This has the makings of a special season for Bay Area college baseball.
Stanford is ranked No. 2 nationally by Baseball America and is the preseason pick to win the Pac-12. Cal has most of its College World Series team back from last season. San Jose State was picked to finish second in the Western Athletic Conference coaches poll, and USF is coming off a West Coast Conference championship and NCAA tournament appearance.
Stanford coach Mark Marquess, now in his 36th year, can't recall the Bay Area baseball scene ever being as strong.
"This is unusual that we have so many teams that could go to postseason play," he said.
Stanford has three potential first-round draft choices returning in pitcher Mark Appel, shortstop Kenny Diekroeger and third baseman Stephen Piscotty. All three, who are on the initial watch list for the Golden Spikes Award, given to college baseball's best player, are from the Bay Area: Appel from Monte Vista of Danville, Diekroeger from Menlo School and Piscotty from Amador Valley.
Appel is a power pitcher whom some project as a potential first pick in the draft.
"I don't know if I've ever had a pitcher who threw harder," said Marquess, who has had a number of pitchers go on to notable major league careers. "And he's filling out, getting bigger and stronger."
In addition to Diekroeger and Piscotty, the Cardinal has a number of returning starters off last year's super regional team, including first baseman Brian Ragira, second baseman Lonnie Kauppila and outfielders Austin Wilson, Tyler Gaffney and Jake Stewart.
Brett Mooneyham, a left-hander who missed last season because of a finger injury, will join Appel in the starting rotation with A.J. Vanegas and Dean McArdle competing for the third weekend starter's slot. The closer's role is up for grabs.
No. 22 Cal is coming off an incredible 2011 season, a story that began with the threat of the program's elimination and ended with a trip to the College World Series. The Bears are also loaded with experience in the field, led by returning Pac-10 player of the year Tony Renda (Serra), who also is on the Golden Spikes Award list. Renda, a junior, says the team has some unfinished business.
"Last year was a great year, a Cinderella story," he said. "But the fact of the matter is we didn't win a (national) championship."
In addition to Renda at second base, catcher Chadd Krist, first baseman Devon Rodriguez and third baseman Mitch Delfino are returning starters. Shortstop Derek Campbell and a group of five outfielders also all saw plenty of playing time. Justin Jones (9-6, 2.93) is the No. 1 starter, followed by Kyle Porter and Matt Flemer (St. Mary's). Logan Scott (Serra) is the closer. But as coach David Esquer is quick to point out, you need more than four pitchers.
"You need eight," he said. "The key is our second-line pitching. The thing we do best is something that is the least reliable, offense. I think our defense is pretty solid, but we've got to develop on the pitching side."
San Jose State went 35-26 last season. Coach Sam Piraro, in his 25th year, has 16 players who have been in the program three or more years. Former Spartans player Mark O'Brien, after 10 years as coach at Santa Clara, has been added to the coaching staff.
Piraro calls Zack Jones (Santa Teresa) "My most dynamic player. He'll be a high draft choice. Scouts want me to start him, but he will be my closer if we have a chance to win three games in a week as opposed to one. He can also hit and could be my starting shortstop, but I'm not going to play him in the field."
Piraro is also high on catcher Kyle Gallegos, a Chabot transfer out of California High, outfielder Tim Quiery (Serra), his best offensive player, and speedy outfielder Andrew Rodriguez (Logan). Pitcher/shortstop Mike Aldrete is the son of the former major league first baseman and Stanford standout.
USF is hoping to build off last season's success. Santa Clara has a new coach in Dan O'Brien, previously at UC San Diego. Saint Mary's is looking to turn the corner with the bulk of its starting lineup returning off last season's 27-28 team.