Baseball: 2011 season preview

Courtesy USC Athletics

USC's top hitter, junior infielder Ricky Oropesa, hit .353 with 20 homers and 67 RBIs last season, but those numbers will be hard to surpass in 2011 with college baseball's new wood-like bats.

These Trojans are top-heavy.

It's Ricky Oropesa, Austin Wood, Andrew Triggs and everybody else this year for USC baseball, and interim head coach Frank Cruz doesn't seem too worried about it.

Oropesa (.353, 20 HR, 67 RBIs in 2010) is a big-bopping lefty, the newcomer Wood a hard-throwing righty and Triggs (2-7, 3.95 ERA) a smart sinker-baller. Together, the three Trojans are three of Baseball America's Top 100 college prospects. Together, they represent the hope for this year's USC baseball squad.

Oropesa, a junior, will start the season hitting third in the lineup and manning the hot corner for USC. Triggs will be the Friday night starter and Wood will start on Saturdays.

Behind the top trio, the lineup assembles this way: left fielder Matt Hart (.267, 0 HR, 12 RBIs) will likely lead off against right-handers, with right fielder Alex Glenn (.193, 2 HR, 12 RBIs) taking the top stop against lefties. Freshman James Roberts will start at shortstop and could hit second. With Oropesa essentially entrenched in the third spot, Matt Foat (.275, 5 HR, 33 RBIs) will play first and hit fourth, Alex Sherrod (.315, 6 HR, 28 RBIs) will play center field and hit fifth and second baseman Joe De Pinto (.286, 2 HR, 23 RBIs) will hit sixth. The bottom third of the lineup will be filled out by catcher Kevin Roundtree (.288, 1 HR, 23 RBIs), the designated hitter -- oftentimes senior Mike Greco (.133 in 15 at-bats) or junior Brandon Garcia (.182 in 22 at-bats), Cruz said -- and whichever corner outfielder doesn't lead off.

The coach also said he expected junior Garret Houts (.288, 3 HR, 9 RBIs) to play some left field, likely against lefties, and smooth-fielding sophomore Adam Landecker (.265, 1 HR, 15 RBIs) to be the utility infielder.

There are some inherent problems with that lineup. First, Hart and Glenn recorded the two-worst on-base percentages of any Trojan with more than 40 at-bats last season and will be leading off; Foat and Sherrod combined to hit only 11 homers, numbers you expect out of one four or five hitter in the Pac-10, not both; USC also doesn't have anything close to a true DH, as the two primary candidates at the spot combined to total six hits last season.

And there's still no protection for Oropesa. But Cruz reasons that the rest of college baseball will also be struggling to produce power this season and USC's lack of pop thus won't be as noticeable as in past years.

Why will college baseball be struggling to produce power?

The bats, of course. In a controversial decision, the NCAA this offseason mandated all bats conform to a strict set of rules that make aluminum bats act more like wood bats. All across the country, homers have been down in fall and early spring intrasquads.

"I don't know if there's anything we can do about that except put people on base in front of him," Cruz said this week of Oropesa. "That's what we're hoping to do, and I think if you give Matt and De Pinto and Sherrod chances to hit they'll hurt you.

"The fact of the matter is that this year, with the bat, people aren't going to be relying on the home run. They're gonna rely on the double, and so I think that benefits us."

As far as the rotation, senior Logan Odom (1-0, 7.01) will be the Sunday starter behind Wood and Triggs. Talented junior Chad Smith (5-6, 4.47), who had the best batting-average against on USC's staff last season, will close. Senior Chris Mezger (4-2, 4.56) and juniors Ben Mount (5-6, 4.32) and Garcia (2-3, 4.17) will be long relievers/mid-week starters, and juniors Chris McCaffery (sat out 2009 and 2010) and Jordan Hershisher (0-1, 12.00 in three appearances) and seniors Ryan Cabral (1-1, 6.44) and Brett Williams (0-0 14.09 in six appearances) will help bridge the gap between the starters and Smith. Roberts will also be counted on as a late-inning guy, and a number of other position players could pitch in relief, Cruz said.

There is some talent on the roster, clearly. But it won't measure up against the UCLAs and Arizona States of the Pac-10 this year. The Trojans are projected to finish ninth in the Pac-10 this season by conference coaches, in front of only Washington.

Heck, they likely won't even measure up well with teams like Missouri, North Carolina and Cal Poly, who the Trojans will be facing in their season-opening tournament this weekend, beginning Friday at 6 p.m. against Missouri. And Cruz knows that, he says.

"For us, every team we're playing against is solid," said Cruz, who was promoted to interim head coach status when former coach Chad Kreuter was fired in August. "Are you kidding me? We've got a lot to prove."

To make matters worse, USC has what some experts are calling the hardest schedule in the country, complete with a trip to perennial power Rice in Houston and visits from Georgia and Louisville, among others. Cruz laughs when asked about it, but doesn't make many excuses.

"It's really tough," he says simply. "Really tough."

Kreuter made the schedule. All four of the schedules he designed in his four-year tenure at USC were among the country's toughest. But he and Cruz' different philosophies on scheduling are just one of the differences between the two men.

Cruz is intent on instilling a new attitude in his team this season. To that end, he brought in a sports psychologist to work with the team this offseason and has noticed significant positive results, he said.

He wants his team -- a fairly experienced one, with Oropesa, Triggs and De Pinto serving as captains -- to take a better, more balanced approach to each game, and to embrace the fundamentals of it. And he wants them to focus more.

He also wants more urgency, he says. More enthusiasm. More of a team approach and, as he puts it, more of a "collegiate style," the opposite of the go-about-your-business pro style Kreuter often endorsed during his tenure at USC.

We'll see how it goes.