During the best of times, Tim Corbin takes setbacks hard. Last year's Regional final loss to Michigan had to raise that bar a bit. Despite an SEC regular season championship, an in-your-face run through the losers bracket to win the SEC Tournament, and a number one National seed as a host in last summer's Regional, Vanderbilt had to feel like their season lacked something. It ended prematurely.
This year, they will atone.
Even without MLB top pick David Price and eighth overall pick Casey Weathers, Vanderbilt is a team loaded with talent. With eight position starters returning, this team knows where they left off. Mix in that motivation with a deep talented roster and a highly regarded coaching staff and the result is a recipe for Omaha.
"Offensively, I think we'll be strong," said Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin. "I think we have a chance to get many more extra base hits because we're a more mature group. We're stronger and a little bit faster. I would say we'll have the capability to score a lot of runs. When you bring back guys who have already had 600-plus at bats in a college season, then you're bringing back kids who have been there before and know how to do it.
"Pitching is tough to figure right now just because I don't believe most people have defined roles," Corbin continued. "The roles in the middle and at the end are kind of undetermined at this point, but if you look at the pitching for what it is, I feel comfortable with it. We've got some good ability out there. We've got three kids with a lot of experience that can start for anyone. We've got one kid who doesn't have experience that's been redshirted but is very capable and pitched well last summer. The unknowns are guys like (Steven) Schwartz who have played college baseball for three years but you've never seen him on our field. We've got a guy like (Mark) Lamm who pitched under a 2.00 ERA all summer that we've never seen on our field. We have SEC type pitchers that haven't pitched yet in the conference. I'd like to think that pitching in March will be a whole lot different than the pitching in April. These kids will get better day by day."
"When you think about where that program was when Tim Corbin got there," said a southern college coach, "and then you see where it is now. There is no wonder why some school tries to hire him every season. I would too. Wouldn't you?"
Eight position starters return. Eleven of their top 13 hitters are back. Three consensus All-SEC players return in third baseman Pedro Alvarez (.386/18/68), shortstop Ryan Flaherty (.381/4/57/12 sbs), and outfielder Dominic de la Osa (.378/20/62/20 sbs). They combine to form one of the best offensive trios in the country. Add in veteran table-setters like second baseman Alex Feinberg (.317/4/44) and outfielder David Macias (.300/0/26/10 sbs) and the 'Dores have some weapons. They have enough speed to play aggressively, power bats teams must respect, and enough lineup depth to stretch pitch counts.
When you lose two first-rounders, most times your staff will suffer. Vandy will not be as good -- obviously - without Price (11-1/2.63) leading the rotation and Weathers (12-2/2.37/7 svs) slamming the door in the bullpen. The Commodores are also without contributors like Ty Davis (3-0/3.12), Cody Crowell (4-1/4.05), and Tyler Rhoden (4-0/5.84). However, when teams recruit like Vandy does, there are always talented arms itching for an opportunity.
SEBaseball.com's '07 SEC Freshman of the Year Mike Minor (9-1/3.09) moves into the ace role. Brett Jacobson (6-3/3.15) and Nick Christiani (5-3/4.11) return with starting experience. The big questions involve the staff depth and how the roles will be filled. The staff is high on Caleb Cotham (3 App in '07) while Mark Lamm and Drew Hayes are possible closer types.
Vanderbilt gets an early test as they open in Tempe against two-time defending CWS champion Oregon State before facing potential preseason number one Arizona State and Miami-Ohio. The other two pre-SEC weekends are not as attractive perhaps as early midweek games with Evansville, Louisville, and Western Carolina. Other non-conference foes of note include '07 Nashville Regional foes Austin Peay and Memphis.
Inside the SEC, Vandy hosts South Carolina, Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, and Georgia. Vandy travels to Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Florida.
What to watch for?
Last season the Commodores were a team that thrived with comebacks. As a veteran squad with an explosive offense, they could unload on some shaky bullpens ... While there are no shortage of candidates, defining pitching roles both as starters and in the pen may be as big of an unknownn as any elite squad faces this preseason ... Fans were scalping tickets for Regional play. How much carry-over will there be for the highly-ranked Commodores? ... Can Vandy concentrate on the present as opposed to focusing on the prize at the end of the trail?
Strengths: Elite trio of hitters; lineup depth; experience; an ace; winning confidence; coaching staff continuity
Weaknesses: Unsettled pitching roles
This team should compete for the SEC title, a National seed, and a trip to Omaha. Their star-power offensively - if it stays hungry - could be special. There is a lot to like with this program and the ride has just gotten started.