The VandyBoys are Back: Full 2022 Roster Preview

The Vanderbilt Hustler Sports staff provides their position-by-position expectations ahead of the VandyBoys’ season opener on Feb. 18.

Vanderbilt+infielder+Dominic+Keegan+stomps+home+plate+after+a+home+run+against+Kentucky+on+May+20%2C+2022.

Vanderbilt Athletics

Vanderbilt infielder Dominic Keegan stomps home plate after a home run against Kentucky on May 20, 2022. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Despite the ever-present chill that’s still in the Nashville air, it’s almost baseball season. The No. 3 Vanderbilt Commodores’ quest for a third consecutive College World Series appearance will begin on Feb. 18 when they host No. 7 Oklahoma State.

Roster turnover is present each and every year in college baseball, but his 20th year on West End will mark a new challenge for head coach Tim Corbin. Aces of old Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker have moved on. Backstops CJ Rodriguez and Maxwell Romero Jr. have found new homes. And valuable upperclassmen such as Jayson Gonzalez and Isaiah Thomas are no longer in the mix, either.

But life goes on for Corbin and the VandyBoys, and in place of the losses, the Commodore skipper has added plenty of underclassmen talent and has high hopes for a number of experienced Commodores. Before the season gets underway, The Hustler Sports Staff provides a detailed breakdown of Vanderbilt’s projected lineup and key reserves:

First Base:

Projected Starter: Tate Kolwyck

In one of the most interesting preseason position battles, it seems that senior Tate Kolwyck will take over for Dominic Keegan at first base this season. Keegan, who will move behind the plate in place of the departed Rodriguez and Romero Jr., will give way to Kolwyck, who has provided utility reps all around the field throughout his four-year career. The power-hitting righty appeared in 42 games last season but saw his power numbers take a hit after battling two wrist injuries throughout the year. Still, he tallied 25 RBIs and finished the year with nearly a .900 OPS.

Reserve: Jonathan Vastine

A number of different players could receive time at first base if Kolwyck finds his way elsewhere, including Keegan and Jack Bulger. But throughout the spring, it’s been Jonathan Vastine taking consistent reps at first base alongside Kolwyck. The talented freshman was a top 20 prospect in Florida, tallying 15 RBIs while hitting .418 as a senior. Corbin has said that he could play a number of different positions moving forward, but first base is where he could land sooner rather than later.

Confidence Level: 8/10

  • Justin Hershey, Sports Editor

Second Base: 

Projected Starter: Javier Vaz

Vanderbilt’s second baseman will almost entirely depend on Vanderbilt’s first base situation. In previous years, Tate Kolwyck has gotten plenty of time at second base, but with Dominic Keegan moving behind the plate, Kolwyck has been taking reps at first most of the spring. So we will slot in Javier Vaz, the transfer from LSU Eunice Junior College who became a fan-favorite last summer during the College World Series. The speedster swiped five bases last season with just 42 at-bats and boasted a .396 on-base percentage. He figures to be a spark plug at the bottom of the Commodore batting order and also will likely slot into left field at some point too, where he showed last year that he can excel. But Vaz himself told reporters last Friday that he doesn’t even know where he will end up playing. So take our prediction with a grain of salt.

Reserve: Tate Kolwyck

If Kolwyck doesn’t maintain his standing over at first base, expect him to likely start at second instead. Kolwyck, who took home the VandyBoys’ most valuable teammate award at Saturday’s baseball banquet, is the definition of a utility man. The senior infielder committed just two errors in 43 games played last season. Regardless of where, Kolwyck will be an everyday player for the first time in his Vanderbilt career. Whether it’s at first, second or even designated hitter, he will be a central figure in this year’s lineup.

Confidence Level: 5/10

  • Justin Hershey, Sports Editor

Shortstop: 

Projected Starter: Carter Young

Young enters his junior campaign as one of college baseball’s best shortstops. The 6-foot shortstop started 61 games last season and led the team with 16 home runs and had 52 RBIs, which was the second most for Vanderbilt. Although Young had a batting average of .252 last season, he capitalized in clutch moments, such as scoring two of Vanderbilt’s four runs in the NCAA Super Regional game against East Carolina. Many experts project Young to be the first shortstop selected in the 2022 MLB Draft. He had offseason shoulder surgery after an injury in May, which limited him in the fall. If Young stays healthy and boosts his batting average, he may emerge as one of the great shortstops Vanderbilt has ever seen.

Reserve: Davis Diaz

Diaz comes to Vanderbilt with a lot of skill and an amazing opportunity at his fingertips. The freshman from Pittsburg, California, has accomplished several feats, from winning three gold medals with the USA National Team to batting .406 during his senior season at Acalanes High School. Diaz will be able to learn from one of the greatest shortstops in all of college baseball as a backup for Young. Diaz may not see much action this season, but he will learn an exceptional amount as a backup player for a soon-to-be MLB player and could move around the infield to other positions this season as well.

Confidence Level: 10/10

  • Andrew Wilf, Deputy Sports Editor

Third Base:

Projected Starter: Parker Noland 

Noland started all but one game last season, and proved to be a consistent force for the Commodore offense. He rang in 64 hits for the team, which was the fourth most for Vanderbilt. The Knoxville native was drafted by the Miami Marlins in the 31st round in 2019, but has elected to play for the Commodores since then. Noland tallied 43 RBIs and seven home runs last season. After having a year under his belt and more experience, his home run numbers should go up. The junior will provide toughness and grit as a catalyst for a team trying to make a run towards a College World Series title.

Reserve: Matthew Polk

Polk enters his first season with the Commodores after a noteworthy high school career. The shortstop from California had a remarkable senior year at Orange Lutheran in Long Beach, California, where he had a .375 batting average, 26 RBIs and helped his team achieve their most successful season in school history. Most importantly, Polk does not play to his size, and drives the ball with impressive gap power. Polk will provide depth for the Commodores and will get a chance to see action a few times this season, where he will help Vanderbilt improve their on-base percentage.

Confidence Level: 8/10

  • Andrew Wilf, Deputy Sports Editor

Catcher:

Projected Starter: Dominic Keegan

Keegan returns to Vanderbilt for a fourth year on West End after being taken by the New York Yankees with the 573rd pick in the MLB Draft last spring. After posting a team-high .345 batting average last year, Keegan will be the key to the Commodores’ offensive success. He can spray the ball all over the field, hit with power—he was second on the team last season with 15 home runs—and finds his way onto the bases nearly half the time (.427 OBP last season). Though Keegan will likely remain behind the plate, he has spent time at first base and is a backup option there for the Commodores should the need arise. Keegan played nearly every game last year and has become a cornerstone of this VandyBoys program. He will provide leadership and experience to a hopeful Commodore squad that looks to make a splash come June.

Reserve: Alan Espinal

As a freshman, Espinal saw only six games of action due to the extraordinary depth at catcher last season, but he might get some looks this year if Keegan moves to first base or takes on a designated hitter role at some point. He does have a home run to his name—a solo shot he hit in his most recent game against Florida International University, so if the sophomore gets a chance, it’s possible he cements a spot in the lineup going forward.

Confidence Level: 9/10

  • Sam Curtis, Deputy Sport Editor

Left Field:

Projected Starter: Troy LaNeve or Javier Vaz

This is kind of a cop-out answer, but these two work best as a junior-senior tandem. LaNeve, a strong hitter and reliable defender, started games both as an outfielder and a designated hitter last season. He gave the team an offensive spark in key moments and was truly a revelation for Corbin at the midseason mark with a playoff push coming. Vaz, on the other hand, provides speed and a better on-base percentage than LaNeve, which could be especially important against certain pitchers or weak defensive sides. It seems like Vaz might start at second base, but the senior should still get looks in left field, given his incredible speed and big-play ability out in the open. Overall, both should be in the lineup with LaNeve in left field or the designated hitter position and Vaz either in left field or at second base.

Reserve: Cal Hewett

Hewett should hope to get some experience and knowledge playing behind two impressive veterans, but he likely won’t see the field too much more than his freshman campaign when he logged seven at-bats and 15 overall appearances. Having said that, given the injuries we saw the VandyBoys endure last year, he’ll need to keep his glove warm and his bat at the ready just in case his name is called.

Confidence Level: 7/10

  • Sam Curtis, Deputy Sports Editor

Center Field:

Projected Starter: Enrique Bradfield Jr. 

Named last year’s SEC Freshman of the Year as well as an All-American and unanimous Freshman All-American, Bradfield Jr. will certainly get the starting nod this year as the Commodores’ center fielder. The talented sophomore was one of two Commodores selected to the Baseball America Preseason All-American Team this season, and his raw speed and athleticism make him a valuable asset to have in the field and at the plate. Last season, he often batted first, as his ability to steal bases proved to be a huge difference maker for the Commodores. He led the nation with 47 stolen bases and posted a .336 batting average, good for second overall on the team.

Reserve: T.J. McKenzie

Although the junior only appeared in four games last season, he has been used at times as a pinch runner because of his speed. Bradfield Jr. is the fastest player on the team, but in situations where he may be off the field, Corbin very well may look to put in McKenzie. Corbin has credited him with his patience, his defensive improvement and his ability to always play the game at a fast pace. With two seasons as a Commodore under his belt, McKenzie may see more time in a reserve-level role in center field or a corner outfield position in 2022. 

Confidence Level: 10/10

  • Andy Carr, Assistant Sports Editor

Right Field: 

Projected Starter: Spencer Jones

Jones got some run late last year in a designated hitter and outfielder role and proved to be a dependable player. The highlight of his season was grinding out an infield single en route to scoring the walk-off run in Vanderbilt’s improbable comeback victory over Stanford. While the 6’7” junior is certainly an intimidating presence at the plate, opponents will have to be wary of him on the basepaths as well, as he was 4-for-4 in stolen base attempts in 2021 in limited action. Jones flashed strong offensive and defensive tendencies last year, and seems to have earned a secure spot in the lineup heading into 2022. Look for him to truly come onto the scene as he settles into his starting role.

Reserve: Kenny Mallory Jr. and Christian Smith

McKenzie could get some looks in right field with center firmly occupied, but expect the bulk of the non-Jones reps to go to Mallory Jr. and Smith. The Georgia duo made themselves known early in the 2021 Black and Gold series, with Mallory Jr. driving in Smith for the first run of Game 1. They figure to be in the VandyBoys’ long-term plans, so Corbin ought to give them a taste of college ball. But right field is Jones’s position to lose.

Confidence Level: 8/10

  • Kavi Jakes, Sports Copy Editor

Designated Hitter:

Projected Starter: Troy LaNeve

LaNeve came on strong in 2021 after getting his opportunity in May. He brought power and a clutch gene to the Commodore lineup, exemplified by a walk-off home run against Kentucky on May 20. The junior’s mark of 14.0 AB/HR was the best on the team, and his sizzling .909 OPS was third behind Keegan and Isaiah Thomas (min. 75 ABs). However, like many of the VandyBoys, LaNeve slumped in the College World Series, bringing into question whether his run down the stretch was a fluke. Nonetheless, his raw power and potential should make him an opening day starter.

Reserve: Jack Bulger

Bulger saw time at first base, catcher and designated hitter last season and posted sturdy offensive marks, batting .274 with an OPS of .783. He was rewarded for his efforts by being named to the 2021 Freshman All-SEC team. The sophomore has earned a right to more opportunities, but his path is obstructed by two stalwarts in Keegan and LaNeve. Unless LaNeve comes out of the gate hot, expect to see a platoon between LaNeve and Bulger at designated hitter. That may even involve a touch more nuance designed to limit the load on Keegan, with Bulger slotting in at catcher and Keegan at DH when the VandyBoys face a southpaw.

Probability: 7/10

  • Kavi Jakes, Sports Copy Editor

Starting Rotation:

Projected Rotation: Patrick Reilly, Christian Little, Nick Maldonado

Corbin said as late as this past Friday that he and pitching coach Scott Brown still had discussions to have regarding Vanderbilt’s starting location. It’s possible he is playing things close to the chest; it’s equally possible that he truly doesn’t know who will take the hill next weekend against Oklahoma State. But this is our stab at projecting the rotation, and it starts with Patrick Reilly and Christian Little. The growth of these two sophomores might determine Vanderbilt’s ceiling this season. They are two of only five returning pitchers who threw 40-plus innings last season and two of only four pitchers who started games last year. While each only boasted ERAs of 4.98 and 5.48 respectively, their best baseball is undoubtedly ahead of them. Projecting the third starter is no doubt the challenge, but we will project former reliever Nick Maldonado to step into that role. The junior was arguably Vanderbilt’s most consistent arm outside of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter last season, appearing in 28 games and registering a 2.31 ERA. He has been training as a starter this offseason and will likely get a chance to do so this year.

Reserves: Carter Holton, Thomas Schultz

If Corbin feels keeping Maldonado in the bullpen is important, expect senior Thomas Schultz or freshman Carter Holton to step into a weekend starter role. Schultz is a known commodity, as he’s now started 10 games over his two years at Vanderbilt. Holton, however, is one of Vanderbilt’s most prized freshmen and adds a dimension that the VandyBoys have not had in a number of years: a potentially dominant southpaw. The lefty was the No. 24 overall prospect in the class of 2021 according to Perfect Game and pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 1 of the Black and Gold Series back in October. It’s possible reliever Chris McElvain also sees some time in Vanderbilt’s starting rotation, but don’t be surprised if Schultz or Holton burst onto the scene.

Probability: 5/10

  • Justin Hershey, Sports Editor

Bullpen:

Projected Closer: Chris McElvain

McElvain, a junior, made 22 appearances on the mound last season, the third most on the team, including one start. With the departure of steady relievers Luke Murphy and Hugh Fisher from last year’s roster, look for McElvain to be the first player out of the bullpen for the Commodores this year. He totaled 45.2 innings last season and notched 58 strikeouts, while allowing 27 walks. He could also figure to get some time in a starting role should Corbin want to experiment with his rotation early in the year.

Reserve: Nelson Berkwich

Berkwich, a talented sophomore, made 10 appearances last season, totaling 14 2/3 innings, but most impressive were his 19 strikeouts to just three walks. As the lefty enters this season with a year of experience under his belt, the Commodores will likely lean on him more and expect more innings from him. Corbin has admired Berkwich’s drive to attack the strike zone and not back away from anyone at the plate, no matter who it may be. 

Probability: 7/10

  • Andy Carr, Assistant Sports Editor