Saturday, February 13, 2010

Alex, Drew, and Pray for a Few (More)

In 2009, Ohio State won the Big Ten regular season title and finished second at the Tallahassee regional. However, OSU's 37-6 loss to Florida State in regional final game one exposed the team's glaring weakness--one which remains the only significant question mark about its potential to repeat as champs in 2010. That weakness is pitching depth.

Last year, with the Big Ten's return to three nine-inning games per weekend series, OSU was able to ride a handful of pitchers (Jake Hale, Drew Rucinski, Alex Wimmers, and Dean Wolosiansky) for the key conference innings. Beyond them, the staff was shaky at best, and it showed in an unusually poor showing in mid-week non-conference games.

Hale, the 2009 closer, has exhausted his eligibility, leaving the aforementioned three hurlers to lead the way this season. Wimmers is the unquestioned ace of the staff--he took home Big Ten Pitcher of the Year honors in 2009 and is a possible first-rounder in the June draft. Behind him, Wolosiansky should be the #2 starter. His numbers are not impressive (7.02 RA), but he was solid as a freshman in 2008 and should be a reliable innings-eater in his junior campaign.

It remains to be seen whether fellow junior Rucinski will be used as a starter or as Hale's replacement at the back end of the pen. It seems as if the latter is more likely. Rucinski should be one of the staff's key assets in either role.

Senior lefty Eric Best could also be the #3 pitcher or closer, but he underwent arm surgery and may not be ready out of the gate. Junior lefty Andrew Armstrong, who would have been a starter last season, is still hampered by injuries and may not pitch at all in 2010.

That leaves sophomore Ross Oltorik and freshman Brent McKinney as the likely combatants for #3 starter and middle relief duty. Oltorik walked 26 batters in 31 innings in his freshman campaign and will need to sharpen his command to take on a key role. McKinney was impressive in fall practice and my guess would be that he will get the first crack at starting.

Juniors Jared Strayer and Theron Minium figure to be the extra pitchers, getting work primarily in mid-week games and hoping to impress their way into more important roles. Minium, a left-hander, could get a crack at starting. Junior Eric Shinn, true freshman Cole Brown, and walk-ons Brian Bobinski, Paul Guey, and Drew Malley don't figure to see much action.

While the pitching staff may be thin, the Bucks may have a hard time finding enough playing time for all of the worthy position players. Junior Dan Burkhart will start behind the plate; he was the team's best offensive player last year (.354/.438/.589) and was named Big Ten Player of the Year. Senior Shawn Forsythe will be his backup, with true freshman Steele Russell (son of Pirate manager John Russell) an intriguing possibility to inherit the position down the line.

Junior Ryan Dew is a low-K, low-W, high BA guy with a very un-Ichiro body type. While he is unlikely to hit .388 again, he'll move in from the outfield to play at first base, vacated by last year's senior captain, Justin Miller. Junior Matt Streng, who showed surprising power when given the opportunity to play last year (8 homers in around 200 PA), will share time at first and DH with Dew.

Senior on-base machine Cory Kovanda will start at second, while junior Tyler Engle returns at shortstop. The two made a fine defensive combination, and Engle showed much improve plate discipline (28 walks in 158 PA) to become an offensive contributor in 2009. He bumped '10-senior Cory Rupert off short; Rupert now figures to start at third, as he did in the latter part of the '09 season. He had a disappointing year at the plate (.279/.329/.388) and could consequently lose time to redshirt freshman Brad Hallberg. Redshirt freshman Ryan Cypret (son of assistant coach Greg) will be a general purpose infield backup.

The outfield will feature senior Zach Hurley in left, senior Michael Stephens in center, and junior Brian DeLucia in right. Hurley was a late pick of the Marlins in the June draft and will attempt to move up draft boards for 2010 by following up on a very good season as OSU's leadoff batter (.346/.421/.510). Hurley has the fielding chops to handle center, but those duties fall to Stephens, who provided much-needed power (leading the team with 14 homers, 63 RBI, and a .608 SLG). His only weakness is drawing walks (just 11 in 248 PA).

DeLucia missed much of last season with a broken thumb, and moving from third base to the outfield should take pressure off that digit. He hit two longballs in just 11 AB prior to his injury and will hopefully be another power source in the lineup. Previous right fielder Michael Arp, now graduated, was the offense's weakest link in 2009 (.295/.345/.405), and so DeLucia is a good bet to match the Bucks' previous production from the position.

Senior Chris Griffin will serve as a reserve outfielder; his value lies in fielding and baserunning and not in his bat. Other outfield reserves are sophomore David Corna, redshirt freshman Joe Ciamacco, and true freshman Hunter Mayfield of Tallahasee, Florida. I expect to see Mayfield get much of the available playing time for reserves as he will be expected to fill one of the two vacated outfield spots in 2011.

The Buckeyes will open the season next Friday (February 19) with a weekend in Jacksonville against North Florida, Florida A&M, and Richmond. The following weekend is the Big Ten/Big East challenge, in which the Buckeyes will face South Florida, Notre Dame, and Cincinnati at various ballparks in the Tampa Bay area. The first weekend of March will see the team hosting a tournament in Port Charlotte against Duquesne, St. Louis, and Fairleigh Dickinson. Then OSU travels to Tennessee's tournament; in addition to the host, the Buckeyes will face Marshall and UConn.

From March 19-March 25, the team will be on its annual spring break trip, facing Bucknell, Eastern Illinois, Army, Cornell, Bethune-Cookman, Dartmouth, South Florida, and Webber International. On March 31, OSU will finally be at home, once again facing Toledo in the home opener. The other mid-week opponents will be Xavier, Akron, Marshall, Louisville, Ball State, and Pittsburgh, all of which will be single game engagements except for a pair against Louisville.

In conference play, OSU will alternate between road and home series: @Northwestern, Indiana, @Michigan St., Penn St., @the heart of darkness, Illinois, @Iowa, Minnesota. The final series with Minnesota looms large on paper as the two nines are the consensus conference favorites. The only conference foe the Buckeyes will not play is Purdue.

The Buckeyes are a veteran team (of the nine projected positional starters, five are juniors and four are seniors) that figures to have a good offense. With any semblance of pitching depth, they should contend for another Big Ten title. If everything breaks their way, they could contend for a lot more.

But there's no need to get ahead of oneself, and start setting expectations (specifically talking about going to a certain mid-sized Midwestern city) such that the successes that are well within reach are made trivial. With its tradition and athletic budget, OSU should endeavor to be a perennial Big Ten championship contender, and that is exactly what the program has been during Bob Todd's tenure. Another Big Ten title, be it regular season or tournament, would make the season a success. It would be foolish to explicitly predict one, given the nature of baseball and the inherent uncertainty of life, but it would also be foolish to not give this team your attention.

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