Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Year Two

2011 was the first season for Greg Beals as OSU coach, replacing the retired Bob Todd who served in that role from 1988-2010. It is obviously unfair to blame a new coach for everything that happened in his first year, but the facts must still be presented--the Buckeyes went 26-27, their first losing campaign since 1987. A couple of facts balance that--the team managed to go 13-11 in conference play and earn the #4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, while the 2010 team failed to qualify for the tournament. And Beals played a more adventurous pre-conference schedule than had been the norm in the last decade or so of Todd’s career, including a predictably poor 1-5 trip through California. Still, Boyd Nation’s ISR ranking pegged OSU as #160 nationally, the program’s worst showing for the years (1997 on) for which the ISRs have been published (the previous low was #130 in 1998).

The 2012 team will not look radically different than 2011. Junior Greg Solomon will serve as catcher and figures to get the overwhelming majority of playing time once again. Solomon hit will early in the season, but his horrific strike zone judgment (42/4 K/W) caught up with him and by the end of the season he contributed little to Ohio’s offense. Nonetheless, Beals rode his hot hand and had Solomon hitting in the middle of the lineup as his slump began. Apparently, Solomon may also see significant time at third base, where his bat will be a major liability, with true freshman Aaron Gretz taking over some of the catching chores.

At first base, sophomore Josh Dezse will start. Dezse looks like a power hitter, but his main offensive contribution as a freshman came from a .332 BA (his SEC was only a respectable .280). The hope here is that Dezse will build on his Big Ten Freshman of the Year campaign and emerge as the true all-around batting star that OSU has lacked since Ronnie Bourquin. At second base, junior Ryan Cypret is a captain and a solid defender. His offensive game is BA-centric, but nonetheless figures to hit in the middle of the lineup.

It is not clear who will play third as incumbent Matt Streng graduated. Junior Brad Hallberg showed no power (.042 ISO) and didn’t hit for average (.254), but led the team with 28 walks and showed more promise as a freshman in 2010. However, it appears as if Beals is more comfortable using Hallberg as the DH rather than at third base; in fact, one of Beals first major personnel decisions was to flip Streng and Hallberg from one corner to the other. With Hallberg as DH, true freshman Ryan Leffel or Solomon could man third.

Four-year starter Tyler Engle is gone, leaving a gaping hole at shortstop which the Bucks plan to fill with junior college transfer (junior eligible) Kirby Pellant. Pellant played his freshman season at Marshall, then transferred to Chandler-Gilbert Community College, and is expected to bat second in the lineup.

In the outfield, only one starter returns in the same position--sophomore Tim Wetzel will leadoff and play center field. Wetzel was another Buckeye who flashed no power (three doubles and two triples in 176 at bats), but a little improvement in his OBA would allow him to contribute in his role. Sophomore Mike Carroll, who sat out 2011 after transferring from Duke, will take over left field and will be expected to provide a jolt to the offense. That will allow the Buckeyes to shift senior David Corna from left to right. Corna was only an average offensive performer last year, with his team-leading 16 doubles the most impressive part of his game.

Key reserves include Gretz (if he doesn’t break into the lineup as the regular catcher), Ryan Leffel at third, senior Brad Hutton as a 1B/DH/PH, redshirt freshman Phil Jaskot on the middle infield, and junior Joe Ciamocco and sophomore Blake Hutton in the outfield (corners for the latter). Freshman who don’t look to be in the mix include catcher Ryan Wonders and outfielders Austin Achter and Pat Porter (who incidentally hails from my hometown).

On the mound, junior Brett McKinney should assume the role of Friday starter. McKinney was only average last season, but seems to have good stuff and is easily the most experienced starter on the roster. The Saturday assignment will go to Brian King, a junior-eligible transfer from Paradise Valley Community College. Baseball America rates King as the best newcomer to the Big Ten, so the lefty figures to have a big impact. Righty Greg Greve, who struggled mightily at the beginning of his freshman season but started to pitch better as the year went on, is slotted in as the Sunday starter.

A pair of sophomore right-handers, John Kuchno and Jaron Long (a JUCO teammate of Pellant), figure to serve as the mid-week starters and could certainly push Greve for conference assignments. Junior Brad Goldberg, who transferred from Coastal Carolina a year ago, could get starting nods if he is able to get an eligibility situation resolved.

Three key relievers return: junior righty sidearmer David Fathalikani, senior lefty Andrew Armstrong, and Dezse. Dezse will serve as the closer, but hopefully Beals will only utilize him in that role if he is effective. Dezse throws hard, but had several epic meltdowns as a freshman, including one in the Big Ten Tournament that essentially was the death knell for the season. Fathalikani and Armstrong posted much better statistics with much less flash in situational roles that they figure to reprise. Another freshman sidearmer, Trace Dempsey, is expected to get significant relief innings. Other pitchers on the roster include senior Paul Guey (who got some mopup work in 2011), junior Tito Nava (a transfer from Duke), and freshmen Matt Panek, Robert Sakowsky, and Sam Shafer (all except Panek are right-handed). Tyler Giannonatti, another junior eligible transfer from Gilbert-Chandler CC who may have figured in the relief mix, was lost for the season to injury.

My primary interest in watching this season is continuing to learn more about Greg Beals and his philosophy. Beals did not impress me with his tactics in his first season, but while ideally the coach would be someone whose approach to the game I can embrace, the ultimate test is whether he can build a winning program. Even two seasons is far too soon to begin to form a judgment about that, so my focus will be on his game-level decisions rather than his program-building decisions.

The Buckeyes open the season Friday-Sunday with the Big Ten/Big East Challenge in the Tampa Bay area. The following weekend they travel to Atlanta for a three game series at Georgia Tech. The first weekend in March will see OSU in Port Charlotte, Florida for the Snowbird Classic, which includes a non-conference tussle with the forces of evil, who are one of two Big Ten opponents not on the conference schedule (the other is Iowa). Then OSU goes to Myrtle Beach for the Coastal Carolina tournament.

In a departure from past seasons, the Coastal Carolina tournament (which concludes March 11) will be an early conclusion to the typical Southern swing, as the Buckeyes play their home opening series March 16-18 against Austin Peay. The optimistic scheduling of March baseball in Ohio is made possible by the installation of FieldTurf in Bill Davis Stadium, which itself was made possible by a generous donation from OSU’s most notable recent big leaguer, Nick Swisher. The new Nick Swisher Field may not be aesthetically pleasing to purists, but given the harsh conditions of spring baseball in the North, it makes sound business and baseball sense to play on the fake stuff.

Midweek opponents include Ohio University, Akron, Xavier, Cincinnati, Bowling Green, and Youngstown State at home, with trips to Louisville, Dayton, Miami, and Oklahoma State (two games in a return of a 2011 series in Columbus).

Big Ten opponents are, in order: Purdue, @Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, @Illinois, @Penn State, Northwester, and @Indiana. Thanks to the new eleven team Big Ten alignment (plus Nebraska, still without baseball at the joke of an institution in Madison), OSU will be off from Big Ten play on the weekend of May 11-13. That creates an unusual five game stretch of non-conference games (the trip to Oklahoma State and a three game weekend home series against Seattle) in the heart of the Big Ten schedule.

If OSU qualifies for the Big Ten Tournament, it will once again be played in friendly territory, at the Clippers’ Huntington Park from May 23-26.

I always find it difficult to make a prognostication for the season, as my knowledge is limited to just the Buckeyes and does not extend to the conference opponents. I can only go based on the general standard of the Big Ten and how a given year’s OSU team compares to previous ones. On that basis, I think OSU is probably about as good or better as they were in 2011. But when you go 13-11 in a bunched conference and have a below .500 record, and the season is so short, what does that really tell you? I think OSU should qualify for the Big Ten Tournament, but contending for the regular season title is probably not in the cards. The coaches’ preseason poll ranks Ohio 5th which seems reasonable.

Projected lineup:

1. 8 Tim Wetzel (SM)
2. 6 Kirby Pellant (JR)
3. 7 Mike Carroll (SM)
4. 3 Josh Dezse (SM)
5. 4 Ryan Cypret (JR)
6. D Brad Hallberg (JR)
7. 9 David Corna (SR)
8. 2 Aaron Gretz (FM)
9. 5 Greg Solomon (JR)

SP #1: Brett McKinney (JR)
SP #2: Brian King (JR)
SP #3: Greg Greve (SM)
SP #4 (midweek): John Kuchno (SM)
SP #5 (midweek): Jaron Long (SM)

RP: R Trace Dempsey (FM)
RP: L Andrew Armstrong (SR)
RP: R David Fathalikhani (JR)
Closer: R Josh Dezse (SM)

Note: I do not have any inside information--details that are not obvious have either come from my supposition as a long-time follower of the program, the information published on the official athletics website, or the B1G Baseball blog.

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