Monday, February 18, 2008

Power: Who Needs It? (Or so we hope)

This Friday, the Ohio State baseball team will open its 125th season. February 22 is an odd date to start a baseball season, but at least the NCAA has finally decided that all teams have to wait until then. When a group of OSU base ballers hosted their neighbors from Capital University on May 21, 1881, they would likely have though the notion of February baseball played in Florida downright odd.

Anyway, the situation is what is for the teams of the north, and the Buckeyes navigated it quite well last year, struggling to a .500 record in conference play, sneaking into the Big Ten Tournament, and then proceeding to sweep right through in four games. With a twelfth Big Ten crown for coach Bob Todd ensured, OSU went to College Station to play in Texas A&M’s regional, where they acquitted themselves nicely, losing to Louisiana-Lafayette, beating LeMoyne, and bowing out against the hosts.

However, the late surge did tend to mask a regular season in which expectations were not met. The injury to #1 starter Dan DeLucia did no favors, but the real culprit of OSU’s average campaign was the offense. The Bucks allowed 5.3 park-adjusted runs per game versus the average of 6.1, but scored just 6.2. Ohio collected hits and walks at slightly above average rates, but hit for very little power--a .089 ISO vesus the conference mark of .114.

As we look ahead to 2008, things do not look better on that front. The Buckeyes lost catcher Eric Fryer (+10 RAA) and center fielder and leadoff hitter Matt Angle (.458 OBA, +20) as junior draftees, while DH and #2 hitter Jacob Howell (.371 OBA, +2) and middle infielder Jason Zoeller (+14 and 9 of the team’s 21 longballs) were lost to graduation.

As a result, the offense lacks punch even more blatantly than it did last season. Junior Justin Miller will move into Fryer’s vacated backstop slot; he hits for a high average but puts up little in the way of secondary numbers. A high school catcher, he will be a plus hitter at that position. His backup will be freshman Dan Burkhart, with sophomore Shawn Forsythe next in line if something should happen to them.

Miller’s position switch leaves first base open, and it appears as if true freshman Ryan Meade will be expected to win the job. The double play combination will be a pair of sophomores. Cory Kovanda took over second base midway through the season and played solid defense, although he was -8 runs offensively with a SLG of just .325; he did post a .352 OBA. Cory Rupert started the season at shortstop, then lost his job as he didn’t hit at all and struggled in the field. When he was reinstalled late, his fielding was much improved, but his overall hitting was -10 with just a .283 OBA and .303 SLG. I expect them to be as good defensively as any recent OSU keystone combination, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kovanda emerge as a solid on base guy.

At third base, sophomore Brian DeLucia, younger brother of Dan, will step into the starting role. In his limited time last year, he showed a solid glove and average bat in 47 PAs. He apparently has some power potential. Tony Kennedy, who started at the hot corner last year, could get some time there but will likely play the outfield.

The infield corners will be backed up by senior Chris Macke, who has hit decently in limited opportunities throughout his career. Other reserve infield roles will be filled by sophomore Ben Toussant and freshman Tyler Engle.

In the outfield, Kennedy, who posted a .397 OBA and +5 runs last year, seems to be in line to start in left field. Junior JB Shuck will slide over to center; he was +5 runs last year despite having a rough go of it late, and may be the team’s best offensive player. Sophomore Ryan Dew will be in right field, where he played frequently last year; he is probably the team’s best hope for a real power threat, although he didn’t show much in that department last year.

The top outfield reserve (and a likely DH candidate along with Macke) will be junior Michael Arp. Sophomore Zach Hurley can backup center, while classmate Chris Griffin and redshirt freshman Brad Brookbank look to get in the mix.

On the hill, DeLucia will be the ace, when he is ready to pitch after Tommy John surgery. Whether he will pitch like an ace or not is of course an open question, but the fifth year senior was a leading preseason candidate for Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2007. Unfortunately, Cory Luebke, who wound up winning the award, was drafted by the Padres. That leaves Shuck as the #2 starter (+5 RAA and a 6.56 eRA after a better freshman debut aided by a low BABIP). Big junior righty Jake Hale will be the #3; he was a starter as a freshman, and moved to closer last year before being put back in the rotation late. He pitched well with a 4.64 RA and +11, improving on a solid debut.

The #4 spot will be up for grabs; junior Josh Barerra (+2 in 8 appearances) would seem to be the favorite, as he was in the mix before an injury shortened his 2007 campaign. Eric Best, a sophomore lefty who pitched well out of the pen last year, is listed by the official preview as another candidate for the rotation along with redshirt freshman Dean Wolosiansky, leaving sophomore lefties Josh Edgin (-2 in 19 games) and Theron Minium (-8 in 13 games) in the bullpen.

Senior Rory Meister is back in the closer role; if he can find his command, he can be a stopper as he was as a freshman. Recently, though, he has been less than automatic. Sophomore righties Taylor Barnes and Brad Hays will also be in line for some relief appearances. Four true freshman pitchers will also be on hand, although it is unclear if any is expected to make an impact.

The non-conference schedule looks a little tougher than it did a year ago. The opening weekend, starting Friday, will be played in Tennessee, and the Bucks will face Arkansas State, Memphis, and Seton Hall. A week later, OSU returns to College Station to face Texas A&M, Louisiana Tech, and Arkansas for a meat grinder of a weekend. March 7 sees the team in West Palm Beach to take on Air Face, Maine, and UConn. The traditional spring break trip to Bradenton runs from March 15-21 against Bucknell, Dartmouth, Northern Iowa, Bradley, St. Louis, Army, and Kansas.

The home opener is Wednesday the 26th against Pitt. Other midweek opponents (all home) will be Toledo, Central Michigan, Louisville, Akron, Eastern Michigan, Marshall, and Buffalo (the home finale on May 13). The Big Ten season opens Friday the 28th with the Bucks hosting Penn St. Traditional foe Minnesota is in a week later, then OSU travels to Michigan St. The ridiculous front-loading of home games continues with Purdue, then Ohio goes to Northwestern and Michigan. The Big Ten home slate ends the weekend of May 9 with Illinois, and a trip to Iowa closes things out. The Buckeyes will not face Indiana in the regular season for the first time since 1943.

In summation, the Buckeyes should be able to put out an above average defense as usual. The success of the team will depend on whether the offense can score enough runs. There is potential there, and I am bullish on the multi-year outlook for the program, but it could be a big struggle to score baserunners this year.

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