Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli said a summer in the Cape Cod League as an assistant coach helped him broaden his connections with four-year college coaches. But with a collection of talent that is arguably unrivaled in his 20 seasons at the Pirates’ helm, he had already become increasingly popular with Division I recruiters.
No fewer than six members of this year’s team have already committed to four-year programs, including two of his three newcomer bounce-backs from Division I schools.
“I like this group,” said Altobelli, whose team finished 32-10 last season and reached the Super Regionals. “I like the depth. I like everything about it.”
Perfect Game, an online scouting service, ranked OCC No. 4 in its preseason junior college top 50.
Sophomore left fielder Chris Carlson and sophomore relief pitcher Jed Vandernaald return after earning first-team All-Orange Empire Conference honors last season.
Sophomore catcher Trent Woodward was a second-team all-conference performer.
Gone are Orange Empire Co-Players of the Year Matt Moynihan (University of Texas) and Jordan Beck (Chico State), as is pitching ace Chad Thompson, who signed with the Milwaukee Brewers organization after being drafted in the 27th round last June.
Pitcher Ryan Doran (San Diego State), outfielder Kevin Cho (Oral Roberts) and third baseman Colton Hammill (Chico State) are also starters who have moved on. But Altobelli said filling out the lineup card may be more difficult than filling the voids left by the aforementioned departures.
Altobelli, whose team opens Friday at home against Cuesta at 2 p.m., cited battles for starting spots at no fewer than six positions. He also noted that he could feel comfortable using any one of five starting pitchers, as well as a well-stocked bullpen.
Tops among the projected starting pitchers is freshman Brandon Brennan, who redshirted at Oregon last season. A 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-hander, Brennan has thrown a 95 mph fastball and Altobelli said perhaps more than two dozen scouts may be on hand for his collegiate debut on Friday.
Keegan Yuhl, who was 4-4 with a 3.01 earned-run average last season at San Diego City College, is a 6-0, 220-pound right-hander who is expected to be the No. 2 starter. He has already committed to New Mexico State, Altobelli said.
Eric Salcido, a sophomore lefty, will start game No. 3 for the Pirates, who should also utilize freshman Dallas Draviczki, a 6-2, 210-pound right-hander, in the starting rotation.
Vandernaald was 7-1 with one save in 54 innings last season, mostly in relief. But he, along with returning closer Josh Evans (seven saves, a 5-0 record and a 2.75 ERA in 39 1/3 innings in 2011) may have to impress Altobelli anew to earn their opportunities amid a deep corps of relievers.
Also among the bullpen candidates are Ryan Evans, a transfer from Salt Lake City Community College, UCI transfer Andrew Bynum, as well as freshmen Tyler Mitchell and Jimmy Grob.
Returners Brian O’Keefe and Ryan Boselo, an Estancia High product, may also add depth.
Whoever takes the mound figures to be backed by an explosive offense, similar to the one that hit .327 as a unit and averaged eight runs per game last season.
Carlson, the only player to start every game last season, drove in 40 runs and scored a team-best 50 while hitting .345 after bouncing back from UCI. The left fielder, who has committed to New Mexico State, had 17 extra-base hits last season, including three home runs.
Garza, who missed half of last season with a wrist injury, finished with a .363 average in 80 at-bats. He drove in 12 runs and belted 11 doubles.
Garza, a left-handed hitter, is projected to share first base and designated hitter with sophomore returner Eilert Meyers (.286 with 10 RBIs in 56 at-bats last season), who bats right-handed.
Woodward, who hit .330 with 25 RBIs in 35 games as a freshman, has committed to continue his career at Fresno State. But he may have some competition from Oregon bounce-back Stefan Sabol, should Sabol be able to recover from a broken hamate bone that will sideline him indefinitely.
"[Sabol] is a big stick that we are losing,” said Altobelli, who said the injury could keep him out anywhere from a month to the rest of the season. “He was going to be our three-hole hitter. He could play third base, the outfield or catcher.”
Sophomore defensive whiz Blake Hugaert adds depth behind the plate.
Sophomore Joel Licon, a bounce-back from Loyola Marymount who was academically ineligible last season at OCC, is set to start at shortstop.
“I think he could be our sleeper MVP,” Altobelli said. “He is going to be my pick to click. With all the big names we have this year, he’s not big in stature. But he’s a bulldog and I think he’s going to have a great year for us.”
Sophomore Austin Wobrock, a Newport Harbor High product who started 25 games last season, primarily at shortstop, will shift to third base. He is expected to share time there with sophomore Ben Agredano, a transfer from Irvine Valley.
Second base is a battle between freshmen Justin Broussard and Ricky Navarro, while freshman Manny Argomaniz is backing up Licon at short.
Altobelli said freshmen Boog Powell and Zach Nehrir bring rare defensive skills to center field, where he expects the two to share time.
“I think I could cover more ground with just those two than any three outfielders other teams use,” said Altobelli, who compared the 5-11, 170-pound Powell (hardly similar to his namesake and former Baltimore Orioles first baseman) to Lenny Dykstra.
Powell, the projected leadoff hitter, bats left-handed, while Nehrir bats right-handed, providing a platoon opportunity similar to that in right field, with Bynum and freshman lefty Bijan Rademacher, who redshirted at Cal State Fullerton in 2011.
“Its nice to have some righty-lefty options,” Altobelli said. “If teams are going to stack left-handers against us, I can flip the lineup to right-handers and be OK.”
Most expect OCC, second in he OEC last season to Santa Ana, to be better than OK this spring.
“Our guys have been great during the fall about working out and buying into our team concept,” Altobelli said. “But they’ve got to continue to do that. They’ve got to understand that there are going to be a lot of good players sitting on the bench who have never sat the bench in their whole life.”