Monday, February 09, 2015

Losing Ground

OSU baseball enters 2015 coming off of one its worst seasons in decades. The Buckeyes went 10-14 in the Big Ten, their worst record since 1987, a record fueled by a seven-game Big Ten losing streak (longest since 1987). Their 5-12 road record was the worst since 1972. In 1988, Bob Todd took over as Buckeye head coach and wasted little time in turning the program around, turning 1987’s 19-27 overall, 4-12 B10 record into a 32-28, 16-12 team. Todd would go on to reign over the program for 22 more seasons which served as the second golden age of OSU hardball (13 NCAA appearances, 13 seasons with either a Big Ten regular season or tournament title).

Unlike 1988, 2015 will not follow a dismal showing with a new regime. Todd’s replacement, Greg Beals, enters his fifth season at the helm and needs to turn things around in order to secure his long-term status as OSU coach. He will attempt to do so with a team that has elicited a wide range of preseason prognostications, one from which a sheer performance and player development track record does not appear to be impressive but which some observers insist has a surfeit of potential.

Beals has been fond of catcher platoons and has never given senior Aaron Gretz the job on a full-time basis despite him appearing to be the best option. Gretz will once again share time behind the plate with fellow senior Conor Sabanosh, a JUCO transfer in his second season as a Buck. Both hit fairly well last season and may get at bats at DH as well. Sophomore Jalen Washington and freshman Jordan McDonough will serve as depth.

First base is an open position and may see three juniors rotate through the spot: Zach Ratcliff, Mark Leffel, and Jacob Bosiokovic. Ratcliff is limited to first defensively, but Leffel also is capable of playing third and Bosiokovic will be an option in all four corners. Each has shown flashes of being productive hitters (Leffel more as a hitter for average, the other two for power potential), but none has clearly emerged to grab the spot.

Second base will go to junior Nick Sergakis. Sergakis transferred from Coastal Carolina prior to 2014 and started the season on the bench before an injury to shortstop Craig Nennig pushed him into the lineup. Sergakis was a revelation as one of the team’s most productive hitters (and lead off despite the team’s lowest walk rate). Nennig, a junior, should be back and will play short, but while his fielding draws rave reviews he has yet to demonstrate any ability to hit (.201/.295/.225 in about 190 career PA). Nennig’s offense will make sliding Sergakis back to short a tempting option for Beals.

At third base, junior Troy Kuhn will start. He spent most of 2014 as the second baseman before being displaced for Sergakis upon Nennig’s return. Kuhn was among the team’s most productive hitters and paced OSU with six longballs, so he will be a key part of the lineup again and could move back to second if Nennig struggles. In that case, Bosiokovic and Leffel could play third. The infield backups will include the aforementioned Washington (that rare catcher/second baseman) as well as sophomore L Grant Davis (a transfer from Arizona State) and freshman Nate Romans.

The outfield should be one of Ohio’s strengths. Sophomore left fielder Ronnie Dawson was as fun of a hitter to watch as OSU has had in years and was the team’s best hitter in 2014 (.337/.385/.454). Sophomore center fielder Troy Montgomery was highly touted but did not impress in his debut (.235/.297/.353). Senior right fielder Pat Porter (obligatory mention that he hails from my hometown) had a very disappointing season, but rebounded to have a strong summer campaign and will likely be penciled in as the #3 hitter. Bosiokovic can play either corner and junior Jake Brobst has served mostly as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement. A pair of freshman, Tre’ Gantt (a speedster from Indiana in the mold of Montgomery) and Ridge Winand will complete the depth chart. The DH spot will most likely be filled by the odd men out at catcher and first base.

OSU’s #1 starter, at least to open the season, will be sophomore Tanner Tully, the Big Ten freshman of the year in 2014. Tully’s smoke and mirrors act featured a vanishingly low walk rate (.7 W/9) and low K rate (5.3 K/9) which scream regression even in northern college baseball. Senior lefty Ryan Riga will look to bounce back from an injury-riddled campaign--he and Tully are fairly similar stylistically so it would not surprise to see them split up with Travis Lakins taking the #2 rotation spot. Lakins is a sophomore who should be the easy favorite to be the ace at the end of the season; his talents were wasted somewhat in the bullpen in 2014, fanning 9.0 per nine and leading the pitchers with +12 RAA. Lakins is draft-eligible and barring injury this should be his last season in Columbus.

Junior Jake Post is a 6-2 righty with decent stuff who has yet to find consistent effectiveness but would my bet would be that he will displace Riga or Tully by mid-season. Other starting options are lefty John Havrid, a JUCO transfer from Mesa Community College and freshman Jacob Niggemeyer, a 28th-round pick of the Cubs.

The bullpen will be anchored by senior slinger Trace Dempsey, who may well become OSU’s all-time saves leader but had a rough 2014 (-7 RAA) after a brilliant 2013 (+13). Dempsey’s control abandoned him last year, drawing comparisons to another erstwhile Buckeye closer, Rory Meister. Past Dempsey the bullpen work is largely up for grabs--Lakins was the star last year and will be starting. It is possible that a pitcher like Post could be used as the setup man, foregoing some mid-week wins for conference bullpen depth.

Otherwise, redshirt freshman Adam Niemeyer looks like the key setup man--his true freshman campaign was limited to just three appearances due to injury. Otherwise, I won’t even hazard to guess who will emerge out of the following possibilities other than to note that Beals allows tries to cultivate at least one lefty specialist in his pen:

RHP: Curtiss Irving (SM), Seth Kinker (FM), Brennan Milby (R-FM), Shea Murray (SM), Kyle Michalik (R-FM), Yianni Pavlopoulos (SM)
LHP: Michael Horejsei (JR), Matt Panek (JR), Joe Stoll (SM)

Beals appears to have instituted a shift in scheduling philosophy, opting for more weekend series over multi-team “classics”/pseudo-tournaments. The Buckeyes’ only of the latter will be this weekend as they face George Mason, St. Louis, and Pitt in the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte. Subsequent weekends will include three game series at Florida Atlantic, UAB, and Western Kentucky before the home opener March 10 against Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne.

The following weekend the Buckeyes will host Evansville for a three game series, Rider for a two-game mid-week series, and open Big Ten play March 20 hosting Michigan State. Subsequent weekends will see OSU at Rutgers, home to Penn State and UNLV (the latter non-conference of course), at Nebraska and Northwestern, home to Illinois and Maryland, and at Indiana. The mid-week slate will include home games against Toledo, Akron, Ohio University, Dayton, Kent State, Louisville, and Morehead State and trips to Miami, Cincinnati, and Youngstown State.

There is wide variety of opinion regarding OSU’s 2015 outlook. Perfect Game tabbed them as the #35 team in the country while Collegiate Baseball picks them tenth out of thirteen (with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers) in the Big Ten, which would see OSU miss the eight-team field for the Big Ten Tournament, to be held at Target Field May 21-24.

I tend to side much more closely to Collegiate Baseball’s view than Perfect Game’s. Aside from a second-place Big Ten finish in 2013, Beals’ teams have yet to live up to the hype that his recruiting has generated. Beals’ players do not seem to have developed according to expectations--in early years many of the key players were transfers rather than high school recruits, and there have yet to been many high producers among his high school crops, especially at the plate. And I have written many times about the horrific baserunning and other tactics employs by Beals. There are teams of fifth-graders that consistently make better decisions than Beals’ crew.

What has been particularly disturbing to watch as a fan of the program is that while the rest of the Big Ten has improved (Baseball America predicts that Illinois, Maryland, M*ch*g*n and Nebraska will all qualify for the NCAA Tournament, which would be a record for the conference), OSU has slid into irrelevancy--even with in the northern baseball picture. While Todd’s program was slipping from its heights near the end, he still managed to qualify for the NCAAs every other year. Beals has yet to make a NCAA Tournament appearance, and a sixth straight season (fifth under Beals) on the outside looking in would only extend OSU’s longest drought since 1983-1990 (once Todd led his team to a first tournament in 1991, he never again fell short in consecutive seasons). If OSU does not play up to the level of the optimists, then the program change that I would have liked to see after 2014 may be a fait accompli.

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