Friday, January 26, 2007

Tilting at Windmills (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the B10 Title)

The Ohio State baseball team will open up its season in a little over a month (Feb. 23) in Tampa, playing James Madison. With the recent release of the roster and a season outlook at ohiostatebuckeyes.com, it is high time to do my own preview of the upcoming campaign.

The Buckeyes are coming off a season in which they finished third in the Big Ten in both the regular season and the tournament. At OSU, it is not really a successful season unless you come away with a B10 title of some sort, but it was a pretty good team. This year’s team will return, essentially, the entire pitching staff intact, and that is a good thing, as OSU paced the conference in runs allowed last year. In fact, the Buckeyes were also tops in runs scored, runs created, and runs created allowed. This sweep of major categories make it a little disappointing that third was all that resulted, but one could argue that the team played better then that.

Unfortunately, two key pieces of the offense have moved on, both drafted in the first ten rounds (3B Ronnie Bourquin went to Detroit in the second, while SS Jeddidiah Stephen went to Baltimore in the eighth). Most of the other key offensive players are back, though, and so the Bucks look on paper to have a formidable squad.

Behind the plate, junior Eric Fryer will be in his third year as the starter, and he is a fine hitter (+21 RAA), batting third most of the time a year ago. He will occasionally play first or DH to get a rest from catching, but OSU needs his bat in the lineup. That will be a little more difficult to do in 2007 as his backup, Josh Hula, transferred. However, Hula did not hit well at all (-11 RAA), so redshirt freshman Nick Stepanovich should be able to step in as the backup backstop. Redshirt freshman Shawn Forsythe could be an option as well.

At first baseman, sophomore ex-catcher Justin Miller took over the job during the season last year and would appear to come into this year with the position locked down. Miller was not outstanding last year (-5 RAA), but one would assume that freshman may have the most room for improvement. Senior Kris Moorman will back up the two infield corner positions.

At second base, senior Jason Zoeller will return, bringing his +11 RAA and surprising power (second on the team at ISO, .202). Zoeller is not a great defensive player, but could play shortstop if the need arose. Apparently, the inside track at shortstop belongs to true freshman Cory Rupert, who I have never seen play. Junior Tony Kennedy will be the key middle infield backup--he rode a fluky .378 BA in 41 PA to an ok RG figure last year, but the small sample size and lack of secondary offense makes it difficult to get too excited about his bat. He also may not have the arm to play short consistently and so Zoeller could slide over to short with Kennedy at second if Rupert is unable to win the job. Redshirt freshman Ben Curran and Ben Toussant will also be in the mix for time.

At third base, the loss of B10 MVP Bourquin leaves a large gap. The first crack at filling it may fall to junior Chris Macke, who hit fairly well in 2005 when he was forced to take the position when Bourquin injured his thumb. Macke only got 14 PA last year, though, so it seems the coaching staff is not sold on him. I believe that third base could easily wind up in the hands of true freshman Brian DeLucia, the younger brother of mound ace Dan.

In the outfield, two of the three starters return. In left, senior Jacob Howell will get the nod, with junior Matt Angle in center. These two will bat second and lead off respectively, and did a fine job of it last year. Both are fast and can bunt for a hit, but they also do a good job of getting on base (.448 and .449 OBAs respectively). Howell’s was fueled by his .402 average, but even with a drop off he will be a solid contributor at the top of the order; he was also hampered by hamstring problems a year ago. In right field, Wes Schirtzinger, who would have been a fifth-year senior, apparently decided to forego a final season, and since he only hit 257/321/296 last year, his production should be easy to replace. One option is sophomore JB Shuck, the reigning B10 freshman of the year, primarily for his mound work. Shuck can play either outfield corner or first, and was a fairly average bat last year (+2 RAA). My guess is that he will DH a lot when not pitching. Near the end of the season last year, he was allowed to bat for himself in games that he worked; I would expect to see this continue in 2007.

Other outfield options include sophomores Michael Arp (-1 RAA in 52 PA) and Jonathon Zizzo (-6 in 83). Redshirt freshman Chris Griffin and Zach Hurley could earn playing time as well.

At DH, JB Shuck will get a lot of time; senior Adam Schneider has regressed since his freshman year, and doesn’t have a lot of defensive value (he is listed as a catcher on the roster), but can really rake left-handed pitchers. Outside of them, Arp or Zizzo will likely fill the spot. True freshman who may or may not be in the mix include catchers Nathan Grove and DJ Hanlin; infielders Cory Kovanda and Matt Streng; and outfielders Brad Brookbank and Ryan Dew.

The entire starting rotation returns intact, anchored by senior lefty Dan DeLucia. DeLucia led the Bucks at 10-2, 108 IP, and a 3.67 RA (+27 RAA). He is not overpowering, but has good control. He was slightly better as a sophomore, and his younger brother Brian could wind up manning the hot corner for OSU. Junior lefty Cory Luebke will be the #2 starter, coming off a solid season (4.34 RA, +15 RAA in 85 innings). He completed seven of his thirteen starts, as he gets the call in one of the Saturday seven inning doubleheader games. He was drafted by the Rangers in the 22nd round, but elected to return to school. He is a cousin of OSU quarterback Todd Boeckman.

The third spot goes to sophomore Jake Hale, who doesn’t throw as hard as you would envision a 6’7” right-hander to, but has a lot of frame to fill out. Hale had a 4.92 RA, but his 4.38 eRA is better, and he was +7 runs regardless. I would not be surprised to see him take a big step forward this year, but that is just conjecture. Aforementioned sophomore JB Shuck will likely be the fourth starter, coming off a 4.56 RA, 79 IP, +12 freshman campaign. Shuck’s performance last year was valuable, but was overrated by causal observers, as only 55% of his runs allowed were earned (versus 76% for the team as a whole); his 2.51 ERA is more sparkling.

The Buckeyes’ rotation should be very solid; however, the bullpen is much less so. Luckily, the bullpen is often not that big of a factor in Big Ten play. Junior closer Rory Meister struggles with his command (28 walks in 33 IP), but also blows batters away, striking out 43. While his save situations were often difficult to watch, he wound up with a 4.36 RA, albeit with a 5.76 eRA. On the other hand, Meister’s balls in play fell in for hits at a 38.2% clip, so one would expect that to fall.

The other key reliever is senior Trey Fausnaugh, who just hasn’t pitched that well the last two years after emerging as the closer midway through his freshman campaign. Fausnaugh was crushed for a 6.11 RA and 8.13 eRA last year, and a remarkable 40.9% hits in play (remarkable in isolation; not so much in light of the fact that he only pitched 28 innings). It is difficult to envision Fausnaugh recapturing his freshman form at this point, but if he can, then Ohio State will have a solid pair of relievers.

Would-be junior (and former Spanish classmate of the author) Dan Barker transferred; he had served admirably as the long-reliever for two years, but I would guess that he was disappointed at being passed by two freshman for the open rotation spots last year. That leaves sophomore Josh Barerra as the next man out of the pen; he was average as a freshman, but did strike out 36 batters 38 innings, and provides a left-handed option. The only other pitcher returning who pitched last year is sophomore lefty Matthew Selhorst, who pitched in just two games and was injured warming up in the bullpen during an April game. He did not pitch in the Scarlet and Gray World Series, so I am unaware if he is ready to go or not.

Beyond them, only sophomore Darren Sizemore has any collegiate experience; he led Georgetown with 13 starts last year (7.22 RA with 59 Ks in 86 IP), so the transfer figures to be in the mix. There are four redshirt freshman: lefties Eric Best and Brad Hays, righties Taylor Barnes and Jake Weber. Among true freshman, North Carolinan RHP Eric Shinn, Pennsylvania LHPs Theron Minium and Josh Edgin, and RHP Jared Strayer worked in the Scarlet and Gray World Series, while righty Dean Wolosiansky did not. The official preview singles out Hays, Best, Edgin, and Minium as the top bullpen candidates.

The non-conference schedule is very weak, so it will be difficult for OSU to reach the NCAA Tournament without a Big Ten Tournament win. Some fans are upset about this, but I decided to stop tilting at windmills a long time ago. Even with a good non-conference slate, the odds of an at-large bid are slim. While it might benefit the team to play stiffer competition, I’m not going to get worked up about it.

Even if you make the NCAA Tournament, there is essentially no chance of winning the College World Series. Just making it to Omaha would be a huge achievement for the program. But the fundamental thing that the Ohio State baseball team should shoot for in my opinion is the Big Ten regular season title. If the idiots that run the Big Ten and the NCAA think that having a double elimination conference tournament to determine the conference representative is the way to go, they are free to do so. But that doesn’t mean that I have to care about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for the Bucks to win the tournament, but the regular season is more telling of the true quality of the team.

Anyway, the much-maligned schedule opens in Tampa, with James Madison, a doubleheader v. Kansas State, and Seton Hall. A week later (March 2), OSU will play three straight days in Clearwater against Georgetown, Duquesne, and Lehigh. The next week it will be Jacksonville, to play at North Florida, then against Western Michigan and UConn. Finally, on March 17th, the annual spring break trip will see the Bucks take the field against Bucknell, Jacksonville State, Dartmouth, Yale (twice), Northwestern (for the second straight year, the Buckeyes will not face the Wildcats in the regular season, as this is a non-conference game), and Harvard.

On March 28, Bill Davis Stadium will open the gates for the 2007 season as Toledo appears in the home opener for the third year in a row. That weekend, Iowa comes in. The B10 weekends that follow are @Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, @Purdue, Michigan State, @Minnesota, and @Penn State. With the B10 home schedule heavily tilted to the beginning of the season, the Buckeyes will play their last conference home game on May 6th.

Wednesday games will feature the aforementioned home opener with Toledo, Cleveland State, Miami, Ball State, Xavier, and Akron. North Florida will reciprocate Ohio State’s visit when they close out the home schedule May 15th and 16th in a rare non-conference series.

The Buckeyes certainly figure to be in the Big Ten mix. One has to anticipate that the offense will not be as effective as a year ago, and will lack power even more acutely. But the pitching projects to be outstanding again, and with some better breaks then a year ago, Bob Todd could easily be celebrating yet another Big Ten crown. Time will tell, and baseball will come back, but today there is snow on the round in Columbus, so that time remains a bit in the future.

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