Welcome to the first edition of the West Coast League’s Inside College Baseball, where new league president Donnie Marbut provides insight and analysis on the West Coast college baseball landscape.
The former Washington State University head coach and current Pac-12 Networks commentator offers up his latest thoughts on college baseball in the west, which highlights many former and future WCL players.
The Pac is All Packed Up
I’ve never seen such balance in the Pac-12 – from top to bottom – with 10 teams within two games of each other. It is nuts, but it has got to be exciting for the coaches, players and fans. Nearly everyone is still in the hunt. Coach Lindsay Meggs at UW continues to do a great job with his Huskies as they lead the conference with a 9-6 record, tied with Utah. Washington is led by WCL alum Chris Baker, an absolutely great kid. Chris, a junior from San Mateo, California, plays short and third for coach Meggs and leads by example, and at the plate, as the former Bellingham Bell leads UW in homers with 6 and is hitting .303 with 8 doubles and 23 RBIs. Catcher Joey Moran of Sisters, Oregon (Bend Elks country) played in the WCL in 2014. He leads the Dawgs in doubles with 11 and in batting with a .315 average. The sophomore is playing great defense too. I have been really impressed by hard-throwing frosh right-hander Joe Demers. I called one his games for Pac-12 Networks at Goss Stadium vs. Oregon State. He got his first taste of college baseball last summer with the Walla Walla Sweets. Demers has made 10 starts and is 3-2 with a 5.23 ERA. He pitches with great poise and is going to be really good for the next three years for the Huskies. Another kid I really like also made his college debut in the WCL, frosh infielder AJ Graffanino. He played for the Cowlitz Black Bears in 2015, and continues his accelerated development in Seattle as AJ is earning more and more time for coach Meggs as the season progresses. Remember that name, AJ Graffanino. Nearly half the Husky roster has experience in the WCL with several more committed to play in the league in 2016. It should be a treat following the next five weeks of Pac-12 play. UW’s next series is at Cal. The Bears are 9-9. Utah hosts UCLA. The Bruins are hot right now as they swept Oregon last weekend. I have the utmost respect for coach Savage and what he does. He’s a great friend and I appreciate that he sends so many quality kids to get better in the West Coast League. His top five hitters played in the WCL; Eric Filia (Wenatchee), Luke Persico (Walla Walla), Sean Bouchard (Walla Walla), Kort Peterson (Cowlitz) and Brett Urabe (Victoria). His top five arms also pitched in the league; Moises Ceja (Bellingham), Griffin Canning (Wenatchee), Scott Burke (Klamath), Kyle Molnar (Walla Walla) and Nathan Hadley (Wenatchee). Before we move on, a tip of the cap to my coaching friends with the Utes; head coach Bill Kinneberg, associate head coach Jason Hawkins, volunteer assistant coach (and Pullman HS grad) Jay Brossman and director of operations Connor Lambert. Connor was an ex-pitcher of mine at Washington State who is doing good work in the WCL as the associate head coach and pitching coach of the Corvallis Knights. The Utes staff and players are doing fantastic work and have the Utes playing at a very high level and having a lot of fun.
Young Mustangs Lead Big West
Cal Poly, a perennial Big West contender, for years has sent its best young players to the West Coast League. The Mustangs head coach Larry Lee is one of the best managers in the country and is extraordinary at developing players. There might not be any better when it comes to development. While Cal Poly wasn’t tabbed as a front runner this spring, the Stangs are tied for first with Cal State Fullerton in the Big West with a 7-2 conference record and ranked #19 by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. Former Corvallis Knight and Bellingham Bell righty Justin Calomeni has emerged as an elite closer with 6 saves and 35 strikeouts over 19.1 innings pitched. Victoria HarbourCats alum and senior outfielder John Schuknecht earned Big West Player of the Week honors for his 6-for-12 hitting performance in Cal Poly’s three-game sweep of UC Santa Barbara last weekend. Schuknecht leads CP in doubles with 12 and RBIs with 33. Former Walla Walla right-hander Jarred Zill has really developed after a productive summer with the Sweets. The sophomore has earned 6 starts and is 4-1 with a 2.50 ERA over 36 innings pitched (third highest on the team). Another sophomore contributing to Cal Poly’s success is outfielder Josh George, who played in Corvallis in 2015. He’s hitting .294 with 136 at bats and 23 runs scored. Cal Poly usually shines brightest offensively, but Larry’s 2016 club is really pitching (3.60 team ERA). WCL alums contributing on the mound are Bellingham’s Spencer Howard (2-1, 2.91, 13 appearances, 25 K in 21.2 IP); Corvallis’ Craig Colen (3.07, 9 appearances) and Slater Lee (1-1, 3 starts); and Victoria’s Austin Dondaville (3.09, 10 appearances). This season, to date, might be Larry Lee at his finest as this Mustang club is very, very young and only features two seniors. Cal Poly looks to stay hot and extend its five-game Big West win streak at Long Beach State April 29-May 1. Cal Poly has series wins over both Fullerton and Santa Barbara.
The Zags on Top in WCC
It’s no surprise coach Machtolf has his Bulldogs playing great baseball and at the top of the West Coast Conference standings with a 12-6 mark. Gonzaga competes. Nearly all of Mach’s top hitters and pitchers were groomed in the WCL. Shortstop Dustin Breshears and catcher Joey Harris, the Zags senior leaders, developed with Bellingham and Wenatchee, respectively. Both are gritty and plus defenders. Outfielders Tyler Frost and Sam Brown starred for the Wenatchee AppleSox for legendary WCL head coach Ed Knaggs. Coach Knaggs did a great job developing young players during his 14 seasons as the Sox skipper and helped build an outstanding relationship with the Zags. Frost leads GU in RBIs with 39 while hitting .338 with 4 home runs. Brown is a solid outfielder and is hitting .305 with 32 runs and 11 doubles. Maybe Gonzaga’s biggest surprise is outfielder Jeff Bohling. The junior from Bellevue, Washington started to come into his own last spring following his summer with the Kitsap BlueJackets in 2014. Kitsap is run by a good coaching friend of mine Matt Acker. Bohling leads the Bulldogs in home runs with 5, runs scored with 36, stolen bases with 8 and is batting .321. The Zags leading hitter is a two-way player Taylor Jones who spent a summer in Walla Walla mostly pitching for the Sweets. He’s swinging it for coach Mach now, and at a torrid clip of .369. Other position players with WCL experience that are contributing to GU’s winning ways are Yakima Valley Pippins Justin Jacobs (.333), Jake Roberts (.317), Branson Trube (.219) and Jace VanDeBrake (.286). While the Zags offense and defense are stellar, it is Gonzaga’s pitching that is keeping the Bulldogs at the top of the WCC. All three of GU’s horses developed in the WCL. Brandon Bailey (6-2, 1.57, 82 K in 63 IP) and Hunter Wells (3-2, 5.32, 50 K in 45.2 IP) with Wenatchee and Eli Morgan (7-1, 3.29, 68 K in 68.1 IP) with Yakima Valley. Much credit goes to coach Knaggs and coach A.J. Proszek for their work with Bailey and Wells and to coach Bob Wells of the Pippins for his time with Morgan. I know my Cougs got better in the summer, particularly my pitchers and I always thought it was good for them to hear other voices and get more experience. I sure appreciated the good summer coaches. Proszek and Wells, a former big leaguer and Yakima native, will be back this summer in the WCL; both good guys with lots of good stuff to share. To wrap it up, Gonzaga is for real. I think they are the favorite right now in the WCC and a team to be reckoned with if they earn a Regional berth. GU has a huge upcoming three-game series this weekend at second-place BYU in Provo.
Donnie’s Diamonds and Dirt Bags
I still am seeing lots of players these days with my position with the league and working with the Astros and Pac-12 Networks. My connections with many of the players I’ve come across over the past few years, recruited or coached are still strong. In this section, I want to point out a player or two that I’m excited to see compete and develop in the West Coast League this summer. To get things going, might as well start with some of my Cougs that I either helped recruit or coached. Before getting to that, I want to share that I am thrilled to see coach Marty Lees, his staff and players battle in their two most recent Pac-12 series with OSU and USC. That staff has a bright future and they are going to do great things at Washington State. With that said, I really like the Ryley Widell kid from Hawaii. He’s a diamond and is going to be pretty good one day. The southpaw had a nice appearance vs. Oregon State recently and is going to pitch in Corvallis this summer. He’s going to be joined by my dirt bag, the bulldog junior lefty Trenton Dupree on the 2016 Knights club. I look forward to seeing their progression this summer. I’ve also got my eyes on Ryan Ward, a big frosh arm from Hood River, Oregon that is slated to pitch in Bend this summer. He could be a legit #1 in the Pac. He’s made 10 starts as a freshman and pitched well. I hope to see him in an Elks uniform at Vince Genna. My dirt dogs, they are sophomore outfielder Derek Chapman, sophomore infielder Jack Strunc and frosh catcher Ty Johnson of WSU. Those guys are going to play hard for Elks head coach Casey Powell and be good players for the Cougars. Strunc is scrappy and has earned a starting spot at shortstop and played solid defensively. That’s all for now. Look forward to sharing more in our next edition, and I’m thinking we’ll point out a couple JC players to watch in the WCL in 2016.
# stats are as of Monday, April 25
ABOUT THE WEST COAST LEAGUE
The West Coast League is the premier summer collegiate baseball league west of the Mississippi. The 12-year-old, 11-team, professionally operated wood-bat league located in the beautiful Pacific Northwest features pro prospects from major conferences across the nation and an unparalleled history out west of great fan and player experiences in addition to the best summer weather in North America. In 2015, 59 players with WCL experience were selected in the MLB June draft, and more than 200 WCL alums appeared in affiliated professional baseball including 25 in the major leagues, such as home-run leader Chris Davis (Baltimore), NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Matt Duffy (San Francisco) and rising star pitcher Josh Osich (San Francisco). Overall member attendance exceeded 400,000 in 2015. The 2016 54-game campaign opens Friday, June 3.