Youth no hurdle for Marbut to eye post-season

JASON MONDA

PULLMAN – Donnie Marbut says he loves the potential of his Washington State baseball team, but the veteran coach realizes that potential is a fancy word for unproven. The Cougars, who have just two seniors after losing their top five hitters to the pros last summer, could have four sophomores and two redshirt freshmen in the starting lineup when they open the season Friday at Western Carolina.

"I think we're definitely a potential post-season team," Marbut said.

The Cougars' pitching staff is young, but loaded with big, hard throwers. That's always a plus in the Pac-12 Conference, annually one of the best leagues in the country for pitching and overall talent.

WSU's starting rotation consists of sophomores Tanner Chleborad (4-3, 4.24 last year), Joe Pistorese (4-3, 2.44) and Scott Simon (2-3, 4.09).

"They're still young, but they're experienced, so it's a nice place to start," Marbut said.


TANNER CHLEBORAD

Chleborad remains the No. 1 starter after assuming that role down the stretch last year. Pistorese also returns to the rotation. Simon made one start last year while setting a WSU freshman record with 28 appearances.

"He's super, super competitive," Marbut said of Simon.

Simon's development enables Marbut to move junior J.D. Leckenby (4-7, 4.50) back to the bullpen, where he shined as a freshman. Leckenby, WSU's hardest thrower (up to 95 mph, according to Marbut), is set to be the closer.

"We're going to have seven to 10 guys throwing in the 90's," Marbut said.

That list includes eighth-inning set-up man Kellen Camus (3-1, 3.44). Camus stands out on an enormous pitching staff by not standing tall (5-foot-9), but Marbut said, "He's the toughest guy on our pitching staff, and it's not close."

The 6-7 Simon, 6-5 Chleborad and 6-2 Pistorese were all drafted by major league teams out of high school. Senior Kyle Swannack (3-5, 6.06), who stands 6-4 like Leckenby, is battling for the "Tuesday starter" job with tall, lanky freshmen Jacob Schroeder (6-7), Chris McDowell (6-6) and possibly Matt Bower (6-5).

Marbut said the left-handed Bower is probably ticketed for the bullpen. Pistorese likely will be the only southpaw starter.

The Cougars return three full-time starters: junior center fielder Jason Monda (set to make his college pitching debut as a reliever), junior right fielder Adam Nelubowich (who also can play third base and first base) and sophomore second baseman Ian Sagdal.

Catchers-outfielders P.J. Jones (a sophomore) and Collin Slaybaugh (a junior) may split time behind the dish again. Junior first baseman Brett Jacobs and sophomore shortstop Trace Tam Sing, who both redshirted last year due to injuries, have considerable starting experience.

Monda has been named a preseason third-team All-American by Baseball America magazine. The 6-2, 202-pounder appears to be WSU's top pro prospect, though he's coming off a so-so season (.275, 1 home run, 18 RBIs).

"He's as talented as anyone in the country," Marbut said.

Marbut maintains that Monda "pressed a little bit" last year after a monster summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League. The coach can only hope designated hitter-outfielder Yale Rosen does not suffer a similar fate. Rosen starred in the New England Collegiate Baseball League last summer following a freshman season in which he barely played and hit .087 (2-for-23).

"He had as good a summer as anyone in the country," Marbut said.

Rosen, whose summer season was shortened due to a torn labrum, is one of several Cougars coming off surgery. Left fielder Ben Roberts and third baseman Nick Tanielu are healthy, rarin' to go and set to start after redshirting as freshmen last year.

The 6-3, 207-pound Roberts was a seventh-round draft pick by Arizona out of high school in Missoula, Mont.

"He's really, really, really come into his own," Marbut said. "He's worked extremely hard."

The Cougars need Roberts and plenty of others to cover for the loss of Taylor Ard and Derek Jones, the team's only prime-time power hitters last year.

"I don't think our power will be down," Marbut insisted. "I think we'll hit the same number of home runs, I just think it'll be distributed differently."

Marbut takes pride in the blue-collar reputation of WSU baseball, so the coach has been disappointed in the team's focus on defense during chilly practices.

"Our concentration level is not good enough, and our attention to detail is not good enough," said Marbut, a colorful sort with a bent for getting straight to the truth. "Once that gets better, I think we'll catch the ball really, really well."

The Cougars finished 28-28 last year, including a 12-18 record that was good for an eighth-place tie in the Pac-12 (which has 11 teams in baseball, since Colorado does not field a team). Baseball America has five Pac-12 teams in its preseason Top 25, including four in the top 15, led by No. 6 Oregon State.

"Sounds like a lot of people have us in that seventh spot (in the Pac-12)," Marbut said. "Probably fair. But I think we have a chance to move up."

NOTABLE NOTES:

  • After the three-game weekend series at Western Carolina, the Cougars will come home for eight games, starting Feb. 22 against Eastern Michigan.

  • Junior outfielder Nate Blackham, who hit .265 as a part-time starter last year, is redshirting.

  • Details have not been finalized, but most WSU baseball games will again air live over the internet (paid) and on Pullman radio. Some games also will be video streamed live.

  • Marbut's radio show, which runs most Mondays from 7-8 p.m. on KHTR 104.3 FM in Pullman, is also expected to air on www.wsucougars.com. Fans are welcome to sit in on the show at the South Fork Public House in Pullman.

  • Got a question for Marbut? Email him at www.athletics.wsu.edu/AskTheCoach/

  • Mark Hendrickson, the last Cougar to appear in the major leagues (2011 with Baltimore), signed a minor league contract with the Orioles after sitting out last year. He's been invited to the big league camp. The 38-year-old lefty is trying to make it back as a sidearmer.

  • Marbut offered high praise for new hitting coach and recruiting coordinator Pat Waer. The ex-Coug had been an assistant at Fresno State. Marbut also had compliments for pitching coach Gregg Swenson and volunteer coach Michael Naughton.
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