I had a chance to speak with Coach Corbin on the phone last week and get his thoughts and opinions on this year's baseball squad. Corbs was his typically engaging, positive and got me pumped up for another stellar year heading into the February 17th opener @ San Diego. First pitch is 8 PM CT/9 PM ET. The Dores will face a talented Toreros team for a weekend set. Should be some vid on vucommodores.com or Facebook Live.
Corbs, who has taken his teams to 11 straight regional appearances, 12 overall, 6 Super Regionals, 3 college world series appearances, 2 national championship series along with a national championship in 2014, brings back 19 letterman and welcomes 14 newcomers from a 2017 class that was ranked No.10 in the country, and has off the chart talent and the typical work ethic all Corbin coached teams possess.
Jeren Kendall will play center field. The junior hit .332 last year with 9 long ones and 59 Ribeyes. Jeren was selected 1st team All American by the coaches. Kyle Wright will be our Friday Night guy. Kyle was 8-4 last season with a 3.09 ERA with 32 walks and 107 ring ups. He's a stud and along with Jeren, Will Toffey, Jason Delay and Ro Coleman, comprise our leaders this season.
We are ranked No.6 in the USA Today Coaches' Poll, and No.7 in the D1 Baseball Top 25. We've got a shot to go the distance. Here's my conversation with Corbs.
DW: What are your thoughts on the 2017 Vanderbilt baseball team?
TC: It's too early to tell right now. Last year we lost a lot of key guys from the year before. After it was all done, the way the kids navigated their way through the season, I thought it was a pretty consistent group. To be honest with you, we lost a lot of kids, a lot of position players and pitchers from the year before. Because of that, the kids got a lot of game experience. We played a lot of newcomers. Of course, we had Bryan Reynolds, Jordan Sheffield and Ben Bowden who were key components of that team. But at the same time, there was a lot of youth inside that group. Because of those experiences, it will help us moving forward. But we'll see how it all shakes out.
Note: Last year's team finished 43-19 and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the 11th straight year. The season ended in tragedy as Donny Everett lost his life in a drowning incident right before the NCAA regional series. It was an impossible situation due to the tremendous tragedy. They had lost their teammate. It was a very difficult time.
DW: I know how difficult the year ended. How has the team responded to that?
TC: I think we were slow out of the gates in September and October. It took some time. We've progressively gotten better. The timing of it, and there is no good time ever for something like that, but when it happened, four days later they're gone. They're off to summer ball. So we didn't really have a chance to deal with it as a team for a long period of time. It's just days. Days put together. Grief is a very difficult thing. I think the positive of it is we've had Teddy Everett (Donny's father) around quite a bit. He's kind of like an honorary dad. He's been around quite a bit. He comes to a lot of workouts, which is nice. I think he just enjoys being around us as a whole, so it's nice to have the Everetts in and around our facility quite a bit. I think that's the positive that's come from it.
DW: How do you approach that? Do you play for Donny?
TC: I think you play with him. When you've been around a teammate and someone who's got such a positive personality and he's taken from you, I just think you play with him. There's a certain part of his spirit that is left with us. Possibly, some of us left with him. So we still celebrate him, we still talk about him. A lot of times we talk about him like he's still here. I just think you continually play with him. Teddy's influence and Teddy being around is a nice part of that.
DW: Don't ever want to discount Donny's impact on the team, but getting back to this team. Guys like Jeren Kendall, Will Toffey, Jason Delay, Ro Coleman, Kyle Wright what do they need to improve on as players?
TC: If you return guys who were drafted, those are your best recruits. When a guy like Jason Delay comes back to school particularly at a catcher position, because catching in college baseball is a commodity, to find one that's good at what he does, it really helps your cause. And, as you know, Jason's got experience and he's got ability. So to have him back it helps with the growth of the pitching staff and their overall development. We're lucky to have him back. And a guy like Toffey, too. He was drafted and there wasn't a huge part of him that wanted to go out, even though he was a 21 year old sophomore. Nonetheless, he had a chance to go out and you certainly can't take him for granted. Will's got some pretty good experience, he's been part of a college world series team and part of a finalist team (in 2015). He's played third base ever since he's stepped on campus. So those defensive positions by themselves are big. You've got to include Ro because Ro is just an old soul. He's just one of these kids who has played ever since he started here, and he's filled with integrity. He's just a quality, quality guy. His senior year, I feel like he's grown physically. He's stronger and more mature on the field and there are just things he's doing that he wasn't doing 12 months ago. So I trust those kids.
And Jeren's got some nice talent. Jeren's got overriding athletic ability that you don't see a lot of places. He's got a chance to help us a great deal. And I look at Infante, Jones, Kaiser and Paul, those are four sophomores that got a lot of key repetitions last year. They got more than 500 at bats, so they'll all be in the mix of an infield spot. But I gotta believe Julian (Infante) will play some first, Alonzo (Jones) and Ethan (Paul) will play in the middle, and one of them will end up dh-ing. As a nucleus it's pretty solid. I think we can defend our positions pretty well and now it's a matter of putting it together. Kyle Wright, as you mentioned, will probably be at the front of the line in the rotation and Patrick Raby had a pretty good freshman season and I imagine that he would have a chance to start for us too. And we've got some pretty good other parts, but I don't know where they fit yet.
DW: How about the outfield? I understand Jeren will be in center this year (moving over from right).
TC: Yes, he'll probably play center. I'd say Ro in left, and after that, we got a young kid named Justin Bleday who'd mature. He's got some mature offensive ability. Then possibly Walker Grisanti and Stephen Scott. Both played a little bit last year. So there are certainly possibilities. Reed Hayes is a right handed hitter who also pitches for us. He's got some strength if he's going to play in the field it would be as a corner outfielder. So we're working him out there, but he's also got a chance to pitch for us. So that's kind of where we are with that spot.
DW: Finally, how does the bullpen look like arm-wise? Do you feel good about that spot?
TC: Yes. I don't know which piece will start, it could be Chandler Day, Matt Ruppenthal, it could be Collin Snider, it could be Matt McGarry, it could be Maddox Conger. And any one of those kids could be a relief piece too. They certainly could. I wouldn't be able to tell you right now. Who will pitch at the end of the game? Reed Hayes is part of that too. I like the way Maddux Conger has improved. Matt McGarry is coming along pretty well. Chandler Day is coming along. Those are three sophomore arms along with Donny last year. All three of those kids are possibilities. Ruppenthal had the most appearances on our team last year so he certainly could fill that role (as closer). Collin Snider has pitched a lot for us as a freshman and there's some experience there. Freshman wise, Drake Fellows and Zach King are further along. Fellows is a big right handed arm (6'5", 205). Zach King is a big left handed arm (6'6", 210). Drake could potentially start for us. King is more of a bullpen guy. I like the way those kids have grown so far. Jackson Gillis is a left handed kid who's got a very good arm. He just needs time. A.J. Franklin is a left hander who's getting better He started in junior college and pitched some at Mississippi State. Patton Stover has been injured. I don't know how quickly he'll come back. Both pitched pretty well for us in the fall. Michael Sandborn (left hander) is a freshman from Florida. He was injured in the fall so I don't know how much time it'll take with him. Reed Hayes will pitch for us, more at the back end of the game. He's a junior college kid and he's kind of got a Dansby-like body, but he's a little thicker (6'3", 185). He's an outfielder/pitcher.
DW: Are there any particular strengths to this group?
TC: We're just trying to grow the pieces together. I'm all about building the locker room and teaching in the classroom. We're trying to get them to grow as a group. I think in time we have a chance to be a solid team. The pitching was the part I was most concerned about in the fall, but the growth from October till now has been pretty good. We haven't faced any competition so it's tough to say. The pitchers have gotten better at harnessing the ball, manipulating the ball and throwing strikes. I've seen growth and that's nice to see. Defensively, I think we'll handle the ball well. Toffey is a solid third baseman who doesn't make a lot of mistakes. It's just a matter of what we'll do at second base. But you've got Jonesey and Ethan and they're pretty good players. Infante could play first and he's pretty solid. The Brewer kid (Alex Brewer) is a left handed hitter and I like him. I like his bat Whether he plays, I'm not sure. I just think the middle of the diamond shapes up pretty good. Delay, Kaiser (short), Jones or Paul, then Kendall. Just to be able to catch the ball in the middle of the field, you have a chance to be somewhat consistent. That's how I see it right now.
Offensively, it's tough for me to figure. We start off well with San Diego and they've got everybody back and he really likes his team. So we're really going to be challenged early playing on the road. It's a nice start for us.
DW: You added some new coaches to the staff.
TC: We have. D.J. Svihilk as our hitting coach and recruiting coordinator. D.J. was with the Yankees for 16 years as a scout. I've known his a long time. When I was at Clemson (as asst coach) he played second base for Illinois. We played them in the regionals. D.J. was one of the most effective evaluators in the country when he was at the Yankees. When Travis (Jewett) took off for Tulane (as head coach), I thought it was a very nice acquisition for us. He's got a good way about him, he's intelligent, he's a very good communicator with the kids. I really enjoy him in our program.
Aaron Gershenfeld took over Blake's position (Blake Allen). Aaron has a lot of positive energy. He played at Louisville in 2011, and we played them in the CWS. He was a full time recruiting coordinator at East Tennessee State last year. We put him in Blake's position and he's been good. He's been very good with the hitters and very good with Jason Delay and the backup catchers.
And Brownie (Associate Head coach and pitching coach Scott Brown), we're so fortunate to have him. We've had great pitching coaches in this program. D.J. (Derek Johnson) to Brownie we haven't skipped a beat in that area. We're lucky to have him. He's very skilled at what he does. He's just a very consistent personality and the kids really appreciate that.
DW: Do you see this team as another special group like we've had at Vanderbilt for so many years in a row?
TC: I'm really enjoying these kids. I see them every day and they are very invested in the program. What that's going to look like on the scoreboard, I don't know. I always think we're going to be somewhat consistent. I just focus on their work habits, and their work habits are good. They come ready to play when they're in the training environment. They take ownership in things. I like'em. We started slow for obvious reasons. When we got back here (in the fall) it was slow going. I would go home and Maggie (Corbs' wife who's at every practice), would say, "What do you think?" I told her "I don't know." But I think now we're headed in the right direction. We cancelled the Black and Gold game because we didn't have enough parts due to injuries, and I gave'em four days off and told them to get away from the field for a while. We came back from that and it was just different. We came along really well. I felt like their spirits were a little bit better. The environment has been good. I feel pretty good about this group.
DW: How many guys will be playing in the majors next season?
TC: 12. And they all come back here, which they don't have to do. It's just a big family we have here.
The 11 players are David Price with the Red Sox, Sonny Gray with the A's, Mike Minor of the Royals, Dansby Swanson with the Braves, Carson Fulmer with the White Sox, Tony Kemp with the Astros, Ryan Flaherty with the Orioles, Curt Casali with the Rays and Drew Verhagen with the Tigers. Caleb Cotham, Pedro Alvarez and Mike Baxter are free agents but should get picked up.
Quite a contingency with many more in the minor leagues who are knocking on the door to get into "The Show." Tyler Beede (Giants' minors), Mike Yaztrzemski (Orioles), Zander Wiel (Twins) Rhett Wiseman (Nationals) Connor Harrell (Tigers) Adam Ravanelle (Tigers). The list goes on. Phenomenal.