Monday, February 15, 2016

Running With the Devil (You Know)

Greg Beals enters his sixth season at the helm of an OSU baseball program going that, by multiple common sense measures, is suffering through a rough period that corresponds closely to his tenure as coach. OSU’s six-year NCAA Tournament drought is the program’s longest since 1983-1990. OSU’s five-year record of 159-125 (.560) is the program’s worst since 1986-1990 (.500), except for the overlapping period of 2010-2014 (.543). In addition to the bottom line of wins and losses, Beals teams have displayed a propensity for late-season collapses and a recurring theme of horrific baserunning that I used to try to document but now have lost the strength (and frequent trips to Bill Davis Stadium to see the Bucks play in person). Suffice it to say some must be seen to be believed, and the hashtag #BealsBall will give you a taste of what is being taught in Columbus.

Despite his mediocre record, Beals received a two-year contract extension through 2017 after the season as reported by B1G Baseball. Ordinarily, I would hope that this was a “program continuity” contract, granted with the knowledge that having a lame duck collegiate coach can be a major obstacle in recruiting. However, given that Beals already skippered 2015 without a contract, two years in writing has more of the feel of an actual extension.

Regardless of my own reservations about the man in charge, the players on the field deserve the bulk of the attention. But while OSU returns a large senior class, on paper this team does not strike me as an obvious Big Ten championship contender or NCAA Tournament team.

One spot where virtually no experience returns is catcher. Co-starters Aaron Gretz and Conor Sabanosh both graduated, leaving junior captain Jalen Washington as the backstop. Washington’s limited playing time over the past two seasons has been mostly as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement at second base. Thirty-three plate appearances are insufficient to make any conclusions regarding his offense, but they have been middling BA, no secondary average PA. Washington will be backed up by freshman Jacob Barnwell and sophomore Jordan McDonough. The latter is more likely to get in the lineup as a DH than as a catcher, however. Freshman Andrew Fishel rounds out the corps.

First base will be up for grabs between a pair of seniors, Zach Ratcliff and Ryan Leffel. Ratcliff has always teased with power potential that the lineup could desperately use, but has never been able to find his way into the lineup on a consistent basis (career .263/.304/.403 line in 199 PA). Leffel can play third base and has always found his way into the lineup. His junior season was rough (.211/.333/.267 in 107 PA), but his sophomore season was of Beals’ dreams (.303/.369/.343 in 110 PA). I will personally be surprised if Leffel does not get the lion’s share of time at first.

The rest of the infield positions will be in the hands of multi-year senior starters. Second base will belong to Nick Sergakis, who in his two-year OSU career has hit .281/.358/.364 in 357 PA with questionable fielding. At third, Troy Kuhn is a .275/.362/.469 career hitter in 543 PA. Shortstop Craig Nennig is a slick fielder, but for some reason rarely gets pinch-hit for despite a .235/.314/.280 line in 401 PA. In the case of injuries to any of the three, expect Sergakis to slide into the open spot and senior L Grant Davis to play at second. Davis was surprisingly good offensively last year (.282/.347/.353 in 95 PA) and should make a fine utility infielder. Other infield reserves include true freshmen Brady Cherry at third, Casey Demko in the middle, and Matt Carpenter.

The team’s only legitimate power threat is junior left fielder (and erstwhile center fielder) Ronnie Dawson (.307/.379/.460 with 11 homers in 469 career PA). Dawson is prone to some baserunning blunders and outfield adventures, but still is by far the most exciting player on the roster. Junior center fielder Troy Montgomery is the leadoff hitter and had a fantastic sophomore season (.317/.431/.493 with 35 steals in 41 attempts). Right field must replace Pat Porter, drafted by the White Sox, and a platoon of junior Jacob Bosiokovic and senior Daulton Mosbarger is expected (for positions in which newcomers will play, I relied on the season preview released by the athletic department for guidance on what to expect). Bosiokovic had a promising freshmen season in 2013 as a third baseman, held his ground as a sophomore, but got a medical redshirt last year after appearing in just five games. He will also be an option at first base and with a career line of .264/.341/.360 in 421 PA, a return to health would be a boost to the Buckeye offense. Mosbarger is a senior transfer from Akron, where he was a career .247/.366/.359 hitter in 465 PA. He may be an interesting case study in whether great patience can survive Beals’ preference for a contact-oriented approach.

The key reserve outfielders are speedy sophomore Tre’ Gantt (a promising .311/.373/351 in 82 PA in 2015) and senior Jake Brobst (who has served mostly as a pinch-runner in his OSU career). Redshirt freshman Ridge Winand and true freshman Jacob Vander Wal (yes, he is the son of John) are also on the roster. DH starts could go to McDonough, Leffel/Ratcliff, Bosiokovic/Mosbarger, Gantt, or even Davis, but I think Beals will have a hard time keeping Gantt out of the lineup, even if he may not be a prototypical DH.

OSU should be able to muster a decent offense, led by Dawson and Montgomery with solid contributors in Kuhn, Sergakis, and the right field/DH units. But catcher, first base, and shortstop will likely hold the offense back from scoring runs at a championship level. And a strong lineup may be needed because questions abound on the pitching staff.

OSU lost its two best pitchers, Ryan Riga to graduation and Travis Lakins to the Red Sox, leaving junior lefty Tanner Tully, a soft-tosser who rode a 5.1/.7 K/W to a great freshman season (3.20 eRA) but was hit hard last year (5.3/1.8 with a 5.75 eRA and .345 BABIP) as the #1 starter. While it is safe to assume that Tully’s true level is somewhere in the middle, it does not appear to be the profile of a #1 starter for a conference champion. Sophomore righty Adam Niemeyer is penciled in at #2. He worked 33 innings over 12 appearances (4 starts) as a redshirt freshman, with 5.7/1.9 K/W and a 3.79 eRA. The #3 spot (and thus the one or two mid-week starter positions) is up for grabs, with next to no returning experience in the mix. Senior lefty John Havird was solid in 27 innings (mostly in relief) last year, with 9.8/3.6 K/W and a 4.17 eRA. Sophomore right Austin Woodby transferred from Cincinnati, where he had an uninspiring freshman season in 2014 (20 K/7 W in 33 IP with a 5.18 ERA). Redshirt sophomore right Yianni Pavlopoulos threw nine innings of relief for the Bucks in 2014, and the other contender is true freshman righty Ryan Feltner. Starting pitching is a definite area of concern.

The bullpen lost closer Trace Dempsey, and while senior Jake Post is listed on the roster, his injury at the end of 2015 plus his omission from OSU’s season preview suggests a medical redshirt is in the cards. Without Post, OSU’s bullpen is also a near-complete rebuild job from 2015. The three key right-handers are junior Shea Murray, who throws hard but has yet to harness his control (career 13 K/10 W in just 10 IP); sophomore Seth Kinker, a three-quarter slinger who had a promising freshman campaign (19 K/3 W, 2.84 eRA in 22 IP); and sophomore Kyle Michalik, who was passed by Kinker on Beals’ pecking order as 2015 progressed despite also pitching effectively (12 K/5 W, 2.92 eRA in 19 IP).

Beals is a strong believe in left-right matchups out of the pen, which means he will rely on some combination of senior Michael Horejsei (career 5.67 ERA despite 23 K/7 W in 27 IP), redshirt junior Joe Stoll (zero career appearances), and true freshman Connor Curlis to get outs. Other bullpen options include sophomore righty Curtiss Irving off a medical redshirt season and possible two-way performers Bosiokovic (who has never pitched for OSU), Mosbarger (who has pitched for Akron with a bizarre career line of 23 K/27 W but a 1.99 ERA in 31 innings), and Cherry.

The Buckeyes’ schedule appears to be designed to pad the win total early in the season as no strong non-conference foes are on the preseason schedule, and unlike prior years which have mid-conference season matchups against the likes of Georgia Tech, Louisville, and Oregon, OSU will not challenge national powers during the Big Ten campaign. The Buckeyes travel to the old Dodgertown to open the season the weekend of February 19 with games against Toledo (to open and close the weekend), Niagra, and Pitt. The following weekend, OSU competes in Coastal Carolina’s tournament with a pair of games against the hosts plus matchups with Duke and Liberty. The first weekend of March will see OSU in Port Charlotte to play another set of middling northern opponents (Seton Hall, Illinois St., and Boston College). The Buckeyes will then play four games at UNLV to return the Runnin’ Rebels 2015 trip to Columbus before the home opening series, three games with Hofstra the weekend of March 18.

From there, weekend series are mostly Big Ten: Northwestern, out-of-conference against Bethune-Cookman, @ Maryland, Rutgers, @ Illinois, @ Purdue, Iowa, the forces of evil, @ Minnesota. Mid-week opponents include home dates with Xavier, Toledo, Morehead State (two), Cincinnati, UAB (two), Florida Atlantic (two), and Eastern Michigan, along with road trips to Ohio University and Kent State.

The schedule seems to reflect where the program is right now--a middling northern program not eager to take on challenges outside of the Big Ten schedule. While such a strategy is perfectly defensible, even if the program is strong, it is a contrast to the bluster of national contention that peppered the early days of Beals’ tenure. The Buckeyes need only to finish in the top eight of a thirteen-team Big Ten (Wisconsin remains a pathetic, cowardly, contemptible institution) to get to Omaha…for the Big Ten Torunament. That should (better) be attainable, but getting back to Omaha several weeks later seems as far away as it has ever been for what was once (and could be again) a northern baseball power.

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