The road to Omaha now begins as the spring season is underway led by head coach Tim Corbin, who is entering his 13th season at the helm. Vanderbilt comes in ranked as the number one team in the land and are itching for another College World Series title.
With the 2014 College World Series Championship on the line, Vanderbilt Commodores’ right-handed pitcher Carson Fulmer stood out as the clear choice to lead Vanderbilt to its programs first ever national title. To nobody’s doubt, he delivered a stellar performance that set the Commodores on their way back to Nashville with the title. The now junior allowed two runs, one earned over 5.1 innings, pitching just days prior. This proved to be the right decision for Vanderbilt to earn its first championship in any men’s sport at the university. For Fulmer, his collegiate dominance continued into the summer on Team USA, alongside fellow teammates Dansby Swanson, Bryan Reynolds, and Walker Buehler, as well as other top college players.
The ‘Dores have another quality lineup, but they must replace College World Series hero John Norwood and shortstop Vince Conde. Conde was drafted by the New York Yankees in the ninth round. The ninth-round selection received a signing bonus of $155,000. Conde was an essential part of Vanderbilt’s national championship team, hitting .284/.382/.379 and finishing second on the team with 50 RBIs, while earning a Gold Glove award for being the nation’s top defensive shortstop. He began his career with the Commodores as a third baseman before injuries to Vanderbilt shortstop Dansby Swanson forced a chance to shortstop in 2013. Conde’s play at short was so strong that Swanson moved to second base in 2014. His range will be missed defensively in the middle infield. However, Swanson has veteran presence and incoming freshman can gain knowledge from his skills on the diamond. He was named the Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series and the All-Tournament team after hitting .323 with five runs scored and three doubles with four stolen bases.
Outfielder Rhett Wiseman is predicted to take a sizeable step forward this spring after hitting .277/.343/.387 last season, while Swanson and Reynolds are the most consistent bats in the lineup. They both possess an ability to hit for average and some power. Zander Wiel will continue to be a striking presence in the Vanderbilt lineup, as he led the team in home runs with five and drove in 44 RBI. Many eyes this spring will be on third baseman Will Toffey, a physical and solid freshman. Toffey, was a high-ranked college hockey prospect in high school from the New England area also drafted by the Yankees, but choose the path to Nashville.
The Commodores had one of the more compelling offenses last season, finishing an astonishing 168th in the nation in homers, but had no problem getting to second base finishing second nationally in doubles. Vanderbilt won’t be loaded with big home run hitters, but they have plenty of quality hitters in their lineup to drive in runs. Wiel, Swanson and Reynolds all have capability to have home run pop and expand to their totals from last year, while Swanson and Reynolds, in particular, finished 2014 with doubles respectively in the 20’s. Utility man Kyle Smith has pop in his bat, Tyler Campbell has a gap to gap potential, and Toffey, again, will contribute from a power point of view.
Vanderbilt’s lineup is loaded with athleticism and speed. Swanson returns to the Commodores, who led the team in stolen bases with 22 and has impressive speed. Reynolds, Wiseman, and Campbell are all well-built with great instinct as well as speed. They will be a team to watch around the bases as they have the ability to take bases when they want and have extreme athleticism, especially in the all-significant outfield.
Defense wins championships. In college baseball world today, defense revolves around the league and the Commodores have precisely this. With Conde gone at shortstop, Swanson, who was an excellent defender at second base last year, moves over to his natural position being short. Meanwhile, Campbell will occupy second base, and he too, is a very exceptional defender. Toffey is a steady defender with a cannon of an arm at third, while catcher Karl Ellison makes up for his lack of potential offensive firepower with fine catch-and-throw talent. Then there’s the outfield, which will be flexible and elite with Reynolds in left, Nolan Rogers patrolling center, and Wiseman in right.
The Commodores rotation is in great shape for the long haul and another shot at a national title. Tyler Ferguson has a sturdy frame and big-time stuff, sitting at 93-95 mph with his fastball along with a power curveball. However, he has command issues at times. Ferguson in 2014 went 8-4 with a 2.69 ERA along with 65 strikeouts. On the contrary, right-handers Fulmer and Walker Buehler are as good as starters come and are likely first-round picks in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft in June. Fulmer has a violent, unorthodox approach with his delivery, and consistently hits anywhere from the mid-to-upper 90s with his fastball. He also possesses a superior slider, and his change up continues to emerge. He has a long, lanky, frame, sits at 92-95 mph with his fastball, has a plus curveball, and the change-up is an advanced pitch for the righty. Fulmer went 7-1 last year, posted a 1.98 ERA with 95 strikeouts in 91 innings pitched. Buehler won 12 games last year leading the team in innings pitched as well as 111 strikeouts in 102 1/3 innings.
The ‘Dores have reloaded in the bullpen, but it will be difficult to match the same statistics that the 2014 team put up. The loss of right-handed pitchers Adam Ravenelle and Brian Miller are huge. Miller’s quirky delivery and devastating slider kept teams off-balance. Ravenelle was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the fourth round. Vanderbilt welcomes back one of the nation’s top-notch relievers in sophomore Hayden Stone, who jumped on the gun in a big way last year with a sharp slider, a 90-93 mph fastball, and perhaps most importantly, a veteran-like attitude. Stone was lights out last spring with a 1.71 ERA in 58 brilliant innings with just 14 walks. Power lefty Ben Bowden has improved his command and should eat up some very important innings, while red shirt freshman right-hander Jordan Sheffield is an appealing arm to keep an eye on. Sheffield was lost last season because of an arm injury, but was one of the nation’s most highly regarded prospects out of high school with a fastball in the range of the mid-90s. His secondary pitches remains a work in progress.
On paper this Vandy team is very well-rounded and has the utmost talent and potential to go back to the College World Series. Although there are a few question marks within the lineup and has to replace the production out of the bullpen after losing key arms, this doesn’t take the focus off a second straight national championship and anchoring down for the Commodores.