Michigan's baseball team is in the midst of fall practice this week, and like spring ball for football, there are some vague outlooks of next season hinted at even in meaningless exhibitions against Canadian teams. Yesterday, for the second year in a row, Michigan took on the Ontario Blue Jays, a high-level summer ball squad from north of the border. For the second year in a row, Michigan crushed the Jays.
While the 24-1 score over the 14 inning scrimmage means nothing, how innings were allotted to pitchers is something of quite a bit more interest. Heading into next season, Michigan will be replacing two weekend starters. Lefty Bobby Brosnahan seems to be a lock to return to the rotation, and junior Brandon Sinnery is poised to be the second after spending the summer in Ann Arbor bulking up for the workload, but the third spot has been somewhat vague. Enter the exhibition;
Judging by the innings, it looks like the early front runner for the last spot is Kolby Wood (right, by MGoBlue). Wood has been a jack of all trades on the pitching staff for quite some time now. Early on, there were several experiments to move him to the rotation, but between his own struggles starting, and his value as a late inning reliever, Wood never could secure a starting spot. Kolby does have a pretty good fastball, a solid slider, changeup, and has worked with developing a splitter.
As far as the other relievers and potential starters, I have to be impressed with Gerbe and Ballantine. Gerbe could very well end up as this year's closer if he doesn't get groomed into a starter as well. I'm starting to get excited about the future of Ben Ballantine as well. His freshman season wasn't great, but with his height and size, I think we'll see a big break through for him this year.
The last note on the pitching staff, why do lefty relievers always bother me? Be it Katzman's bipolar "OMG I'M GREAT" to "OMG I JUST HIT TWO BATTERS AND GAVE UP 4 HITS THIS INNING" or Jeff DeCarlo, Academic All-American, I've just never felt comfortable with our "specialists." This year appears to be more of the same. Tyler Mills is cut from the same sporadic lefty mold where he'll walk a few batters per innings to raise the blood pressure, then it's anyone's guess on how the inning will end.
Here's where things get interesting. While the first two slots of Biondi and Toth is no surprise, John Lorenz (bottom right, by MGoBlue) in the 3-hole isn't something I really expected. Lorenz really came along to end last season, but his power has been streaky at best and his strikeout rate is generally pretty high. The more I think about it though, the more it makes sense. The only other power options are Crank and Stephens, but their K-rate is probably twice that of Lorenz.
The other option was moving Derek Dennis into the 3, but judging just on the regular season, Dennis didn't appear to be ready for that load yet. It's not to say he won't be ready by February, but I just haven't seen reason to move him that high in the order just yet. Dennis should fit in well to the 6-hole. He'll act as a clean up hitter for Crank and Stephens above him, who should provide Dennis with plenty of RBI opportunities.
The bottom three in the order are of more interest to me than anything else. With two outfield spots open, all three of those guys are competing for two spots on the field. And with Michael O'Neill due back from labrum surgery in the next month or two, that's just one more guy in the mix – one that some close to the baseball program think is already the favorite to start in left. I'm personally leaning towards Krantz as the other outfielder, but that's without seeing him play since the broken thumb. Kevin looked good while replacing Ryan LaMarre last season, and I'd love to see him continue to produce like that at the bottom of the order.
As for the DH, I wasn't really expecting Alex Lakatos to make an appearance, especially given his pitching potential. Lakatos was one of the state of Michigan's top high school pitching prospects last season. I didn't know Maloney also was looking at his bat. I'm also somewhat surprised with the lack of Cam Luther. Luther was the big bat brought in the recruiting class of 2009. He made it into just a handful of games last year before contracting mono, but it appears the projection that he would challenge Stephens for 1st base or designated hitter might be pushed back a little later.
What it Means
Like spring football, everything in this game is all to be taken with a grain of salt. Players still have a few months to get into baseball shape, and anything could happen between now and then, especially on the mound.
If there is one thing I take out of this though, it's pleasure in the AD finally giving the fall exhibitions some publicity. In several southern baseball schools, fall ball is a big deal. Last year, we were given a score, no box, no write up, nothing. As Michigan continues to build it's baseball program, this is a small step forward. So is their recent hire of the new assistant SID, Kent Reichert, formerly of Coastal Carolina (a big time baseball school). I'm really encouraged to see the program moving forward like this.