday in the intra-squad game where his home run cleared the scoreboard. Do not forget, in case of emergency, Cameron Repetti can also play Third Base. Despite Repetti pitching primarily last year and expected to be a “Pitcher Only” in 2022, in a pinch, Repetti could fill in admirably.
Outfield – Damone Hale, Nate Nankil & Jason Brandow
The outfield has the most depth with little talent drop-off of all the positions for the 2022 Titans. Head Coach Jason Dietrich said in the Fall Ball Recap (Episode 49 of the 1544 Miles to Omaha Podcast) and then again at the Dinner with the Titans, all eight to nine guys competing for the three spots could win them. The competition is that tight. If one outfielder goes down with an injury or is amid a slump, another guy can step in without any noticeable drop-off in performance.
Center Field – Damone Hale
Based on what we have seen in the fall and the spring, the Center Field spot should go to Damone Hale. Hale is a tall and athletic native of Inglewood, Calif. and arrives at Fullerton by way of Yavapai College in Arizona. Hale’s JC slash line last season of .421/.494/.632 was complimented by his 13 home runs. If you play center field, you better have some speed and range to take away would be doubles. Hale has the speed in the meadow and when he gets on base. Hale stole 35 bases in 40 attempts at Yavapai.
In addition to his physical tools, Hale has shown he can come in and be a positive influence when not in the game. Either from the dugout, the on-deck circle or after reaching base, Hale’s words of encouragement to the man at the plate can be heard throughout the game. Should Hale not reside in Center Field, look for either Deylan Pigford or Carter White to take over.
Titan fans will recognize both those names as both played in the outfield in 2021. Pigford earned Big West Honorable Mention in 2021 while batting .277 in 130 at-bats. Although Pigford batted primarily left-handed last season, his switch-hitting ability could prove lethal in certain situations.
White played in 21 games in 2021 and hit .288 in 52 at-bats. Defensively, White played Center Field last year and has seen plenty of time there in scrimmages.
Right Field – Nate Nankil
Now a sophomore, Nate Nankil has benefited from a year of growth and looks to have put on weight in all the right places. Nankil spent the summer in Corvallis, Oregon playing for the Corvallis Knights and hit .270 in 159 at-bats. Mind you, summer leagues use wood bats and Nankil played well over the summer which looks to have translated to him winning the right field spot in 2022. If Nankil can have a breakout season we all know he is capable of, look out.
Others seeing time in Right Field could include Pigford, Jake Gentry or freshman Jakob Schardt. Shardt comes to Fullerton by way of Camarillo where he played four years on the Adolfo Camarillo High School varsity. Schardt could potentially redshirt depending on the limited playing time he gets in 2022.
Gentry’s experience in the outfield makes him a practical possibility but he looks destined to play behind the plate mostly in 2022.
Left Field – Jason Brandow
Moving over from Right to Left Field, Jason Brandow‘s bat needs to remain in the Titan’s line-up. Brandow had a team-high 25 RBI and scored 21 runs last season while hitting .274 in 124 at-bats. The summer treated Brandow well, playing for the Lincoln Potters in the California Collegiate League. During the summer, Brandow hit .341 in 129 at-bats using a wood bat and blasted three home runs.
Brandow has range in the outfield and on the base paths and should transition to the opposite corner outfield spot with no issue. Brandow should not relent because Jackson Lyon could easily step in at Left Field, a position he has played on and off since his first season as a Titan in 2019. Although Caden Connor has solidified the First Base position, he can go to the outfield.
The potential of nine guys vying for three outfield spots must intrigue the coaches and excite them all at the same time. Depth in the outfield always translates into multiple options when it comes to line-up time and Jason Dietrich undoubtedly will take full advantage.
Designated Hitter – Jackson Lyon, Brendan Bobo, Tristan Gomes & Austin Schell
Versatility and options rule the Designated Hitter spot for the Titans in 2022. However, if we needed to pick just one guy to win the role and hold it, that guy is Jackson Lyon.
Lyon has been an absolute monster at the plate in fall and spring practices. Having battled injuries in the past, many sustained while playing his reckless abandon style of defense in the outfield, those injuries have hampered Lyon’s success and ability to display his talents. Now healthy, his fourth year on campus will see Lyon prove how deadly his right-handed bat can be.
Should Dietrich want some left-handed power at the DH spot, look no further than Brendan Bobo and Tristan Gomes. Both lefty hitters have tremendous bat speed and when they get a barrel on a ball, it normally clears the fence. With Lew in front of Bobo at Third Base and Connor in front of Gomes at First, keeping Bobo’s or Gomes’ bats out of the batting order could make for a tough decision when filling out the line-up card.
Do not count out Austin Schell’s bat for the DH spot. Schell tied for the team-high in home runs in 2021 and registered a .467 slugging percentage to go with his .350 on-base percentage.
Two right-handed and two left-handed options at the DH spot could make the Titans dangerous at the plate depending on who is on the mound for the opponent. Honestly, the DH spot could go to whoever had the best pre-game batting practice session that day.
Overall, the offense under the watchful eye and tutelage of Neil Walton should see a marked improvement over last year. Josh Belovsky will coach Third Base and hopefully Titan fans will see him cranking his right arm and sending plenty of Titans home to score in 2022. Danny Benedetti will coach First Base and hopefully he will get plenty of fist bumps from players after reaching base safely.
Walton’s offense in practices and exhibition games shows signs of aggressiveness, mixing in hit and run situations and is not held hostage to only bunting to advance runners. Walton’s offense looks balanced with a “whatever it takes” approach to getting runners on, runners over and runners in. This all-of-the-above approach could prove fruitful starting Friday vs. Stanford.
Check back here soon for our preview on the arms; complete with projections on weekend starters, mid-week starter, set-up man, closer and which pitchers we believe will see the most time in middle relief.