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
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.