Measuring Up: Finding the ceiling and floor for Vanderbilt Baseball

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Measuring Up: Finding the ceiling and floor for Vanderbilt Baseball

Photo by Bruce Brookshire

Photo by Bruce Brookshire

Photo by Bruce Brookshire

Photo by Bruce Brookshire

Opening Day for Vanderbilt Baseball is finally upon us, and Vanderbilt will start their 2019 season on Friday night in Arizona at the MLB4 Showcase against Virginia.

The team is ranked #1 in the country by multiple outlets, so expectations are sky-high. Here’s how our staff is managing the team’s expectations this season.

Cutler Klein, sports editor

Ceiling: The ceiling is the roof for this Vanderbilt team. This squad has all the characteristics of a championship team: veteran leadership, talented young budding stars, an elite rotation and plenty of bullpen depth. Highly-touted freshman pitcher Kumar Rocker might not even be in a starting role right away, which says more about the depth on the team than it does about Rocker. Drake Fellows, Patrick Raby and Mason Hickman are all back and will likely begin the season as the weekend rotation. If the team can keep up the same production that they got from stellar youngsters like Austin Martin and Pat DeMarco, and veterans like JJ Bleday and Ethan Paul play as well as they should, there’s no reason why this team can’t win it all in Omaha.

Floor: Everyone always worries about a sophomore slump, and it could be a worry for this Vanderbilt team. Martin, DeMarco, and players like Jayson Gonzalez could struggle after a solid first season in 2018. Rocker might not be ready for this stage, and his hard-throwing abilities might be curtailed. Even though the bullpen is deep, they still lost key players in Chandler Day and Maddux Conger. It remains to be seen who could step up in the bullpen outside of Rocker. Even with all the potential issues that the team could have, with this much talent in the fold, the floor is an early exit in the NCAA Tournament and a lackluster SEC record.

Betsy Goodfriend, senior writer

Ceiling: The ceiling for this team year after year is a national championship. There’s no question that all the seniors came back to campus for their final year with one goal in mind: to lift up that trophy in Omaha. Vanderbilt is ranked as the preseason #1 by multiple rankings, so the expectation should be to make it to the College World Series and at least have a shot at winning the championship. The ceiling can’t get any higher than winning it all. The key to reaching their ceiling is the starting pitching. If Mason Hickman, Drake Fellows, and Patrick Raby pick up where they left off as last year’s weekend rotation and Kumar Rocker, Jake Eder, and Tyler Brown dominate weekday starts and long relief appearances, the pitching can carry this team while Coach Corbin figures out a consistent batting order and infield.

Floor: This team has a high floor due to all of its talent, and that floor is an NCAA regionals appearance. Vanderbilt was the #2 seed in the Clemson regional last year and advanced to the Super Regionals, but a floor would be getting knocked out of the tournament in the regionals. The worry for this team is that they lose too many non-conference games and lose a few SEC series to end up as a #2 or #3 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Simon Gibbs, senior writer

Ceiling: This is the fun part. I see absolutely no ceiling for this team, and I’m struggling to even find a weakness. Here’s an analogy: Duke Basketball gets all the attention in the world because of their elite freshman class. Imagine if Duke’s Basketball team had their current freshmen class, but players from recent teams (Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Jayson Tatum, etc.) chose not to declare for the draft. That’s essentially what Vanderbilt’s baseball team is working with.

Elite hitters like JJ Bleday, Jayson Gonzalez,  Pat DeMarco, Austin Martin, and Stephen Scott are all returning—and that’s just scratching the surface. Their pitching staff features returning stars in Patrick Raby, Drake Fellows, Jackson Gillis, and many more. Then, on top of all those seasoned veterans, they secured the top recruiting class in the nation. five of their 17 high school commits were in the top 100 (would have been eight if it weren’t for the three who took their offer out of the MLB draft). The sky is the limit for a team with so much talent and depth, so one can see why they enter the season ranked first in the nation. The ceiling can (and should be) a national championship. After all, this is their first no. 1 preseason ranking since 2015, which directly followed their 2014 national championship season.

Floor: The floor is still quite promising for this team. Even if they struggle, there’s enough depth on this team to make a run. Worst case scenario, the 2019 season draws parallels to 2018, during which the Commodores had their high moments, but also their fair share of low moments: the team lost inexcusable games against teams like Sam Houston State, Long Beach State, Eastern Kentucky, Lipscomb, and Tennessee Tech. These losses didn’t come close to ruining the season, as the 2018 Commodores still made it as far as the Super Regional. However, in the unlikely event that the 2019 team struggles, I have trouble seeing how they could be eliminated earlier than the Super Regional. This is also coming from the same person that set exceedingly high expectations for the men’s basketball season…so this time, knock on wood. Just in case.

Alyssa Muir, sports reporter

Ceiling: The pitching staff of Drake Fellows, Patrick Raby, Mason Hickman and freshman phenom Kumar Rocker torches opposing offenses all season. The group of position players, which returns basically every major piece with the exception of Connor Kaiser, proves to be too much for pitchers to keep down and the team returns to the College World Series for the first time since 2015. In Omaha, Tim Corbin’s number one ranked team uses their advantage of veteran experience to win another championship.

Floor: In an SEC absolutely loaded with talent, the Commodores struggle to put themselves ahead of the rest of the pack. The middle infield, which is the biggest question mark on the team because of the loss of Connor Kaiser, struggles to find stability. The Commodores finish in the middle of the SEC with an early postseason exit and join the basketball team in failing to live up to preseason hype.

Drew Perez, sports reporter

Ceiling: National Champions

There are few reasons not to be optimistic about the Vandy Boys this year. The Commodores have been regional champions seven times in the last nine years in the NCAA Tournament and are ranked #1 in the nation in a number of preseason polls. They also had the best recruiting class in the nation, including five players in the top 100. With several seniors to lead a team that is sure to have different players competing to start at each position, Vanderbilt could make their first run to the College World Series since 2015.

Floor: Eliminated in NCAA Regionals

The Vandy Boys haven’t had a losing record in over 15 years, but if the team fails to determine a set starting lineup and as a consequence has offensive and defensive chemistry issues, then they could enter the NCAA Regionals as a major underdog, or even miss them altogether. With so many talented underclassmen, I wouldn’t blame Coach Tim Corbin for having a tough time deciding who to start and who to bench. Hopefully the Commodores can find a balanced roster and bring the best out of their extraordinarily potent underclassmen.

Ryan Sheehy, sports reporter

Ceiling: The Commodores enter 2019 with the number 1 overall recruiting class and stand ranked at either first or second in the country in most polls. These lofty ambitions are well deserved – after an up and down regular season by Vanderbilt standards, the team made a serious push in the postseason that ended against Mississippi State in extra innings of Game Three in one of the best Super Regional series in recent memory. With the bar set so high and coming off of a relatively hot end to last season, the Commodores’ ceiling is nothing short of SEC and National Championships. 50-6

Floor: Despite the hype surrounding Vanderbilt this season, they were also expected to be strong contenders for much of last season before their campaign returned mixed results. If this team is similarly unable to sort through any issues or perhaps an early bump in the road, they could wind up on a downtrend that carries them to another middling season that produces no accolades and an early or mid-tournament departure come the postseason. 30-26

Riley McCormick, sports reporter

Ceiling: 52 overall wins with 19 coming from the SEC. Vanderbilt’s most successful seasons in recent years (2011 and ’13-’15) have had at least 50 wins. Every team for the past five years has had between 15 and 20 conference wins– 2019 could fall on the upper end of that spectrum. 

Floor: 45 overall wins, 15 in SEC. The season with the lowest number of wins in the past five years, 2017, had a young pitching staff and an experienced Friday starter that took the first month of the season to find a groove. Barring something exceptional happening, I do not see that happening with this team. The Southeastern Conference is the toughest baseball conference to play in (represented five teams out of the eight in 2018 CWS, six of top 10 in RPI) where non-powerhouse teams like Mizzou and Mississippi St. can steal series. 

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