Monday, February 14, 2011

Into the Great Wide Open

For as long as I have been writing this blog, I have done an annual preview of the OSU baseball team. I have never before been at such a loss for words or offered so little insight about the team that will appear on the field in the upcoming season. While I have never possessed nor claimed any sort of insider status, any sort of knowledge about the thinking of the coaching staff and the player’s performance in off-season drills and the like, I’ve always felt that I had a pretty good handle on what to expect the lineup to look like. The tiny scraps of information available through the media about the team, coupled with my knowledge of the personnel from the previous season and years of observation of Bob Todd’s decision-making made it a relatively simple guessing game.

The 2011 Ohio State team is anything but a simple guessing game. There has been massive roster turnover, with the team’s two best players (ace Alex Wimmers and catcher Dan Burkhart) now playing professionally, and, worst of all from a prognostication standpoint, the fact that Coach Todd has retired, and Greg Beals is now in charge of the program. Beals had moderate success at Ball State, but his Ohio roots and purported recruiting skill landed him what is likely the most attractive coaching position in Midwest baseball. He has filled out his staff with Chris Holick, his pitching coach from Ball State (and former OSU pitcher) Mike Stafford, and volunteer coach Josh Newman (another former Buckeye hurler and briefly a major leaguer with the Rockies and Royals).

Holick returns to coaching after spending two years in private industry that came on the heels of a seven-year assistant coaching career (Kent State, Arizona State, and Florida International). Stafford served as pitching coach under Beals at Ball State since 2003; prior to that he had been a bullpen catcher for the Columbus Clippers and pitched four years in the minors after ending his OSU closing career in 1998. Newman is entering his first season as a collegiate coach.

The talent they have to work with does not inspire a great deal of confidence for 2011, as there is very little in the way of proven performers. My fears about this were enhanced when Beals, speaking on the radio halftime show of an OSU football game this fall, answered a question about expectations for the season with vapid generalities about “playing hard”, “playing the game the right way”, “learning how to win”…the sort of talk you hear from a coach that knows he’s building for the future. At a recent meet the team event, Beals said that due to new NCAA rules on bats “It's going to be a faster paced game, but a safer game with less runs scored," Beals said. "Our game is going to become a game of the finer skills - defense...throwing strikes...aggressive on the base paths - and we want to be ahead of this curve." Uh-oh.

Even if the entire roster from 2010 was back, it would be difficult to get a good read on the team’s prospects. 2009 was a great season for the Buckeyes, with a Big Ten regular season title and a second-place regional finish, but 2010 was a disaster despite high expectations. OSU was in first place (although by a very slim margin in a very tight conference race) in late April when Wimmers went down with a hamstring injury. The few starts he missed might have been enough to mark the difference between finishing near the top of the conference and failing to finish in the top six to qualify for the Big Ten Tournament--the first time that fate had befallen an OSU club since 1996. Ohio’s 11-13 conference record was the first and only sub-.500 record in Big Ten play in Coach Todd’s twenty-two year career.

Usually I write my preview and lineup expectation a month or so before the season starts; this time I’m doing it less than a week prior to Opening Day. As such, the ensuing discussion is based largely on the preview posted at the official athletic website; I’ve had to rely on such accounts to get any sort of feeling for how the lineup would shake out

Burkhart’s successor behind the plate will be Greg Solomon, a sophomore-eligible transfer from Paradise Valley Community College in Arizona. Solomon missed most of last season with a knee injury and did not hit particularly well in his 2009 freshman season, so this position is a huge question mark (you’ll note questions as a recurring theme). Beals’ comments on him praise his defensive skill with little to say about his bat. Burkhart was such an ironman for the past three seasons that none of the other catchers on the roster have any experience. Redshirt freshman Steel Russell, son of former Pittsburgh skipper John, would seem to be the logical choice as backup. True freshman Josh Bokor, junior-eligible JUCO transfer Brad Hutton, and his brother Blake, a true freshman, could also be options. The Hutton brothers are both listed as C/IF on the roster, so it is possible they could see time at the corners as well.

For the past two seasons, first base belonged to senior Matt Streng, but he has flipped corners with sophomore Brad Hallberg. I was quite surprised to learn of this move, as Streng has never struck me as particularly athletic, but he will man the hot corner in 2011 after a very disappointing 2010 campaign that saw him hit just one home run (coincidentally, it came in the only game I was able to attend) and turn in a -13 RAA performance. Hallberg was -4 runs in 112 PA in his debut season.

Hallberg will split first base and DH duties with true freshman Josh Dezse, the most impressive member of the OSU recruiting class and a 28th round pick of the Yankees. Given the fact that Dezse is also expected to be a key part of OSU’s bullpen, it would probably make more sense to have him at first base more often than not, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Second base is another position where the Bucks have to fill a big whole as one of my favorite players, Cory Kovanda, completed his eligibility. Kovanda was a consistent on base threat, slapping infield hits, drawing walks, and getting plunked. His replacement will be redshirt sophomore Ryan Cypret, whose father was a member of the previous coaching staff. Cypret served something of a utility infield role last season, but had just one extra base hit in 51 PA and thus has much to prove with the stick.

Shortstop is the field position with the most continuity, as Tyler Engle has spent most of his three years in Columbus playing good defense but producing little at the plate. Last year he posted an ugly .224/.342/.376 line; his 28 walks were second on the team and the only thing that made him playable. If Engle could regain something approaching his 2009 form (.285/.411/.423), it would be a huge help as the infield looks as if it will struggle to create runs. Two true freshmen Indiana natives, Derek Hannahs and Jacob Hayes, and local product Phil Jaskot figure to provide depth, with Hayes also being trained for left field.

The outfield features one returning starter, as senior Brian DeLucia will play right field. DeLucia is easily OSU’s top returning hitter, with a .320/.395/.503 line in 2011, and he’s a very good outfielder as well. The rest of the Buckeye outfield will have big shoes to fill, as left fielder Zach Hurley (.385/.438/.602) and center fielder Michael Stephens (.360/.395/.556) were the team’s two most potent hitters outside of Burkhart in 2010. Also gone to graduation is DH Ryan Dew (.348/.420/.498), leaving OSU short six of its top seven offensive performers--this from a team that averaged 6.6 runs to the Big Ten’s 6.8.

It was expected that sophomore Hunter Mayfield would get one of the open positions, but he transferred to Rollins College (a Division II school that managed to beat the Bucks last year, perhaps costing them more than just the game), so there is no returning experience of which to speak outside of DeLucia. Left field will be a platoon between junior David Corna and sophomore Joe Ciamocco. Despite having burned three years of eligibility combined, they have a total of one collegiate at bat between them, so it’s impossible to count on much offense out of them. Center field will belong to true freshman Tim Wetzel, described by the web account as having--you guessed it--"speed and defensive prowess”.

One can only hope that the unproven players will be better batters than the advance billing would suggest, because otherwise it seems as if Ohio will have significant trouble putting runs on the scoreboard. This is particularly unfortunate since the 2010 pitching staff was Wimmers and anyone who could stay healthy, and Wimmers, perhaps the best pitcher at OSU since Steve Arlin, is now a Twins farmhand.

The Friday starter should be senior Drew Rucinski, who had been constantly shuttled back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation by the previous staff. Rucinski was a good complement to Wimmers, but does not figure to match up well with the other top starters in the conference. Another senior, Dean Wolosiansky, has been a rotation stalwart throughout his career and should get the Saturday starts. Wolosiansky has always fit the profile of a league-average innings muncher, which is a good thing to have, but in a perfect world he would be the Sunday starter. That role apparently will go to true freshman Greg Greve, a 45th round pick by San Francisco in last year’s draft.

Greve’s spot in the rotation may not hold up if Brad Goldberg is granted a waiver to pitch in 2011. The Coastal Carolina transfer is a junior in eligibility, but may not be able to use it until 2012. He pitched just five innings for Coastal last year after pitching fourteen effective innings out of the pen as a freshman. If eligible, he figures to be a big boost to the Buckeye mound staff.

Josh Dezse, slated to start at 1B/DH, is also the favorite for the closer role. While two-way players are fairly common in the college game, especially as closer, the only prominent OSU two-way player of recent years was JB Shuck, now a solid prospect in the Astros organization. However, Shuck was used as a starting pitcher, not a reliever, and rarely was in the lineup when he pitched. It appears as if Beals is more comfortable with hybrid players than Todd was.

Senior Jared Strayer’s role and effectiveness increased as the season went on last year, and he figures to be the key middle reliever in 2011. Unfortunately, it seems as if the new staff has taught Strayer a more conventional delivery--last year he adopted a three-quarters/sidearm delivery that was a pleasure to watch and a rare sight on the Bill Davis Stadium mound.

Sophomore Brett McKinney showed some promise last year, but was way too wild and way too hittable (32 walks and 78 hits in 59 innings). He figures to be the Wednesday starter/weekend long man at this point, but he has a chance to be a quality contributor at some point during his career. Two left-handed pitchers--senior Theron Minium and junior Andrew Armstrong--figure to be the other candidates for Wednesday starts and weekend middle relief options. Armstrong showed much promise as a freshman in 2008, but was injured during the ’09 season and missed all of last season.

Junior Brian Bobinski and sophomore Cole Brown combined for eighteen ineffective innings last year and in a perfect world will be mopup pitchers this season, provided they have shown no improvement. Three other pitchers on the roster do not figure to see significant action: true freshman lefty Ben Bokor (twin brother of backup catcher Josh), junior walkon Paul Guey, and a freshman walkon who was unsuccessful in attempting to make Wake Forest’s roster last year, John Kuchno.

The OSU pre-conference schedule is significantly different than those of past years, showing a change in philosophy at the top. The schedule opens the weekend of February 18 with the Big Ten/Big East challenge in Florida, where the opponents will be Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. John’s--the latter two have both been problems for OSU in recent years, with Louisville burying the Bucks in five games over the past three seasons by a combined 62-32 score, and St. John’s having knocked Ohio out of the NCAA Tournament in 2005.

The weekend of February 25th sees the Bucks back in Florida four a four-game series with Western Michigan, a team with OSU has a rich tradition--the teams played ten times in the NCAA Tournament between 1951 and 1967. The weekend of March 3 will be a trip to North Carolina to face Army, Western Carolina, and Akron, and the weekend of March 10 is another Florida trip to play Illinois State, Bradley, and Army.

The annual spring break trip, which this year will run from March 18-26, is the one in which the philosophical differences emerge. Coach Todd used the spring break trip as a week of tuneup for conference play, going to Florida to face mostly northern teams that OSU should expect to go 6-2 or so against. He had not taken his team to the West Coast since a 2002 trip to Albuquerque that featured a crazy 38-15 game against Toledo, and the last trip to California came around twenty years ago. In his first season, Beals will take his charges to play a three game series in Berkeley (in what sadly appears to be the final campaign for Golden Bear baseball), two games at Fresno State, and three at Cal St.-Bakersfield.

The home opener will be Tuesday, March 29 against Xavier. Other standard one game mid-week home opponents will be Miami, Akron, Bowling Green, and Toledo. The Buckeyes will travel to play at Ohio University on one Wednesday, and have two out-of-region opponents coming in for two game series: North Florida and Oklahoma State.

Big Ten play begins April 1 against Northwestern; in subsequent weeks, OSU goes to Indiana, hosts Michigan State, travels to Penn State, hosts the forces of evil, goes to Illinois, hosts Iowa, and goes to Minnesota. If OSU is able to make the top six, they’ll be able to stay home and play downtown at Huntington Park; the Big Ten Tournament will be held there May 25 - 28.

Sadly, if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that for the second straight season six other Big Ten teams will be playing in Columbus that weekend. While I thought that Todd’s program was healthy enough, 2011 would have loomed as a possible rebuilding year in any case. Coaching changes often excite fans at the outset, but first seasons tend to be rough.

3 comments:

  1. "Rucinski was a good complement to Wimmers, but does not figure to match up well with the other top starters in the conference."

    Which top starter did he not match up well with?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, happily I was wrong and Rucinski was much more effective as a starter than he had been previously in his career. I make no claims to omniscience.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rucinski had a fantastic senior season!!

    ReplyDelete

Comments are moderated, so there will be a lag between your post and it actually appearing. I reserve the right to reject any comment for any reason.