Vanderbilt Season Preview – Highway To Hoover

SEC Extra


On this episode of the Highway To Hoover podcast, join Joe Healy and Mark Etheridge as they preview the Vanderbilt Commodores before the 2023 College Baseball Season! In this preview, they’ll discuss Vandy’s strengths as a team, potential areas of concern, and what the ‘Dores need to do in 2023 to be the best versions of themselves.

The Highway To Hoover Podcast is brought to you by Brock’s Gap Brewing Company (Hoover, AL).

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Note: Below is an edited transcript of the podcast above. Our transcription program has a little trouble with Mark’s charming southern drawl, so there may be a few errors here or there. We did our best to edit the names and grammar where we could. Thank you for your understanding!

Joe Healy 

Today, we are going to talk about the Vanderbilt Commodores. Mark, it feels like a program that is in transition a little bit. It feels like a season of transition, if you will. They were one win away from a national title just two years ago, and that feels like longer ago just because last season they finished under .500 in conference play in the regular season and it’s not something that we’re used to seeing out of Vanderbilt. So, it’s made them being one step away from a national title field further away in some strange way. And then the fact that the roster just looks fundamentally different from the rosters that we’ve, for the most part, seen out of Vanderbilt the last couple of years. So, I think all that combined has made this feel a little bit like a reset year for the Commodores – which is not to say the expectations aren’t high; we have them ranked No. 10 in the preseason. So clearly expectations are still high for this group. 

Are you with me or not on the idea that this does feel a little bit like a reset year for Vanderbilt, or at least what Vanderbilt looks like to us?

Mark Etheridge

Yeah, they’re a hard eval for me because there is some definite high-end talent, And then traditionally, Vandy would have that next tier of guys who either were capable of stepping in and performing at a high level or maybe they were just grinders who performed  And that’s what we have questions about, because there is some of that next tier, they just haven’t done it, not at the level that Vandy needs them to. 

That’s really where this season’s going to go for Vandy, I’m not worried about the high-end guys. They’re probably going to perform where you need them to. Can they pull everyone else along with them to get where Vandy expects to be,, which is hosting a regional, going to a super and getting back to Omaha? Last year they were pretty close. They had a chance to be there. They just lost a few too many conference games. Maybe two games flip and they’re probably hosting because their RPI was there. That’s how close the margin for error is in this conference. 

Joe Healy

I think the way you described their roster is a little bit how I would describe the way last year went for them in that their highs were pretty high. Not only were they just a couple of wins away from hosting a regional, but then they went to Corvallis – not an easy place to play – and pushed Oregon State. And had they won that they would have ended up playing Auburn. Not to say that Auburn wouldn’t have won that super – they very well could have and would’ve been favored playing at home – but they play Auburn all the time, or at least fairly often, so they would have a level of comfort. Their season could have played out entirely differently with just a couple of wins here or there at different times. Regardless, they go into this season with expectations high again. Let’s get into it a little bit here.

So, Vanderbilt last year went 39-23 and 14-16 in SEC regular-season play. They were eliminated in regionals, out in Corvallis, and they are the preseason No. 10 team in the country. Mark, you’re going to be our leadoff hitter on this one. Tell me what you like about Vanderbilt. 

Vanderbilt’s Strengths

Mark Etheridge 

It starts with Enrique Bradfield Jr., arguably the best leadoff man in the country. He’s certainly up there. He’s a guy you don’t want to pitch to, and when he gets on base, he’s on second because you can’t throw him out. So, that’s where it starts offensively. 

But I think the thing I really like about this team is their rotation. These are high-end guys. You’re talking about Carter Holton, Sam Hliboki, Devin Futrell and then the freshman, Andrew Dutkanych IV. I think if he pitches the way that some of the Vanderbilt freshmen in the past have been able to pitch to expectations, that changes that whole look. But the cool thing is you have other guys, so maybe he doesn’t have to jump into the rotation right away, and he can come in at his own pace. So, I really like the way that sets up from a starting pitching standpoint.

Joe Healy

For me, it’s more that they have a lot of options. I don’t have a lot of expectation of exactly how they line up – with the exception of Carter Holton, who I assume will pitch on Fridays. Other than that, though, you can take a grab bag of Nick Maldonado; Thomas Schultz – who looks more slotted to close games again, but there is a scenario where he could have a little bit of a different role; Patrick Reilly; Dutkanych; Sam Hliboki; and Devin Futrell, and you could shake them up in a bag and just pour ‘em out and see where they land. That’s the kind of high-end talent they have. It does feel like the pieces are a little bit interchangeable in role, and that’s a great place to be because it means you don’t have to be set in your ways. You can play around a little bit, and that’s obviously going to be to their advantage. So, I agree with you there. 

I’ll also agree about Bradfield, and the other thing about their lineup that I like is that it feels a little bit like a blue collar, grinder group in a lot of ways. They’ve always had star power, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of the Vanderbilt lineups that have been most effective have also had grinder types in the lineup that weren’t the most talented guys in the team, but they had a specific role and they played it to a T. You knew what you were going to get, and they played the game a certain way. I think they’ve got some of those guys. And Bradfield, even though he is a high-end talent, is also that kind of guy because it’s not just that he’s super fast, he’s also an incredibly intelligent base runner and is a master. You don’t go 46-for-46 because you’re fast; you have it happen because you’re a master of the craft, and he really is. So he fits into that. Even though he’s a high-end talent, not only offensively but defensively, he’s also just a cerebral player and is blue collar in the way he goes about that stuff. So, I’m eager to see how that lineup performs in that regard. 

Let’s talk a little bit about questions, though. Mark, go ahead with where you have questions about this Commodore team.

Vanderbilt’s Question Marks

Mark Etheridge

What’s the middle of the lineup going to look like? Bradfield is always on base. Who’s going to drive him in? That’s the big question for me. Is it the Duke transfer RJ Schreck? Is it Parker Noland or Jack Bulger? Or is someone else going to step up? Maybe it’s somebody who’s going to make a jump that we aren’t even talking about right now and is not even in the lineup? 

They need somebody – or some group of guys – to step in and be those thumpers in the middle of the order. And it doesn’t have to be home runs, but you’ve got to hit with men on. You’ve got to find a way to get those runners in.

Joe Healy

Agreed. I talked about the grinder mentality of the lineup, and I think that carries over into it being a pretty good defensive alignment. Alan Espinal looks to be catching; he’s a better defensive piece than Jack Bulger. Jonathan Vastine is taking over at shortstop, which slides Davis Diaz to second base. This is all on paper, but that creates a better defensive alignment there. So, they’re good there. The question is going to be how much are they going to hit and how much physicality is there? There’s a floor for Schreck. His year last year wasn’t as good as his 2021 season when it was a monster year. They’re obviously looking for him to be more of the 2021 version of RJ Schreck. But is it Jack Bulger taking a step forward? Is it Parker Noland? Is it RJ Austin, the freshman, stepping up and pairing with Enrique Bradfield as a super athletic guy who can make things happen in the lineup? Are we thinking about it too close mindedly? Are we looking for there to be two or three guys who hit 15-17 home runs when instead maybe it’s a bunch of guys who do a lot of other things well? The pitching is good enough to support that, so maybe we’re just not being quite as open-minded enough about how this offense can be effective and maybe not by the traditional standard.

But I will agree with you in the big picture that my question is, is this offense going to be productive enough? There are questions there, whether it’s because it’s guys who are new faces, guys who don’t have a long track record or guys who have been solid but haven’t taken that next leap. That’s the big question I have, as well. 

Mark, let’s just to what does this team have to do to be the best version of itself?

What does Vanderbilt need to do to be the best version of itself in 2023?

Mark Etheridge

They need to figure out the lineup first. But I think the other thing to focus on is if a guy like Reilly – who has all the talent in the world and it just hasn’t clicked with any consistency –

moves into the rotation and he’s that good, all of a sudden you’re talking about a Tennessee level or a Florida level or maybe LSU level from a rotation standpoint. That’s a game-changer, man because that eliminates how many runs you need to score from your offense.

There’s two ways to look at it. Either your offense needs to evolve to the point where your score runs or it clicks with these elite pitchers and you don’t need to score as many because nobody’s going to get any off them. And if you get them both, you’re back in Omaha. 

Joe Healy

For me, this is a pretty broad answer, but I’m not even overly concerned with where this happens, but I think for it to be the best version of Vanderbilt, they need some of the veterans who have been around to become superstars and key pieces. And I think it goes back to what you said at the very beginning of the episode where you said, “I really like the high-end guys.” And I couldn’t agree more. But what does that next group of players look like for Vanderbilt? What’s the next group of guys who can be the backbone, the meat in the sandwich, if you will?

I think there are options all around. We talked about Noland and Bulger. Can they become middle-of-the-order boppers on a potentially all-conference level? I think it could also happen on the mound. You mentioned Patrick Reilly. Mike Rooney in his fall report on Vanderbilt wrote this line – and I couldn’t agree more – that if you catch Patrick Reilly on the right day, he looks like a big league starter. It’s the stuff, it’s the build, it’s all of it. But he hasn’t consistently been that guy. Nick Maldonado had an off year for him last year. Is it him? Can he get that back? Is it Sam Hliboki, who’s dealt with injuries the last couple of years but showed a lot of promise early in his career and hasn’t been able to replicate that through no fault of his own? Is it Devin Futrell, who was great as a midweek starter last year and then they put him in the weekend rotation late in the year and it didn’t go as well? Can he take that step to become the guy who can get it done on the SEC weekends as well? So whether it’s on the mound, whether it’s on the position player group, somebody who’s been a part of this program for a couple of years and just hasn’t taken that next step, I think there’s a subset of those guys that need to take that step forward for this Vanderbilt team to end up reaching its ceiling.

We wouldn’t have them ranked 10th if we didn’t think they had Omaha upside. But the high-end talent here is good enough that if the middle of the roster, if you will, collectively takes that step forward, there’s really very little between this team being a national title contender. Certainly we’ll have our eyes on that big first weekend for Vanderbilt. They’re playing in the Globe Life Tournament. That’s going to be a litmus test right out of the gate with games against Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas from the Big 12. We never want to overreact too much to Week 1 results, but we will probably get some sort of idea of what we’re dealing with with Vanderbilt pretty early in the 2023 season. So we will be eagerly awaiting that.