There was a lot to be excited about for Cal Poly baseball in 2022. Arguably the best shortstop in the country and a top-tier ace were at center stage for the Mustangs in the forms of Brooks Lee and Drew Thorpe.
The two had immaculate seasons and impressed enough to be drafted early in the 2022 MLB Draft.
Lee was taken with the eighth overall pick by the Minnesota Twins and the New York Yankees took Thorpe 61st overall.
“You can’t replace a Brooks Lee or a Drew Thorpe,” head coach Larry Lee said.
Their departures, along with many others, leave the Mustangs in a tough situation, but there are plenty of players who can step up and perform in place of last year’s stars.
Sophomore catcher Ryan Stafford, senior catcher Collin Villegas and junior first baseman Joe Yorke are the only starters to return to the lineup from last season, so there’s plenty of work to be done at every other position.
“It’s a total rebuild, especially on the position player side of it,” Lee said.
All of the open spots in the lineup give big opportunities for new players to show what they’re made of, namely freshman third baseman Tate Shimao.
Shimao is entering his first year of collegiate baseball after playing his senior season at Rancho Cucamonga High School, where he primarily played shortstop and hit .429 with four home runs, eight extra-base hits and 15 RBIs.
Shimao is getting his chance to prove what he’s made of after getting the starting nod at third base this upcoming season.
“I’ve played almost every position throughout my life, and Coach Lee is a wizard when it comes to the infield, so he’s been able to make that change really easy,” Shimao said.
Lee has always emphasized being defensively strong up the middle, so he brought in transfers to reinforce that idea.
Those players include junior shortstop Aaron Casillas from CSU Bakersfield, redshirt sophomore second baseman Ryan Fenn by way of Cuesta College and junior center fielder Jake Steels from Hancock College.
“You want to be strong up the middle,” Lee said. “We have two catchers and a shortstop, and now we have to develop a second baseman and center fielder.”
Although the holes in the lineup have primarily been filled by transfers, it’s still unknown to Lee if they can perform at this level.
“Some have taken several steps forward to hopefully compete at this level,” Lee said. “You just don’t know what’s gonna happen until the lights go on for real.”
Meanwhile, the pitching staff is the part of the roster with the most depth and will likely be the strong suit of the team.
“You don’t replace a Drew Thorpe,” Lee said. “But you’re hoping that collectively you can build a strong staff from both a starting and bullpen standpoint.”
Taking over the Friday starter spot will be graduate lefthander Travis Weston, who is coming off a year where he put up a 3.91 ERA in 94.1 innings pitched with 76 strikeouts.
“I really don’t feel any pressure because we have a great group around us and we have a lot more depth than we did last year,” Weston said.
Junior righthander Bryce Warrecker would likely be the Saturday starter with the Sunday and weekday starter status up in the air at this point.
Someone who could possibly step into either role could be freshman righty Freddy Rodriguez.
Rodriguez is entering his first collegiate season after three varsity seasons at River City High School in Sacramento where he pitched to a tune of a 1.68 ERA over 112 ⅔ innings with 189 strikeouts.
“Freddy is very confident for a first-year freshman,” Lee said.
Nothing is set in stone yet, but the Mustangs have plenty of options to choose from.
“When you have internal competition, it’s good for the development of your players,” Lee said. “You don’t ever want to think that someone won’t take your spot on a given day.”
With all the uncertainty and new faces around the clubhouse, Yorke has been the glue that keeps everyone together.
“He’s the life of our team, and the guy we look up to,” Shimao said.
Regardless of the circumstances, Lee wants his players to remember to “play the game the right way, play the game hard and be a good teammate.”
The Mustangs kick off their season with a three-game series at home against Missouri State on Friday, Feb. 17 at 6 p.m. inside Baggett Stadium.