Continuing the baseball previews in a build up to opening day this Friday, I'll look at how the conference stacks up. Previous preview posts: Initial Schedule Reaction, Maloney Podcast, A Look Back, Pitching, The Infield, The Catchers and Outfield.
First, a couple of special notes as news tricked in today:
- 19 hours until first pitch on opening day. Weather in Lubbock was beautiful for our first outdoor practice of the season today.
- Michigan great George Sisler (follow link to my mini-bio) will be inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame this year. He will be the fourth Wolverine inducted, following Rickey Branch, Jim Abbott, and Barry Larkin. Sisler was the greatest player or his time at Michigan, twice earning All-American status.
- And the DetNews has their token post up for the season. I'm not expecting too much more for the next month from them.
The Coaches Non-Poll
The BigTen is one of the weird conferences that chooses not to have preseason polls or preseason All-Conference teams. I've yet to figure out why the coaches, athletic departments, whoever it is that makes such a decision votes not to have the poll, but such is life. What we do have is 8 coaches voting on the team to beat, and the majority says Ohio State. We also have a Baseball America preview that supposedly polled the coaches for their results. I say supposedly as BA doesn't mention that coaches were involved from what I've found. The findings:
- Ohio State, making the NCAA tourney
- Minnesota, making the NCAA tourney
- Michigan, making the NCAA tourney
- Michigan State
- Penn State
This looks pretty consistent, at least across the top four or five teams at quite a few different sites. Michigan is tournament cusp in most projections, being included in the Baseball America tourney prediction ($, 3 seed) and out of the CollegeBaseballBlog prediction. We have a solid shot of being included, but I can understand being left off after last season.
Ohio State has a stacked lineup coming back this year, at least offensively. The Buckeyes return 8 players from last year's explosive offense, including 5 seniors that hit over .340 each. Ryan Dew was the team leader last year with a .388 batting average and a .429 on base percentage.
The Buckeyes also return two of the top players in the Big Ten with battery mates Dan Burkhart and Alex Wimmers. Burkhart is widely considered to be one of the top three catchers nationally. He hit .354 last year with a slugging percentage of .589. That's tremendous for a catcher. He's also very solid behind the plate defensively, allowing only 3 passed balls over the season.
On the mound, OSU is lead by someone most Wolverine fans would like to forget: Alex Wimmers. For those of you lucky enough to suffer from short term memory, Wimmers was the pitcher to throw the no-hitter against the Wolverines on the BTN last year. I wouldn't be surprised if that was the first college no-hitter on television in the last 20 years.
Wimmers will most likely be a first round draft pick this year with a ++ curveball, a upper 80s/low 90s fastball, and a changeup voted top in the BigTen. He occasionally has a little bit of a command problem, but that's not the case when he faces off with Michigan.
After Wimmers, though, is a huge question for Ohio State. Last year's team was an offensive juggernaut and had to be. The Buckeyes were dead last in the BigTen in ERA (6.39), hits (30 behind the next team), balks, walks, doubles, and home runs.
They do have a second solid starter in sophomore Dean Wolosianski who earned Freshman All-American status last year, but his numbers aren't nearly as impressive as Wimmers. Depending on how much he improves this year will make or break the Buckeye's hopes of winning the BigTen.
The third spot in the rotation is a question mark right now for the Buckeyes as they have a couple pitchers still nursing injuries from the off season, most notably, last year's starter Eric Best.
In the closer role, OSU will have to replace Jake Hale who saved 18 games on the year with a 1.31 ERA. That duty will fall on the shoulders of Drew Rucinski, the only pure reliever on the Buckeye staff to log enough innings to have him listed as a starter. Over 36 games last season, he threw 74.2 innings and had 62 Ks and 32 walks. It doesn't sound that intimidating just yet, but he has been talked up quite a bit this season.
The Buckeyes have a fairly light schedule compared to several of the other teams in the BigTen, which isn't that unusual. Boyd's World has their intended schedule strength listed at 151 out of 301, with a non-conference slate ranked 179. The Buckeyes will be tested pretty strongly in the Big Ten/ Big East Challenge with games against South Florida and Notre Dame, as well as in state opponent Cincinnati. Their other major tournament will happen at Tennessee where they will face the volunteers and a Connecticut team that is supposed to be really good this year.
The two biggest non-conference games will be a midweek pair while hosting Louisville. The Cardinals are still a baseball power from their Conference USA days and are a big boost to OSU's RPI if they can win.
The Other Contender(s)
The other two teams under serious consideration for the top spot are Minnesota and Michigan. Since we've obviously given ample coverage of Michigan's team, we'll just look at Minnesota here.
Minnesota is another perennial baseball power in the Big Ten that just came off a solid rebuilding year where a very young team managed to finish the season ranked in the top 25. They do lose their top two weekend starters and their top two outfielders (including Eric Decker due to his football injury), and BigTen MVP-runner up Derrek McCallum, but they do return Seth Rosin, who most consider to be the second best starter in the league. Rosin posted a 4.21 ERA over 15 starts
They also bring back a very solid bullpen, something most teams in the Big Ten just don't have. Closer Scott Matyas returns after posting a 2.22 ERA in 23 outings including 15 saves. Matyas struck out an astounding 45 in just 28.1 innings, making him the man to beat when it comes to BigTen closers. Setting him up will be Cullen Sexton. Sexton is a solid reliever that won't over power you, but he has very good command. After that, the rest of their pen is average for a BigTen team, no one overpowering and a couple you'll hardly see throw on a weekend.
Offensively, the Gophers are still a young team, but they've got plenty of experience coming back. Junior Mike Kvasnicka is one of the best players in the conference,
The junior from Lakeville finished last season with a Big Ten rank of 3rd in doubles, 3rd in RBIs, 4th in hits and 5th in total bases. He is considered the third best pro prospect in the conference and should be the offensive leader for the Gophers in 2010. He will anchor down right field and get some innings at catcher when needed.
He's definitely a player to watch in the race with Ryan LaMarre for player of the year. Also, that article is a great preview by TheDailyGopher. For a full team rundown, it's one of your best options.
Minnesota also has a pair of sophomores in Petterson and O'Shea returning with Freshman All-American honors. Shortstop AJ Petterson is probably the best shortstop in the league, and he is very good about getting on base in front of the two big hitters on the team. First baseman Nick O'Shea is one of those big hitters. His 11 home runs will be a big part of protecting Kvasnicka, especially if he can raise his batting average a little bit.
The Gophers do have some holes still to fill, mainly in left and at second base. It sounds to be a platoon system until someone can solidify their place in the lineup.
The schedule for the Gophers is comparable to that of Ohio State, ranked one position ahead at 150. Minnesota will start the season will first be tested at the BigTen/BigEast challenge against a up and coming UCONN, then turn around and play #13 Louisville in the Sunday closer. That should test their back end of the rotation more than thoroughly.
After the Challenge, they return home for 2 week homestand at the Metrodome. Here, they'll hose Oklahoma State and Creighton among a bunch of tomato cans. The real excitement comes March 16th as they play a pair of mid week games at Alabama.
During the conference season, Minnesota will also play a pair of games at Kansas State, which are definitely winnable and should boost their RPI points they will lose by pounding North and South Dakota State into the ground repeatedly.
The Dark Horses
After the top three, it's a guessing game on who the flavor of the week, or in this case, year, will be in the BigTen. Most people are pointing towards either Illinois or Michigan State.
Illinois is a tough squad to gauge this year. The Illini are a great offensive team, but their pitching is extremely suspect. The Illini return six players from their lineup last year, including on base machine Pete Cappetta who hit .384 last season. Cappetta had a .543 slugging percentage and an on base percentage of .475, which makes him one hell of a batter. He'll be moving from right field to second base, his natural position, this season.
Along with Cappetta, three other returning Illini hit over .333 last season. Willie Argo, a Freshman All-American last season, will also be back. He hit .355 with 47 RBIs and a team leading 12 homeruns.
Last year's second baseman Josh Parr will be sliding over to short stop this season. He hit .337 last season with a team high 13 stolen bases. The final big hitter returning is catcher Aaron Johnson who owned a .941 OPS. He was second on the team with 10 home runs.
The Illini still have their ace in Will Strack, now a sophomore, as their Friday starter, but after that, it's not a lot of proven options. Strack isn't so much of a power pitcher as he is finesse. He will make an opposing team ground out plenty.
Of the other main starters last season, Ben Reeser graduated and Phil Haig was dismissed from the team, leaving a void in the back end of the rotation. Bryan Roberts will most likely be the Saturday starter, but he struggled quite a bit in his 10 starts. His 5-4 record and 6.72 ERA are indicative of the struggles he had, mainly with his command.
The Illini bullpen is also a mixed bag. They lost their top reliever in Aaron Martin, but they do return quite a few other players with at least 20 innings of work. None of them have been impressive.
On the whole, Illinois has the opportunity to try and out slug several teams, but they have couple new faces that are totally untested both in the lineup and in the starting rotation. I'm less inclined to see them compete for the top three slots, but if one of their other pitchers gets hot, they'll be a tough team.
Michigan State is also a tough team to gauge this season, but for the opposite reason as Illinois – no offense, great pitching and defense. The return their entire outfield and two infielders, but none of those players are huge offensive threats. Eli Boike is as close to a offensive force, hitting just .310 last year with a .480 slugging percentage. That slugging percentage is second best of the returners, and his .420 on base percentage is the best on the team. His 8 homeruns was a Spartan team high in 2009.
The other hitter to keep an eye on for MSU is Seth Williams, who will take over the every day catching duties. Williams had a team best .525 slugging percentage, but only a .328 on base percentage in limited playing time.
The anemic offense last year by the Spartans was balanced out by an outstanding pitching staff. While Nolan Moody has moved on to the minors, junior AJ Achter and sophomore Tony Bucciferro both return to the rotation. Achter is a very good pitcher who was struck by quite a bit of bad luck last season. His 3.76 ERA was 7th best in the BigTen last season, but he only had a 3-6 record to show for it (14 starts). Most of that had to do with MSU's offense than his own effort.
Bucciferro was a bit luckier when it came to run support, but he was no slouch. He actually had a better ERA than Achter at 3.55. Bucciferro ended up going 5-2 and earning Freshman All-BigTen honors.
The combination of these two pitchers probably makes MSU's starting rotation the strongest in league to start the season, even if they don't have a solid third starter set yet.
The bullpen in East Lansing is also pretty deep. Like Michigan, they too have four or five guys capable of taking the third starting job, and the others will make a solid bullpen.
Overall, I don't think the Spartans have what it takes yet to win the BigTen, but if Jake Boss can get his kids hitting the ball, MSU is definitely capable of taking 2 of every 3 games every weekend.
It's also worth noting that Michigan will not play MSU in the actual conference season. Each BigTen team misses one team per season, and this year MSU rotates off our schedule. We will play them twice during the midweek, which should help the Wolverines who have more pitching depth.
The Dangerous Not-So-Rans
Two players from last year that seem to have dropped quite a ways this year are the two schools from Indiana, Indiana and Purdue.
Indiana is on the border of being a dark horse candidate this season, but they lost so much of their team, especially on the mound, that it's hard to give them that extra push. The only two players that particularly stand out in their lineup are Freshman All-American phenom Alex Dickerson and Jerrud Sabourin.
Sophomore outfielder Dickerson had a great year with a .370 batting average and 1.044 OPS. He was so good as a freshman that he was invited to the Cape Cod League in the summer where he continued to shine. He's going to be a force this year and next before he gets drafted and leaves early.
Sabourin at first base will be protecting Dickerson in the lineup. Sabourin had an OPS of 893 last season, with 6 homers and 15 doubles. He'll be one of the upperclassmen leaders to put the team on his shoulders.
The only starter returning for the Hoosiers is Matt Bashore. Bashore started 16 games for IU last year with a 7-5 record and a 4.07 ERA. Matt is more of a strikeout pitcher, recording 108 punch outs in only 95 innings pitched. After him, the consensus is that Matt Igel will take the second starting role. Igel started one game last season and had 13 relief appearances. In 23.2 innings pitched, he walked 17 and struck out 18 with a 6.46 ERA.
Hoosier coach Tracy Smith has hinted that he may be starting true freshmen in the rotation just due to a lack of depth. That doesn't bode well for fans in Bloomington.
Purdue might have a brighter outlook, just due to their starting rotation. They do return all three starters from last year, including ace Matt Bischoff. But like Illinois, none of those starters were particularly dominate last year. They combined for a 14-16 record and a 6.54 ERA.
The lineup will have two huge holes to fill this season in Brandon Haveman and Dan Black. Haveman won the batting crown last season with a .422 batting average, and Dan Black, the keystone of Purdue's offense the last few years, knocking in 51 RBI with 15 homers. Both were slugging well over .600. Replacing that won't be easy.
Their hopes lie on the shoulders of their middle infielders Eric Charles and David Blount. Charles hit .369 last year with a on base percentage of .461. He'll be looking to lead the team in run scored again this year (45 last year). Blount is a transfer from Miami (FL), which shows he has talent, and he was a part time contributor to last year's offense. Rumor has it, he will hit clean up this season.
If Purdue can manage to get better pitching this season, they could make there way into dark horse status, but they've got a lot left to prove before they can reach that point.
The Not so Good
Penn State may have one of the best parks in the BigTen (shared with Pirates short season team the State College Spikes… FEAR THE SPKIKES!), but they struggle at baseball. Losing their ace in Macy, as well as both their Saturday and Sunday starters to graduation, really leaves Penn State with question on the pitching staff. I don't know what to expect from Mike Wanamaker, a red shirt senior who missed all of last year to injury. He was a very important part of Penn State's team in 2008,but who knows if he'll be back to full strength.
Offensively, Penn State loses most of their power, but they do retain Jordan Steranka, a Third Team All-BigTen third baseman last season. He lead the Nittany Lions in average (.365), RBI (42), and home runs (6) last season. While the average is high, his slugging percentage was only .536, which may make a large jump as a sophomore.
The biggest loss this season, though, was an unplanned one. Second leading hitter for the Nittany Lions, Blake Lynd, will red shirt this year as he recovers from surgery. In his place, several freshman and JUCO players are in the mix.
As much as Penn State struggles, Iowa is worse. For a state home to the movie Field of Dreams, they are more a nightmare for alumni and fans than a pleasant dream. The Hawkeyes lost their entire infield this last season. What keeps the Hawkeyes afloat are a pair of solid starting pitchers in lefty Jarred Hippen and righty Phil Schreiber. Those two will give the Hawkeyes a chance to steal a few games this season, particularly Hippen. He just about blanked Michigan in his start against the Wolverines, striking out 9 in 6.2 innings.
Northwestern, unlike the other two bottom dwellers have had some buzz around them. They do return all three starting pitchers from last season, all lefties, but none of them were overly dominating when not playing Michigan to end the season. Their offense doesn't return anyone of particular note as they lost their only good player to the draft. I can't see them succeeding this season.
What It Means for Michigan
Looking over the conference, I think Michigan should be set up for a good run. The conference schedule works out favorably for a BigTen regular season championship. Michigan will play at Indiana, vs Purdue, at Illinois, and vs Iowa in the first half of the season. Michigan should be able to take two in Bloomington, sweep Purdue, win at least one at Illinois, and sweep Iowa, positioning Michigan with a 9-3 at least.
The next two series will be tough. We host Ohio State and travel to Minneapolis. If we can manage to take both series, I have to imagine that we win the BigTen outright. We just can't afford to lose both like we did last season.
Luckily, we close out the season with Northwestern and at Penn State, which should both be sweeps as well. That should leave Michigan around 18-6, which is what Ohio State won the conference with last year.
Continuing the baseball previews in a build up to opening day this Friday, I'll look at how the team's outfield and catchers look this season.. Previous preview posts: Initial Schedule Reaction, Maloney Podcast, A Look Back, The Infield.
There is no more valuable person on our team than Chris Berset. Sure, there's a guy at this end of this post that most of you will say is more important. I would counter that with asking who touches the ball the most on the team? Who is the rock that holds the pitching staff on his shoulder? Who played for the
prestigious Great Britian National Team this summer? No, not that guy, Chris Berset.
Berset is now entering his third year as one of the full time catchers (I consider two catchers being full time), after splitting his freshman year with Doug Pickens, commanding the plate virtually to himself his sophomore year, and missing about 20 games last year due to a broken finger. Over his career, Berset owns a .277 batting average, with one particularly bad sophomore slump season at .244 and two other seasons right around .300. Berset quietly is a solid 6 or 7 hole hitter, providing decent power and decent average.
Behind the plate, Chris's arm is only average at best. Berset has caught 33 of 119 attempts on him, giving opponents a .723 stolen base percentage, but where Chris excels is on blocking. There has been an apparent difference in our pitching staff's confidence when Berset is behind the plate compared to his replacements the last two years. Sliders look sharper, fastballs have a little more cut on them. Look no farther than Berset's 2 passed balls last year. In about a third as much playing time, Tim Kalczynski had 11. Berset has a trust level with our pitchers that allows them to be more aggressive, something invaluable.
I've been pretty sold on the idea that Berset was the missing piece last season that cost us just as much as the depth. His broken finger left us void the leader on the field and with the pitchers. Without him, pitchers lost confidence in themselves and the season went down the drain.
Our backup catcher again this year is Coley Crank. As a freshman last year, Crank had quite a bit of playing time, mainly due to Berset's injury. Coley, like Lorenz, didn't appear totally ready for college pitching last year. It'll be interesting to see how he improved over the off season. His stats in the Alaska Summer League didn't look particularly good, but such is baseball when you're out there with wood bats.
Crank didn't have quite the repertoire with his battery mates last year, posting 8 passed balls and not catching any of the 8 runners that tested his arm. I'm hoping he shows improvement this season as he appears to be slated the starter next year. We definitely need him to give Berset days off, and he'll get playing time fairly often. From what I understand, he's shown improvement at the plate and will vie for the DH spot as well.
This year's team is probably the fastest outfield we've had at Michigan in years, and if there is one player on this year's team that epitomizes speed, it's freshman Patrick Biondi. Biondi was drafted by the Tigers in the 35th round but opted to go to Michigan and improve his draft stock. Biondi was clocked with a 60 yard dash time of 6.44 seconds. That's "special speed" as Rich Maloney calls it. That's four out of five fakes for all you football recruitniks.
Biondi will be a force on the basepaths, but getting on base will be the adventure. Maloney plans to lead off with Biondi right out of the gate. This is a tough spot for any freshman, and it'll be interesting to see how it plays out. The current plan is the "Willy Tavares circa 2005" play. Biondi will be bunting and slow-roller-to-the-infield his way to a record setting number of infield base hits. At least that's the hope. I'm pretty skeptical about this to start the season, but I guess I'll have to see him play first.
As I mentioned in the Preview: The Infielders, I wouldn't be surprised to see him drop to the 8 or 9 hole if he struggles and Lorenz or Dennis can really light it up to start the season. Anything could happen, though.
In right field, Nick Urban will be holding on to his starting spot he earned last season. Nick came to Michigan as primarily a middle infielder, but after falling behind the depth chart to Cislo and Toth, he made the move to the outfield where he has been one of our best defenders. He started the season just filling in for Alan Oaks, but Oaks became a liability defensively and never found his swing on offense. Urban is quite a bit quicker than Oaks in the field and was only a bit behind Oaks in terms of arm strength.
Offensively, Urban never really tore the cover off the ball, but he was quietly efficient. He hit .288 over last season with a .418 slugging percentage (.366 on base). Those numbers will work in the 6 or 7 hole, but I'd like to see him boost both of those this season.
Saving the best hitter on the team for last, Ryan LaMarre will probably be making his last hurrah at Michigan this season and playing center field. Ryan is a special talent and has gained Pre-season All-American 3rd Team honors at a laundry list of websites and magazines that hand out such honors. Between his dominant last season, hitting .344 with 12 home runs, 55 runs scored, 62 RBI, and a .599 slugging percentage, and his solid season in the Cape Cod League, Ryan definitely could go pro. Like some of you, I've heard his plan was to go to the show after his junior year for quite some time now. I've got no inside knowledge, so take it FWIW.
LaMarre is definitely poised to be a 1st Team All BigTen again this season, and will be anchoring the 3-hole in the lineup. LaMarre doesn't really have any holes in his college game. He is a solid college outfielder with a great bat and great work ethic. There isn't much else to say about him. The kid is a player and he'll probably be drafted in the first 10 rounds of the draft this next year. Here's hoping he might just stay.
For those interested in stats:
Coming Up Next
I'm hoping to get a look at the conference and the schedule one more time before the season starts, but life is getting busy at just the right time.
Continuing the baseball previews in a build up to opening day this Friday, I'll look at how the team is infield, offensively and defensively is shaping up this year. Previous preview posts: Initial Schedule Reaction, Maloney Podcast, A Look Back, Pitching.
On a side note, you can see the baseball television schedule here.
The infield is a tale of two halves, the right and the left. On the right, we have solid returners with solid, not quite stellar, offensive and defensive play. They're proven with a full year's experience. On the left, we have a pair of unknowns. Our third baseman played semi-regularly last year, but could never solidify himself, while our shortstop is a true freshman with a great pedigree.
The only full time starter returning to the same position for the Wolverines this year is Mike Dufek at first base. Dufek will be in his second full season at first base, his freshman year was spent split with Nate Recknagel. Dufek's defense is pretty good at first, but he does lack a bit of range. For this reason sometimes you'll see him replaced by Garrett Stephens, or even true freshman Cam Luther if Maloney finds himself unable to red shirt the exceptional talent. Both of those are expected to be potential defensive upgrades over Dufek, and they will allow Dufek a chance to DH a bit more often.
Speaking of DH'ing, Dufek isn't in the lineup for his defense anyway--the guy can swing the bat. Mike hit 17 home runs last season, tied for third best in school history, and his .627 slugging percentage was 5th best in the BigTen.
The big question surrounding Dufek this season is can he cut down on the strikeouts? Last season saw him strike out one in every 3.8 at bats. High risk/high reward batters may have their merits, but those type of batters need to be hitting 6th, not clean up.
After debating this lightly with commenter Colin over the last few days, I've still yet to be able to accept Dufek as living up to the needs of the teams just because of his 17 home runs last season. Yes, Dufek's OPS was 1.001 last season. Do I think that was enough? No. It sounds weird as a 1.000 OPS is generally regarded as very good. I just don't think his .374 on base percentage is what it should be in the middle of the order. He should be at least .400 to be gaining the sort of praise he's been getting. Even his .304 batting average, that's got to rise up. This is college, not the pros. A great hitter like Dufek has the potential to be needs to be hitting in the .320s. Call it tough love, call it what you will, but I think he's underachieving.
But that also gives me hope. With another year of experience under his belt, I feel like this should be the year that Dufek hits one all cylinders. He's gotten better every season he's been at Michigan, I expect the same thing of him this year. I expect him to be more patient and more explosive.
Moving to second base, our other returning starter, Anthony Toth, will be playing after moving from shortstop. I think this is a positive for the team and Toth. Toth's a little small for shortstop in the big leagues, so he might as well get accustomed to second base now. I think this will also help with his tendency for errors as he'll have easier plays at second than the massive area he had to cover at short. Hopefully he can cut that team high 16 errors last season by at least half if not 3/4.
At the plate, Toth will hit second, and by all current indicators, that's where he'll stay all season. Anthony is a pretty good contact hitter who can put the ball in the gap. This should work well in moving our lead off hitter around the bases and setting up LaMarre with easy RBI opportunities. Like Dufek, though, Toth has a high strikeout rate, and that needs to be fixed this season. We can't win if our 2 and 4 hole hitters strikeout at the rate they did last year.
Unlike Dufek though, Toth had a solid on base percentage of .410. He really started to produce after being moved down in the order, and continued to do pretty well when bumped back to the top of the lineup following Cislo's injury.
At third base, John Lorenz will once again start at third base to open the season. If he's able to lock down the position is still a big question. Last year saw him have to split time with senior walk-on catcher Tim Kalczynski. Being a true freshman starting in college is tough, especially when you miss your entire high school senior season. Defensively, Lorenz has a very good arm, but he too had trouble on the left side of the infield last year. His 14 errors was second highest on the team (the next closest was 6). If he's going to hold on to his position, he must field the ball better.
Offensively, Lorenz was a non-factor in the lineup. He was relegated to the 8-spot in the lineup, generally reserved for the worst hitter on the team. His .375 slugging percentage would likely have been a BigTen low last season for third basemen had he enough at-bats to qualify. Lorenz will most likely stay in the 8 spot as far as I can tell. If for some reason he comes out on fire, look for a possible move to the 2-spot and Biondi to drop in the lineup, especially if Biondi struggles – more on that in a later post.
Putting pressure on Lorenz this season will be redshirt freshman Kevin Krantz. Krantz is a converted shortstop that has spent the last year prepping for a move to the corner, especially with the signing of Derek Dennis to lock down shortstop for the foreseeable future. Krantz put up pinball like numbers in high school playing weak teams in the Traverse City area, but he was widely considered a D1 prospect anyway.
That brings us to short stop and the aforementioned Derek Dennis. Dennis is widely heralded as Michigan's best signing in the last decade, maybe two. The kid was drafted in the 7th round of the MLB draft by the Rays and turned down their $700,000 contract to play at Michigan. He's a 5-tool player with a good glove, solid arm, quick bat speed, some gap-to-gap power, and a pretty good base runner on top of all that. Hopefully his size and range will help solidify our defense at shortstop, a place we had quite a bit of trouble with last year.
That's Dennis legging out a triple in the fall game against an overmatched team from Ontario. You can also see a video of his first hit in the game, a double off the brick monster in left. You can see he has some power and speed, also looks like a baseball player in the build. Now to see him live up to the last player to wear #19, Kevin Cislo.
We still have to see how Dennis adjusts to college pitching, though, so don't set your standards too high just yet. Maloney will be batting Dennis at the bottom of the lineup to work him in slowly. This seems like a solid place for the freshman as your third best contact hitter is usually placed here as a lead off man at the bottom of the order. Coach Maloney's current plan has Dennis here to start the year, and whenever LaMarre finally leaves for the pros, Dennis will take over the 3-hole.
Coming Up Next
I'm going to lump the catchers and outfielders together in the next post as this is getting a bit long already. After that I'll move to a look around the BigTen and our schedule overall. I'll try to have a weekend preview up for the Texas Tech tournament by Friday.
We've got the schedule from the BTN for both their streaming and televised schedules for both softball and baseball this season. The coverage has really stepped up this year, showing 41 games in baseball (not including ALL the tournament games, unlike last year only showing most of the tournament games) and 47 softball games.
The network will nationally televise up to 33 Big Ten baseball games, including the entire Big Ten Baseball Tournament, and stream an additional 20 games for www.BigTenNetwork.com. Twenty Two Big Ten softball games will be televised this spring, plus an additional 29 games for the internet. A selected number of streamed games will be televised on delay through the network’s Student U initiative.
Every telecast will be produced in high definition.
“We’re thrilled to expand our coverage of Big Ten baseball and softball this spring through our streaming initiative and to provide these student-athletes with a national and international stage for their talents,” Big Ten Network president Mark Silverman said.
Michigan baseball will have 9 appearances on the BTN network, all in April. Three of those games will be on the actual television while the other 6 will be pay-per-stream on BTN.com's new video streaming technology.
Softball has 9 currently scheduled games on the network spread over April and May. Six of the softball games will be broadcast over television while the remaining 3 will be streamed live. There is also a chance of gaining a Wildcard spot, as May 14 and 15 are currently not announced yet and will be later in the season.
It's great to see the extended coverage of non-conference games this season. Games like the one against Notre Dame in baseball would have been virtually off limits last year. It looks like there will be plenty of more midweek material to take the place of campus programming, and that's always a solid win.
April 7 Central Michigan at Michigan Ann Arbor, Mich. 3 PM BTN.com
April 9 Purdue at Michigan Ann Arbor, Mich. 7 PM Big Ten Network
April 10 Purdue at Michigan Ann Arbor, Mich. 1 PM Big Ten Network
April 10 Indiana at Ohio State Columbus, Ohio 1 PM BTN.com
April 11 Purdue at Michigan Ann Arbor, Mich. 12 PM Big Ten Network
April 13 Toledo at Michigan Ann Arbor, Mich. 3 PM BTN.com
April 16 Michigan at Illinois Champaign, Ill. 7 PM BTN.com
April 17 Michigan at Illinois Champaign, Ill. 4 PM BTN.com
April 18 Michigan at Illinois Champaign, Ill. 2 PM BTN.com
April 20 Notre Dame at Michigan Ann Arbor, Mich. 6:30 PM BTN.com
April 14 Central Michigan at Michigan Ann Arbor, Mich. 6 PM BTN.com
April 17 Northwestern at Michigan Ann Arbor, Mich. 6 PM Big Ten Network
April 18 Northwestern at Michigan Ann Arbor, Mich. 3 PM Big Ten Network
April 21 Penn State at Michigan (DH) Ann Arbor, Mich. 4 PM BTN.com
April 28 Michigan at Ohio State (DH) Columbus, Ohio 4:30 PM Big Ten Network
May 14 Michigan at Iowa Iowa City, Iowa 7 PM Big Ten Network
May 15 Michigan at Iowa Iowa City, Iowa 5 PM Big Ten Network
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.
With baseball season officially starting Friday, I'm going to make several sporadic posts over this week in order to preview the team. For starters, I may suggest going back to my previous podcast with Rich Maloney or my initial reaction to our schedule, which I will probably update my outlook after completing my previews.
Last year's record came in at a less than sterling 30-25, the lowest win total since Rich Maloney stepped on campus. The 9-15 BigTen record is tied for the 6th worst conference record in Michigan history (102 seasons), and the worst since 2000 when the team went 10-18. Obviously last year was a disappointment. So much like football, hockey, basketball, or most other sports that get coverage around these parts, baseball was just as involved in the recent so called "curse of 09-10" as Brian put it in mgo.licio.us.
Michigan came into the season with the usual high expectations, but something was different than years past. After losing 4 players to the draft early, Michigan wasn't able to reload with talent it usually would have (how can you when they get drafted 4 months after signing day and less than 3 months before school starts?). Michigan was starting a true freshman at third base, a key middle reliever's career was cut short by surgery, our right field spot was wide open, our designated hitter came out of nowhere in the form of unknown little brother of MLB player Nate McLouth, and our off the field narrative in the media was "walk-ons lead the team." I think the Ann Arbor News really hit the spot last year in their preseason article:
Many of the would-be run producers are tenured but inexperienced, including corner outfielders Kenny Fellows (fifth-year senior) and Nick Urban (fourth-year junior).
"We have a lot of guys with some potential, but they don't have bios yet," Maloney said. "It's kind of a wild card."
Oh, and what a wild card it was. Consistency was never something Michigan could grasp. Eric Katzman earned the alternate persona of Evil Katzman at least once every two weeks. McLouth fluctuated wildly in terms of plate production. Third base was a carousel between John Lorenz and Tim Kalczynski. Right field was Urban, Oaks, Urban again. Burgoon was injured and the bullpen went by committee. We lost Kevin Cislo and Chris Berset for stretches of the season. Nothing seemed to go right.
Well, almost nothing. Chris Fetter, our senior ace was the one consistent bright spot. Fetter carried the team for most of the season, eating up innings and mowing down line ups. He is responsible for our BigTen best team ERA of 4.80. But there was a lack of depth behind him. Before the season ever started, we lost Ben Jenzen, one of our top relievers from the season before. Left handed freshman Bobby Brosnahan, the pitching gem of the incoming class, was lost for the season with Tommy John surgery. For a period of 6 weeks, we lost our closer, Tyler Burgoon with a shoulder bruise suffered trying to make a play on a bunt.
So while Fetter could carry us through a Friday game, Saturday and Sunday became an adventure in the bullpen. Like clockwork, you could set an implosion coming every three weeks. The weeks of Evil Katzman meant the bullpen was routinely called in during the third or fourth inning, sometimes earlier. Our Sunday starting position during the first half of the season was just as inconsistent. Travis Smith struggled, as did Kolby Wood and Brandon Sinnery.
Not until Alan Oaks re-entered the rotation did we gain any extra consistency. By then, Fetter was already showing signs of fatigue from his highest inning total ever.
Dear Ryan, please don't leave us after this season, attrition hurts.
(Photo by Jeremy Cho, Michigan Daily)
On offense and defense, preseason depth hurt here, too. Adam Abraham left for the majors after his junior year leaving a HUGE void at third base. John Lorenz would have had time to red shirt and prepare for the college game. Instead, he and walk on senior Tim Kalczynski ended up playing third base by committee. Timmy Kal had been a catcher previous to this move. That's how bad we were hurting at depth. Neither player was that great offensively, especially not compared to the great player that Abraham was.
Joining these two on the left side of the infield was a first year starter in Anthony Toth. While his size would lead most people to think of Toth as a second baseman, he was given the keys to short stop with no real back up available. Toth did alright at the plate, eventually giving a decent hitter in the 9-hole. On the field, he was about average. He committed quite a few errors, always at the worst time, but he wasn't horrible.
In right field, Alan Oaks began the season sick, missing the first two weeks of the season. This opened the door for a previous back up middle infielder Nick Urban to get the starting nod. This actually worked out well for Michigan. Urban was the better defensive outfielder with great speed. Upon Oaks' return to the lineup, he hadn't regained his swing yet either.
In all, we were missing at least four veteran players from the draft, and another 2-3 players at any particular point of the season depending who were injured.
To complicate things, Michigan's hitters really loved the strikeout this year. Mike Dufek struck out once in every 3.8 at bats, Most players average about 4 at-bats per game for a reference. That's killer for an offense when the clean-up hitter strikes out that much. He wasn't alone, however, as Toth and Oaks were nearly as bad with a strikeout every 5 at bats. Michigan finished second in the conference in team strikeouts, one behind Minnesota. The problem was that Michigan only bat .294 while the Gophers hit .314. That was the difference between a 7th place finish and a 2nd place finish.
On the whole, an outsider looking at our team would have seen one great pitcher, and depending on the weekend, either a couple of average pitchers or several really bad pitchers. On offense, they'd seen a bunch of walk on players, some better than others, and a rotating cast of fill ins.
In the next installment of the previews, I'll examine how our depth has adjusted in the last year after getting a full recruiting class, some players healthy, and some more experience.