It is that time of year again for Vanderbilt Baseball, as they prepare to enter a new season without a few of last season’s stars, including Kyle Wright and Jeren Kendall, both first round picks in the 2017 MLB Draft.
Of course, losing key players to the MLB is business as usual for 16th-year coach Tim Corbin, who saw eight Commodores turn pro last year. However, the future is bright as Vanderbilt enters 2018 with the number-one ranked recruiting class as rated by Baseball America. What’s more, is that the team remarkably did not lose a single high-school prospect to the MLB Draft, so there will be good depth and even better competition among the freshman players.
Following a disappointing Super Regional loss to Oregon State in 2017, Corbin will lean on these four returning veterans from last year and look for them to step up in his revitalized effort to bring the Commodores back to the College World Series.
Here’s a look at some returning players to watch for 2018.
Julian Infante – First Baseman
After a breakout sophomore year in which he hit .315 with 11 home runs, all eyes are now on the Miami native to carry the Commodore offense. Infante delivered well out of the cleanup spot last year, driving in a team high 66 runs and will be counted on to be the primary run-producer again this season. He plays big at 6’3”, 215lbs and is every coach’s ideal middle-of-the-order slugger with power. Infante’s highlights from last season include a 10-game hitting streak and a seven-RBI effort against Missouri. It will be interesting to see how Infante responds to the increased expectations as the main, reliable force in a young lineup.
JJ Bleday – Outfielder
Bleday is an athletic outfielder with a large, muscular frame at 6’3”. The lefty hitter impressed throughout his freshman year and showed a knack for getting on base with the third-highest on-base percentage on the team. His plate discipline is another reason for confidence in his sophomore season as well, as he drew 34 walks while striking out only 26 times.
However, Bleday will likely face more advanced pitching this season with an increased profile and an inevitable move up the lineup from last year’s eight-hole. With Kendall’s departure from the Vanderbilt outfield, Bleday looks to be the front-runner for the open center field spot and could also find himself atop the lineup this season.
Patrick Raby – Starting Pitcher
Named a Freshman All-American in 2016 and arguably the best Commodore starter last year (10-4 with a 2.73 era), Raby enters his junior season with a decorated resume and high expectations. He has unsurprisingly been named the top starter for the season opener against Duke and is being touted as Vanderbilt’s next big pitching prospect – and for good reason.
The righty possesses a lively fastball that sits in the low 90s, alongside a curveball that can slow down to 76-78 mph. He couples his 6’3” frame with his over-the-top arm slot to throw downhill which allows him to command the strike zone with ease. His smooth delivery and mature approach make him a good bet to repeat last year’s success and position himself among the best college pitchers for the upcoming draft.
Drake Fellows – Starting Pitcher
The 6’5” righty turned heads in his first Commodore preseason, so much so that he did something only one other player has accomplished during the Corbin era: earning a starting spot opening weekend as a freshman. Fellows’ season was somewhat of a mixed bag; however it certainly featured more good than bad. A mid-season struggle sent him to the bullpen for a stint, but he finished the season strong upon his return to the starting rotation.
His powerful fastball regularly touches 94 miles per hour and when paired with his wipeout slider, Fellows constantly keeps hitters on their heels. His impressive build has not completely filled out yet, so there is certainly room to grow despite already possessing lots of promising talent. He struck out 68 batters in only 63 innings last season, so expect a breakout season from the righty hurler as he looks to slide in behind Raby as the second full-time starter.
While these returners are sure to carry the team, certainly keep a close eye on the touted freshman class that features five of last year’s top 100 prospects, including a 6’5” lefty in Jake Eder (#20) and a local catcher, Philip Clarke (#59). Corbin has never shown any hesitation to play his freshmen and there should be some good competition heading into the season. There are big holes left behind at third base and outfield and the team will need to pencil in another starter, so don’t be surprised to see a couple of freshman step up and make an impact.
It will also be interesting to see how Vanderbilt stacks up against the rest of the SEC this year, which sent both Florida and LSU in the College World Series last season. Vanderbilt plays both of these teams in back-to-back series at the end of March and those games will say a lot about where this year’s team stands as it looks to make a deep tournament run.
The future of Vanderbilt Baseball is already looking promising, however scouts and GMs across the league are anxiously waiting to see the next crop of MLB talent the 2018 Commodores will put on display.