There’s something to be said for the process of rebuilding.
A baseball team young enough to earn that distinction gets the benefit of the doubt where most teams don’t and can always look ahead to next season when it’s struggling in the present. Optimism is unconditional and cynics can be written off as being impatient. There is no window gradually closing on the team’s hopes yet.
For those reasons, rebuilding squads can often flourish in that lower-pressure situation. And yet, despite having every right to say his UC Davis program is in that position, head coach Matt Vaughn won’t go that route.
Fans will get a chance to see for themselves when the Aggies open the season this weekend with a four-game series against Washington at Dobbins Stadium. UCD’s slate begins on Friday with a 2 p.m. contest.
Last spring, the Aggies graduated nine seniors, including a catcher who had averaged 50 starts a year over four 56-game seasons in Scott Kalush, their three primary pitchers — Anthony Kupbens, Dayne Quist and Tom Briner — and a few other starters. Kalush and Quist were picked in the 2012 MLB draft.
But Vaughn believes that a combination of returning starters and contributors and young up-and-comers will be enough to not only prevent the team from falling off, but also propel it to a better record than last year’s mark of 27-30 (12-12 in Big West play).
“We’ve lost a lot of leadership off this team. They were all a big part of the team,” Vaughn said. “(But) we had some good guys behind those guys last year. I like the feel of this team and (its) cohesion.”
For the Aggies, it all starts with fifth-year senior Paul Politi. In 2012, Politi started in every game and was UCD’s best hitter, batting .345 with three home runs and 32 runs batted in. This season, Vaughn expects him to be even better.
“He’ll be the rock, the foundation we build ourselves on,” Vaughn said.
Joining Politi in the infield will be sophomores Tino Lipson and Nick Lynch. Lipson and Lynch, along with outfielder Kevin Barker, cracked the lineup as freshmen last year and started in more than half of the team’s games. All three batted .300 or better and were among the Aggies’ leaders in RBIs.
This year, the team expects Lipson, Lynch and Barker, as well as senior outfielder Mike Mazzara, who hit .194 in limited playing time in 2012 but impressed at the plate during fall training, to form a solid offensive core around Politi.
But from there, UCD’s lineup is up in the air. Vaughn said the team will attempt to replace Kalush with a committee of catchers, including junior Spencer Brann, redshirt freshman Izaak Silva and possibly freshman Cameron Olsen. In the infield, the Aggies probably will take a similar approach, using a mix of senior C.J. Blom and juniors Adam Young and Steve Patterson alongside Politi, Lipson and Lynch.
Seniors Austin Logan and Seth Batty, as well as sophomore Austin March give the team added depth in the outfield.
“(This is) a good group of guys coming together,” Vaughn said.
On the mound, UCD will have a tough time replacing Kupbens, Quist and Briner, who combined to pitch nearly 60 percent of the team’s innings last year. As with seemingly every position, the Aggies hope to do so with a host of returning players and freshmen.
Juniors Harry Stanwyck, who went 3-4 last year while posting the lowest earned run average on the team (2.21), and Evan Wolf saw the most innings last season out of that group. Also in the mix are Patrick Hennessey, Ben Burke, Matt Nichol, Craig Lanza, Alex Sachs and an array of underclassmen.
“We’ve thrown strikes all fall,” Vaughn said. “We’ll go a little deeper (at pitcher).”
With such a mosaic of players, it may take some time for the team to find its groove. But Vaughn believes the Aggies are on the right track:
“I think we’ll surprise some teams. We’re very close to competing in the Big West every year.”
— Reach Will Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org