The past five years have been an era of nearly unprecedented success for Stanford baseball. Under Head Coach Dave Esquer ’87, the team has hosted five straight regionals, attended three straight super regionals and advanced to the Men’s College World Series in two consecutive years. Now, in what will most likely be the final season with many of its core players, Stanford hopes to continue its dominance in 2023, and with UCLA and USC on their way to the Big Ten in 2024, the Cardinal have a chance to leave the final mark in what may be the final year of the Pac-12 as we know it.
In 2022, Stanford pulled off one of the most staggering comebacks in college baseball history. A come-from-behind, walk-off victory in a winner-take-all game against Texas State marked the turning point from a dominant regular season to a postseason in which they would always be facing adversity. Their playoff run ended with a lackluster 0-2 performance in the College World Series, followed by five key players departing in the first 10 rounds of the MLB Draft.
But after bringing in two-way sensation Braden Montgomery ahead of 2022, the Cardinal once again boast a Top-100 Draft prospect in their freshman class. Malcolm Moore, a catcher from Sacramento, Calif., is one of three candidates who could fit neatly into the void left by Kody Huff, who was drafted by the Colorado Rockies. Matt Scott and Nick Dugan both have electric potential on the mound, and Australian international Jimmy Nati has the kind of power that can force its way into a starting lineup any day. Thanks to a strong returning core of players and another exciting recruiting class, the Cardinal enter 2023 ranked No. 3 in the nation, with more preseason All-Americans than any other program.
Let’s take a look at what the Cardinal lineup might look like:
Starting Outfielders: Saborn Campbell (So.), Braden Montgomery (So.), Eddie Park (Jr.)
Corner outfield spots are a lock entering 2023, with Eddie Park and Braden Montgomery returning to left and right field, respectively. Park has posted greater than .350 OBP seasons in each of his first two years, played stellar outfield defense and walked more times than he’s struck out. Montgomery played with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team this past summer after coming off of an 18-home run campaign of his own, hitting 99 mph on the mound for good measure.
After the Tampa Bay Rays drafted Brock Jones, who Coach Esquer described as a “once-in-a-lifetime player” in last week’s media conference, center field is the most contested position at the start of the season; it’s also the only one that Esquer said could see a platoon matchup. Sophomore Saborn Campbell will get the first chance to claim a more permanent starting role in his debut season. Campbell and Jones share similar athletic backgrounds, both seeing the chance to play both football and baseball at the D1 level. (Campbell chose to forego the former to play baseball at Stanford, whereas Jones played one season of football and then specialized in baseball starting his sophomore year.) While a few different players may see some early-season innings regardless, Campbell certainly possesses the tools, athleticism and potential to transition to a starting role smoothly. Should he experience some growing pains, freshman Cort MacDonald is a left-handed hitting option to platoon with Campbell, and senior Henry Gargus is another option to slot in left field with Park moving to center.
Starting Infielders: Drew Bowser (Jr.), Carter Graham (Jr.), Trevor Haskins (So.), Tommy Troy (Jr.)
It would be quite an understatement to say that these four are no strangers to the spotlight. Drew Bowser and Tommy Troy hit back to back home runs to tie the game in that fateful comeback against Texas State, and Trevor Haskins hit the walk-off single in only his 13th collegiate at-bat. Bowser and Troy are both top-ranked Draft prospects, with Troy penciled in to go as early as the first round. Haskins is not yet Draft eligible, and he will begin the year at shortstop after posting top-flight exit velocities off the bat during fall ball. As for Carter Graham, he had a breakout season in 2022, crushing a Pac-12-leading 22 long balls (including two against Texas State) with an OPS over 1.000. He opens this year’s campaign as a second-team preseason All-American, anchoring the Cardinal infield at first base. Coach Esquer said at Bay Area Media Day that it will be Bowser slotting in at second base and Troy starting at third on opening day, the opposite of the usual from the past two seasons. Both players have the arm, glove and athleticism to handle both positions, and both may need some time to adjust at the start of the season.
Catchers: Charlie Saum (So.)/ Malcolm Moore (Fr.)/ Alberto Rios (Jr.)
It’s not often that a catcher like Kody Huff gets drafted in the high rounds from a college program, and that the same program still has an abundance of strong candidates to fill in. Malcolm Moore was a former Top-100 draft prospect, and he brings 20-homer potential to the lineup at a premium position. Charlie Saum boasts one of the best defensive skill sets out of any backstop on the west coast and Alberto Rios has a bit of both, plus the experience from working with the pitching staff for the past few years. With Saum being the most likely candidate to put down the signs on Opening Day, it is likely that one of the remaining two catchers will be the DH. However, Coach Esquer has the flexibility to change things up as the season goes on; too many talented catchers on a roster is a problem that every college coach dreams of having.
Pitching Rotation: Drew Dowd (Jr.), Quinn Mathews (Sr.), Ty Uber (So.), Matt Scott (Fr.)/ Nick Dugan (Fr.)
The biggest surprise after the 2022 Draft was the return of Quinn Mathews for his senior season. Although Alex Williams earned Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year honors in 2022, Mathews was arguably just as dominant. Last season, Mathews tallied nine wins, nine saves and he struck out 111 in 99.1 innings pitched. After dominating in a swingman role, Mathews is now the Friday-night ace of the Pac-12’s most consistent pitching staff of the last five seasons. Resurgent southpaw Drew Dowd will likely be the Saturday Starter after putting together a series of high-quality outings in the 2022 playoffs, and Ty Uber will build up from a long-relief role into the third spot in the rotation. Furthermore, freshman right-handers Matt Scott and Nick Dugan will be vying for mid-week roles, each with electric repertoires of their own. The past two years, Stanford’s pitching rotation has been structured around one or two ace starters and a single anchor in the bullpen. This year, the talent trickles down to the fourth, and even the fifth options in the rotation.
Bullpen depth was Stanford’s weakness down the stretch last year, and this year, the team has the kind of talent not seen since Jack Little and Zach Grech were at the back end in 2019. The only Cardinal besides Braden Montgomery to get selected to Team USA this past summer, preseason All-American junior Ryan Bruno enters the season ranked the second-best relief pitcher in all of college baseball. Montgomery has an electric arsenal himself that can rack up strike-outs, and junior Brandt Pancer posted superb numbers after making his slider his primary pitch. Junior Joey Dixon will transition from being the Sunday starter to a long-relief arm, and senior Max Meier and graduate student Nick Lopez can provide matchup advantages when necessary. Another key to Stanford’s bullpen success this year could be junior Tommy O’Rourke. He got roughed up the second half of last season, but he’s turned heads with an uptick in velocity this past fall. If that can translate into consistent, late-inning effectiveness, it would greatly ease the burden on the rest of the frontline arms.
Series to Watch: at Oklahoma (3/30-4/2), vs. Texas Tech (#24) (4/10-4/11), at Oregon (#25) (4/14-4/16), vs. UCLA (#17) (4/18-4/30)
Much like last season, the Cardinal’s schedule is loaded with top-level talent from across college baseball. Oregon and UCLA headline the matchups in Pac-12 play, each with a talented core of position players and pitchers, and Oklahoma was the runner-up in last year’s Men’s College World Series. Texas Tech is also coming to town in mid-April, facing off against Stanford for the first time since the 2021 Lubbock Super Regional, in which Stanford upset the Red Raiders in a lopsided series sweep. However, these two teams have drastically different profiles than they did two years ago, and it should make for an entertaining midweek clash during the meat of the Stanford schedule.
As their pursuit of a national title continues, Stanford baseball enters the year brimming with talent. The roster brings veteran experience, grit, athleticism and energy to The Farm, and they’ll need all of those qualities to survive the tribulations of the upcoming season. In what may be the last year with nearly a dozen of their key contributors, one thing remains certain: Sunken Diamond is in for a treat.