About halfway through the St. John's game, I had come to the conclusion that Michigan 2010 (minus Ryan LaMarre) is Michigan State of 2009. Last year, the Spartans were a dark horse contender in the Big Ten with a couple good batters but were unable to score runs. They relied on their pitching to an extreme, winning several games of the 2-0 variety but also losing games 4-1. Each game was a test of patience for Spartan fans as they hoped and prayed that their offense might give their pitchers just enough support. They finished the Big Ten season at 13-11, good for fifth in the conference.
So now we look at Michigan. A team that, since the LaMarre injury, is averaging 4 hits per nine innings and 1.88 runs per nine innings. That's not going to have us competing in the Big Ten, at least from a championship perspective.
Let's take a broad perspective of the weekend in an attempt to stay positive. It's still early in the season. We're still tinkering with the lineup. Our pitching has been spectacular. Our offense showed signs of life by Sunday. We were never completely out of any game; everything was a pitchers' duel. Despite the struggles, it isn't all doom and gloom for Michigan right now. As a matter of fact, Baseball America's Aaron Fitt has some good things to say after catching parts of each of our games this weekend:
the Wolverines have enough pitching to keep them afloat. Michigan went just 1-2 this weekend, but it allowed just two runs in each of its three games. Righties Alan Oaks, Matt Miller and Tyler Burgoon all turned in strong starts this weekend and showed good stuff. Oaks sat at 90-92 and showed a good 80 mph slider and a 78 changeup […] A scout I talked to said Miller was up to 92 and showing a good four-pitch mix Saturday, and Burgoon racked up seven strikeouts over six innings Sunday thanks to an 87-91 mph fastball, a big-breaking slurve and a decent changeup. And sophomore righty Brandon Sinnery will be a rock in the bullpen thanks to a nasty 74-76 breaking ball.
So with that, a recap of the weekend's games, the left field situation, and the pitching staff: [Ed: after the jump.]
Bring back those crutches. As a matter of fact, bring them back and then give me one hell of a dong punch to the soul. That's the way this weekend ended.
After taking the first two games from Jacksonville State by scoring an average of 16.5 runs per game, Michigan started the season in much the same way as last year, a chance injury to a star player. This year, it's Preseason All-American Ryan LaMarre.
After diving for a ball in left center, Ryan got up slowly. Reports had him holding either his hand or arm. I've heard everything from hand to wrist to arm to shoulder. The specifics of the injury are still a mystery, but in today's Daily, we hear that the only thing definite is that LaMarre will be out:
He left the game, and his status remains unclear until further evaluation in Ann Arbor today. Michigan coach Rich Maloney, though, thinks that he may miss "an extended period of time."
“Obviously, that’s going to hurt,” Maloney said of the loss of LaMarre. “Someone else is going to have to step up. Injuries happen to all teams. It’s unfortunate that it’s our star player, but in the same token, we’re a team. Somebody else is going to have to pick up the slack.”
This isn't what we needed. We'll know more as the week progresses, but for now, I'm elevating the Curse of 2009-2010 alert to Orange. There is a High Risk of the Angry Michigan Hating God intervening this season.
Continuing the baseball previews in a build up to opening day this Friday, I'll look at how the team is pitching is set up this year. Previous preview posts: Initial Schedule Reaction, Maloney Podcast, A Look Back.
Michigan led the Big Ten in ERA last year and returns 74.3% of their innings. Chris Fetter was a big part of, but the returning pitchers had a collective 5.08 ERA. That would have have been good enough for second in the Big Ten. Top returner Eric Katzman, the only starting lefty, is expected to top the rotation upon his return from hernia surgery. Katzman went 7-4 last season with a 3.53 ERA. He'll be in the pen until he's comfortable with longer starts. While I'm expecting more consistency from him this season, I'm somewhat concerned about entering the season late out of the bullpen. If he gets pushed into the rotation too early, the results could be disastrous.
The depth behind Katzman should be better. Alan Oaks will start the year as the Friday guy. Oaks was used almost exclusively on offense to start the year, but after the pitching depth issues of last year started to take their toll Rich Maloney moved him back to the hill. Oaks had four starts at the end of the year. In those starts, he lasted an average of just over five innings per start, but one of his early starts against Indiana was particularly short and ugly at two innings. He had two impressive starts of seven and 7.2 innings respectively with just six earned runs between them.
While I don't expect Oaks to be a lights out starter this season, he is capable of eating a ton of innings, exactly what Michigan was missing to start last season. Other than Fetter, no one could start a game and make it through the 7th inning. It will be interesting to see how spending the entire off season preparing to enter the starting rotation will affect his performance. While I'm skeptical that he has the ability to be our ace, Alan is a key player if Michigan is going to be better this year.
Along with Oaks, I'm expecting good things from Brandon Sinnery and Kolby Wood. I've took a shine to Sinnery since his start against Eastern Michigan as a freshman. The kid has potential and a pretty good combination of pitches. He's not at a dominant level yet, but I can see him being a force in the third or fourth starter. Maloney thinks he's really making a jump, so it'll be exciting to see.
Kolby Wood has just as impressive this off season as his team's closer, registering a 1.45 ERA and 4 saves over 19 games. He's got a jerky motion, but his tall frame gives him good leverage on his fastball and the splitter he added this offseason. He should be in better shape this year. Rumor had it he had a sore wrist to end last season.
Tyler Burgoon (pictured right from BostonWolverine's flickr, which you should check out if your a photo fan, great stuff*) also makes his return to the starting rotation this season after spending the last year and a half in the closer's role. Burgoon began his career at Michigan as a midweek starter during his true freshman season. He had some success, but was pushed into late innings during the weekend because he was too valuable to use just midweek. Burgoon has also fully healed his shoulder. He has a solid repertoire of pitches, most notably his fastball and wicked slider.
Matt Miller, one of our top relievers last season, will make some starts this season. Miller was 1-2 last season with 3.70 ERA, second best behind Dufek in the bullpen. He registered 3 saves in 23 appearances with 43 K's in 41.1 innings. He did start one game last season, but it was against Eastern Michigan and Michigan was just getting guys innings. He went two hitless innings, striking out one.
*(Boston Wolverine also writes Roar of the Tigers.)
The bullpen should be better this season just due to increased depth. The pitching star of the 2009 freshman class, lefty Bobby Brosnahan (pictured at right), will return from Tommy John surgery. Brosnahan is an Ann Arbor native and during his junior year he was listed in the Michigan All-State 2nd team honorees. He had a solid offseason with the Lima Locos, so hopefully that's a good start.
Brandon Sinnery, Kolby Wood and Matt Miller might be seeing time in the bullpen as long relievers, but I think we'll also think we'll see more Matt Broder, Tyler Mills, and Kevin Vangheluwe. Broder pitched well at a lower level summer ball team, the Michigan Rams, but he's yet to get any innings at UM. Tyler Mills was Michigan's Gatorade Player of the Year his senior season at Mt. Pleasant HS but redshirted last season. Kevin Vangheluwe was coming off a serious injury coming out of high school and still hasn't quite found his stuff yet. Brian actually did a solid run down of him as a recruit back at mgoblog v1.0, with this now archived Detroit News clip:
"His (right) arm was discolored," Collins said. "It was like if you held it out of a car window and lost circulation. His dad (Mark VanGheluwe) took him to get examined and they gave him some medication to disperse the clot. He contacted (U-M coach Rich) Maloney and he told them to come immediately to U-Hospital. On Thursday, he had surgery to break up the blood clot and they said his muscles were pushing against the rib cage on that (right) side. I was told it was a normal case to remove that top rib on that side. And that was done Friday. Both were successful."
Kevin looked a little bit better this summer, but he's nowhere near the level of dominance he had before the injury.
Our top regular returner that is strictly a bullpen pitcher is Mike Dufek. When away from first base, he's been used here and there as a closer. His fastball can touch the 95-96 range and his slider is pretty good. Dufek probably won't be utilized as much this year, but he'll get his chances depending on how the closer by committee goes.
Travis Smith will spend more time in the bullpen this year. He's had a rough time as a starter over the last year both at Michigan and his summer gig in the Texas Collegiate League. All of these starter/reliever combinations should be huge assets in the pen if they aren't starting on the weekend.
Rounding out the returners are Matt Gerbe and Jeff DeCarlo. Gerbe hasn't shown too much yet during his time at Michigan or his stint with the Winchester Royals of the Valley League this summer. He had an atrocious stint as a starter with the Royals that saw his ERA balloon over 36. He managed to pull it under 9 by the end of the season.
Jeff DeCarlo, well, I've always made it a point to try and not speak that poorly of him. The guy is an Academic All-Big Ten player, not a All-Big Ten player. I respect that. I just cover my eyes and cross my fingers every time I see him on the mound, partially hoping he won't give up 3 runs in an inning, the other hoping he only pegs one guy in the 1 inning he might last. And this isn't an exaggeration. His 2009 stats:
So as this season goes on, if I make references to the "DeCarlo-type outing", this is what I mean. We won't see much of him this year, but when we do, consider it a David Cone like moment, but with less Febreeze. It's a blow out one way or the other, and as a bonus, DeCarlo will have an ERA comparable to David Cone's completion percentage—not the fraction, but the fraction multiplied by 100.
Michigan has solid depth and a concentration of guys who could start or go in the bullpen. Several of those are in the running for closer, and it's always good to have a bunch of guys capable of closing out games. Hell, even DeCarlo was collecting saves with his summer team, so the future has to look brighter, no?
Michigan returns more quality pitching than the rest of the league, and it's had had a year to develop. They also get a few promising prospects back. If they stay healthy, this year's pitching could be just as good as last year's by spreading Chris Fetter's load over five or six players who weren't available for last year. The depth should be enough to keep Michigan from losing random games against conference bottom dwellers Iowa, Northwestern, and Penn State, teams that they had a 3-6 record against last year.
That makes me an optimist. An outsider's view of the pitching staff is a little bit different. Most saw Fetter as the be all end all of our staff. That was true about one in every three weekends, but again, I point to the depth issues and a couple inconsistent players. This off season was a promising one for a wide variety of pitchers. If Katzman can get fully healthy before we start to push him for innings, Fetter's loss will be survivable.
Kendall Rogers (KR) is probably the top journalist (depending on how you classify Sorenson) when it comes to the national college baseball circuit. Rogers works primarily for Yahoo! Sports now, and runs the "Destination: Omaha" blog, similar to "Doctor Saturday" in the college football world.
In KR's most recent post, he examined the keys to Michigan bouncing back. In the opening paragraphs, or in many cases, stand alone sentences with little or no meaning (a personal pet peeve of mine in sports writing), he discusses Michigan's past few years with a pretty solid overview, discussing our success in 2007, our fall short in 2008, and the drop off in 2009.
In this post, I'm going to delve a bit deeper into his five keys, and attempt to cover the keys I find a bit more important. KR does a good job of summarizing programs, but he really doesn't have the expertise or in depth knowledge to really comment, and I'm hoping I can help supplement his descriptions.
His first key:
Forget about last season -- It seems we've had to say this about many teams the past few weeks, but Michigan joins the list of teams that needs to move on and forget about what transpired last season. The Wolverines welcome back a plethora of seasoned players both at the plate and on the mound. To say the least, this team will be ready to play in the spring. Personally, I think it'll be interesting to see how motivated this team will be. Knowing coach Rich Maloney as well I do, this club likely will be very fun to watch. Don't look for a letdown from the Wolverines.
That's about as vanilla as you can get. Yes, last year was unimpressive, I get that. But forgetting about it isn't really the answer. If anything, I think KR hit a bigger nerve with me when he mentioned the motivation of the team. Michigan was one of the most talented teams in the Big10 last year, but they continually struggled against some of the lower tier teams. I sometimes wondered just how motivated the guys were, but that's something I don't know about either.
There were stretches during the season in 2009 where I wondered if the guys just got down and couldn't pick it back up. Be it injuries, no one really solidifying third base, a depleted bullpen, whatever it was, I kept waiting for us to get a spark last year. That spark never came, and I felt like perhaps that was an indication that the team wasn't motivated enough. That was just my feeling, and I welcome the opinion of those who saw more games in person. I just know something was missing there.
Moving to key two:
Replace ace pitcher Chris Fetter, weekend rotation must reload -- The Wolverines have the tough chore of replacing ace pitcher Chris Fetter in the spring. Fetter started 13 games last season and compiled a 3.26 ERA in 94 innings. He also struck out 103 and walked 17 and limited opposing teams to a .257 batting average. Michigan welcomes back a pair of starting pitchers in Eric Katzman and Travis Smith. Katzman started 14 games last season and had a 3.53 ERA in 74 innings. He also struck out 64 and walked 41 and limited teams to a .248 batting average. Smith, meanwhile, started eight games and tallied a 4.50 ERA in 50 innings. Teams hit .333. The Wolverines are in good shape if this unit rises to the occasion.
That's also another obvious one, and one I'm not sure the Wolverines are going to be able to answer. To say last year's weekend rotation was disappointing would be an understatement.
Eric Katzman was a marginal number two starter compared to the last few seasons at Michigan. He was almost so inconsistent that his inconsistency became consistent. It seemed, as the season went along, that dubious "Evil Katzman" showed up every third week. Those "Evil Katzman" moments generally lead to a 3.2 inning start with 3 walks and 4+ runs. In the two weeks of non-evil, Katzman tended to make it about 5-6 innings and only 2-3 runs. That's alright, but his overall season really taxed our bullpen. By season's end, he would be demoted to the third starter. Katzman's summer was cut short due to an injury, I believe to his collar bone. He hadn't been pitching well in his few appearances there either. It'll be interesting if he can keep a solid hold on his rotation spot this season, and I think he'll still be a pretty solid number 2 or 3 pitcher for us.
Travis Smith was promising to start the season, but he just couldn't hack it by the time Big10 play rolled around. He was replaced by a few different experiments, including Kolby Wood, Brandon Sinnery, and most notably Alan Oaks. Wood and Sinnery were promoted up from the mid-week starter role on occasion to pitch on Sundays, primarily in an effort to split the Sunday game between two pitchers (one would throw 5 innings, the other 4 innings). This didn't work out all to well either, leaving the weak part of our bullpen to try and soak up more innings on back-to-back days.
When this failed, Maloney tried Alan Oaks back on the mound. Oaks had some success previously on the mound, mostly in high school, but also in relief during the 2007 NCAA run. Oaks ended up being the most effective pitcher (other than Fetter) to close the season, generally lasting 6 to 7 innings, saving the bullpen. He also did really well this summer, and he's one who I think has the best shot of taking Fetter's ace role. He's got a hard fastball and a pretty good slider.
After Oaks and Katzman, it's anybody's race for the 3rd starting spot. I think my preliminary guesses are Sinnery or Smith. Smith struggled mightily this summer in the Texas Collegiate League, but his fastball is just hard to pass up. Sinnery is still young, and I just haven't seen him throw enough as a starter to give him a nod just yet.
One of the hunches I've had for a while is we see a return of Tyler Burgoon to the rotation. Burgoon, our top closer over the last year and a half, started his career in the Michigan mid-week starting role half way through the 2008 season. He had some success there before being converted to a setup man and then closer. Burgoon has a couple good pitches, including a fastball, slider, changeup, and split fingered fastball (Quag, anything I'm missing?).
As for Kolby Wood, I wouldn't be surprised to see him make the transition to the closer role. He's developed a palm/changeup like pitch that has been devastating batters over the summer. He's still in contention for a starter role, but he was so spectacular as a closer this summer, I really feel like that's where he needs to go, especially if it frees up Burgoon to eat up starting pitching innings.
Speaking of bullpen, key three:
Bullpen must show some improvement -- The Wolverines actually return some solid relievers in the spring, but still have some work to do. They finished last season with a 4.82 pitching staff ERA because of some inconsistency issues with several relievers. Mike Dufek and Matt Miller are returning relievers to remember. Dufek is a two-way player and appeared in just 11 games last season. However, perhaps the Wolverines will choose to increase his role after he compiled a 2.70 ERA in 16 2/3 innings. Miller, meanwhile, appeared in 23 games and had a 3.70 ERA in 41 1/3 innings. Other returning relievers to watch include Tyler Burgoon, Brandon Sinnery, Alan Oaks, Kolby Wood and Matt Gerbe. This unit must be better outside of Dufek and Miller.
The bullpen is one area I'm not particularly worried about this year. Along with the aforementioned Burgoon and Wood as potential closers, Matt Gerbe and Matt Miller both made considerable noise this summer as closers. This summer was the summer of Michigan closers, even Sinnery got involved in the save fad. All of them did extremely well, and that really has me feeling good going into next season. And even with all of those players, we still have Mike Dufek available to close. That's a pretty stacked set of closers.
The one area that I'm not sold on is our left handed pitching. Other than Katzman as a starter, none of our other lefties have really produced at the college level. Matt Broder started for his lower-level summer league team and performed quite well, making me wonder if he will take the long relief slot. Bobby Brosnahan did pretty well this summer himself, and he may become a left handed specialist (in college, they tend to pitch a whole inning rather than just one batter).
Our only left handed reliever with college experience is Jeff DeCarlo. He's still working on bringing his college ERA below 8.00. The stat I like to use to describe DeCarlo is his hit by pitch numbers. Last season he hit one for each inning he pitched. He had 5 hit batsmen and 6 walks in 5 innings pitched. But he was an Academic All BigTen player in 2008!
Moving on to key #4:
Several hitters must rise to the occasion -- The Wolverines have the luxury of utilizing returning hitters Ryan LaMarre, Anthony Toth and Mike Dufek. However, they don't welcome back a plethora of solid hitters. LaMarre batted .344 with 12 homers and 62 RBIs last season, Toth batted .313 with 24 RBIs and Dufek batted .304 with 17 homers and 59 RBIs. Other returning hitters include Chris Berset (.296), Coley Crank (.294), Nick Urban (.288), John Lorenz (.267) and Alan Oaks (.228). Perhaps newcomer Derek Dennis, a very talented freshman, can give the Wolverines a boost at the plate. Michigan finished last season with a .294 batting average.
Again with the blatantly obvious statements – batters rising to the occasion? Duh. Anyway, I think Chris Berset is going to be a big key in all of this. Berset missed a few weeks with a broken finger during the middle of the season, and that really limited his numbers. I don't think he's a .330 batter by any stretch, but I think something near .305 is definitely doable (like his .301 his freshman year).
Other players that could end up contributing at the plate include Garrett Stephens, one of the top hitters in the Prospect League this last summer. I'm really high on the kid's hitting, and I can't see how he doesn't either start at first or start as the DH. Coley Crank had been DH'ing, but he was doing just alright. Stephens really shined at the end of the season at first, and I think he's got a future there.
Out of all of the returning hitters, the one I'm most worried about is Lorenz at third base. He struggled all of last season, forcing a platoon with Tim Kalczynski. His hitting was really weak, and his defense was just as suspect. If he doesn't step up his game this season, we're going to be playing musical chairs at third base until someone can hold it down. I wouldn't be surprised to see Mike Kittle or even Kevin Krantz making appearances early in the season at the hot corner.
As far as the freshman go, I'm not sure what to expect out of any of them. Dennis obviously was drafted really high, but it's yet to be seen how he'll perform in his first year on campus. It'd be nice to see him and maybe even Biondi solidify their place in the lineup, as we really need a leadoff and #2 hitter to step up. I have a feeling those two and Anthony Toth will combine to make the #9, #1, and #2 spots in the lineup. Their speed and high average hitting will hopefully translate to plenty of RBI opportunities for LaMarre and Dufek.
Speaking of those two, KR's fifth key:
Find more power production -- One thing that hurt Michigan last season was its lack of power. The Wolverines finished last season with just 55 homers. Returning hitters Ryan LaMarre and Mike Dufek accounted for 29 of those 55 homers. In other words, some returning hitters or newcomers must step up from a power standpoint. More power would make life much easier for the Wolverines both at the plate and on the mound. We'll see if some newcomers have some pop.
I'm not as concerned about the power as I am that combination at the top of the lineup. Last year's team was definitely a power based team, and that didn't translate to wins. Michigan had trouble sustaining innings, and they particularly struggled with strikeouts. Dufek struck out once in every 4 at-bats, Toth once in every 5. That's just not going to cut it. Sure the homeruns look awesome, but we really need to work on consistency and raising the averages. Power hitting is plenty more powerful with runners on base, and that's not a luxury Michigan had last season.