Monday, February 10, 2014

No Excuses

2014 will mark Greg Beals’ fourth season at the helm of the OSU baseball program, which means there are no excuses. He has had plenty of time to recruit his own players into the program and have them playing key roles, and perhaps more importantly he has had plenty of time in which to mold them to play baseball as Greg Beals believes it should be played. Unfortunately for the state of the program, 2013 was not encouraging on either front. One of the strengths that allowed OSU to contend in the Big Ten last season was a strong trio of weekend starters, a group that must now be replaced en masse. It is now time for Beals’ recruits to lead the offense, and so far the most noticeable characteristic of a Beals’ offense is baserunning that would make a JV high school coach blush.

One spot at which the Buckeyes are well-positioned is catcher, where junior Aaron Gretz will finally have the job to himself. Gretz, for whatever reason, was never able to fully overcome Greg Solomon in the eyes of Beals, despite being a better defensive catcher and possessing any sort of batting eye at all. Gretz figures to be an above-average Big Ten catcher, and is coming off a busy offseason in which the Minnesota native spent several weeks as a backup goalie for the OSU hockey team thanks to a transfer and an injury to the two scholarship goalies.

At first base, sophomore Zach Ratcliff figures to get the nod after emerging as one of OSU’s few power threats mid-way through the Big Ten season. The other option is redshirt junior Josh Dezse, who had to sit out 2013 with a back injury. Dezse will also pull double-duty on the mound, and so it stands to reason that he will act as the primary DH to save unnecessary wear and tear. Sophomore Troy Kuhn will start at second base after serving as the utility infielder in his freshman campaign. Kuhn got off to hot start collecting base hits, but showed little in secondary skills as a freshman, particularly in the power department. His choice of walkup music (“Who Let the Dogs Out”) may have been the most disappointing element of his campaign.

The first crack at the shortstop job will go to sophomore Craig Nennig, but there have to be serious questions about his ability to hold the job after hitting just .125/.143/.146 in 52 PA as a freshman, all against non-conference foes. At third base, sophomore Jacob Bosiokovic will be counted on to be a key cog in the offense. Bosiokovic showed flashes of potential, hitting for big power when he first got into the lineup, but his overall season line of .273/.327/.369 must improve greatly for the Buckeye offense to run as expected.

In the outfield, senior left fielder Tim Wetzel will look to rebound as an on-base guy and basestealing threat after a dismal junior season that is the outlier in his three-year track record (.215/.292/.304). Wetzel could also slide back over to center field in the event that true freshman Troy Montgomery stumbles. The Indians freshman is said to be a prototypical leadoff-hitting center fielder and will get a chance to assume both roles early in his career. In right field, junior Pat Porter was OSU’s only consistent offensive threat last year, building on a solid freshman campaign, and along with Bosiokovic and Dezse will be counted on to man the middle part of the lineup.

With so many youngsters graduating to the starting lineup, the bench will be unproven. The backup catcher figures to be junior Connor Sabanosh, a junior college transfer from Arizona (Arizona JUCOs have continued to be a key pipeline for Beals). Freshman Jalen Washington is listed in the old Rico Washington role (C/IF), and will be an option at the infield spots as well as behind the plate.

The utility infielder should be redshirt sophomore Ryan Leffel, who showed promise as a fielder and with his approach at the plate as a freshman in 2012 before sitting out 2013 with an injury. Leffel may be the backup plan at shortstop if Nennig cannot hit enough to retain the job. Other infielders on the roster are redshirt sophomore Nick Sergakis (a transfer from Coastal Carolina) and true freshman Curtiss Irving (first baseman) and JP Sorma. The two key outfield reserves are sophomore Jake Brobst, who got limited playing time as a freshman and can play center, and true freshman Ronnie Dawson, a powerful hitter from the Columbus area who may challenge Wetzel for his left field playing time.

For most of the offensive positions that need to be replaced, the likely starters are pretty clear based on last year’s roster utilization. The same is not true for the starting pitchers. Only one of the likely top three started a significant number of games in 2013, so uncertainty abounds.

The three most likely weekend starters in this observer’s opinion are senior Greg Greve, junior Ryan Riga and sophomore Jake Post. Greve started in 2011-12, but worked exclusively in relief last year, pitching solidly (3.65 RA). His previous performance as a starter was poor (ERA over 5 in each of 2011-12), so his spot is far from a lock. Riga was OSU’s top lefty reliever last year, also working in long relief, and was highly effective with 7.4 strikeouts and 1.7 walks per nine over 46 innings of work. Riga is probably the safest bet to actually be in OSU’s weekend plans. Post showed that he has good stuff last year in starting seven midweek games, but the results (7.63 RA in 31 innings) did not match his peripherals (7.6 K/2.6 W).

The rotation wildcard is Dezse, who was slated to move into a starting role in 2013 after serving as closer in 2011-12. Dezse has an electric fastball, but didn’t show much in the secondary offerings department when closing (and also didn’t have the lockdown numbers to back up his reputation). Given his injury issue, he will be worked back into the fold slowly, and (based on absolutely no inside information) I would be surprised if he ended as a starter. That leaves the other top options as a pair of true freshman. Lefty Zach Farmer has received rave reviews and if half of what has been said is true, he’ll be in the rotation by the time Big Ten play opens. Right hander Travis Lakins would be next in the pecking order.

Should Dezse wind up in the bullpen, he’ll join with junior Trace Dempsey to give the Bucks two big right-handed arms. Dempsey was untouchable for much of last season with his three-quarters movement-heavy stuff, but faltered a bit in key games against Indiana and in the Big Ten Tournament. Still, a 1.50 RA in 35 innings is a sterling campaign.

Behind Dempsey, the pen also will have key parts to replace with Riga and Greve starting and the graduation of key right-handers Brett McKinney and David Fathalikhani. The only other returning reliever who pitched significantly is senior Tyler Giannonatti, who mopped up last year and probably won’t be used in high leverage innings in 2013. Sophomore three-quarters lefty Matt Panek took a redshirt for injury last year after pitching sparingly as a freshman, but given Beals’ propensity for playing matchups, a healthy Panek should see the mound.

According to Big Ten baseball guru Chris Webb, the other most likely relievers for key innings are redshirt freshman sidearmer Michael Koltak, true freshman Adam Niemeyer, true freshman lefty Tanner Tully, and redshirt freshman Shea Murray. Other pitchers on the roster include junior lefty Michael Horesjei, redshirt freshman lefty Joe Stoll, and true freshman right-handers Kyle Michalik, Brennan Milby, and Yianni Pavlopoulus.

OSU opens its season this weekend with four games in Port Charlotte, Florida (UConn, Auburn, and two with Indiana State). The following weekend they will back in the Sunshine State to play Central Florida, The Citadel, and Oklahoma in Orlando. The first weekend in March will see the Bucks in Greenville, North Carolina to face Pitt, Western Kentucky, and East Carolina. The destination portion of the schedule ends the following week with a three game series at Oregon followed by a single contest at Oregon State.

The home opener is slated for March 14 with a three-game series against Siena, then midweek games against Akron and Xavier. Other midweek opponents throughout the season will be Marshall, Ohio University, Toledo, Dayton, at West Virginia, Ball State (Beals’ former employer), at Louisville, Miami, and Cincinnati.

Big Ten play opens March 21 with OSU at Michigan State. The weekends for the rest of the season will be hosting Indiana, at Nebraska, hosting Penn State, a bye week in which OSU will host Murray State, at Purdue, hosting Iowa, at Michigan, and hosting Northwestern. Should the Bucks qualify for the Big Ten Tournament by finishing in the top six, they will head to Omaha on May 21.

Will the Buckeyes get to Omaha? With Indiana breaking a twenty-nine year drought of Big Ten participation in the College World Series, this question might carry a different connotation than in the past. But given the current status of the program, the question should be limited to qualifying for the Big Ten Tournament. The Buckeyes have too many question marks to be considered a favorite in the conference race, and given that it’s year four of Beals’ tenure, I’m hoping that I am very wrong.

1. CF Troy Montgomery (FM)
2. 2B Troy Kuhn (SM)
3. RF Pat Porter (JR)
4. DH Jose Dezse (JR)
5. 3B Jacob Bosiokovic (SM)
6. 1B Zach Ratcliff (SM)
7. C Aaron Gretz (JR)
8. LF Tim Wetzel (SR)
9. SS Craig Nennig (SM)

SP #1: R Greg Greve (SR)
SP #2: L Ryan Riga (JR)
SP #3: R Jake Post (SM)
SP #4 (midweek): L Zach Farmer (FM)
SP #5 (midweek): R Travis Lakins (FM)

RP: R Tyler Giannonatti (SR)
RP: R Michael Koltak (FM)
RP: L Matt Panek (SM)
RP: R Trace Dempsey (JR)
CL: R Josh Dezse (JR)

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