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.