Monday, February 11, 2013

Returning Starters (and Success?)

2013 will mark Greg Beals’ third season at the helm of the OSU baseball program, and it promises to be an important season for the program. One reason for this is that the expiration date for the use of any excuses regarding the talent level inherited from the previous coaching staff is now gone. This is now Beals’ team, for better or worse, with a large number of key players recruited by him, and ample opportunity to bring in alternatives to any less than productive holdovers from the prior staff. On top of that, OSU will have a fairly large number of returning starters, and is expected by many to be a contender for the Big Ten championship.

The Buckeyes are likely to have a platoon arrangement, as neither senior Greg Solomon nor sophomore Aaron Gretz have hit well enough to seize control of the job. Gretz’ only real offensive positive as a freshman was his 19 walks to 18 strikeouts in just 91 at bats, an area in which he is the opposite of Solomon, whose plate judgment in two years in Scarlet and Gray (10 W/80 K in 311 AB) has been dreadful. Gretz is considered to have one of the best catcher throwing arms in the conference, although Solomon is also fairly solid defensively. Gretz bats left and Solomon right, so there is a natural platoon possibility. They will handle all the catching if healthy - walkon freshman Matt Emge and sophomore utility man Ryan Wonders round out the roster, but will only see the field in an emergency.

First base will be manned by senior Brad Hallberg, who has bounced between the infield corners throughout his OSU career, starting at third in 2012. Hallberg was one of the team’s better hitters last year at 311/414/431 and will once again figure in the middle of the order. Senior second baseman Ryan Cypret will be a three-year starter but is coming off a rough 2012 (236/350/304) after a very effective 2011 (323/400/428) and will be one of the key offensive players for OSU.

Third base is vacant with Hallberg’s move across the diamond, leaving slick fielding sophomore Ryan Leffel as the most likely starter. Leffel was used often in the field during his freshman campaign as a defensive replacement when Josh Dezse left first base for the mound, but only received 28 PA. According to Chris Webb, Leffel missed early practices with a wrist injury, opening the door for freshman Craig Nenning, also considered to be a strong fielder. Third base is thus a position of concern, especially offensively.

Senior Kirby Pellant will return as the shortstop. The most notable aspect of Pellant’s game both offensively and in the field is his speed (31 steals in 38 attempts), but to this observer he is a bit lacking as a pure fielder. Offensively, Pellant is similar to a number of his teammates in that he hits for a decent average while drawing some walks but rarely ever hitting for power (274/375/340). Other possibilities around the infield include freshman first baseman Zach Ratliff, freshman third baseman/OF Jacob Bosiokovic, freshman Troy Kuhn, and the aforementioned Wonders.

In the outfield, all three spots should be manned by at least partial returning starters. Left field figures to be a battle between senior Joe Ciamacco and junior Mike Carroll. Ciamacco was held back by injuries in 2012, but was a perfect 14-14 staling bases as speed is also his top asset. At the plate, he hit for a decent average (.291) but only a mediocre number of walks (8 in 103 at bats) and little power (.039 ISO). Carroll is a hit-first player who spent a lot of time at DH in 2012, with a better plate approach but similar overall production to Ciamacco (279/368/333). Both bat left, so a platoon is not in the cards.

Junior Tim Wetzel is the leadoff hitter and center fielder--stop me if you’ve heard this before, but he has speed (although a poor two-year base stealing record of 17 for 30), a good eye (63 walks in 390 career at bats), but no power (.049 career ISO). Wetzel has a chance to leave his mark on OSU’s career record books in counting categories as he has already started and played in 104 games and figures to be a four-year starter. Right field will belong to Pat Porter, who played left a year ago and hails from my hometown. Porter’s 266/370/322 line looks all too familiar for this roster, but as a freshman he seemed to improve as the year goes on and will be a key to the Buckeyes’ offensive success in 2013. Outfield reserves include freshman Jake Brobst, Bosiokovich, and freshman Joe Stoll, whose listed on the roster as LHP/OF.

The plan apparently is for junior Josh Dezse to serve as the DH rather than first baseman. Dezse, who has also doubled as the team’s closer, is considered one of the best pro prospects in the Big Ten, but has been something of a tease as a very good hitter but not the all-around offensive star OSU has lacked at a corner position since Ronnie Bourquin. Dezse’s career 318/425/447 line belies the fact that he has much greater power potential. He clubbed three homers in one game at Georgia Tech last year, but that represents one-third of his career total. Still, a healthy Dezse is needed to anchor the Buckeyes lineup. Carroll would seemingly have the first crack at this role if Dezse does not fill it for whatever reason, with Kuhn, Bosiokovich, or Ratliff the next line.

While the offensive starters are fairly well-established, roles on the mound are up for grabs. One that is not is the #1 starter, which will go to junior Jaron Long, a first-team all-Big Ten pick in 2012. Long is a soft-tossing right-hander who relies on his command (13 walks in 101 innings) rather than stuff (63 strikeouts). While watching him work may give the perception of doing it with mirrors, his .329 BABIP was little different than the team average of .331. Still, Long should not be counted on for a repeat performance, but should eat innings and feast on undisciplined lineups.

Behind Long, things are considerably murkier. There was a thought that Dezse could be used in a starting role, but his back issues make that considerably less likely. Senior lefty Brian King stayed in OSU’s weekend rotation throughout 2012 and thus is a good bet to be back. It was King, not Long, who was expected to be the key JUCO pitcher added to the staff, but was only an average performer. The third starter could be senior righty Brett McKinney, who started 2012 as the #1 but eventually lost weekend starting assignments before being pressed back into action at the end of the season.

Three others stand out as possible rotation options: freshman right-hander Jacob Post was apparently impressive in fall camp, and as a new option may prove to be enticing. Senior right-hander Brad Goldberg has sat out the last two seasons as a transfer and then due to eligibility issues, but is now cleared to pitch and will be a contributor in some manner. Junior right-hander Greg Greve has started 28 games over two seasons, but has never been able to keep a hold on a rotation job, and may now be slotted for the bullpen.

Dezse has been the closer for each of the last two years, but OSU planned to transition him to a starting role for 2013. However, Webb has reported that a back issue has sidelined Dezse throughout the fall and into spring practices, which I presume will leave the feasibility of that plan in jeopardy. Behind Dezse, the top setup man will be senior sidearmer David Fathalikhani. Sophomore Trace Dempsey throws from a slightly higher arm slot, but gives OSU a double dose of right handers with unorthodox deliveries. Beals loves to play matchup ball, but the last two years have seen him lose his lefties to graduation one at a time--first Theron Minium and now Andrew Armstrong. Candidates to fill this role include sophomore Matt Panek (who also throws from the side) and sophomore JUCO transfer Ryan Riga. Other pitchers on the roster include right-handers Logan Bowles (freshman), Tyler Giannonatti (a JUCO transfer who had to redshirt in 2012 with an injury), Shea Murray (walk-on freshman), Tito Nava (sophomore transfer from Duke) and left-handers Michael Horesjei (walk-on sophomore), Luke McGee (freshman), and Joe Stoll (freshman).

A constant complaint towards the end of Bob Todd’s career was that the non-conference schedule was week. Beals has beefed it up a little, but this year’s slate offers a striking dichotomy: as unambitious of a pre-conference schedule as one could credibly embark upon, but a few high-profile non-conference clashes during the Big Ten season. OSU will open its season the weekend of February 15 with three games in Sarasota against Mercer, Notre Dame, and St. John’s. The following weekend they are in Port Charlotte for two games each with South Dakota St. and Mt. St. Mary’s. The first weekend of March sees the Buckeyes in Florida yet again (Deland) to play UConn, Stetson, and Central Michigan. The following weekend OSU will play at Coastal Carolina, with two against the hosts plus single games with Harvard, Ball St., and Charleston Southern.

The final non-conference weekend is March 15, a three-game home series against Bryant. Big Ten play will go: @ Purdue, Michigan St., @ Minnesota, @ Nebraska, Illinois, Penn St., @ Northwestern, Indiana (this is the same slate as 2012 except with the home series flipped). OSU will not play Iowa or Michigan (and, if completeness is sought, Maryland or Rutgers).

Non-conference opponents weaved in throughout the schedule are the typical local foes in March and April--Toledo, Ohio University, Miami, West Virginia, Marshall, Akron, Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky. Where it gets interesting is May 7, a Tuesday on which OSU will open a two game home series against Georgia Tech. The Buckeyes and Yellow Jackets have met 22 times, the first in 1924, but never before in Columbus. That weekend (on which OSU is idle from Big Ten play), Ohio State will host Oregon for a three-game series, the first ever meeting between the two schools on the diamond. On the following Tuesday, OSU will host Louisville for a single game.

Such a stretch is, as best as I can tell, unprecedented in OSU history--8 days in which the Buckeyes will play six home games against teams ranked #10 (UO), #12 (GT), and #15 (LOU) in Perfect Game’s pre-season Top 25.

Will the Buckeyes be ready to face that gauntlet? Unfortunately, I’m inclined to think they won’t be, as they don’t look like a top-tier Big Ten team to me. One the positive side, the pitching depth is beginning to return to the level one would expect at OSU, with some reserves who appear to be capable of serving as weekend starters. The offense returns all of its returning starters except right fielder David Corna, and the freshman class appears to offer more promise than those of recent seasons. But in my (admittedly anecdote-based) observation, one of the best way for a college team in any sport to be overrated is if they return a lot of starters from a team that was only average in the prior season (with a 33-27 record, 11-13 in the Big Ten, and #94 ISR ranking, the 2012 Bucks fit this bill). Sure, returning starters means fewer question marks--but the degree of improvement anticipated can often be overstated.

And for me, the jury remains out on Beals. In year three, it’s time for his recruits to shine, and there’s far less ability to blame things on the prior staff. As I wrote about last year, Beals’ game management frustrates me to know end, particularly his obsession with a delayed steal of home that would embarrass many junior high coaches. The fact that he continues to try to pull it off, not just against unsuspecting non-conference opponents, but against Big Ten coaches that surely know it is coming, force me to question his judgment and his ego. It’s hard to look at college coaches through the standard, non-nuanced sabermetric lens (bunts bad, intentional walks bad, etc.) because so many would look bad, but Beals is especially grating. What’s really bizarre is that I have actually read OSU fans on the internet rave about how much more enlightened his offensive strategy is than Todd’s, which is a case of people seeing what they want to see.

My best guess (and it’s just that) at the lineup and pitching staff:

UPDATE: Today OSU announced that Josh Dezse will miss at least the first two months of the season with a "stress reaction in his lower back". This is obviously a blow to the OSU lineup and bullpen, so I have revised my projected lineup accordingly:

1. 8 Tim Wetzel (JR)
2. 4 Ryan Cypret (SR)
3. 9 Pat Porter (SM)
4. 3 Brad Hallberg (SR)
5. D Mike Carroll (JR)
6. 7 Joe Ciamacco (SR)
7. 2 Aaron Gretz (SM)
8. 6 Kirby Pellant (SR)
9. 5 Ryan Leffel (SM)

SP #1: R Jaron Long (JR)
SP #2: L Brian King (SR)
SP #3: R Brad Goldberg (SR)
SP #4 (midweek): R Brett McKinney (SR)
SP #5 (midweek): R Jacob Post (FM)

RP: L Ryan Riga (SM)
RP: R Trace Dempsey (SM)
RP: R David Fathalikhani (SR)
CL: R Greg Greve (JR)

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