Checketts vetting a veteran roster in UCSB baseball workouts
Dozens of familiar faces have been working out under some very unfamiliar baseball conditions the last two weeks at UCSB’s Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.
“We’ve essentially got everybody back from last year,” said Andrew Checketts, who is gearing up for his 10th season as Gaucho coach. “Everything has been really fluid, and there’s been a lot of adjusting, but we’re used to that during the fall.
“We’ve just had to add one more layer with all the safety protocols that are involved in working in groups.”
Of the 40 players who have come out for fall drills, 28 saw action last year.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which brought last season to an abrupt stop after UCSB’s 13-2 start, prompted the NCAA to grant seniors an extra season of eligibility.
A pair of Gauchos— starting shortstop McClain O’Connor and pitcher Conner Dand — have taken advantage of the waiver and returned to school. Dand is now attending graduate school.
The coronavirus also prompted Major League Baseball to reduce last June’s Amateur Draft from 40 rounds to five.
All minor league competition was canceled, as well. That stirred many draft-eligible Gauchos such as front-line pitchers Zach Torra, Jorge Arellano and Conner Roberts, as well as starting field players Marcos Castanon and Jason Willow, to also return to UCSB.
Torra, a lefthander from Santa Ynez, made the most of last year’s abbreviated season with a win-loss record of 3-0 and earned-run average of 0.36 with 39 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings. Although undrafted, he did receive free-agent offers from several MLB general managers.
“I was pretty nervous about that,” Checketts said. “There was about a 24-hour period where I thought we were going to lose him.”
The $20,000 cap on free-agent signings convinced Torra to rejoin a pitching staff that Checketts said remained in remarkably good shape during the coronavirus lockdown.
“Across the board, our returners maximized their down time,” he said. “Our bullpen was flat-out aggressive about it.
“Most of the pitchers put on good weight, added velocity and fine-tuned some of their pitches.”
Right-hander Michael McGreevy, one of UCSB’s top relievers as a freshman, went 2-0 as a sophomore starter last year while posting a 0.99 ERA with 26 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings. He’s stepped up his game even more this fall, Checketts observed.
“He hit 96 mph the other day, and it’s not like he’s touching 93 and 94 only once in a while,” he said. “He’s been pretty consistent, and that’s hard to do when you’re only throwing in the bullpen without a lot of adrenalin.
“Conner Dand (two saves, 1.23 ERA last year) is up to 94 mph in his bullpens. Chris Troye is up to 94, too, after coming back from elbow surgery, and Rodney Boone (2-1, 2.53 ERA, 31 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings) has added to his velocity, as well.”
Junior lefthander Jorge Arellano has also stood out.
“He’s made a little arm-slot adjustment to three-quarters, has built up his strength, and he’s looked just fantastic,” Checketts said.
Strong pitching allowed UCSB to get off to last season’s fast start. The Gauchos had a team ERA of 1.84 with 161 strikeouts in just 137 innings while posting five of its 13 wins against Pac-12 competition.
He’s added a few other strong arms, including righthander Clayton Hall, a transfer from Merced College who has “been up to 94, 95 mph and could be a key reliever for us,” Checketts said.
UCSB batted only .237 as a team, but Checketts credited much of that to the stellar pitching it faced from the likes of top-ranked UCLA, No. 25 Oregon State, and California.
Willow, who moved from third base to right field last year, hit just .213 but was “basically swinging one-handed because of a shoulder issue … He looks healthy now, which is awesome,” Checketts said.
O’Connor and Castanon are back in a crowded middle infield. The young talent includes redshirt freshman Jordan Sprinkle and true freshman Leo Mosby. Santa Barbara High graduate Nick Oakley has also joined the mix.
Bryce Willits, a transfer from St. Mary’s, will compete at third base with returning starter Cole Cummings. Willits batted .345 to earn Freshman All-America honors for the Gaels but sat out last season after shoulder surgery.
“He’s a very physical, left-handed hitter who moves really well,” Checketts said. “He’s a middle-of-the-order type of hitter.”
He could also move one of them to first base to compete against two-year starter Kyle Johnson.
The battle for the catcher position should also be intense with returning players Mason Eng (.400), Gianni Bloom (.250), Ventura College transfer Omar Gastelum and incoming freshman John Newman from Los Alamitos.
Since COVID-19 protocol requires the Gauchos to remain in small groups, Checketts has kept the younger players as cohorts since they also live together.
“The younger groups are a little more challenging for the coaches,” he said. “We have to repeat ourselves four times in four different groups. It’s been easier for those older guys coming back, knowing the systems and the things that are in place.”
But he still has been impressed with Newman and another true freshman, Zach Rodriguez, who played infield at Vista Murrieta High but will probably see more time in the outfield this season.
“They look more like 30-year-olds,” Checketts said. “They’re both strong and show really good bat speed and power. We still have to see what they can do against D1 pitching.”
The outfield is crowded, as well, with the return of Willow, Christian Kirtley, Steele Ledford, Nick Vogt, and Michael Marsh. Kirtley, who experimented at catcher last year, is continuing that attempt this year. Broc Mortensen, a former football star at Ventura High, opened the Gauchos’ eyes as a baseball outfielder for Cuesta College.
“He’s a left-handed, slasher-type hitter who’s really improved,” Checketts said. “He’s a good runner and very athletic.”
A lot remains up in the air, however, before UCSB opens its season on Feb. 19 with a three-game, home series against Sacramento State.
“We’re just happy to be out there doing anything,” Checketts said. “Just hitting and throwing feels pretty wonderful.
“That’s a credit to our administration for being able to get it done because there are a lot of places that aren’t doing that.”