Oregon’s 2016 recruiting class was ranked No. 22 in the nation by Baseball America.
Now juniors, the seven players who remain from that group are still trying to get the Ducks to reach those expectations.
“My freshman year we thought ‘Wow, we’ve got a good class so we can’t wait to see what happens when we are juniors’,” third baseman Spencer Steer said. “We are looking forward to being the older guys, the veterans and making the program what we want because it has been a tough couple years. We are trying to change everything we can to get that winning culture back and see what leadership we can bring to this team.”
This may be the last chance for Steer and classmates Kenyon Yovan and Ryne Nelson, who are all ranked among the top 105 college prospects for the Major League Baseball draft by D1baseball.com.
“The vibe that is going through workouts, everyone is quiet and locked in on getting the job done,” said Yovan, who moved from the bullpen to become Oregon’s No. 1 starter last year. “Even the young guys are not just doing the minimum they are told to do, but doing extra to better themselves for the team. They know the two years I’ve been here and the year before we struggled and did not make the playoffs. There is definitely a culture change we need to have.”
Oregon has missed the postseason for three straight seasons while going 85-80 during that time. The Ducks feature 16 newcomers, including 13 freshmen, when they return to PK Park on Monday to begin fall practice.
“The potential seems to be as good as we’ve had in the last several years with maybe some higher draft picks, but then they have to reveal that and work toward that and how they fit into the team,” said George Horton , who begins his 11th season as coach. “We are real encouraged. Their make-up seems good and we know their physical capabilities are solid.”
Yovan returns at the top of the rotation after earning all-Pac-12 honors when he went 6-4 with a 2.98 ERA and five saves. Sophomore Kolby Somers is also likely to be on the weekend rotation along with Nelson, who started at shortstop and pitched in relief last season.
“I’m real excited to see what Nelly can do on his transition from closer to starter,” said senior Jakob Goldfarb, who will move from the outfield to catcher. “I was a bit skeptical last year seeing Kenyon go from a dominant closer to a starter but obviously that worked out extremely well. Hopefully, Nelly is a similar story and we see those guys dominate all year on the mound.”
Goldfarb led the Ducks with a .308 average and six homers last season when he moved into the lead-off spot for the final month. Steer and first baseman Gabe Matthews return to the middle of the order along with Yovan, who could be the designated hitter when he’s not pitching.
“It will be big having experience in the lineup,” Goldfarb said. “Guys who had big summers so I am excited to see what they can do. We have a lot of returners expected to have big years.”
Oregon needs to fill the middle of the infield with freshman Max Foxcroft, Kyle Froemke and Sam Novitske the likely contenders. Nelson could return to shortstop if necessary and Steer could switch to second base while outfielder Jonny DeLuca could move to the infield.
With Goldfarb behind the plate, DeLuca is the most experienced outfielder as he enters his sophomore season. Junior Jason Drees and sophomore Evan Williams also return while freshmen Vinny Tosti and James Bell also will compete for a spot in the lineup.
Horton pushed fall ball back a couple of weeks to October so his pitchers would be more rested and the Ducks don’t have any significant injuries.
The NCAA is allowing teams to play two fall games so the Ducks will face Washington at Safeco Field in Seattle on Oct. 20 and then host Portland at 5 p.m. on Oct. 26. The Ducks also host an exhibition game against the Langley Blaze out of Canada on Oct. 27.
“You find out a bit more when you play somebody else if your system works against theirs,” Horton said. “It will be exciting to compete against somebody other than ourselves.”
Oregon opens the 2019 season with a four-game series at Texas Tech beginning Feb. 15 before returning home to host Saint Mary’s on Feb. 22.
“I feel like it’s going to be a year to remember for the Ducks,” Yovan said.