Today is a big day for many Americans. It is a day in which you think about whom you love most, treasure them and celebrate their existence.
No, I’m not talking about your valentine, silly. I’m talking about your favorite baseball team! Today is the first official day of Spring Training, so it is now baseball season! For hundreds of players it is a time to show you belong on a Major League team and for the fans of all 30 teams it is a time of hope–and irrational expectations. (Maybe only for 29 teams; the Kansas City Royals mortgaged their 2011 season for the future.)
When I was deciding what to write my column on this week, I figured I could do something cheesy and discuss the things I love most in sports, since it is Valentine’s Day and all. Then I realized what I probably love most in sports is that fresh-cut grass, sunshine and optimism that comes with Spring Training. (So we’ve been spoiled with sunshine here in California all winter, but the rest of the country hasn’t been so lucky.)
Even at Stanford, this week marks the official start to the baseball season. Sure, the team has been practicing for quite awhile now–but this weekend, the games begin.
After hauling in arguably the nation’s top recruiting class two years in a row now, this is one of Stanford’s most anticipated baseball teams in years–even more touted than the 2008 squad that went to the College World Series. Depending on who is doing the ranking, the Cardinal is placed somewhere between 10th and 13th in most preseason polls, despite a regional exit in last year’s NCAA tournament.
Offensively, freshman outfielder Austin Wilson is being billed as the top newcomer in the nation this year, while sophomore shortstop Kenny Diekroeger, whose younger brother Danny is a freshman on the team, has been called a leading candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft. With those two cogs and a cavalcade of other budding stars such as sophomores Stephen Piscotty, Jake Stewart and Tyler Gaffney and freshman Brian Ragira, the Cardinal seems poised to score lots of runs this season.
With all the hype surrounding the program–which was commonplace in the 1980s through the early-2000s–this is a big year for head coach Mark Marquess to show he can put a juggernaut of a team together and not just a group of uber-talented recruits. Year-in and year-out, Stanford has just about as much talent as any program in the country; whether or not that talent translates into wins depends on the season.
It won’t be easy to meet, or exceed, expectations this year. I am by no means an expert of college baseball scheduling, and I don’t normally like to go on the record with large, sweeping claims. But I’ve got to think that Stanford’s schedule this year must be one of the hardest in the history of college baseball. The Cardinal’s first three series of the year are all against top-20 teams and all on the road in different time zones (at Rice, Vanderbilt and Texas). After that, Stanford plays host to Michigan and Long Beach State, neither of whom are slouches. Then Stanford begins play in the nation’s toughest conference, the Pac-10, which boasts six teams in the preseason top-25.
To make matters more complicated, Stanford has some question marks with its pitching staff early on. A few returning players are battling injuries, and it remains to be seen how highly-regarded freshmen like A.J. Vanegas will perform. It will be interesting to see if and when Marquess settles on a weekend rotation, as there is a group of pitchers (senior Danny Sandbrink, juniors Brett Mooneyham, Jordan Pries, Brian Busick and Scott Snodgress, sophomores Dean McArdle and Mark Appel, and Vanegas) vying for the three spots. (Note: Appel is expected to be the team’s closer, but could, potentially, see time in the rotation).
Having that kind of pitching depth should be a great asset for a team, so long as the pitchers know their roles. To gain a rhythm, Marquess will want to solidify his rotation early on.
Because of the hard schedule and the week-to-week grind of the Pac-10, a rocky start could spell doom for the Cardinal. Conversely, a strong early season could catapult the Cardinal into the conversation of who the best team in the nation is.
Either way, it doesn’t matter how you spend your Valentine’s Day, because you can remember it as the beginning of baseball season, and thus it is great. And this weekend, when Stanford takes the field at Rice, it will officially begin for the Cardinal, and we’ll see if the team can live up to the hype.