Monday, February 16, 2009

Hunting Wolverines

On Friday, the 126th season of Ohio State baseball will begin. The first 125 years have been successful--fifteen Big Ten titles, eight Big Ten tournament titles, four College World Series appearances, and the 1966 national championship speak to that. Recent history has been quite good as well; head coach Bob Todd is now a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame and boasts a record of 831-435-2 with seven Big Ten titles as he enters his twenty-second season as head coach. He is easily the school’s all-time winningest coach, and he also boasts the highest W% of any Buckeye leader with one hundred or more wins.

However, the luster of the program has dimmed a little big in recent seasons. The Buckeyes have finished the last two Big Ten campaigns at 15-15 and have not captured a regular season title since 2001 (although OSU has four tournament crowns in that period). Last year was particularly frustrating as the Bucks finished second in the Big Ten in EW%, but were unable to convert their run differential into wins at the expected rate. And to make matters worse, the forces of evil to the north have run roughshod over the entire Big Ten over the last two seasons.

In 2008, the OSU offense was fourth in the Big Ten with 6.6 runs/game, just ahead of the 6.5 average. In continuation of a multi-year trend, the Bucks got runners on base (.318 BA to lead the B10, .389 OBA was second by just a point), but were dreadful at advancing runners once they got there (dead last in the conference with a .093 ISO, fueled by just 19 home runs, the fewest hit by a Buckeye team since 1980). The biggest hindrance to the team’s performance over the last 3-4 years has been a lack of power. It is a glaring weakness that needs to be addressed if OSU is to emerge as a top-flight offense.

At catcher, sophomore Dan Burkhart returns for his second year. He contributed -8 RAA in 2008, and the Bucks will certainly be hoping for improvement at bat, although reviews of his work behind the plate are generally positive. At first base, senior captain Justin Miller is firmly entrenched, coming off of a season in which he led OSU in just about every important offensive category except walk rate. He also served as catcher occasionally to spell Burkhart, but committed nine passed balls in limited time and thus it’s unlikely that he will be asked to don the tools of ignorance in 2009. That leaves juniors Shawn Forsythe and sophomore DJ Hanlin as the backups with sophomore Nathan Grove and freshman David Fathalikhani also on the roster.

It is not entirely clear how the other infield positions will be filled. One certainty is that junior Cory Kovanda will be at second base; last year he emerged as an important part of the offense with a .438 OBA, fueled by a team-leading 37 walks. His double play partner will be either fellow junior Cory Rupert or sophomore Tyler Engle. Engle moved Rupert off of his shortstop position to the hot corner last year, but contributed little offensively (-12 RAA). It is possible that Rupert will play short, which would leave junior Brian DeLucia, who mashed out a RG of 8.8 (albeit in just 71 PA) at third. In any case, the primary infield reserve will be whichever of DeLucia and Engle are not in the lineup, with Engle covering the middle infield and DeLucia the corners. Other reserves include junior Ben Toussant and freshman TJ McManus at first, sophomore Matt Streng in the middle, and freshmen Brian Cypret (son of assistant coach Eric), Brad Hallburg, and Zach Nowland also on the roster.

The outfield has lost its anchor, JB Shuck, to the Astros. That leaves an opening in center field that will be filled by junior Zach Hurley, who was essentially an average hitter last season but seems to have the potential to be a lot more and had played well over the summer. He will be flanked by some combination of senior Michael Arp (who benefited from a flukish .367 BA in 2008), junior Ryan Dew (who struggled at -8 RAA despite seemingly having the talent needed to be a solid contributor), and junior college transfer Michael Stephens. The odd man out will probably see the majority of at bats at DH, although DeLucia could be in that mix as well. His JUCO stats indicate that Stephens has a good bat, although with doubles and not homer power, the Buckeyes are still missing the big power bat they so desperately need. Outfield reserves will include junior Chris Griffin and freshman David Corna (also on the roster: sophomore Brad Brookbank and freshman Joe Ciamacco).

On the mound, coach Todd will have to do a staff overhaul. Shuck and senior Dan DeLucia were the top two starters in ’08, but both were drafted and have moved on to pro ball. Another one of the four weekend starters (the change in the Big Ten schedule format means that just three weekend starters are now necessary), Jake Hale, will move into the bullpen. That leaves sophomore Dean Wolosiansky (+7 RAA) as the only sure member of the rotation. He may well be joined by fellow sophomores lefty Andrew Armstrong and righty Drew Rucinski. Both were average last season, which is promising for freshmen, but it is still a very young rotation and it’s hard to classify it as anything other than a question mark.

The bullpen will be anchored by senior Jake Hale. Hale was a starter as a freshmen, assumed the closer role as a sophomore, was moved back to starting during that season, and served as a starter last year. The roller coaster ride will continue, and it’s not a move I would make. Hale was +5 RAA last year and is a tall, lanky pitcher with plenty of endurance. Moving him to the pen seems to be something of a waste.

The rest of the pitchers will all be competing for spots as midweek starters and key relievers, although promising but wild (+6 RAA, but 31 W and 51 K in 40 IP) sophomore Alex Wimmers is a good bet to be the key right-hander in front of Hale. Eric Best, a junior lefty with a similar profile to Wimmers, could be a good complement to him but may well find himself starting.

Hopefully junior lefties Josh Barerra and Theron Minium, who each had a promising freshman campaigns but were derailed last year by injuries, can claim key roles. The other pitching options have little to no experience and are all righthanders: Taylor Barnes (JR), Ross Oltorik (FM, and also a walk-on quarterback for the football team), Eric Shinn (SO), and Jared Strayer (SO).

OSU opens the season in the first Big Ten/Big East challenge, in which they will face Notre Dame, UConn, and Cincinnati. The next weekend (beginning February 27), the Bucks will be at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville for their tournament--two games against the hosts, and single encounters with George Mason and UConn. The weekend of March 6 will see OSU in Winter Haven to face Rhode Island, Northeastern, Maine, and Central Michigan. The weekend of March 13 will feature Indiana (a non-conference encounter that will extend a string of consecutive seasons playing IU that began in 1944), Hartford, and a twin bill against Army played in West Palm Beach.

The traditional spring break trip will see the Bucks return to Winter Haven on March 20 to face Indiana again, a twin bill against Army, and Hartford. They will then move on to Orlando for a single game with Rollins and down to Coral Gables for one game against the University of Miami.

The Big Ten schedule will be significantly different this year, as the conference has moved from a four game series format (with a Saturday doubleheader consisting of two seven inning games) to single nine inning games on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The Bucks open March 27 at Penn State and continue Big Ten play over the next seven weekends. The sequence will be: at Minnesota, Michigan State, at Purdue, Northwestern, the forces of evil incarnate, at Illinois, Iowa.

OSU’s home opener at Bill Davis Stadium is March 31 against Xavier, and Marshall will follow the next day. The other midweek opponents are Morehead State, Bowling Green, Ball State, Akron, @Louisville (reciprocating the Cardinals’ 2008 visit to Columbus), and Eastern Michigan.

The Big Ten tournament will open on May 20 and for the first time will be played at a non-campus site (traditionally, the regular season champion serves as tournament host if possible). Happily for the Buckeyes, that neutral site will be Huntington Park, the new downtown Columbus home of the Clippers.

There seems to be a cautious optimism among OSU fans this season, but for once, I cannot share it (usually I am extremely bullish on the prospects of all OSU sports teams). I don’t see where on the diamond the Buckeyes will be significantly improved from 2008. The offense has the potential to put up more runs, but without a significant increase in power it will be a struggle, and I don’t see where that power will come from. The pitching staff is deep and has a number of talented arms, but replacing three starters (DeLucia, Shuck, and Hale as he is the closer once again) is a difficult challenge. I certainly hope that I am wrong, but I don’t see OSU contending for the Big Ten title. However, a top six finish and the accompanying conference tournament berth should be attainable. The combination of the tournament being played on friendly turf and OSU’s recent success in the event (a win in ’09 would be the Bucks’ fourth consecutive odd year triumph; I see no predictive value in that, of course) may make a tournament run the best hope for making 2009 a memorable season in Columbus.

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