When the casual observer opens their baseball program this spring, they might recognize that there are nine true freshmen on the Anteaters’ roster: infielder Pierce Bily, catchers Drew Sandler and Chris Coates, and pitchers Ruben Orozco, Matt Whitehouse, Kyle Hooper, Mitch Merten, Evan Brock and Andrew Bynum (who has never played center for the Los Angeles Lakers). However, the complicated world of college baseball recruiting is not evident to many spectators. Recruiting is a major factor to any college program’s success.
“Identifying and recruiting left-handed pitching was a key for us this last class,” Manager Mike Gillespie explained, “and we lost two of them: Paul Strong and Beau Wright.”
UC Irvine was the envy of college baseball last year after receiving commitments from four impressive southpaws; however, Strong and Wright will not be joining this season’s staff. Strong signed with the Texas Rangers after being selected in the 17th round of Major League Baseball’s draft. Wright, who underwent Tommy John surgery in August, left school recently, which Gillespie declared “a disappointment and a big surprise.”
Irvine’s manager explained that going after high school players who are professional prospects is “a true Catch-22. If you don’t get involved with a player who is a pro prospect, he may very well end up at Fullerton, but if we do get involved, he could end up with the Yankees. When we hold onto a good player, we’re smart. When he signs with the Red Sox, we’re morons and we’re crazy for getting involved with him. It’s just part of the deal.”
Despite the loss of Strong and Wright, Gillespie is excited about the freshman class and his staff’s capability to continue a growing dynasty of baseball at UCI. Location was crucial to this year’s class, as all nine incoming freshmen reside in California.
“We have many reasons to perpetuate this program when it comes to recruiting,” he stated, “This is a great university, it’s in paradise and we have done well in years past. We’re lucky to be in Southern California where baseball is played year-round and there are great prospects.”
This season, Gillespie expects four of his freshman hurlers to pitch substantial innings. Hooper, Brock, Whitehouse and Orozco were all noted by Gillespie.
“Hooper will start some games early in the year. He’s a professional prospect who looks like a pro. He’s a 6‘5” righty who has a great arm. He has a chance to be a top-notch pitcher who we could be hearing about in baseball for several years to come,” Gillespie said.
Brock is another pitcher who the coaching staff has been impressed by. The 6‘1” right-hander dealt with a minor setback and missed six weeks of practice after breaking his nose last fall. In spite of Brock’s impeded progress, Gillespie expects him to start on the hill eventually this season.
“He has a good curve ball, a good arm, and he’s a legit college player who will also eventually be a pro,” Gillespie said.
Ruben Orozco has joined the staff this year to add depth to the bullpen.
“Ruben was a number three pitcher [at Mater Dei High School], but he really developed,” Gillespie acknowledged. “He has a good arm and the makings of a real good curveball.”
Orozco recently developed tonsillitis, which could eventually lead to surgery.
“He’s missed a lot of time, but we expect him to catch up and be an asset this season,” Gillespie said.
The Anteaters’ skipper has been particularly impressed by southpaw Matt Whitehouse.
“It’s fair to call Whitehouse a poor man’s Danny Bibona,” Gillespie said, referring to the staff’s ace. “It’s not much of a stretch to say that he’s somewhat comparable to what Bibona was as a freshman. He’s a lefty with a good curveball and he has a chance to be a real good college pitcher.”
The Anteaters anticipate Whitehouse logging a considerable amount of innings out of the bullpen.
The ’Eaters feature veteran leaders who have taken the time to mentor the newcomers.
“Young players on this team would be stupid to not soak up knowledge from these guys,” Gillespie stated. Whitehouse has done just that by taking advantage of the team’s veteran leadership.
“My locker is right next to Bibona’s in the clubhouse,” the freshman prodigy said. “That gives me a lot of time to talk with him. Bibona has been there like a coach to give me advice and lend a hand.”
This season marks the start of Gillespie’s fifth decade as a manager. It appears that even a Hall of Fame coach with a National Championship under his belt can learn something new about America’s pastime. Gillespie explains that over time he and his staff have learned to use the redshirting process to their advantage instead of wasting a player’s eligibility.
“It used to be that bench players who are good guys would get at-bats at the end of the year,” the skipper remarked. “This results in a blown year. So we’ve learned, the hard way, over time, that we need to redshirt players instead of just giving them a few token at-bats.”
A player is considered a redshirt if the season goes by and he never gets played in a game.
“I surmise that about four or five of the incoming freshman will end up redshirting,” Gillespie said. “But, the four pitchers that I mentioned, Hooper, Brock, Whitehouse and Orozco, we need them to do well.”
The Anteaters won’t hold back from throwing freshman pitchers into the game in crucial moments this summer.