Beavers lose five seniors, valuable pitching experience

by: COURTESY OF ETHAN ERICKSON - Outfielder Michael Conforto is one of several key components expect back at Oregon State for the 2014 season, but the Beavers have plenty of holes to fill.There will be plenty of unfamiliar faces when Oregon State takes to the diamond next February for the start of its 2014 season.

The Beavers return several key components from the team that won a school-record 52 games and the Pac-12 championship and reached the final four at the College World Series. Among them are 2-3-4 hitters Andy Peterson, Michael Conforto and Dylan Davis, senior third baseman Kavin Keyes, starting pitchers Andrew Moore and Jace Fry and closer Max Englebrekt. Conforto and Moore, both first-team All-Americans, were Pac-12 player of the year and freshman of the year, respectively. Few teams in the country will have that quality of nucleus coming back.

The rest of the returning roster is more cloudy, however. Critical will be decisions made by two juniors taken in the recent major league draft — pitcher Ben Wetzler in the fifth round by Philadelphia and catcher Jake Rodriguez in the 19th round by Houston. Smart money says both will sign pro contracts and not return for their senior season. The deadline for their decision is July 12.

With or without them, Oregon State has a number of holes to fill with the loss of five key seniors — starting pitcher Matt Boyd, shortstop Tyler Smith, first baseman Danny Hayes, designated hitter Ryan Barnes and center fielder Max Gordon. In addition, two drafted junior pitchers — Scott Schultz (17th round, Miami) and Dan Child (18th round, Philadelphia) — will likely sign and not be back.

“We’ll have our corner outfielders (Conforto and Davis), Peterson and Keyes in the infield, and you feel really good about Mo (Moore), Fry and Englebrekt,” says coach Pat Casey, who will begin his 20th year at the OSU helm. “But we lose a lot of pitching. That’s an area where we’re going to lack experience, that’s for sure. And we lost a lot of good seniors. We’ll miss their leadership.”

Oregon State also lost two prospects signed to letters of intent who signed pro contracts. Outfielder Tyler O’Neill from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, a third-round pick by Seattle, signed for a bonus in the neighborhood of $800,000. Shortstop Justin Bohn of Feather River JC in Quincy, Calif., a seventh-round pick by Miami, got a $525,000 signing bonus.

Seven of the dozen players who will arrive as freshmen in the fall are pitchers. Two of them were drafted — right-hander Jake Thompson of Siuslaw High (34th round, Chicago Cubs) and right-hander Chandler Eden (36th round, Miami) of Yuba City, Calif. Other pitchers coming in are left-handers Makauley Fox of Auckland, New Zealand, and Trent Shelton of Lafayette, Calif., and right-handers Tanner Draper of West Jordan, Utah, Kevin Flemer of El Cerrito, Calif., and John Pomeroy of Mossyrock, Wash. Draper also is an outfielder.

With Moore and Fry entrenched as starters, one of the freshmen will likely win a spot in the weekend rotation. Eden, in particular, seems a likely candidate.

“Our freshmen are going to come in here and pitch right away,” Casey says. “It’s a really good group we have coming in, and we’ll need them. We have seven or eight arms to replace.”

The five position players among the freshman group are catchers Mason Fishback of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and Logan Ice of Puyallup, Wash., shortstop Trevor Morrison of Bothell, Wash., infielder Tyler Mildenberg of Huntington Beach., Calif., and first baseman/outfielder Billy King of Anacortes, Wash.

If Rodriguez leaves, Fishback and Ice will get an opportunity to battle returning junior Nate Esposito for the starting catcher job. Morrison, chosen by Boston in the 38th round of the draft, will get a chance to replace Smith at shortstop.

“It’s a very athletic class,” Casey says. “We’ll have some new faces out there next year, no doubt about that. When you have a good year like we did, you have to have experience. The draft and graduation will affect you more than in most seasons.”

Casey is high on the potential of a pair of sophomores-to-be — first baseman Gabe Clark and center fielder Jeff Hendrix — and hopes outfielders Jerad Casper and Joey Jansen improve after disappointing 2013 seasons. Returning pitchers Tyler Painton, Brandon Jackson, Zack Reser and Clay Bauer will get the chance to win spots in the bullpen.

“It’s all about the development part,” Casey says. “Hayes came back after a disappointing junior year and did a great job for us. Barnes didn’t play much early in his career but really came on the last two years. We need some of our guys to improve and do those things for us.”

Oregon State finished the season ranked No. 2 nationally with an ERA of 2.28, led by starters Moore, Boyd and Wetzler.

“The starting pitching equals the best we’ve ever had at Oregon State,” Casey says. “I can’t remember getting that many quality starts in a season.”

The Beavers opened the season with a 15-game win streak and after the only consecutive losses all season — in a double-header at Washington — came back with another 12-game win skein.

“That kind of consistency was almost unprecedented,” Casey says. “From the very first game to the last game, I was proud of how well we played.”

There were weaknesses. Once Pac-12 play began, the bullpen was inconsistent. And there were no reserves who could be counted upon for a pinch-hitting role. Both of those factored into Oregon State’s demise at Omaha.

“We need to create some depth among position players, and we need to have some arms step up and give us consistency from the bullpen,” Casey says.

Casey already has begun recruiting for the class of 2014 — there are several verbal commitments in the bank — and fund-raising for renovation to Goss Stadium. Plans are for a new locker room where the bullpen is down the third-base line. Construction will begin in the fall and be done by mid-February.

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