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.
Dufek to umpire and catcher: "Made you blink!"
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.