Draft day has come and gone, and four Titans were selected. Many expect those drafted, Nate Nankil, Jojo Ingrassia, Cole Urman and Caden Connor to sign and turn professional. Combine those four major contributors along with exiting seniors Zach Lew, Carter White, Fynn Chester and Tyler Stultz, and Jason Dietrich and his staff have a lot of holes to fill in 2024.
The good news remains that all the high school seniors and JC transfers committed to play at Cal State Fullerton did not get drafted. Sure, those players could still sign a free agent contract but the likelihood of that happening is very slim.
Of the Titans returning to campus and those new faces coming in, who will fill those roles left by those that will leave via the draft or graduation? That is why we are here. We present to you the “Way Too Early 2024 Roster Predictions”.
Stultz, Chester and Ingrassia combined to throw 193 2/3rds innings of the 503 innings thrown in 2023. That equates to 39% of the innings tossed in 2023 will leave campus either via the draft or graduation. Combine that with Trevor Hinkle’s 54 innings in 2023, that quates to nearly half of the innings from 2023 will not come back. (Hinkle has placed his name in the transfer portal again and may not return to Fullerton in 2024.)
The opportunity for arms to come in and claim innings appears wide open. Evan Yates, the only regular weekend starter to return, could claim the Friday starter role but it is not assured. Christian Rodriguez, more than a year removed from Tommy John Surgery, could come back and lay claim to that role as well. C-Rod did not pitch at all in 2023 and depending on how his rehab has gone and his fall workouts go, he very well could grab the opening day spot. If Yates can hold him off, Rodriguez looks like a shoe in for the Saturday starter spot.
The other weekend spot could go to veteran Peyton Jones who threw 54.2 innings in 2023, the majority of those in relief. Could bullpen guys like Jason Blood, Seth Tomczak, Jesse Alfaro or Ryan Faulks come up and challenge for a weekend role? Their performance during the summer and in the fall will be telling.
History Repeating Itself?
Of all the incoming freshmen, eight of them are slated to bolster the pitching staff. Could one or more coming to campus steal a weekend starting rotation spot? It is possible.
Do you remember 10 years ago when Jason Dietrich was a young pitching coach for Cal State Fullerton in 2013? Do you also remember two young freshmen by the names of Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza who came in and held down the Friday and Saturday starting roles for the three years they put on a Titans uniform?
Yes, that was 10 years ago but the ingredients are there with this incoming class. Add to it some Jason Dietrich tutelage in the fall and these young arms may surprise. Whether they can wrestle away a weekend starting role from the veterans like Jones, Yates or Rodriguez remain to be seen.
A handful of Freshmen in this year’s recruiting class received some professional attention but ultimately should hit campus. The ones most in jeopardy of getting poached by the draft included Chris Hernandez, Andrew Wright, Payton Hawkinson and Cristian Brewster. All received interest from MLB teams and all exited MLB draft weekend unscathed.
Of the highly regarded arms, Chris Hernandez from Bakersfield, looked in the most danger of going pro. Ranked the 17th best right-hander in the State of California by Perfect Game, Hernandez could play meaningful innings right away. Hawkinson’s 6’6″ 230lb. frame plus being a lefty, perked up the ears of a lot of MLB scouts. He ultimately did not get drafted and with tools you can not teach, can probably improve his draft stock dramatically with three years of Dietrich instruction.
Another lefty, Andrew Wright, ranks 23rd amongst left-handers in California by Perfect Game. Cristian Brewster, the 47th ranked right hander in California by Perfect Game, fended off pro suitors and should arrive on campus ready to compete for innings.
Closer & Bullpen Depth
Not going to lie, Jojo Ingrassia selected in the 14th round of the MLB draft by the Boston Red Sox was a bit of a surprise. All assumptions remain that if the Red Sox drafted him there, he will sign. That means the Titans will need a new closer. Where will the Titans turn to replace the 44.2 innings, 51 Ks and seven saves Ingrassia recorded in 2023? They may have found him in the same place they found Ingrassia, San Diego.
University of San Diego Lefty Mikiah Negrete hit the transfer portal and recently announced on social media he was committing to come to Cal State Fullerton. He came out of Servite High School in 2022 and Perfect Game ranked him the 10th best lefty in California that year.
Currently playing in the Northwoods League and after six appearances, his fastball sits between 89-92 MPH and tops out at 93-94. He also has a change-up and a slider and in 19 innings has given up 13 hits, five walks, 12 Ks, holds an ERA of 0.95, opponents are batting .203 and a 0.95 WHIP. Of course, those are summer ball numbers which you need to take with a grain of salt.
Negrete’s numbers at USD were uninspiring for his freshman season. His 25 innings were all in relief, recording a 2-3 record with a 6.48 ERA. He notched 20 punch outs but also let up seven home runs which might explain the 6+ ERA.
Should Negrete not come in and grab the closer role, Jesse Alfaro could get it. Alfaro in 2023 as a freshman for the Titans appeared in 12 games, starting two of them and logged 13 innings. He ended the season with a 4.15 ERA and 1.54 Whip while striking out eight. In summer ball, Alfaro has thrown nine innings for the Portland Pickles, has a 1-0 record, a 0.00 ERA with 11 strikeouts. Again, that’s summer ball and here is your grain of salt.
As for bullpen, any of the previously mentioned returners or incoming recruits could bolster the depth and increase the confidence of the coaching staff. We all know that innings get awarded to the guys the coaches feel they can trust. Down the stretch, that number dwindled to a handful of guys outside of the starters. Look no further than the guys that saw time up at the Stanford Regional; Peyton Jones, Jason Blood, Seth Tomczak and Ingrassia. Can the incoming freshmen add their name to that list and get into the “Trust Tree”?
With Cole Urman drafted, the catcher spot is up for grabs. Urman provided stellar defense behind the dish and his ability to erase base runners with his incredible pop time will be missed.
Urman’s exit is not all bad news in that the coaches anticipated his impending exit and prepared rising sophomore, Max Ortega, adequately. Ortega played in 24 games and took 49 at-bats, averaging .224, seven RBI and one home run. The drop off in defense from Urman to Ortega was stark and apparent in 2023. (A combination of Urman being a plus-plus defender may have skewed opinions when comparing to Ortega.) Ortega was a true freshman and his defense could improve with more seasoning at the college level. No matter, Ortega appears to be the heir apparent to the regular catching role but could get challenged.
Jared Snyder, the transfer portal refugee from Long Beach State, played sparingly for the Dirtbags as a freshman in 2023. He appeared in only seven games and recorded only four at-bats. It is understandable that Snyder sat so much seeing how Connor Burns received the Lion’s Share of the innings. (The Cincinnati Reds selected Burns in the 5th round of the 2023 draft.)
Coming out of high school, Snyder graded out with an 8.5 from Perfect Game and PG ranked him the 13th best catcher in California in 2022. For comparison’s sake, Perfect Game had Ortega ranked the 12th best catcher in California that same year. As of right now, Ortega might have the slight edge for the starting nod based on more playing experience in 2023 and being in the Titans’ system for a year compared to Snyder coming in as a transfer.
The other catchers expected to compete for time includes Jack Vanoncini and Waldie Perez; who both did not appear in any games for the Titans in 2023. Ethan Munoz is the only incoming freshman listed as a catcher and coming out of Sierra Canyon High School, batted .391 with two home runs in 87 at-bats.
The graduation of Zach Lew and the drafting of Caden Connor leaves huge questions marks at the corner infield spots. Brendan Bobo could have slotted into Third Base but has chosen to test the waters within the transfer portal. Did anyone else play First Base other than Connor in 2023?
Of the veterans returning that could play on the corners, the aforementioned Jack Vanoncini projects to challenge Luke Mistone at First Base who replaced Connor in spot duty. Mistone came in the program last season as potentially a two-way player but did not see any innings on the mound. His six at-bats in five games demonstrates just how much Connor played in 2023.
Who will play third base? That is a bigger mystery.
Of all the infielders either returning or incoming recruits, all of them are suited to play middle infield. Could someone like Jack Haley or Maddox Latta move to third? It is possible. How about Eli Lopez? Maybe. Draven Nushida or Angelo Aleman? Also possible.
In looking at the incoming freshmen, the position players are all shortstops or outfielders. Of course, we understand that in high school, typically the best and most athletic players play shortstop. But in looking at the comments from the coaching staff, they describe these recruits as middle infielder types. Some weight room and training table meals might get these guys to bulk up and move out to a corner to help fill the void left by Lew and Connor.
Up the middle, the Titans appear set and this position group projects to be the most veteran and reliable compared to others.
The double-play duo of Jack Haley and Maddox Latta returns but they could be challenged by a few hungry youngsters. Haley and Latta both battled injuries in 2023 that kept them out of the line-up at different times in the season. Should they remain healthy and improve on their hitting, (Haley .240 and Latta .287 in 2023) the middle infield could be a major strength in 2024.
JT Navyac has entered the transfer portal and appears headed elsewhere leaving the door open for returners Lopez, Aleman and Nushida to push for at-bats.
The incoming freshmen infielder recruits include Frank Estrada, Tyler Holley, Noel Ramos and Marcos Rosales. All are freshmen and all project to play in the middle. Some guys may have to bump out to the corners if they expect to get any type of playing time.
The loss of Nankil to the draft and Carter White to graduation leaves two large holes on the left and the right sides of the outfield. White and Nankil accounted for the top (Nankil – 237) and fourth (White – 198) number of at-bats on the 2023 team. That is just a shade under 22% of the 2023 team’s at-bats now gone with the Nankil and White departures.
Moises Guzman returns after spending the majority of 2023 in center field. The only other outfielder to get any significant time was Colby Wallace. Wallace played quite a bit at the beginning of the season but as Carter White’s bat heated up, Wallace took a seat while White played primarily in left field.
Draven Nushida is listed as a dual player for both infield and outfield, but he mostly played infield after pinch hitting in 2023. The other “veteran” is not really a veteran at all in Jackson Giacone who sat out all of 2023 after undergoing neck surgery. Giacone is cleared for baseball activities and is playing summer ball for the Humbolt Crabs.
Help could be on the way in the form of JC transfer Matthew Bardowell and freshmen Ny’Zaiah Thompson along with Camden Burdick and Ethan Winslow.
Bardowell appears poised to slip into a corner outfield spot coming from Riverside City College after bouncing back from Cal Baptist originally. The 6’ 3”, 220 lb. Bardowell had a monster freshman campaign at RCC playing in 46 games, batting .436, scoring 51 runs, driving in 63 RBI, stealing 12 bags and belting eight home runs.
His sophomore year was marred by injuries which hampered his statistical output. He suffered a forearm contusion when he collided with a fence during the East LA series (February 3-4) followed by a soft tissue injury that affected his hamstring after the Southwestern game (March 5). Despite the injuries and playing 12 less games than in his freshman year, Bardowell still hit .360 with 31 RBI, scored 37 runs, stole 7 bases and equaled his home run total of eight in 2023.
It is unclear which outfield spot Bardowell will take but he appears well positioned to start in the meadow come February 2024.
The dark horse candidates in the outfield could come via the freshman class. Camden Burdick, Ethan Winslow and most notably Ny’Zaiah Thompson could come in and surprise. Burdick, from Carlsbad, Calif. ranks 72nd by Perfect Game for California outfielders. Wilson, from Kingsburg, Calif., ranks just a bit higher at 56 in California by Perfect Game. It is unknown if or where both of those players are playing summer ball.
One recruit we do know is playing summer ball, Ny’Zaiah Thompson. Thompson, from Mountain House, Calif. received a Perfect Game Grade of 9 and PG ranks him the 22nd best outfielder in California. Thompson received an invite from MLB to play this summer in the MLB Draft League. It is a collegiate summer baseball league that serves as a showcase for top draft-eligible prospects leading up to the MLB draft.
Thompson shows signs he could hold down the center field spot with his speed and ability to track down balls. At the plate, he could become a table setter / lead-off type guy on offense. The Titans have not had a true lead-off hitter that has a high on-base percentage that can also steal bases that puts opposing pitchers in stressful situations from the start of the game. Thompson could translate to that type of player which the Titans have desperately needed.
The good news coming out of the MLB Draft League is that both Thompson and Bardowell were considered top prospects that the MLB wanted to get a closer look at them prior to the draft. The better news is that neither were selected and the likelihood of them arriving on campus is quite high.
With Guzman returning and both Thompson and Bardowell coming to Fullerton, the outfield could be a strength for the Titans in 2024.
As we said earlier, this is way too early to make any type of prediction on what the starting line-up Jason Dietrich will fill out on opening day. But it is a fun exercise to see if we can come close. So here goes:
1 – Friday, Evan Yates; Saturday, Christian Rodriguez; Sunday, Peyton Jones
2 – Max Ortega
3 – Luke Mistone
4 – Maddox Latta
5 – Eli Lopez
6 – Jack Haley
7 – Moises Guzman
8 – Ny’Zaiah Thompson
9 – Matthew Bardowell
That is it. Now that the draft is over but the deadline to transfer from D1 to D1 has not come and gone, this is how we see the Titans stacking up in 2024.
Could the Titans get more transfer portal commitments or even walk-ons from high school or Junior College? Absolutely. Keep in mind Eli Lopez was not on our or anyone’s radar screen at this time last year and now we are projecting him to start at third base.
Year three for Jason Dietrich and his staff will be one still with growing pains and will constantly remind fans that rebuilding back up a once proud and winning college baseball program will take some time. With his second recruiting class that is 100% his and his staff’s, let us see what type of Titan magic we can expect at Goodwin Field come 2024.