The Major League Baseball draft in June didn’t just pick apart Vanderbilt’s pitching staff. It also took the Commodores’ offensive power.
A month into fall practices, Vanderbilt’s lineup looks similar to the one that reached the school’s first College World Series. But three of the program’s heaviest hitters, so to speak, are gone.
The trio of first baseman Aaron Westlake, third baseman Jason Esposito and catcher Curt Casali combined for 33 home runs, 167 RBIs and 152 runs last season.
Replacing that power and production will be one of the Commodores’ biggest challenges.
“I don’t think it is a matter of replacing anything,” center fielder Connor Harrell said. “I think it is more being able to create an offense that has a personality of its own, and not trying to recreate what we did last year. As far as the personalities, it is not really realistic. But we can create an offense that is more dynamic — hit and run, bunt. Maybe in the end we do hit more home runs, who knows? It is something we’ll have to wait and see until February comes around.”
Fans will get a sneak peek of the Commodores over the next two weeks.
The Black and Gold Series begins at 6 p.m. Thursday at Hawkins Field. The three-game set continues at 6 p.m. Friday and wraps up at 1 p.m. Sunday. The following week, Vanderbilt hosts Cal State Fullerton for a two-game fall series on Oct. 22 and 23. Both games start at 11 a.m.
Harrell figures to play a huge part in Vanderbilt’s offense. The junior from Houston returns as the team’s top slugger. Last season he hit nine home runs (tied for second on the team) with 12 doubles, 35 RBIs and a .500 slugging percentage. He did all of that out of the bottom third of the order and batted .289 despite an April slump that saw his average dip to .232.
He could move up in next spring's batting order, especially since the right-handed hitter has shown — more than any other returner — that he is capable of delivering the home run.
“Obviously I have a lot of confidence in my abilities,” Harrell said. “Wherever [head coach Tim Corbin] wants to put me in the lineup, I’ll do what he tells me. ... We have a lot of strong guys. We have guys who have a lot of power potential, a lot of good young, strong freshman swings. We like to play that brand of baseball but, at the same time, we feel like we can drive the gaps as well.”
Along with Harrell, shortstop Anthony Gomez, second baseman Riley Reynolds, designated hitter Conrad Gregor and outfielders Tony Kemp and Mike Yastrzemski return and look to regain their starting jobs.
The six combined for 271 runs — nearly 60 percent of the team’s offense.
“We face the best lineup each practice day in and day out — throughout the nation,” pitcher Will Clinard said. “It definitely prepares us as a pitching staff. We may not have as much power right now because it hasn’t translated in practice so far. But it is a line drive after line drive. It is a well disciplined hitting team right now.”